ONE day, a month or so later, Montague, to his great surprise, received a letter from Stanley Ryder.
"Could you make it convenient to call at my office sometime this afternoon?" it read. "I wish to talk over with you a business proposition which I believe you will find of great advantage to yourself."
"I suppose he wants to buy my Northern Mississippi stock," he said to himself, as he called up Ryder on the 'phone, and made an appointment.
It was the first time that he had ever been inside the building of the Gotham Trust Company, and he gazed about him at the overwhelming magnificence--huge gates of bronze and walls of exquisite marble. Ryder's own office was elaborate and splendid, and he himself a picture of aristocratic elegance.
He greeted Montague cordially, and talked for a few minutes about the state of the market, and the business situation, in the meantime twirling a pencil in his hand and watching his visitor narrowly. At last he began, "Mr. Montague, I have for some time been working over a plan which I think will interest you."
"I shall be very pleased to hear of it," said Montague.
"Of course, you know," said Ryder, "that I bought from Mrs. Taylor her holdings in the Northern Mississippi Railroad. I bought them because I was of the opinion that the road ought to be developed, and I believed that I could induce someone to take the matter up. I have found the right parties, I think, and the plans are now being worked out."
"Indeed," said the other, with interest.
"The idea, Mr. Montague, is to extend the railroad according to the old plan, with which you are familiar. Before we took the matter up, we approached the holders of the remainder of the stock, most of whom, I suppose, are known to you. We made them, through our agents, a proposition to buy their stock at what we considered a fair price; and we have purchased about five thousand shares additional. The prices quoted on the balance were more than we cared to pay, in consideration of the very great cost of the improvements we proposed to undertake. Our idea is now to make a new proposition to these other shareholders. The annual stockholders' meeting takes place next month. At this meeting will be brought up the project for the issue of twenty thousand additional shares, with the understanding that as much of this new stock as is not taken by the present shareholders is to go to us. As I assume that few of them will take their allotments, that will give us control of the road; you can understand, of course, that our syndicate would not undertake the venture unless it could obtain control."
Montague nodded his assent to this.
"At this meeting," said Ryder, "we shall propose a ticket of our own for the new board of directors. We are in hopes that as our proposition will be in the interest of every stockholder, this ticket will be elected. We believe that the road needs a new policy, and a new management entirely; if a majority of the stockholders can be brought to our point of view, we shall take control, and put in a new president."
Ryder paused for a moment, to let this information sink into his auditor's mind; then, fixing his gaze upon him narrowly, he continued: "What I wished to see you about, Mr. Montague, was to make you a proposal to assist us in putting through this project. We should like you, in the first place, to act as our representative, in consultation with our regular attorneys. We should like you to interview privately the stockholders of the road, and explain to them our projects, and vouch for our good intentions. If you can see your way to undertake this work for us, we should be glad to place you upon the proposed board of directors; and as soon as we have matters in our hands, we should ask you to become president of the road."
Montague gave an inward start; but practice had taught him to keep from letting his surprise manifest itself very much. He sat for a minute in thought.
"Mr. Ryder," he said, "I am a little surprised at such a proposition from you, seeing that you know so little about me--"
"I know more than you suppose, Mr. Montague," said the other, with a smile. "You may rest assured that I have not broached such a matter to you without making inquiries, and satisfying myself that you were the proper person."
"It is very pleasant to be told that," said Montague. "But I must remind you, also, that I am not a railroad man, and have had no experience whatever in such matters--"
"It is not necessary that you should be a railroad man," was the answer. "One can hire talent of that kind at market prices. What we wish is a man of careful and conservative temper, and, above all, a man of thorough-going honesty; someone who will be capable of winning the confidence of the stockholders, and of keeping it. It seemed to us that you possessed these qualifications. Also, of course, you have the advantage of being familiar with the neighbourhood, and of knowing thoroughly the local conditions."
Montague thought for a while longer. "The offer is a very flattering one," he said, "and I need hardly tell you that it interests me. But before I could properly consider the matter, there is one thing I should have to know--that is, who are the members of this syndicate."
"Why would it be necessary to know that?" asked the other.
"Because I am to lend my reputation to their project, and I should have to know the character of the men that I was dealing with." Montague was gazing straight into the other's eyes.
"You will understand, of course," replied Ryder, "that in a matter of this sort it is necessary to proceed with caution. We cannot afford to talk about what we are going to do. We have enemies who will do what they can to check us at every step."
"Whatever you tell me will, of course, be confidential," said Montague.
"I understand that perfectly well," was the reply. "But I wished first to get some idea of your attitude toward the project--whether or not you would be at liberty to take up this work and to devote yourself to it."
"I can see no reason why I should not," Montague answered.
"It seems to me," said Ryder, "that the proposition can be judged largely upon its own merits. It is a proposition to put through an important public improvement; a road which is in a broken-down and practically bankrupt condition is to be taken up, and thoroughly reorganised, and put upon its feet. It is to have a vigorous and honest administration, a new and adequate equipment, and a new source of traffic. The business of the Mississippi Steel Company, as you doubtless know, is growing with extraordinary rapidity. All this, it seems to me, is a work about the advisability of which there can be no question."
"That is very true," said Montague, "and I will meet the persons who are interested and talk out matters with them; and if their plans are such as I can approve, I should be very glad to join with them, and to do everything in my power to make a success of the enterprise. As you doubtless know, I have five hundred shares of the stock myself, and I should be glad to become a member of the syndicate."
"That is what I had in mind to propose to you," said the other. "I anticipate no difficulty in satisfying you--the project is largely of my own originating, and my own reputation will be behind it. The Gotham Trust Company will lend its credit to the enterprise so far as possible."
Ryder said this with just a trifle of hauteur, and Montague felt that perhaps he had spoken too strenuously. No one could sit in Ryder's office and not be impressed by its atmosphere of magnificence; after all, it was here, and its seventy or eighty million dollars of deposits were real, and this serene and aristocratic gentleman was the master of them. And what reason had Montague for his hesitation, except the gossip of idle and cynical Society people?
Whatever doubts he himself might have, he needed to reflect but a moment to realise that his friends in Mississippi would not share them. If he went back home with the name of Stanley Ryder and the Gotham Trust Company to back him, he would come as a conqueror with tidings of triumph, and all the old friends of the family would rush to follow his suggestions.
Ryder waited awhile, perhaps to let these reflections sink in. Finally he continued: "I presume, Mr. Montague, that you know something about the Mississippi Steel Company. The steel situation is a peculiar one. Prices are kept at an altogether artificial level, and there is room for large profits to competitors of the Trust. But those who go into the business commonly find themselves unexpectedly handicapped. They cannot get the credit they want; orders overwhelm them in floods, but Wall Street will not put up money to help them. They find all kinds of powerful interests arrayed against them; there are raids upon their securities in the market, and mysterious rumours begin to circulate. They find suits brought against them which tend to injure their credit. And sometimes they will find important papers missing, important witnesses sailing for Europe, and so on. Then their most efficient employees will be bought up; their very bookkeepers and office-boys will be bribed, and all the secrets of their business passed on to their enemies. They will find that the railroads do not treat them squarely; cars will be slow in coming, and all kinds of petty annoyances will be practised. You know what the rebate is, and you can imagine the part which that plays. In these and a hundred other ways, the path of the independent steel manufacturer is made difficult. And now, Mr. Montague, this is a project to extend a railroad which will be of vast service to the chief competitor of the Steel Trust. I believe that you are man of the world enough to realise that this improvement would have been made long ago, if the Steel Trust had not been able to prevent it. And now, the time has come when that project is to be put through in spite of every opposition that the Trust can bring; and I have come to you because I believe that you are a man to be counted on in such a fight."
"I understand you," said Montague, quietly; "and you are right in your supposition."
"Very well," said Ryder. "Then I will tell you that the syndicate of which I speak is composed of myself and John S. Price, who has recently acquired control of the Mississippi Steel Company. You will find out without difficulty what Price's reputation is; he is the one man in the country who has made any real headway against the Trust. The business of the Mississippi Company has almost doubled in the past year, and there is no limit to what it can do, except the size of the plant and the ability of the railroads to handle its product. This new plan would have been taken up through the Company, but for the fact that the Company's capital and credit is involved in elaborate extensions. Price has furnished some of the capital personally, and I have raised the balance; and what we want now is an honest man to whom we can entrust this most important project, a man who will take the road in hand and put it on its feet, and make it of some service in the community. You are the man we have selected, and if the proposition appeals to you, why, we are ready to do business with you without delay."
For a minute or two Montague was silent; then he said: "I appreciate your confidence, Mr. Ryder, and what you say appeals to me. But the matter is a very important one to me, as you can readily understand, and so I will ask you to give me until to-morrow to make up my mind."
"Very well," said Ryder.
Montague's first thought was of General Prentice. "Come to me any time you need advice," the General had said; so Montague went down to his office. "Do you know anything about John S. Price?" he asked.
"I don't know him very well personally," was the reply. "I know him by reputation. He is a daring Wall Street operator, and he's been very successful, I am told."
"Price began life as a cowboy, I understand," continued the General, after a pause. "Then he went in for mines. Ten or fifteen years ago we used to know him as a silver man. Several years ago there was a report that he had been raiding Mississippi Steel, and had got control. That was rather startling news, for everybody knew that the Trust was after it. He seems to have fought them to a standstill."
"That sounds interesting," said Montague.
"Price was brought up in a rough school," said the General, with a smile. "He has a tongue like a whip-lash. I remember once I attended a creditors' meeting of the American Stove Company, which had got into trouble, and Price started off from the word go. 'Mr. Chairman,' he said, 'when I come into the office of an industrial corporation, and see a stock ticker behind the president's chair with the carpet worn threadbare in front of it, I know what's the matter with that corporation without asking another word.'"
"What do you want to know about him for?" asked the General, after he had got through laughing over this recollection.
"It's a case I'm concerned in," the other answered.
"I tell you who knows about him," said the General. "Harry Curtiss. William E. Davenant has done law business for Price."
"Is that so?" said Montague. "Then probably I shall meet Harry."
"I can tell you a better person yet," said the other, after a moment's thought. "Ask your friend Mrs. Alden; she knows Price intimately, I believe."
So Montague sent up a note to Mrs. Billy, and the reply came, "Come up to dinner. I am not going out." And so, late in the afternoon, he was ensconced in a big leather armchair in Mrs. Billy's private drawing-room, and listening to an account of the owner of the Mississippi Steel Company.
"Johnny Price?" said the great lady. "Yes, I know him. It all depends whether you are going to have him for a friend or an enemy. His mother was Irish, and he is built after her. If he happens to take a fancy to you, he'll die for you; and if you make him hate you, you will hear a greater variety of epithets than you ever supposed the language contained.--I first met him in Washington," Mrs. Billy went on, reminiscently; "that was fifteen years ago, when my brother was in Congress. I think I told you once how Davy paid forty thousand dollars for the nomination, and went to Congress. It was the year of a Democratic landslide, and they could have elected Reggie Mann if they had felt like it. I went to Washington to live the next winter, and Price was there with a whole army of lobbyists, fighting for free silver. That was before the craze, you know, when silver was respectable; and Price was the Silver King. I saw the inside of American government that winter, I can assure you."
"Tell me about it," said Montague.
"The Democratic party had been elected on a low tariff platform," said Mrs. Billy; "and it sold out bag and baggage to the corporations. Money was as free as water--my brother could have got his forty thousand back three times over. It was the Steel crowd that bossed the job, you know--William Roberts used to come down from Pittsburg every two or three days, and he had a private telephone wire the rest of the time. I have always said it was the Steel Trust that clamped the tariff swindle on the American people, and that's held it there ever since."
"What did Price do with his silver mines?" asked Montague.
"He sold them," said she, "and just in the nick of time. He was on the inside in the campaign of '96, and I remember one night he came to dinner at our house and told us that the Republican party had raised ten or fifteen million dollars to buy the election. 'That's the end of silver,' he said, and he sold out that very month, and he's been freelancing it in Wall Street ever since."
"Have you met him yet?" asked Mrs. Billy, after a pause.
"Not yet," he answered.
"He's a character," said she. "I've heard Davy tell about the first time he struck New York--as a miner, with huge wads of greenbacks in his pockets. He spent his money like a 'coal-oil Johnny,' as the phrase is--a hundred-dollar bill for a shine, and that sort of thing. And he'd go on the wildest debauches; you can have no idea of it."
"Is he that kind of a man?" said Montague.
"He used to be," said the other. "But one day he had something the matter with him, and he went to a doctor, and the doctor told him something, I don't know what, and he shut down like a steel trap. Now he never drinks a drop, and he lives on one meal a day and a cup of coffee. But he still goes with the old crowd--I don't believe there is a politician or a sporting-man in town that Johnny Price does not know. He sits in their haunts and talks with them until all sorts of hours in the morning, but I can never get him to come to my dinner-parties. 'My people are human,' he will say; 'yours are sawdust.' Sometime, if you want to see New York, just get Johnny Price to take you about and introduce you to his bookmakers and burglars!"
Montague meditated for a while over his friend's picture. "Somehow or other," he said, "it doesn't sound much like the president of a hundred-million-dollar corporation."
"That's all right," said Mrs. Billy, "but Price will be at his desk bright and early the next morning, and every man in the office will be there, too. And if you think he won't have his wits about him, just you try to fool him on some deal, and see. Let me tell you a little that I know about the fight he has made with the Mississippi Steel Company." And she went on to tell. The upshot of her telling was that Montague borrowed the use of her desk and wrote a note to Stanley Ryder. "From my inquiries about John S. Price, I gather that he makes steel. With the understanding that I am to make a railroad and carry his steel, I have concluded to accept your proposition, subject, of course, to a satisfactory arrangement as to terms."