Montague was now a gentleman of leisure, comparatively speaking. He had two cases on his hands, but they did not occupy his time as had the prospect of running a railroad. They were contingency cases, and as they were against large corporations, Montague saw a lean year ahead of him. He smiled bitterly to himself as he realised that the only thing which had given him the courage to break with Price and Ryder had been the money which he and his brother Oliver had won by means of a Wall Street "tip."
He received a letter from Alice. "I am going to remain a couple of weeks longer in Newport," she wrote. "Who do you think has invited me--Laura Hegan. She has been perfectly lovely to me, and I go to her place next week. You will be interested to know that I had a long talk with her about you; I took occasion to tell her a few things that she ought to know. She was very nice about it. I am hoping that you will come up for another week end before I leave here. Harry Curtiss is going to spend his vacation here; you might come with him."
Montague smiled to himself as he read this letter. He did not go with Curtiss. But the heat of the city was stifling, and the thought of the surf and the country was alluring, and he went up by way of the Sound one Friday night.
He was invited to dinner at the Hegans'. Jim Hegan was there himself--for the first occasion in three years. Mrs. Hegan declared that it was only because she had gone down to New York and fetched him.
It was the first time that Montague had ever been with Hegan for any length of time. He watched him with interest, for the man was a fascinating problem to him. He was so calm and serene--always courteous and friendly. But what was there behind the mask, Montague wondered. For forty years this man had toiled and fought in the arena of Wall Street, and with only one purpose and one thought in life, so far as Montague knew--the piling up of money. Jim Hegan indulged himself in none of the pleasures of rich men. He had no hobbies, and he seldom went into company. In his busy times it was said that he would use a dozen secretaries, and wear them all out. He was a gigantic engine which drove all day and all night--a machine for the making of money.
Montague did not care much for money himself, and he wondered about it. What did the man want it for? What did he expect to accomplish by it? What was the moral code, the outlook upon life, of a man who gave all his time to heaping up money? What reason did he give to himself for his own career? Some reason he must have, or he could not be so calm and cheerful. Or could it be that he had no thoughts about it at all? Was it simply a blind instinct with him? Was he an animal whose nature it was to make money, and who was untroubled by any scruples? This last idea seemed rather uncanny to Montague; he found himself watching Jim Hegan with a kind of awe; thinking of him as some terrible elemental force, blind and unconscious, like the lightning or the tornado.
For Jim Hegan was one of the wreckers. His fortune had been made by the methods which Major Venable had outlined, by buying aldermen and legislatures and governors; by getting franchises for nothing and selling them for millions; by organising huge swindles and unloading them upon the public. And here he sat upon the veranda of his home, in the twilight of an August evening, smoking a cigar and telling about an orphan asylum he had founded!
He was cheerful and kindly; he was even benevolent. And could it be that he had no idea of the trail of ruin and distress which he had left behind him? Montague found himself possessed by a sudden desire to penetrate beneath that reserve; to spring at the man and surprise him with some sudden question; to get at the reality of him, to know him as he was. This air of power and masterfulness, surely that must be the mask that he wore. And how was he to himself? When he was alone with his own conscience? Surely there must come doubt and wonder, unhappiness and loneliness! Surely, then, the lives that he had wrecked must come back to plague him! Surely the memories of treachery and cruelty must make him wince!
And from Hegan, Montague's thoughts went to his daughter. She, too, was serene and stately; Montague wondered what was in her mind. How much did she know about her father's career? Surely she could not have persuaded herself that all that she had heard was calumny. There might be question about this offence or that, but of the great broad facts there could be no question. And did she justify it and excuse it; or was she, too, secretly unhappy? And was this the reason for her pride, and for her bitter speeches? It was a continual topic of chatter in Society, how Laura Hegan had withdrawn herself from all of her mother's affairs, and was interesting herself in work in the slums. Could it be that Nemesis had overtaken Jim Hegan in the form of his daughter? That she was the conscience by which he was to be tormented?
Jim Hegan never talked about his affairs. In all the time that Montague spent with him during his two days at Newport, he gave just one hint for the other to go upon. "Money?" he remarked, that evening. "I don't care about money. Money is just chips to me."
Life was a game, and the chips were dollars! What he had played for was power! And suddenly Montague seemed to see the career of this man, unrolled before him like a panorama. He had begun life as an office-boy; and above him were all the heights of business and finance; and the ladder by which to scale them was money. There were rivals with whom he fought; and the overcoming of these rivals had occupied all his time and his thought. If he had bought legislatures, it was because his rivals were trying to buy them. And perhaps then he did not even know that he was a wrecker; perhaps he would not have believed it if anyone had told him! He had travelled all the long journey of his life, trampling out opposition and crushing everything before him, nourishing in his heart the hope that some day, when he had attained to mastery, when there were no more rivals to oppose and thwart him--then he would be free to do good. Then he would no longer have to be a wrecker!
And perhaps that was the meaning of his pitiful little effort--an orphan asylum! It seemed to Montague that the gods must shake with Olympian laughter when they contemplated the spectacle of Jim Hegan and his orphan asylum: Jim Hegan, who could have filled a score of orphan asylums with the children of the men whom he had driven to ruin and suicide!
These thoughts were seething in Montague's mind, and they would not let him rest. Perhaps it was just as well that he did not stay too long that evening. After all, what was the use? Jim Hegan was what circumstances had made him. Vain was the dream of peace and well doing--there was always another rival! There was a new battle on just at present, if one might believe the gossip of the Street; Hegan and Wyman were at each other's throats. They would fight out their quarrel, and there was no way to prevent them--even though they pulled down the pillars of the nation about each other's heads.
As to just what these men were doing in their struggles, Montague got new information every day. The next morning, while he was sitting on the piazza of one of the hotels watching the people, he recognised a familiar face, and greeted the young engineer, Lieutenant Long, who came and sat down beside him.
"Well," said Montague, "have you heard anything from our friend Gamble?"
"He's back in the bosom of his family again," said the young officer. "He got tired of the splurge."
"Great fellow, Gamble," said Montague.
"I liked him very much," said the Lieutenant. "He's not beautiful to look at, but his heart's in the right place."
Montague thought for a moment, then asked, "Did he ever send you your oil specifications?"
"You bet he did!" said the other. "And say, they were great! The Department will think I'm an expert."
"Indeed," said Montague.
"It was a precious lucky thing for me," said the officer. "I'd have been in quite a predicament, you know."
He paused for a moment. "You cannot imagine," he said, "the position that we naval officers are in. Do you know, I think some word must have got out about that contract."
"You don't say so," said Montague, with interest.
"I do. By gad, I thought of writing to headquarters about it. I was approached no less than three times!"
"Fancy," said the officer. "A young chap got himself introduced to me by one of my friends here. He stuck by me the whole evening, and afterwards, as we were strolling home, he opened up on me in this fashion. He'd heard from a friend in Washington that I was one of those who had been asked to write specifications for the oil contracts of the Navy; and he had some friends who were interested in oil, and who might be able to advise me. He hinted that it might be a good thing for me. Just think of it!"
"I can imagine it was unpleasant."
"I tell you, it sets a man to thinking," said the Lieutenant. "You know the men in our service are exposed to that sort of thing all the time, and some of them are trying to live a good deal higher than their incomes warrant. It's a thing that we've all got to look out for; I can stand graft in politics and in business, but when it comes to the Army and Navy--I tell you, that's where I'm ready to fight."
Montague said nothing. He could think of nothing to say.
"Gamble said something about your being interested in a fight against the Steel Trust," said the other. "Is that so?"
"It was so," replied Montague. "I'm out of it now."
"What we were saying made me think of the Steel Trust," said the Lieutenant. "We get some glimpses of that concern in the Navy, you know."
"I hadn't thought of that," said Montague.
"Ask any man in the service about it," said the Lieutenant. "It's an old scar that we carry around in our souls--it won't heal. I mean the armour-plate frauds."
"Sure enough!" said Montague. He carried a long list of indictments against the steel kings in his mind; but he had forgotten this one.
"I know about it particularly," the other continued, "because my father was on the board of investigation fifteen years ago. I am disposed to be a little keen on the subject, because what he found out at that time practically caused his death."
Montague darted a keen glance at the young officer, who sat gazing ahead in sombre thought. "Fancy how a naval man feels," he said. "We are told that our ships are going to the Pacific, and any hour the safety of the nation may depend upon them! And they are covered with rotten armour plate that was made by old Harrison, and sold to the Government for four or five times what it cost. Take one case that I know about--the Oregon. I've got a brother on board her to-day. During the Spanish War the whole country was watching her and praying for her. And I could go on board that battleship and put my finger on the spot in her conning-tower that has a series of blow-holes straight through the middle of it--holes that old Harrison had drilled through and plugged up with an iron bar. If ever that plate was struck by a shell, it would splinter like so much glass."
Montague listened, half dazed. "Can one see that?" he cried.
"See it? No!" said the officer. "It's all on the inside of the plate, of course. When they got through with their dirty work, they would treat the surface, and who would ever know the difference?"
"But then, how can YOU know it?" asked Montague.
"I?" said the other. "Because my father had laid before him the history of that plate from the hour it was made until it was put in: the original copies of the doctored shop records, and the affidavits of the man who did the work. He had the same thing in a hundred other cases. I know the man who has the papers at this day."
"You see," continued the Lieutenant, after a pause, "the Government's specifications required that each plate should undergo an elaborate set of treatments; and the shop records of each plate were kept. But, of course, it cost enormous sums to get these treatments right, and even then hundreds of the plates would be bad. So when the shop records came up to the office, young Ingham and Davidson would go over them and edit them and bring them up to standard--that's the way those brilliant young fellows made all the money that they are spending on chorus girls and actresses to-day. They would have these shop records recopied, but they did not always tear up the old ones, and somebody in the office hid them, and that was how the Government got hold of the story."
"It sounds almost incredible!" exclaimed Montague.
"Take the story of plate H619, of the Oregon," said the Lieutenant. "That was one of a whole group of plates, which was selected for the ballistic tests at Indian Head. After it had been selected, it was taken back into the company's shops at night, and secretly retreated three times. And then of course it passed the tests, and the whole group was passed with it!"
"What was done about it?" Montague asked.
"Nothing much was ever done about it," said the other. "The Government could not afford to let the real facts get out. But, of course, the insiders in the Navy knew it, and the memory will last as long as the ships last. As I say, it killed my father."
"But weren't the men punished at all?"
"There was a Board appointed to try the case, and they awarded the Government about six hundred thousand dollars' damages. There's a man here in this hotel now who could tell you that story straight from the inside." And the Lieutenant paused and looked about him. Suddenly he stood up, and went to the railing and called to a man who was passing on the other side of the street.
"Hello, Bates," he said, "come here."
"Oh! Bates of the Express!" said Montague.
"You know him, do you?" asked the Lieutenant. "Hello, Bates! Have they put you on the Society notes?"
"I'm hunting interviews," replied the other. "How do you do, Mr. Montague? Glad to see you again."
"Come up," said the Lieutenant, "and have a seat."
"I was talking to Mr. Montague about the armour-plate frauds," he added, when the other had drawn up a chair. "I told him you knew the story of the Government's investigation. Bates comes from Pittsburg, you know."
"Yes, I know it," Montague replied.
"That was the first newspaper story I ever worked on," said Bates. "Of course, the Pittsburg papers didn't print the facts, but I got them all the same. And afterwards I came to know intimately a lawyer in Pittsburg who had charge of a secret investigation; and every time I read in the newspapers that old Harrison has given a new library, it sets my blood to boiling all over again."
"I sometimes think," put in the other, "that if somebody could be found to tell that story to the American people, they would rise up and drive the old scoundrel out of the country."
"You could never bring it home to him," said Bates; "he's too cunning for that. He has always turned his dirty work over to other people. You remember during the big strike how he ran away and left the job to William Roberts; and after it was all over, he came back smiling."
"And then buying out the Government to keep himself from being punished!" said the Lieutenant, savagely.
Montague turned and looked at him. "What is that?"
"That is the story that Bates's lawyer friend can tell," was the reply. "The board of officers awarded six hundred thousand dollars' damages to the Government; and the case was appealed to the President of the United States, and he sold out the Navy!"
"Sold it out!" gasped Montague.
The officer shrugged his shoulders. "That's what I call it," he said. "One day old Harrison startled the country by making a speech in support of the President's policy of tariff reform; and the next day the lawyer got word that the award was to be scaled down about seventy-five per cent!"
"And then," added Bates, "William Roberts came down from Pittsburg, and bought up the Democratic party in Congress; and so the country got neither the damages nor the tariff reform. And then a few years later old Harrison sold out to the Steel Trust, and got off with a four-hundred-million-dollar mortgage on the American people!"
Bates sank back in his chair. "It's not a very pleasant topic for a holiday afternoon," he said. "But I can't forget about it. It's this kind of thing that does it, you know--this." And he waved his hand about at the gay assemblage. "The women spending their money on dresses and diamonds, and the men tearing the country to pieces to get it. You'll hear people talk about it--they say these idle rich harm nobody but themselves; but I tell you they spread a trail of corruption wherever they go. Don't you believe that, Mr. Montague?"
"I believe it," said he.
"Take these New England towns," said Bates; "and look at the people in them. The ones who had any energy got up and went West years ago; and those who are left haven't any jaw-bones. Did you ever notice it? And it's just the same, wherever this pleasure crowd comes; it turns the men into boarding-house keepers and lackeys, and the girls into waitresses and prostitutes."
"They learn to take tips!" put in the Lieutenant.
"Everything they've got is for sale to city people," said Bates. "Politically, there isn't a rottener little corner in the whole United States of America than this same Rhode Island--and how much that's saying, you can imagine. You can buy votes on election day as you'd buy herrings, and there's not the remotest effort at reform, nor any hope of it."
"You speak bitterly," said Montague.
"I am bitter," said Bates. "But it doesn't often break out. I hold my tongue, and stew in my own juice. We newspaper men see the game, you know. We are behind the scenes, and we see the sawdust put into the dolls. We have to work in this rottenness all the time, and some of us don't like it, I can tell you. But what can we do?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "I spend my time getting facts together, and nine times out of ten my newspaper won't print them."
"I should think you'd quit," said the other, in a low voice.
"What better can I do?" asked the reporter. "I have the facts; and once in a while there comes an explosion, and I get my chance. So I stick at the job. I can't but believe that if you keep putting these things before the people, sometime, sooner or later, they will do something. Sometime there will come a man who has a conscience and a voice, and who won't sell out. Don't you think so, Mr. Montague?"
"Yes," said Montague, "I think so."