A few days after these incidents, Montague was waiting for a friend who was to come to dinner at his hotel. He was sitting in the lobby reading a paper, and he noticed an elderly gentleman with a grey goatee and rather florid complexion who passed down the corridor before him. A minute or two later he happened to glance up, and he caught this gentleman's eye.
The latter started, and a look of amazement came over his face. He came forward, saying, "I beg pardon, but is not this Allan Montague?"
"It is," said Montague, looking at him in perplexity.
"You don't remember me, do you?" said the other.
"I must confess that I do not," was the answer.
"I am Colonel Cole."
But Montague only knitted his brows in greater perplexity. "Colonel Cole?" he repeated.
"You were too young to remember me," the other said. "I have been at your house a dozen times. I was in your father's brigade."
"Indeed!" exclaimed Montague. "I beg your pardon."
"Don't mention it, don't mention it," said the other, taking a seat beside him. "It was really extraordinary that I should recall you. And how is your brother? Is he in New York?"
"He is," said Montague.
"And your mother? She is still living, I trust?"
"Oh, yes," said he. "She is in this hotel."
"It is really an extraordinary pleasure!" exclaimed the other. "I did not think I knew a soul in New York."
"You are visiting here?" asked Montague.
"From the West," said the Colonel.
"It is curious how things follow out," he continued, after a pause. "I was thinking about your father only this very day. I had a proposal from someone who wanted to buy some stock that I have--in the Northern Mississippi Railroad."
Montague gave a start. "You don't mean it!" he said.
"Yes," said the other. "Your father persuaded me to take some of the stock, away back in the old days. And I have had it ever since. I had forgotten all about it."
Montague smiled. "When you have disposed of yours," he said, "you might refer your party to me. I know of some more that is for sale."
"I have no doubt," said the Colonel. "But I fancy it won't fetch much now. I don't remember receiving any dividends."
There was a pause. "It is a curious coincidence," said the other. "I, too, have been thinking about the railroad. My friend, Mrs. Taylor, has just come up from New Orleans. She used to be Lucy Dupree."
The Colonel strove to recall. "Dupree?" he said.
"Judge Dupree's daughter," said Montague. "His brother, John Dupree, was the first president of the road."
"Oh, yes," said the Colonel. "Of course, of course! I remember the Judge now. Your father told me he had taken quite a lot of the stock."
"Yes, he was the prime mover in the enterprise."
"And who was that other gentleman?" said the Colonel, racking his brains. "The one who used to be so much in his house, and was so much interested in him--"
"You mean Mr. Lee Gordon?" said Montague.
"Yes, I think that was the name," the other replied.
"He was my father's cousin," said Montague. "He put so much money into the road that the family has been poor ever since."
"It was an unfortunate venture," said the Colonel. "It is too bad some of our big capitalists don't take it up and do something with it."
"That was my idea," said Montague. "I have broached it to one."
"Indeed?" said the Colonel. "Possibly that is where my offer came from. Who was it?"
"It was Jim Hegan," said Montague.
"Oh!" said the Colonel. "But of course," he added, "Hegan would do his negotiating through an agent."
"Let me give you my card," said the Colonel, after a pause. "It is possible that I may be able to interest someone in the matter myself. I have friends who believe in the future of the South. How many shares do you suppose you could get me, and what do you suppose they would cost?"
Montague got out a pencil and paper, and proceeded to recall as well as he could the location of the various holdings of Northern Mississippi. He and his new acquaintance became quite engrossed in the subject, and they talked it out from many points of view. By the time that Montague's friend arrived, the Colonel was in possession of all the facts, and he promised that he would write in a very few days.
And then, after dinner, Montague went upstairs and joined his mother. "I met an old friend of father's this evening," he said.
"Who was it?" she asked.
"Colonel Cole," he said, and Mrs. Montague looked blank.
"Colonel Cole?" she repeated.
"Yes, that was the name," said Montague. "Here is his card," and he took it out. "Henry W. Cole, Seattle, Washington," it read.
"But I never heard of him," said Mrs. Montague.
"Never heard of him!" exclaimed Montague. "Why, he has been at the house a dozen times, and he knew father and Cousin Lee and Judge Dupree and everyone."
But Mrs. Montague only shook her head. "He may have been at the house," she said, "but I am sure that I was never introduced to him."
Montague thought that it was strange, but he would never have given further thought to the matter, had it not been for something which occurred the next morning. He went to the office rather early, on account of important work which he had to get ready. He was the first to arrive, and he found the scrub-woman who cleaned the office just taking her departure.
It had never occurred to Montague before that such a person existed; and he turned in some surprise when she spoke to him.
"I beg pardon, sir," she said. "But there is something I have to tell you."
"What is it?" said he.
"There is someone trying to find out about you," said the woman.
"What do you mean?" he asked, in perplexity.
"Begging your pardon, sir," said the woman, "but there was a man came here this morning, very early, and he offered me money, sir, and he wanted me to save him all the papers that I took out of your scrap basket, sir."
Montague caught his breath. "Papers out of my scrap basket!" he gasped.
"Yes, sir," said the woman. "It is done now and then, sir,--we learn of such things, you know. And we are poor women,--they don't pay us very well. But you are a gentleman, sir, and I told him I would have nothing to do with it."
"What sort of a looking man was he?" Montague demanded.
"He was a dark chap, sir," said the other, "a sort of Jew like. He will maybe come back again."
Montague took out his purse and gave the woman a bill; and she stammered her thanks and went off with her pail and broom.
He shut the door and went and sat down at his desk, and stared in front of him, gasping, "My God!"
Then suddenly he struck his knee with an exclamation of rage. "I told him everything that I knew! Everything! He hardly had to ask me a question!"
But then again, wonder drowned every other emotion in him. "What in the world can he have wanted to know? And who sent him? What can it mean?"
He went back over his talk with the old gentleman from Seattle, trying to recall exactly what he had told, and what use the other could have made of the information. But he could not think very steadily, for his mind kept jumping back to the thought of Jim Hegan.
There could be but one explanation of all this. Jim Hegan had set detectives upon him! Nobody else knew anything about the Northern Mississippi Railroad, or wanted to know about it.
Jim Hegan! And Montague had met him socially at an entertainment--at Mrs. de Graffenried's! He had met him as one gentleman meets another, had shaken hands with him, had gone and talked with him freely and frankly! And then Hegan had sent a detective to worm his secrets from him, and had even tried to get at the contents of his trash basket!
There was only one resort that Montague could think of, in a case so perplexing. He sat down and wrote a note to his friend Major Venable, at the Millionaires' Club, saying that he was coming there to dinner, and would like to have the Major's company. And two or three hours later, when sufficient time had elapsed for the Major to have had his shave and his coffee and his morning newspaper, he rang for a messenger and sent the note.
The Major's reply was prompt. He had no engagement, and his stores of information and advice were at Montague's service. But his gout was bad, and his temper atrocious, and Montague must be warned in advance that his doctors permitted him neither mushrooms nor meat.
It always seemed to Montague that it could not be possible for a human face to wear a brighter shade of purple than the Major's; yet every time he met him, it seemed to him that the purple was a shade brighter. And it spread farther with every step the Major took. He growled and grumbled, and swore tremendous oaths under his breath, and the way the headwaiter and all his assistants scurried about the dining-room of the Club was a joy to the beholder.
Montague waited until the old gentleman had obtained his usual dry Martini, and until he had solved the problem of satisfying his appetite and his doctor. And then he told of his extraordinary experience.
"I felt sure that you could explain it, if anybody could," said he.
"But what is there to explain?" asked the other. "It simply means that Jim Hegan is interested in your railroad. What more could you want?"
"But he sent a detective after me!" gasped Montague.
"But that's all right," said the Major. "It is done every day. There are a half dozen big agencies that do nothing else. You are lucky if he hasn't had your telephone tapped, and read your telegrams and mail before you saw them."
Montague stared at him aghast. "A man like Jim Hegan!" he exclaimed. "And to a friend."
"A friend?" said the Major. "Pshaw! A man doesn't do business with friends. And, besides, Jim Hegan probably never knew anything about it. He turned the whole matter over to some subordinate, and told him to look it up, and he'll never give another thought to it until the facts are laid upon his desk. Some one of his men set to work, and he was a little clumsy about it--that's all."
"But why did he want to know about all my family affairs?"
"Why, he wanted to know how you were situated," said the other--"how badly you wanted to sell the stock. So when he came to do business with you, he'd have you where he wanted you, and he'd probably get fifty per cent off the price because of it. You'll be lucky if he doesn't have a few loans called on you at your bank."
The Major sat watching Montague, smiling at his naivete. "Where did you say this road was?" he asked. "In Mississippi?"
"Yes," said Montague.
"I was wondering about it," said the other. "It is not likely that it's Jim Hegan at all. I don't believe anybody could get him to take an interest in Southern railroads. He has probably mentioned it to someone else. What's your road good for, anyway?"
"We had a plan to extend it," said Montague.
"It would take but one or two millions to carry it to the main works of the Mississippi Steel Company."
The Major gave a start. "The Mississippi Steel Company!" he exclaimed.
"Yes," said Montague.
"Oh, my God!" cried the other.
"What is the matter?"
"Why in the world did you take a matter like that to Jim Hegan?" demanded Major Venable.
"I took it to him because I knew him," said Montague.
"But one doesn't take things to people because one knows them," said the Major. "One takes them to the right people. If Jim Hegan could have his way, he would wipe the Mississippi Steel Company off the map of the United States."
"What do you mean?"
"Don't you know," said the Major, "that Mississippi Steel is the chief competitor of the Trust? And old Dan Waterman organised the Steel Trust, and watches it all the time."
"But what's that got to do with Hegan?"
"Simply that Jim Hegan works with Waterman in everything."
Montague stared in dismay. "I see," he said.
"Of course!" said the Major. "My dear fellow, why don't you come to me before you do things like that? You should have gone to the Mississippi Steel people; and you should have gone quietly, and to the men at the top. For all you can tell, you may have a really big proposition that's been overlooked in the shuffle. What was that you said about the survey?"
And Montague told in detail the story of the aborted plan for an extension, and of his hunting trip, and what he had learned on it.
"Of course," said the Major, "you are in the heart of the thing right now. The Steel people balked your plan."
"How do you mean?" asked the other.
"They bought up the survey. And they've probably controlled your railroad ever since, and kept it down."
"But that's impossible! They've had nothing to do with it."
"Bah!" said the Major. "How could you know?"
"I know the president," said Montague. "He's an old friend of the family's."
"Yes," was the reply. "But suppose they have a mortgage on his business?"
"But why not buy the road and be done with it?" added Montague, in perplexity.
The other laughed. "I am reminded of a famous saying of Wyman's,--'Why should I buy stock when I can buy directors?'"
"It's those same people who are watching you now," he continued, after a pause. "Probably they think it is some move of the other side, and they are trying to run the thing down."
"Who owns the Mississippi Steel Company?" asked Montague.
"I don't know," said the Major. "I fancy that Wyman must have come into it somehow. Didn't you notice in the papers the other day that the contracts for furnishing rails for all his three transcontinental railroads had gone to the Mississippi Steel Company?"
"Sure enough!" exclaimed Montague.
"You see!" said the Major, with a chuckle. "You have jumped right into the middle of the frog pond, and the Lord only knows what a ruction you have stirred up! Just think of the situation for a moment. The Steel Trust is over-capitalised two hundred per cent. Because of the tariff it is able to sell its product at home for fifty per cent more than it charges abroad; and even so, it has to keep cutting its dividends! Its common stock is down to ten. It is cutting expenses on every hand, and of course it's turning out a rotten product. And now along comes Wyman, the one man in Wall Street who dares to shake his fist at old Dan Waterman; and he gives the newspapers all the facts about the bad steel rails that are causing smash-ups on his roads; and he turns all his contracts over to the Mississippi Steel Company, which is under-selling the Trust. The company is swamped with orders, and its plants are running day and night. And then along comes a guileless young fool with a little dinky railroad which he wants to run into the Company's back door-yard; and he takes the proposition to Jim Hegan!"
The Major arrived at his climax in a state of suppressed emotion, which culminated in a chuckle, which shook his rubicund visage and brought a series of twitches to his aching toe. As for Montague, he was duly humbled.
"What would you do now?" he asked, after a pause.
"I don't see that there's anything to do," said the Major, "except to hold on tight to your stock. Perhaps if you go on talking out loud about your extension, some of the Steel people will buy you out at your own price."
"I gave them a scare, anyhow," said Montague, laughing.
"I can wager one thing," said the other. "There has been a fine shaking up in somebody's office down town! There's a man who comes here every night, who's probably heard of it. That's Will Roberts."
And the Major looked about the dining-room. "Here he comes now," he said.
At the farther end of the room there had entered a tall, dark-haired man, with a keen expression and a brisk step. "Roberts the Silent," said the Major. "Let's have a try at him." And as the man passed near, he hailed him. "Hello! Roberts, where are you going? Let me introduce my friend, Mr. Allan Montague."
The man looked at Montague. "Good evening, sir," he said. "How are you, Venable?"
"Couldn't be worse, thank you," said the Major. "How are things with you on the Street?"
"Dull, very dull," said Roberts, as he passed on. "Matters look bad, I'm afraid. Too many people making money rapidly."
The Major chuckled. "A fine sentiment," he said, when Roberts had passed out of hearing--"from a man who has made sixty millions in the last ten years!"
"It did not appear that he had ever heard of me," said Montague.
"Oh, trust him for that!" said the Major. "He might have been planning to have your throat cut to-night, but you wouldn't have seen him turn an eyelid. He is that sort; he's made of steel himself, I believe."
He paused, and then went on, in a reminiscent mood, "You've read of the great strike, I suppose? It was Roberts put that job through. He made himself the worst-hated man in the country--Gad! how the newspapers and the politicians used to rage at him! But he stood his ground--he would win that strike or die in the attempt. And he very nearly did both, you know. An Anarchist came to his office and shot him twice; but he got the fellow down and nearly choked the life out of him, and he ran the strike on his sick-bed, and two weeks later he was back in his office again."
And now the Major's store-rooms of gossip were unlocked. He told Montague about the kings of Steel, and about the men they had hated and the women they had loved, and about the inmost affairs and secrets of their lives. William H. Roberts had begun his career in the service of the great iron-master, whose deadly rival he had afterwards become; and now he lived but to dispute that rival's claims to glory. Let the rival build a library, Roberts would build two. Let the rival put up a great office building, Roberts would buy all the land about it, and put up half a dozen, and completely shut out its light. And day and night "Roberts the Silent" was plotting and planning, and some day he would be the master of the Steel Trust, and his rival would be nowhere.
"They are lively chaps, the Steel crowd," said the Major, chuckling. "You will have to keep your eyes open when you do business with them."
"What would you advise me to do?" asked the other, smiling. "Set detectives after them?"
"Why not?" asked the Major, seriously. "Why not find out who sent that Colonel Cole to see you? And find out how badly he needs your little railroad, and make him pay for it accordingly."
"That is not QUITE in my line," said Montague.
"It's time you were learning," said the Major. "I can start you. I know a detective whom you can trust.--At any rate," he added cautiously, "I don't know that he's ever played me false."
Montague sat for a while in thought. "You said something about their getting after one's telephone," he observed. "Did you really mean that?"
"Of course," said the other.
"Do you mean to tell me that they could find out what goes over my 'phone?"
"I mean to tell you," was the reply, "that for two hundred and fifty dollars, I can get you a stenographic report of every word that you say over your 'phone for twenty-four hours, and of every word that anybody says to you."
"That sounds incredible!" said Montague. "Who does it?"
"Wire tappers. It's dangerous work, but the pay is big. I have a friend who once upon a time was putting through a deal in which the telephone company was interested, and they transferred his wire to another branch, and he finished up his business before the other side got on to the trick. To this day you'll notice that his telephone is 'Spring,' though every other 'phone in the neighbourhood is 'John.'"
"And mail, too?" asked Montague.
"Mail!" echoed the Major. "What's easier than that? You can hold up a man's mail for twenty-four hours and take a photograph of every letter. You can do the same with every letter that he mails, unless he is very careful. He can be followed, you understand, and every time he drops a letter, a blue or yellow envelope is dropped on top--for a signal to the post-office people."
"But then, so many persons would have to know about that!"
"Nothing of the kind. That's a regular branch of the post-office work. There are Secret Service men who are watching criminals that way all the time. And what could be easier than to pay one of them, and to have your enemy listed with the suspects?"
The Major smiled in amusement. It always gave him delight to witness Montague's consternation over his pictures of the city's corruption.
"There are things even stranger than that," he said. "I can introduce you to a man who's in this room now, who was fighting the Ship-building swindle, and he got hold of a lot of important papers, and he took them to his office, and sat by while his clerks made thirty-two copies of them. And he put the originals and thirty-one of the copies in thirty-two different safe-deposit vaults in the city, and took the other copy to his home in a valise. And that night burglars broke in, and the valise was missing. The next day he wrote to the people he was fighting, 'I was going to send you a copy of the papers which have come into my possession, but as you already have a copy, I will simply proceed to outline my proposition.' And that was all. They settled for a million or two."
The Major paused a moment and looked across the dining-room. "There goes Dick Sanderson," he said, pointing to a dapper young man with a handsome, smooth-shaven face. "He represents the New Jersey Southern Railroad. And one day another lawyer who met him at dinner remarked, 'I am going to bring a stockholders' suit against your road to-morrow.' He went on to outline the case, which was a big one. Sanderson said nothing, but he went out and telephoned to their agent in Trenton, and the next morning a bill went through both houses of the Legislature providing a statute of limitations that outlawed the case. The man who was the victim of that trick is now the Governor of New York State, and if you ever meet him, you can ask him about it."
There was a pause for a while; then suddenly the Major remarked, "Oh, by the way, this beautiful widow you have brought up from Mississippi--Mrs. Taylor--is that the name?"
"That's it," said Montague.
"I hear that Stanley Ryder has taken quite a fancy to her," said the other.
A grave look came upon Montague's face. "I am sorry, indeed, that you have heard it," he said.
"Why," said the other, "that's all right. He will give her a good time."
"Lucy is new to New York," said Montague. "I don't think she quite realises the sort of man that Ryder is."
The Major thought for a moment, then suddenly began to laugh. "It might be just as well for her to be careful," he said. "I happened to think of it--they say that Mrs. Stanley is getting ready to free herself from the matrimonial bond; and if your fascinating widow doesn't want to get into the newspapers, she had better be a little careful with her favours."