Lucy's adventure had so taken up the attention of them both that they had forgotten all about the matter of the stock. Afterwards, however, Montague mentioned it, and Lucy exclaimed indignantly at the smallness of the offer.
"That is only ten cents on the dollar!" she cried. "You surely would not advise me to sell for that!"
"No, I should not," he answered. "I should reject the offer. It might be well, however, to set a price for them to consider."
They had talked this matter over before, and had agreed upon a hundred and eighty thousand dollars. "I think it will be best to state that figure," he said, "and give them to understand that it is final. I imagine they would expect to bargain, but I am not much of a hand at that, and would prefer to say what I mean and stick by it."
"Very well!" said Lucy, "you use your own judgment."
There was a pause; then Montague, seeing the look on Lucy's face, started to his feet. "It won't do you any good to think about to-day's mishap," he said. "Let's start over again, and not make any more mistakes. Come with me this evening. I have some friends who have been begging me to bring you around ever since you came."
"Who are they?" asked Lucy.
"General Prentice and his wife. Do you know of them?"
"I have heard Mr. Ryder speak of Prentice the banker. Is that the one you mean?"
"Yes," said Montague,--"the president of the Trust Company of the Republic. He was an old comrade of my father's, and they were the first people I met here in New York. I have got to know them very well since. I told them I would bring you up to dinner sometime, and I will telephone them, if you say so. I don't think it's a good idea for you to sit here by yourself and think about Dan Waterman."
"Oh, I don't mind it now," said Lucy. "But I will go with you, if you like."
* * *
They went to the Prentices'. There were the General himself, and Mrs. Prentice, and their two daughters, one of whom was a student in college, and the other a violinist of considerable talent. General Prentice was now over seventy, and his beard was snow-white, but he still had the erect carriage and the commanding presence of a soldier. Mrs. Prentice Montague had first met one evening when he had been their guest at the opera, and she had impressed him as a lady with a great many diamonds, who talked to him about other people while he was trying to listen to the music. But she was, as Lucy phrased it afterwards, "a motherly soul, when one got underneath her war-paint." She was always inviting Montague to her home and introducing him to people whom she thought would be of assistance to him.
Also there came that evening young Harry Curtiss, the General's nephew. Montague had never met him before, but he knew him as a junior partner in the firm of William E. Davenant, the famous corporation lawyer--the man whom Montague had found opposed to him in his suit against the Fidelity Insurance Company. Harry Curtiss, whom Montague was to know quite well before long, was a handsome fellow, with frank and winning manners. He had met Alice Montague at an affair a week or so ago, and he sent word that he was coming to see her.
After dinner they sat and smoked, and talked about the condition of the market. It was a time of great agitation in Wall Street. There had been a violent slump in stocks, and matters seemed to be going from bad to worse.
"They say that Wyman has got caught," said Curtiss, repeating one of the wild tales of the "Street." "I was talking with one of his brokers yesterday."
"Wyman is not an easy man to catch," said the General. "His own brokers are often the last men to know his real situation. There is good reason to believe that some of the big insiders are loaded up, for the public is very uneasy, as you know; but with the situation as it is just now in Wall Street, you can't tell anything. The men who are really on the inside have matters so completely in their own hands that they are practically omnipotent."
"You mean that you think this slump may be the result of manipulation?" asked Montague, wonderingly.
"Why not?" asked the General.
"It seems to be such a widespread movement," said Montague. "It seems incredible that any one man could cause such an upset."
"It is not one man," said the General, "it is a group of men. I don't say that it's true, mind you. I wouldn't be at liberty to say it even if I knew it; but there are certain things that I have seen, and I have my suspicions of others. And you must realise that a half-dozen men now control about ninety per cent of the banks of this city."
"Things will get worse before they get any better, I believe," said Curtiss, after a pause.
"Something has got to be done," replied the General. "The banking situation in this country at the present moment is simply unendurable; the legitimate banker is practically driven from the field by the speculator. A man finds himself in the position where he has either to submit to the dictation of such men, or else permit himself to be supplanted. It is a new element that has forced itself in. Apparently all a man needs in order to start a bank is credit enough to put up a building with marble columns and bronze gates. I could name you a man who at this moment owns eight banks, and when he started in, three years ago, I don't believe he owned a million dollars."
"But how in the world could he manage it?" gasped Montague.
"Just as I stated," said the General. "You buy a piece of land, with as big a mortgage as you can get, and you put up a million-dollar building and mortgage that. You start a trust company, and you get out imposing advertisements, and promise high rates of interest, and the public comes in. Then you hypothecate your stock in company number one, and you have your dummy directors lend you more money, and you buy another trust company. They call that pyramiding--you have heard the term, no doubt, with regard to stocks; it is a fascinating game to play with banks, because the more of them you get, the more prominent you become in the newspapers, and the more the public trusts you."
And the General went on to tell of some of the cases of which he knew. There was Stewart, the young Lochinvar out of the West. He had tried to buy the Trust Company of the Republic long ago, and so the General knew him and his methods. He had fought the Copper Trust to a standstill in Montana; the Trust had bought up the Legislature and both political machines, but Cummings had appealed to the public in a series of sensational campaigns, and had got his judges into office, and in the end the Trust had been forced to buy him out. And now he had come to New York to play this new game of bank-gambling, which paid even quicker profits than buying courts.--And then there was Holt, a sporting character, a vulgar man-about-town, who was identified with everything that was low and vile in the city; he, too, had turned his millions into banks.--And there was Cummings, the Ice King, who for years had financed the political machine in the city, and, by securing a monopoly of the docking-privileges, had forced all his rivals to the wall. He had set out to monopolise the coastwise steamship trade of the country, and had bought line after line of vessels by this same device of "pyramiding"; and now, finding that he needed still more money to buy out his rivals, he had purchased or started a dozen or so of trust companies and banks.
"Anyone ought to realise that such things cannot go on indefinitely," said the General. "I know that the big men realise it. I was at a directors' meeting the other day, and I heard Waterman remark that it would have to be ended very soon. Anyone who knows Waterman would not expect to get a second hint."
"What could he do?" asked Montague.
"Waterman!" exclaimed young Curtiss.
"He would find a way," said the General, simply. "That is the one hope that I see in the situation--the power of a conservative man like him."
"You trust him, then?" asked Montague.
"Yes," said the General, "I trust him.--One has to trust somebody."
"I heard a curious story," put in Harry Curtiss. "My uncle had dinner at the old man's house the other night, and asked him what he thought of the market. 'I can tell you in a sentence,' was the answer. 'For the first time in my life I don't own a security.'"
The General gave an exclamation of surprise. "Did he really say that?" he asked. "Then one can imagine that things will happen before long!"
"And one can imagine why the stock market is weak!" added the other, laughing.
At that moment the door of the dining-room was opened, and Mrs. Prentice appeared. "Are you men going to talk business all evening?" she asked. "If so, come into the drawing-room, and talk it to us."
They arose and followed her, and Montague seated himself upon a sofa with Mrs. Prentice and the younger man.
"What were you saying of Dan Waterman?" she asked of the latter.
"Oh, it's a long story," said Curtiss. "You ladies don't care anything about Waterman."
Montague had been watching Lucy out of the corner of his eye, and he could not forbear a slight smile.
"What a wonderful man he is!" said Mrs. Prentice. "I admire him more than any man I know of in Wall Street." Then she turned to Montague. "Have you met him?"
"Yes," said he; and added with a mischievous smile, "I saw him to-day."
"I saw him last Sunday night," said Mrs. Prentice, guilelessly. "It was at the Church of the Holy Virgin, where he passes the collection-plate. Isn't it admirable that a man who has as much on his mind as Mr. Waterman has, should still save time for the affairs of his church?"
And Montague looked again at Lucy, and saw that she was biting her lip.