THE next morning Montague had an interview with John S. Price in his Wall Street office, and was retained as counsel in connection with the new reorganisation. He accepted the offer, and in the afternoon he called by appointment at the law-offices of William E. Davenant.
The first person Montague met there was Harry Curtiss, who greeted him with eagerness. "I was pleased to death when I heard that you were in on this deal," said he; "we shall have some work to do together."
About the table in the consultation room of Davenant's offices were seated Ryder and Price, and Montague and Curtiss, and, finally, William E. Davenant. Davenant was one of the half-dozen highest-paid corporation lawyers in the Metropolis. He was a tall, lean man, whose clothing hung upon him like rags upon a scare-crow. One of his shoulders was a trifle higher than the other, and his long neck invariably hung forward, so that his thin, nervous face seemed always to be peering about. One had a sense of a pair of keen eyes, behind which a restless brain was constantly plotting. Some people rated Davenant as earning a quarter of a million a year, and it was his boast that no one who made money according to plans which he approved had ever been made to give any of it up.
In curious contrast was the figure of Price, who looked like a well-dressed pugilist. He was verging on stoutness, and his face was round, but underneath the superfluous flesh one could see the jaw of a man of iron will. It was easy to believe that Price had fought his way through life. He spoke sharply and to the point, and he laid bare the subject with a few quick strokes, as of a surgeon's knife.
The first question was as to Montague's errand in the South. There was no need of buying more stock of the road, for if they got the new stock they would have control, and that was all they needed. Montague was to see those holders of the stock whom he knew personally, and to represent to them that he had succeeded in interesting some Northern capitalists in the road, and that they would undertake the improvements on condition that their board of directors should be elected. Price produced a list of the new directors. They consisted of Montague and Curtiss and Ryder and himself; a cousin of the latter's, and two other men, who, as he phrased it, were "accustomed to help me in that way." That left two places to be filled by Montague from among the influential holders of the stock. "That always pleases," said Price, succinctly, "and at the same time we shall have an absolute majority."
There was to be voted an issue of a million dollars' worth of bonds, which the Gotham Trust Company would take; also a new issue of twenty thousand shares of stock, which was to be offered pro rata to the present stock-holders at fifty cents on the dollar. Montague was to state that his clients would take any which these stockholders did not want. He was to use every effort to keep the plan secret, and would make no attempt to obtain the stock-holders' list of the road. The reason for this came out a little later, when the subject of the old-time survey was broached.
"I must take steps to get hold of those plans," said Price. "In this, as well as everything else, we proceed upon the assumption that the present administration of the road is crooked."
The next matter to be considered was the charter. "When I get a charter for a railroad," said Price, "I get one that lets me do anything from building a toothpick factory to running flying-machines. But the fools who drew the charter of the Northern Mississippi got permission to build a railroad from Atkin to Opala. So we have to proceed to get an extension. While you are down there, Mr. Montague, you will see the job through with the Legislature."
Montague thought for a moment. "I don't believe that I have much influence with the Legislature," he began.
"That's all right," said Price, grimly. "We'll furnish the influence."
Here spoke Davenant. "It seems to me," he said, "that we can just as well arrange this matter without mentioning the Northern Mississippi Railroad at all. If the Steel people get wind of this, we are liable to have all sorts of trouble; the Governor is their man, as you know. The thing to do is to pass a blanket bill, providing that any public-service corporation whose charter antedates a certain period may extend its line within certain limits and under certain conditions, and so on. I think that I can draw a bill that will go through before anybody has an idea what it's about."
"Very good," said Price. "Do it that way."
And so they went, from point to point. Price laid down Montague's own course of procedure in a few brief sentences. They had just two weeks before the stockholders' meeting, and it was arranged that he should start for Mississippi upon the following day.
When the conference was over, Montague rode up town with Harry Curtiss.
"What was that Davenant said about the Governor?" he asked, when they were seated in the train.
"Governor Hannis, you mean?" said the other. "I don't know so very much about it, but there's been some agitation down there against the railroads, and Waterman and the Steel crowd put in Governor Hannis to do nothing."
"It was rather staggering to me," said Montague, after a little thought. "I didn't say anything about it, but you know Governor Hannis is an old friend of my father's, and one of the finest men I ever knew."
"Oh, yes, I don't doubt that," said Curtiss, easily. "They put up these fine, respectable old gentlemen. Of course, he's simply a figure-head--he probably has no idea of what he's really doing. You understand, of course, that Senator Harmon is the real boss of your State."
"I have heard it said," said Montague. "But I never took much stock in such statements--"
"Humph!" said Curtiss. "You'd take it if you'd been in my boots. I used to do business for old Waterman's Southern railroads, and I've had occasion to take messages to Harmon once or twice. New York is the place where you find out about this game!"
"It's not a very pleasant game," said Montague, soberly.
"I didn't make the rules," said Curtiss. "You find you either have to play that way or else get out altogether."
The younger man relapsed into silence for a moment, then laughed to himself. "I know how you feel," he said. "I remember when I first came out of college, the twinges I used to have. I had my head full of all the beautiful maxims of the old Professor of Ethics. And they took me on in the legal department of the New York and Hudson Railroad, and we had a case---some kind of a damage suit; and old Henry Corbin--their chief counsel, you know--gave me the papers, and then took out of his desk a typewritten list of the judges of the Supreme Court of the State. 'Some of them are marked with red,' he said; 'you can bring the case before any of them. They are our judges.' Just fancy, you know! And I as innocent as a spring chicken!"
"I should think things like that would get out in the end," said Montague.
Curtiss shrugged his shoulders. "How could you prove it?" he asked.
"But if a certain judge always decided in favour of the railroad--" began Montague.
"Oh, pshaw!" said Curtiss. "Leave that to the judge! Sometimes he'll decide against the railroad, but he'll make some ruling that the higher courts will be sure to upset, and by that time the other fellow will be tired out, and ready to quit. Or else--here's another way. I remember one case that I had that old Corbin told me I'd be sure to win, and I took eleven different exceptions, and the judge decided against me on every single one. I thought I was gone sure--but, by thunder, he instructed the jury in my favour! It took me a long time to see the shrewdness of that; you see, it goes to the higher courts, and they see that the judge has given the losing side every advantage, and has decided purely on the evidence. And of course they haven't the witnesses before them, and don't feel half so well able to judge of the evidence, and so they let the decision stand. There are more ways than one to skin a cat, you see!"
"It doesn't seem to leave much room for justice," said Montague.
To which the other responded, "Oh, hell! If you'd been in this business as long as I have, and seen all the different kinds of shysters that are trying to plunder the railroads, you'd not fret about justice. The way the public has got itself worked up just at present, you can win almost any case you can get before a jury, and there are men who spend all their time hunting up cases and manufacturing evidence."
Montague sat for a while in thought. He muttered, half to himself, "Governor Hannis! It takes my breath away!"
"Get Davenant to tell you about it," said Curtiss, with a laugh. "Maybe it's not so bad as I imagine. Davenant is cynical on the subject of governors, you know. He had an experience a few years ago, when he went up to Albany to try to get the Governor to sign a certain bill. The Governor went out of his office and left him, and Davenant noticed that a drawer of his desk was open, and he looked in, and there was an envelope with fifty brand-new one-thousand-dollar bills in it! He didn't know what they were there for, but this was a mighty important bill, and he concluded he'd take a chance. He put the envelope in his pocket; and then the Governor came back, and after some talk about the interests of the public, he told him he'd concluded to veto that bill. 'Very well,' Mr. Governor,' said the old man, 'I have only this to say,' and he took out the envelope. 'I have here fifty new one-thousand-dollar bills, which are yours if you sign that measure. On the other hand, if you refuse to sign it, I will take the bills to the newspaper men, and tell them what I know about how you got them.' And the Governor turned as white as a sheet, and, by God, he signed the bill and sent it off to the Legislature while Davenant waited! So you can see why he is sceptical about governors."
"I suppose," said Montague, "that was what Price meant when he said he'd furnish the influence."
"That was what he meant," said the other, promptly.
"I don't like the prospect," Montague responded.
The younger man shrugged his shoulders. "What are you going to do about it?" he asked. "Your political machines and your offices are in the hands of peanut-politicians and grafters who are looking for what's coming to them. If you want anything, you have to pay them for it, just the same as in any other business. You face the same situation every hour--'Pay or quit.'"
"Look," Curtiss went on, after a pause, "take our own case. Here we are, and we want to build a little railroad. It's an important work; it's got to be done. But we might haunt the lobbies of your State legislature for fifty years, and if we didn't put up, we wouldn't get the charter. And, in the meantime, what do you suppose the Steel Trust would be doing?"
"Have you ever thought what such things will lead to?" asked Montague.
"I don't know," said Curtiss. "I've had a fancy that some day the business men of the country will have to go into politics and run it on business lines."
The other pondered the reply. "That sounds simple," he said. "But doesn't it mean the overthrow of Republican institutions?"
"I am afraid it would," said Curtiss. "But what's to be done?"
There was no answer.
"Do you know any remedy?" he persisted.
"No, I don't know any remedy," said Montague, "but I am looking for one. And I can tell you of this, for a start; I value this Republic more than I do any business I ever got into yet; and if I come to that dilemma, it will be the business that will give way."
Curtiss was watching him narrowly. He put his hand on his shoulder. "That's all right, old man," he said. "But take my advice, and don't let Davenant hear you say that."
"Why not?" asked the other.
The younger man rose from his seat. "Here's my station," he said. "The reason is--it might unsettle his ideas. He's a conservative Democrat, you know, and he likes to make speeches at banquets!"