Montague went back to his work, but with a heart full of misgivings. He would have liked to persuade himself that that was the end of the episode, but he could not do it. He foresaw that his job as president of a railroad would not be a sinecure.
With all his forebodings, however, he was unprepared for the development which came the next day. Young Curtiss called him up, early in the morning, and asked him to wait at his office. A few minutes later he came in, with evident agitation upon his countenance.
"Montague," he said, "I have something important to tell you. I cannot leave you in ignorance about it. But before I begin, you must understand one thing--that I am taking my future in my hands by telling you. And you must promise me that you will never give the slightest hint that I have spoken to you."
"I will promise," said Montague. "What is it?"
"You must not even let on that you know," added the other. "Price would know that I told you."
"Oh, it's Price!" said Montague. "I'll promise to protect you. What is it?"
"He called up Davenant yesterday afternoon, and told him that you were not to be elected president of the road."
Montague gazed at him in dismay.
"He says you are to be dropped entirely," said the other. "Haskins is to be president. Davenant had to tell me, because I am one of the directors."
"So that's it," Montague whispered to himself.
"Do you know what's the matter?" asked Curtiss.
"Yes, I do," said Montague.
"What is it?"
"It's a long story--just some graft that I wouldn't stand for."
"Oh!" cried Curtiss, with sudden light. "Is it the Hill Manufacturing Company?"
"It is," said Montague.
It was Curtiss's turn to stare in amazement. "My God!" he gasped. "Do you mean that you have thrown up the sponge for that?"
"I haven't thrown up the sponge, by any means," was the answer. "But that's why Price wants to get rid of me."
"But, man!" cried the other. "How perfectly absurd!"
Montague fixed his glance upon him.
"Would you advise me to stand for it?" he asked.
"But, my dear fellow!" said Curtiss. "I've got some stock in that company myself."
Montague sat in silence--he could think of nothing to say after that.
"What in the world do you suppose you have gone into?" protested the other. "A charity enterprise?" Then he stopped, seeing the look of pain upon his friend's face.
He put a hand upon his arm. "See here, old, man," he said, "this is too bad, honestly. I understand how you feel, and it's a great credit to you; but you are living in the world, and you have got to be practical. You can't expect to take a railroad and run it as if it were an orphan asylum. You can't expect to do business, if you're going to have notions like that. It's really a shame, to give up a work like this for such a reason."
Montague stiffened. "I assure you I haven't given up yet," he replied grimly.
"But what are you going to do?" protested the other.
"I am going to fight," said he.
"Fight?" echoed Curtiss. "But, man, you are perfectly helpless! Price and Ryder own the road, and they will do as they please with it."
"You are one of the directors of the road," said Montague. "And you know the situation. You know the pledges upon which the election of the new board was secured. Will you vote for Haskins as president?"
"My God, Montague!" protested the other. "What a thing to ask of me! You know perfectly well that I have no power in the road. All the stock I own, Price gave me, and what can I do? Why, my whole career would be ruined if I were to oppose him."
"In other words," said Montague, "you are a dummy. You are willing to sell your name and your character for a block of stock. You take a position of trust, and you betray it."
The other's face hardened. "Oh, well," he said, "if that's the way you put it--"
"That's not the way I put it!" said Montague. "That is simply the fact."
"But," cried the other, "don't you realise that they have a majority, even without me?"
"Perhaps they have," said Montague; "but that is no reason why you should not do what is right."
Curtiss arose. "There is nothing more to be said," he remarked. "I am sorry you take it that way. I tried to do you a service."
"I appreciate that," said Montague, promptly. "For that I shall always be obliged to you."
"In this fight that you propose to make," said the other, "you must not forget that it is I who have brought you this information--"
"Do not trouble about that," said Montague; "I will protect you. No one shall ever know that I had the information."
Montague spent a half an hour pacing up and down his office in thought. Then he called his stenographer, and dictated a letter to his cousin, Mr. Lee, and to each of the three other persons whom he had approached in relation to their votes at the stockholders' meeting. "Certain matters have developed," he wrote, "in connection with the affairs of the Northern Mississippi Railroad, which make me unwilling to accept the position of president. It is also my intention to resign from the board of directors of the road, in which I find myself powerless to prevent the things of which I disapprove."
And then he went on to outline the plan which he intended to carry out, explaining that he offered to those whom he had been the means of influencing, the opportunity to go in with him upon equal terms. He requested them to communicate their decisions by telegraph; and two days later he had heard from them all, and was ready for business.
He called up Stanley Ryder, and made an appointment for an interview.
"Mr. Ryder," he said, "a few weeks ago you talked with me in this office, and asked me to assist you in electing your ticket for the Northern Mississippi Railroad. You said that you wished me to become president of the road, and that the reason for the request was that you wanted a man whom you could depend upon for efficient and honest management. I accepted your offer in good faith; and I have made all arrangements, and put in a great deal of hard work at the task of fitting myself for the position. Now I have learned from Mr. Price's own lips that he has organised a company for the purpose of exploiting the road for his own private benefit. I told him that I was unwilling to stand for anything of the sort. Since then I have been thinking the matter over, and I have concluded that this situation will make it impossible for me to cooperate with Mr. Price. I have concluded, therefore, that it would be best for me to resign my position as a member of the board of directors, and also to withdraw my candidacy as president."
Ryder had avoided Montague's gaze; he sat staring in front of him, and tapping nervously with a pencil upon his desk. It was some time before he answered.
"Mr. Montague," he said, finally, "I am very sorry indeed to hear your decision. But taking all the circumstances into consideration, it seems to me that perhaps it is a wise one."
Again there was a pause.
"You must permit me to thank you for what you have done," Ryder added. "And I trust that this unfortunate episode will not alter our personal relationship."
"Thank you," said Montague, coldly.
He had waited to see what Ryder would say. He waited again, having no mind to help him in his embarrassment.
"As I say," Ryder repeated, "I am very much obliged to you."
"I have no doubt of it," said Montague. "But I trust that you do not expect to end our relationship in any such simple way as that."
He saw Ryder's expression change. "What do you mean?" he asked.
"There is a matter of grave importance which has to be settled before we can part. As you know, I am personally the holder of five hundred shares of Northern Mississippi stock; and to that extent I am interested in the affairs of the road."
"Most certainly," said Ryder, quietly, "but I have nothing to do with that. As a stockholder of the road, you look to the board of directors."
"Besides being a stockholder myself," continued Montague, without heeding this remark, "I have also to consider the interests of the three persons whom I interviewed in your behalf. I was the means of inducing these people to vote for the board which you named. I was the means of inducing them to place themselves in the power of Mr. Price and yourself. This being the case, I consider that my honour is involved, and that I am responsible to them."
"What do you expect to do?" asked Ryder.
"I have written to them, informing them of my intention to withdraw. I have not told them the circumstances, but have simply indicated that I find myself powerless to prevent certain things to which I object. I have told them the course I intend to take, and offered them the opportunity to get out upon the same terms as myself. They have accepted the offer, and to-morrow I should receive their stock certificates, and their authorisation to dispose of them. I have my own certificates here; and I have to say that I consider you are under obligation to purchase this stock at the same price which you paid for the new stock; namely, fifty dollars a share."
Ryder stared at him. "Mr. Montague, you amaze me!" he said.
"I am sorry for that," said Montague. His voice was hard, and there was a grim look upon his face. He fixed his eyes upon Ryder. "Nevertheless," he said, "it will be necessary for you to take the stock."
"I am sorry to have to say it," said Ryder, "but this seems to me impertinent."
"The total number of shares," said Montague, "is thirty-five hundred, and the price of them is one hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars."
The two gazed at each other. Ryder saw the look in Montague's eyes, and he did not repeat his sneer.
"May I ask," he inquired, in a low voice, "what reason you have to believe that I will comply with this extraordinary request?"
"I have a very good reason, as I believe you will perceive," said Montague. "You and Mr. Price have purchased this railroad, and you wish to plunder it. That is your privilege--apparently it is the custom here in Wall Street to play tricks upon the investing public. But you cannot play them upon me, because I know too much."
"May I know what you propose to do?" asked Ryder.
"You certainly may," said the other. "I propose to fight. Until you have purchased my stock and the stock of my friends, I shall remain a director in the railroad, and also a candidate for the position of president. I shall make a contest at the next directors' meeting, and if I fail in my purpose there, I shall carry the fight before the public. I flatter myself that my reputation will count for something in my old home; you will not be able to carry matters with quite the same high hand in Mississippi as you are accustomed to in New York. Also, I shall fight you in the courts. I don't happen to know just what is the law in regard to the plundering of a public-service corporation by its own directors, but I shall be very much surprised if I cannot find some ground upon which to put a stop to it. Also, as you know, I am in possession of facts regarding the means whereby you got your new privileges from the State Legislature--"
Ryder was glaring at him in rage. "Mr. Montague," he cried, "this is blackmail!"
"You may call it that if you please," said the other. "I shall not be afraid to face the charge, if you should see fit to bring it in the courts."
Ryder started to reply, then caught his breath and gasped. When he spoke again, he had mastered himself. "It seems to me a most extraordinary thing," he said. "Surely, Mr. Montague, you cannot feel at liberty to make public what you learned from Mr. Price and myself while you were acting as our confidential adviser! Surely you cannot have forgotten the pledge of secrecy which you gave me here in this office!"
"I have not forgotten it," answered Montague. "And I have considered the matter with the greatest care. I consider that it is you who have violated a pledge. I believe that your violation was a deliberate one--that you had intended it from the very beginning. You assured me that you wished an honest administration of the road. I don't believe that you ever did wish it; I believe that you had no thought whatever except to use me as your tool to secure the control of the railroad, without buying out the remaining stockholders. Having accomplished that purpose, you are perfectly willing to have me retire. In fact, I have made up my mind that you never intended that I should be president--I have all along been suspicious about it. But I can assure you that you have struck the wrong man; you cannot play with me in any such manner. I have no idea whatever of retiring from the railroad and permitting you and Mr. Price to exploit it, and to deprive me of the value of my holdings--"
Montague was going on, but the other interrupted him quickly. "I recognise the justice of what you say there, Mr. Montague," said he. "So far as your own shares are concerned, you are entitled to be bought out. I am sure that that is a fair basis--"
"On the contrary," said Montague, "it's a basis the suggestion of which I take as an insult. I have been the means of placing other people at your mercy. My reputation and my promises were used for that purpose, and to whatever I am entitled, they are entitled equally. There can be no possible settlement except the one which I have offered you."
Ryder could think of nothing more to say. He sat staring at the other. And Montague, who had no desire to prolong the interview, arose abruptly.
"I do not expect you to decide this matter immediately," he said. "I presume that you will wish to consult with Mr. Price. I have made known my terms to you, and I have nothing more to say. Either you will accept the terms, or I shall drop everything else, and prepare to fight you at every step. I expect to receive the stock by this evening's mail, and I am obliged to ask you to favour me with a decision by to-morrow noon, so that we can close the matter up without delay."
And with that he bowed formally and took his departure.
The next morning's mail brought him a letter from William E. Davenant. "My dear Mr. Montague," it read. "It is reported to me that you have thirty-five hundred shares of the stock of the Northern Mississippi Railroad which you desire to sell at fifty dollars a share. If you will bring the stock to my office to-day, I shall be glad to purchase it."
Having received the letters from the South, Montague went immediately. Davenant was formal; but Montague could catch a humorous twinkle in his eye, which seemed to say, quite confidentially, that he appreciated the joke.
"That ends the matter," he said, as he blotted the last of Montague's signatures. "And I trust you will permit me to say, Mr. Montague, that I consider you an exceedingly capable business man."
"I appreciate the compliment," replied Montague, drily.