The summer wore on. At the end of August Alice returned from Newport for a couple of days, having some shopping to do before she joined the Prentices at their camp in the Adirondacks.
Society had here a new way of enjoying itself. People built themselves elaborate palaces in the wilderness, and lived in a fantastic kind of rusticity, with every luxury of civilisation included. For this life one needed an entirely separate wardrobe, with doeskin hunting-boots and mountain-climbing skirts--all very picturesque and expensive. It reminded Montague of a jest that he had heard about Mrs. Vivie Patton, whose husband had complained of the expensiveness of her costumes, and requested her to wear simpler dresses. "Very well," she said, "I will get a lot of simple dresses immediately."
Alice spent one evening at home, and she took her cousin into her confidence. "I've an idea, Allan, that Harry Curtiss is going to ask me to marry him. I thought it was right to tell you about it."
"I've had a suspicion of it," said Montague, smiling.
"Harry has a feeling you don't like him," said the girl. "Is that true?"
"No," replied Montague, "not precisely that." He hesitated.
"I don't understand about it," she continued. "Do you think I ought not to marry him?"
Montague studied her face. "Tell me," he said, "have you made up your mind to marry him?"
"No," she answered, "I cannot say that I have."
"If you have," he added, "of course there is no use in my talking about it."
"I wish you would tell me just what happened between you and him," exclaimed the girl.
"It was simply," said Montague, "that I found that Curtiss was doing, in a business way, something which I considered improper. Other people are doing it, of course--he has that excuse."
"Well, he has to earn a living," said Alice.
"I know," said the other; "and if he marries, he will have to earn still more of a living. He will only place himself still tighter in the grip of these forces of corruption."
"But what did he do?" asked Alice, anxiously. Montague told her the story.
"But, Allan," she said, "I don't see what there is so very bad about that. Don't Ryder and Price own the railroad?"
"They own some of it," said Montague. "Other people own some."
"But the other people have to take their chances," protested the girl; "if they choose to have anything to do with men like that."
"You are not familiar with business," said the other, "and you don't appreciate the situation. Curtiss was elected a director--he accepted a position of trust."
"He simply did it as a favour to Price," said she. "If he hadn't done it, Price would only have got somebody else. As you say, Allan, I don't understand much about it, but it seems to me it isn't fair to blame a young man who has to make his way in the world, and who simply does what he finds everybody else doing. Of course, you know best about your own affairs; but it always did seem to me that you go out of your way to look for scruples."
Montague smiled sadly. "That sounds very much like what he said, Alice. I guess you have made up your mind to marry him, after all."
Alice set out, accompanied by Oliver, who was bound for Bertie Stuyvesant's imitation baronial castle, in another part of the mountains. Betty Wyman was also to be there, and Oliver was to spend a full month. But three days later Montague received a telegram, saying that his brother would arrive in New York shortly after eight that morning, and to wait at his home for him. Montague suspected what this meant; and he had time enough to think it over and make up his mind. "Well?" he said, when Oliver came in. "It's come again, has it?"
"Yes," said Oliver, "it has."
"Another 'sure thing'?"
"Dead sure. Are you coming in?" Oliver asked, after a moment.
Montague shook his head. "No," he said. "I think once was enough for me."
"You don't mean that, Allan!" protested the other.
"I mean it," was the reply.
"But, my dear fellow, that is perfectly insane! I have information straight from the inside--it's as certain as the sunrise!"
"I have no doubt of that," responded Montague. "But I am through with gambling in Wall Street. I've seen enough of it, Oliver, and I'm sick of it. I don't like the emotions it causes in me--I don't like the things it makes me do."
"You found the money came in useful, didn't you?" said Oliver, sarcastically.
"Yes, I can use what I've got."
"And when that's gone?"
"I don't know about that yet. But I'll find some way that I like better."
"All right," said Oliver; "it's your own lookout. I will make my own little pile."
They rode down town in a cab together. "Where does your information come from this time?" asked Montague.
"The same source," was the reply.
"And is it Transcontinental again?"
"No," said Oliver; "it's another stock."
"What is it?"
"It's Mississippi Steel," was the answer.
Montague turned and stared at him. "Mississippi Steel!" he gasped.
"Why, yes," said Oliver. "What's that to you?" he added, in perplexity.
"Mississippi Steel!" Montague ejaculated again. "Why, didn't you know about my relations with the Northern Mississippi Railroad?"
"Of course," said Oliver; "but what's that got to do with Mississippi Steel?"
"But it's Price who is managing the deal--the man who owns the Mississippi Steel Company!"
"Oh," said the other, "I had forgotten that." Oliver's duties in Society did not give him much time to ask about his brother's affairs.
"Allan," he added quickly, "you won't say anything about it!"
"It's none of my business now," answered the other. "I'm out of it. But naturally I am interested to know. What is it--a raid on the stock?"
"It's going down," said Oliver.
Montague sat staring ahead of him. "It must be the Steel Trust," he whispered, half to himself.
"Nothing more likely," was the reply. "My tip comes from that direction."
"Do you suppose they are going to try to break Price?"
"I don't know; I guess they could do it if they made up their mind to."
"But he owns a majority of the stock!" said Montague. "They can't take it away from him outright."
"Not if he's got it locked up in his safe," was the reply; "and if he's got no debts or obligations. But suppose he's overextended; and suppose some bank has loaned him money on the stock--what then?"
Montague was now keenly interested. He went with his brother while the latter drew his money from the bank, and called at his brokers and ordered them to sell Mississippi Steel. The other was called away then by an engagement in court, which occupied him for several hours; when he came out, he made for the nearest ticker, and the first figures he saw were Mississippi Steel--quoted at nearly twenty points below the price of the morning!
The bare figures were eloquent to him of many tragedies; they brought before him half a dozen different personalities, with their triumphs and despairs. He could read in them the story of a Titan struggle. Oliver had made his killing; but what of Price and Ryder? Montague knew that most of Price's stock was hypothecated at the Gotham Trust. And now what would become of it? And what would become of the Northern Mississippi?
He bought the afternoon papers. Their columns were full of the sensational events of the day. The bottom had dropped out of Mississippi Steel, as they phrased it. The wildest rumours were afloat. The Company was known to be making enormous extensions, and it was said to have overreached itself; there were whispers that its officers had been speculating, that the Company would be unable to meet the next quarterly payment upon its bonds, that a receivership would be necessary. There were hints that the concern was to be taken over by the Trust, but this was vigorously denied by officers of the latter.
All of which had come like a bolt out of the blue. To Montague it was an amazing and terrible thing. It counted little to him that he was out of the struggle himself; that he no longer had anything to lose personally. He was like a man who had been through an earthquake, and who stood and stared at a gaping crack in the ground. Even though he was safe at the moment, he could not forget that this was the earth upon which he had to spend the rest of his life, and that the next crack might open where he stood.
Montague could not see that there was the least chance for Price and Ryder; he pictured them bowled clean out, and he would not have been surprised to read that they were ruined. But apparently they weathered the storm. The episode passed with no more than a crop of rumours. Mississippi Steel did not go back, however; and he noticed that Northern Mississippi stock had also "gone off" eight or ten points on the curb.
It was a period of great anxiety in the financial world. Men felt the unrest, even though they could not give definite reasons. There had been several panics in the stock market throughout the summer; and leading financiers and railroad presidents seemed to have got the habit of prognosticating the ruin of the country every time they made a speech at a banquet.
But apparently men could not agree about the causes of the trouble. Some insisted that it was owing to the speeches of the President, to his attacks upon the great business interests of the country. Others maintained that the world's supply of capital was inadequate, and pointed out the destruction of great wars and earthquakes and fires. Others argued that there was not enough currency to do the country's business. Now and again there rose above the din the shrill voice of some radical who declared that the stock collapses had been brought about deliberately; but such statements seemed so preposterous that they were received with ridicule whenever they were heeded at all. To Montague the idea that there were men in the country sufficiently powerful to wreck its business, and sufficiently unscrupulous to use their power--the idea seemed to him sensational and absurd.
But he had a talk about it one evening with Major Venable, who laughed at him. The Major named half a dozen men--Waterman and Duval and Wyman among them--who controlled ninety per cent of the banks in the Metropolis. They controlled all three of the big insurance companies, with their resources of four or five hundred million dollars; one of them controlled a great transcontinental railroad system, which alone kept a twenty-or thirty-million dollar "surplus" for stock-gambling purposes.
"If any two or three of those men were to make up their minds," declared the Major, "they could wreck the business of this country in a day. If there were stocks they wanted to pick up, they could knock them to any price they chose."
"How would they do it?" asked the other.
"There are many ways. You noticed that the last big slump began with the worst scarcity of money the Street has known for years. Now suppose those men should gradually accumulate a lot of cash in the banks, and make an agreement to withdraw it at a certain hour. Suppose that the banks that they own, and the banks where they own directors, and the insurance companies which they control--suppose they all did the same! Can't you imagine the scurrying around for money, the calling in of loans, the rush to realise on holdings? And when you have a public as nervous as ours is, when you have credit stretched to the breaking-point, and everybody involved--don't you see the possibilities?"
"It seems like playing with dynamite," said Montague.
"It's not as bad as it might be," was the answer. "We are saved by the fact that these big men don't get together. There are too many jealousies and quarrels. Waterman wants easy money, and gets the Treasury Department to lend ten millions; Wyman, on the other hand, wants high prices, and he goes into the Street and borrows fifteen millions; and so it goes. There are a half dozen big banking groups in the city--"
"They are still competing, then?" asked Montague.
"Oh, yes," said the Major. "For instance, they fight for the patronage of the out-of-town banks. The banks all over the country send their reserves to New York; it's a matter of four or five hundred million dollars, and that's an enormous power. Some of the big banks are agents for one or two thousand institutions, and there's the keenest kind of struggle going on. It's not an easy thing to follow, of course; but they offer all kinds of secret advantages--there's more graft in it than you'd find in Russia."
"I see," said Montague.
"There's only one thing about which the banks are agreed," continued the other. "That is their hatred of the independent trust companies. You see, the national banks have to keep twenty-five per cent reserve, while the trust companies only keep five per cent. Consequently they do a faster business, and they offer four per cent, and advertise widely, and they are simply driving the banks to the wall. There are over fifty of them in this city alone, and they've got over a billion of the people's money. And, mark my word, that is where you'll see blood spilled before long."
And Montague was destined to remember the prophecy.
A couple of days later occurred an incident which gave him a new light upon the situation. His brother came around one afternoon, with a letter in his hand. "Allan," he said, "what do you make of this?"
Montague glanced at it, and saw that it was from Lucy Dupree.
"My dear Ollie," it read. "I find myself in an embarrassing position, owing to the fact that some business arrangements upon which I had counted have fallen through. The money which I brought with me to New York is nearly all gone, and, as you can understand, my position as a stranger is a difficult one. I have a note which Stanley Ryder gave me for my stock. It is for a hundred and forty thousand dollars, and is due in three months. It occurred to me that you might know someone who has some ready cash, and who would like to purchase the note. I should be very glad to sell it for a hundred and thirty thousand. Please do not mention it except in confidence."
"Now, what in the world do you suppose that means?" said Oliver.
The other stared at him. "I am sure I can't imagine," he replied.
"How much money did Lucy have when she came here?"
"She had three or four thousand dollars. But then, she got ten thousand from Stanley Ryder when he bought that stock."
"She can't have spent any such sum of money!" exclaimed Oliver.
"She may have invested it," said the other, thoughtfully.
"Invested nothing!" exclaimed Oliver.
"But that's not what puzzles me," said Montague. "Why doesn't Ryder discount the note himself?"
"That's just it! What business has he letting Lucy hawk his notes about the town?"
"Maybe he doesn't know it. Maybe she's trying to keep her affairs from him."
"Nonsense!" Oliver replied. "I don't believe anything of the sort. What I think is that Stanley Ryder is doing it himself."
"How do you mean?" asked Montague, in perplexity.
"I believe that he is trying to get his own note discounted. I don't believe that Lucy would ever come to us of herself. She'd starve first. She's too proud."
"But Stanley Ryder!" protested Montague. "The president of the Gotham Trust Company!"
"That's all right," said Oliver. "It's his own note, and not the Trust Company's; and I'll wager you he's hard up for cash. There was a big realty company that failed the other day, and I saw that Ryder was one of the stockholders. And he's been hit by that Mississippi Steel slump, and I'll wager you he's scurrying around to raise money. It's just like Lucy, too. Before he gets through, he'll take every dollar she owns."
Montague said nothing for a minute or two. Suddenly he clenched his hands. "I must go up and see her," he said.
Lucy had moved from the expensive hotel to which Oliver had taken her, and rented an apartment on Riverside Drive. Montague went up early the next morning.
She came and stood in the doorway of the drawing-room and looked at him. He saw that she was paler than she had been, and with lines of pain upon her face.
"Allan!" she said. "I thought you would come some day. How could you stay away so long?"
"I didn't think you would care to see me," he said.
She did not answer. She came and sat down, continuing to gaze at him, with a kind of fear in her eyes.
Suddenly he stretched out his hands to her. "Lucy!" he exclaimed. "Won't you come away from here? Won't you come, before it is too late?"
"Where can I go?" she asked.
"Anywhere!" he said. "Go back home."
"I have no home," she answered.
"Go away from Stanley Ryder," said Montague. "He has no right to let you throw yourself away."
"He has not let me, Allan," said Lucy. "You must not blame him--I cannot bear it." She stopped.
"Lucy," he said, after a pause, "I saw that letter you wrote to Oliver."
"I thought so," said she. "I asked him not to. It wasn't fair--"
"Listen," he said. "Will you tell me what that means? Will you tell me honestly?"
"Yes, I will tell you," she said, in a low voice.
"I will help you if you are in trouble," he continued; "but I will not help Stanley Ryder. If you are permitting him to use you--"
"Allan!" she gasped, in sudden excitement. "You don't think that he knew I wrote?"
"Yes, I thought it," said he.
"Oh, how could you!" she cried.
"I knew that he was in trouble."
"Yes, he is in trouble, and I wanted to help him, if I could. It was a crazy idea, I know; but it was all I could think of."
"Oh, I understand," said Montague.
"And don't you see that I cannot leave him?" exclaimed Lucy. "Now of all times--when he needs help--when his enemies have surrounded him? I'm the only person in the world who cares anything about him--who really understands him--"
Montague could think of nothing to say.
"I know how it hurts you," said Lucy, "and don't think that I have not cared. It is a thought that never leaves me! But some day I know that you will understand; and the rest of the world--I don't care what the world says."
"All right, Lucy," he answered, sadly. "I see that I can't be of any help to you. I won't trouble you any more."