Montague accepted his friend's invitation to share her pew at St. Cecilia's, and next Sunday morning he and Alice went, and found Mrs. Winnie with her cousin. Poor Charlie had evidently been scrubbed and shined, both physically and morally, and got ready to appeal for "one more chance." While he shook hands with Alice, he was gazing at her with dumb and pleading eyes; he seemed to be profoundly grateful that she did not refuse to enter the pew with him.
A most interesting place was St. Cecilia's. Church-going was another of the customs of men and women which Society had taken up, like the Opera, and made into a state function. Here was a magnificent temple, with carved marble and rare woods, and jewels gleaming decorously in a dim religious light. At the door of this edifice would halt the carriages of Society, and its wives and daughters would alight, rustling with new silk petticoats and starched and perfumed linen, each one a picture, exquisitely gowned and bonneted and gloved, and carrying a demure little prayer-book. Behind them followed the patient men, all in new frock-coats and shiny silk hats; the men of Society were always newly washed and shaved, newly groomed and gloved, but now they seemed to be more so—they were full of the atmosphere of Sunday. Alas for those unregenerate ones, the infidels and the heathen who scoff in outer darkness, and know not the delicious feeling of Sunday—the joy of being washed and starched and perfumed, and made to be clean and comfortable and good, after all the really dreadful wickedness of six days of fashionable life!—And afterward the parade upon the Avenue, with the congregations of several score additional churches, and such a show of stylish costumes that half the city came to see!
Amid this exquisite assemblage at St. Cecilia's, the revolutionary doctrines of the Christian religion produced neither perplexity nor alarm. The chance investigator might have listened in dismay to solemn pronouncements of everlasting damnation, to statements about rich men and the eyes of needles, and the lilies of the field which did not spin. But the congregation of St. Cecilia's understood that these things were to be taken in a quixotic sense; sharing the view of the French marquis that the Almighty would think twice before damning a gentleman like him.
One had heard these phrases ever since childhood, and one accepted them as a matter of course. After all, these doctrines had come from the lips of a divine being, whom it would be presumptuous in a mere mortal to attempt to imitate. Such points one could but leave to those whose business it was to interpret them—the doctors and dignitaries of the church; and when one met them, one's heart was set at rest—for they were not iconoclasts and alarmists, but gentlemen of culture and tact. The bishop who presided in this metropolitan district was a stately personage, who moved in the best Society and belonged to the most exclusive clubs.
The pews in St. Cecilia's were rented, and they were always in great demand; it was one of the customs of those who hung upon the fringe of Society to come every Sunday, and bow and smile, and hope against hope for some chance opening. The stranger who came was dependent upon hospitality; but there were soft-footed and tactful ushers, who would find one a seat, if one were a presentable person. The contingency of an unpresentable person seldom arose, for the proletariat did not swarm at the gates of St. Cecilia's. Out of its liberal income the church maintained a "mission" upon the East Side, where young curates wrestled with the natural depravity of the lower classes—meantime cultivating a soul-stirring tone, and waiting until they should be promoted to a real church. Society was becoming deferential to its religious guides, and would have been quite shocked at the idea that it exerted any pressure upon them; but the young curates were painfully aware of a process of unnatural selection, whereby those whose manner and cut of coat were not pleasing were left a long time in the slums.—On one occasion there had been an amusing blunder; a beautiful new church was built at Newport, and an eloquent young minister was installed, and all Society attended the opening service—and sat and listened in consternation to an arraignment of its own follies and vices! The next Sunday, needless to say, Society was not present; and within half a year the church was stranded, and had to be dismantled and sold!
They had elaborate music at St. Cecilia's, so beautiful that Alice felt uncomfortable, and thought that it was perilously "high." At this Mrs. Winnie laughed, offering to take her to an afternoon service around the corner, where they had a full orchestra, and a harp, and opera music, and incense and genuflexions and confessionals. There were people, it seemed, who like to thrill themselves by dallying with the wickedness of "Romanism"; somewhat as a small boy tries to see how near he can walk to the edge of a cliff. The "father" at this church had a jewelled robe with a train so many yards long, and which had cost some incredible number of thousands of dollars; and every now and then he marched in a stately procession through the aisles, so that all the spectators might have a good look at it. There was a fierce controversy about these things in the church, and libraries of pamphlets were written, and intrigues and social wars were fought over them.
But Montague and Alice did not attend this service—they had promised themselves the very plebeian diversion of a ride in the subway; for so far they had not seen this feature of the city. People who lived in Society saw Madison and Fifth Avenues, where their homes were, with the churches and hotels scattered along them; and the shopping district just below, and the theatre district at one side, and the park to the north. Unless one went automobiling, that was all of the city one need ever see. When visitors asked about the Aquarium, and the Stock Exchange, and the Museum of Art, and Tammany Hall, and Ellis Island, where the immigrants came, the old New Yorkers would look perplexed, and say: "Dear me, do you really want to see those tilings? Why, I have been here all my life, and have never seen them!"
For the hordes of sightseers there had been provided a special contrivance, a huge automobile omnibus which seated thirty or forty people, and went from the Battery to Harlem with a young man shouting through a megaphone a description of the sights. The irreverent had nicknamed this the "yap-wagon"; and declared that the company maintained a fake "opium-joint" in Chinatown, and a fake "dive" in the Bowery, and hired tough-looking individuals to sit and be stared at by credulous excursionists from Oklahoma and Kalamazoo. Of course it would never have done for people who had just been passed into Society to climb upon a "yap-wagon"; but they were permitted to get into the subway, and were whirled with a deafening clatter through a long tunnel of steel and stone. And then they got out and climbed a steep hill like any common mortals, and stood and gazed at Grant's tomb: a huge white marble edifice upon a point overlooking the Hudson. Architecturally it was not a beautiful structure—but one was consoled by reflecting that the hero himself would not have cared about that. It might have been described as a soap-box with a cheese-box on top of it; and these homely and familiar articles were perhaps not altogether out of keeping with the character of the humblest great man who ever lived.
The view up the river was magnificent, quite the finest which the city had to offer; but it was ruined by a hideous gas-tank, placed squarely in the middle of it. And this, again, was not inappropriate—it was typical of all the ways of the city. It was a city which had grown up by accident, with nobody to care about it or to help it; it was huge and ungainly, crude, uncomfortable, and grotesque. There was nowhere in it a beautiful sight upon which a man could rest his eyes, without having them tortured by something ugly near by. At the foot of the slope of the River Drive ran a hideous freight-railroad; and across the river the beautiful Palisades were being blown to pieces to make paving stone—and meantime were covered with advertisements of land-companies. And if there was a beautiful building, there, was sure to be a tobacco advertisement beside it; if there was a beautiful avenue, there were trucks and overworked horses toiling in the harness; if there was a beautiful park, it was filled with wretched, outcast men. Nowhere was any order or system—everything was struggling for itself, and jarring and clashing with everything else; and this broke the spell of power which the Titan city would otherwise have produced. It seemed like a monstrous heap of wasted energies; a mountain in perpetual labour, and producing an endless series of abortions. The men and women in it were wearing themselves out with toil; but there was a spell laid upon them, so that, struggle as they might, they accomplished nothing.
Coming out of the church, Montague had met Judge Ellis; and the Judge had said, "I shall soon have something to talk over with you." So Montague gave him his address, and a day or two later came an invitation to lunch with him at his club.
The Judge's club took up a Fifth Avenue block, and was stately and imposing. It had been formed in the stress of the Civil War days; lean and hungry heroes had come home from battle and gone into business, and those who had succeeded had settled down here to rest. To see them now, dozing in huge leather-cushioned arm-chairs, you would have had a hard time to guess that they had ever been lean and hungry heroes. They were diplomats and statesmen, bishops and lawyers, great merchants and financiers—the men who had made the city's ruling-class for a century. Everything here was decorous and grave, and the waiters stole about with noiseless feet.
Montague talked with the Judge about New York and what he had seen of it, and the people he had met; and about his father, and the war; and about the recent election and the business outlook. And meantime they ordered luncheon; and when they had got to the cigars, the Judge coughed and said, "And now I have a matter of business to talk over with you."
Montague settled himself to listen. "I have a friend," the Judge explained—"a very good friend, who has asked me to find him a lawyer to undertake an important case. I talked the matter over with General Prentice, and he agreed with me that it would be a good idea to lay the matter before you."
"I am very much obliged to you," said Montague.
"The matter is a delicate one," continued the other. "It has to do with life insurance. Are you familiar with the insurance business?"
"Not at all."
"I had supposed not," said the Judge. "There are some conditions which are not generally known about, but which I may say, to put it mildly, are not altogether satisfactory. My friend is a large policy-holder in several companies, and he is not satisfied with the management of them. The delicacy of the situation, so far as I am concerned, is that the company with which he has the most fault to find is one in which I myself am a director. You understand?"
"Perfectly," said Montague. "What company is it?"
"The Fidelity," replied the other—and his companion thought in a flash of Freddie Vandam, whom he had met at Castle Havens! For the Fidelity was Freddie's company.
"The first thing that I have to ask you," continued the Judge, "is that, whether you care to take the case or not, you will consider my own intervention in the matter absolutely entre nous. My position is simply this: I have protested at the meetings of the directors of the company against what I consider an unwise policy—and my protests have been ignored. And when my friend asked me for advice, I gave it to him; but at the same time I am not in a position to be publicly quoted in connexion with the matter. You follow me?"
"Perfectly," said the other. "I will agree to what you ask."
"Very good. Now then, the condition is, in brief, this: the companies are accumulating an enormous surplus, which, under the law, belongs to the policy-holders; but the administrations of the various companies are withholding these dividends, for the sake of the banking-power which these accumulated funds afford to them and their associates. This is, as I hold, a very manifest injustice, and a most dangerous condition of affairs."
"I should say so!" responded Montague. He was amazed at such a statement, coming from such a source. "How could this continue?" he asked.
"It has continued for a long time," the Judge answered.
"But why is it not known?"
"It is perfectly well known to every one in the insurance business," was the answer. "The matter has never been taken up or published, simply because the interests involved have such enormous and widely extended power that no one has ever dared to attack them."
Montague sat forward, with his eyes riveted upon the Judge. "Go on," he said.
"The situation is simply this," said the other. "My friend, Mr. Hasbrook, wishes to bring a suit against the Fidelity Company to compel it to pay to him his proper share of its surplus. He wishes the suit pressed, and followed to the court of last resort."
"And do you mean to tell me," asked Montague, "that you would have any difficulty to find a lawyer in New York to undertake such a case?"
"No," said the other, "not exactly that. There are lawyers in New York who would undertake anything. But to find a lawyer of standing who would take it, and withstand all the pressure that would be brought to bear upon him—that might take some time."
"You astonish me, Judge."
"Financial interests in this city are pretty closely tied together, Mr. Montague. Of course there are law firms which are identified with interests opposed to those who control the company. It would be very easy to get them to take the case, but you can see that in that event my friend would be accused of bringing the suit in their interest; whereas he wishes it to appear, as it really is, a suit of an independent person, seeking the rights of the vast body of the policy-holders. For that reason, he wished to find a lawyer who was identified with no interest of any sort, and who was free to give his undivided attention to the issue. So I thought of you."
"I will take the case," said Montague instantly.
"It is my duty to warn you," said the Judge, gravely, "that you will be taking a very serious step. You must be prepared to face powerful, and, I am afraid, unscrupulous enemies. You may find that you have made it impossible for other and very desirable clients to deal with you. You may find your business interests, if you have any, embarrassed—your credit impaired, and so on. You must be prepared to have your character assailed, and your motives impugned in the public press. You may find that social pressure will be brought to bear on you. So it is a step from which most young men who have their careers to make would shrink."
Montague's face had turned a shade paler as he listened. "I am assuming," he said, "that the facts are as you have stated them to me—that an unjust condition exists."
"You may assume that."
"Very well." And Montague clenched his hand, and put it down upon the table. "I will take the case," he said.
For a few moments they sat in silence.
"I will arrange," said the Judge, at last, "for you and Mr. Hasbrook to meet. I must explain to you, as a matter of fairness, that he is a rich man, and will be able to pay you for your services. He is asking a great deal of you, and he should expect to pay for it."
Montague sat in thought. "I have not really had time to get my bearings in New York," he said at last. "I think I had best leave it to you to say what I should charge him."
"If I were in your position," the Judge answered, "I think that I should ask a retaining-fee of fifty thousand dollars. I believe he will expect to pay at least that."
Montague could scarcely repress a start. Fifty thousand dollars! The words made his head whirl round. But then, all of a sudden, he recalled his half-jesting resolve to play the game of business sternly. So he nodded his head gravely, and said, "Very well; I am much obliged to you."
After a pause, he added, "I hope that I may prove able to handle the case to your friend's satisfaction."
"Your ability remains for you to prove," said the Judge. "I have only been in position to assure him of your character."
"He must understand, of course," said Montague, "that I am a stranger, and that it will take me a while to study the situation."
"Of course he knows that. But you will find that Mr. Hasbrook knows a good deal about the law himself. And he has already had a lot of work done. You must understand that it is very easy to get legal advice about such a matter—what is sought is some one to take the conduct of the case."
"I see," said Montague; and the Judge added, with a smile, "Some one to get up on horseback, and draw the fire of the enemy!"
And then the great man was, as usual, reminded of a story; and then of more stories; until at last they rose from the table, and shook hands upon their bargain, and parted.
Fifty thousand dollars! Fifty thousand dollars! It was all Montague could do to keep from exclaiming it aloud on the street. He could hardly believe that it was a reality—if it had been a less-known person than Judge Ellis, he would have suspected that some one must be playing a joke upon him. Fifty thousand dollars was more than many a lawyer made at home in a lifetime; and simply as a retaining-fee in one case! The problem of a living had weighed on his soul ever since the first day in the city, and now suddenly it was solved; all in a few minutes, the way had been swept clear before him. He walked home as if upon air.
And then there was the excitement of telling the family about it. He had an idea that his brother might be alarmed if he were told about the seriousness of the case; and so he simply said that the Judge had brought him a rich client, and that it was an insurance case. Oliver, who knew and cared nothing about law, asked no questions, and contented himself with saying, "I told you how easy it was to make money in New York, if only you knew the right people!" As for Alice, she had known all along that her cousin was a great man, and that clients would come to him as soon as he hung out his sign.
His sign was not out yet, by the way; that was the next thing to be attended to. He must get himself an office at once, and some books, and begin to read up insurance law; and so, bright and early the next morning, he took the subway down town.
And here, for the first time, Montague saw the real New York. All the rest was mere shadow—the rest was where men slept and played, but there was where they fought out the battle of their lives. Here the fierce intensity of it smote him in the face—he saw the cruel waste and ruin of it, the wreckage of the blind, haphazard strife.
It was a city caught in a trap. It was pent in at one end of a narrow little island. It had been no one's business to foresee that it must some day outgrow this space; now men were digging a score of tunnels to set it free, but they had not begun these until the pressure had become unendurable, and now it had reached its climax. In the financial district, land had been sold for as much as four dollars a square inch. Huge blocks of buildings shot up to the sky in a few months—fifteen, twenty, twenty-five stories of them, and with half a dozen stories hewn out of the solid rock beneath; there was to be one building of forty-two stories, six hundred and fifty feet in height. And between them were narrow chasms of streets, where the hurrying crowds overflowed the sidewalks. Yet other streets were filled with trucks and heavy vehicles, with electric cars creeping slowly along, and little swirls and eddies of people darting across here and there.
These huge buildings were like beehives, swarming with life and activity, with scores of elevators shooting through them at bewildering speed. Everywhere was the atmosphere of rush; the spirit of it seized hold of one, and he began to hurry, even though he had no place to go. The man who walked slowly and looked about him was in the way—he was jostled here and there, and people eyed him with suspicion and annoyance.
Elsewhere on the island men did the work of the city; here they did the work of the world. Each room in these endless mazes of buildings was a cell in a mighty brain; the telephone wires were nerves, and by the whole huge organism the thinking and willing of a continent were done. It was a noisy place to the physical ear; but to the ear of the mind it roared with the roaring of a thousand Niagaras. Here was the Stock Exchange, where the scales of trade were held before the eyes of the country. Here was the clearing-house, where hundreds of millions of dollars were exchanged every day. Here were the great banks, the reservoirs into which the streams of the country's wealth were poured. Here were the brains of the great railroad systems, of the telegraph and telephone systems, of mines and mills and factories. Here were the centres of the country's trade; in one place the shipping trade, in another the jewellery trade, the grocery trade, the leather trade. A little farther up town was the clothing district, where one might see the signs of more Hebrews than all Jerusalem had ever held; in yet other districts were the newspaper offices, and the centre of the magazine and book-publishing business of the whole country. One might climb to the top of one of the great "sky-scrapers," and gaze down upon a wilderness of houses, with roofs as innumerable as tree-tops, and people looking like tiny insects below. Or one might go out into the harbour late upon a winter afternoon, and see it as a city of a million lights, rising like an incantation from the sea. Round about it was an unbroken ring of docks, with ferry-boats and tugs darting everywhere, and vessels which had come from every port in the world, emptying their cargoes into the huge maw of the Metropolis.
And of all this, nothing had been planned! All lay just as it had fallen, and men bore the confusion and the waste as best they could. Here were huge steel vaults, in which lay many billions of dollars' worth of securities, the control of the finances of the country; and a block or two in one direction were warehouses and gin-mills, and in another direction cheap lodging-houses and sweating-dens. And at a certain hour all this huge machine would come to a halt, and its millions of human units would make a blind rush for their homes. Then at the entrances to bridges and ferries and trams, would be seen sights of madness and terror; throngs of men and women swept hither and thither, pushing and struggling, shouting, cursing—fighting, now and then, in sudden panic fear. All decency was forgotten here—people would be mashed into cars like football players in a heap, and guards and policemen would jam the gates tight—or like as not be swept away themselves in the pushing, grunting, writhing mass of human beings. Women would faint and be trampled; men would come out with clothing torn to shreds, and sometimes with broken arms or ribs. And thinking people would gaze at the sight and shudder, wondering—how long a city could hold together, when the masses of its population were thus forced back, day after day, habitually, upon the elemental brute within them.
In this vast business district Montague would have felt utterly lost and helpless, if it had not been for that fifty thousand dollars, and the sense of mastery which it gave him. He sought out General Prentice, and under his guidance selected his suite of rooms, and got his furniture and books in readiness. And a day or two later, by appointment, came Mr. Hasbrook.
He was a wiry, nervous little man, who did not impress one as much of a personality; but he had the insurance situation at his fingers' ends—his grievance had evidently wrought upon him. Certainly, if half of what he alleged were true, it was time that the courts took hold of the affair.
Montague spent the whole day in consultation, going over every aspect of the case, and laying out his course of procedure. And then, at the end, Mr. Hasbrook remarked that it would be necessary for them to make some financial arrangement. And the other set his teeth together, and took a tight grip upon himself, and said, "Considering the importance of the case, and all the circumstances, I think I should have a retainer of fifty thousand dollars."
And the little man never turned a hair! "That will be perfectly satisfactory," he said. "I will attend to it at once." And the other's heart gave a great leap.
And sure enough, the next morning's mail brought the money, in the shape of a cashier's cheque from one of the big banks. Montague deposited it to his own account, and felt that the city was his!
And so he flung himself into the work. He went to his office every day, and he shut himself up in his own rooms in the evening. Mrs. Winnie was in despair because he would not come and learn bridge, and Mrs. Vivie Patton sought him in vain for a week-end party. He could not exactly say that while the others slept he was toiling upward in the night, for the others did not sleep in the night; but he could say that while they were feasting and dancing, he was delving into insurance law. Oliver argued in vain to make him realize that he could not live for ever upon one client; and that it was as important for a lawyer to be a social light as to win his first big case. Montague was so absorbed that he even failed to be thrilled when one morning he opened an invitation envelope, and read the fateful legend: "Mrs. Devon requests the honour of your company"—telling him that he had "passed" on that critical examination morning, and that he was definitely and irrevocably in Society!