Montague was now a capitalist, and therefore a keeper of the gates of opportunity. It seemed as though the seekers for admission must have had some occult way of finding it out; almost immediately they began to lay siege to him.
About a week after his cheque arrived, Major Thorne, whom he had met the first evening at the Loyal Legion, called him up and asked to see him; and he came to Montague's room that evening, and after chatting awhile about old times, proceeded to unfold a business proposition. It seemed that the Major had a grandson, a young mechanical engineer, who had been labouring for a couple of years at a very important invention, a device for loading coal upon steamships and weighing it automatically in the process. It was a very complicated problem, needless to say, but it had been solved successfully, and patents had been applied for, and a working model constructed. But it had proved unexpectedly difficult to interest the officials of the great steamship companies in the device. There was no doubt about the practicability of the machine, or the economies it would effect; but the officials raised trivial objections, and caused delays, and offered prices that were ridiculously inadequate. So the young inventor had conceived the idea of organizing a company to manufacture the machines, and rent them upon a royalty. "I didn't know whether you would have any money," said Major Thorne, "—but I thought you might be in touch with others who could be got to look into the matter. There is a fortune in it for those who take it up."
Montague was interested, and he looked over the plans and descriptions which his friend had brought, and said that he would see the working model, and talk the proposition over with others. And so the Major took his departure.
The first person Montague spoke to about it was Oliver, with whom he chanced to be lunching, at the latter's club. This was the "All Night" club, a meeting-place of fast young Society men and millionaire Bohemians, who made a practice of going to bed at daylight, and had taken for their motto the words of Tennyson—"For men may come and men may go, but I go on for ever." It was not a proper club for his brother to join, Oliver considered; Montague's "game" was the heavy respectable, and the person to put him up was General Prentice. But he was permitted to lunch there with his brother to chaperon him—and also Reggie Mann, who happened in, fresh from talking over the itinerary of the foreign prince with Mrs. Ridgley-Clieveden, and bringing a diverting account of how Mrs. R.-C. had had a fisticuffs with her maid.
Montague mentioned the invention casually, and with no idea that his brother would have an opinion one way or the other. But Oliver had quite a vigorous opinion: "Good God, Allan, you aren't going to let yourself be persuaded into a thing like that!"
"But what do you know about it?" asked the other. "It may be a tremendous thing."
"Of course!" cried Oliver. "But what can you tell about it? You'll be like a child in other people's hands, and they'll be certain to rob you. And why in the world do you want to take risks when you don't have to?"
"I have to put my money somewhere," said Montague.
"His first fee is burning a hole in his pocket!" put in Reggie Mann, with a chuckle. "Turn it over to me, Mr. Montague; and let me spend it in a gorgeous entertainment for Alice; and the prestige of it will bring you more cases than you can handle in a lifetime!"
"He had much better spend it all for soda water than buy a lot of coal chutes with it," said Oliver: "Wait awhile, and let me find you some place to put your money, and you'll see that you don't have to take any risks."
"I had no idea of taking it up until I'd made certain of it," replied the other. "And those whose judgment I took would, of course, go in also."
The younger man thought for a moment. "You are going to dine with Major Venable to-night, aren't you?" he asked; and when the other answered in the affirmative, he continued, "Very well, then, ask him. The Major's been a capitalist for forty years, and if you can get him to take it up, why, you'll know you're safe."
Major Venable had taken quite a fancy to Montague—perhaps the old gentleman liked to have somebody to gossip with, to whom all his anecdotes were new. He had seconded Montague's name at the "Millionaires'," where he lived, and had asked him there to make the acquaintance of some of the other members. Before Montague parted with his brother, he promised that he would talk the matter over with the Major.
The Millionaires' was the show club of the city, the one which the ineffably rich had set apart for themselves. It was up by the park, in a magnificent white marble palace which had cost a million dollars. Montague felt that he had never really known the Major until he saw him here. The Major was excellent at all times and places, but in this club he became an edition de luxe of himself. He made his headquarters here, keeping his suite of rooms all the year round; and the atmosphere and surroundings of the place seemed to be a part of him.
Montague thought that the Major's face grew redder every day, and the purple veins in it purpler; or was it that the old gentleman's shirt bosom gleamed more brightly in the glare of the lights? The Major met him in the stately entrance hall, fifty feet square and all of Numidian marble, with a ceiling of gold, and a great bronze stairway leading to the gallery above. He apologized for his velvet slippers and for his hobbling walk—he was getting his accursed gout again. But he limped around and introduced his friend to the other millionaires—and then told scandal about them behind their backs.
The Major was the very type of a blue-blooded old aristocrat; he was all noblesse oblige to those within the magic circle of his intimacy—but alas for those outside it! Montague had never heard anyone bully servants as the Major did. "Here you!" he would cry, when something went wrong at the table. "Don't you know any better than to bring me a dish like that? Go and send me somebody who knows how to set a table!" And, strange to say, the servants all acknowledged his perfect right to bully them, and flew with terrified alacrity to do his bidding. Montague noticed that the whole staff of the club leaped into activity whenever the Major appeared; and when he was seated at the table, he led off in this fashion—"Now I want two dry Martinis. And I want them at once—do you understand me? Don't stop to get me any butter plates or finger-bowls—I want two cock-tails, just as quick as you can carry them!"
Dinner was an important event to Major Venable—the most important in life. The younger man humbly declined to make any suggestions, and sat and watched while his friend did all the ordering. They had some very small oysters, and an onion soup, and a grouse and asparagus, with some wine from the Major's own private store, and then a romaine salad. Concerning each one of these courses, the Major gave special injunctions, and throughout his conversation he scattered comments upon them: "This is good thick soup—lots of nourishment in onion soup. Have the rest of this?—I think the Burgundy is too cold. Sixty-five is as cold as Burgundy ought ever to be. I don't mind sherry as low as sixty.—They always cook a bird too much—Robbie Walling's chef is the only person I know who never makes a mistake with game."
All this, of course, was between comments upon the assembled millionaires. There was Hawkins, the corporation lawyer; a shrewd fellow, cold as a corpse. He was named for an ambassadorship—a very efficient man. Used to be old Wyman's confidential adviser and buy aldermen for him.—And the man at table with him was Harrison, publisher of the Star; administration newspaper, sound and conservative. Harrison was training for a cabinet position. He was a nice little man, and would make a fine splurge in Washington.—And that tall man coming in was Clarke, the steel magnate; and over there was Adams, a big lawyer also—prominent reformer—civic righteousness and all that sort of stuff. Represented the Oil Trust secretly, and went down to Trenton to argue against some reform measure, and took along fifty thousand dollars in bills in his valise. "A friend of mine got wind of what he was doing, and taxed him with it," said the Major, and laughed gleefully over the great lawyer's reply—"How did I know but I might have to pay for my own lunch?"—And the fat man with him—that was Jimmie Featherstone, the chap who had inherited a big estate. "Poor Jimmie's going all to pieces," the Major declared. "Goes down town to board meetings now and then—they tell a hair-raising story about him and old Dan Waterman. He had got up and started a long argument, when Waterman broke in, 'But at the earlier meeting you argued directly to the contrary, Mr. Featherstone!' 'Did I?' said Jimmie, looking bewildered. 'I wonder why I did that?' 'Well, Mr. Featherstone, since you ask me, I'll tell you,' said old Dan—he's savage as a wild boar, you know, and won't be delayed at meetings. 'The reason is that the last time you were drunker than you are now. If you would adopt a uniform standard of intoxication for the directors' meetings of this road, it would expedite matters considerably.'"
They had got as far as the romaine salad. The waiter came with a bowl of dressing—and at the sight of it, the old gentleman forgot Jimmie Featherstone. "Why are you bringing me that stuff?" he cried. "I don't want that! Take it away and get me some vinegar and oil."
The waiter fled in dismay, while the Major went on growling under his breath. Then from behind him came a voice: "What's the matter with you this evening, Venable? You're peevish!"
The Major looked up. "Hello, you old cormorant," said he. "How do you do these days?"
The old cormorant replied that he did very well. He was a pudgy little man, with a pursed-up, wrinkled face. "My friend Mr. Montague—Mr. Symmes," said the Major.
"I am very pleased to meet you, Mr. Montague," said Mr. Symmes, peering over his spectacles.
"And what are you doing with yourself these days?" asked the Major.
The other smiled genially. "Nothing much," said he. "Seducing my friends' wives, as usual."
"And who's the latest?"
"Read the newspapers, and you'll find out," laughed Symmes. "I'm told I'm being shadowed."
He passed on down the room, chuckling to himself; and the Major said, "That's Maltby Symmes. Have you heard of him?"
"No," said Montague.
"He gets into the papers a good deal. He was up in supplementary proceedings the other day—couldn't pay his liquor bill."
"A member of the Millionaires'?" laughed Montague.
"Yes, the papers made quite a joke out of it," said the other. "But you see he's run through a couple of fortunes; the last was his mother's—eleven millions, I believe. He's been a pretty lively old boy in his time."
The vinegar and oil had now arrived, and the Major set to work to dress the salad. This was quite a ceremony, and Montague took it with amused interest. The Major first gathered all the necessary articles together, and looked them all over and grumbled at them. Then he mixed the vinegar and the pepper and salt, a tablespoonful at a time, and poured it over the salad. Then very slowly and carefully the oil had to be poured on, the salad being poked and turned about so that it would be all absorbed. Perhaps it was because he was so busy narrating the escapades of Maltby Symmes that the old gentleman kneaded it about so long; all the time fussing over it like a hen-partridge with her chicks, and interrupting himself every sentence or two: "It was Lenore, the opera star, and he gave her about two hundred thousand dollars' worth of railroad shares. (Really, you know, romaine ought not to be served in a bowl at all, but in a square, flat dish, so that one could keep the ends quite dry.) And when they quarrelled, she found the old scamp had fooled her—the shares had never been transferred. (One is not supposed to use a fork at all, you know.) But she sued him, and he settled with her for about half the value. (If this dressing were done properly, there ought not to be any oil in the bottom of the dish at all.)"
This last remark meant that the process had reached its climax—that the long, crisp leaves were receiving their final affectionate overturnings. While the waiter stood at respectful attention, two or three pieces at a time were laid carefully upon the little silver plate intended for Montague. "And now," said the triumphant host, "try it! If it's good, it ought to be neither sweet nor bitter, but just right."—And he watched anxiously while Montague tasted it, saying, "If it's the least bit bitter, say so; and we'll send it out. I've told them about it often enough before."
But it was not bitter, and so the Major proceeded to help himself, after which the waiter whisked the bowl away. "I'm told that salad is the one vegetable we have from the Romans," said the old boy, as he munched at the crisp green leaves. "It's mentioned by Horace, you know.—As I was saying, all this was in Symmes's early days. But since his son's been grown up, he's married another chorus-girl."
After the salad the Major had another cocktail. In the beginning Montague had noticed that his hands shook and his eyes were watery; but now, after these copious libations, he was vigorous, and, if possible, more full of anecdotes than ever. Montague thought that it would be a good time to broach his inquiry, and so when the coffee had been served, he asked, "Have you any objections to talking business after dinner?"
"Not with you," said the Major. "Why? What is it?"
And then Montague told him about his friend's proposition, and described the invention. The other listened attentively to the end; and then, after a pause, Montague asked him, "What do you think of it?"
"The invention's no good," said the Major, promptly.
"How do you know?" asked the other.
"Because, if it had been, the companies would have taken it long ago, without paying him a cent."
"But he has it patented," said Montague.
"Patented hell!" replied the other. "What's a patent to lawyers of concerns of that size? They'd have taken it and had it in use from Maine to Texas; and when he sued, they'd have tied the case up in so many technicalities and quibbles that he couldn't have got to the end of it in ten years—and he'd have been ruined ten times over in the process."
"Is that really done?" asked Montague.
"Done!" exclaimed the Major. "It's done so often you might say it's the only thing that's done.—The people are probably trying to take you in with a fake."
"That couldn't possibly be so," responded the other. "The man is a friend—"
"I've found it an excellent rule never to do business with friends," said the Major, grimly.
"But listen," said Montague; and he argued long enough to convince his companion that that could not be the true explanation. Then the Major sat for a minute or two and pondered; and suddenly he exclaimed, "I have it! I see why they won't touch it!"
"What is it?"
"It's the coal companies! They're giving the steamships short weight, and they don't want the coal weighed truly!"
"But there's no sense in that," said Montague. "It's the steamship companies that won't take the machine."
"Yes," said the Major; "naturally, their officers are sharing the graft." And he laughed heartily at Montague's look of perplexity.
"Do you know anything about the business?" Montague asked.
"Nothing whatever," said the Major. "I am like the German who shut himself up in his inner consciousness and deduced the shape of an elephant from first principles. I know the game of big business from A to Z, and I'm telling you that if the invention is good and the companies won't take it, that's the reason; and I'll lay you a wager that if you were to make an investigation, some such thing as that is what you'd find! Last winter I went South on a steamer, and when we got near port, I saw them dumping a ton or two of good food overboard; and I made inquiries, and learned that one of the officials of the company ran a farm, and furnished the stuff—and the orders were to get rid of so much every trip!"
Montague's jaw had fallen. "What could Major Thorne do against such a combination?" he asked.
"I don't know," said the Major, shrugging his shoulders. "It's a case to take to a lawyer—one who knows the ropes. Hawkins over there would know what to tell you. I should imagine the thing he'd advise would be to call a strike of the men who handle the coal, and tie up the companies and bring them to terms."
"You're joking now!" exclaimed the other.
"Not at all," said the Major, laughing again. "It's done all the time. There's a building trust in this city, and the way it put all its rivals out of business was by having strikes called on their jobs."
"But how could it do that?"
"Easiest thing in the world. A labour leader is a man with a great deal of power, and a very small salary to live on. And even if he won't sell out—there are other ways. I could introduce you to a man right in this room who had a big strike on at an inconvenient time, and he had the president of the union trapped in a hotel with a woman, and the poor fellow gave in and called off the strike."'
"I should think the strikers might sometimes get out of hand," said Montague.
"Sometimes they do," smiled the other. "There is a regular procedure for that case. Then you hire detectives and start violence, and call out the militia and put the strike leaders into jail."
Montague could think of nothing to say to that. The programme seemed to be complete.
"You see," the Major continued, earnestly, "I'm advising you as a friend, and I'm taking the point of view of a man who has money in his pocket. I've had some there always, but I've had to work hard to keep it there. All my life I've been surrounded by people who wanted to do me good; and the way they wanted to do it was to exchange my real money for pieces of paper which they'd had printed with fancy scroll-work and eagles and flags. Of course, if you want to look at the thing from the other side, why, then the invention is most ingenious, and trade is booming just now, and this is a great country, and merit is all you need in it—and everything else is just as it ought to be. It makes all the difference in the world, you know, whether a man is buying a horse or selling him!"
Montague had observed with perplexity that such incendiary talk as this was one of the characteristics of people in these lofty altitudes. It was one of the liberties accorded to their station. Editors and bishops and statesmen and all the rest of their retainers had to believe in the respectabilities, even in the privacy of their clubs—the people's ears were getting terribly sharp these days! But among the real giants of business you might have thought yourself in a society of revolutionists; they would tear up the mountain tops and hurl them at each other. When one of these old war-horses once got started, he would tell tales of deviltry to appall the soul of the hardiest muck-rake man. It was always the other fellow, of course; but then, if you pinned your man down, and if he thought that he could trust you—he would acknowledge that he had sometimes fought the enemy with the enemy's own weapons!
But of course one must understand that all this radicalism was for conversational purposes only. The Major, for instance, never had the slightest idea of doing anything about all the evils of which he told; when it came to action, he proposed to do just what he had done all his life—to sit tight on his own little pile. And the Millionaires' was an excellent place to learn to do it!
"See that old money-bags over there in the corner," said the Major. "He's a man you want to fix in your mind—old Henry S. Grimes. Have you heard of him?"
"Vaguely," said the other.
"He's Laura Hegan's uncle. She'll have his money also some day—but Lord, how he does hold on to it meantime! It's quite tragic, if you come to know him—he's frightened at his own shadow. He goes in for slum tenements, and I guess he evicts more people in a month than you could crowd into this building!"
Montague looked at the solitary figure at the table, a man with a wizened-up little face like a weasel's, and a big napkin tied around his neck. "That's so as to save his shirt-front for to-morrow," the Major explained. "He's really only about sixty, but you'd think he was eighty. Three times every day he sits here and eats a bowl of graham crackers and milk, and then goes out and sits rigid in an arm-chair for an hour. That's the regimen his doctors have put him on—angels and ministers of grace defend us!"
The old gentleman paused, and a chuckle shook his scarlet jowls. "Only think!" he said—"they tried to do that to me! But no, sir—when Bob Venable has to eat graham crackers and milk, he'll put in arsenic instead of sugar! That's the way with many a one of these rich fellows, though—you picture him living in Capuan luxury, when, as a matter of fact, he's a man with a torpid liver and a weak stomach, who is put to bed at ten o'clock with a hot-water bag and a flannel night-cap!"
The two had got up and were strolling toward the smoking-room; when suddenly at one side a door opened, and a group of men came out. At the head of them was an extraordinary figure, a big powerful body with a grim face. "Hello!" said the Major. "All the big bugs are here to-night. There must be a governors' meeting."
"Who is that?" asked his companion; and he answered, "That? Why, that's Dan Waterman."
Dan Waterman! Montague stared harder than ever, and now he identified the face with the pictures he had seen. Waterman, the Colossus of finance, the Croesus of copper and gold! How many trusts had Waterman organized! And how many puns had been made upon that name of his!
"Who are the other men?" Montague asked.
"Oh, they're just little millionaires," was the reply.
The "little millionaires" were following as a kind of body-guard; one of them, who was short and pudgy, was half running, to keep up with Waterman's heavy stride. When they came to the coat-room, they crowded the attendants away, and one helped the great man on with his coat, and another held his hat, and another his stick, and two others tried to talk to him. And Waterman stolidly buttoned his coat, and then seized his hat and stick, and without a word to anyone, bolted through the door.
It was one of the funniest sights that Montague had ever seen in his life, and he laughed all the way into the smoking-room. And, when Major Venable had settled himself in a big chair and bitten off the end of a cigar and lighted it, what floodgates of reminiscence were opened!
For Dan Waterman was one of the Major's own generation, and he knew all his life and his habits. Just as Montague had seen him there, so he had been always; swift, imperious, terrible, trampling over all opposition; the most powerful men in the city quailed before the glare of his eyes. In the old days Wall Street had reeled in the shock of the conflicts between him and his most powerful rival.
And the Major went on to tell about Waterman's rival, and his life. He had been the city's traction-king, old Wyman had been made by him. He was the prince among political financiers; he had ruled the Democratic party in state and nation. He would give a quarter of a million at a time to the boss of Tammany Hall, and spend a million in a single campaign; on "dough-day," when the district leaders came to get the election funds, there would be a table forty feet long completely covered with hundred-dollar bills. He would have been the richest man in America, save that he spent his money as fast as he got it. He had had the most famous racing-stable in America; and a house on Fifth Avenue that was said to be the finest Italian palace in the world. Over three millions had been spent in decorating it; all the ceilings had been brought intact from palaces abroad, which he had bought and demolished! The Major told a story to show how such a man lost all sense of the value of money; he had once been sitting at lunch with him, when the editor of one of his newspapers had come in and remarked, "I told you we would need eight thousand dollars, and the check you send is for ten." "I know it," was the smiling answer—"but somehow I thought eight seemed harder to write than ten!"
"Old Waterman's quite a spender, too, when it comes to that," the Major went on. "He told me once that it cost him five thousand dollars a day for his ordinary expenses. And that doesn't include a million-dollar yacht, nor even the expenses of it.
"And think of another man I know of who spent a million dollars for a granite pier, so that he could land and see his mistress!—It's a fact, as sure as God made me! She was a well-known society woman, but she was poor, and he didn't dare to make her rich for fear of the scandal. So she had to live in a miserable fifty-thousand-dollar villa; and when other people's children would sneer at her children because they lived in a fifty-thousand-dollar villa, the answer would be, 'But you haven't got any pier!' And if you don't believe that—"
But here suddenly the Major turned, and observed a boy who had brought him some cigars, and who was now standing near by, pretending to straighten out some newspapers upon the table. "Here, sir!" cried the Major, "what do you mean—listening to what I'm saying! Out of the room with you now, you rascal!"