The social mill ground on for another month. Montague withdrew himself as much as his brother would let him; but Alice, was on the go all night and half the day. Oliver had sold his racing automobile to a friend—he was a man of family now, he said, and his wild days were over. He had got, instead, a limousine car for Alice; though she declared she had no need of it—if ever she was going to any place, Charlie Carter always begged her to use his. Charlie's siege was as persistent as ever, as Montague noticed with annoyance.
The great law case was going forward. After weeks of study and investigation, Montague felt that he had the matter well in hand; and he had taken Mr. Hasbrook's memoranda as a basis for a new work of his own, much more substantial. Bit by bit; as he dug into the subject, he had discovered a state of affairs in the Fidelity Company, and, indeed, in the whole insurance business and its allied realms of banking and finance, which shocked him profoundly. It was impossible for him to imagine how such conditions could exist and remain unknown to the public—more especially as every one in Wall Street with whom he talked seemed to know about them and to take them for granted.
His client's papers had provided him with references to the books; Montague had taken this dry material and made of it a protest which had the breath of life in it. It was a thing at which he toiled with deadly earnestness; it was not merely a struggle of one man to get a few thousand dollars, it was an appeal in behalf of millions of helpless people whose trust had been betrayed. It was the first step in a long campaign, which the young lawyer meant should force a great evil into the light of day.
He went over his bill of complaint with Mr. Hasbrook, and he was glad to see that the work he had done made its impression upon him. In fact, his client was a little afraid that some of his arguments might be too radical in tone—from the strictly legal point of view, he made haste to explain. But Montague reassured him upon this point.
And then came the day when the great ship was ready for launching. The news must have spread quickly, for a few hours after the papers in the suit had been filed, Montague received a call from a newspaper reporter, who told him of the excitement in financial circles, where the thing had fallen like a bomb. Montague explained the purpose of the suit, and gave the reporter a number of facts which he felt certain would attract attention to the matter. When he picked up the paper the next morning, however, he was surprised to find that only a few lines had been given to the case, and that his interview had been replaced by one with an unnamed official of the Fidelity, to the effect that the attack upon the company was obviously for black-mailing purposes.
That was the only ripple which Montague's work produced upon the surface of the pool; but there was a great commotion among the fish at the bottom, about which he was soon to learn.
That evening, while he was hard at work in his study, he received a telephone call from his brother. "I'm coming round to see you," said Oliver. "Wait for me."
"All right," said the other, and added, "I thought you were dining at the Wallings'."
"I'm there now," was the answer. "I'm leaving."
"What is the matter?" Montague asked.
"There's hell to pay," was the reply—and then silence.
When Oliver appeared, a few minutes later, he did not even stop to set down his hat, but exclaimed, "Allan, what in heaven's name have you been doing?"
"What do you mean?" asked the other.
"Why, that suit!"
"What about it?"
"Good God, man!" cried Oliver. "Do you mean that you really don't know what you've done?"
Montague was staring at him. "I'm afraid I don't," said he.
"Why, you're turning the world upside down!" exclaimed the other. "Everybody you know is crazy about it."
"Everybody I know!" echoed Montague. "What have they to do with it?"
"Why, you've stabbed them in the back!" half shouted Oliver. "I could hardly believe my ears when they told me. Robbie Walling is simply wild—I never had such a time in my life."
"I don't understand yet," said Montague, more and more amazed. "What has he to do with it?"
"Why, man," cried Oliver, "his brother's a director in the Fidelity! And his own interests—and all the other companies! You've struck at the whole insurance business!"
Montague caught his breath. "Oh, I see!" he said.
"How could you think of such a thing?" cried the other, wildly. "You promised to consult me about things—"
"I told you when I took this case," put in Montague, quickly.
"I know," said his brother. "But you didn't explain—and what did I know about it? I thought I could leave it to your common sense not to mix up in a thing like this."
"I'm very sorry," said Montague, gravely. "I had no idea of any such result."
"That's what I told Robbie," said Oliver. "Good God, what a time I had!"
He took his hat and coat and laid them on the bed, and sat down and began to tell about it. "I made him realize the disadvantage you were under," he said, "being a stranger and not knowing the ground. I believe he had an idea that you tried to get his confidence on purpose to attack him. It was Mrs. Robbie, I guess—you know her fortune is all in that quarter."
Oliver wiped the perspiration from his forehead. "My!" he said.—"And fancy what old Wyman must be saying about this! And what a time poor Betty must be having! And then Freddie Vandam—the air will be blue for half a mile round his place! I must send him a wire and explain that it was a mistake, and that we're getting out of it."
And he got up, to suit the action to the word. But half-way to the desk he heard his brother say, "Wait."
He turned, and saw Montague, quite pale. "I suppose by 'getting out of it,'" said the latter, "you mean dropping the case."
"Of course," was the answer.
"Well, then," he continued, very gravely,—"I can see that it's going to be hard, and I'm sorry. But you might as well understand me at the very beginning—I will never drop this case."
Oliver's jaw fell limp. "Allan!" he gasped.
There was a silence; and then the storm broke. Oliver knew his brother well enough to realize just how thoroughly he meant what he said; and so he got the full force of the shock all at once. He raved and swore and wrung his hands, and declaimed at his brother, saying that he had betrayed him, that he was ruining him—dumping himself and the whole family into the ditch. They would be jeered at and insulted—they would be blacklisted and thrown out of Society. Alice's career would be cut short—every door would be closed to her. His own career would die before it was born; he would never get into the clubs—he would be a pariah—he would be bankrupted and penniless. Again and again Oliver went over the situation, naming person after person who would be outraged, and describing what that person would do; there were the Wallings and the Venables and the Havens, the Vandams and the Todds and the Wymans—they were all one regiment, and Montague had flung a bomb into the centre of them!
It was very terrible to him to see his brother's rage and despair; but he had seen his way clear through this matter, and he knew that there was no turning back for him. "It is painful to learn that all one's acquaintances are thieves," he said. "But that does not change my opinion of stealing."
"But my God!" cried Oliver; "did you come to New York to preach sermons?"
To which the other answered, "I came to practise law. And the lawyer who will not fight injustice is a traitor to his profession."
Oliver threw up his hands in despair. What could one say to a sentiment such as that?
—But then again he came to the charge, pointing out to his brother the position in which he had placed himself with the Wallings. He had accepted their hospitality; they had taken him and Alice in, and done everything in the world for them—things for which no money could ever repay them. And now he had struck them!
But the only effect of that was to make Montague regret that he had ever had anything to do with the Wallings. If they expected to use their friendship to tie his hands in such a matter, they were people he would have left alone.
"But do you realize that it's not merely yourself you're ruining?" cried Oliver. "Do you know what you're doing to Alice?"
"That is harder yet for me," the other replied. "But I am sure that Alice would not ask me to stop."
Montague was firmly set in his own mind; but it seemed to be quite impossible for his brother to realize that this was the case. He would give up; but then, going back into his own mind, and facing the thought of this person and that, and the impossibility of the situation which would arise, he would return to the attack with new anguish in his voice. He implored and scolded, and even wept; and then he would get himself together again, and come and sit in front of his brother and try to reason with him.
And so it was that in the small hours of the morning, Montague, pale and nervous, but quite unshaken, was sitting and listening while his brother unfolded before him a picture of the Metropolis as he had come to see it. It was a city ruled by mighty forces—money-forces; great families and fortunes, which had held their sway for generations, and regarded the place, with all its swarming millions, as their birthright. They possessed it utterly—they held it in the hollow of their hands. Railroads and telegraphs and telephones—banks and insurance and trust companies—all these they owned; and the political machines and the legislatures, the courts and the newspapers, the churches and the colleges. And their rule was for plunder; all the streams of profit ran into their coffers. The stranger who came to their city succeeded as he helped them in their purposes, and failed if they could not use him. A great editor or bishop was a man who taught their doctrines; a great statesman was a man who made the laws for them; a great lawyer was one who helped them to outwit the public. Any man who dared to oppose them, they would cast out and trample on, they would slander and ridicule and ruin.
And Oliver came down to particulars—he named these powerful men, one after one, and showed what they could do. If his brother would only be a man of the world, and see the thing! Look at all the successful lawyers! Oliver named them, one after one—shrewd devisers of corporation trickery, with incomes of hundreds of thousands a year. He could not name the men who had refused to play the game—for no one had ever heard of them. But it was so evident what would happen in this case! His friends would cast him off; his own client would get his price—whatever it was—and then leave him in the lurch, and laugh at him! "If you can't make up your mind to play the game," cried Oliver, frantically, "at least you can give it up! There are plenty of other ways of getting a living—if you'll let me, I'll take care of you myself, rather than have you disgrace me. Tell me—will you do that? Will you quit altogether?"
And Montague suddenly leaped to his feet, and brought his fist down upon the desk with a bang. "No!" he cried; "by God, no!"
"Let me make you understand me once for all," he rushed on. "You've shown me New York as you see it. I don't believe it's the truth—I don't believe it for one single moment! But let me tell you this, I shall stay here and find out—and if it is true, it won't stop me! I shall stay here and defy those people! I shall stay and fight them till the day I die! They may ruin me,—I'll go and live in a garret if I have to,—but as sure as there's a God that made me, I'll never stop till I've opened the eyes of the people to what they're doing!"
Montague towered over his brother, white-hot and terrible. Oliver shrank from him—he never had seen such a burst of wrath from him before. "Do you understand me now?" Montague cried; and he answered, in a despairing voice, "Yes, yes."
"I see it's all up," he added weakly. "You and I can't pull together."
"No," exclaimed the other, passionately, "we can't. And we might as well give up trying. You have chosen to be a time-server and a lick-spittle, and I don't choose it! Do you think I've learned nothing in the time I've been here? Why, man, you used to be daring and clever—and now you never draw a breath without wondering if these rich snobs will like the way you do it! And you want Alice to sell herself to them—you want me to sell my career to them!"
There was a long pause. Oliver had turned very pale. And then suddenly his brother caught himself together, and said: "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to quarrel, but you've goaded me too much. I'm grateful for what you have tried to do for me, and I'll pay you back as soon as I can. But I can't go on with this game. I'll quit, and you can disown me to your friends—tell them that I've run amuck, and to forget they ever knew me. They'll hardly blame you for it—they know you too well for that. And as for Alice, I'll talk it out with her to-morrow, and let her decide for herself—if she wants to be a Society queen, she can put herself in your hands, and I'll get out of her way. On the other hand, if she approves of what I'm doing, why we'll both quit, and you won't have to bother with either of us."
That was the basis upon which they parted for the night; but like most resolutions taken at white heat, it was not followed literally. It was very hard for Montague to have to confront Alice with such a choice; and as for Oliver, when he went home and thought it over, he began to discover gleams of hope. He might make it clear to every one that he was not responsible for his brother's business vagaries, and take his chances upon that basis. After all, there were wheels within wheels in Society; and if the Robbie Wallings chose to break with him—why, they had plenty of enemies. There might even be interests which would be benefited by Allan's course, and would take him up.
Montague had resolved to write and break every engagement which he had made, and to sever his connection with Society at one stroke. But the next day his brother came again, with compromises and new protestations. There was no use going to the other extreme: he, Oliver, would have it out with the Wallings, and they might all go on their way as if nothing had happened.
So Montague made his début in the rôle of knight-errant. He went with many qualms and misgivings, uncertain how each new person would take it. The next evening he was promised for a theatre-party with Siegfried Harvey; and they had supper in a private room at Delmonico's, and there came Mrs. Winnie, resplendent as an apple tree in early April—and murmuring with bated breath, "Oh, you dreadful man, what have you been doing?"
"Have I been poaching on YOUR preserves?" he asked promptly.
"No, not mine," she said, "but—" and then she hesitated.
"On Mr. Duval's?" he asked.
"No," she said, "not his—but everybody else's! He was telling me about it to-day—there's a most dreadful uproar. He wanted me to try to find out what you were up to, and who was behind it."
Montague listened, wonderingly. Did Mrs. Winnie mean to imply that her husband had asked her to try to worm his business secrets out of him? That was what she seemed to imply. "I told him I never talked business with my friends," she said. "He can ask you himself, if he chooses. But what DOES it all mean, anyhow?"
Montague smiled at the naive inconsistency.
"It means nothing," said he, "except that I am trying to get justice for a client."
"But can you afford to make so many powerful enemies?" she asked.
"I've taken my chances on that," he replied.
Mrs. Winnie answered nothing, but looked at him with wondering admiration in her eyes. "You arc different from the men about you," she remarked, after a while-and her tone gave Montague to understand that there was one person who meant to stand by him.
But Mrs. Winnie Duval was not all Society. Montague was amused to notice with what suddenness the stream of invitations slacked up; it was necessary for Alice to give her calling list many revisions. Freddie Vandam had promised to invite them to his place on Long Island, and of course that invitation would never come; likewise they would never again see the palace of the Lester Todds, upon the Jersey mountain-top.
Oliver put in the next few days in calling upon people to explain his embarrassing situation. He washed his hands of his brother's affairs, he said; and his friends might do the same, if they saw fit. With the Robbie Wallings he had a stormy half hour, about which he thought it best to say little to the rest of the family. Robbie did not break with him utterly, because of their Wall Street Alliance; but Mrs. Robbie's feeling was so bitter, he said, that it would be best if Alice saw nothing of her for a while. He had a long talk with Alice, and explained the situation. The girl was utterly dumbfounded, for she was deeply grateful to Mrs. Robbie, and fond of her as well; and she could not believe that a friend could be so cruelly unjust to her.
The upshot of the whole situation was a very painful episode. A few days later Alice met Mrs. Robbie at a reception; and she took the lady aside, and tried to tell her how distressed and helpless she was. And the result was that Mrs. Robbie flew into a passion and railed at her, declaring in the presence of several people that she had sponged upon her and abused her hospitality! And so poor Alice came home, weeping and half hysterical.
All of which, of course, was like oil upon a fire; the heavens were lighted up with the conflagration. The next development was a paragraph in Society's scandal-sheet—telling with infinite gusto how a certain ultra-fashionable matron had taken up a family of stranded waifs from a far State, and introduced them into the best circles, and even gone so far as to give a magnificent dance in their honour; and how the discovery had been made that the head of the family had been secretly preparing an attack upon their business interests; and of the tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth which had followed—and the violent quarrel in a public place. The paragraph concluded with the prediction that the strangers would find themselves the centre of a merry social war.
Oliver was the first to show them this paper. But lest by any chance they should miss it, half a dozen unknown friends were good enough to mail them copies, carefully marked.—And then came Reggie Mann, who as free-lance and gossip-gatherer sat on the fence and watched the fun; Reggie wore a thin veil of sympathy over his naked glee, and brought them the latest reports from all portions of the battle-ground. Thus they were able to know exactly what everybody was saying about them—who was amused and who was outraged, and who proposed to drop them and who to take them up.
Montague listened for a while, but then he got tired of it, and went for a walk to escape it—but only to run into another trap. It was dark, and he was strolling down the Avenue, when out of a brilliantly lighted jewellery shop came Mrs. Billy Alden to her carriage. And she hailed him with an exclamation.
"You man," she cried, "what have you been doing?"
He tried to laugh it off and escape, but she took him by the arm, commanding, "Get in here and tell me about it."
So he found himself moving with the slow stream of vehicles on the Avenue, and with Mrs. Billy gazing at him quizzically and asking him if he did not feel like a hippopotamus in a frog-pond.
He replied to her raillery by asking her under which flag she stood. But there was little need to ask that, for anyone who was fighting a Walling became ipso facto a friend of Mrs. Billy's. She told Montague that if he felt his social position was imperilled, all he had to do was to come to her. She would gird on her armour and take the field.
"But tell me how you came to do it," she said.
He answered that there was very little to tell. He had taken up a case which was obviously just, but having no idea what a storm it would raise.
Then he noticed that his companion was looking at him sharply. "Do you really mean that's all there is to it?" she asked.
"Of course I do," said he, perplexed.
"Do you know," was her unexpected response, "I hardly know what to make of you. I'm afraid to trust you, on account of your brother."
Montague was embarrassed. "I don't know what you mean," he said.
"Everybody thinks there's some trickery in that suit," she answered.
"Oh," said Montague, "I see. Well, they will find out. If it will help you any to know it, I've been having no end of scenes with my brother."
"I'll believe you," said Mrs. Billy, genially. "But it seems strange that a man could have been so blind to a situation! I feel quite ashamed because I didn't help you myself!"
The carriage had stopped at Mrs. Billy's home, and she asked him to dinner. "There'll be nobody but my brother," she said,—"we're resting this evening. And I can make up to you for my negligence!"
Montague had no engagement, and so he went in, and saw Mrs. Billy's mansion, which was decorated in imitation of a Doge's palace, and met Mr. "Davy" Alden, a mild-mannered little gentleman who obeyed orders promptly. They had a comfortable dinner of half-a-dozen courses, and then retired to the drawing-room, where Mrs. Billy sank into a huge easy chair, with a decanter of whisky and some cracked ice in readiness beside it. Then from a tray she selected a thick black cigar, and placidly bit off the end and lighted it, and then settled back at her ease, and proceeded to tell Montague about New York, and about the great families who ruled it, and where and how they had got their money, and who were their allies and who their enemies, and what particular skeletons were hidden in each of their closets.
It was worth coming a long way to listen to Mrs. Billy tete-a-tete; her thoughts were vigorous, and her imagery was picturesque. She spoke of old Dan Waterman, and described him as a wild boar rooting chestnuts. He was all right, she said, if you didn't come under his tree. And Montague asked, "Which is his tree?" and she answered, "Any one he happens to be under at the time."
And then she came to the Wallings. Mrs. Billy had been in on the inside of that family, and there was nothing she didn't know about it; and she brought the members up, one by one, and dissected them, and exhibited them for Montague's benefit. They were typical bourgeois people, she said. They were burghers. They had never shown the least capacity for refinement—they ate and drank, and jostled other people out of the way. The old ones had been boors, and the new ones were cads.
And Mrs. Billy sat and puffed at her cigar. "Do you know the history of the family?" she asked. "The founder was a rough old ferryman. He fought his rivals so well that in the end he owned all the boats; and then some one discovered the idea of buying legislatures and building railroads, and he went into that. It was a time when they simply grabbed things—if you ever look into it, you'll find they're making fortunes to-day out of privileges that the old man simply sat down on and held. There's a bridge at Albany, for instance, to which they haven't the slightest right; my brother knows about it—they've given themselves a contract with their railroad by which they're paid for every passenger, and their profit every year is greater than the cost of the bridge. The son was the head of the family when I came in; and I found that he had it all arranged to leave thirty million dollars to one of his sons, and only ten million to my husband. I set to work to change that, I can tell you. I used to go around to see him, and scratch his back and tickle him and make him feel good. Of course the family went wild—my, how they hated me! They set old Ellis to work to keep me off—have you met Judge Ellis?"
"I have," said Montague.
"Well, there's a pussy-footed old hypocrite for you," said Mrs. Billy. "In those days he was Walling's business lackey—used to pass the money to the legislators and keep the wheels of the machine greased. One of the first things I said to the old man was that I didn't ask him to entertain my butler, and he mustn't ask me to entertain his valet—and so I forbid Ellis to enter my house. And when I found that he was trying to get between the old man and me, I flew into a rage and boxed his ears and chased him out of the room!"
Mrs. Billy paused, and laughed heartily over the recollection. "Of course that tickled the old man to death," she continued. "The Wallings never could make out how I managed to get round him as I did; but it was simply because I was honest with him. They'd come snivelling round, pretending they were anxious about his health; while I wanted his money, and I told him so."
The valiant lady turned to the decanter. "Have some Scotch?" she asked, and poured some for herself, and then went on with her story. "When I first came to New York," she said, "the rich people's houses were all alike—all dreary brownstone fronts, sandwiched in on one or two city lots. I vowed that I would have a house with some room all around it—and that was the beginning of those palaces that all New York walks by and stares at. You can hardly believe it now—those houses were a scandal! But the sensation tickled the old man. I remember one day we walked up the Avenue to see how they were coming on; and he pointed with his big stick to the second floor, and asked, 'What's that?' I answered, 'It's a safe I'm building into the house.' (That was a new thing, too, in those days.)—'I'm going to keep my money in that,' I said. 'Bah!' he growled, 'when you're done with this house, you won't have any money left.'—'I'm planning to make you fill it for me,' I answered; and do you know, he chuckled all the way home over it!"
Mrs. Billy sat laughing softly to herself. "We had great old battles in those days," she said. "Among other things, I had to put the Wallings into Society. They were sneaking round on the outside when I came—licking people's boots and expecting to be kicked. I said to myself, I'll put an end to that—we'll have a show-down! So I gave a ball that made the whole country sit up and gasp—it wouldn't be noticed particularly nowadays, but then people had never dreamed of anything so gorgeous. And I made out a list of all the people I wanted to know in New York, and I said to myself: 'If you come, you're a friend, and if you don't come, you're an enemy.' And they all came, let me tell you! And there was never any question about the Wallings being in Society after that."
Mrs. Billy halted; and Montague remarked, with a smile, that doubtless she was sorry now that she had done it.
"Oh, no," she answered, with a shrug of her shoulders. "I find that all I have to do is to be patient—I hate people, and think I'd like to poison them, but if I only wait long enough, something happens to them much worse than I ever dreamed of. You'll be revenged on the Robbies some day."
"I don't want any revenge," Montague answered. "I've no quarrel with them—I simply wish I hadn't accepted their hospitality. I didn't know they were such little people. It seems hard to believe it."
Mrs. Billy laughed cynically. "What could you expect?" she said. "They know there's nothing to them but their money. When that's gone, they're gone—they could never make any more."
The lady gave a chuckle, and added: "Those words make me think of Davy's experience when he wanted to go to Congress! Tell him about it, Davy."
But Mr. Alden did not warm to the subject; he left the tale to his sister.
"He was a Democrat, you know," said she, "and he went to the boss and told him he'd like to go to Congress. The answer was that it would cost him forty thousand dollars, and he kicked at the price. Others didn't have to put up such sums, he said—why should he? And the old man growled at him, 'The rest have other things to give. One can deliver the letter-carriers, another is paid for by a corporation. But what can you do? What is there to you but your money?'—So Davy paid the money—didn't you, Davy?" And Davy grinned sheepishly.
"Even so," she went on, "he came off better than poor Devon. They got fifty thousand out of him, and sold him out, and he never got to Congress after all! That was just before he concluded that America wasn't a fit place for a gentleman to live in."
And so Mrs. Billy got started on the Devons! And after that came the Havens and the Wymans and the Todds—it was midnight before she got through with them all.