"There's a feller in town what means to make trouble for you," he announced, bluntly, looking up from his study of the pattern in the rug to note the effect of his announcement upon his host.
Gorham laughed. "I have an idea that there is more than one 'feller' in town who would be glad to do that if he found the chance."
"That may be, sir," James assented, "but this feller has come a long bit out of his way to do it, and I don't think it's on the level, sir."
"It is very good of you to come and tell me this, James," Gorham said, lightly; "but I presume our secret service force already have the gentleman on their list."
"Oh, he ain't no gentleman," James corrected him, "and it ain't got nothin' to do with business, sir, so I thought I'd call on you as a friend and tell you what I know."
"What else can it have to do with?" queried Gorham, incredulously, yet humoring James for his father's sake.
"With Mrs. Gorham, sir—leastwise, that's what he says."
Gorham's apathy disappeared, but his visitor observed no change in the calmness of his expression or in the quiet tone in which he spoke.
"You surprise me, James. What sort of man is he?"
"He's a blackguard, sir, and a liar. I'd have told him so, only he was drunk, and I thought he might leak something what would be of interest to you. He says he used to be Mrs. Gorham's husband."
The lines deepened a little in Gorham's face. "What is his name?" he asked.
"Buckner, sir—Ralph Buckner."
"H'm! And why do you think he intends to try to make trouble for me?"
"Well, sir, you see it's this way. This feller come to the same boardin'-house where I live, but I didn't pay no attention to him 'til I see him playin' pool in the saloon opposite. I'm a Tammany man, sir, and I has to mix with all the new ones what come into my ward. I got acquainted with him over there, and he drank awful heavy. He's quiet enough when he's sober, but he talks free and easy like when he gets tanked. One night he says to me, 'I'm goin' to make a lot o' money.'
"'Good!' says I, more to be agreeable than because I had any 'special interest—'how're you goin' to do it?'
"Then he laughed, silly-like, and winked at me. I didn't say no more, but the next night he talked again.
"'What do you think,' he says; 'I see my wife to-day ridin' up Fifth Avenue behind the swellest pair o' horses in New York City. No wonder she shook me for that.'
"'What do you mean?' says I, surprised at his line o' talk.
"'She's Mrs. Robert Gorham now,' says he, 'but perhaps she won't be long.'
"Then I laughed at him, and that made him mad.
"'That's right,' says he. 'There're people here in this town who tell me that her divorce from me warn't reg'lar, and I may be takin' the lady back to New Orleans with me, and a heap o' money besides.'
"0' course, all this don't mean nothin' to me, but I thought it might to you, sir."
Mr. Gorham did not reply for so long a time that James became anxious.
"I hope I done right, sir, to come to you with this."
"Yes, James; quite right. You are evidently influenced by your loyalty to my family," Gorham answered. "It is right that you should be, but it shall not be forgotten. There probably is nothing in all this, but, since Mrs. Gorham's name was mentioned, I should like to get to the bottom of it. I shall depend upon you to keep me posted."
"I will, sir," James responded, eagerly. "I'll do that as long as he stays in New York, but he says they're trying to get him to go back to New Orleans."
"Who are 'they'?"
"I don't know, sir."
"That is the first thing to discover, James. I shall trust you to do it."
Gorham rose, and James, vastly satisfied with himself, followed the suggestion.
"I'll do it for you, sir," he said at the door. "You can depend on me for that."
"Thank you, James; and in the mean time it will be prudent for you to keep your information to yourself."
"Yes, sir; I'll do that, sir. Any one with a Tammany Hall education knows how to do that, sir."
Riley was anxiously awaiting the close of the interview, and eagerly accompanied his son to the front door. Before he opened it, the old man turned inquiringly.
"Ain't ye goin' ter tell me phwat it's all about, Jimmie?"
"It's too delicate a situation to discuss with the servants," James replied, freezingly. "Me and Mr. Gorham understands each other, that's all."
Riley gazed with still greater admiration at the straight figure which passed by him, out of the house, and up the gravel walk to the street.
"Jimmie's th' great man," he muttered to himself as he closed the door—"he's th' great man, mixin' wid men like Misther Robert; but he hadn't oughter wear that sorry rag an' th' ravens, wid me, his only livin' relation, still livin'."
The bell rang almost immediately, and Riley, certain that James had returned, hastened to throw the door open. As he did so, he discovered Allen Sanford.
"Who's that undertaker person?" Allen demanded.
Riley straightened perceptibly. "'Tis me son James, Misther Sanford, an' it's th' great man he is, an' no undertaker."
"I beg your pardon, Riley," Allen laughed, noting the old man's injured dignity. "Of course I should have known; but I may want to employ an undertaker soon, so I suppose I had it on my mind."
"Ain't ye falin' well, Misther Allen?" Riley asked, anxiously.
"Oh, I don't want him for myself," Allen laughed again. "Is Miss Alice in?"
"How do I know 'til she tells me, sor?"
"All right; you'll have to ask her then, won't you? If she is in, tell her that I've called to have tea with her."
Alice was in particularly high spirits. She had digested Covington's proposal, and found that she enjoyed it. She was still waiting for a chance to discuss it with Eleanor and her father, but she experienced an unexpected amount of pleasure in thinking it over by herself. She had already decided that she would take plenty of time before she gave her answer. The sensation was so exhilarating that she was unwilling to shorten its duration. It was all so incredible that she—little she—should have attracted a man of Mr. Covington's calibre to the extent that he should actually want to marry her! And now Allen had called, giving her an outlet for this unusual buoyancy.
Her caller was not blind to the excitement which showed in Alice's face, and the formalities were scarcely over before he asked the question which brought a violent color to the girl's cheeks.
"So it's come, has it—just as I said it would?"
"What has come?" Alice busied herself with the teacups which the butler had already placed on the little table in front of her, and appeared to be mystified, though she knew well what he meant.
"That doesn't surprise me any," Allen continued, "but I really didn't think it would set you up so much when it did strike."
"I suppose you are enjoying this monologue," she replied. "Don't mind me if it gives you any pleasure."
"Look here, Alice"—he became desperate—"why can't we talk it over without having to jump all these high hurdles? I know you don't care anything about me, and you know that I can't see anything in life worth while except you, so the situation is clear on both sides. But I can't let that four-flusher pull the wool over your eyes without saying, 'Beware of the dog.' I shouldn't be a man if I did."
"You take advantage of our friendship," she said, severely; "but there are limits beyond which even an old friend cannot go, and you've reached them. Mr. Covington is a friend too; I don't admit that he is more than this, but I shan't let you say unfair things about him any more than I should listen to similar things about you. Come now, let's drop the subject. How many lumps will you have?"
"Two lumps, and—no lemon, please."
"You say you wouldn't be a man if you didn't warn me," the girl went on; "but it is because you are not that you talk as you do. You find me agreeable, and, boy-like, think you want to marry me. Pat thinks she wants to marry you—you are both children, and both behave the same."
Allen put his cup down on the table untasted. "Is there no way I can convince you that I've grown up?" he demanded.
"Yes; drop all this nonsense about me, and make yourself a place in the world as Mr. Covington has done."
"Never!" he almost shouted. "You don't know how he's made his place, or you wouldn't say that. Do you want me to climb up by stepping all over those who have helped me, to play double with every one I meet, to crisscross even on the man who trusts me most, and finally try to cinch my position by marrying his daughter? If that's your idea of being a man, I'll tell you right now, not for mine."
Alice rose, with flaming face. "I told you that you had reached the limit, Allen—now you have passed it. Oh! why did I let you go on! I like you so much, and I want to see you succeed. I've tried to help you all I could, and this is the result. Now we can't even be friends any more, and this insane jealousy of yours will spoil your chances in the Companies. Oh, Allen, Allen—why can't you grow up and be sensible!"
"Don't worry about me," the boy said, dejectedly. "You're probably right, just as the pater was probably right. I'm no good anyhow. I didn't want to go into diplomacy because there seemed to be so much in it which was double-dealing. Now I'm in business, and I see the same things there. It's all my fault—it must be; but I'm in wrong somehow. I wouldn't say a word, Alice, if it were some one else, but Covington—well, you've told me to cut that out, so I will. But don't say we can't be friends—I couldn't stand that. You'll need me some time, little girl, and when you do, I want to be Johnny on the spot."
Alice never found it possible to be angry with him for any extended period. Always after his impulsive outbreaks he became so contrite that the early displeasure was abated by his unspoken but evident desire for forgiveness.
"Will you take back what you said about Mr. Covington?" she asked.
"I can't do that," he replied, firmly; "but I'll do my best to let you find him out from some one else."
And the girl let him leave it there, remaining in the same position several minutes after he had gone, wondering that she had been willing to permit so gross a slander to stand unchallenged. When at last she turned slowly toward the door, she started violently as something began to untangle itself from the portieres.
"It's only me," announced Patricia, ungrammatically, but none the less undauntedly.
"What have you been doing there?" the elder sister demanded, her momentary fright making her indignation even greater.
"Listenin'," replied the culprit, shamelessly.
"Patricia Gorham!" For Alice to use the child's full name conveyed the absolute limit of reproach, but Patricia stood her ground fearlessly.
"I'm not ashamed—I've simply got to know my future. You'll stick to what you said, won't you, Alice?"
"You ought to be punished!"
"But you won't marry Allen, will you?" Pat pleaded, unblushingly. "You can have Mr. Covington and I will have Allen, and we all will be happy ever afterward."
"Oh, you—kids, that's what you both are!" Alice cried in sheer desperation. "Between you, I can't get a moment's peace."
"He would make a lovely Knight." Patricia's face assumed an enraptured expression. "Oh, I wish I was a damosel, with a vessel of gold between my hands, and Allen was Sir Launcelot, and I would say, 'Wit ye well,' and he would kneel and say his prayers to me, and—Alice, what does 'Wit ye well' mean, anyhow?"
But Alice had fled, leaving Patricia the victrix of her bloodless battle-field.
James Riley's information, while causing Gorham some concern, was not the matter which gave him the greatest anxiety during the days he passed away from his office. The fact that Buckner was in town was not altogether surprising, and his maudlin comments need not necessarily be seriously considered. In addition to the commission he intrusted to young Riley, Gorham also set in motion the wheels of his own secret-service department, feeling confident that he would soon learn all the facts. The conduct of the current business of the Companies, complex as it had now become, appeared to be advancing steadily along the lines which he himself had laid down for it, and he saw no reason to think that his temporary absence was causing the slightest disarrangement of the delicately adjusted machine upon which depended the continued momentum of the business. This interested him particularly, as he considered that the crowning point of his successful formation of the Consolidated Companies would not be attained until his actual contact with the business was not required.
But great enterprises do not expand themselves without the jealous watchfulness of other competing or interested organizations, and Gorham's daily reports contained an increasing number of references to the efforts being made by these to harass the Consolidated Companies with governmental interference. Senator Kenmore had by this time become the chief spokesman of the Companies in Washington. Since his first exhaustive examination into its affairs, his doubts as to the possibility of conducting so mammoth a consolidation along conscientious lines had been dissipated by the absolute straightness of the course which Gorham steered. His influence had been exerted frequently in behalf of the Companies, and each time the success which thus came to the corporation carried in its wake advantages to the people, just as Gorham had promised. The Senator had become one of Gorham's stanchest admirers and supporters, and the president of the Consolidated Companies in turn relied fully upon him. For several weeks Kenmore's correspondence had suggested certain unrest in the Senate concerning trusts and consolidations, so when Gorham received from him an urgent summons to come to Washington at once, it left no room for doubt as to the necessity which prompted its sending, and obliged him for the present to abandon his idea of rest.
Gorham found Kenmore awaiting him in his office, and the Senator, with characteristic directness, came to the point at once.
"Some one is starting up another scare on monopolies and combinations, and is making the Consolidated Companies the target. Do you know anything about it?"
"Does it come from New York State?" Gorham asked.
"Yes; the junior senator is at the head of it."
"He is a Tammany man."
"Brady made him, and now he is collecting his fee. The Consolidated Companies hit Brady hard in the Manhattan Traction deal, you remember. How much headway has it gained?"
"Enough to be dangerous; that's why I wrote as I did."
"It can't be dangerous while we have the people so strongly with us, but it might become troublesome. Whom do you want me to see?"
"The President. I have made an appointment with him half an hour from now. The Senator from New York has touched him a bit by demanding why he is haling the other great corporations into court, and leaving the Consolidated Companies to grow larger and stronger without opposition."
"Have you discussed the matter with the President?"
"No; I thought it best to let you present it as a whole. Come—we shall find him ready for us."
The President received his callers in his office. He was a great President, and as such realized, as some of his predecessors had not, that the country of which he was the chief executive was constantly outgrowing the legislation which had been wise at the time of its enactment. He realized that as expansion comes conditions change, and these changed conditions necessitate the exercise of a far-seeing and a far-reaching judgment in administering the law in its spirit rather than always in its letter; but the experience he had gained in the White House had taught him the difficulties which beset his path in living up to his convictions. Gorham had been frequently called to his councils for advice upon various subjects, and the President was familiar with the Consolidated Companies in conception and operation.
"We are accused of discrimination, Mr. Gorham," the President explained, after the first greetings. "You and I have discussed the Consolidated Companies upon various occasions; I have watched its operations carefully, and I am free to say that my early apprehensions have thus far proved groundless. I believe that I have acted conscientiously in pushing the investigations and prosecutions against those combinations which are really a menace to the country; but there are some who disagree with me, and flaunt the Consolidated Companies in my face as an evidence of insincerity on my part. I have asked you and Senator Kenmore to meet me here this afternoon, to talk over the question quite informally with the senator from New York and with the Attorney-General."
"I appreciate the opportunity, Mr. President," Gorham replied, quietly.
"Then we are all ready for the discussion," said the President, touching a button. "They are waiting—I will send for them."
Upon the arrival of the others, he repeated to them what he had said to Gorham, and then, settling back in his chair, became an interested listener, leaving Gorham and the senator from New York as the principal disputants, with Kenmore and the Attorney-General joining in the argument from time to time.
"Do I understand that Mr. Gorham speaks for the Administration in this matter?" asked Senator Hunt, with some asperity.
"I speak for the Consolidated Companies, and for that alone," Gorham replied, promptly.
"Then you will perhaps explain why your corporation, the largest trust in existence to-day, is immune, while other trusts are being persecuted to the extent of the Government's power."
"I am not authorized to answer any question which has to do with the Government," Gorham continued; "but it may be that it is due to the same reason that some of the 'other trusts' you mention are not as yet incorporated as a part of the Consolidated Companies."
"Then they have been approached?" the Senator asked, quickly.
"Several of them have approached us; but they have thus far been unwilling to accept the principles upon which the Consolidated Companies is founded."
"You refer to its alleged benevolent aspect?"
"Yes, if you choose to call it that," Gorham replied, smiling. "We prefer to call it reciprocity. If we receive favors in the form of concessions from the people, we believe it to be not only fair, but also sound business, to use these concessions not to bleed them, but for their benefit."
"In other words, the Consolidated Companies is a good trust, and the others are bad trusts?"
"The Sherman Act, if I read it correctly, makes no distinction."
"But the Government does."
"And to that extent unlawfully discriminates," the Senator said, emphatically.
"What would be the effect upon the country if the Sherman Act were enforced literally?" Gorham asked.
"That is not for me to say."
"Perhaps the Attorney-General will give us his opinion," Gorham persisted.
The Attorney-General had been listening to the discussion with much interest.
"There can be but one answer to that question," he replied; "it would produce an industrial reign of terror, and yet I am frank to say that, from a legal standpoint, I believe Senator Hunt is correct in his statement that the Government unlawfully discriminates in drawing any distinction between good and bad trusts; but let me say further, that it is my definite opinion that the Sherman Act, as it now stands, is a menace to the country. That Act, literally interpreted, would break up every trust into smaller corporations. It is based on a hasty inference that great consolidations are of necessity monopolies. Even if we disintegrated a great corporation like the Consolidated Companies, for instance, into a large number of smaller corporations, we should not have solved the problem. There would always be methods by which a common understanding could be reached, and, in the disintegration, producing concerns would lose much of the efficiency in serving the public which has already been demonstrated by the Consolidated Companies. I have answered your question frankly, giving you my opinion from a legal and also from a personal standpoint."
"Was there not a time," Kenmore asked, "when the public in England was as much afraid of the formation of business partnerships as our public has been afraid of trusts?"
"Yes," the Attorney-General replied; "our own trust legislation is nothing more than a modern repetition of certain laws which centuries ago were in force in England, and were designed to prevent the formation of co-partnerships in business."
"Yet partnerships were formed in spite of the law, were they not?" insisted Kenmore, "and it was discovered that the prices of goods did not go up."
"We are digressing," the senator from New York interrupted. "As I understand it, we are concerned with the present rather than the past."
"I am glad you realize that," Gorham responded, "for it has a considerable bearing upon the situation. In the past, the public has been opposed to the organization of industry, and properly so, since it has meant the secret rebates, the limiting of output, the 'fake' independent companies, and the stealing of competitors' secrets; but to-day there is a changed public sentiment, and perhaps I may be pardoned if I say that I believe the Consolidated Companies has played its part in bringing this about. The magazines have turned from muckraking to articles instructing their readers in finance; the anti-trust orator is speaking to empty seats; and intelligent lawmakers, who once considered 'corporation' as a synonym for 'crime,' now carefully distinguish between the honest and the dishonest organization. The Administration is elected by the people to exercise the will of the people, and it is the will of the people to-day that honest combinations be permitted, in order to reduce the cost of the necessities of life."
"It is a conflict between a literal interpretation of the law and industrial progress," added Senator Kenmore, "and the law as it stands does not appeal to justice nor does it express American public sentiment. Bigness, in commerce and industry, has now come to be associated with progress. Production on a large scale is justified by its economy and efficiency when brought about through the free play of economic forces. It would be just as ridiculous to oppose the ever-increasing demand for machinery."
"To what point is all this leading us?" asked Senator Hunt, impatiently. "These one-sided arguments may be interesting to those who agree with them, but my question still remains unanswered: why does not the Government enforce the law equally against one offender as against another, since by that law both are offenders?"
"Senator Kenmore, the Attorney-General, and I have endeavored to answer your question to the best of our ability," Gorham replied, "and I, for one, regret to have failed in my endeavor. We all agree, I am sure, that the Government has a plain duty to perform, but we do not understand that duty to be the prevention of honest and beneficial combination. The Consolidated Companies has led the way in seeking publicity and preserving equality, and in insuring public participation in the benefits accruing from the combinations which it effects. If other trusts do likewise, I have no doubt that they will be as 'immune' as you have been pleased to call the Consolidated Companies."
"Are you prepared to deny that, in spite of this 'benevolent' aspect of which you boast, the profits of your corporation are greater than those of any trust in the world?"
"I have never made the comparative analysis which would be required to answer your question," Gorham replied; "but I do say without fear of contradiction that no organization ever gave back to the people so large a percentage of its earnings. It may interest Senator Hunt if I outline the principles upon which the Consolidated Companies was conceived."
Gorham's voice was a strong asset. Its low, clear tones carried without apparent effort, and there was a firmness and sincerity in every spoken word which always secured attentive hearing.
"The public," he said, "has long since become accustomed to mergers and consolidations, and has naturally associated with them the strangling of competition and the creation and enjoyment, on the part of a few, of the conditions of monopoly. But business exploits such as these are, in a measure, things of the past, and cannot be repeated. Great industries can no longer hem in their rivals, or stifle and cripple them to the extent that fields, which by natural law are free to all, become the field of one. The people have at last risen against this, and consolidations will only be tolerated when confidence is established that the masses will be benefited. When the scheme of the Consolidated Companies first became known, it was bitterly opposed by the public, who saw in it nothing other than a new and more gigantic octopus, to feed upon its very life-blood.
"From the very beginning, both from principle and from what I consider to be sound business sense, I have endeavored by word and act to convince the public that the Consolidated Companies intended to serve its best interests, and our unprecedented success is the best evidence I could offer that I have, at least in part, succeeded. Our stockholders are men in high positions of trust, and they cannot continue to deliver contracts to us unless we make good our promises to execute those concessions to the advantage of the people. To-day, wherever the Consolidated Companies is known, the public looks with approval upon favors shown us by its officials, and this in itself is an asset to our corporation of untold value. Bread, coffee, and other daily necessities are now obtainable cheaper than ever before in the history of the world, because the Consolidated Companies has made them so. Transportation charges, wherever we have obtained the franchises, have been reduced twenty per cent.; lighting costs, both gas and electric, are fifteen per cent. cheaper in those cities which we control; government loans placed through us are from one to two per cent. lower, thus substantially reducing the rate of taxation. We have prevented war in at least two instances, and thus demonstrated the possibilities of our power in preserving universal peace. For the Government to interfere with our work because of a technicality would result in an international calamity."
"Are you now speaking for the Administration, Mr. Gorham?"
"Now, I am speaking as a private citizen."
"If the Attorney-General agrees with me," added the President, joining in the discussion for the first time, "I think I may say that Mr. Gorham's views as a private citizen are shared by the Administration; on the other hand, I agree with the Attorney-General in the position which he takes regarding the conflict between the legal and practical bearing of the Sherman Act. There is only one way to solve the problem, and that is to modify that Act so that a distinction can be made between those consolidations which advance the country's prosperity, and those which are operated solely for personal gain to the detriment of all except the few directly interested. You may report back to your constituents, Senator Hunt, that the Administration will refrain from further action in this matter for the present, and will direct its efforts toward securing amendments to the Sherman Act which shall make it possible to draw a distinction between good and bad trusts, as you call them, without discrimination."
The President rose, signifying that the conference was ended, and Gorham left the White House in company with Senator Kenmore and the Attorney-General. The latter wore a serious expression upon his face.
"The President took the only logical position," he remarked to his companions; "but I tell you, gentlemen, that there is not the slightest possibility of passing any bill through either house which can accomplish the results we all desire."
"In another twelve months," observed Gorham, "granting that the Companies continues to make history as it has, the people themselves will prevent their representatives from interfering."
"Provided nothing occurs to raise a doubt as to the integrity of the Companies' motives," added the Attorney-General, suggestively.
"How could such a doubt be raised?" Gorham was incredulous.
"By having some official in your corporation act in defiance of the principles which you have upheld."
"We have a five-years' record to fall back upon."
"Yes; but as the Companies grows larger the risk increases."
"And the careful surveillance increases in like ratio."
"There are human limitations, Mr. Gorham," laughed the Attorney-General.
Allen Sanford, during the next few weeks, found much to think about besides himself. His advance had been more rapid than Gorham had expected. His position with the Companies was still the same, but his value in his position had steadily increased. The impetuosity and intensity which, previously uncontrolled, had made him heedless, were now directed through a smaller vent, and gained in power. Gorham's early belief that the boy possessed in no small degree, though undeveloped, the business genius which had accomplished his father's great success, was being definitely confirmed, and he rejoiced in it.
Allen had studied the business problem with which he came daily in contact as closely as he could with the little experience which had as yet come to him. What man of affairs does not recall how intangible was that turning-point, in his own early business career, before which he felt hopelessly submerged in that sea of infinite detail, vainly struggling to gauge its currents and to escape its undertow; after which he found himself advancing with steady strides, short at first, but gaining in power as the lesser responsibilities merged into greater ones!
Gorham's business training, previous to the inception of the Consolidated Companies, had been in accord with the universal business code, quite at variance with the idealistic basis which he himself had now established. Allen's training had all been along Gorham's idealistic thread. It was perhaps natural, therefore, that Allen, under these circumstances, should look upon the transactions of the Consolidated Companies from a different viewpoint from that which Mr. Gorham took. At all events, some of these business acts did not seem to the boy to be in full accord with the altruism which he had learned from his preceptor. Allen had come to know most of the directors and some of the stockholders, and he was convinced that the prevailing instinct which controlled their relations to the Consolidated Companies and to its transactions was self-interest pure and simple. There was no question that the Companies had accomplished important reductions in the necessities of life and in the cost of public utilities, as a result of which the people were radically benefited; but to Allen's untrained mind even this seemed to be a clever business policy from the exercise of which the corporation gained more than it gave. Already there had come to him a sense of apprehension as to what might happen if Mr. Gorham's restraining hand should lose its present power, and the control should fall into the hands of men such as he conceived Covington and his sympathizers to be; and lately the boy had regarded this chance as not altogether remote.
Gorham never allowed Allen to discuss with him the personalities of any of the directors or stockholders with whom he came in contact. This was partly due to his feeling that Allen was not as yet competent to form opinions of any value, and partly to his general principle that he must hold his own mind unprejudiced in his duty toward his associates. For this reason, and for another which lay closer to his heart, the boy had never expressed to him his distrust of Covington, though he had been tempted to do so on more than one occasion. Now, however, during the absence of his chief from the offices, Allen felt sure that a crisis was near at hand. He knew that Covington was in constant communication with certain of the directors, and the nature of these conferences could perhaps be divined by the growing discontent which he saw developing among those upon whom he knew Gorham depended as his most valued lieutenants. He had been brooding over matters so long that this new and tenser situation, as he saw it, made him feel it to be his duty to talk it over with Gorham. He was none too sure that his doubts would be shared or even accepted, and this uncertainty added to his apprehensiveness in breaking over what he knew to be his chief's implied commands. This was his first experience in a business office, and it might be that what caused him anxiety was only a part of the day's work, to be found in any similar establishment. Still, he determined to free his mind of its ever-present burden, and he selected the time shortly after Gorham's return from Washington.
Gorham listened to Allen's reports well into the night. The boy did most of the talking, and Gorham absorbed with little comment the story which he had to tell. Allen was surprised and relieved to find that he listened to him without criticism, and it strengthened him in his own confidence to find that the elder man treated him with a consideration beyond that which he had previously received.
"You are quite right to come to me with this," Gorham said at length; "but I feel that, as far as the business is concerned, you are unduly apprehensive. I shall satisfy myself on this point on my return to the office. Now, as to Mr. Covington: I have been aware for weeks of your personal dislike for each other, but it is unworthy of you, Allen, to allow this to influence you to the extent of doing him so great an injustice."
Allen colored deeply at the criticism. "I have waited until I am certain that it is no injustice before bringing the matter to you," he said.
"I have also been aware of another fact," Gorham continued, "which is in itself an explanation of your present attitude. When I tell you that it is my fondest hope that Alice shall marry Mr. Covington, you will understand. This in itself is the strongest evidence I could give of my confidence in him."
This was a blow far greater than any Alice had dealt him. Allen had never lost hope that sooner or later he could convince her that he had attained man's estate, and this he considered the only real barrier between them. But if Mr. Gorham had set his heart upon her marriage to Covington, he knew the case was hopeless. The older man watched him as he struggled with himself.
"You should have no thought at present of marrying any one," he said, kindly. "You are not mature enough yet to know your own mind. You have done well, and I have great hopes for your future, but for the present you must be content to solve one day's problems before taking up the next."
"I wouldn't mind so much about Alice," the boy finally managed to blurt out, "if it was any one except Mr. Covington."
"Have you any actual evidence that he is other than an upright, able man, whose character entitles him to the fullest confidence and esteem?"
"No actual evidence; but I know I'm right. Please don't let him have Alice without making sure."
Gorham placed his hand kindly upon the boy's shoulder. "Your interest in my little girl's happiness, though prejudiced, makes me overlook this boyish jealousy toward a man whom I respect. But you can't think that my carefulness in so important a matter as this would be any less than your own. Come, now, let us forget all this. Go back to your duties, my boy, with a confidence that my judgment is better than yours."
As Allen made no reply and showed no inclination to leave, Gorham wondered if he had still anything further to say. The boy moved uncomfortably in his chair as the question was asked.
"Not regarding the business detail, Mr. Gorham," he replied at length. "Oh, I am all at sea!" he burst out suddenly, his voice trembling with emotion. "I guess business isn't in my line anyhow."
"What do you mean, Allen?" Gorham asked, completely surprised by the boy's intensity.
"If I tell you what I really mean you will think I am ungrateful for the chance you have given me, and, truly, that isn't it. I know you feel that the Consolidated Companies is accomplishing a great work, and you're right; but there's another side which I don't like at all. With the single exception of yourself, I don't believe there is a man connected with it who isn't in it for what he can get out of it. The public is being benefited by certain reductions which the Companies accomplishes, but before long I'm sure they will have to pay up for all they have saved, with a bitter interest. Of course, my feeling this way is simply an evidence that I don't understand things at all."
Allen had touched upon Gorham's most sensitive point. "It is a deep disappointment to me that you feel as you do," he replied. "As you say, it is an evidence that you don't understand things at all. The Consolidated Companies has almost reached a point where individual personality is merely incidental; where, in my opinion, my own services even will not long be essential. I like to believe that my continued connection strengthens and guides it, but no one man can now affect its progress to any serious degree; but, my boy, loyalty to the Companies on the part of its employees is absolutely imperative. That I must demand of you."
Allen winced under the criticism, but he could not withdraw from his position.
"Could not a man like Mr. Covington change the entire policy of the Companies if he came into control?" he asked, significantly.
"No," Gorham replied, firmly. "In the first place, if he gained control, he would have no desire to change it; in the second, my Executive Committee is made up of men of too high principle to permit him or any other man to operate the Companies upon other than a proper basis."
"You may not feel so sure of this after you have investigated," Allen insisted.
"I shall never alter my opinion." Gorham was annoyed by the boy's persistence. "It is too late to-night to discuss this phase of the subject with you as thoroughly as we must if you are to continue with the corporation, but in the mean time remember that the Consolidated Companies is in the hands of men whose self-interest is coupled with a personal gratification in the altruistic basis whose nature you have learned from me. You are not competent to pass upon their motives, and until you are you should not venture to criticise."
"I admitted that it is all due to my inexperience, Mr. Gorham, and I am sorry that you are angry. I believe in you as I could never believe in any other man, and I know that, as far as you can control it, you will keep the Consolidated Companies within the lines you have laid down; but I can't make myself believe that the others have the same honorable intentions."
"Stop!" cried Gorham, seriously aroused by the boy's words. "I shall listen to you no further. It is only my friendship for your father and my affection for you which, keeps me from speaking harshly to you; but be warned! You are attempting to interfere in a matter which is too heavy for your strength. Leave it to those who understand it."
After Allen left the house Gorham sat for a long time in his library, smoking and meditating. Yet it was not the possible internal business complications, as suggested by the boy, which occupied his thoughts; it was not some new gigantic transaction about to be launched on behalf of the Companies which filled his mind, nor was it the suggested danger to Eleanor's peace of mind. He was thinking of Allen, half blaming himself for the forlorn expression the boy's face had worn as he left the room. It was a courageous thing for this youngster to rush in where older and more experienced men would not have dared, to face Robert Gorham and to tell him that the monument he had erected rested upon a base of shifting sand. His absurd statements regarding Covington were easily explained, but what he had said of the business was an honest expression, even though groundless in fact and resulting from an inexperienced interpretation of matters far beyond his present knowledge.
Gorham contrasted in his mind the changes which these few months had wrought in him. He remembered how lightly the boy had taken his father's tirade which had thrown him upon his own resources, and compared this with the depressing effect which his own criticism had produced.
"Poor boy, I'm really sorry for him," he said to himself. "With old Stephen on one side and with me on the other, and with his fancied devotion to Alice on top of it all, he must feel that the world is against him." Then Gorham's face became stern again. "But he must take on ballast," he said, firmly; "he must get over these snap-judgments and learn to recognize that he is playing with tools too heavy for him to handle. It will do him good—but I love the boy for his courage. It will land him somewhere if he keeps his head."
The days passed by with nothing to justify Eleanor's apprehensions resulting from Ralph Buckner's presence in New York, so her fears vanished, and with them the necessity of disturbing her husband's tranquillity with this confidence which already had been so long postponed. Gorham's sudden trip to Washington made this even more natural. Alice had told her of Covington's proposal, and was eager to discuss the situation from every possible standpoint. To the older woman the girl's attitude toward Allen seemed heartless, yet, knowing her husband's feeling in the matter, she decided that it was wiser to leave the young people to solve their own problem. Youth is ever heartless in its attitude toward others, and it is only by its own suffering that it learns the lesson of consideration. Eleanor sought to impress Alice with the importance of being sure of her own heart before making her final decision, and encouraged her to take plenty of time. She would have hesitated to do this, on her husband's account, except that with Allen so hopelessly out of the running the delay could do no harm. Alice must make no error, Eleanor kept repeating to herself, recalling with painful vividness the result of her own mistaken act of duty.
Covington became a constant visitor at the Gorham home, assuming more and more the prerogatives of an accepted suitor. His attentions were assiduous and his companionship was so agreeable that Alice considered the arrangement ideal. Each time he urged her to give him a definite reply she begged off in such a playful, girlish fashion that Covington mildly acquiesced, feeling that each day's association made the situation that much more favorable to him. And this courtship, curious as it was, proved not unpleasant to him. Much to his own surprise, he began to find himself really fond of this young girl, who kept him constantly on the qui vive to follow her from the absurdity of girlish conceits to the opposite extreme of mature discussion of subjects ordinarily far beyond the grasp of her years. It whetted his interest and possessed a decided fascination for him, he admitted to himself more than once as he left the house to return to his own apartment, wearing a satisfied smile of patronizing indulgence. Had it not been for the business necessities, and the importance of actually becoming her husband before anything occurred to disturb his relations with Gorham, he would have preferred to have things run on indefinitely as they were.
During this time Allen found Covington's attitude toward him completely changed. It would have hurt the older man's self-respect to admit that the boy could in any way be looked upon as a rival; but young girls are uncertain quantities, and it had been necessary for Alice to prove that she was beyond this danger-point before Covington decided that Allen was a promising youngster, after all, and, as Stephen Sanford's son, entitled at least to being noticed.
Allen, during the same period, and perhaps because of the same conditions, had grown to regard Covington with even more cordial aversion. The only positive grievance he had against him was the success he had gained with Alice; but, in an undefined way, he felt instinctively that this man possessed every Machiavellian attribute in the calendar of dishonor. With an effort to be just, Allen mentally made a generous discount to offset any possible prejudice, but even then Covington measured up shockingly bad. If Alice had insisted on a proof of the statements he made against him to her, he would have found himself lacking ammunition; when Gorham had asked him point-blank what evidence he had to substantiate his accusations, he had been unable to give any, and this, he realized, had hurt him in the eyes of his chief.
So now the boy proposed to collect evidence, with the self-acknowledged purpose of helping Gorham and of saving Alice, entirely overlooking any personal interest in the undertaking. Covington's first overtures came just at this time and were coldly received; but as Allen considered the matter, he concluded that he would learn to "purr" too, taking lessons in this gentle art from the one man whom he acknowledged to be its past master.
Gorham was surprised by the change in their relations as he saw it, and the boy at once rose in his estimation. Allen had evidently taken to heart the advice given him during their last interview, and had proved himself big enough to rise above his jealousies and his disappointment. Gorham, guided by Eleanor's judgment, had refrained even from expressing to Alice his strong desire that she should marry Covington, but with Allen already self-effaced and with Alice accepting Covington's attentions, even though as yet uncommitted, all was progressing to his satisfaction.
Allen's duties still took him frequently to the Gorham house, but he saw Alice only casually, as he made no effort to force himself upon her. She was too much engrossed with the new element which had entered her life to concern herself particularly, but she was negatively grateful to him for not making the present condition unpleasant. She wanted to keep him as a friend, and told him so frankly, but that could only be so long as he accepted things as he found them.
But any lack of enthusiasm on the part of Alice was more than made up for by Patricia. She was living on the seventh floor of her seventh heaven. As she saw it, Alice had acted in the friendliest way possible in giving her a clear field with her Sir Launcelot. Allen humored her, finding a real relief in this childish game which his little friend took so seriously. The one drawback was the amount of intimate information which she conveyed through the medium of her innocent prattle. Allen could not know what was coming next, and so was powerless to head off conversation upon subjects into which he knew he had no right to enter, for Patricia possessed the faculty of keeping herself well informed as to family matters. It was through this that he secured the first clew upon which to start a real investigation, so he considered the information Heaven-sent, and blessed the child accordingly.
The staircase, as usual, formed the trysting-place. Here Patricia waylaid her Knight on his way down from the library, taking her position on an upper step, which made their difference in height less apparent. The same ceremony was enacted each time in accord with the ritual she had taught him. After he passed her, she suddenly sprang up to her full stature, holding her arm high above her with the palm of her hand extended.
"Wit ye well, Sir Knight!" she cried, impressively.
Then Allen turned—he was forbidden, under pain of death, to recognize her until he heard these mystic words—knelt on the step below her and kissed her other hand, while the one upraised descended upon his head in benediction.
"The Lord be with thee, Fair Lady," he replied, following his lesson.
"And with thee—I accept thy troth. Now we can have a visit."
The Arthurian lady had vanished, and Patricia was herself again, curled up close beside him.
"Look here, Lady Pat," he said, shaking his finger at her warningly, "I think we ought to put a stop to this—you're taking it all too seriously."
"Of course," she admitted, smiling up at him. "Why don't we get married right away—then it needn't be serious any longer."
"Well"—Allen would not have wounded the devoted little heart for worlds—"one reason is that I haven't money enough."
"Did Knights have to have money?" Patricia inquired. "I never saw a suit of armor with a money-pocket in it."
"Neither did I," he admitted. "There wasn't any money then, like ours, and when they wanted anything they didn't have, they fought for it."
"Well, then, why don't you fight for it?"
"I'm going to—I am fighting now. I mean, Lady Pat, they don't let you fight the way they used to."
"Is it only because you haven't money enough that we don't marry, Sir Launcelot?"
"That is—one of the principal reasons."
"Swear that you don't love any other fair lady."
"Except Alice," Allen insisted.
"Shall you always love her?" Patricia asked, wistfully.
Allen sighed. "I'm afraid so, Lady Pat."
"Well, I don't care—I'll love you enough for both of us, so that's all settled. Now promise that you'll sit on this very step and not move 'til I come back."
"What for? I must run along."
"You promised," she cried, and disappeared up-stairs as fast as her little white legs could carry her. There was nothing to do but wait, yet Allen was not long kept in suspense. Patricia returned with equal speed, carrying her bank in both hands.
"There!" she exclaimed, jingling the contents. "You take that and make a lot more with it, and we shall have all the money we want."
"But I can't do that," he protested.
"Aren't you as smart as Mr. Covington?"
"What has he to do with it, Lady Pat?"
"He took Alice's money and made a whole lot more with it, and I'm going to tell you how to do it, too."
Patricia danced before him on the hall rug, clapping her hands together with joy and excitement. Suddenly she paused in her gyrations, and, placing her mouth close to his ear, she whispered:
"Buy some storks from the New York Railroad."
Allen jumped to his feet as if he had been struck. "What did you say?" he demanded, seizing the child almost roughly by the wrist; but Patricia attributed his action to excitement and joy equal to her own, so accepted it cheerfully.
"That is it," she repeated, firmly. "I'm sure, for I wrote it down just as soon as I heard it. I knew I should need it some time. Storks must be very valuable birds, because Mr. Covington told Alice not to tell; and he made thirty—thousand—dollars for her. Now, you're smarter than Mr. Covington, and you can make a hundred thousand. Will you?"
"I'll start right out and see what I can do." Allen tried to keep the child from seeing his excitement. "I haven't time to stop to tell you how naughty it is to listen. If I don't go right now the storks may all be gone, and then of course we couldn't make any money. Good-bye, Lady Pat—I'll try hard, but don't be disappointed if there aren't any left—good-bye."
Allen rushed from the house and, hailing a passing taxi, ordered the chauffeur to drive to the office, although it was now nearly six o'clock.
With characteristic energy Gorham made good the promise given to Allen to investigate matters at the office, and not many days after his return to his desk he issued a call for a special meeting of the Executive Committee. He looked upon it almost as a weakness to have permitted this boy's unsupported statements to influence him even to this extent, but he justified himself by the knowledge that a confirmation of the loyalty of his associates would give him renewed strength.
The day of the meeting found every member of the committee present—a fact which interested Gorham as an evidence of the devotion of these men to the responsibilities which rested upon them. But the routine business had no sooner been completed than the president became aware that the harmony which had existed from the beginning was in danger of being disturbed. Inquiries were made which were too significant to be overlooked, and veiled criticism came from quarters where previously he had believed existed absolute confidence in himself and full approval of his methods.
"It is well to have this come to a head," Gorham remarked after several had expressed their views. "This corporation is so gigantic that it must fall of its own weight unless every part of its structure be sound and effective in bearing its share of the load. There is no stability where there is lack of harmony, and what you gentlemen have said to-day shows beyond question that radical and immediate action is imperative to preserve to our stockholders what we have already gained for them, and to secure the future benefits which are assured, provided the Companies itself can act as a unit. Now, in order that we may clearly understand the situation, will not Mr. Litchfield state specifically the criticism implied in his remarks?"
Litchfield rose deliberately from his seat. He was the head of certain large gas-works which the corporation had acquired in connection with its consolidation of the lighting interests in Philadelphia.
"Before complying with Mr. Gorham's request," he began, "I wish to say that nothing is further from my intentions than to cast aspersions either upon our president or his motives. During the time I have served on this committee I have been amazed by the increasing realization which has come to me of the marvellous success he has achieved in developing the Consolidated Companies to the point it has reached to-day. Many of us have contributed in a smaller or greater degree to its success, but it has been his master mind which has anticipated the conditions and provided the means to make the most of them. But it is also true that in doing this Mr. Gorham has, in my opinion, deliberately neglected to secure for the Companies as large returns as might have been gained. In the Philadelphia Lighting Company, for example, with which I am naturally more familiar than with any of the other ramifications of the Consolidated Companies, Mr. Gorham has voluntarily reduced the rates when the consumers had expressed no general discontent with the former prices. It is true that the consolidation effected great economies in the production, but it is entirely obvious that the profits to the company would be greater if we were receiving the full advantage of the economies by still selling our product at the old rates. And this case which I have cited is, I understand, a fair sample of Mr. Gorham's policy in all other directions. I can appreciate the desirability in the past of giving the people the advantage in a few transactions in order to create public confidence; but to continue to make a practice of so doing appears to me to be unnecessary and, I may say, unbusinesslike."
After Litchfield sat down Gorham called upon several others, some of whom expressed themselves, with more or less frankness, along the same line.
"Then it all sums itself up in this," he said at length, after having invited remarks from those who cared to take part in the discussion: "Your president has been guilty of not making the most of the opportunities which he himself has created."
This seemed to be the sense of the meeting.
"Then let me ask a few questions," continued Gorham. "Mr. Litchfield has told us of the reduced cost of production in his plants as a result of our consolidation. Will he not further state how great that economy is?"
"Thirty-three and one-third per cent.," was the prompt reply.
"And we have reduced the rate how much?"
"Fifteen per cent."
"How much has the business increased during the past year?"
"About twenty per cent."
"And the balance-sheet shows what as to profits?"
"About twenty-five per cent. larger than any previous year."
"In spite of the reduced rates," Gorham added, significantly.
"But they would have been larger still if the old rates had prevailed," Litchfield insisted.
"I cannot agree with you," Gorham said, firmly. "Your concern had been standing still for six years when we took hold of it—the business had even gone backward the last year—yet in two years' time, under our administration, it shows a gross gain of thirty-three and one-third per cent. and a net gain of twenty-five. I am enlarging on Mr. Litchfield's case because, in a measure, it is an answer to you all, and a full justification of the basis upon which I have rested and shall continue to rest the operations of the Companies. It has been my pride that it was possible to administer the affairs of this corporation in such a way that not only could we boast that during the five years of our business existence we had lived up to the principles on which we originally built, but also that we have proved it a sound financial proposition. Never before in the history of the world has any body of men associated themselves in business with the avowed purpose of making their organization an advantage to the people, without either failing signally in their undertaking or proving themselves false to their responsibilities. We have reached a point where failure is impossible; we find ourselves receiving greater returns upon our investment than is yielded by any other organization in existence. Can it be possible that there is one man among us who wishes to take away from the Companies the unique position which it has now gained?"
It was evident that Litchfield had been appointed the spokesman for the committee, as he immediately assumed the responsibility of replying to Gorham's remarks.
"May I not ask our president if he does not overestimate the importance of standing up so straight that there is danger of falling over backward? There is no difference of opinion as to the commercial value of the great asset which he has established for the Companies, in so completely winning the confidence of the people at large as well as those who hold high positions of trust. We should stultify ourselves were we to take any such stand, for the profits of the Companies are an irrefutable argument. The question before us, then, is not one of fact, but rather of degree. Why should we spend these further millions to gain that which we have already secured? We should still so administer the affairs of the Companies as to hold this great advantage, but I maintain that we should pay no more to hold it than is absolutely necessary."
Gorham glanced around to see if any one else was disposed to add to what Litchfield had said, but the silence which prevailed indicated more clearly than words that the speaker had expressed the consensus of opinion.
"I am waiting for some one to remind Mr. Litchfield that he has overlooked, in his statement, a fact which possesses vital significance," Gorham said at length. "The Consolidated Companies has received from the people concessions which it has succeeded in making immensely valuable. It has accepted these concessions in trust upon the distinct understanding that those who gave them should receive equal benefit. So far, this trust has been religiously observed. Every dollar of profit which the stockholders have divided represents a like amount paid back to those to whom it belongs. To pay them less would be not only a breach of faith, but would be to retain that which does not belong to us. It is not for Mr. Litchfield or for me to determine the amount—the proportion has already been settled by our original covenant."
Litchfield moved uneasily in his chair as Gorham ceased speaking.
"You put it in rather a disagreeable form, Mr. Gorham. Perhaps the fact that you have been talking this side of the enterprise for so long has made you assimilate more of your own theories than is ordinarily the case. Of course, in the beginning, it was necessary to make the statements strong in order to be convincing, but there was no 'covenant,' as you call it, and the people are not in a position to exact an equal division unless we choose to give it to them."
"Can it be that I understand you correctly?" Gorham demanded, with mingled indignation and amazement. "Do you mean to imply that I have not been sincere in stating to the public the original basis upon which we incorporated? Do you suggest that when one party to the agreement has lived fairly up to his end of it we, the other party, should neglect to do the same, simply because he has no access to our books and no power to demand an accounting?"
"You are far too literal in your interpretation of my remarks," Litchfield protested, with some warmth. "This parallel you have drawn is absurd on the face of it. There has been no legal agreement that we should treat the dear public as if it were in actual partnership with us. You have held out certain inducements which have secured for us the concessions, and we have made good the promise you gave that our success meant advantage to the people. But all this was a means to an end. For five years the public has shared equally with those of us who have put money and brains into the Consolidated Companies. No one suggests that the people should not still continue to receive benefits, but those of us here present are unanimous in our conviction that the time has now come to conduct the Companies upon a strictly business basis. This is not the age for quixotic sentimentality, and the Consolidated Companies not only possesses the right, but the power to maintain its position upon the same basis as other smaller and less powerful organizations. Speaking for myself alone, I am amazed that Robert Gorham, with his exceptional and acknowledged business acumen, should take a position with his Executive Committee which is as disadvantageous to his own interests as it is to the stockholders'."
No one but Gorham himself saw the mist which momentarily rose before his eyes, yet, when it passed, his vision was clearer than it had ever been. The men sitting around him represented the flower of the business world, each one of whom stood before his fellow-men as a tangible expression of honor and integrity. Yet not one was able to comprehend Gorham's viewpoint, not one could be anything but incredulous that he stood sincere in the position he had taken. This was what hurt him most. The applause which his associates had awarded him had been as that won by a clever actor rather than, as he had believed, the responsive echo forced from their souls by the battle notes of a new cause. Their acceptance of his doctrines had been because his arguments had persuaded them of the material side of the enterprise. The very magnetism which they had felt exercised by him upon themselves they had capitalized as an asset to be assayed when once the ore was stopped. All the high-sounding claims were turned at this moment into empty platitudes. All his promises were valueless beyond his personal strength to make them good. To this extent Allen had been right, but it was not too late to recognize the danger and to meet it. His associates saw the Robert Gorham they thought they had known for five years sitting in repose before them while this realization of the situation surged through his brain—they saw the real Robert Gorham when he rose to his feet, and faced them with a force they felt before a word was spoken.
"I could not have believed it possible," he said, "for a moment such as this ever to arrive. I have lived in this business Utopia for five years, blind to the fact that those who labored with me failed utterly to comprehend or to appreciate the sincerity of my motives or the integrity of my purpose. I admit that I question my ability to make clear to you by words what my acts have not conveyed. During these years, and until to-day, you have accepted my judgment as supreme, and for the first time I realize that this was not because you believed in it, but because you saw in it advantage to yourselves. The gratification which I have enjoyed from this supposed tribute has vanished, like the empty bubble that it was. It has been said that the Consolidated Companies was a one-man corporation, which I have denied, believing that my labors were rather those of the pioneer, showing the way to those associated with me who would naturally follow my footsteps. Again, I was wrong: this has been a one-man corporation, and it is so to-day. Not only has the creation of it been mine and mine alone, but also the successful putting into execution of those principles which I alone devised. The credit for this, which I have until now proudly conceded to you, I assume wholly for myself, and I also give myself the further credit of having, unknown to myself, been the single force which has compelled you to live up to the high standard I established.
"Now, as the parent of this child which I have seen develop to this point under my guidance and protection, I stand here prepared to fight for its honor against you who threaten its destruction—and I warn you that the parent love dares much. As the Roman Virginius stood with his sword pricking the flesh over the heart of his beloved daughter, so do I stand ready to destroy my offspring rather than suffer its dishonor at the hands of any Appius Claudius. Gentlemen, the Consolidated Companies has been a one-man corporation in the past through your sufferance; from to-day, if it exist at all, it shall be a one-man corporation because of my will. You know that these are no idle words. You know what would be the result of a single statement from me that the Companies repudiates its assumed responsibilities. I do not ask—I demand that you gentlemen, as the Executive Committee of the corporation, pass such resolutions as will place the authority absolutely in my hands. I ask Mr. Litchfield to take the chair, while I retire to give you ample opportunity for discussion. However hard it may be for your personal pride, you will have to do this—you have too much at stake to gratify your resentment of my autocracy. But if you can gain any consolation in the knowledge that you have dealt your president a blow from which it will take long for him to recover, I beg of you to make the most of it. I believed that power was the supreme lever with which to move the world, and that money was but the fulcrum upon which that lever should rest. You gentlemen have shattered this belief, and have shown me that sordid gold is the controlling object of man's life. Still, I prefer to remain in my Utopia, alone if need be, but with your unwilling company so long as my present strength shall last."
Gorham closed his eyes involuntarily as he ceased speaking, still standing before his associates. A single tremor passed over his face, and then it was as impassive as before. With a bow as courteous as it was impressive, he left the room.
When Covington entered Gorham's office an hour later he found his chief bowed forward on his desk, his head resting upon his hands. As the door closed the older man raised his eyes, and the change in his face caused Covington to stop in surprise. The usual color was replaced by a dull, ashen gray, the lines had deepened, and the general aspect was that of a man ten years older.
"Everything is all right, Mr. Gorham," Covington remarked, encouragingly. "They passed the resolutions you demanded."
It was the first time Gorham had ever addressed him by his Christian name, and this fact, together with the tone in which it was spoken, aroused a novel sensation in the younger man. He took the outstretched hand, and accepted the friendly pressure, conscious of a feeling not altogether pleasant.
"John," Gorham repeated, "you and I are the only ones who can save the Companies to its stockholders. We have a tremendous responsibility thrust upon us."
"But you won out," Covington exclaimed, amazed that Gorham seemed not to have comprehended his words. "Everything is all right."
"Everything is all wrong," the older man corrected, his eyes flashing with a fire at variance with his general bearing. "Of course I won out, but that is the least of my concern. My life-work bids fair to be a failure, unless you and I together can build this structure over, using material which this time will prove strong enough to withstand the unholy strain of money, money, money. Of course I won out, because they dare not risk my antagonism; but I have failed—miserably failed—in my efforts to instil into those associated with me the basic principles of a successful altruistic business. Oh, the pity of it! The greater the returns the greater the greed, and their blindness in killing the goose which lays the golden egg! But in you, John, at least, I have a tower of strength."
Covington found himself being rapidly forced into an equivocal position. No one knew so well as he that the present conditions were the direct result of his skilful and persistent manipulation, yet the result of this first issue had not been what he had foreseen. In fact, it had turned out better than he had expected, in that Gorham now leaned on him as his sole support. Yet it was dangerous, Covington realized, to be placed where he could be accused of carrying water on both shoulders, so he hastened to put himself on record, midway between the two factions.
"They had no idea that you laid so much stress on the moral side, in your own mind—" he began.
"How could they have known me at all and thought otherwise?"
"The whole scheme of the Consolidated Companies is so unusual that perhaps it isn't to be wondered at. What you consider to be unwarranted is a recognized business method in other corporations."
"Why do you tell me this?" Gorham demanded, suddenly.
"Because I feared that you had overlooked it, in the heat of the argument, and some sort of a compromise is of course necessary."
"Compromise?" repeated Gorham, questioningly. "I don't follow you."
"Why, you've carried your point, and proved your strength, but you have divided the Companies into two camps. Of course something must be done to conciliate. By Jove! that was an arraignment you gave them!"
"There can be no conciliation, Covington," was the firm response; "there can be no compromise. The Consolidated Companies either is what it is, or it is nothing. The pledges which I have made from the beginning shall be lived up to in spirit and in letter, or the final exercise of the strength which they all are forced to admit shall be again to separate it into its integral parts, and prevent it from undoing that which I have already accomplished through its agency."
"That is a large contract for any one man to undertake," Covington remarked. "No individual has yet been able to disintegrate a successful going corporation when the stockholders and the directors were opposed to it."
"We are talking of unusual things," Gorham replied. "No individual before has been able to found so mammoth or so successful a corporation as the Consolidated Companies. No individual before this has found himself strong enough to force the immediate capitulation, against their wills, of so powerful an Executive Committee. With these precedents before me, I state my determination not as a threat, or as a boast, but as a fact."
"Are you counting on the stockholders for support?"
"You will find them as unanimously against you as you have just found the committee."
"Do you know this?"
"They all know it; they would not have taken their position otherwise. Next time, the stockholders will be put in evidence."
Gorham again became silent. This second shock, following so soon after the first, for a moment paralyzed his power to think, but he quickly recovered his optimism.
"I do not believe it—I will not believe it. But why do you tell me this?" he again asked. "There must be some purpose behind it all."
"There is. It is necessary for you to realize the exact position we are in. Your work has been with those about to become stockholders, or with the consolidations; I have been brought in personal contact with the stockholders and the directors. You have met the ideals, while I have come face to face with the actualities. For this reason I tell you that you are undertaking a more serious campaign than you realize, and I also tell you that, strong as you are, compromise and conciliation will eventually be required."
"Do I, then, stand alone?"
Covington resented the suggestion.
"There should be no question in your mind as to where I stand," he said. "My personal relations with you, and my hope of an even closer relationship, make any discussion unnecessary. But I see the situation from a viewpoint which you cannot, and my duty clearly demands that I express myself to you with complete frankness. I do not suggest that you give up your ideals—I simply urge you to compromise with them in order to win greater victories in the future."
"Covington," replied Gorham, with decision, "you know how much I value your judgment, how firmly I rely upon your loyalty. Because of this, I shall move with even greater care than so serious a crisis as this inevitably demands. Yet it is only fair to say to you now that I can see but one outcome. There are many conflicts which arise in life which admit of compromise—but you cannot compromise with truth, with virtue, or with honor. These attributes either exist, or they do not—there are no half-ways. Suppose you do a little thinking, too, along my line. Then we'll join together, taking advantage of this new knowledge which has come to us, and force the issue where we see the necessity. We are both trying to accomplish the same results, but are considering different routes. Think it over, my friend, and I feel sure that you will see that I am right."
His interview with Gorham left Covington with certain well-defined conclusions: Gorham would never yield one iota from his position, and his associates would not rest until they had wiped out this affront they had received. It would be necessary for him to take sides openly with Gorham or else make definite sacrifices. Yet he must hold the position he now had with the directors so as to be Gorham's successor in case the affair turned in that direction; and, most important of all, he must fortify himself still further against the breaking of the storm, which he knew would sooner or later come upon him.
In military conflicts there are various methods of winning a victory. When the adversary appears too strong for a direct battle, a skilful tactician will sometimes weaken the enemy's strength by a rear attack. Covington was a skilful tactician, and in the present crisis the affidavits he had stored away in his safe-deposit drawer tempted him sorely. He had never expected to use them, he told himself. He had never expected to be placed in opposition to Mr. Gorham. With the family alliance he contemplated, there would seem to be no occasion for conflicting interests to exist between them. But if Gorham insisted on making a fool of himself, there was really no good reason why Covington should allow himself to be dragged down with him. It was infinitely wiser to be in the position of "heads I win, tails you lose." Surely he could not be accused of selfishness in the matter, when, if Mr. Gorham were eventually dethroned by the directors, and he, Covington, crowned in his place, it would simply result in keeping the Consolidated Companies still in the family. And as for Gorham's silly threat to disintegrate the corporation—that was too absurd to be considered seriously.
So Covington again inspected the papers which Levy had secured for him. The one which related to Mrs. Buckner and the prospector he laid aside at once as too contemptible to be considered, but the other interested him. Gorham was setting himself above other men who held enviable positions in the business and social world. If this affidavit was true—and Covington saw no reason to doubt its authenticity—this demigod might hesitate to emphasize his superiority. With the legality of his marriage questioned, his Czarship might be weakened; and this, as Covington saw it, meant advantage to himself in the Consolidated Companies, and an insurance against any attitude Gorham might take against him. With Brady vowing vengeance, his part in unloading the railways stock on Alice might at any time be uncovered. With the present strained relations between Gorham and the Executive Committee, his confidential relations with both sides might prove disagreeable. But with Gorham himself entangled in a domestic complication, serious consequences to himself from such a catastrophe might be averted, or, at least, mitigated. And, best of all, Levy was quite ready to proceed in the matter with Buckner as his client. Surely Opportunity never offered herself with more brazen coquetry to any one than she did to John Covington.
All this resulted in a busy afternoon for Lawyer Levy. Covington returned the affidavit to him and left him free to proceed or not, as he saw fit. Levy's delight was unbounded—"it was such a nice case." Buckner was quickly summoned to the lawyer's office and a new agreement drawn between them, which gave special joy to Buckner, as it meant an increased supply of money and a renewed lease of life in New York City, which he had learned to "love." Besides the agreement, he was asked to sign a letter to Mrs. Gorham, which had been carefully worded by Levy and was filled with lurid descriptions of his affection and loneliness. He had accidentally become aware of the fact that their separation was not legal, and the unexpected knowledge had served to revive in him all the fondness of the early days. He had mastered the curse of drink which had brought about their estrangement, and needed her companionship and care. He regretted the inconvenience which it might occasion, but Mr. Gorham had everything while he had nothing but the affection which he felt for her—and that as she was now, and always had been his wife, he demanded his rights.
Levy had known men to change their minds, and in order to prevent any such misfortune he despatched the letter by special messenger early in the evening. Gorham had returned late and betook himself to the library immediately after dinner to consider the new business complications with great care before grappling with the situation on the following day. He was still meditating when he was surprised to see Eleanor enter the room, with an expression on her face which at once made him forget his own perplexities.
"Why, Eleanor!" he cried, "what has gone wrong with you?"
Mrs. Gorham took her favorite seat on the arm of her husband's chair, and he drew her to him.
"I saw Ralph Buckner while out driving a few weeks ago," she said in response to his question. "It unnerved me at the time, and I have been apprehensive ever since. I did not tell you about it, as there seemed nothing on which to base my fears, and you were so occupied. I hesitate even now to add to your burdens, but this letter has just come, and you should see it."
As she spoke she placed the open letter in his hand, and he read it carefully.
"There can be nothing to this—can there?" she asked, her lip trembling and her whole expression showing how eagerly she awaited his answer.
"Eleanor," he said, softly, drawing her onto his lap, and soothing her with the tenderness a mother would have shown an anxious child. He held her pressed closely to him for so long a time in silence that at last she became frightened She sat upright and, placing a hand on either shoulder, regarded him searchingly.
"Robert," she cried, aghast, "you don't believe—"
Then he told her the news which James Riley had brought him, and of his efforts to learn more.
"No, dear, I don't believe it," Gorham finally answered her unfinished question. "No power on earth could make me believe it until they proved it; and even then no power could take you from me."
"But it must be proved one way or the other."
"There will be no need," Gorham replied, with a lightness he did not feel; "I will find this man and will settle it for all time."
"How will you settle it, Robert?"
"He is doing this for money. Now that he has come out into the open, I can take care of him."
"But that won't do, dear. If there is any question about the divorce, your buying him off won't settle it, will it?"
"It must," was Gorham's decisive answer.
"It can't." Eleanor rose and regarded him with an infinite tenderness. "It can't, Robert; you know it can't, dear. If the divorce is not legal, then there was no marriage between us, and what Ralph Buckner says or does cannot affect that. We must know the facts now, dear."
"In all probability the divorce was perfectly regular. It is questioned now purely for blackmailing purposes; but I will submit to that, if necessary, rather than have the matter go any further. Don't be quixotic and play into the hands of these scoundrels who have gotten hold of Buckner, and are trying to reach me through you, knowing well that this is my vulnerable point."
Mrs. Gorham was so long silent that her husband felt his argument had won.
"Eleanor," he said more calmly, "can you ever fully realize what you are to me? All these gigantic transactions which have fallen to my lot mean only so many contests with the world that I may bring my victories back to you. The struggle is inspiring, the strife is intoxicating while it is on, but how hollow the successes except for you! My life and all its activities are centred about this one inmost shrine in which I mean to keep you, unsullied by even the implied contamination which these blackmailers would bring upon you. I will fight them with their own weapons, and, thank God, I can ward off the blow."
"Robert—my Robert!" Mrs. Gorham's voice was low but masterful in the force which lay behind the words. "Nothing can ever come to me so bitter as to make me forget that this has caused you to say what you have just said. You mean every word, and to have won such devotion from such a man is enough to make any woman's life complete. But it is your heart which speaks, and our sober judgment must acknowledge without a question the necessity of settling beyond the reach of doubt the validity of the legal tie which binds us. We need no court to settle the question of our love, my Robert—that is the real marriage which I know God only recognizes; but there can be no happiness for us if we disregard even for a moment those conventions which are necessary to our every-day life. You know it, dear, just as I do."
"It is unnecessary, Eleanor—it is unwise. We are so certain that there is no real basis for doubt."
"Would you feel the same if Alice were involved?" she asked, quietly.
"Alice?" he repeated.
"Yes; suppose this same question came up with her, would you not be the first to insist that the facts be proven?"
"What can I say?" he asked, brokenly. "This means a public trial and all the scandal that goes with it. It means a rehearsing of all that past which I have tried to help you to forget. It means pain and sorrow and suffering to you, dear—to you whom I would shield with my life from just what now threatens you."
"A trial, Robert?" Mrs. Gorham asked, looking at him with a startled expression. "Do you mean that there has to be a trial?"
"Of course," Gorham replied, wondering at the unexpected change in her attitude.
Suddenly she buried her face against his shoulder and burst into tears. "Oh, I couldn't stand that!" she cried.
Gorham gently held her face from him and looked into it kindly but questioningly. "Why not?" he asked.
"It would kill me," she replied, not meeting his look.
"Is there anything which the trial could bring out which you have not already told me, Eleanor?" he asked, quietly.
"Don't you know enough already to understand why I could never live through it?"
Gorham urged no further and caressed her gently, yet there was an expression of distinct disappointment in his face.
"There must be no trial," he said, firmly. "You shall be shielded from that and from everything else which threatens to bring you sorrow. You must leave it all in my hands."
Allen went over the list of names lying on the desk before him for a third time, carefully running down the column with his finger. Then he leaned back in his chair and reflected. The single light flooded the desk and cast its shadows out into the great office, but the boy's eyes never left the papers before him.
"That's mighty strange," he said aloud. "I'll bet Lady Pat got it straight, but if she did that list ought to show it."
He leaned forward again and turned to the early pages. "Courtney, Cousens, Covell, Coveney—Covington ought to come in right there." Then he turned the pages over rapidly—"Goodrich, Goodspeed, Goodwin, Gordon, Gore—there isn't any Gorham there, either."
For several moments he sat there deep in thought. Suddenly he rose and struck the top of the desk a resounding blow with his fist.
"Chump!" he cried. "Of course he didn't. Oh, I'm a great business man, I am, thinking he'd buy those shares in his own name or in Alice's. It's back to the dear old farm for me. Chump!"
He restored the papers to their proper places, picked up Patricia's bank, which he still had with him, turned out the light, and then tramped down the long flights of stairs to work off his excitement. He was disappointed not to have succeeded in this first attempt to prove his suspicions, but he found some consolation in the certainty which came to him, even in the face of this defeat, that he was on the right track.
For the next few days more immediate matters kept him completely occupied. Gorham told him enough of what had happened at the meeting to make him feel at once elated and concerned.
"You were right to a degree, my boy, and I give you credit for it; but don't think for a moment that there is going to be any change in the administration of the Consolidated Companies."
"You'll have a hard fight on your hands, Mr. Gorham. They aren't the kind of men to let you force them any longer than they have to."
"That will be as long as we remain associated in the corporation," Gorham said, with conviction. "It does mean a greater burden for me and for Covington and for you, as for all those who remain loyal, but the game is worth the struggle. This is what makes life worth living, boy. Struggles are nothing—I've had them always; it's only the lost faith which slips in under one's guard and stings."
Allen longed to ask just where Covington claimed to stand, but he dreaded further imputations as to the motives underlying his question. Then, later, it occurred to him that he might take advantage of the new relations created by Covington himself. Watching his opportunity, he opened up the subject with a proper air of mystery.
"I wish you would advise me, Mr. Covington."
The words may have caused surprise, but Covington turned to the boy as though his remark were perfectly natural.
"I shall be glad to if I can," he said.
"You see, I don't quite know where I stand just now. There's evidently going to be a struggle between the chief and the committee, and I'd like to be put in right. How do you think it's going to turn out?"
Covington did not doubt the sincerity which Allen's words and tone apparently expressed.
"There is only one possible outcome," he replied, frankly. "Mr. Gorham will have to compromise or they will find a way to take his power away from him."
"But you don't think he will, do you?"
"He's bound to. No man except a fool is going to let his ideals rob him of his power, and Robert Gorham is no fool."
"No, but those ideals are pretty well developed."
"Of course they are, and he will hold to them as long as he can; but when Litchfield and the others begin to take real action, as they will soon, he will see things differently."
"Then you advise me to stick to him?"
Covington looked at him critically. "If I were you," he said, carefully, "I would stick to the Companies. I am with him, of course, but the clerks have no special obligation to any one. You have been closer to him than the others, but I don't suppose that is any reason why you shouldn't look out for yourself if a break comes. But personally, I'm not expecting any break."