"Professor Henry H. Bates," read Bobby in some perplexity, then suddenly his brow cleared and he laughed uproariously. "Come right in, Biff," he called.
In response to this invitation there entered upon Agnes' vision a short, chunky, broad-shouldered young man in a checked green suit and red tie, who, finding himself suddenly confronted by a dazzlingly beautiful young lady, froze instantly into speechless awkwardness.
"This is my friend and partner, Mr. Biff—Mr. Henry H. Bates—Miss Elliston," introduced Bobby, smiling.
Agnes held out her hand, which suddenly seemed to dwindle in size as it was clasped by the huge palm of Mr. Bates.
"I have heard so much of you from Mr. Burnit, and always nice things," she said, smiling at him so frankly that Mr. Bates, though his face flushed red, instantly thawed.
"Bobby's right there with the boost," commented Mr. Bates, and then, not being quite satisfied with that form of speech, he huskily corrected it to: "Burnit's always handing out those pleasant words." This form of expression seeming also to be somewhat lacking in polish, he relapsed into more redness, and wiped the strangely moist palms of his hands upon the sides of his coat.
"He doesn't talk about any but pleasant people," Agnes assured him.
After she had gone Mr. Bates looked dazedly at the door through which she had passed out, then turned to Bobby.
"Carries a full line of that conversation," he commented, "but I like to fall for it. And say! I'll bet she's game all right; the kind that would stick to a guy when he was broke, in jail and had the smallpox. That's your steady, ain't it, Bobby?"
Coming from any one else this query might have seemed a trifle blunt, but Bobby understood precisely how Mr. Bates meant it, and was gratified.
"She's the real girl," he admitted.
"I'm for her," stoutly asserted Mr. Bates, as he extracted a huge wad of crumpled bills from his trousers pocket. "Any old time she wants anybody strangled or stabbed and you ain't handy, she can call on your friend Biff. Here's your split of last month's pickings at the gym. One hundred and eighty-one large, juicy simoleons; count 'em, one hundred and eighty-one!" And he threw the money on the desk.
"Everything paid?" asked Bobby.
"Here's the receipts," and from inside his vest Mr. Bates produced them. "Ground rent, light, heat, payroll, advertising, my own little old weekly envelope and everything; and I got one-eighty-one in my other kick for my share."
"Very well," said Bobby; "you just put this money of mine into a fund to buy further equipments when we need them."
"Nit and nix; also no!" declared Mr. Bates emphatically. "This time the bet goes as she lays. You take a real money drag-down from now on."
"Mr. Johnson," called Bobby through the open door, "please take charge of this one hundred and eighty-one dollars, and open a separate account for my investment in the Bates Athletic Hall. It might be, Biff," he continued, turning to Mr. Bates, "that yours would turn out to be the only safe business venture I ever made."
"It ain't no millionaire stunt, but it sure does pay a steady divvy," Mr. Bates assured him. "I see a man outside scraping the real-estate sign off the door. Is he going to paint a new one?"
"I don't know," said Bobby, frowning. "I shall, of course, get into something very shortly, but I've not settled on anything as yet. The best thing that has turned up so far is an interest in the Brightlight Electric Company offered me to-day by Frank L. Sharpe."
"What!" shrieked Biff in a high falsetto, and slapped himself smartly on the wrist. "Has he been here? I thought it seemed kind of close. Give me a cigarette till I fumigate."
"What's the matter with the Brightlight Electric Company?" demanded Bobby.
"Nothing. It's a cinch so far as I know. But Sharpe! Why, say, Bobby, all the words I'd want to use to tell you about him have been left out of the dictionary so they could send it through the mails."
Bobby frowned. The certain method to have him make allowances for a man was to attack that man. When he arrived at the Idlers' Club at noon, however, he was given another opportunity for Christian charity. Nick Allstyne and Payne Winthrop and Stanley Rogers were discussing something with great indignation when he joined them, and Nick drew him over to the bulletin board, where was displayed the application of Frank L. Sharpe, proposed by Clarence Smythe, Silas Trimmer's son-in-law, and seconded by another undesirable who had twice been posted for non-payment of dues.
"There is only one thing about this that commends itself to me, and that is the immaculate and colossal nerve of the proceeding," declared Nick indignantly. "The next thing you know somebody will propose Sam Stone."
At this they all laughed. The Idlers' Club was the one institution that stood in no awe of the notorious "boss" of the city and of the state; a man who had never held an office, but who, until the past two years, had controlled all offices; whose methods were openly dishonest; who held underground control of every public utility and a score of private enterprises. The idea of Stone as an applicant for membership in the Idlers' Club was a good joke, but the actual application of Sharpe was too serious for jesting. Nevertheless, all this turmoil over the mere name of the man worked a strange reaction in Bobby Burnit.
"After all, business is business," he declared to himself, "and I don't see where Sharpe's personality figures in this Brightlight Electric deal, especially since I am to have control."
Accordingly he directed Chalmers and Johnson to make a thorough investigation of that corporation.
BOBBY ENTERS A BUSINESS ALLIANCE, A SOCIAL ENTANGLEMENT AND A QUARREL WITH AGNES
The report of Mr. Johnson and Mr. Chalmers upon the Brightlight Electric Company was a complicated affair, but, upon the whole, highly favorable. It was an old establishment, the first electric company that had been formed in the city, and it held, besides some minor concessions, an ancient franchise for the exclusive supply of twelve of the richest down-town blocks, this franchise, made by a generous board of city fathers, still having twenty years to run. The concern's equipment was old and much of it needed renewal, but its financial affairs were in good shape, except for a mortgage of a hundred thousand dollars held by one J. W. Williams.
"About this mortgage," Mr. Chalmers advised Mr. Burnit; "its time limit expires within two months, and I have no doubt that is why Sharpe wants to put additional capital into the concern. Moreover, Williams is notoriously reputed a lieutenant of Sam Stone's, and it is quite probable that Stone is the real holder of the mortgage."
"I don't see where it makes much difference, so long as the mortgage has to be paid, whether it is paid to Stone or to somebody else," said Bobby reflectively.
"I don't see any difference myself," agreed Chalmers, "except that I am suspicious of that whole crowd, since Sharpe is only a figurehead for Stone. I find that Sharpe is credited with holding two hundred thousand dollars' worth of the present stock. The majority of the Consumers Company and a good share of the United are also in his name. Just how all these facts have a bearing upon each other I can not at present state, but in view of the twenty years' franchise, and of the fact that you will hold undisputed control, I do not see but that you have a splendid investment here. The contract for the city lighting of those twelve blocks is ironclad, and the franchise for exclusive private lighting and power is exclusive so long as 'reasonably satisfactory service' is maintained. As this has been undisputed for thirty years I don't think you need have much fear upon that score," and Chalmers smiled.
In the afternoon of that same day Sharpe called up.
"What dinner engagement have you for to-night?" he inquired.
"None," replied Bobby, after a moment of hesitation.
"Then I want you to dine with me at the Spender. Can you make it?"
"I guess so," replied Bobby reluctantly, after another hesitant pause. "What time, say?"
"About seven. Just inquire at the desk. I'll have a dining-room reserved."
Bobby was very thoughtful as he arrayed himself for dinner, and he was still more thoughtful when, a boy ushering him into the cozy little private dining-room, he found the over-dazzling young Mrs. Sharpe with her husband. She greeted the handsome young Mr. Burnit most effusively, clasping his hand warmly and rolling up her large eyes at him while Mr. Sharpe looked on with smiling approval. Bobby experienced that strange conflict which most men have known, a feeling of revulsion at war with the undoubted lure of the women. She was one of those who deliberately make appeal through their femininity alone.
"Such a pleasure to meet you," she said in the most silvery of voices. "I have heard so much of Mr. Burnit and his polo skill."
"It's the best trick I do," confessed Bobby, laughing.
"That's because Mr. Burnit hasn't found his proper forte as yet," interposed Sharpe. "He was really cut out for the illuminating business." And he led the way to the table, upon which Bobby had already noted that five places were laid.
"A couple of our friends might drop in," said the host in explanation; "they usually do."
"If it's Sam and Billy we're not going to wait for them," said Mrs. Sharpe with a languishing glance at Bobby. "They're always ages and ages late, if they come at all. Frank, where are those cocktails? I'm running down."
She took the drink with an avidity Bobby was not used to seeing among his own women friends, and almost immediately it heightened her vivacity. There could be no question that she was a fascinating woman. Again Bobby had that strange sense of revulsion, and again he was conscious that, in spite of her trace of a tendency to indecorum, there was a subtle appeal in her; one, however, that he shrank from analyzing. Her talk was mostly of the places she had been, with almost pathetic little mention now and then of unattainable people. Evidently she craved social position, in spite of the fact that she was for ever shut out from it.
While they were upon the fish the door opened and two men came in. With a momentary frown Bobby recognized both; one of them the great Sam Stone, and the other William Garland, a rich young cigar manufacturer, quite prominent in public affairs. The latter he had met; the former he inspected quite curiously as he acknowledged the introduction.
Stone gave one the idea that he was extremely heavy; not that he was so grossly stout, although he was large, but he seemed to convey an impression of tremendous weight. His features and his expression were heavy, his eyes were heavy-lidded, and he was taciturnity itself. He gave Bobby a quick scrutiny from head to foot, and in that instant had weighed him, measured him, catalogued and indexed him for future reference for ever. Stone's only spoken word had been a hoarse acknowledgment of his introduction, and as soon as the entree came on he attacked it with a voracious appetite, which, however, did not prevent him from weighing and absorbing in silence every word that was spoken in his hearing. Bobby found himself wondering how this unattractive man could have secured his tremendous following, in spite of the fact that Stone "never broke a promise and never went back on a friend," qualities which would go far toward establishing any man in the esteem of mankind.
It was not until the appearance of the salad that any allusion was made to business, and then Garland, upon an impatient signal from Stone, turned to Bobby with the suavity of which he was thorough master.
"Mr. Sharpe tells me that you consider taking a dip into the public utilities line," he suggested.
Instantly three of them bent an attention upon Bobby so straight that it might have been palpable even to him, had not Stone suddenly lighted a match to attract their attention, and glared at them.
"I have already decided," said Bobby frankly, seeing no reason for fencing. "My legal and business advisers tell me that it would be a good investment, and I am ready to take hold of the Brightlight Electric as soon as the formalities can be arranged."
Stone grunted his approval, and immediately rose, looking at his watch.
"Pleased to have met you, Mr. Burnit," he rumbled hoarsely, and took his coat and hat. "Sorry I can't stay. Promised to meet a man."
"Coming back?" asked Garland.
"Might," responded the other, and was gone.
As soon as Stone had left, the trifle of strain that had been apparent prior to Bobby's very decided statement that he would go into the business, was lifted; and Mrs. Sharpe, pink of cheek and sparkling of eye and exhilarated by the wine to her utmost of purely physical attractiveness, moved when the coffee was served to a chair between Bobby and Garland, and, gifted with a purring charm, exerted herself to the utmost to please the new-comer. She puzzled Bobby. The woman was an entirely new type to him, and he could not fathom her.
With the clearing of the table more champagne was brought, and Bobby began to have an uneasy dread of a "near-orgie," such as was associated in the minds of the knowing ones with this crowd. Sharpe, however, quickly removed this fear, for, pushing aside his own glass with a bare sip after it had been filled, he drew forth a pencil and produced some papers which he spread before Bobby.
"I imagined that you would have a very favorable report on the Brightlight Electric," he said with a smile, "so I took the liberty of bringing along an outline of my plan for reorganization. If Mr. Garland and Mrs. Sharpe will excuse us for talking shop we might glance over them together."
"You're selfish," pouted Mrs. Sharpe quite prettily, but, nevertheless, she turned her exclusive attention to Garland for the time being.
With considerable interest Bobby plunged into the business at hand. Here was a well-established concern that had been doing business for three decades, which had been paying ten per cent. dividends for years, and which would doubtless continue to do so for many years to come. An opportunity to obtain control of it solved his problem of investment at once, and he strove to approach its intricacies with intelligence. He became vaguely aware, by and by, that just behind him Garland and Mrs. Sharpe were carrying on a most animated conversation in an undertone interspersed with much laughter, and once, with a start of annoyance, he overheard Garland telling a slightly risque story, at which Mrs. Sharpe laughed softly and with evident relish. He glanced around involuntarily. Garland had his arm across the back of her chair, and they were leaning toward each other in a close proximity which Bobby reflected with sudden savageness could not possibly occur if that were his wife; nor was he much softened by the later reflection that, in the first place, a woman of her type never could have been his wife, and that, in the second place, it was not the man who was to blame, nor the woman so much, as Sharpe himself. Indeed, Bobby somehow gained the impression that the others flouted and despised Sharpe and held him as a weakling.
His glance was but a fleeting one, and he turned from them with a look which Sharpe, noting, misinterpreted.
"I had hoped," he said, "to go into this thing very thoroughly, so that we could begin the reorganization at once, with the preliminaries completely understood; but if we are detaining you from any engagement, Mr. Burnit—"
"Not at all, not at all," the highly-interested Bobby hastened to assure him. "I have no engagements whatever to-night, and my time is entirely at your disposal."
"Then let's drop down to the theater," suddenly interposed Mrs. Sharpe. "You can talk your dust-dry business there just as well as here. Billy, telephone down to the Orpheum and see if they have a box."
Bobby was far too unsuspecting to understand that he had been deliberately trapped. Though not of the ultra-exclusives, his social position was an excellent one and he had the entree everywhere. To be seen publicly with young Burnit was a step upward, as Mrs. Sharpe saw it, in that forbidding and painful social climb.
Bobby started with dismay when Garland stepped to the telephone, but he was fairly caught, and he realized it in time to check the involuntary protest that rose to his lips. He had acknowledged that his time was free and at their disposal, and he regretted deeply that no good, handy lie came to his rescue.
They arrived at the theater between acts, and with the full blaze of the auditorium upon them. Bobby's comfort was not at all heightened when Stone almost immediately followed them in. He had firmly made up his mind as they entered to obtain a place in the rear corner of the box, where he could not be seen; but he was not prepared for the generalship of Mrs. Sharpe, who so manoeuvered it as to force him to the very edge, between herself and Garland, and, as she turned to him with a laughing remark which, in pantomime, had all the confidential understanding of most cordial and intimate acquaintanceship, Bobby glanced apprehensively across at the other side of the proscenium-arch. There, in the opposite box, staring at him in shocked amazement, sat Agnes Elliston!
"But Agnes," protested Bobby at the Elliston home next day, "I could not possibly help it."
"No?" she inquired incredulously. "I don't imagine that any one strongly advised you to have anything to do with Mr. Sharpe—and it was through him that you met her. Perhaps it is just as well that it happened, however, because it has shown you just how you were about to become involved."
Bobby swallowed quite painfully. His tongue was a little dry.
"Well, the fact of the matter is," he admitted, reddening and stammering, "that I have already 'become involved,' if that's the way you choose to put it; for—for—I signed an agreement with Sharpe, and an application for increase of capitalization, this morning."
"You don't mean it!" she gasped. "How could you?"
"Why not?" he demanded. "Agnes, it seems quite impossible for you to divorce business and social affairs. I tell you they have absolutely nothing to do with each other. The opportunity Sharpe offered me is a splendid one. Chalmers and Johnson investigated it thoroughly, and both advise me that it is quite an unusually good chance."
"You didn't seem to be able to divorce business and social affairs last night," she reminded him rather sharply, returning to the main point at issue and ignoring all else.
There was the rub. She could not get out of her mind the picture of Mrs. Sharpe chatting gaily with him, smiling up at him and all but fawning upon him, in full view of any number of people who knew both Agnes and Bobby.
"You have made a deliberate choice of your companions, Mr. Burnit, after being warned against them from more than one source," she told him, aflame with indignant jealousy, but speaking with the rigidity common in such quarrels, "and you may abide by your choice."
"Agnes!" he protested. "You don't mean—"
"I mean just this," she interrupted him coldly, "that I certainly can not afford to be seen in public, and don't particularly care to entertain in private, any one who permits himself to be seen in public with, or entertained in private by, the notorious Mrs. Frank L. Sharpe."
They were both of them pale, both trembling, both stiffened by hurt and rebellious pride. Bobby gazed at her a moment in a panic, and saw no relenting in her eyes, in her pose, in her compressed lips. She was still thinking of the way Mrs. Sharpe had looked at him.
"Very well," said he, quite calmly; "since our arrangements for this evening are off, I presume I may as well accept that invitation to dine at Sharpe's," and with this petty threat he left the house.
At the Idlers' he was met by a succession of grins that were more aggravating because for the most part they were but scantily explained. Nick Allstyne, indeed, did take him into a corner, with a vast show of secrecy, requested him to have an ordinance passed, through his new and influential friends, turning Bedlow Park into a polo ground; while Payne Winthrop added insult to injury by shaking hands with him and most gravely congratulating him—but upon what he would not say. Bobby was half grinning and yet half angry when he left the club and went over for his usual half hour at the gymnasium. Professor Henry H. Bates was also grinning.
"See you're butting in with the swell mob," observed Mr. Bates cheerfully. "Getting your name in the paper, ain't you, along with the fake heavyweights and the divorces?" and before Bobby's eyes he thrust a copy of the yellowest of the morning papers, wherein it was set forth that Mr. and Mrs. Frank L. Sharpe had entertained a notable box party at the Orpheum, the night before, consisting of Samuel Stone, William Garland and Robert Burnit, the latter of whom, it was rumored, was soon to be identified with the larger financial affairs of the city, having already contracted to purchase a controlling interest in the Brightlight Electric Company. The paper had more to say about the significance of Bobby's appearance in this company, as indicating the new political move which sought to ally the younger business element with the progressive party that had been so long in safe, sane and conservative control of municipal affairs, except for the temporary setback of the recent so-called "citizens' movement" hysteria. Bobby frowned more deeply as he read on, and Mr. Bates grinned more and more cheerfully.
"Here's where it happens," he observed. "On the level, Bobby, did they hook you up on this electric deal?"
"What's the matter with it?" demanded Bobby. "After thorough investigation by my own lawyer and my own bookkeeper, the Brightlight proves to have been a profitable enterprise for a great many years, and is in as good condition now as it ever was. Why shouldn't I go into it?"
"Because it's no fun being the goat," he replied. "Say, tell me, did you ever earn a pull with this bunch?"
"Well, then, why should they hand you anything but the buzzer? If this is a good stunt don't you suppose they'd keep it at home? Don't you suppose that Stone could go out and get half the money in this town, if he wanted it, to put behind a deal that was worth ten per cent. a year and pickings? I don't care what your lawyer or what Johnson says about it, I know the men. This boy Garland is a good sport, all right, but he's for the easy-money crowd every time—and they're going to make the next mayor out of him. Our local Hicks would rather be robbed by a lot of friendly stick-up artists than have their money wasted by a lot of wooden-heads, and after this election the old Stone gang will have their feet right back in the trough; yes! This is the way I figure the dope. They've framed it up to dump the Brightlight Electric, and you're the fall guy. So wear pads in your derby, because the first thing you know the hammer's going to drop on your coco."
"How do you find out so much, Biff?" returned Bobby, smiling.
"By sleeping seven hours a day in place of twenty-four. If some of the marks I know would only cough up for a good, reliable alarm clock they'd be better off."
"Meaning me, of course," said Bobby. "For that I'll have to manhandle you a little. Where's your gloves?"
For fifteen minutes they punched away at each other with soft gloves as determinedly and as energetically as if they were deadly enemies, and then Bobby went back up to his own office. He found Applerod jubilant and Johnson glum. Already Applerod heard himself saying to his old neighbors: "As Frank L. Sharpe said to me this morning—," or: "I told Sharpe—," or: "Say! Sam Stone stopped at my desk yesterday—," and already he began to shine by this reflected glory.
"I hear that you have decided to go into the Brightlight Electric," he observed.
"Signed all the papers this morning," admitted Bobby.
"Allow me to congratulate you, sir," said Applerod, but Johnson silently produced from an index case a plain, gray envelope, which he handed to Bobby.
It was inscribed:
To My Son Upon His Putting Good Money Into any Public Service Corporation
and it read:
"When the manipulators of public service corporations tire of skinning the dear public in bulk, they skin individual specimens just to keep in practice. If you have been fool enough to get into the crowd that invokes the aid of dirty politics to help it hang people on street-car straps, just write them out a check for whatever money you have left, and tell your trustee you are broke again; because you are not and never can be of their stripe, and if you are not of their stripe they will pick your bones. Turn a canary loose in a colony of street sparrows and watch what happens to it."
Bobby folded up the letter grimly and went into his private room, where he thought long and soberly. That evening he went out to Sharpe's to dinner. As he was about to ring the bell, he stopped, confronted by a most unusual spectacle. Through the long plate-glass of the door he could see clearly back through the hall into the library, and there stood Mrs. Sharpe and William Garland in a tableau "that would have given Plato the pip," as Biff Bates might have expressed it had he known about Plato. At that moment Sharpe came silently down the stairs and turned, unobserved, toward the library. Seeing that his wife and Garland were so pleasantly engaged, he very considerately turned into the drawing-room instead, and as he entered the drawing-room he lit a cigarette! Bobby, vowing angrily that there could never be room in the Brightlight for both Sharpe and himself, did not ring the bell. Instead, he dropped in at the first public telephone and 'phoned his regrets.
"By the way," he added, "how soon will you need me again?"
"Not before a week, at least," Sharpe replied.
"Very well, then," said Bobby; "I'll be back a week from to-day."
Immediately upon his arrival down-town he telegraphed the joyous news to Jack Starlett, in Washington, to prepare for an old-fashioned loafing bee.
A STRANGE CONNECTION DEVELOPS BETWEEN ELECTRICITY AND POLITICS
Chalmers, during Bobby's absence, secured all the secret information that he could concerning the Brightlight Electric, but nothing to its detriment transpired in that investigation, and when he returned, Bobby, very sensibly as he thought, completed his investment. He paid his two hundred and fifty thousand dollars into the coffers of the company, and, at the first stock-holders' meeting, voting this stock and the ten shares he had bought from Sharpe at a hundred and seventy-two, he elected his own board of directors, consisting of Chalmers, Johnson, Applerod, Biff Bates and himself, giving one share of stock to each of the other four gentlemen so that they would be eligible. The remaining two members whom he allowed to be elected were Sharpe and J. W. Williams, and the board of directors promptly elected Bobby president and treasurer, Johnson secretary and Chalmers vice-president—a result which gave Bobby great satisfaction. Once he had been frozen out of a stock company; this time he had absolute control, and he found great pleasure in exercising it, though against Chalmers' protest. With swelling triumph he voted to himself, through his "dummy" directors, the salary of the former president—twelve thousand dollars a year—though he wondered a trifle that President Eastman submitted to his retirement with such equanimity, and after he walked away from that meeting he considered his business career as accomplished. He was settled for life if he wished to remain in the business, the salary added to the dividends on two hundred and sixty thousand dollars worth of stock bringing his own individual income up to a quite respectable figure. If there were no further revenue to be derived from the estate of John Burnit, he felt that he had a very fair prospect in life, indeed, and could, no doubt, make his way very nicely.
He had been unfortunate enough to find Agnes Elliston "not at home" upon the two occasions when he had called since their disagreement upon the subject of the Sharpes, but now he called her up by telephone precisely as if nothing had happened, and explained to her how good his prospects were; good enough, in fact, he added, that he could look matrimony very squarely in the eye.
"Allow me to congratulate you," said Agnes sweetly. "I presume I'll read presently about the divorce that precedes your marriage," and she hung up the receiver; all of which, had Bobby but paused to reflect upon it, was a very fair indication that all he had to do was to jump in his automobile and call on Aunt Constance Elliston, force his way upon the attention of Agnes and browbeat that young lady into an immediate marriage. He chose, on the contrary, to take the matter more gloomily, and Johnson, after worrying about him for three dismal days, consulted Biff Bates. But Biff, when the problem was propounded to him, only laughed.
"His steady has lemoned him," declared Biff. "Any time a guy's making plenty of money and got good health and ain't married, and goes around with an all-day grouch, you can play it for a one to a hundred favorite that his entry's been scratched in the solitaire diamond stakes."
"Uh-huh," responded the taciturn Johnson, and stalked back with grim purpose to the Electric Company's office, of which Bobby and Johnson and Applerod had taken immediate possession.
The next morning Johnson handed to Bobby one of the familiar gray envelopes, inscribed:
To My Son Upon the Occasion of His Having a Misunderstanding with Agnes Elliston
He submitted the envelope with many qualms and misgivings, though without apology, but one glance at Bobby's face as that young gentleman read the inscription relieved him of all responsibility in the matter, for if ever a face showed guilt, that face was the face of Bobby Burnit. In the privacy of the president's office Bobby read the briefest note of the many that his forethoughted father had left behind him in Johnson's charge:
"You're a blithering idiot!"
That was all. Somehow, that brief note seemed to lighten the gloom, to lift the weight, to remove some sort of a barrier, and he actually laughed. Immediately he called up the Ellistons. He received the information from the housekeeper that Agnes and Aunt Constance had gone to New York on an extended shopping trip, and thereby he lost his greatest and only opportunity to prove that he had at last been successful in business. That day, all the stock which Frank L. Sharpe had held began to come in for transfer, in small lots of from ten to twenty shares, and inside a week not a certificate stood in Sharpe's name. All the stock held by Williams also came in for transfer. Bobby went immediately to see Sharpe, and, very much concerned, inquired into the meaning of this. Mr. Sharpe was as pleasant as Christmas morning.
"To tell you the truth, Mr. Burnit," said he, "there were several very good reasons. In the first place, I needed the money; in the second place, you were insistent upon control and abused it; in the third place, since the increased capitalization and change of management the quotations on Brightlight Electric dropped from one-seventy-two to one-sixty-five, and I got out before it could drop any lower. You will give me credit for selling the stock privately and in small lots where it could not break the price. However, Mr. Burnit, I don't see where the sale of my stock affects you in any way. You have the Brightlight Electric now in good condition, and all it needs to remain a good investment is proper management."
"I'm afraid it needs more than that," retorted Bobby. "I'm afraid it needs to be in a position to make more money for other people than for myself;" through which remark it may be seen that, though perhaps a trifle slow, Bobby was learning.
Another lesson awaited him. On the following morning every paper in the city blazed with the disquieting information that the Consumers' Electric Light and Power Company and the United Illuminating and Fuel Company were to be consolidated! Out of the two old concerns a fifty-million-dollar corporation was to be formed, and a certain portion of the stock was to be sold in small lots, as low, even, as one share each, so that the public should be given a chance to participate in this unparalleled investment. Oh, it was to be a tremendous boon to the city!
Bobby, much worried, went straight to Chalmers.
"So far as I can see you have all the best of the bargain," Chalmers reassured him. "The Consumers', already four times watered and quoted at about seventy, is to be increased from two to five million before the consolidation, so that it can be taken in at ten million. The Union, already watered from one to nine million in its few brief years, takes on another hydraulic spurt and will be bought for twenty million. Of the thirty million dollars which is to be paid for the old corporation, nineteen million represents new water, the most of which will be distributed among Stone and his henchmen. The other twenty million will go to the dear public, who will probably be given one share of common as a bonus with each share of preferred, and pay ten million sweaty dollars for it. Do you think this new company expects to pay dividends? On their plants, worth at a high valuation, five million dollars, and their new capital of ten million, a profit must be earned for fifty million dollars' worth of stock, and it can not be done. Within a year I expect to see Consolidated Illuminating and Power Company stock quoted at around thirty. By that time, however, Stone and his crowd will have sold theirs, and will have cleaned up millions. Brightlight Electric was probably too small a factor to be considered in the consolidation. Did you pay off that mortgage? Then Stone has his hundred thousand dollars; the back salary list of Stone's henchmen has been paid up with your money; Sharpe and Williams have converted their stock and Stone's into cash at a fancy figure; Eastman is to be taken care of in the new company and they are satisfied. In my estimation you are well rid of the entire crowd, unless they have some neat little plan for squeezing you. But I'll tell you what I would do. I would go direct to Stone, and see what he has to say."
Bobby smiled ironically at himself as he climbed the dingy stairs up which it was said that every man of affairs in the city must sooner or later toil to bend the knee, but he was astonished when he walked into the office of Stone to find it a narrow, bare little room, with the door wide open to the hall. There was an old, empty desk in it—for Stone never kept nor wrote letters—and four common kitchen chairs for waiting callers. At the desk near the one window sat Stone, and over him bent a shabby-looking man, whispering. Stone, grunting occasionally, looked out of the window while he listened, and when the man was through gave him a ten-dollar bill.
"It's all right," Stone said gruffly. "I'll be in court myself at ten o'clock to-morrow morning, and you may tell Billy that I'll get him out of it."
Another man, a flashily-dressed fellow, was ahead of Bobby, and he, too, now leaned over Stone and whispered.
"Nothing doing," rumbled Stone.
The man, from his gestures, protested earnestly.
"Nix!" declared Stone loudly. "You threw me two years ago this fall, and you can't come back till you're on your uppers good and proper. I don't want to see you nor hear of you for another year, and you needn't send any one to me to fix it, because it can't be fixed. Now beat it. I'm busy!"
The man, much crestfallen, "beat it." Bobby was thankful that there was no one else waiting when it was his turn to approach the Mogul. Stone shook hands cordially enough.
"Mr. Stone," inquired Bobby, "how does it come that the Brightlight Electric Company was not offered a chance to come into this new consolidation?"
"How should I know?" asked Stone in reply.
"It is popularly supposed," suggested Bobby, smiling, "that you know a great deal about it."
Mr. Stone ignored that supposition completely.
"Mr. Burnit, how much political influence do you think you could swing?"
"Frankly, I never thought of it," said Bobby surprised.
"You belong to the Idlers' Club, you belong to the Traders' Club, to the Fish and Game, the Brassie, the Gourmet, and the Thespian Clubs. You are a member of the board of governors in three of these clubs, and are very popular in all of them. A man like you, if he would get wise, could swing a strong following."
"Possibly," admitted Bobby dryly; "although I wouldn't enjoy it."
"One-third of the members of the Traders' Club do not vote, more than half of the members of the Fish and Game and the Brassie do not vote, none of the members of the other clubs vote at all," went on Mr. Stone. "They ain't good citizens. If you're the man that can stir them up the right way you'd find it worth while."
"But just now," evaded Bobby, "whom did you say I should see about this consolidation?"
"Sharpe," snapped Stone. "Good day, Mr. Burnit." And Bobby walked away rather belittled in his own estimation.
He had been offered an excellent chance to become one of Stone's political lieutenants, had been given an opportunity to step up to the pie counter, to enjoy the very material benefits of the Stone style of municipal government; and in exchange for this he had only to sell his fellows. He knew now that his visit to Sharpe would be fruitless, that before he could arrive at Sharpe's office that puppet would have had a telephone message from Stone; yet, his curiosity aroused, he saw the thing through. Mr. Sharpe, upon his visit, met Bobby as coldly as the January morning when the Christmas bills come in.
"We don't really care for the Brightlight Electric in the combination at all," said Mr. Sharpe, "but if you wish to come in at a valuation of five hundred thousand I guess we can find a place for you."
"Let me understand," said Bobby. "By a valuation of five hundred thousand dollars you mean that the Brightlight stock-holders can exchange each share of their stock for one share in the Consolidated?"
"That's it, precisely," said Mr. Sharpe without a smile.
"You're joking," objected Bobby. "My stock in the Brightlight is worth to-day one hundred and fifty dollars a share. My two hundred and sixty thousand dollars' worth of stock in the Consolidated would not be worth par, even, to-day. Why do you make this discrimination when you are giving the stock-holders of the Consumers' an exchange of five shares for one, and the stock-holders of the United an exchange of twenty shares for nine?"
"We need both those companies," calmly explained Sharpe, "and we don't need the Brightlight."
"Is that figure the best you will do?"
"Under the circumstances, yes."
"Very well then," said Bobby; "good day."
"By the way, Mr. Burnit," Sharpe said to him with a return of the charming smile which had been conspicuously absent on this occasion, "we needn't consider the talk entirely closed as yet. It might be possible that we would be able, between now and the first of the next month, when the consolidation is to be completed, to make you a much more liberal offer to come in with us; to be one of us, in fact."
Bobby sat down again.
"How soon may I see you about it?" he asked.
"I'll let you know when things are shaped up right. By the way, Mr. Burnit, you are a very young man yet, and just starting upon your career. Really you ought to look about you a bit and study what advantages you have in the way of personal influence and following."
"I have never counted that I had a 'following.'"
"I understand that you have a very strong one," insisted Sharpe. "What you ought to do is to see Mr. Stone."
"I have been to see him," replied Bobby with a smile.
"So I understand," said Sharpe dryly. "By the way, next Tuesday I am to be voted upon in the Idlers'. You are on the board of governors up there, I believe?"
"Yes," said Bobby steadily.
Sharpe studied him for a moment.
"Well, come around and see me about this consolidation on Wednesday," he suggested, "and in the meantime have another talk with Stone. By all means, go and see Stone."
* * * * *
"Johnson," asked Bobby, later, "what would you do if a man should ask you to sell him your personal influence, your self-respect and your immortal soul?"
"I'd ask his price," interposed Applerod with a grin.
"You'd never get an offer," snapped Johnson to Applerod, "for you haven't any to sell. Why do you ask, Mr. Burnit?"
Bobby regarded Johnson thoughtfully for a moment.
"I know how to make the Brightlight Electric Company yield me two hundred per cent. dividends within a year or less," he stated.
"Through Stone?" inquired Johnson.
"Through Stone," admitted Bobby, smiling at Johnson's penetration.
"I thought so. I guess your father has summed up, better than I could put it, all there is to be said upon that subject." And from his index-file he produced one of the familiar gray envelopes, inscribed:
To My Son Robert Upon the Subject of Bribery
"When a man sells his independence and the faith of his friends he is bankrupt. Both the taker and the giver of a bribe, even when it is called 'preferment,' are like dogs with fleas; they yelp in their sleep; only the man gets callous after a while and the dog doesn't. Whoever the fellow is that's trying to buy your self-respect, go soak him in the eye, and pay your fine."
"For once I agree most heartily with the governor," said Bobby, and as a result he did not go to see Stone. Moreover, Frank L. Sharpe was blackballed at the Idlers' Club with cheerful unanimity, and Bobby figuratively squared his shoulders to receive the blow that he was convinced must certainly fall.
AGNES APPEARS PUBLICLY WITH MRS. SHARPE AND BIFF BATES HAS A ONE-ROUND SCRAP
That night, though rather preoccupied by the grave consequences that might ensue on this flat-footed defiance of Stone and his crowd, Bobby went to the theater with Jack Starlett and Jack's sister and mother. As they seated themselves he bowed gravely across the auditorium to Agnes and Aunt Constance Elliston, who, with Uncle Dan, were entertaining a young woman relative from Savannah. He did not know how the others accepted his greeting; he only saw Agnes, and she smiled quite placidly at him, which was far worse than if she had tilted her head. Through two dreary, interminable acts he sat looking at the stage, trying to talk small talk with the Starletts and remaining absolutely miserable; but shortly before the beginning of the last act he was able to take a quite new and gleeful interest in life, for the young woman from Savannah came fluttering into the Elliston box, bearing in tow the beautiful and vivacious Mrs. Frank L. Sharpe!
Bobby turned his opera-glasses at once upon that box, and pressed Jack Starlett into service. Being thus attracted, the ladies of the Starlett box, mystified and unable to extract any explanation from the two gleeful men, were compelled, by force of circumstances and curiosity, also to opera-glass and lorgnette the sufferers.
Like the general into which he was developing, Bobby managed to meet Agnes face to face in the foyer after the show. Tears of mortification were in her eyes, but still she was laughing when he strode up to her and with masterful authority drew her arm beneath his own.
"Your carriage is too small for four," Bobby calmly told Mr. Elliston, and, excusing himself from the Starletts, deliberately conducted Agnes to a hansom. As they got well under way he observed:
"You will notice that I make no question of being seen in public with—"
"Bobby!" she protested. "Violet did not know. The Sharpes visited in Savannah. His connections down there are quite respectable, and no doubt Mrs. Sharpe, who is really clever, held herself very circumspectly."
"Fine!" said Bobby. "You will notice that I am quite willing to listen to you. Explain some more."
"Bobby!" she protested again, and then suddenly she bent forward and pressed her handkerchief to her eyes.
Bobby was astounded. She was actually crying! In a moment he had her in his arms, was pressing her head upon his shoulder, was saying soothing things to her with perfectly idiotic volubility. For an infinitesimally brief space Agnes yielded to that embrace, and then suddenly she straightened up in dismay.
"Good gracious, Bobby!" she exclaimed. "This hansom is all glass!"
He looked out upon the brilliantly lighted street with a reflex of her own consternation, but quickly found consolation.
"Well, after all," he reflected philosophically, "I don't believe anybody who saw me would blame me."
"You're a perfectly incorrigible Bobby," she laughed. "The only check possible to put upon you is to hold you rigidly to business. How are you coming out with the Brightlight Electric Company? I have been dying to ask you about it."
"I have a telephone in my office," he reminded her.
"I am completely ignoring that ungenerous suggestion," she replied.
"It wasn't sportsmanlike," he penitently admitted. "Well, the Brightlight Electric is still making money, and Johnson has stopped leaks to the amount of at least twenty thousand dollars a year, which will permit us to keep up the ten per cent. dividends, even with our increased capitalization, and even without an increase of business."
"Glorious!" she said with sparkling eyes.
"Too good to be true," he assured her. "They'll take it away from me."
"How is it possible?" she asked.
"It isn't; but it will happen, nevertheless," he declared with conviction.
He had already begun to spend his days and nights in apprehension of this, and as the weeks went on and nothing happened his apprehension grew rather than diminished.
In the meantime, the Consolidated Illuminating and Power Company went pompously on. The great combine was formed, the fifty million dollars' worth of stock was opened for subscription, and the company gave a vastly expensive banquet in the convention hall of the Hotel Spender, at which a thousand of the city's foremost men were entertained, and where the cleverest after-dinner speakers to be obtained talked in relays until long after midnight. Those who came to eat the rich food and drink the rare wine and lend their countenances to the stupendous local enterprise, being shrewd business graduates who had cut their eye-teeth in their cradles, smiled and went home without any thought of investing; but the hard-working, economical chaps of the offices and shops, men who felt elated if, after five years of slavery, they could show ten hundred dollars of savings, glanced in awe over this magnificent list of names in the next day's papers. If the stock of the Consolidated Illuminating and Power Company was considered a good investment by these generals and captains and lieutenants of finance, who, of course, attended this Arabian Nights banquet as investors, it must certainly be a good investment for the corporals and privates.
Immediately vivid results were shown. Immense electric signs, furnished at less than cost and some of them as big as the buildings upon the roofs of which they were erected, began to make constellations in the city sky; buildings in the principal down-town squares were studded, for little or nothing, with outside incandescent lights as thickly as wall space could be found for them, and the men whose only automobiles are street-cars awoke to the fact that their city was becoming intensely metropolitan; that it was blazing with the blaze of Paris and London and New York; that all this glittering advancement was due to the great new Consolidated Illuminating and Power Company, and more applications for stock were made!
Every applicant was supplied, but the treasury stock of the company having been sold out, the scrip had to come from some place else, and it came through devious, secret ways from the holdings of such men as Stone and Garland and Sharpe.
During the grand orgie of illumination the election came on; the price of gas and electricity went gloriously and recklessly down, and the men who were identified with the triumphantly successful new illuminating company were the leading figures in the campaign. The puerile "reform party," the blunders of whose incompetence had been ridiculous, was swept out of existence; Garland was elected mayor by the most overwhelming majority that had ever been known in the city, and with him was elected a council of the same political faith. Sam Stone, always in the background, always keeping his name out of the papers as much as possible, came once more to the throne, and owned the city and all its inhabitants and all its business enterprises and all its public utilities, body and soul.
One night, shortly after the new officials went into power, there was no light in the twelve blocks over which the Brightlight Company had exclusive control, nor any light in the outside districts it supplied. This was the first time in years that the company, equipped with an emergency battery of dynamos which now proved out of order, had ever failed for an instant of proper service. Candles, kerosene lamps and old gas fixtures, the rusty cocks of which had not been turned in a decade, were put hastily in use, while the streets were black with a blackness particularly Stygian, contrasted with the brilliantly illuminated squares supplied by the Consolidated Company. All night long the mechanical force, attended by the worried but painfully helpless Bobby, pounded and tapped and worked in the grime, but it was not until broad daylight that they were able to discover the cause of trouble. For two nights the lights ran steadily. On the third night, at about seven-thirty, they turned to a dull, red glow, and slowly died out. This time it was wire trouble, and through the long night as large a force of men as could be mustered were tracing it. Not until noon of the next day was the leak found.
It was a full week before that section of the city was for the third time in darkness, but when this occurred the business men of the district, who had been patient enough the first night and enduring enough the second, loosed their reins and became frantic.
At this happy juncture the Consolidated Company threw an army of canvassers into those twelve monopolized blocks, and the canvassers did not need to be men who could talk, for arguments were not necessary. The old, worn-out equipment of the Brightlight Electric, and the fact that it was managed and controlled by men who knew nothing whatever of the business, its very president a young fellow who had probably never seen a dynamo until he took charge, were enough.
Bobby, passing over Plum Street one morning, was surprised to see a large gang of men putting in new poles, and when he reached the office he asked Johnson about it. In two minutes he had definitely ascertained that no orders had been issued by the Brightlight Electric Company nor any one connected with it, and further inquiry revealed the fact that these poles were being put up by the Consolidated. He called up Chalmers at once.
"I knew I'd hear from you," said Chalmers, "and I have already been at work on the thing. Of course, you saw what was in the papers."
"No," confessed Bobby. "Only the sporting pages."
"You should read news, local and general, every morning," scolded Chalmers. "The new city council, at their meeting last night, granted the Consolidated a franchise to put up poles and wires in this district for lighting."
"But how could they?" expostulated Bobby. "Our contract with the city has several years to run yet, and guarantees us exclusive privilege to supply light, both to the city and to private individuals, in those twelve blocks."
"That cleverly unobtrusive joker clause about 'reasonably satisfactory service,'" replied Chalmers angrily. "By the way, have you investigated the cause of those accidents very thoroughly? Whether there was anything malicious about them?"
Bobby confessed that he had not thought of the possibility.
"I think it would pay you to do so. I am delving into this thing as deeply as I can, and with your permission I am going to call your father's old attorney, Mr. Barrister, into consultation."
"Go ahead, by all means," said Bobby, worried beyond measure.
At five o'clock that evening Con Ripley came jauntily to the plant of the Brightlight Electric Company. Con was the engineer, and the world was a very good joke to him, although not such a joke that he ever overlooked his own interests. He spruced up considerably outside of working hours, did Con, and, although he was nearing forty, considered himself very much a ladies' man, also an accomplished athlete, and positively the last word in electrical knowledge. He was donning his working garments in very leisurely fashion when a short, broad-shouldered, thickset young man came back toward him from the office.
"You're Con Ripley?" said the new-comer by way of introduction.
"Maybe," agreed Con. "Who are you?"
"I'm the Assistant Works," observed Professor Henry H. Bates.
"Oh!" said Mr. Ripley in some wonder, looking from the soft cap of Mr. Bates to the broad, thick tan shoes of Mr. Bates, and then back up to the wide-set eyes. "I hadn't heard about it."
"No?" responded Mr. Bates. "Well, I came in to tell you. I don't know enough about electricity to say whether you feed it with a spoon or from a bottle, but I'm here, just the same, to notice that the juice slips through the wires all right to-night, all right."
"The hell you are!" exclaimed Mr. Ripley, taking sudden umbrage at both tone and words, and also at the physical attitude of Mr. Bates, which had grown somewhat threatening. "All right, Mr. Works," and Mr. Ripley began to step out of his overalls; "jump right in and push juice till you get black in the face, while I take a little vacation. I've been wanting a lay-off for a long time."
"You'll lay on, Bo," dissented Mr. Bates. "Nix on the vacation. That's just the point. You're going to stick on the job, and I'm going to stick within four feet of you till old Jim-jams Jones shakes along to get his morning's morning; and it will be a sign of awful bad luck for you if the lights in this end of town flicker a single flick any time to-night."
"Is that it?" Mr. Ripley wanted to know. "And if they should happen to flicker some what are you going to do about it?"
"I don't know yet," said Biff. "I'll knock your block off first and think about it afterward!"
Mr. Ripley hastily drew his overalls back on and slipped the straps over his shoulders with a snap.
"You'll tell me when you're going to do it, won't you?" he asked banteringly, and, a full head taller than Mr. Bates, glared down at him a moment in contempt. Then he laughed. "I'll give you ten to one the lights will flicker," he offered to bet. "I wouldn't stop such a cunning chance for exercise for real money," and, whirling upon his heel, Mr. Ripley started upon his usual preliminary examination of dynamos and engines and boilers.
Quite nonchalantly Mr. Bates, puffing at a particularly villainous stogie and with his hands resting idly in his pockets, swung after Mr. Ripley, keeping within almost precisely four feet of him. In the boiler-room, Ripley, finding Biff still at his heels, said to the fireman, with a jerk of his thumb over his shoulder:
"Rocksey, be sure you keep a good head of steam on to-night if you're a friend of mine. This is Mr. Assistant Works back here, and he's come in to knock my block off if the lights flicker."
"Rocksey," a lean man with gray beard-bristles like pins and with muscles in astounding lumps upon his grimy arms, surveyed Mr. Bates with a grin which meant volumes.
"Ring a bell when it starts, will you, Con?" he requested.
To this Biff paid not the slightest attention, gazing stolidly at the red fire where it shone through the holes of the furnace doors; but when Mr. Ripley moved away Biff moved also. Ripley introduced Biff in much the same terms to a tall man who was oiling the big, old-fashioned Corliss, and a sudden gleam came into the tall man's eyes as he recognized Mr. Bates, but he turned back to his oiling without smile or comment. Ripley eyed him sharply.
"You'll hold the sponge and water-bottle for me, won't you, Daly?" he asked, with an evident attempt at jovial conciliation.
Daly deliberately wiped the slender nose of his oil can and went on oiling.
"What's the matter?" asked Ripley with a frown. "Got a grouch again?"
"Yes, I have," admitted Daly without looking up, and shrugged his shoulders.
"Then cut it out," said Ripley, "and look real unpeeved when somebody hands you tickets to the circus."
From that moment Mr. Ripley seemed to take a keen delight in goading Mr. Bates. He took a sudden dash half-way down the length of the long room, as if going to the extreme other end of the plant, then suddenly whirled and retraced his steps to meet Biff coming after him; made an equally sudden dart for the mysterious switch-board, and seized a lever as if to throw it, but suddenly changed his mind, apparently, and went away, leaving Mr. Bates to infer that the throwing of that particular lever would leave them all in darkness; later, with Biff ready to spring upon him, he threw that switch to show that it had no important function to perform at all. To all these and many more ingenious tricks to humiliate him, Mr. Bates paid not the slightest attention, but, as calmly and as impassively as Fate, kept as nearly as he could to the four-foot distance he had promised.
It was about ten o'clock when Biff, interested for a moment in the switch-board, suddenly missed Ripley, and looking about him hastily he saw the fireman standing in the door of the boiler-room grinning at him, while the other workmen—all of whom were of the old regime—were also enjoying his discomfort; but Daly, catching his eye, nodded significantly toward the side-door which led upon the street. It was an almost imperceptible nod, but it was enough for Biff, and he dashed out of that door. Half a block ahead of him he saw Ripley hurrying, and took after him with that light, cat-like run which is the height of effortless and noiseless speed. Ripley, looking back hastily, hurried into a saloon, and he had scarcely closed the door when Biff entered after him, in time to see his man standing at the telephone, receiver in hand. It was the work of but an instant to grab Ripley by the arm and jerk him away from the 'phone. Quickly recovering his balance, with a lunge of his whole body Ripley shot a swift fist at the man who had interfered with him, but Biff, without shifting his position, jerked his head to one side and the fist shot harmlessly by. Before another blow could be struck, or parried, the bartender, a brawny giant, had rushed between them.
"Let us alone, Jeff," panted Ripley. "I've got all I can stand for from this rat."
"Outside!" said Jeff with cold finality. "You can beat him to a pulp in the street, Con, but there'll be no scrimmage in this place without me having a hand in it."
Ripley considered this ultimatum for a moment in silence, and then, to Biff's surprise, suddenly ran out of the door. It was a tight race to the plant, and there, with Biff not more than two arms' length behind him, Ripley jerked at a lever hitherto untouched, and instantly the place was plunged into complete darkness.
"There!" screamed Ripley.
A second later Biff had grappled him, and together they went to the floor. It was only a moment that the darkness lasted, however, for tall Tom Daly stood by the replaced switch, looking down at them in quiet joy. Immediately with the turning on of the light Biff scrambled to his feet like a cat and waited for Ripley to rise. It was Ripley who made the first lunge, which Biff dexterously ducked, and immediately after Biff's right arm shot out, catching his antagonist a glancing blow upon the side of the cheek; a blow which drew blood. Infuriated, again Ripley rushed, but was blocked, and for nearly a minute there was a swift exchange of light blows which did little damage; then Biff found his opening, and, swinging about the axis of his own spine, threw the entire force of his body behind his right arm, and the fist of that arm caught Ripley below the ear and dropped him like a beef, just as Bobby came running back from, the office.
"What are you doing here, Biff? What's the matter?" demanded Bobby, as Ripley, dazed, struggled to his feet, and, though weaving, drew himself together for another onslaught.
"Matter!" snarled Biff. "I landed on a frame-up, that's all. This afternoon I saw Sharpe and this Ripley together in a bum wine-room on River Street, swapping so much of that earnest conversation that the partitions bulged, and I dropped to the double-cross that's being handed out to you. I've been trying to telephone you ever since, but when I couldn't find you I came right down to run the plant. That's all."
"You're all right, Biff," laughed Bobby, "but I guess we'll call this a one-round affair, and I'll take charge."
"Don't stop 'em!" cried Daly savagely, turning to Bobby. "Hand it to him, Biff. He's a crook and an all-round sneak. He beat me out of this job by underhand means, and there ain't a man in the place that ain't tickled to death to see him get the beating that's coming to him. Paste him, Biff!"
"Biff!" repeated Mr. Ripley, suddenly dropping his hands. "Biff who?"
"Mr. Biff Bates, the well-known and justly celebrated ex-champion middleweight," announced Bobby with a grin. "Mr. Ripley—Mr. Bates."
"Biff Bates!" repeated Con Ripley. "Why didn't some of you guys tell me this was Biff Bates? Mr. Bates, I'm glad to meet you." And with much respect he held forth his hand.
"Go chase yourself," growled Mr. Bates, in infinite scorn.
Ripley replied with a sudden volley of abuse, couched in the vilest of language, but to this Biff made no reply. He dropped his hands in his coat pockets, and, considering his work done, walked over to the wall and leaned against it, awaiting further developments.
"Daly," asked Bobby sharply, breaking in upon Ripley's tirade, "are you competent to run this plant?"
"Certainly, sir," replied Daly. "I should have had the job four years ago. I was promised it."
"You may consider yourself in charge, then. Mr. Ripley, if you will walk up to the office I'll pay you off."
BOBBY'S MONEY IS ELECTROCUTED AND JOHN BURNIT'S SON WAKES UP
Bobby, jubilant, went to see Chalmers next day. The lawyer listened gravely, but shook his head.
"I'm bound to tell you, Mr. Burnit, that you have no case. You must have more proof than this to bring a charge of conspiracy. Ripley had a perfect right to talk with Sharpe or to telephone to some one, and mere hot-headedness could explain his shutting off the lights. Your over-enthusiastic friend Bates has ruined whatever prospect you might have had. Your suspicions once aroused, you should have let your man do as he liked, but should have watched him and caught him in a trap of some sort. Now it is too late. Moreover, I have bad news for you. Your contract for city lighting is ironclad, and can not be broken, but I saw to-day a paper signed by an overwhelming majority of your private consumers that the service is not even 'reasonably satisfactory,' and that they wish the field open to competition. With this paper to back them, Stone's council granted the right to the Consolidated Company to erect poles, string wires and supply current. We can bring suit if you say so, but you will lose it."
"Bring suit, then!" ordered Bobby vehemently. "Why, Chalmers, the contract for the city lighting alone would cost the Brightlight money every year. The profit has all been made from private consumers."
"That's why you're losing it," said Chalmers dryly. "The whole project is very plain to me now. The Consumers and the United Companies never cared to enter that field, because their controlling stock-holders were also the Brightlight controlling stock-holders, and they could get more money through the Brightlight than they could through the other companies; and so they led the public to believe that there was no breaking the monopoly the Brightlight held upon their service. Now, however, they want to gain another stock-jobbing advertisement by driving you out of the field. They planned from the first to wreck you for just that purpose—to make Consolidated stock seem more desirable when the stock sales began to dwindle—and they are perfectly willing to furnish the consumers in your twelve blocks with current at their present ridiculously low rate, because, with them, any possible profits to be derived from the business are insignificant compared to the profits to be derived from the sale of their watered stock. The price of illumination and power, later, will soar! Watch it. They're a very bright crowd," and Mr. Chalmers paused to admire them.
"In other words," said Bobby glumly. "I am what Biff Bates told me I would be—the goat."
"Precisely," agreed Chalmers.
"Begin suit anyhow," directed Bobby, "and we'll see what comes of it."
"By the way," called Chalmers with a curious smile as Bobby opened the door; "I've just learned that one of the foremost enthusiasts in this whole manipulation has been quiet and conservative Silas Trimmer."
Bobby did not swear. He simply slammed the door.
Two days later Bobby was surprised to see Sharpe drop in upon him.
"I understand you are bringing suit against the Consolidated for encroachment upon your territory, and against the city for abrogation of contract," began Sharpe.
"Yes," said Bobby.
"Don't you think it rather a waste of money, Mr. Burnit? I can guarantee you positively that you will not win either suit."
"I'm willing to wait to find that out."
"No use," said Sharpe impatiently. "I'll tell you what we will do, Mr. Burnit. If you care to have us to do so, the Consolidated, a little later on, will absorb the Brightlight."
"On what terms?" asked Bobby.
"It all depends. We might discuss that later. There's another matter I'd like to speak with you about. Stone wants to see you, even yet. I want to tell you, Mr. Burnit, he can get along a great deal better without you than you can without him, as you are probably willing to admit by now. But he still wants you. Go and see Stone."
"On—what—terms—will the Consolidated now absorb the Brightlight?" demanded Bobby sternly.
"Well," drawled Sharpe, with a complete change of manner, "the property has deteriorated considerably within a remarkably short space of time, but I should say that we would buy the Brightlight for three hundred thousand dollars in stock of the Consolidated, half preferred and half common."
"And this is your very best offer?"
"The very best," replied Sharpe, making no attempt to conceal his exultant grin.
"Not on your life," declared Bobby. "I'm going to hold the Brightlight intact. I'm going to fulfill the city contract at a loss, if it takes every cent I can scrape together, and then I'm going to enter politics myself. I'm going to drive Stone and his crowd out of this city, and we shall see if we can not make a readjustment of the illuminating business on my basis instead of his. Good day, Mr. Sharpe."
"Good day, sir," said Sharpe, and this time he laughed aloud.
At the door he turned.
"I'd like to call your attention, young man, to the fact that a great many very determined gentlemen have announced their intention of driving Mr. Stone and his associates out of this city. You might compare that with the fact that Mr. Stone and his friends are all here yet, and on top," and with that he withdrew.
"If I may be so bold as to say so," said Mr. Applerod, worried to paleness by this foolish defiance of so great and good a man, "you have made a very grave error, Mr. Burnit, very grave, indeed. It is suicidal to defy Mr. Sharpe, and through him Mr. Stone!"
"Will you shut up!" snarled Johnson to his ancient work-mate. "Mr. Burnit, I have no right to take the liberty, but I am going to congratulate you, sir. Whatever follies inexperience may have led you to commit, you are, at any rate, sir, a man, like your father was before you!" and by way of emphasis Johnson smacked his fist on his desk as he glared in Mr. Applerod's direction.
"It's all very well to show fight, Johnson," said Bobby, a little wanly, "but just the same I have to acknowledge defeat. I am afraid I boasted too much. Chalmers, after considering the matter, positively refuses to bring suit. The whole game is over. I have the Brightlight Company on my hands at a net dead loss of every cent I have sunk into it, and it can not pay me a penny so long as these men remain in power. I am going to fight them with their own weapons, but that is a matter of years. In the meantime, my third business attempt is a hideous failure. Where's the gray envelope, Johnson?"
"It is here," admitted Johnson, and from his file took the missive in question.
As Bobby took the letter from Johnson Agnes came into the office and swept toward him with outstretched hand.
"It is perfectly shameful, Bobby! I just read about it!"
"So soon?" he wanted to know.
She carried a paper in her hand and spread it before him. In the very head-line his fate was pronounced. "Brightlight Electric Tottering to Its Fall," was the cheerful line which confronted him, and beneath this was set forth the facts that every profitable contract heretofore held by the Brightlight Electric had been taken away from that unfortunate concern, in which the equipment was said to be so inefficient as to render decent service out of the question, and that, having remaining to it only a money-losing contract for city lighting, business men were freely predicting its very sudden dissolution. The item, wherein the head-line took up more space than the news, wound up with the climax statement that Brightlight stock was being freely offered at around forty, with no takers.
To her surprise, Bobby tossed the paper on Johnson's desk and laughed.
"I have been so long prepared for this bit of 'news' that it does not shock me much," he said; "moreover, the lower this stock goes the cheaper I can buy it!"
"Buy it!" she incredulously exclaimed.
"Exactly," he stated calmly. "I presume that, as heretofore, I'll be given another check, and I do not see any better place to put the money than right here. I am going to fight!"
"Beg your pardon, sir," said Johnson. "Your last remark was spoken loud enough to be taken as general, and I am compelled to give you this envelope."
Into his hands Johnson placed a mate to the missive which Bobby had not yet opened, and this one was inscribed:
To My Son Robert, Upon His Declaration that He Will Take Two Starts at the Same Business
Bobby looked at the two letters in frowning perplexity, and then silently walked into his own office, where Agnes followed him; and it was she who closed the door. He sat down at his desk and held that last letter of his father's before him in dread. He had so airily built up his program; and apprehension told him what this letter might contain! Presently he was conscious that Agnes' arm was slipped across his shoulder. She was sitting upon the arm of his chair, and had bent her cheek upon his head. So they read the curt message:
"To throw good money after bad is like sprinkling salt on a cut. It only intensifies the pain and doesn't work much of a cure. In your case it is strictly forbidden. You must learn to cut your garment according to your cloth, to bite off only what you can chew, to lift no more than you can carry. Your next start must not be encumbered."
"He's wrong!" declared Bobby savagely.
"But if he is," protested Agnes, "what can you do about it?"
"If his bequests are conditional I shall have to accept the conditions; but, nevertheless, I am going to fight; and I am going to keep the Brightlight Electric!"
Mechanically he opened the other letter now. The contents were to this effect:
To My Son Upon His Losing Money in a Public Service Corporation
"Every buzz-saw claims some fingers. Of course you had to be a victim, but now you know how to handle a buzz-saw. The first point about it is to treat it with respect. When you realize thoroughly that a buzz-saw is dangerous, half the danger is gone. So, when your wound is healed, you might go ahead and saw, just as a matter of accomplishment. Bobby, how I wish I could talk with you now, for just one little half hour."
Convulsively Bobby crumpled the letter in his hand and the tears started to his eyes.
"Bully old dad!" he said brokenly, and opened his watch-case, where the grim but humor-loving face of old John Burnit looked up at his beloved children.
"And now what are you going to do?" Agnes asked him presently, when they were calmer.
"Fight!" he vehemently declared. "For the governor's sake as well as my own."
"I just found another letter for you, sir," said Johnson, handing in the third of the missives to come in that day's mail from beyond the Styx. It was inscribed:
To My Son Robert Upon the Occasion of His Declaring Fight Against the Politicians Who Robbed Him
"Nothing but public laziness allows dishonest men to control public affairs. Any time an honest man puts up a sincere fight against a crook there's a new fat man in striped clothes. If you have a crawful and want to fight against dirty politics in earnest, jump in, and tell all my old friends to put a bet down on you for me. I'd as soon have you spend in that way the money I made as to buy yachts with it; and I can see where the game might be made as interesting as polo. Go in and win, boy."
"And now what are you going to do?" Agnes asked him, laughing this time.
"Fight!" he declared exultantly. "I'm going to fight entirely outside of my father's money. I'm going to fight with my own brawn and my own brain and my own resources and my own personal following! Why, Agnes, that is what the governor has been goading me to do. It is what all this is planned for, and the governor, after all, is right!"
SOME EMINENT ARTISTS AMUSE MEESTER BURNIT WHILE HE WAITS
One might imagine, after Bobby's heroic declarations, that, like young David of old, he would immediately proceed to stride forth and slay his giant. There stood his Goliath, full panoplied, sneering, waiting; but alas! Bobby had neither sling nor stone. It was all very well to announce in fine frenzy that he would smash the Consolidated, destroy the political ring, drive Sam Stone and his henchmen out of town and wrest all his goods and gear from Silas Trimmer; but until he could find a place to plant his foot, descry an opening in the armor and procure an adequate weapon, he might just as well bottle his fuming and wait; so Bobby waited. In the meantime he stuck very closely to the Brightlight office, finding there, in the practice of petty economics and the struggle with well-nigh impossible conditions, ample food for thought. In a separate bank reposed the new fund of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, which he kept religiously aside from the affairs of the Brightlight, and this fund also waited; for Bobby was not nearly so feverish to find instant employment for it as he had been with the previous ones—though he had endless chances. People with the most unheard of schemes seemed to have a peculiar scent for unsophisticated money, and not only local experts in the gentle art of separation flocked after him, but out of town specialists came to him in shoals. To these latter he took great satisfaction in displaying the gem of his collection of post-mortem letters from old John Burnit:
"You don't need to go away from home to be skinned; moreover, it isn't patriotic."
That usually stopped them. He was growing quite sophisticated, was Bobby, quite able to discern the claws beneath the velvet paw, quite suspicious of all the ingenious gentlemen who wanted to make a fortune for him; and their frantic attempts to "get his goat," as Biff Bates expressed it, had become as good as a play to this wise young person, as also to the wise young person's trustee.
Agnes, who was helping Bobby wait, came occasionally to the office of the Brightlight on business, and nearly always Bobby had reduced to paper some gaudy new scheme that had been proposed to him, over which they both might laugh. In great hilarity one morning they were going over the prospectus of a plan to reclaim certain swamp lands in Florida, when the telephone bell rang, and from Bobby's difficulty in understanding and his smile as he hung up the receiver, Agnes knew that something else amusing had turned up.
"It is from Schmirdonner," he explained as he turned to her again. "He's the conductor of the orchestra at the Orpheum, you know. I gather from what he says that there are some stranded musicians here who probably speak worse English than myself, and he's sending them up to me to see about arranging a benefit for them. You'd better wait; it might be fun, or you might want to help arrange the benefit."
"No," disclaimed Agnes, laughing and drawing her impedimenta together for departure, "I'll leave both the fun and the philanthropy to you. I know you're quite able to take care of them. I'll just wait long enough to hear how we're to get rid of the water down in Florida. I suppose we bore holes in the ground and let it run out."
"By no means," laughed Bobby. "It's no where near so absurdly simple as that," and he turned once more to the prospectus which lay open on the desk before them.
Before they were through with it there suddenly erupted into the outer office, where Johnson and Applerod glared at each other day by day over their books, a pandemonium of gabbling. Agnes, with a little exclamation of dismay at the time she had wasted, rose in a hurry, and immediately after she passed through the door there bounded into the room a rotund little German with enormous and extremely thick glasses upon his knob of a nose, a grizzled mustache that poked straight up on both sides of that knob, and an absurd toupee that flared straight out all around on top of the bald spot to which it was pasted. Behind him trailed a pudgy man of so exactly the Herr Professor's height and build that it seemed as if they were cast in the same spherical mold, but he was much younger and had jet black hair and a jet black mustache of such tiny proportions as to excite amazement and even awe. Still behind him was as unusually large young woman, fully a head taller than either of the two men, who had an abundance of jet black hair, and was dressed in a very rich robe and wrap, both of which were somewhat soiled and worn.
"Signor R-r-r-r-icardo, der grosse tenore—Mees-ter Burnit," introduced the rotund little German, with a deep bow commensurate with the greatness of the great tenor. "Signorina Car-r-r-avaggio—Mees-ter Burnit. I, Mees-ter Burnit, Ich bin Brofessor Fruehlingsvogel."
Bobby, for the lack of any other handy greeting, merely bowed and smiled, whereupon Signorina Caravaggio, stepping into a breach which otherwise would certainly have been embarrassing, seated herself comfortably upon the edge of Bobby's desk and swung one large but shapely foot while she explained matters.
"It's like this, Mr. Burnit," she confidently began: "when that dried-up little heathen, Matteo, who tried to run the Neapolitan Grand Opera Company with stage money, got us this far on a tour that is a disgrace to the profession, he had a sudden notion that he needed ocean air; so he took what few little dollars were in the treasury and hopped right on into New York.
"Here we are, then, at the place we were merely 'to make connections,' two hundred miles from our next booking and without enough money among us to buy a postage stamp. We haven't seen a cent of salary for six weeks, and the only thing we can do is to seize the props and scenery and costumes, see if they can be sold, and disband, unless somebody gallops to the rescue in a hurry. Professor Fruehlingsvogel happened to know another Dutchman here who conducts an orchestra at the Orpheum, and he sent us to you. He said you knew all the swell set and could start a benefit going if anybody in town could."
"Yes," said Bobby, smiling; "Schmirdonner telephoned me just a few minutes ago that the Herr Professor Fruehlingsvogel would be up to see me, and asked me to do what I could. How many of you are there?"
"Seventy-three," promptly returned Signorina Caravaggio, "and all hungry. Forty singers and an orchestra of thirty—seventy—besides props and the stage manager and Herr Fruehlingsvogel, who is the musical director."
"Where are you stopping?" asked Bobby, aghast at the size of the contract that was offered him.
"We're not," laughed the great Italian songstress. "We all went up and registered at a fourth-rate place they call the Hotel Larken, but that's as far as we got, for we were told before the ink was dry that we'd have to come across before we got a single biscuit; so there they are, scattered about the S. R. O. parts of that little two-by-twice hotel, waiting for little me to trot out and find an angel. Are you it?"
"I can't really promise what I can do," hesitated Bobby, who had never been able to refuse assistance where it seemed to be needed; "but I'll run down to the club and see some of the boys about getting up a subscription concert for you. How much help will you need?"
"Enough to land us on little old Manhattan Island."
"And there are over seventy of you to feed and take care of for, say, three days, and then to pay railroad fares for," mused Bobby, a little startled as the magnitude of the demand began to dawn upon him. "Then there's the music-hall, advertising, printing and I suppose a score of other incidentals. You need quite a pile of money. However, I'll go down to the club at lunch time and see what I can do for you."
"I knew you would the minute I looked at you," said the Signorina confidently, which was a compliment or not, the way one looked at it. "But, say; I've got a better scheme than that, one that will let you make a little money instead of contributing. I understand the Orpheum has next week dark, through yesterday's failure of The Married Bachelor Comedy Company. Why don't you get the Orpheum for us and back our show for the week? We have twelve operas in our repertoire. The scenery and props are very poor, the costumes are only half-way decent and the chorus is the rattiest-looking lot you ever saw in your life; but they can sing. They went into the discard on account of their faces, poor things. Suppose you come over and have a look. They'd melt you to tears."
"That won't be necessary," hastily objected Bobby; "but I'll meet a lot of the fellows at lunch, and afterward I'll let you know."
"After lunch!" exclaimed the Signorina with a most expressive placing of her hands over her belt, whereat the Herr Professor and Der Grosse Tenore both turned most wistfully to Bobby to see what effect this weighty plea might have upon him. "Lunch!" she repeated. "If you would carry a fork-full of steaming spaghetti into the Hotel Larken at this minute you'd start a riot. Why, Mr. Burnit, if you're going to do anything for us you've got to get into action, because we've been up since seven and we still want our breakfasts."
"Breakfast!" exclaimed Bobby, looking hastily at his watch. It was now eleven-thirty. "Come on; we'll go right over to the Larken, wherever that may be," and he exhibited as much sudden haste as if he had seen seventy people actually starving before his very eyes.
Just as the quartette stepped out of the office, Biff Bates, just coming in, bustled up to Bobby with:
"Can I see you just a minute, Bobby? Kid Mills is coming around to my place this afternoon."
"Haven't time just now, Biff," said Bobby; "but jump into the machine with us and I'll do the 'chauffing.' That will make room for all of us. We can talk on the way to the Hotel Larken. Do you know where it is?"
"Me?" scorned Biff. "If there is an inch of this old town I can't put my finger on in the dark, blindfolded, I'll have that inch dug out and thrown away."
At the curb, with keen enjoyment of the joke of it all, Bobby gravely introduced Mr. Biff Bates, ex-champion middle-weight, to these imported artists, but, very much to his surprise, Signorina Caravaggio and Professor Bates struck up an instant and animated conversation anent Biff's well-known and justly-famous victory over Slammer Young, and so interested did they become in this conversation that instead of Biff's sitting up in the front seat, as Bobby had intended, the eminent instructor of athletics manoeuvered the Herr Professor into that post of honor and climbed into the tonneau with Signor Ricardo and the Signorina, with the latter of whom he talked most volubly all the way over, to the evidently vast annoyance of Der Grosse Tenore.
The confusion of tongues must have been a very tame and quiet affair as compared to the polyglot chattering which burst upon Bobby's ears when he entered the small lobby of the Hotel Larken. The male members of the Neapolitan Grand Opera Company, almost to a man, were smoking cigarettes. There were swarthy little men and swarthy big men, there seeming to be no medium sizes among them, while the women were the most wooden-featured lot that Bobby had ever encountered, and the entire crowd was swathed in gay but dingy clothing of the most nondescript nature. Really, had Bobby not been assured that they were grand opera singers he would have taken them for a lot of immigrants, for they had that same unhappy expression of worry. The principals could be told from the chorus and the members of the orchestra from the fact that they stood aloof from the rest and from one another, gloomily nursing their grievances that they, each one the most illustrious member of the company, should thus be put to inconvenience! It was a monstrous thing that they, the possessors of glorious voices which the entire world should at once fall down and worship, should be actually hungry and out of money! It was, oh, unbelievable, atrocious, barbarous, positively inhuman!
With the entrance of the Signorina Caravaggio, bearing triumphantly with her the neatly-dressed and altogether money-like Bobby Burnit, one hundred and forty wistful eyes, mostly black and dark brown, were immediately focused in eager interest upon the possible savior. Behind the desk, perplexed and distracted but still grimly firm, stood frowzy Widow Larken herself, drawn and held to the post of duty by this vast and unusual emergency. Not one room had Madam Larken saved for all these alien warblers, not one morsel of food had she loosed from her capacious kitchen; and yet not one member of the company had she permitted to stray outside her doors while Signorina Caravaggio and Signor Ricardo and the Herr Professor Fruehlingsvogel had gone out to secure an angel, two stout porters being kept at the front door to turn back the restless. If provision could be made to pay the bills of this caravan, the Widow Larken—who was shaped like a pillow with a string tied around it and wore a face like a huge, underdone apple dumpling—was too good a business woman to overlook that opportunity. Bobby took one sweeping glance at that advancing circle of one hundred and forty eyes and turned to Widow Larken.