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Joe got to the office rather later than usual the next morning. They told him I was already there, but he wouldn't believe it until he had come into my private den and with his own eyes had seen me. "Well, I'm jiggered!" said he. "It seems to have made less impression on you than it did on us. My missus and the little un wouldn't let me go to bed till after two. They sat on and on, questioning and discussing."
I laughed--partly because I knew that Joe, like most men, was as full of gossip and as eager for it as a convalescent old maid, and that, whoever might have been the first at his house to make the break for bed, he was the last to leave off talking. But the chief reason for my laugh was that, just before he came in on me, I was almost pinching myself to see whether I was dreaming it all, and he had made me feel how vividly true it was.
"Why don't you ease down, Blacklock?" he went on. "Everything's smooth. The business--at least, my end of it, and I suppose your end, too--was never better, never growing so fast. You could go off for a week or two, just as well as not. I don't know of a thing that can prevent you."
And he honestly thought it, so little did I let him know about the larger enterprises of Blacklock and Company. I could have spoken a dozen words, and he would have been floundering like a caught fish in a basket. There are men--a very few--who work more swiftly and more surely when they know they're on the brink of ruin; but not Joe. One glimpse of our real National Coal account, and all my power over him couldn't have kept him from showing the whole Street that Blacklock and Company was shaky. And whenever the Street begins to think a man is shaky, he must be strong indeed to escape the fate of the wolf that stumbles as it runs with the pack.
"No holiday at present, Joe," was my reply to his suggestion. "Perhaps the second week in July; but our marriage was so sudden that we haven't had the time to get ready for a trip."
"Yes--it was sudden, wasn't it?" said Joe, curiosity twitching his nose like a dog's at scent of a rabbit. "How did it happen?"
"Oh, I'll tell you sometime," replied I. "I must work now."
And work a-plenty there was. Before me rose a sheaf of clamorous telegrams from our out-of-town customers and our agents; and soon my anteroom was crowded with my local following, sore and shorn. I suppose a score or more of the habitual heavy plungers on my tips were ruined and hundreds of others were thousands and tens of thousands out of pocket. "Do you want me to talk to these people?" inquired Joe, with the kindly intention of giving me a chance to shift the unpleasant duty to him.
"Certainly not," said I. "When the place is jammed, let me know. I'll jack 'em up."
It made Joe uneasy for me even to talk of using my "language"--he would have crawled from the Battery to Harlem to keep me from using it on him. So he silently left me alone. My system of dealing face to face with the speculating and investing public had many great advantages over that of all the other big operators--their system of hiding behind cleverly-contrived screens and slaughtering the decoyed public without showing so much as the tip of a gun or nose that could be identified. But to my method there was a disadvantage that made men, who happened to have more hypocrisy and less nerve than I, shrink from it. When one of my tips miscarried, down upon me would swoop the bad losers in a body to give me a turbulent quarter of an hour.
Toward ten o'clock, my boy came in and said: "Mr. Ball thinks it's about time for you to see some of these people."
I went into the main room, where the tickers and blackboards were. As I approached through my outer office I could hear the noise the crowd was making--as they cursed me. If you want to rile the true inmost soul of the average human being, don't take his reputation or his wife; just cause him to lose money. There were among my speculating customers many with the even-tenored sporting instinct. These were bearing their losses with philosophy--none of them had swooped on me. Of the perhaps three hundred who had come to ease their anguish by tongue-lashing me, every one was a bad loser and was mad through and through--those who had lost a few hundred dollars were as infuriated as those whom my misleading tip had cost thousands and tens of thousands; those whom I had helped to win all they had in the world were more savage than those new to my following.
I took my stand in the doorway, a step up from the floor of the main room. I looked all round until I had met each pair of angry eyes. They say I can give my face an expression that is anything but agreeable; such talent as I have in that direction I exerted then. The instant I appeared a silence fell; but I waited until the last pair of claws drew in. Then I said, in the quiet tone the army officer uses when he tells the mob that the machine guns will open up in two minutes by the watch: "Gentlemen, in the effort to counteract my warning to the public, the Textile crowd rocketed the stock yesterday. Those who heeded my warning and sold got excellent prices. Those who did not should sell to-day. Not even the powerful interests behind Textile can long maintain yesterday's prices."
A wave of restlessness passed over the crowd. Many shifted their eyes from me and began to murmur.
I raised my voice slightly as I went on: "The speculators, the gamblers, are the only people who were hurt. Those who sold what they didn't have are paying for their folly. I have no sympathy for them. Blacklock and Company wishes none such in its following, and seizes every opportunity to weed them out. We are in business only for the bona fide investing public, and we are stronger with that public to-day than we have ever been."
Again I looked from coward to coward of that mob, changed from three hundred strong to three hundred weak. Then I bowed and withdrew, leaving them to mutter and disperse. I felt well content with the trend of events--I who wished to impress the public and the financiers that I had broken with speculation and speculators, could I have had a better than this unexpected opportunity sharply to define my new course? And as Textiles, unsupported, fell toward the close of the day, my content rose toward my normal high spirits. There was no whisper in the Street that I was in trouble; on the contrary, the idea was gaining ground that I had really long ceased to be a stock gambler and deserved a much better reputation than I had. Reputation is a matter of diplomacy rather than of desert. In all my career I was never less entitled to a good reputation than in those June days; yet the disastrous gambling follies, yes, and worse, I then committed, formed the secure foundation of my reputation for conservatism and square dealing. From that time dates the decline of the habit the newspapers had of speaking of me as "Black Matt" or "Matt" Blacklock. In them, and therefore in the public mind, I began to figure as "Mr. Blacklock, a recognized authority on finance," and such information as I gave out ceased to be described as "tips" and was respectfully referred to as "indications."
No doubt, my marriage had something to do with this. Probably one couldn't borrow any great amount of money in New York directly and solely on the strength of a fashionable marriage; but, so all-pervading is the snobbishness there, one can get, by making a fashionable marriage, any quantity of that deferential respect from rich people which is, in some circumstances, easily convertible into cash and credit.
I searched with a good deal of anxiety, as you may imagine, the early editions of the afternoon papers. The first article my eye chanced upon was a mere wordy elaboration of the brief and vague announcement Monson had put in the Herald. Later came an interview with old Ellersly.
"Not at all mysterious," he had said to the reporters. "Mr. Blacklock found he would have to go abroad on business soon--he didn't know just when. On the spur of the moment they decided to marry." A good enough story, and I confirmed it when I admitted the reporters. I read their estimates of my fortune and of Anita's with rather bitter amusement--she whose father was living from hand to mouth; I who could not have emerged from a forced settlement with enough to enable me to keep a trap. Still, when one is rich, the reputation of being rich is heavily expensive; but when one is poor the reputation of being rich can be made a wealth-giving asset.
Even as I was reading these fables of my millions, there lay on the desk before me a statement of the exact posture of my affairs--a memorandum made by myself for my own eyes, and to be burned as soon as I mastered it. On the face of the figures the balance against me was appalling. My chief asset, indeed my only asset that measured up toward my debts, was my Coal stocks, those bought and those contracted for; and, while their par value far exceeded my liabilities, they had to appear in my memorandum at their actual market value on that day. I looked at the calendar--seventeen days until the reorganization scheme would be announced, only seventeen days!
Less than three business weeks, and I should be out of the storm and sailing safer and smoother seas than I had ever known. "To indulge in vague hopes is bad," thought I, "but not to indulge in a hope, especially when one has only it between him and the pit." And I proceeded to plan on the not unwarranted assumption that my Coal hope was a present reality. Indeed, what alternative had I? To put it among the future's uncertainties was to put myself among the utterly ruined. Using as collateral the Coal stocks I had bought outright, I borrowed more money, and with it went still deeper into the Coal venture. Everything or nothing!--since the chances in my favor were a thousand, to practically none against me. Everything or nothing!--since only by staking everything could I possibly save anything at all.
The morality of these and many of my other doings in those days will no doubt be condemned. By no one more severely than by myself--now that the necessities which then compelled me have passed. There is no subject on which men talk and think, more humbug than on that subject of morality. As a matter of fact, except in those personal relations that are governed by the affections, what is morality but the mandate of policy, and what is policy but the mandate of necessity? My criticism of Roebuck and the other "high financiers" is not upon their morality, but upon their policy, which is short-sighted and stupid and base. The moral difference between me and them is that, white I merely assert and maintain my right to live, they deny the right of any but themselves to live. I say I criticize them; but that does not mean that I sympathize with the public at large in its complainings against them. The public, its stupidity and cupidity, creates the conditions that breed and foster these men. A rotten cheese reviling the maggots it has bred!
In those very hours when I was obeying the imperative law of self-preservation, was clutching at every log that floated by me regardless of whether it was my property or not so long as it would help me keep my head above water--what was going on all round me? In every office of the down town district--merchant, banker, broker, lawyer, man of commerce or finance--was not every busy brain plotting, not self-preservation but pillage and sack--plotting to increase the cost of living for the masses of men by slipping a little tax here and a little tax there on to everything by which men live? All along the line between the farm or mine or shop and the market, at every one of the toll-gates for the collection of just charges, these big financiers, backed up by the big lawyers and the rascally public officials, had an agent in charge to collect on each passing article more than was honestly due. A thousand subtle ways of levying, all combining to pour in upon the few the torrents of unjust wealth. I laugh when I read of laboring men striking for higher wages. Poor, ignorant fools--they almost deserve their fate. They had better be concerning themselves with a huge, universal strike at the polls for lower prices. What will it avail to get higher wages, as long as the masters control and recoup on the prices of all the things for which those wages must be spent?
I lived in Wall Street, in its atmosphere of the practical morality of "finance." On every side swindling operations, great and small; operations regarded as right through long-established custom; dishonest or doubtful operations on the way to becoming established by custom as "respectable." No man's title to anything conceded unless he had the brains to defend it. There was a time when it would have been regarded as wildly preposterous and viciously immoral to deny property rights in human beings. There may come a time--who knows?--when "high finance's" denial of a moral right to property of any kind may cease to be regarded as wicked; may become a generally accepted canon, as our Socialist friends predict. However, I attempt no excuses for myself; I need them no more than a judge in the Dark Ages needed to apologize for ordering a witch to the stake. I could no more have done differently than a fish could breathe on land or a man under water. I did as all the others did--and I had the justification of necessity. Right of might being the prevailing code, when men set upon me with pistols, I met them with pistols, not with the discarded and antiquated weapons of sermon and prayer and the law.
And I thought extremely well of myself and of my pistols that June afternoon, as I was hurrying up town the moment the day's settlement on 'Change was finished. I had sent out my daily letter to investors, and its tone of confidence was genuine--I knew that hundreds of customers of a better class would soon be flocking in to take the places of those I had been compelled to teach a lesson in the vicissitudes of gambling. With a light heart and the physical feeling of a football player in training, I sped toward home.
Home! For the first time since I was a squat little slip of a shaver the word had a personal meaning for me. Perhaps, if the only other home of mine had been less uninviting, I should not have looked forward with such high beating of the heart to that cold home Anita was making for me. No, I withdraw that. It is fellows like me, to whom kindly looks and unsought attentions are as unfamiliar as flowers to the Arctic--it is men like me that appreciate and treasure and warm up under the faintest show or shadowy suggestion of the sunshine of sentiment. I'd be a little ashamed to say how much money I handed out to beggars and street gamins that day. I had a home to go to!
As my electric drew up at the Willoughby, a carriage backed to make room for it. I recognized the horses and the coachman and the crest.
"How long has Mrs. Ellersly been with my wife?" I asked the elevator boy, as he was taking me up.
"About half an hour, sir," he answered. "But Mr. Ellersly--I took up his card before lunch, and he's still there."
Instead of using my key, I rang the bell, and when Sanders opened, I said: "Is Mrs. Blacklock in?" in a voice loud enough to penetrate to the drawing-room.
As I had hoped, Anita appeared. Her dress told me that her trunks had come--she had sent for her trunks! "Mother and father are here," said she, without looking at me.
I followed her into the drawing-room and, for the benefit of the servants, Mr. and Mrs. Ellersly and I greeted each other courteously, though Mrs. Ellersly's eyes and mine met in a glance like the flash of steel on steel. "We were just going," said she, and then I felt that I had arrived in the midst of a tempest of uncommon fury.
"You must stop and make me a visit," protested I, with elaborate politeness. To myself I was assuming that they had come to "make up and be friends"--and resume their places at the trough.
She was moving toward the door, the old man in her wake. Neither of them offered to shake hands with me; neither made pretense of saying good-by to Anita, standing by the window like a pillar of ice. I had closed the drawing-room door behind me, as I entered. I was about to open it for them when I was restrained by what I saw working in the old woman's face. She had set her will on escaping from my loathed presence without a "scene;" but her rage at having been outgeneraled was too fractious for her will.
"You scoundrel!" she hissed, her whole body shaking and her carefully-cultivated appearance of the gracious evening of youth swallowed up in a black cyclone of hate. "You gutter-plant! God will punish you for the shame you have brought upon us!"
I opened the door and bowed, without a word, without even the desire to return insult for insult--had not Anita evidently again and finally rejected them and chosen me? As they passed into the private hall I rang for Sanders to come and let them out. When I turned back into the drawing-room, Anita was seated, was reading a book. I waited until I saw she was not going to speak. Then I said: "What time will you have dinner?" But my face must have been expressing some of the joy and gratitude that filled me. "She has chosen!" I was saying to myself over and over.
"Whenever you usually have it," she replied, without looking up.
"At seven o'clock, then. You had better tell Sanders."
I rang for him and went into my little smoking-room. She had resisted her parents' final appeal to her to return to them. She had cast in her lot with me. "The rest can be left to time," said I to myself. And, reviewing all that had happened, I let a wild hope send tenacious roots deep into me. How often ignorance is a blessing; how often knowledge would make the step falter and the heart quail!
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