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Next day Langdon's stocks wavered, going up a little, going down a little, closing at practically the same figures at which they had opened. Then I sprang my sensation--that Langdon and his particular clique, though they controlled the Textile Trust, did not own so much as one-fiftieth of its voting stock. True "captains of industry" that they were, they made their profits not out of dividends, but out of side schemes that absorbed about two-thirds of the earnings of the Trust, and out of gambling in its bonds and stocks. I said in conclusion:
"The largest owner of the stock is Walter G. Edmunds, of Chicago--an honest man. Send your voting proxies to him, and he can take the Textile Company away from those now plundering it."
As the annual election of the Trust was only six weeks away, Langdon and his clique were in a panic. They rushed into the market and bought frantically, the public bidding against them. Langdon himself went to Chicago to reason with Edmunds--that is, to try to find out at what figure he could be bought. And so on, day after day, I faithfully reporting to the public the main occurrences behind the scenes. The Langdon attempt to regain control by purchases of stock failed. He and his allies made what must have been to them appalling sacrifices; but even at the high prices they offered, comparatively little of the stock appeared.
"I've caught them," said I to Joe--the first time, and the last, during that campaign that I indulged in a boast.
"If Edmunds sticks to you," replied cautious Joe.
But Edmunds did not. I do not know at what price he sold himself. Probably it was pitifully small; cupidity usually snatches the instant bait tickles its nose. But I do know that my faith in human nature got its severest shock.
"You are down this morning," said Thornley, when I looked in on him at his bank. "I don't think I ever before saw you show that you were in low spirits."
"I've found out a man with whom I'd have trusted my life," said I. "Sometimes I think all men are dishonest. I've tried to be an optimist like you, and have told myself that most men must be honest or ninety-five per cent. of the business couldn't be done on credit as it is."
Thornley smiled, like an old man at the enthusiasm of a youngster. "That proves nothing as to honesty," said he. "It simply shows that men can be counted on to do what it is to their plain interest to do. The truth is--and a fine truth, too--most men wish and try to be honest. Give 'em a chance to resist their own weaknesses. Don't trust them. Trust--that's the making of false friends and the filling of jails."
"And palaces," I added.
"And palaces," assented he. "Every vast fortune is a monument to the credulity of man. Instead of getting after these heavy-laden rascals, Matthew, you'd better have turned your attention to the public that has made rascals of them by leaving its property unguarded."
Fortunately, Edmunds had held out, or, rather, Langdon had delayed approaching him, long enough for me to gain my main point. The uproar over the Textile Trust had become so great that the national Department of Commerce dared not refuse an investigation; and I straightway began to spread out in my daily letters the facts of the Trust's enormous earnings and of the shameful sources of those earnings. Thanks to Langdon's political pull, the president appointed as investigator one of those rascals who carefully build themselves good reputations to enable them to charge higher prices for dirty work. But, with my facts before the people, whitewash was impossible.
I was expecting emissaries from Langdon, for I knew he must now be actually in straits. Even the Universal Life didn't dare lend him money; and was trying to call in the millions it had loaned him. But I was astounded when my private door opened and Mrs. Langdon ushered herself in.
"Don't blame your boy, Mr. Blacklock," cried she gaily, exasperatingly confident that I was as delighted with her as she was with herself. "I told him you were expecting me and didn't give him a chance to stop me."
I assumed she had come to give me wholly undeserved thanks for revenging her upon her recreant husband. I tried to look civil and courteous, but I felt that my face was darkening--her very presence forced forward things I had been keeping in the far background of my mind, "How can I be of service to you, Madam?" said I.
"I bring you good news," she replied--and I noted that she no longer looked haggard and wretched, that her beauty was once more smiling with a certain girlishness, like a young widow's when she finds her consolation. "Mowbray and I have made it up," she explained.
I simply listened, probably looking as grim as I felt.
"I knew you would be interested," she went on. "Indeed, it means almost as much to you as to me. It brings peace to two families."
Still I did not relax.
"And so," she continued, a little uneasy, "I came to you immediately."
I continued to listen, as if I were waiting for her to finish and depart.
"If you want, I'll go to Anita." Natural feminine tact would have saved her from this rawness; but, convinced that she was a "great lady" by the flattery of servants and shopkeepers and sensational newspapers and social climbers, she had discarded tact as worthy only of the lowly and of the aspiring before they "arrive."
"You are too kind," said I. "Mrs. Blacklock and I feel competent to take care of our own affairs."
"Please, Mr. Blacklock," she said, realizing that she had blundered, "don't take my directness the wrong way. Life is too short for pose and pretense about the few things that really matter. Why shouldn't we be frank with each other?"
"I trust you will excuse me," said I, moving toward the door--I had not seated myself when she did. "I think I have made it clear that we have nothing to discuss."
"You have the reputation of being generous and too big for hatred. That is why I have come to you," said she, her expression confirming my suspicion of the real and only reason for her visit. "Mowbray and I are completely reconciled--completely, you understand. And I want you to be generous, and not keep on with this attack. I am involved even more than he. He has used up his fortune in defending mine. Now, you are simply trying to ruin me--not him, but me. The president is a friend of Mowbray's, and he'll call off this horrid investigation, and everything'll be all right, if you'll only stop."
"Who sent you here?" I asked.
"I came of my own accord," she protested. Then, realizing from the sound of her voice that she could not have convinced me with a tone so unconvincing, she hedged with: "It was my own suggestion, really it was."
"Your husband permitted you to come--and to me?"
"And you have accepted his overtures when you knew he made them only because he needed your money?"
She hung her head. "I love him," she said simply. Then she looked straight at me and I liked her expression. "A woman has no false pride when love is at stake," she said. "We leave that to you men."
"Love!" I retorted, rather satirically, I imagine. "How much had your own imperiled fortune to do with your being so forgiving?"
"Something," she admitted. "You must remember I have children. I must think of their future. I don't want them to be poor. I want them to have the station they were born to." She went to one of the windows overlooking the street. "Look here!" she said.
I stood beside her. The window was not far above the street level. Just below us was a handsome victoria, coachman, harness, horses, all most proper, a footman rigid at the step. A crowd had gathered round--in those stirring days when I was the chief subject of conversation wherever men were interested in money--and where are they not?--there was almost always a crowd before my offices. In the carriage sat two children, a boy and a girl, hardly more than babies. They were gorgeously overdressed, after the vulgar fashion of aristocrats and apers of aristocracy. They sat stiffly, like little scions of royalty, with that expression of complacent superiority which one so often sees on the faces of the little children of the very rich--and some not so little, too. The thronging loungers, most of them either immigrant peasants from European caste countries or the un-disinfected sons of peasants, were gaping in true New York "lower class" awe; the children were literally swelling with delighted vanity. If they had been pampered pet dogs, one would have laughed. As they were human beings, it filled me with sadness and pity. What ignorance, what stupidity to bring up children thus in democratic America--democratic to-day, inevitably more democratic to-morrow! What a turning away from the light! What a crime against the children!
"For their sake, Mr. Blacklock," she pleaded, her mother love wholly hiding from her the features of the spectacle that for me shrieked like scarlet against a white background.
"Your husband has deceived you about your fortune, Mrs. Langdon," I said gently, for there is to me something pathetic in ignorance and I was not blaming her for her folly and her crime against her children. "You can tell him what I am about to say, or not, as you please. But my advice is that you keep it to yourself. Even if the present situation develops as seems probable, develops as Mr. Langdon fears, you will not be left without a fortune--a very large fortune, most people would think. But Mr. Langdon will have little or nothing--indeed, I think he is practically dependent on you now."
"What I have is his," she said.
"That is generous," replied I, not especially impressed by a sentiment, the very uttering of which raised a strong doubt of its truth. "But is it prudent? You wish to keep him--securely. Don't tempt him by a generosity he would only abuse."
She thought it over. "The idea of holding a man in that way is repellent to me," said she, now obviously posing.
"If the man happens to be one that can be held in no other way," said I, moving significantly toward the door, "one must overcome one's repugnance--or be despoiled and abandoned."
"Thank you," she said, giving me her hand. "Thank you--more than I can say." She had forgotten entirely that she came to plead for her husband. "And I hope you will soon be as happy as I am." That last in New York's funniest "great lady" style.
I bowed, and when there was the closed door between us, I laughed, not at all pleasantly. "This New York!" I said aloud. "This New York that dabbles its slime of sordidness and snobbishness on every flower in the garden of human nature. New York that destroys pride and substitutes vanity for it. New York with its petty, mischievous class-makers, the pattern for the rich and the 'smarties' throughout the country. These 'cut-out' minds and hearts, the best of them incapable of growth and calloused wherever the scissors of conventionality have snipped."
I took from my pocket the picture of Anita I always carried. "Are you like that?" I demanded of it. And it seemed to answer: "Yes,--I am." Did I tear the picture up? No. I kissed it as if it were the magnetic reality. "I don't care what you are!" I cried. "I want you! I want you!"
"Fool!" you are saying. Precisely what I called myself. And you? Is it the one you ought to love that you give your heart to? Is it the one that understands you and sympathizes with you? Or is it the one whose presence gives you visions of paradise and whose absence blots out the light?
I loved her. Yet I will say this much for myself: I still would not have taken her on any terms that did not make her really mine.
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