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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Deluge - Chapter 2. In Those Days Arose Kings
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The Deluge - Chapter 2. In Those Days Arose Kings Post by :eyalhalimi Category :Long Stories Author :David Graham Phillips Date :May 2012 Read :1671

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The Deluge - Chapter 2. In Those Days Arose Kings

CHAPTER II. IN THOSE DAYS AROSE KINGS

Imagine yourself back two years and a half before Wild Week, back at the time when the kings of finance had just completed their apparently final conquest of the industries of the country, when they were seating themselves upon thrones encircled by vast armies of capital and brains, when all the governments of the nation--national, state and city--were prostrate under their iron heels.

You may remember that I was a not inconspicuous figure then. Of all their financial agents, I was the best-known, the most trusted by them, the most believed in by the people. I had a magnificent suite of offices in the building that dominates Wall and Broad Streets. Boston claimed me also, and Chicago; and in Philadelphia, New Orleans, St. Louis, San Francisco, in the towns and rural districts tributary to the cities, thousands spoke of Blacklock as their trusted adviser in matters of finance. My enemies--and I had them, numerous and venomous enough to prove me a man worth while--my enemies spoke of me as the "biggest bucket-shop gambler in the world."

Gambler I was--like all the other manipulators of the markets. But "bucket-shop" I never kept. As the kings of finance were the representatives of the great merchants, manufacturers and investors, so was I the representative of the masses, of those who wished their small savings properly invested. The power of the big fellows was founded upon wealth and the brains wealth buys or bullies or seduces into its service; my power was founded upon the hearts and homes of the people, upon faith in my frank honesty.

How had I built up my power? By recognizing the possibilities of publicity, the chance which the broadcast sowing of newspapers and magazines put within the reach of the individual man to impress himself upon the whole country, upon the whole civilized world. The kings of finance relied upon the assiduity and dexterity of sundry paid agents, operating through the stealthy, clumsy, old-fashioned channels for the exercise of power. I relied only upon myself; I had to trust to no fallible, perhaps traitorous, understrappers; through the megaphone of the press I spoke directly to the people.

My enemies charge that I always have been unscrupulous and dishonest. So? Then how have I lived and thrived all these years in the glare and blare of publicity?

It is true, I have used the "methods of the charlatan" in bringing myself into wide public notice. The just way to put it would be that I have used for honest purposes the methods of publicity that charlatans have shrewdly appropriated, because by those means the public can be most widely and most quickly reached. Does good become evil because hypocrites use it as a cloak? It is also true that I have been "undignified." Let the stupid cover their stupidity with "dignity." Let the swindler hide his schemings under "dignity." I am a man of the people, not afraid to be seen as the human being that I am. I laugh when I feel like it. I have no sense of jar when people call me "Matt." I have a good time, and I shall stay young as long as I stay alive. Wealth hasn't made me a solemn ass, fenced in and unapproachable. The custom of receiving obedience and flattery and admiration has not made me a turkey-cock. Life is a joke; and when the joke's on me, I laugh as heartily as when it's on the other fellow.

It is half-past three o'clock on a May afternoon; a dismal, dreary rain is being whirled through the streets by as nasty a wind as ever blew out of the east. You are in the private office of that "king of kings," Henry J. Roebuck, philanthropist, eminent churchman, leading citizen and--in business--as corrupt a creature as ever used the domino of respectability. That office is on the twelfth floor of the Power Trust Building--and the Power Trust is Roebuck, and Roebuck is the Power Trust. He is seated at his desk and, thinking I do not see him, is looking at me with an expression of benevolent and melancholy pity--the look with which he always regarded any one whom the Roebuck God Almighty had commanded Roebuck to destroy. He and his God were in constant communication; his God never did anything except for his benefit, he never did anything except on the direct counsel or command of his God. Just now his God is commanding him to destroy me, his confidential agent in shaping many a vast industrial enterprise and in inducing the public to buy by the million its bonds and stocks.

I invited the angry frown of the Roebuck God by saying: "And I bought in the Manasquale mines on my own account."

"On your own account!" said Roebuck. Then he hastily effaced his involuntary air of the engineer startled by sight of an unexpected red light.

"Yes," replied I, as calm as if I were not realizing the tremendous significance of what I had announced. "I look to you to let me participate on equal terms."

That is, I had decided that the time had come for me to take my place among the kings of finance. I had decided to promote myself from agent to principal, from prime minister to king--I must, myself, promote myself, for in this world all promotion that is solid comes from within. And in furtherance of my object I had bought this group of mines, control of which was vital to the Roebuck-Langdon-Melville combine for a monopoly of the coal of the country.

"Did not Mr. Langdon commission you to buy them for him and his friends?" inquired Roebuck, in that slow, placid tone which yet, for the attentive ear, had a note in it like the scream of a jaguar that comes home and finds its cub gone.

"But I couldn't get them for him," I explained. "The owners wouldn't sell until I engaged that the National Coal and Railway Company was not to have them."

"Oh, I see," said Roebuck, sinking back relieved. "We must get Browne to draw up some sort of perpetual, irrevocable power of attorney to us for you to sign."

"But I won't sign it," said I.

Roebuck took up a sheet of paper and began to fold it upon itself with great care to get the edges straight. He had grasped my meaning; he was deliberating.

"For four years now," I went on, "you people have been promising to take me in as a principal in some one of your deals--to give me recognition by making me president, or chairman of an executive or finance committee. I am an impatient man, Mr. Roebuck. Life is short, and I have much to do. So I have bought the Manasquale mines--and I shall hold them."

Roebuck continued to fold the paper upon itself until he had reduced it to a short, thick strip. This he slowly twisted between his cruel fingers until it was in two pieces. He dropped them, one at a time, into the waste-basket, then smiled benevolently at me. "You are right," he said. "You shall have what you want. You have seemed such a mere boy to me that, in spite of your giving again and again proof of what you are, I have been putting you off. Then, too--" He halted, and his look was that of one surveying delicate ground.

"The bucket-shop?" suggested I.

"Exactly," said he gratefully. "Your brokerage business has been invaluable to us. But--well, I needn't tell you how people--the men of standing--look on that sort of thing."

"I never have paid any attention to pompous pretenses," said I, "and I never shall. My brokerage business must go on, and my daily letters to investors. By advertising I rose; by advertising I am a power that even you recognize; by advertising alone can I keep that power."

"You forget that in the new circumstances, you won't need that sort of power. Adapt yourself to your new surroundings. Overalls for the trench; a business suit for the office."

"I shall keep to my overalls for the present," said I. "They're more comfortable, and"--here I smiled significantly at him--"if I shed them, I might have to go naked. The first principle of business is never to give up what you have until your grip is tight on something better."

"No doubt you're right," agreed the white-haired old scoundrel, giving no sign that I had fathomed his motive for trying to "hint" me out of my stronghold. "I will talk the matter over with Langdon and Melville. Rest assured, my boy, that you will be satisfied." He got up, put his arm affectionately round my shoulders. "We all like you. I have a feeling toward you as if you were my own son. I am getting old, and I like to see young men about me, growing up to assume the responsibilities of the Lord's work whenever He shall call me to my reward."

It will seem incredible that a man of my shrewdness and experience could be taken in by such slimy stuff as that--I who knew Roebuck as only a few insiders knew him, I who had seen him at work, as devoid of heart as an empty spider in an empty web. Yet I was taken in to the extent that I thought he really purposed to recognize my services, to yield to the only persuasion that could affect him--force. I fancied he was actually about to put me where I could be of the highest usefulness to him and his associates, as well as to myself. As if an old man ever yielded power or permitted another to gain power, even though it were to his own great advantage. The avarice of age is not open to reason.

It was with tears in my eyes that I shook hands with him, thanking him emotionally. It was with a high chin and a proud heart that I went back to my offices. There wasn't a doubt in my mind that I was about to get my deserts, was about to enter the charmed circle of "high finance."

That small and exclusive circle, into which I was seeing myself admitted without the usual arduous and unequal battle, was what may be called the industrial ring--a loose, yet tight, combine of about a dozen men who controlled in one way or another practically all the industries of the country. They had no formal agreements; they held no official meetings. They did not look upon themselves as an association. They often quarreled among themselves, waged bitter wars upon each other over divisions of power or plunder. But, in the broad sense, in the true sense, they were an association--a band united by a common interest, to control finance, commerce and therefore politics; a band united by a common purpose, to keep that control in as few hands as possible. Whenever there was sign of peril from without they flung away differences, pooled resources, marched in full force to put down the insurrection. For they looked on any attempt to interfere with them as a mutiny, as an outbreak of anarchy. This band persisted, but membership in it changed, changed rapidly. Now, one would be beaten to death and despoiled by a clique of fellows; again, weak or rash ones would be cut off in strenuous battle. Often, most often, some too-powerful or too-arrogant member would be secretly and stealthily assassinated by a jealous associate or by a committee of internal safety. Of course, I do not mean literally assassinated, but assassinated, cut off, destroyed, in the sense that a man whose whole life is wealth and power is dead when wealth and power are taken from him.

Actual assassination, the crime of murder--these "gentlemen" rarely did anything which their lawyers did not advise them was legal or could be made legal by bribery of one kind or another. Rarely, I say--not never. You will see presently why I make that qualification.

I had my heart set upon membership in this band--and, as I confess now with shame, my prejudices of self-interest had blinded me into regarding it and its members as great and useful and honorable "captains of industry." Honorable in the main; for, not even my prejudice could blind me to the almost hair-raising atrocity of some of their doings. Still, morality is largely a question of environment. I had been bred in that environment. Even the atrocities I excused on the ground that he who goes forth to war must be prepared to do and to tolerate many acts the church would have to strain a point to bless. What was Columbus but a marauder, a buccaneer? Was not Drake, in law and in fact, a pirate; Washington a traitor to his soldier's oath of allegiance to King George? I had much to learn, and to unlearn. I was to find out that whenever a Roebuck puts his arm round you, it is invariably to get within your guard and nearer your fifth rib. I was to trace the ugliest deformities of that conscience of his, hidden away down inside him like a dwarfed, starved prisoner in an underground dungeon. I was to be astounded by revelations of Langdon, who was not a believer, like Roebuck, and so was not under the restraint of the feeling that he must keep some sort of conscience ledgers against the inspection of the angelic auditing committee in the day of wrath.

Much to learn--and to unlearn. It makes me laugh as I recall how, on that May day, I looked into the first mirror I was alone with, smiled delighted, as an idiot with myself and said: "Matt, you are of the kings now. Your crown suits you and, as you've earned it, you know how to keep it. Now for some fun with your subjects and your fellow sovereigns."

A little premature, that preening!

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