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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Metropolis - Chapter 18
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The Metropolis - Chapter 18 Post by :NiallR Category :Long Stories Author :Upton Sinclair Date :May 2012 Read :543

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The Metropolis - Chapter 18

CHAPTER XVIII

The newspapers said nothing more about the Hasbrook suit; but in financial circles Montague had attained considerable notoriety because of it. And this was the means of bringing him a number of new cases.

But alas, there were no more fifty-thousand-dollar clients! The first caller was a destitute widow with a deed which would have entitled her to the greater part of a large city in Pennsylvania--only unfortunately the deed was about eighty years old. And then there was a poor old man who had been hurt in a street-car accident and had been tricked into signing away his rights; and an indignant citizen who proposed to bring a hundred suits against the traction trust for transfers refused. All were contingency cases, with the chances of success exceedingly remote. And Montague noticed that the people had come to him as a last resort, having apparently heard of him as a man of altruistic temper.

There was one case which interested him particularly, because it seemed to fit in so ominously with the grim prognosis of his brother. He received a call from an elderly gentleman, of very evident refinement and dignity of manner, who proceeded to unfold to him a most amazing story. Five or six years ago he had invented a storage-battery, which was the most efficient known. He had organised a company with three million dollars' capital to manufacture it, himself taking a third interest for his patents, and becoming president of the company. Not long afterward had come a proposal from a group of men who wished to organize a company to manufacture automobiles; they proposed to form an alliance which would give them the exclusive use of the battery. But these men were not people with whom the inventor cared to deal--they were traction and gas magnates widely known for their unscrupulous methods. And so he had declined their offer, and set to work instead to organize an automobile company himself. He had just got under way when he discovered that his rivals had set to work to take his invention away from him. A friend who owned another third share in his company had hypothecated his stock to help form the new company; and now came a call from the bank for more collateral, and he was obliged to sell out. And at the next stockholders' meeting it developed that their rivals had bought it, and likewise more stock in the open market; and they proceeded to take possession of the company, ousting the former president--and then making a contract with their automobile company to furnish the storage-battery at a price which left no profit for the manufacturers! And so for two years the inventor had not received a dollar of dividends upon his million dollars' worth of paper; and to cap the climax, the company had refused to sell the battery to his automobile company, and so that had gone into bankruptcy, and his friend was ruined also!

Montague went into the case very carefully, and found that the story was true. What interested him particularly in it was the fact that he had met a couple of these financial highwaymen in social life; he had come to know the son and heir of one of them quite well, at Siegfried Harvey's. This gilded youth was engaged to be married in a very few days, and the papers had it that the father-in-law had presented the bride with a cheque for a million dollars. Montague could not but wonder if it was the million that had been taken from his client!

There was to be a "bachelor dinner" at the Millionaires' on the night before the wedding, to which he and Oliver had been invited. As he was thinking of taking up his case, he went to his brother, saying that he wished to decline; but Oliver had been getting back his courage day by day, and declared that it was more important than ever now that he should hold his ground, and face his enemies--for Alice's sake, if not for his own. And so Montague went to the dinner, and saw deeper yet into the history of the stolen millions.

It was a very beautiful affair, in the beginning. There was a large private dining-room, elaborately decorated, with a string orchestra concealed in a bower of plants. But there were cocktails even on the side-board at the doorway; and by the time the guests had got to the coffee, every one was hilariously drunk. After each toast they would hurl their glasses over their shoulders. The purpose of a "bachelor dinner," it appeared, was a farewell to the old days and the boon companions; so there were sentimental and comic songs which had been composed for the occasion, and were received with whirlwinds of laughter.

By listening closely and reading between the lines, one might get quite a history of the young host's adventurous career. There was a house up on the West Side; and there was a yacht, with, orgies in every part of the world. There was the summer night in Newport harbour, when some one had hit upon the dazzling scheme of freezing twenty-dollar gold pieces in tiny blocks of ice, to be dropped down the girls' backs! And there was a banquet in a studio in New York, when a huge pie had been brought on, from which a half-nude girl had emerged, with a flock of canary birds about her! Then there was a damsel who had been wont to dance upon the tops of supper tables, clad in diaphanous costume; and who had got drunk after a theatre-party, and set out to smash up a Broadway restaurant. There was a cousin from Chicago, a wild lad, who made a speciality of this diversion, and whose mistresses were bathed in champagne.--Apparently there were numberless places in the city where such orgies were carried on continually; there were private clubs, and artists' "studios"--there were several allusions to a high tower, which Montague did not comprehend. Many such matters, however, were explained to him by an elderly gentleman who sat on his right, and who seemed to stay sober, no matter how much he drank. Incidentally he gravely advised Montague to meet one of the young host's mistresses, who was a "stunning" girl, and was in the market.

Toward morning the festivities changed to a series of wrestling-bouts; the young men stripped off their clothing and tore the table to pieces, and piled it out of the way in a corner, smashing most of the crockery in the process. Between the matches, champagne would be opened by knocking off the heads of the bottles; and this went on until four o'clock in the morning, when many of the guests were lying in heaps upon the floor.

Montague rode home in a cab with the elderly gentleman who had sat next to him; and on the way he asked if such affairs as this were common. And his companion, who was a "steel man" from the West, replied by telling him of some which he had witnessed at home. At Siegfried Harvey's theatre-party Montague had seen a popular actress in a musical comedy, which was then the most successful play running in New York. The house was sold out weeks ahead, and after the matinee you might observe the street in front of the stage-entrance blocked by people waiting to see the woman come out. She was lithe and supple, like a panther, and wore close-fitting gowns to reveal her form. It seemed that her play must have been built with one purpose in mind, to see how much lewdness could be put upon a stage without interference by the police.--And now his companion told him how this woman had been invited to sing at a banquet given by the magnates of a mighty Trust, and had gone after midnight to the most exclusive club in the town, and sung her popular ditty, "Won't you come and play with me?" The merry magnates had taken the invitation literally--with the result that the actress had escaped from the room with half her clothing torn off her. And a little while later an official of this trust had wished to get rid of his wife and marry a chorus-girl; and when public clamour had forced the directors to ask him to resign, he had replied by threatening to tell about this banquet!

The next day--or rather, to be precise, that same morning--Montague and Alice attended the gorgeous wedding. It was declared by the newspapers to be the most "important" social event of the week; and it took half a dozen policemen to hold back the crowds which filled the street. The ceremony took place at St. Cecilia's, with the stately bishop officiating, in his purple and scarlet robes. Inside the doors were all the elect, exquisitely groomed and gowned, and such a medley of delicious perfumes as not all the vales in Arcady could equal. The groom had been polished and scrubbed, and looked very handsome, though somewhat pale; and Montague could not but smile as he observed the best man, looking so very solemn, and recollected the drunken wrestler of a few hours before, staggering about in a pale blue undershirt ripped up the back.

The Montagues knew by this time whom they were to avoid. They were graciously taken under the wing of Mrs. Eldridge Devon--whose real estate was not affected by insurance suits; and the next morning they had the satisfaction of seeing their names in the list of those present--and even a couple of lines about Alice's costume. (Alice was always referred to as "Miss Montague"; it was very pleasant to be the "Miss Montague," and to think of all the other would-be Miss Montagues in the city, who were thereby haughtily rebuked!) In the "yellow" papers there were also accounts of the trousseau of the bride, and of the wonderful gifts which she had received, and of the long honeymoon which she was to spend in the Mediterranean upon her husband's yacht. Montague found himself wondering if the ghosts of its former occupants would not haunt her, and whether she would have been as happy, had she known as much as he knew.

He found food for a good deal of thought in the memory of this banquet. Among the things which he had gathered from the songs was a hint that Oliver, also, had some secrets, which he had not seen fit to tell his brother. The keeping of young girls was apparently one of the established customs of the "little brothers of the rich"--and, for that matter, of many of the big brothers, also. A little later Montague had a curious glimpse into the life of this "half-world." He had occasion one evening to call up a certain financier whom he had come to know quite well-a man of family and a member of the church. There were some important papers to be signed and sent off by a steamer; and the great man's secretary said that he would try to find him. A minute or two later he called up Montague and asked him if he would be good enough to go to an address uptown. It was a house not far from Riverside Drive; and Montague went there and found his acquaintance, with several other prominent men of affairs whom he knew, conversing in a drawing-room with one of the most charming ladies he had ever met. She was exquisite to look at, and one of the few people in New York whom he had found worth listening to. He spent such an enjoyable evening, that when he was leaving, he remarked to the lady that he would like his cousin Alice to meet her; and then he noticed that she flushed slightly, and was embarrassed. Later on he learned to his dismay that the charming and beautiful lady did not go into Society.

Nor was this at all rare; on the contrary, if one took the trouble to make inquiries, he would find that such establishments were everywhere taken for granted. Montague talked about it with Major Venable; and out of his gossip storehouse the old gentleman drew forth a string of anecdotes that made one's hair stand on end. There was one all-powerful magnate, who had a passion for the wife of a great physician; and he had given a million dollars or so to build a hospital, and had provided that it should be the finest in the world, and that this physician should go abroad for three years to study the institutions of Europe! No conventions counted with this old man--if he saw a woman whom he wanted, he would ask for her; and women in Society felt that it was an honour to be his mistress. Not long after this a man who voiced the anguish of a mighty nation was turned out of several hotels in New York because he was not married according to the laws of South Dakota; but this other man would take a woman to any hotel in the city, and no one would dare oppose him!

And there was another, a great traction king, who kept mistresses in Chicago and Paris and London, as well as in New York; he had one just around the corner from his palatial home, and had an underground passage leading to it. And the Major told with glee how he had shown this to a friend, and the latter had remarked, "I'm too stout to get through there."--"I know it," replied the other, "else I shouldn't have told you!"

And so it went. One of the richest men in New York was a sexual degenerate, with half a dozen women on his hands all the time; he would send them cheques, and they would use these to blackmail him. This man's young wife had been shut up in a closet for twenty-four hours by her mother to compel her to marry him.--And then there was the charming tale of how he had gone away upon a mission of state, and had written long messages full of tender protestations, and given them to a newspaper correspondent to cable home "to his wife." The correspondent had thought it such a touching example of conjugal devotion that he told about it at a dinner-party when he came back; and he was struck by the sudden silence that fell. "The messages had been sent to a code address!" chuckled the Major. "And every one at the table knew who had got them!"

A few days after this, Montague received a telephone message from Siegfried Harvey, who said that he wanted to see him about a matter of business. He asked him to lunch at the Noonday Club; and Montague went--though not without a qualm. For it was in the Fidelity Building, the enemy's bailiwick: a magnificent structure with halls of white marble, and a lavish display of bronze. It occurred to Montague that somewhere in this structure people were at work preparing an answer to his charges; he wondered what they were saying.

The two had lunch, talking meanwhile about the coming events in Society, and about politics and wars; and when the coffee was served and they were alone in the room, Harvey settled his big frame back in his chair, and began:--

"In the first place," he said, "I must explain that I've something to say that is devilish hard to get into. I'm so much afraid of your jumping to a wrong conclusion in the middle of it--I'd like you to agree to listen for a minute or two before you think at all."

"All right," said Montague, with a smile. "Fire away."

And at once the other became grave. "You've taken a case against this company," he said. "And Ollie has talked enough to me to make me understand that you've done a plucky thing, and that you must be everlastingly sick of hearing from cowardly people who want you to drop it. I'd be very sorry to be classed with them, for even a moment; and you must understand at the outset that I haven't a particle of interest in the company, and that it wouldn't matter to me if I had. I don't try to use my friends in business, and I don't let money count with me in my social life. I made up my mind to take the risk of speaking to you about this case, simply because I happen to know one or two things about it that I thought you didn't know. And if that's so, you are at a great disadvantage; but in any case, please understand that I have no motive but friendship, and so if I am butting in, excuse me."

When Siegfried Harvey talked, he looked straight at one with his clear blue eyes, and there was no doubting his honesty. "I am very much obliged to you," said Montague. "Pray tell me what you have to say."

"All right," said the other. "It can be done very quickly. You have taken a case which involves a great many sacrifices upon your part. And I wondered if it had ever occurred to you to ask whether you might not be taken advantage of?"

"How do you mean?" asked Montague.

"Do you know the people who are behind you?" inquired the other. "Do you know them well enough to be sure what are their motives in the case?"

Montague hesitated, and thought. "No," he said, "I couldn't say that I do."

"Then it's just as I thought," replied Harvey. "I've been watching you--you are an honest man, and you're putting yourself to no end of trouble from the best of motives. And unless I'm mistaken, you're being used by men who are not honest, and whom you wouldn't work with if you knew their purposes."

"What purposes could they have?"

"There are several possibilities. In the first place, it might be a 'strike' suit--somebody who is hoping to be bought off for a big price. That is what nearly every one thinks is the case. But I don't; I think it's more likely some one within the company who is trying to put the administration in a hole."

"Who could that be?" exclaimed Montague, amazed.

"I don't know that. I'm not familiar enough with the situation in the Fidelity--it's changing all the time. I simply know that there are factions struggling for the control of it, and hating each other furiously, and ready to do anything in the world to cripple each other. You know that their forty millions of surplus gives an enormous power; I'd rather be able to swing forty millions in the Street than to have ten millions in my own right. And so the giants are fighting for the control of those companies; and you can't tell who's in and who's out--you can never know the real meaning of anything that happens in the struggle. All that you can be sure of is that the game is crooked from end to end, and that nothing that happens in it is what it pretends to be."

Montague listened, half dazed, and feeling as if the ground he stood on were caving beneath his feet.

"What do you know about those who brought you this case?" asked his companion, suddenly.

"Not much," he said weakly.

Harvey hesitated a moment. "Understand me, please," he said. "I've no wish to pry into your affairs, and if you don't care to say any more, I'll understand it perfectly. But I've heard it said that the man who started the thing was Ellis."

Montague, in his turn, hesitated; then he said, "That is correct--between you and me."

"Very good," said Harvey, "and that is what made me suspicious. Do you know anything about Ellis?"

"I didn't," said the other. "I've heard a little since."

"I can fancy so," said Harvey. "And I can tell you that Ellis is mixed up in life-insurance matters in all sorts of dubious ways. It seems to me that you have reason to be most careful where you follow him."

Montague sat with his hands clenched and his brows knitted. His friend's talk had been like a flash of lightning; it revealed huge menacing forms in the darkness about him. All the structure of his hopes seemed to be tottering; his case, that he had worked so hard over--his fifty thousand dollars that he had been so proud of! Could it be that he had been tricked, and had made a fool of himself?

"How in the world am I to know?" he cried.

"That is more than I can tell," said his friend. "And for that matter, I'm not sure that you could do anything now. All that I could do was to warn you what sort of ground you were treading on, so that you could watch out for yourself in future."

Montague thanked him heartily for that service; and then he went back to his office, and spent the rest of the day pondering the matter.

What he had heard had made a vast change in things. Before it everything had seemed simple; and now nothing was clear. He was overwhelmed with a sense of the utter futility of his efforts; he was trying to build a house upon quicksands. There was nowhere a solid spot upon which he could set his foot. There was nowhere any truth--there were only contending powers who used the phrases of truth for their own purposes! And now he saw himself as the world saw him,--a party to a piece of trickery,--a knave like all the rest. He felt that he had been tripped up at the first step in his career.

The conclusion of the whole matter was that he took an afternoon train for Albany; and the next morning he talked the matter out with the Judge. Montague had realized the need of going slowly, for, after all, he had no definite ground for suspicion; and so, very tactfully and cautiously he explained, that it had come to his ears that many people believed there were interested parties behind the suit of Mr. Hasbrook; and that this had made him uncomfortable, as he knew nothing whatever about his client. He had come to ask the Judge's advice in the matter.

No one could have taken the thing more graciously than did the great man; he was all kindness and tact. In the first place, he said, he had warned him in advance that enemies would attack him and slander him, and that all kinds of subtle means would be used to influence him. And he must understand that these rumours were part of such a campaign; it made no difference how good a friend had brought them to him--how could he know who had brought them to that friend?

The Judge ventured to hope that nothing that anyone might say could influence him to believe that he, the Judge, would have advised him to do anything improper.

"No," said Montague, "but can you assure me that there are no interested parties behind Mr. Hasbrook?"

"Interested parties?" asked the other.

"I mean people connected with the Fidelity or other insurance companies."

"Why, no," said the Judge; "I certainly couldn't assure you of that."

Montague looked surprised. "You mean you don't know?"

"I mean," was the answer, "that I wouldn't feel at liberty to tell, even if I did know."

And Montague stared at him; he had not been prepared for this frankness.

"It never occurred to me," the other continued, "that that was a matter which could make any difference to you."

"Why--" began Montague.

"Pray understand me, Mr. Montague," said the Judge. "It seemed to me that this was obviously a just case, and it seemed so to you. And the only other matter that I thought you had a right to be assured of was that it was seriously meant. Of that I felt assured. It did not seem to me of any importance that there might be interested individuals behind Mr. Hasbrook. Let us suppose, for instance, that there were some parties who had been offended by the administration of the Fidelity, and were anxious to punish it. Could a lawyer be justified in refusing to take a just case, simply because he knew of such private motives? Or, let us assume an extreme case--a factional fight within the company, as you say has been suggested to you. Well, that would be a case of thieves falling out; and is there any reason why the public should not reap the advantage of such a situation? The men inside the company are the ones who would know first what is going on; and if you saw a chance to use such an advantage in a just fight--would you not do it?"

So the Judge went on, gracious and plausible--and so subtly and exquisitely corrupting! Underneath his smoothly flowing sentences Montague could feel the presence of one fundamental thought; it was unuttered and even unhinted, but it pervaded the Judge's discourse as a mood pervades a melody. The young lawyer had got a big fee, and he had a nice easy case; and as a man of the world, he could not really wish to pry into it too closely. He had heard gossip, and felt that his reputation required him to be disturbed; but he had come, simply to be smoothed down the back and made at ease, and enabled to keep his fee without losing his good opinion of himself.

Montague quit, because he concluded that it was not worth while to try to make himself understood. After all, he was in the case now, and there was nothing to be gained by a breach. Two things he felt that he had made certain by the interview--first, that his client was a "dummy," and that it was really a case of thieves falling out; and second, that he had no guarantee that he might not be left in the lurch at any moment--except the touching confidence of the Judge in some parties unknown.

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