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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Web Of Life - Part 2 - Chapter 12
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The Web Of Life - Part 2 - Chapter 12 Post by :John_Williams Category :Long Stories Author :Robert Herrick Date :February 2011 Read :1619

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The Web Of Life - Part 2 - Chapter 12

Part II Chapter XII

"Yes, he lost that--what was left when you sold for him," Miss M'Gann admitted dejectedly. "And so we had to start over again. Part of it was mine, too."

"Did he put your savings in?" Sommers asked incredulously.

"It was that Dresser man. I wish we'd never laid eyes on him--he kept getting tips from Carson, the man who owned most of his paper. I guess Carson didn't take much interest in giving _him the right tip, or perhaps Dresser didn't give _us what he knew straight out. Anyway, Jack's been losing!"

"So you aren't married?" Sommers asked.

"Jack's pride is up. You see he wanted to begin with a nice flat, not live on here in this boarding-house. And I was to leave the school. But I guess there isn't much chance _now_. You've been away a long time--to the war?"

They were sitting on the steps of the Keystone, which at this hour in the morning they had to themselves. Miss M'Gann's glory of dress had faded, together with the volubility of her talk, and the schoolroom air had blanched her high color.

"Jack wanted to go off to Cuba," she continued. "But he got sick again, worrying over stocks, and I guess it was just as well. If he don't keep straight now, and brace up, I'll let him go. I'm not the one to hang around all my life for a silly."

"Perhaps that's what made him try the market again," Sommers suggested.

"No, it was Dresser. He was sporting a lot of money and going with high-toned folks, and it made Jack envious."

"You had better marry him, hadn't you?"

Miss M'Gann moved uneasily on the stone seat.

"He's down there again to-day, I just know. He's given up the Baking Powder place,--they crowded him out in the reorganization,--and Dresser got him a place down town."

"Do you mean he's at the broker's?"

Miss M'Gann nodded and then added:

"Do you remember Dr. Leonard? Well, he made a pile out of a trust, some dentist-tools combine, I think."

"I am glad of it," Sommers said heartily, "and I hope he'll keep it."

"Are you going to stay in Chicago?" Miss M'Gann asked, with renewed curiosity. "We shall be glad to see you at the Keystone."

Sommers got up to leave, and asked for Webber's address in the city. "I may look him up," he explained. "I wish you could keep him away from Dresser. The converted socialist is likely to be a bad lot."

"Socialist!" Miss M'Gann exclaimed disdainfully. "He isn't any socialist. He's after a rich girl."

* * * * *

Sommers left Miss M'Gann with a half-defined purpose of finding Webber and inducing him to give up the vain hope of rivalling the editor of _The Investor's Monthly_. He had always liked the clerk, and when he had helped to pull him out of the market without loss before, he had thought all would go well. But the optimism of the hour had proved too much for Webber's will. Carson's cheap and plentiful stocks had made it dangerously easy for every office boy to "invest." If Webber had been making money these last months, it would be useless to advise him; but if the erratic market had gone against him, he might be saved.

On the way to the city he called at St. Isidore's to see if any one in that hive would remember him. The little nurse, whom he recalled as one of the assistants at Preston's operation, had now attained the dignity of the "black band." There was hardly any one else who knew him, except the elevator boy; and he was leaving when he met Dr. Knowles, an old physician, who had a large, old-fashioned family practice in an unfashionable quarter of the city. Dr. Knowles had once been kind to the younger doctor, and now he seemed glad to meet him again. From him Sommers learned that Lindsay had about given up his practice. The "other things," thanks to his intimacy with Porter, and more lately with Carson, had put him outside the petty needs of professional earnings. Dr. Knowles himself was thinking of retiring, he told Sommers, not with his coffers full of trust certificates, but with a few thousand dollars, enough to keep him beyond want. They talked for a long time, and at the end Dr. Knowles asked Sommers to consider taking over his practice. "It isn't very swell," he explained good-humoredly. "And I don't want you to kill off my poor patients. But there are enough pickings for a reasonable man who doesn't practise for money." Sommers promised to see him in a few days, and started for the office where Webber worked.

Lindsay's final success amused him. He had heard a good deal about Porter and Carson; their operations, reported vaguely by the public, interested him. They formed a kind of partnership, evidently. Porter "financed" the schemes that Carson concocted and talked into being. And a following of small people gleaned in their train. Lindsay probably had gleaned more than the others. It was all the better, Sommers reflected, for the state of the medical profession.

As he sauntered down La Salle Street, the air of the pavement breathed the optimism of the hour. Sommers was amazed at the number of brokers' offices, at the streams of men going and coming around these busy booths. The war was over, or practically over, and speculation was brisker than ever. To be sure, the bills for the war were not paid, but success was in the air, and every one was striving to exploit that success in his own behalf. Sommers passed the blazing sign of WHITE AND EINSTEIN; the firm had taken larger offices this year. Sommers stopped and looked at the broad windows, and then, reflecting that he had nothing to do before dining with the Hitchcocks except to see Webber, he went in with a file of other men.

White and Einstein's offices were much more resplendent than the little room in the basement, where they had started two years before. There were many glass partitions and much mahogany-stained furniture. In the large room, where the quotations were posted, little rows of chairs were ranged before the blackboards, so that the weary patrons could sit and watch the game. The Chicago stocks had a blackboard to themselves, and this was covered with the longest lines of figures. Iron, Steel, Tobacco, Radiators, Vinegar, Oil, Leather, Spices, Tin, Candles, Biscuit, Rag,--the names of the "industrials" read like an inventory of a country store. "Rag" seemed the favorite of the hour; one boy was kept busy in posting the long line of quotations from the afternoon session of the Exchange. A group of spectators watched the jumps as quotation varied from quotation under the rapid chalk of the office boy.

The place was feverish with excitement, which Sommers could feel rather than read in the dull faces of the men. From time to time White or Einstein bobbed out of an inner office, or a telephone booth, and joined the watchers before the blackboards. Their detached air and genial smiles gave them the appearance of successful hosts. White recognized Sommers and nodded, with one eye on the board. "Rag's acting queer," he said casually in the doctor's ear. "Are you in the market? Rag is Carson's latest--ain't gone through yet, and there are signs the market's glutted. Look at that thing slide, waltz! Gee, there'll be sore heads to-morrow!"

Sommers leaned forward and touched Webber, who, with open mouth, was following the figures. Webber turned round, but his head went back to the board. The glance he had given was empty--the glance of the drunkard.

"Your young friend's got hit," White remarked apathetically. "He shouldn't try to play marbles with _this crowd. Carson is just chucking new stocks at the public. But he has a clique with him that can do anything."

In spite of this opinion "Rag" tottered and wavered. Rumors rapidly spread among the onlookers that Carson had failed to put "Rag" through; that the consolidated companies would fall asunder on the morrow, like badly glued veneer; that Porter "had gone back on Carson" and was selling the stock. The quotations fell: common stock 60, 59, 56, 50, 45, 48, 50, 52, 45, 40--so ran the dazzling line of figures across the blackboard, again and again.

"There'll be fun to-morrow," White remarked, moving away. "Better come in and see Vinegar and Oil and the rest of Carson's list get a black eye."

Sommers touched Webber, then shook him gently, asking,

"What is it this time? Iron and Distillery?"

"Rag," Webber snapped, recognizing the doctor. "And I'm done for this time sure thing--_every red copper_. I made two thousand last week on Tin, and this morning I chucked the whole pile into Rag."

"You'd better come with me," Sommers urged. "The Exchange is closing for to-day, anyway."

The clerk laughed, and replied: "Let's have a drink. I've just got enough to get drunk on."

"You're drunk already," the doctor answered gruffly.

"I'll be drunker before the morning," the clerk remarked, with a feeble laugh. "I wish I had Dresser here; I'd like to pound him once."

That desire was repeated in the looks of many men, who were still glowering at the afternoon's quotations. Carson, the idol of the new "promotions," seemed to be the man most in demand for pounding. Einstein was explaining to a savage customer why he had advised him to buy "Rag."

"I got it over the telephone this morning from a man very close to Carson that Rag was the thing, the peach of the whole lot. He said it was slated to cross Biscuit to-day."

The man growled and ground a cigar stub into the floor.

"Come, we'll have a drink," a white-faced young fellow called out to an old man, an acquaintance of the hour. "Somebody's got my money!" The two passed out arm in arm.

Webber had his drink, and then another. Then he leaned back in the embrasure of the bar-room window and looked at Sommers.

"I guess it's the lake this time. I can't go back to her and tell her it's all up."

Sommers watched the man closely, trying to determine how far the disease had gone. Webber's vain, rather weak face was disguised with a beard, which made him look older than he was, and the arm that rested on the table trembled nervously from the flaccid fingers to the shoulder-blades.

"They've put up some trick between them," Webber continued, in a grumbling tone. "Carson or Porter is making something by selling Rag. They'd ought to be in the penitentiary."

"What rot!" Sommers remarked deliberately. "They've beaten you at your game, and they will every time, because they have more nerve than you, and because they know more. There's no use in damning them. You'd do the same thing if you knew when to do it."

"They're nothing but sharps!" the clerk protested feebly, insistent like a child on his idea that some one had done him a personal injury.

Sommers shrugged his shoulders in despair. "I must be going," he said at last. "I don't suppose you'll take my advice, and perhaps the lake would be the best thing for you. But you'd better try it again--it's just as well that everything has gone this time. There won't be any chance of going back to the game. Tell her, and if she'll take you, marry her at once, and start with the little people. Or stay here and have a few more drinks," he added, as he read the irresolute look upon Webber's face.

The clerk rose wearily and followed the doctor into the street, as if afraid of being alone.

"You needn't be so rough," he muttered. "There are lots of the big fellows who started the same way--in the market, wheat or stocks. And I had a little ambition to be something better than a clerk. I wanted her to have something different. She's as good as those girls Dresser is always talking to her about."

Sommers made no reply to his defence, but walked slowly, accommodating his pace to Webber's weary steps. When they reached Michigan Avenue, he stopped and said,

"I should put the lake off, this time, and make up my mind to be a little fellow."

Webber shook hands listlessly and started toward the railroad station with his drooping, irresolute gait. Sommers watched him until his figure merged with the hurrying crowd. Habit was taking the clerk to the suburban train, and habit would take him to the Keystone and Miss M'Gann instead of to the lake. Habit and Miss M'Gann would probably take him back to his desk. But the disease had gone pretty far, and if he recovered, Sommers judged, he would never regain his elasticity, his hope. He would be haunted by a memory of hot desires, of feeble defeat.

The wavering clerk had succumbed to the mood of the hour. And the mood of the hour in this corner of the universe was hopeful for weak and strong alike. Cheap optimism, Sommers would have called it once, but now it seemed to him the natural temper of the world. With this hope suffused over their lives, men struggled on--for what? No one knew. Not merely for plunder, nor for power, nor for enjoyment. Each one might believe these to be the gifts of the gods, while he kept his eyes solely on himself. But when he turned his gaze outward, he knew that these were not the spur of human energy. In striving restlessly to get plunder and power and joy, men wove the mysterious web of life for ends no human mind could know. Carson built his rickety companies and played his knavish tricks upon the gullible public, of whom Webber was one. Brome Porter rooted here and there in the industrial world, and fattened himself upon all spoils. These had to be; they were the tools of the hour. But indifferent alike to them and to Webber, the affairs of men ebbed and flowed in the resistless tide of fate.

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