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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesTogether - Part One - Chapter 10
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Together - Part One - Chapter 10 Post by :hlpunltd Category :Long Stories Author :Robert Herrick Date :May 2012 Read :2108

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Together - Part One - Chapter 10

PART ONE CHAPTER X

If Isabelle had been curious about her husband's interest in the Pleasant Valley Coal Company, she might have developed a highly interesting chapter of commercial history, in which Mr. Freke and John Lane were enacting typical parts.

The Atlantic and Pacific railroad corporation is, as may easily be inferred, a vast organism, with a history, a life of its own, lying like a thick ganglia of nerves and blood-vessels a third of the way across our broad continent, sucking its nourishment from thousands of miles of rich and populous territory. To write its history humanly, not statistically, would be to reveal an important chapter in the national drama for the past forty years,--a drama buried in dusty archives, in auditors' reports, vouchers, mortgage deeds, general orders, etc. Some day there will come the great master of irony, the man of insight, who will make this mass of routine paper glow with meaning visible to all!

Meanwhile this Atlantic and Pacific, which to-day is a mighty system, was once only a handful of atoms. There was the period of Birth; there was the period of Conquest; and finally there has come the period of Domination. Now, with its hold on the industry, the life of eight states, complete, like the great Serpent it can grumble, "I lie here possessing!"

Farrington Beals came to be President of the Atlantic and Pacific at the close of the period of Conquest. The condottieri leaders, those splendid railroad brigands of the seventies and eighties, had retired with "the fruits of their industry." To Farrington Beals and his associate was left the care of the orchard. It was their task to solidify a conglomerate mass of interest-bearing burden, to operate the property with the greatest efficiency possible, in order that it might support the burdens laid upon it and yet other burdens to come as the land waxed rich,--all burdens being ultimately passed to the broad back of the Public, where burdens seem naturally to belong. To this end, Beals men, as they were called, gradually replaced throughout the length and breadth of the system the old operatives, whose methods belonged to the coarse days of brigandage! These Beals men were youngsters,--capable, active, full of "jump," with the word "traffic, traffic" singing always in their ears. Beals was a splendid "operator," and he rapidly brought the Atlantic and Pacific into the first rank of the world's railroads. That shrewd and conservative statesman, Senator Alonzo Thomas (who had skilfully marshalled the legal and political forces during the period of Conquest) was now chairman of the Board, and he and the President successfully readjusted the heterogeneous mass of bonds and stocks, notes and prior liens, taking advantage of a period of optimistic feeling in the market to float a tremendous general mortgage. When this "Readjustment" had been successfully put through, the burden was some forty or fifty millions larger than before,--where those millions went is one of the mysteries to reward that future Carlyle!--but the public load was adjusted more trimly. So it was spoken of as a "masterly stroke of finance," and the ex-statesman gained much credit in the highest circles.

The Senator and the President are excellent men, as any financier will tell you. They are charitable and genial, social beings, members of clubs, hard working and intelligent, public spirited, too,--oh, the very best that the Republic breeds! To see Farrington Beals, gray-haired, thoughtful, almost the student, clothed in a sober dark suit, with a simple flower in the buttonhole, and delicate glasses on the bridge of his shapely nose,--to see him modestly enter the general offices of the Atlantic and Pacific, any one would recognize an Industrial Flywheel of society. To accompany him over the system in his car, with a party of distinguished foreign stockholders, was in the nature of a religious ceremony, so much the interests of this giant property in his care seemed allied with the best interests of our great land!

Thus Beals men ran the road,--men like John Hamilton Lane, railroad men to the core, loyal men, devoted to the great A. and P. And traffic increased monthly, tonnage mounted, wheels turned faster, long freight trains wound their snaky coils through the Alleghanies, over the flat prairies, into Eastern ports, or Western terminals--Traffic, Traffic! And money poured into the treasury, more than enough to provide for all those securities that the Senator was so skilled in manufacturing. All worked in this blessed land of freedom to the glory of Farrington Beals and the profit of the great A. and P.

What has Isabelle to do with all this? Actually she was witness to one event,--rather, just the surface of it, the odd-looking, concrete outside! An afternoon early in her married life at Torso, she had gone down to the railroad office to take her husband for a drive in the pleasant autumn weather. As he was long in coming to meet her, she entered the brick building; the elevator boy, recognizing her with a pleasant nod, whisked her up to the floor where Lane had his private office. Entering the outer room, which happened to be empty at this hour, she heard voices through the half-open door that led to the inner office. It was first her husband's voice, so low that she could not hear what he was saying. Presently it was interrupted by a passionate treble. Through the door she could just see John's side face where he was seated at his desk,--the look she liked best, showing the firm cheek and jaw line, and resolute mouth. Over his desk a thin, roughly dressed man with a ragged reddish beard was leaning on both arms, and his shoulders trembled with the passion of his utterance.

"Mr. Lane," he was saying in that passionate treble, "I must have them cars--or I shall lose my contract!"

"As I have told you a dozen times, Mr. Simonds, I have done my best for you. I recognize your trouble, and it is most unfortunate,--but there seems to be a shortage of coalers just now."

"The Pleasant Valley company get all they want!" the man blurted out.

Lane merely drummed on his desk.

"If I can't get cars to ship my coal, I shall be broke, bankrupt," the thin man cried.

"I am very sorry--"

"Sorry be damned! Give me some cars!"

"You will have to see Mr. Brundage at St. Louis," Lane answered coldly. "He has final say on such matters for the Western division. I merely follow orders."

He rose and closed his desk. The thin man with an eloquent gesture turned and rushed out of the office, past Isabelle, who caught a glimpse of a white face working, of teeth chewing a scrubby mustache, of blood-shot eyes. John locked his desk, took down his hat and coat, and came into the outer office. He kissed his wife, and they went to drive behind the Kentucky horses, talking of pleasant matters. After a time, Isabelle asked irrelevantly:--

"John, why couldn't you give that man the cars he wanted?"

"Because I had no orders to do so."

"But aren't there cars to be had when the other company gets them?"

"There don't happen to be any cars for Simonds. The road is friendly to Mr. Freke."

And he closed his explanation by kissing his wife on her pretty neck, as though he would imply that more things than kisses go by favor in this world. Isabelle had exhausted her interest in the troubled man's desire for coal cars, and yet in that little phrase, "The road is friendly to Mr. Freke," she had touched close upon a great secret of the Beals regime. Unbeknownst to her, she had just witnessed one of those little modern tragedies as intense in their way as any Caesarian welter of blood; she had seen a plain little man, one of the negligible millions, being "squeezed," in other words the operation in an ordinary case of the divine law of survival. Freke was to survive; Simonds was not. In what respects Simonds was inferior to Freke, the Divine Mind alone could say. When that convulsive face shot past Isabelle in Lane's office, it was merely the tragic moment when the conscious atom was realizing fully that he was not to be the one to survive! The moment when Suspense is converted into Despair....

Nor could Isabelle trace the well-linked chain of cause and effect that led from Simonds about-to-be-a-bankrupt _via Freke and the Pleasant Valley Coal Company through the glory of the A. and P. (incidentally creating in the Senator his fine patriotism and faith in the future of his country) to her husband's check-book and her own brilliant little dinner, "where they could afford to offer champagne." But in the maze of earthly affairs all these unlike matters were related, and the relationship is worth our notice, if not Isabelle's. If it had been expounded to her, if she had seen certain certificates of Pleasant Valley stock lying snugly side by side with Torso Northern bonds and other "good things" in her husband's safe,--and also in the strong boxes of Messrs. Beals, Thomas, Stanton, _et al_., she would have said, as she had been brought up to say, "that is my husband's affair."...

The Atlantic and Pacific, under the shrewd guidance of the amiable Senator, was a law-abiding citizen, outwardly. When the anti-rebate laws were passed, the road reformed; it was glad to reform, it made money by reforming. But within the law there was ample room for "efficient" men to acquire more money than their salaries, and they naturally grasped their opportunities, as did the general officers. Freke, whom Isabelle disliked, with her trivial woman's prejudice about face and manners, embodied a Device,--in other words he was an instrument whereby some persons could make a profit, a very large profit, at the expense of other persons. The A. and P. 'was friendly to Freke.' The Pleasant Valley Coal Company never wanted cars, and it also enjoyed certain other valuable privileges, covered by the vague term "switching," that enabled it to deliver its coal into the gaping hulls at tidewater at seventy to eighty cents per ton cheaper than any of its competitors in the Torso district. No wonder that the Pleasant Valley company, with all this "friendliness" of the A. and P., prospered, and that Mr. Freke, under one name or another, swallowed presently, at a bargain, the little mine that the man Simonds had struggled to operate, as well as thousands of acres of bituminous coal lands along the Pleasant River, and along the Torso Northern road. (Perhaps the inwardness of that Inspection Party can now be seen, also.) The signs of the Pleasant Valley Coal Company and its aliases squatted here and there all through the Torso coal region. As the Senator would say, it was a very successful business, "thanks to the initiative of Mr. Freke." And that poor Simonds, who had amply demonstrated his inability to survive, his utter lack of adaptation to his environment, by not being able to be friendly with the great A. and P., went--where all the inefficient, non-adaptable human refuse goes--to the bottom. _Bien entendu!

Freke was the Pleasant Valley Coal Company,--that is, he was its necessary physiognomy,--but really the coal company was an incorporated private farm of the officers and friends of the A. and P.,--an immensely profitable farm. Lane in his callow youth did not know this fact; but he learned it after he had been in Torso a few weeks. He was quick to learn, a typical Beals man, thoroughly "efficient," one who could keep his eyes where they belonged, his tongue in his mouth, and his ears open. As he told Isabelle that Sunday afternoon, "he had had many business dealings with Freke," alias the Pleasant Valley Company, etc., and they had been uniformly profitable.

For the fatherly Senator and the shrewd Beals believed that the "right sort" should make a "good thing"; they believed in thrift. In a word, to cut short this lengthy explanation, the great Atlantic and Pacific, one of the two or three most efficiently operated railroads in the United States, was honeycombed with that common thing "graft," or private "initiative"! From the President's office all the way down to subordinates in the traffic department, there were "good things" to be enjoyed. In that growing bunch of securities that Lane was accumulating in his safe, there were, as has been said, a number of certificates of stock in coal companies--and not small ones.

And this is why Lane maintained social as well as financial relations with the coarse Mr. Freke. And this is why, also, Lane felt that they could afford "the best," when they undertook to give a dinner to the distinguished gentlemen from New York. Of course he did not explain all this to Isabelle that pleasant Sunday afternoon. Would Isabelle have comprehended it, if he had? Her mind would have wandered off to another dinner, to that cottage at Bedmouth, which she thought of taking for the summer, or to the handsome figure that John made on horseback. At least nine out of ten American husbands would have treated the matter as Lane did,--given some sufficient general answer to their wives' amateurish curiosity about business and paid their figures due compliments, and thought complacently of the comfortable homes to which they were progressing and the cheerful dinners therein,--all, wife, home, dinner, the result of their fortunate adaptation to the environments they found themselves in....

Perhaps may be seen by this time the remote connection between that tragic gesture of Frank Simonds on the Saturday afternoon, calling on heaven and the Divine Mind that pitilessly strains its little creatures through the holes of a mighty colander--between that tragic gesture, I say, and Isabelle's delightful dinner of ten courses,--champagne and terrapin!

* * * * *

But this tiresome chapter on the affairs of the Atlantic and Pacific railroad,--will it never be done! So sordid, so commonplace, so newspapery, so--just what everything in life is--when we might have expected for the dollar and a quarter expended on this pound of wood pulp and ink,--something less dull than a magazine article; something about a motor-car and a girl with a mischievous face whom a Russian baron seeks to carry away by force and is barely thwarted by the brave American college youth dashing in pursuit with a new eighty h. p., etc., etc. Or at least if one must have a railroad in a novel (when every one knows just what a railroad is), give us a private car and the lovely daughter of the President together with a cow-punching hero, as in Bessie's beloved story. But an entire chapter on graft and a common dinner-party with the champagne drunk so long ago--what a bore!

And yet in the infinite hues of this our human life, the methods by which our substantial hero, John Hamilton Lane, amassed his fortune, are worthy of contemplation. There is more, O yawning reader, in the tragic gesture of ragged-bearded Frank Simonds than in some tons of your favorite brand of "real American women"; more in the sublime complacency of Senator Alonzo Thomas, when he praised "that great and good man," and raised to his memory his glass of Pommery brut, triple sec, than in all the adventures of soldiers of fortune or yellow cars or mysterious yachts or hectic Russian baronesses; more--at least for the purpose of this history--in John's answer to Isabelle's random inquiry that Sunday afternoon than in all the "heart-interest" you have absorbed in a twelvemonth. For in the atmosphere of the ACTS here recorded, you and I, my reader, live and have our being, such as it is--and also poor Frank Simonds (who will never appear again to trouble us). And to the seeing eye, mystery and beauty lie in the hidden meaning of things seen but not known....

Patience! We move to something more intimate and domestic, if not more thrilling.

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