Chapter 10. Harley Makes a Proposition
 

Apparently the head of the great trust intended to lose no time in having that business talk with Ridgway, which he had graciously promised the latter. Eaton and his chief were busy over some applications for leases when Smythe came into the room with a letter

"Messenger-boy brought it; said it was important," he explained.

Ridgway ripped open the envelope, read through the letter swiftly, and tossed it to Eaton. His eyes had grown hard and narrow

"Write to Mr. Hobart that I am sorry I haven't time to call on Mr. Harley at the Consolidated offices, as he suggests. Add that I expect to be in my offices all morning, and shall be glad to make an appointment to talk with Mr. Harley here, if he thinks he has any business with me that needs a personal interview."

Smythe's leathery face had as much expression as a blank wall, but Eaton gasped. The unparalleled audacity of flinging the billionaire's overture back in his face left him for the moment speechless. He knew that Ridgway had tempted Providence a hundred times without coming to disaster, but surely this was going too far. Any reasonable compromise with the great trust builder would be cause for felicitation. He had confidence in his chief to any point in reason, but he could not blind himself to the fact that the wonderful successes he had gained were provisional rather than final. He likened them to Stonewall Jackson's Shenandoah raid, very successful in irritating, disorganizing and startling the enemy, but with no serious bearing on the final inevitable result. In the end Harley would crush his foes if he set in motion the whole machinery of his limitless resources. That was Eaton's private opinion, and he was very much of the feeling that this was an opportune time to get in out of the rain.

"Don't you think we had better consider that answer before we send it, Waring?" he suggested in a low voice.

His chief nodded a dismissal to the secretary before answering.

"I have considered it."

"But--surely it isn't wise to reject his advances before we know what they are."

"I haven't rejected them. I've simply explained that we are doing business on equal terms. Even if I meant to compromise, it would pay me to let him know he doesn't own me."

"He may decide not to offer his proposition."

"It wouldn't worry me if he did."

Eaton knew he must speak now if his protest were to be of any avail. "It would worry me a good deal. He has shown an inclination to be friendly. This answer is like a slap in the face."

"Is it?"

"Doesn't it look like that to you?"

Ridgway leaned back in his chair and looked thoughtfully at his friend. "Want to sell out, Steve?"

"Why--what do you mean?" asked the surprised treasurer.

"If you do, I'll pay anything in reason for your stock." He got up and began to pace the floor with long deliberate strides. "I'm a born gambler, Steve. It clears my head to take big chances. Give me a good fight on my hands with the chances against me, and I'm happy. You've got to take the world by the throat and shake success out of it if you're going to score heavily. That's how Harley made good years ago. Read the story of his life. See the chances he took. He throttled combinations a dozen times as strong as his. Some people say he was an accident. Don't you believe it. Accidents like him don't happen. He won because he was the biggest, brainiest, most daring and unscrupulous operator in the field. That's why I'm going to win--if I do win."

"Yes, if you win."

"Well, that's the chance I take," flung back the other as he swung buoyantly across the room. "But you don't need to take it. If you want, you can get out now at the top market price. I feel it in my bones I'm going to win; but if you don't feel it, you'd be a fool to take chances."

Eaton's mercurial temperament responded with a glow.

"No, sir. I'll sit tight. I'm no quitter."

"Good for you, Steve. I knew it. I'll tell you now that I would have hated like hell to see you leave me. You're the only man I can rely on down to the ground, twenty-four hours of every day."

The answer was sent, and Eaton's astonishment at his chief's temerity changed to amazement when the great Harley, pocketing his pride, asked for an appointment, and appeared at the offices of the Mesa Ore-producing Company at the time set. That Ridgway, who was busy with one of his superintendents, should actually keep the most powerful man in the country waiting in an outer office while he finished his business with Dalton seemed to him insolence florescent.

"Whom the gods would destroy," he murmured to himself as the only possible explanation, for the reaction of his enthusiasm was on him.

Nor did his chief's conference with Dalton show any leaning toward compromise. Ridgway had sent for his engineer to outline a program in regard to some ore-veins in the Sherman Bell, that had for months been in litigation between the two big interests at Mesa. Neither party to the suit had waited for the legal decision, but each of them had put a large force at work stoping out the ore. Occasional conflicts had occurred when the men of the opposing factions came in touch, as they frequently did, since crews were at work below and above each other at every level. But none of these as yet had been serious.

"Dalton, I was down last night to see that lease of Heyburn's on the twelfth level of the Taurus. The Consolidated will tap our workings about noon to-day, just below us. I want you to turn on them the air-drill pipe as soon as they break through. Have a lot of loose rock there mixed with a barrel of lime. Let loose the air pressure full on the pile, and give it to their men straight. Follow them up to the end of their own tunnel when they retreat, and hold it against them. Get control of the levels above and below, too. Throw as many men as you can into their workings, and gut them till there is no ore left."

Dalton had the fighting edge. "You'll stand by me, no matter what happens?"

"Nothing will happen. They're not expecting trouble. But if anything does, I'll see you through. Eaton is your witness that I ordered it."

"Then it's as good as done, Mr. Ridgway," said Dalton, turning away.

"There may be bloodshed," suggested Eaton dubiously, in a low voice.

Ridgway's laugh had a touch of affectionate contempt. "Don't cross bridges till you get to them, Steve. Haven't you discovered, man, that the bold course is always the safe one? It's the quitter that loses out every time. The strong man gets there; the weak one falls down. It's as invariable as the law of gravity." He got up and stretched his broad shoulders in a deep breath. "Now for Mr. Harley. Send him in, Eaton.

That morning Simon Harley had done two things for many years foreign to his experience: He had gone to meet another man instead of making the man come to him, and he had waited the other man's pleasure in an outer office. That he had done so implied a strong motive.

Ridgway waved Harley to a chair without rising to meet him. The eyes of the two men fastened, wary and unwavering. They might have been jungle beasts of prey crouching for the attack, so tense was their attention. The man from Broadway was the first to speak.

"I have called, Mr. Ridgway, to arrange, if possible, a compromise. I need hardly say this is not my usual method, but the circumstances are extremely unusual. I rest under so great a personal obligation to you that I am willing to overlook a certain amount of youthful presumption." His teeth glittered behind a lip smile, intended to give the right accent to the paternal reproof. "My personal obligation--"

"What obligation? I left you to die in the snow.',

"You forget what you did for Mrs. Harley."

"You may eliminate that," retorted the younger man curtly. "You are under no obligations whatever to me."

"That is very generous of you, Mr. Ridgway, but--"

Ridgway met his eyes directly, cutting his sentence as with a knife. "'Generous' is the last word to use. It is not a question of generosity at all. What I mean is that the thing I did was done with no reference whatever to you. It is between me and her alone. I refuse to consider it as a service to you, as having anything at all to do with you. I told you that before. I tell you again."

Harley's spirit winced. This bold claim to a bond with his wife that excluded him, the scornful thrust of his enemy--he was already beginning to consider him in that light rather than as a victim--had touched the one point of human weakness in this money-making Juggernaut. He saw himself for the moment without illusions, an old man and an unlovable one, without near kith or kin. He was bitterly aware that the child he had married had been sold to him by her guardian, under fear of imminent ruin, before her ignorance of the world had given her experience to judge for herself. The money and the hidden hunger of sentiment he wasted on her brought him only timid thanks and wan obedience. But for this man, with his hateful, confident youth, he had seen the warm smile touch her lips and the delicate color rose her cheeks. Nay, he had seen more her arms around his neck and her, warm breath on his cheek. They had lived romance, these two, in the days they had been alone together. They had shared danger and the joys of that Bohemia of youth from which he was forever excluded. It was his resolve to wipe out by financial favors--he could ruin the fellow later if need be--any claims of Ridgway upon her gratitude or her foolish imagination. He did not want the man's appeal upon her to carry the similitude of martyrdom as well as heroism.

"Yet, the fact remains that it was a service" --his thin lips smiled. "I must be the best judge of that, I think. I want to be perfectly frank, Mr. Ridgway. The Consolidated is an auxiliary enterprise so far as I am concerned, but I have always made it a rule to look after details when it became necessary. I came to Montana to crush you. I have always regarded you as a menace to our legitimate interests, and I had quite determined to make an end of it. You are a good fighter, and you've been on the ground in person, which counts for a great deal. But you must know that if I give myself to it in earnest, you are a ruined man."

The Westerner laughed hardily. "I hear you say it."

"But you don't believe," added the other quietly. "Many men have heard and not believed. They have known when it was too late.

"If you don't mind, I'll buy my experience instead of borrowing it," Ridgway flung back flippantly.

"One moment, Mr. Ridgway. I have told you my purpose in coming to Montana. That purpose no longer exists. Circumstances have completely altered my intentions. The finger of God is in it. He has not brought us together thus strangely, except to serve some purpose of His own. I think I see that purpose. 'The stone which the builders refused is become the headstone of the corner. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes,'" he quoted unctiously. "I am convinced that it is a waste of good material to crush you; therefore I desire to effect a consolidation with you, buy all the other copper interests of any importance in the country, and put you at the head of the resulting combination."

In spite of himself, Ridgway's face betrayed him. It was a magnificent opportunity, the thing he had dreamed of as the culmination of a lifetime of fighting. Nobody knew better than he on how precarious a footing he stood, on how slight a rock his fortunes might be wrecked. Here was his chance to enter that charmed, impregnable inner circle of finance that in effect ruled the nation. That Harley's suave friendliness would bear watching he did not doubt for a moment, but, once inside, so his vital youth told him proudly, he would see to it that the billionaire did not betray him. A week ago he could have asked nothing better than this chance to bloat himself into a some-day colossus. But now the thing stuck in his gorge. He understood the implied obligation. Payment for his service to Aline Harley was to be given, and the ledger balanced. Well, why not? Had he not spent the night in a chaotic agony of renunciation? But to renounce voluntarily was one thing, to be bought off another.

He looked up and met Harley's thin smile, the smile that on Wall Street was a synonym for rapacity and heartlessness, in the memory of which men had committed murder and suicide. On the instant there jumped between him and his ambition the face that had worked magic on him. What a God's pity that such a lamb should be cast to this ravenous wolf! He felt again her arms creeping round his neck, the divine trust of her lovely eyes. He had saved her when this man who called himself her husband had left her to perish in the storm. He had made her happy, as she had never been in all her starved life. Had she not promised never to forget, and was there not a deeper promise in her wistful eyes that the years could not wipe out? She was his by every right of natural law. By God! he would not sell his freedom of choice to this white haired robber!

"I seldom make mistakes in my judgment of men, Mr. Ridgway," the oily voice ran on. "No small share of such success as it has been given me to attain has been due to this instinct for putting my finger on the right man. I am assured that in you I find one competent for the great work lying before you. The opportunity is waiting; I furnish it, and you the untiring energy of youth to make the most of the chance." His wolfish smile bared the tusks for a moment. "I find myself not so young as I was. The great work I have started is well under way. I must trust its completion to younger and stronger hands than mine. I intend to rest, to devote myself to my home, more directly to such philanthropic and educational work as God has committed to my hands."

The Westerner gave him look for look, his eyes burning to get over the impasse of the expressionless mask no man had ever penetrated. He began to see why nobody had ever understood Harley. He knew there would be no rest for that consuming energy this side of the grave. Yet the man talked as if he believed his own glib lies.

"Consolidated is the watchword of the age; it means elimination of ruinous competition, and consequent harmony and reduced expense in management. Mr. Ridgway, may I count you with us? Together we should go far. Do you say peace or war?"

The younger man rose, leaning forward with his strong, sinewy hands gripping the table. His face was pale with the repression of a rage that had been growing intense. "I say war, and without quarter. I don't believe you can beat me. I defy you to the test. And if you should--even then I had rather go down fighting you than win at your side."

Simon Harley had counted acceptance a foregone conclusion, but he never winked a lash at the ringing challenge of his opponent. He met his defiance with an eye cold and steady as jade.

"As you please, Mr. Ridgway. I wash my hands of your ruin, and when you are nothing but a broken gambler, you will remember that I offered you the greatest chance that ever came to a man of your age. You are one of those men, I see, that would rather be first in hell than second in heaven. So be it." He rose and buttoned his overcoat.

"Say, rather, that I choose to go to hell my own master and not as the slave of Simon Harley," retorted the Westerner bitterly.

Ridgway's eyes blazed, but those of the New Yorker were cool and fishy.

"There is no occasion for dramatics," he said, the cruel, passionless smile at his thin lips. "I make you a business proposition and you decline it. That is all. I wish you good day."

The other strode past him and flung the door open. He had never before known such a passion of hatred as raged within him. Throughout his life Simon Harley had left in his wake wreckage and despair. He was the best-hated man of his time, execrated by the working classes, despised by the country at large, and distrusted by his fellow exploiters. Yet, as a business opponent, Ridgway had always taken him impersonally, had counted him for a condition rather than an individual. But with the new influence that had come into his life, reason could not reckon, and when it was dominant with him, Harley stood embodied as the wolf ready to devour his ewe lamb.

For he couldn't get away from her. Wherever he went he carried with him the picture of her sweet, shy smile, her sudden winsome moments, the deep light in her violet eyes; and in the background the sinister bared fangs of the wild beast dogging her patiently, and yet lovingly.