Chapter 19. One Million Dollars
 

Eaton, standing on the street curb at the corner of the Ridgway Building, lit a cigar while he hesitated between his rooms and the club. He decided for the latter, and was just turning up the hill, when a hand covered his mouth and an arm was flung around his neck in a stranglehold. He felt himself lifted like a child, and presently discovered that he was being whirled along the street in a closed carriage.

"You needn't be alarmed, Mr. Eaton. We're not going to injure you in the least," a low voice explained in his ear. "If you'll give me your word not to cry out, I'll release your throat."

Eaton nodded a promise, and, when he could find his voice, demanded: "Where are you taking me?"

"You'll see in a minute, sir. It's all right."

The carriage turned into an alley and stopped. Eaton was led to a ladder that hung suspended from the fire-escape, and was bidden to mount. He did so, following his guide to the second story, and being in turn followed by the other man. He was taken along a corridor and into the first of a suite of rooms opening into it. He knew he was in the Mesa House, and suspected at once that he was in the apartments of Simon Harley.

His suspicion ripened to conviction when his captors led him through two more rooms, into one fitted as an office. The billionaire sat at a desk, busy over some legal papers he was reading, but he rose at once and came forward with hand extended to meet Eaton. The young man took his hand mechanically.

"Glad to have the pleasure of talking with, you, Mr. Eaton. You must accept my apologies for my methods of securing a meeting. They are rather primitive, but since you declined to call and see me, I can hold only you to blame." An acid smile touched his lips for a moment, though his eyes were expressionless as a wall. "Mr. Eaton, I have brought you here in this way to have a confidential talk with you, in order that it might not in any way reflect upon you in case we do not come to an arrangement satisfactory to both of us. Your friends cannot justly blame you for this conference, since you could not avoid it. Mr. Eaton, take a chair."

The wills of the two men flashed into each other's eyes like rapiers. The weaker man knew that was before him and braced himself to meet it. He would not sit down. He would not discuss anything. So he told himself once and again to hold himself steady against the impulse to give way to those imperious eyes behind which was the impassive, compelling will.

"Sit down, Mr. Eaton."

"I'll stand, Mr. Harley."

"Sit down."

The cold jade eyes were not to be denied. Eaton's gaze fell sullenly, and he slid into a chair.

"I'll discuss no business except in the presence of Mr. Ridgway," he said doggedly, falling back to his second line of defenses.

"To the contrary, my business is with you and not with Mr. Ridgway."

"I know of no business you can have with me."

"Wherefore I have brought you here to acquaint you with it."

The young man lifted his head reluctantly and waited. If he had been willing to confess it to himself, he feared greatly this ruthless spoiler who had built up the greatest fortune in the world from thousands of wrecked lives. He felt himself choking, just as if those skeleton fingers had been at his throat. but he promised himself ever to yield.

The fathomless, dominant gaze caught and held his eyes. "Mr. Eaton, I came here to crush Ridgway. I am going to stay here till I do. I'm going to wipe him from the map of Montana-- ruin him so utterly that he can never recover. It has been my painful duty to do this with a hundred men as strong and as confident as he is. After undertaking such an enterprise, I have never faltered and never relented. The men I have ruined were ruined beyond hope of recovery. None of them have ever struggled to their feet again. I intend to make Waring Ridgway a pauper."

Stephen Eaton could have conceived nothing more merciless than this man's callous pronouncement, than the calm certainty of his unemphasized words. He started to reply, but Harley took the words out of his mouth.

"Don't make a mistake. Don't tie to the paltry successes he has gained. I have not really begun to fight yet."

The young man had nothing to say. His heart was water. He accepted Harley's words as true, for he had told himself the same thing a hundred times. Why had Ridgway rejected the overtures of this colossus of finance? It had been the sheerest folly born of madness to suppose that anybody could stand against him.

"For Ridgway, the die is cast," the iron voice went on. "He is doomed beyond hope. But there is still a chance for you. What do you consider your interest in the Mesa Ore-producing Company worth, Mr. Eaton?"

The sudden question caught Eaton with the force of a surprise. "About three hundred thousand dollars," he heard himself say; and it seemed to him that his voice was speaking the words without his volition.

"I'm going to buy you out for twice that sum. Furthermore, I'm going to take care of your future--going to see that you have a chance to rise."

The waverer's will was in flux, but the loyalty in him still protested. "I can't desert my chief, Mr. Harley."

"Do you call it desertion to leave a raging madman in a sinking boat after you have urged him to seek the safety of another ship?"

"He made me what I am."

"And I will make you ten times what you are. With Ridgway you have no chance to be anything but a subordinate. He is the Mesa Ore-producing Company, and you are merely a cipher. I offer your individuality a chance. I believe in you, and know you to be a strong man." No ironic smile touched Harley's face at this statement. "You need a chance, and I offer it to you. For your own sake take it."

Every grievance Eaton had ever felt against his chief came trooping to his mind. He was domineering. He did ride rough-shod over his allies' opinions and follow the course he had himself mapped out. All the glory of the victory he absorbed as his due. In the popular opinion, Eaton was as a farthing-candle to a great electric search-light in comparison with Ridgway.

"He trusts me," the tempted man urged weakly. He was slipping, and he knew it, even while he assured himself he would never betray his chief.

"He would sell you out to-morrow if it paid him. And what is he but a robber? Every dollar of his holdings is stolen from me. I ask only restitution of you--and I propose to buy at twice, nay at three times, the value of your stolen property. You owe that freebooter no loyalty."

"I can't do it. I can't do it."

"You shall do it." Harley dominated him as bullying schoolmaster does a cringing boy under the lash.

"I can't do it," the young man repeated, all his weak will flung into the denial.

"Would you choose ruin?"

"Perhaps. I don't know," he faltered miserable.

"It's merely a business proposition, young man. The stock you have to sell is valuable to-day. Reject my offer, and a month from now it will be quoted on the market at half its present figure, and go begging at that. It will be absolutely worthless before I finish. You are not selling out Ridgway. He is a ruined man, anyway. But you--I am going to save you in spite of yourself. I am going to shake you from that robber's clutches."

Eaton got to his feet, pallid and limp as a rag. "Don't tempt me," he cried hoarsely. "I tell you I can't do it, sir."

Harley's cold eye did not release him for an instant. "One million dollars and an assured future, or--absolute, utter ruin, complete and final."

"He would murder me--and he ought to," groaned the writhing victim.

"No fear of that. I'll put you where he can't reach you. Just sign your name to this paper, Mr. Eaton."

"I didn't agree. I didn't say I would."

"Sign here. Or, wait one moment, till I get witnesses." Harley touched a bell, and his secretary appeared in the doorway. "Ask Mr. Mott and young Jarvis to step this way."

Harley held out the pen toward Eaton, looking steadily at him. In a strong man the human eye is a sword among weapons. Eaton quailed. The fingers of the unhappy wretch went out mechanically for the pen. He was sweating terror and remorse, but the essential weakness of the man could not stand out unbacked against the masterful force of this man's imperious will. He wrote his name in the places directed, and flung down the pen like a child in a rage.

"Now get me out of Montana before Ridgway knows," he cried brokenly.

"You may leave to-morrow night, Mr. Eaton. You'll only have to appear in court once personally. We'll arrange it quietly for to-morrow afternoon. Ridgway won't know until it is done and you are gone."