"Well, that's about all then, I guess," said Gretry at last, as he pushed back his chair and rose from the table.
He and Jadwin were in a room on the third floor of the Grand Pacific Hotel, facing Jackson Street. It was three o'clock in the morning. Both men were in their shirt-sleeves; the table at which they had been sitting was scattered over with papers, telegraph blanks, and at Jadwin's elbow stood a lacquer tray filled with the stumps of cigars and burnt matches, together with one of the hotel pitchers of ice water.
"Yes," assented Jadwin, absently, running through a sheaf of telegrams, "that's all we can do—until we see what kind of a game Crookes means to play. I'll be at your office by eight."
"Well," said the broker, getting into his coat, "I guess I'll go to my room and try to get a little sleep. I wish I could see how we'll be to-morrow night at this time."
Jadwin made a sharp movement of impatience.
"Damnation, Sam, aren't you ever going to let up croaking? If you're afraid of this thing, get out of it. Haven't I got enough to bother me?"
"Oh, say! Say, hold on, hold on, old man," remonstrated the broker, in an injured voice. "You're terrible touchy sometimes, J., of late. I was only trying to look ahead a little. Don't think I want to back out. You ought to know me by this time, J."
"There, there, I'm sorry, Sam," Jadwin hastened to answer, getting up and shaking the other by the shoulder. "I am touchy these days. There's so many things to think of, and all at the same time. I do get nervous. I never slept one little wink last night—and you know the night before I didn't turn in till two in the morning."
"Lord, you go swearing and damning 'round here like a pirate sometimes, J.," Gretry went on. "I haven't heard you cuss before in twenty years. Look out, now, that I don't tell on you to your Sunday-school superintendents."
"I guess they'd cuss, too," observed Jadwin, "if they were long forty million wheat, and had to know just where every hatful of it was every second of the time. It was all very well for us to whoop about swinging a corner that afternoon in your office. But the real thing—well, you don't have any trouble keeping awake. Do you suppose we can keep the fact of our corner dark much longer?"
"I fancy not," answered the broker, putting on his hat and thrusting his papers into his breast pocket. "If we bust Crookes, it'll come out—and it won't matter then. I think we've got all the shorts there are."
"I'm laying particularly for Dave Scannel," remarked Jadwin. "I hope he's in up to his neck, and if he is, by the Great Horn Spoon, I'll bankrupt him, or my name is not Jadwin! I'll wring him bone-dry. If I once get a twist of that rat, I won't leave him hide nor hair to cover the wart he calls his heart."
"Why, what all has Scannel ever done to you?" demanded the other, amazed.
"Nothing, but I found out the other day that old Hargus—poor old, broken-backed, half-starved Hargus—I found out that it was Scannel that ruined him. Hargus and he had a big deal on, you know—oh, ages ago—and Scannel sold out on him. Great God, it was the dirtiest, damnedest treachery I ever heard of! Scannel made his pile, and what's Hargus now? Why, he's a scarecrow. And he has a little niece that he supports, heaven only knows how. I've seen her, and she's pretty as a picture. Well, that's all right; I'm going to carry fifty thousand wheat for Hargus, and I've got another scheme for him, too. By God, the poor old boy won't go hungry again if I know it! But if I lay my hands on Scannel—if we catch him in the corner—holy, suffering Moses, but I'll make him squeal!"
Gretry nodded, to say he understood and approved.
"I guess you've got him," he remarked. "Well, I must get to bed. Good night, J."
"Good night, Sam. See you in the morning."
And before the door of the room was closed, Jadwin was back at the table again. Once more, painfully, toilfully, he went over his plans, retesting, altering, recombining, his hands full of lists, of despatches, and of endless columns of memoranda. Occasionally he murmured fragments of sentences to himself. "H'm … I must look out for that… . They can't touch us there… . The annex of that Nickel Plate elevator will hold—let's see … half a million… . If I buy the grain within five days after arrival I've got to pay storage, which is, let's see—three-quarters of a cent times eighty thousand… ."
An hour passed. At length Jadwin pushed back from the table, drank a glass of ice water, and rose, stretching.
"Lord, I must get some sleep," he muttered.
He threw off his clothes and went to bed, but even as he composed himself to sleep, the noises of the street in the awakening city invaded the room through the chink of the window he had left open. The noises were vague. They blended easily into a far-off murmur; they came nearer; they developed into a cadence:
Jadwin roused up. He had just been dropping off to sleep. He rose and shut the window, and again threw himself down. He was weary to death; not a nerve of his body that did not droop and flag. His eyes closed slowly. Then, all at once, his whole body twitched sharply in a sudden spasm, a simultaneous recoil of every muscle. His heart began to beat rapidly, his breath failed him. Broad awake, he sat up in bed.
"H'm!" he muttered. "That was a start—must have been dreaming, surely."
Then he paused, frowning, his eyes narrowing; he looked to and fro about the room, lit by the subdued glow that came in through the transom from a globe in the hall outside. Slowly his hand went to his forehead.
With almost the abruptness of a blow, that strange, indescribable sensation had returned to his head. It was as though he were struggling with a fog in the interior of his brain; or again it was a numbness, a weight, or sometimes it had more of the feeling of a heavy, tight-drawn band across his temples.
"Smoking too much, I guess," murmured Jadwin. But he knew this was not the reason, and as he spoke, there smote across his face the first indefinite sensation of an unnamed fear.
He gave a quick, short breath, and straightened himself, passing his hands over his face.
"What the deuce," he muttered, "does this mean?"
For a long moment he remained sitting upright in bed, looking from wall to wall of the room. He felt a little calmer. He shrugged his shoulders impatiently.
"Look here," he said to the opposite wall, "I guess I'm not a schoolgirl, to have nerves at this late date. High time to get to sleep, if I'm to mix things with Crookes to-morrow."
But he could not sleep. While the city woke to its multitudinous life below his windows, while the grey light of morning drowned the yellow haze from the gas jet that came through the transom, while the "early call" alarms rang in neighbouring rooms, Curtis Jadwin lay awake, staring at the ceiling, now concentrating his thoughts upon the vast operation in which he found himself engaged, following out again all its complexities, its inconceivable ramifications, or now puzzling over the inexplicable numbness, the queer, dull weight that descended upon his brain so soon as he allowed its activity to relax.
By five o'clock he found it intolerable to remain longer in bed; he rose, bathed, dressed, ordered his breakfast, and, descending to the office of the hotel, read the earliest editions of the morning papers for half an hour.
Then, at last, as he sat in the corner of the office deep in an armchair, the tired shoulders began to droop, the wearied head to nod. The paper slipped from his fingers, his chin sank upon his collar.
To his ears the early clamour of the street, the cries of newsboys, the rattle of drays came in a dull murmur. It seemed to him that very far off a great throng was forming. It was menacing, shouting. It stirred, it moved, it was advancing. It came galloping down the street, shouting with insensate fury; now it was at the corner, now it burst into the entrance of the hotel. Its clamour was deafening, but intelligible. For a thousand, a million, forty million voices were shouting in cadence:
Jadwin woke abruptly, half starting from his chair. The morning sun was coming in through the windows; the clock above the hotel desk was striking seven, and a waiter stood at his elbow, saying:
"Your breakfast is served, Mr. Jadwin."
He had no appetite. He could eat nothing but a few mouthfuls of toast, and long before the appointed hour he sat in Gretry's office, waiting for the broker to appear, drumming on the arm of his chair, plucking at the buttons of his coat, and wondering why it was that every now and then all the objects in his range of vision seemed to move slowly back and stand upon the same plane.
By degrees he lapsed into a sort of lethargy, a wretched counterfeit of sleep, his eyes half closed, his breath irregular. But, such as it was, it was infinitely grateful. The little, over-driven cogs and wheels of the mind, at least, moved more slowly. Perhaps by and by this might actually develop into genuine, blessed oblivion.
But there was a quick step outside the door. Gretry came in.
"Oh, J.! Here already, are you? Well, Crookes will begin to sell at the very tap of the bell."
"He will, hey?" Jadwin was on his feet. Instantly the jaded nerves braced taut again; instantly the tiny machinery of the brain spun again at its fullest limit. "He's going to try to sell us out, is he? All right. We'll sell, too. We'll see who can sell the most—Crookes or Jadwin."
"Sell! You mean buy, of course."
"No, I don't. I've been thinking it over since you left last night. Wheat is worth exactly what it is selling for this blessed day. I've not inflated it up one single eighth yet; Crookes thinks I have. Good Lord, I can read him like a book! He thinks I've boosted the stuff above what it's worth, and that a little shove will send it down. He can send it down to ten cents if he likes, but it'll jump back like a rubber ball. I'll sell bushel for bushel with him as long as he wants to keep it up."
"Heavens and earth, J.," exclaimed Gretry, with a long breath, "the risk is about as big as holding up the Bank of England. You are depreciating the value of about forty million dollars' worth of your property with every cent she breaks."
"You do as I tell you—you'll see I'm right," answered Jadwin. "Get your boys in here, and we'll give 'em the day's orders."
The "Crookes affair"—as among themselves the group of men who centred about Jadwin spoke of it—was one of the sharpest fights known on the Board of Trade for many a long day. It developed with amazing unexpectedness and was watched with breathless interest from every produce exchange between the oceans.
It occupied every moment of each morning's session of the Board of Trade for four furious, never-to-be-forgotten days. Promptly at half-past nine o'clock on Tuesday morning Crookes began to sell May wheat short, and instantly, to the surprise of every Pit trader on the floor, the price broke with his very first attack. In twenty minutes it was down half a cent. Then came the really big surprise of the day. Landry Court, the known representative of the firm which all along had fostered and encouraged the rise in the price, appeared in the Pit, and instead of buying, upset all precedent and all calculation by selling as freely as the Crookes men themselves. For three days the battle went on. But to the outside world—even to the Pit itself—it seemed less a battle than a rout. The "Unknown Bull" was down, was beaten at last. He had inflated the price of the wheat, he had backed a false, an artificial, and unwarrantable boom, and now he was being broken. Ah Crookes knew when to strike. Here was the great general—the real leader who so long had held back.
By the end of the Friday session, Crookes and his clique had sold five million bushels, "going short," promising to deliver wheat that they did not own, but expected to buy at low prices. The market that day closed at ninety-five.
Friday night, in Jadwin's room in the Grand Pacific, a conference was held between Gretry, Landry Court, two of Gretry's most trusted lieutenants, and Jadwin himself. Two results issued from this conference. One took the form of a cipher cable to Jadwin's Liverpool agent, which, translated, read: "Buy all wheat that is offered till market advances one penny." The other was the general order issued to Landry Court and the four other Pit traders for the Gretry-Converse house, to the effect that in the morning they were to go into the Pit and, making no demonstration, begin to buy back the wheat they had been selling all the week. Each of them was to buy one million bushels. Jadwin had, as Gretry put it, "timed Crookes to a split second," foreseeing the exact moment when he would make his supreme effort. Sure enough, on that very Saturday Crookes was selling more freely than ever, confident of breaking the Bull ere the closing gong should ring.
But before the end of the morning wheat was up two cents. Buying orders had poured in upon the market. The price had stiffened almost of itself. Above the indicator upon the great dial there seemed to be an invisible, inexplicable magnet that lifted it higher and higher, for all the strenuous efforts of the Bears to drag it down.
A feeling of nervousness began to prevail. The small traders, who had been wild to sell short during the first days of the movement, began on Monday to cover a little here and there.
"Now," declared Jadwin that night, "now's the time to open up all along the line hard. If we start her with a rush to-morrow morning, she'll go to a dollar all by herself."
Tuesday morning, therefore, the Gretry-Converse traders bought another five million bushels. The price under this stimulus went up with the buoyancy of a feather. The little shorts, more and more uneasy, and beginning to cover by the scores, forced it up even higher.
The nervousness of the "crowd" increased. Perhaps, after all, Crookes was not so omnipotent. Perhaps, after all, the Unknown Bull had another fight in him. Then the "outsiders" came into the market. All in a moment all the traders were talking "higher prices." Everybody now was as eager to buy as, a week before, they had been eager to sell. The price went up by convulsive bounds. Crookes dared not buy, dared not purchase the wheat to make good his promises of delivery, for fear of putting up the price on himself higher still. Dismayed, chagrined, and humiliated, he and his clique sat back inert, watching the tremendous reaction, hoping against hope that the market would break again.
But now it became difficult to get wheat at all. All of a sudden nobody was selling. The buyers in the Pit commenced to bid against each other, offering a dollar and two cents. The wheat did not "come out." They bid a dollar two and a half, a dollar two and five-eighths; still no wheat. Frantic, they shook their fingers in the very faces of Landry Court and the Gretry traders, shouting: "A dollar, two and seven-eighths! A dollar, three! Three and an eighth! A quarter! Three-eighths! A half!" But the others shook their heads. Except on extraordinary advances of a whole cent at a time, there was no wheat for sale.
At the last-named price Crookes acknowledged defeat. Somewhere in his big machine a screw had been loose. Somehow he had miscalculated. So long as he and his associates sold and sold and sold, the price would go down. The instant they tried to cover there was no wheat for sale, and the price leaped up again with an elasticity that no power could control.
He saw now that he and his followers had to face a loss of several cents a bushel on each one of the five million they had sold. They had not been able to cover one single sale, and the situation was back again exactly as before his onslaught, the Unknown Bull in securer control than ever before.
But Crookes had, at last, begun to suspect the true condition of affairs, and now that the market was hourly growing tighter and more congested, his suspicion was confirmed. Alone, locked in his private office, he thought it out, and at last remarked to himself:
"Somebody has a great big line of wheat that is not on the market at all. Somebody has got all the wheat there is. I guess I know his name. I guess the visible supply of May wheat in the Chicago market is cornered."
This was at a time when the price stood at a dollar and one cent. Crookes—who from the first had managed and handled the operations of his confederates—knew very well that if he now bought in all the wheat his clique had sold short, the price would go up long before he could complete the deal. He said nothing to the others, further than that they should "hold on a little longer, in the hopes of a turn," but very quietly he began to cover his own personal sales—his share of the five million sold by his clique. Foreseeing the collapse of his scheme, he got out of the market; at a loss, it was true, but still no more than he could stand. If he "held on a little longer, in the hopes of a turn," there was no telling how deep the Bull would gore him. This was no time to think much about "obligations." It had got to be "every man for himself" by now.
A few days after this Crookes sat in his office in the building in La Salle Street that bore his name. It was about eleven o'clock in the morning. His dry, small, beardless face creased a little at the corners of the mouth as he heard the ticker chattering behind him. He knew how the tape read. There had been another flurry on the Board that morning, not half an hour since, and wheat was up again. In the last thirty-six hours it had advanced three cents, and he knew very well that at that very minute the "boys" on the floor were offering nine cents over the dollar for the May option—and not getting it. The market was in a tumult. He fancied he could almost hear the thunder of the Pit as it swirled. All La Salle Street was listening and watching, all Chicago, all the nation, all the world. Not a "factor" on the London 'Change who did not turn an ear down the wind to catch the echo of this turmoil, not an agent de change in the peristyle of the Paris Bourse, who did not strain to note the every modulation of its mighty diapason.
"Well," said the little voice of the man-within-the-man, who in the person of Calvin Hardy Crookes sat listening to the ticker in his office, "well, let it roar. It sure can't hurt C. H. C."
"Can you see Mr. Cressler?" said the clerk at the door.
He came in with a hurried, unsteady step. The long, stooping figure was unkempt; was, in a sense, unjointed, as though some support had been withdrawn. The eyes were deep-sunk, the bones of the face were gaunt and bare; and from moment to moment the man swallowed quickly and moistened his lips.
Crookes nodded as his ally came up, and one finger raised, pointed to a chair. He himself was impassive, calm. He did not move. Taciturn as ever, he waited for the other to speak.
"I want to talk with you, Mr. Crookes," began Cressler, hurriedly. "I—I made up my mind to it day before yesterday, but I put it off. I had hoped that things would come our way. But I can't delay now… . Mr. Crookes, I can't stand this any longer. I must get out of the clique. I haven't the ready money to stand this pace."
There was a silence. Crookes neither moved nor changed expression. His small eyes fixed upon the other, he waited for Cressler to go on.
"I might remind you," Cressler continued, "that when I joined your party I expressly stipulated that our operations should not be speculative."
"You knew—" began Crookes.
"Oh, I have nothing to say," Cressler interrupted. "I did know. I knew from the first it was to be speculation. I tried to deceive myself. I—well, this don't interest you. The point is I must get out of the market. I don't like to go back on you others"—Cressler's fingers were fiddling with his watch chain—"I don't like to—I mean to say you must let me out. You must let me cover—at once. I am—very nearly bankrupt now. Another half-cent rise, and I'm done for. It will take as it is—my—my—all my ready money—all my savings for the last ten years to buy in my wheat."
"Let's see. How much did I sell for you?" demanded Crookes. "Five hundred thousand?"
"Yes, five hundred thousand at ninety-eight—and we're at a dollar nine now. It's an eleven-cent jump. I—I can't stand another eighth. I must cover at once."
Crookes, without answering, drew his desk telephone to him.
"Hello!" he said after a moment. "Hello! … Buy five hundred May, at the market, right away."
He hung up the receiver and leaned back in his chair.
"They'll report the trade in a minute," he said. "Better wait and see."
Cressler stood at the window, his hands clasped behind his back, looking down into the street. He did not answer. The seconds passed, then the minutes. Crookes turned to his desk and signed a few letters, the scrape of his pen the only noise to break the silence of the room. Then at last he observed:
"Pretty bum weather for this time of the year."
Cressler nodded. He took off his hat, and pushed the hair back from his forehead with a slow, persistent gesture; then as the ticker began to click again, he faced around quickly, and crossing the room, ran the tape through his fingers.
"God," he muttered, between his teeth, "I hope your men didn't lose any time. It's up again."
There was a step at the door, and as Crookes called to come in, the office messenger entered and put a slip of paper into his hands. Crookes looked at it, and pushed it across his desk towards Cressler.
"Here you are," he observed. "That's your trade. Five hundred May, at a dollar ten. You were lucky to get it at that—or at any price."
"Ten!" cried the other, as he took the paper.
Crookes turned away again, and glanced indifferently over his letters. Cressler laid the slip carefully down upon the ledge of the desk, and though Crookes did not look up, he could almost feel how the man braced himself, got a grip of himself, put all his resources to the stretch to meet this blow squarely in the front.
"And I said another eighth would bust me," Cressler remarked, with a short laugh. "Well," he added, grimly, "it looks as though I were busted. I suppose, though, we must all expect to get the knife once in a while—mustn't we? Well, there goes fifty thousand dollars of my good money."
"I can tell you who's got it, if you care to know," answered Crookes. "It's a pewter quarter to Government bonds that Gretry, Converse & Co. sold that wheat to you. They've got about all the wheat there is."
"I know, of course, they've been heavy buyers—for this Unknown Bull they talk so much about."
"Well, he ain't Unknown to me," declared Crookes. "I know him. It's Curtis Jadwin. He's the man we've been fighting all along, and all hell's going to break loose down here in three or four days. He's cornered the market."
"Jadwin! You mean J.—Curtis—my friend?"
Crookes grunted an affirmative.
"But—why, he told me he was out of the market—for good."
Crookes did not seem to consider that the remark called for any useless words. He put his hands in his pockets and looked at Cressler.
"Does he know?" faltered Cressler. "Do you suppose he could have heard that I was in this clique of yours?"
"Not unless you told him yourself."
Cressler stood up, clearing his throat.
"I have not told him, Mr. Crookes," he said. "You would do me an especial favor if you would keep it from the public, from everybody, from Mr. Jadwin, that I was a member of this ring."
Crookes swung his chair around and faced his desk.
"Hell! You don't suppose I'm going to talk, do you?"
"Well… . Good-morning, Mr. Crookes."
Left alone, Crookes took a turn the length of the room. Then he paused in the middle of the floor, looking down thoughtfully at his trim, small feet.
"Jadwin!" he muttered. "Hm! … Think you're boss of the boat now, don't you? Think I'm done with you, hey? Oh, yes, you'll run a corner in wheat, will you? Well, here's a point for your consideration Mr. Curtis Jadwin, 'Don't get so big that all the other fellows can see you—they throw bricks.'"
He sat down in his chair, and passed a thin and delicate hand across his lean mouth.
"No," he muttered, "I won't try to kill you any more. You've cornered wheat, have you? All right… . Your own wheat, my smart Aleck, will do all the killing I want."
Then at last the news of the great corner, authoritative, definite, went out over all the country, and promptly the figure and name of Curtis Jadwin loomed suddenly huge and formidable in the eye of the public. There was no wheat on the Chicago market. He, the great man, the "Napoleon of La Salle Street," had it all. He sold it or hoarded it, as suited his pleasure. He dictated the price to those men who must buy it of him to fill their contracts. His hand was upon the indicator of the wheat dial of the Board of Trade, and he moved it through as many or as few of the degrees of the circle as he chose.
The newspapers, not only of Chicago, but of every city in the Union, exploited him for "stories." The history of his corner, how he had effected it, its chronology, its results, were told and retold, till his name was familiar in the homes and at the firesides of uncounted thousands. "Anecdotes" were circulated concerning him, interviews—concocted for the most part in the editorial rooms—were printed. His picture appeared. He was described as a cool, calm man of steel, with a cold and calculating grey eye, "piercing as an eagle's"; as a desperate gambler, bold as a buccaneer, his eye black and fiery—a veritable pirate; as a mild, small man with a weak chin and a deprecatory demeanour; as a jolly and roistering "high roller," addicted to actresses, suppers, and to bathing in champagne.
In the Democratic press he was assailed as little better than a thief, vituperated as an oppressor of the people, who ground the faces of the poor, and battened in the luxury wrung from the toiling millions. The Republican papers spoke solemnly of the new era of prosperity upon which the country was entering, referred to the stimulating effect of the higher prices upon capitalised industry, and distorted the situation to an augury of a sweeping Republican victory in the next Presidential campaign.
Day in and day out Gretry's office, where Jadwin now fixed his headquarters, was besieged. Reporters waited in the anteroom for whole half days to get but a nod and a word from the great man. Promoters, inventors, small financiers, agents, manufacturers, even "crayon artists" and horse dealers, even tailors and yacht builders rubbed shoulders with one another outside the door marked "Private."
Farmers from Iowa or Kansas come to town to sell their little quotas of wheat at the prices they once had deemed impossible, shook his hand on the street, and urged him to come out and see "God's own country."
But once, however, an entire deputation of these wheat growers found their way into the sanctum. They came bearing a presentation cup of silver, and their spokesman, stammering and horribly embarrassed in unwonted broadcloth and varnished boots, delivered a short address. He explained that all through the Middle West, all through the wheat belts, a great wave of prosperity was rolling because of Jadwin's corner. Mortgages were being paid off, new and improved farming implements were being bought, new areas seeded new live stock acquired. The men were buying buggies again, the women parlor melodeons, houses and homes were going up; in short, the entire farming population of the Middle West was being daily enriched. In a letter that Jadwin received about this time from an old fellow living in "Bates Corners," Kansas, occurred the words:
"—and, sir, you must know that not a night passes that my little girl, now going on seven, sir, and the brightest of her class in the county seat grammar school, does not pray to have God bless Mister Jadwin, who helped papa save the farm."
If there was another side, if the brilliancy of his triumph yet threw a shadow behind it, Jadwin could ignore it. It was far from him, he could not see it. Yet for all this a story came to him about this time that for long would not be quite forgotten. It came through Corthell, but very indirectly, passed on by a dozen mouths before it reached his ears.
It told of an American, an art student, who at the moment was on a tramping tour through the north of Italy. It was an ugly story. Jadwin pished and pshawed, refusing to believe it, condemning it as ridiculous exaggeration, but somehow it appealed to an uncompromising sense of the probable; it rang true.
"And I met this boy," the student had said, "on the high road, about a kilometre outside of Arezzo. He was a fine fellow of twenty or twenty-two. He knew nothing of the world. England he supposed to be part of the mainland of Europe. For him Cavour and Mazzini were still alive. But when I announced myself American, he roused at once.
"'Ah, American,' he said. 'We know of your compatriot, then, here in Italy—this Jadwin of Chicago, who has bought all the wheat. We have no more bread. The loaf is small as the fist, and costly. We cannot buy it, we have no money. For myself, I do not care. I am young. I can eat lentils and cress. But' and here his voice was a whisper—'but my mother—my mother!'"
"It's a lie!" Jadwin cried. "Of course it's a lie. Good God, if I were to believe every damned story the papers print about me these days I'd go insane."
Yet when he put up the price of wheat to a dollar and twenty cents, the great flour mills of Minnesota and Wisconsin stopped grinding, and finding a greater profit in selling the grain than in milling it, threw their stores upon the market. Though the bakers did not increase the price of their bread as a consequence of this, the loaf—even in Chicago, even in the centre of that great Middle West that weltered in the luxury of production—was smaller, and from all the poorer districts of the city came complaints, protests, and vague grumblings of discontent.
On a certain Monday, about the middle of May, Jadwin sat at Gretry's desk (long since given over to his use), in the office on the ground floor of the Board of Trade, swinging nervously back and forth in the swivel chair, drumming his fingers upon the arms, and glancing continually at the clock that hung against the opposite wall. It was about eleven in the morning. The Board of Trade vibrated with the vast trepidation of the Pit, that for two hours had spun and sucked, and guttered and disgorged just overhead. The waiting-room of the office was more than usually crowded. Parasites of every description polished the walls with shoulder and elbow. Millionaires and beggars jostled one another about the doorway. The vice-president of a bank watched the door of the private office covertly; the traffic manager of a railroad exchanged yarns with a group of reporters while awaiting his turn.
As Gretry, the great man's lieutenant, hurried through the anteroom, conversation suddenly ceased, and half a dozen of the more impatient sprang forward. But the broker pushed his way through the crowd, shaking his head, excusing himself as best he might, and entering the office, closed the door behind him.
At the clash of the lock Jadwin started half-way from his chair, then recognising the broker, sank back with a quick breath.
"Why don't you knock, or something, Sam?" he exclaimed. "Might as well kill a man as scare him to death. Well, how goes it?"
"All right. I've fixed the warehouse crowd—and we just about 'own' the editorial and news sheets of these papers." He threw a memorandum down upon the desk. "I'm off again now. Got an appointment with the Northwestern crowd in ten minutes. Has Hargus or Scannel shown up yet?"
"Hargus is always out in your customers' room," answered Jadwin. "I can get him whenever I want him. But Scannel has not shown up yet. I thought when we put up the price again Friday we'd bring him in. I thought you'd figured out that he couldn't stand that rise."
"He can't stand it," answered Gretry. "He'll be in to see you to-morrow or next day."
"To-morrow or next day won't do," answered Jadwin. "I want to put the knife into him to-day. You go up there on the floor and put the price up another cent. That will bring him, or I'll miss my guess."
Gretry nodded. "All right," he said, "it's your game. Shall I see you at lunch?"
"Lunch! I can't eat. But I'll drop around and hear what the Northwestern people had to say to you."
A few moments after Gretry had gone Jadwin heard the ticker on the other side of the room begin to chatter furiously; and at the same time he could fancy that the distant thunder of the Pit grew suddenly more violent, taking on a sharper, shriller note. He looked at the tape. The one-cent rise had been effected.
"You will hold out, will you, you brute?" muttered Jadwin. "See how you like that now." He took out his watch. "You'll be running in to me in just about ten minutes' time."
He turned about, and calling a clerk, gave orders to have Hargus found and brought to him.
When the old fellow appeared Jadwin jumped up and gave him his hand as he came slowly forward.
His rusty top hat was in his hand; from the breast pocket of his faded and dirty frock coat a bundle of ancient newspapers protruded. His shoestring tie straggled over his frayed shirt front, while at his wrist one of his crumpled cuffs, detached from the sleeve, showed the bare, thin wrist between cloth and linen, and encumbered the fingers in which he held the unlit stump of a fetid cigar.
Evidently bewildered as to the cause of this summons, he looked up perplexed at Jadwin as he came up, out of his dim, red-lidded eyes.
"Sit down, Hargus. Glad to see you," called Jadwin.
The voice was faint and a little querulous.
"I say, sit down. Have a chair. I want to have a talk with you. You ran a corner in wheat once yourself."
"Oh… . Wheat."
"Yes, your corner. You remember?"
"Yes. Oh, that was long ago. In seventy-eight it was—the September option. And the Board made wheat in the cars 'regular.'"
His voice trailed off into silence, and he looked vaguely about on the floor of the room, sucking in his cheeks, and passing the edge of one large, osseous hand across his lips.
"Well, you lost all your money that time, I believe. Scannel, your partner, sold out on you."
"Hey? It was in seventy-eight… . The secretary of the Board announced our suspension at ten in the morning. If the Board had not voted to make wheat in the cars 'regular'—"
He went on and on, in an impassive monotone, repeating, word for word, the same phrases he had used for so long that they had lost all significance.
"Well," broke in Jadwin, at last, "it was Scannel your partner, did for you. Scannel, I say. You know, Dave Scannel."
The old man looked at him confusedly. Then, as the name forced itself upon the atrophied brain, there flashed, for one instant, into the pale, blurred eye, a light, a glint, a brief, quick spark of an old, long-forgotten fire. It gleamed there an instant, but the next sank again.
Plaintively, querulously he repeated:
"It was in seventy-eight… . I lost three hundred thousand dollars."
"How's your little niece getting on?" at last demanded Jadwin.
"My little niece—you mean Lizzie? … Well and happy, well and happy. I—I got"—he drew a thick bundle of dirty papers from his pocket, envelopes, newspapers, circulars, and the like—"I—I—I got, I got her picture here somewheres."
"Yes, yes, I know, I know," cried Jadwin. "I've seen it. You showed it to me yesterday, you remember."
"I—I got it here somewheres … somewheres," persisted the old man, fumbling and peering, and as he spoke the clerk from the doorway announced:
This latter was a large, thick man, red-faced, with white, short whiskers of an almost wiry texture. He had a small, gimlet-like eye, enormous, hairy ears, wore a "sack" suit, a highly polished top hat, and entered the office with a great flourish of manner and a defiant trumpeting "Well, how do, Captain?"
Jadwin nodded, glancing up under his scowl.
"Hello!" he said.
The other subsided into a chair, and returned scowl for scowl.
"Oh, well," he muttered, "if that's your style."
He had observed Hargus sitting by the other side of the desk, still fumbling and mumbling in his dirty memoranda, but he gave no sign of recognition. There was a moment's silence, then in a voice from which all the first bluffness was studiously excluded, Scannel said:
"Well, you've rung the bell on me. I'm a sucker. I know it. I'm one of the few hundred other God-damned fools that you've managed to catch out shooting snipe. Now what I want to know is, how much is it going to cost me to get out of your corner? What's the figure? What do you say?"
"I got a good deal to say," remarked Jadwin, scowling again.
But Hargus had at last thrust a photograph into his hands.
"There it is," he said. "That's it. That's Lizzie."
Jadwin took the picture without looking at it, and as he continued to speak, held it in his fingers, and occasionally tapped it upon the desk.
"I know. I know, Hargus," he answered. "I got a good deal to say, Mr. David Scannel. Do you see this old man here?"
"Oh-h, cut it out!" growled the other.
"It's Hargus. You know him very well. You used to know him better. You and he together tried to swing a great big deal in September wheat once upon a time. Hargus! I say, Hargus!"
The old man looked up.
"Here's the man we were talking about, Scannel, you remember. Remember Dave Scannel, who was your partner in seventy-eight? Look at him. This is him now. He's a rich man now. Remember Scannel?"
Hargus, his bleared old eyes blinking and watering, looked across the desk at the other.
"Oh, what's the game?" exclaimed Scannel. "I ain't here on exhibition, I guess. I—"
But he was interrupted by a sharp, quick gasp that all at once issued from Hargus's trembling lips. The old man said no word, but he leaned far forward in his chair, his eyes fixed upon Scannel, his breath coming short, his fingers dancing against his chin.
"Yes, that's him, Hargus," said Jadwin. "You and he had a big deal on your hands a long time ago," he continued, turning suddenly upon Scannel, a pulse in his temple beginning to beat. "A big deal, and you sold him out."
"It's a lie!" cried the other.
Jadwin beat his fist upon the arm of his chair. His voice was almost a shout as he answered:
"You—sold—him—out. I know you. I know the kind of bug you are. You ruined him to save your own dirty hide, and all his life since poor old Hargus has been living off the charity of the boys down here, pinched and hungry and neglected, and getting on, God knows how; yes, and supporting his little niece, too, while you, you have been loafing about your clubs, and sprawling on your steam yachts, and dangling round after your kept women—on the money you stole from him."
Scannel squared himself in his chair, his little eyes twinkling.
"Look here," he cried, furiously, "I don't take that kind of talk from the best man that ever wore shoe-leather. Cut it out, understand? Cut it out."
Jadwin's lower jaw set with a menacing click; aggressive, masterful, he leaned forward.
"You interrupt me again," he declared, "and you'll go out of that door a bankrupt. You listen to me and take my orders. That's what you're here to-day for. If you think you can get your wheat somewheres else, suppose you try."
Scannel sullenly settled himself in his place. He did not answer. Hargus, his eye wandering again, looked distressfully from one to the other. Then Jadwin, after shuffling among the papers of his desk, fixed a certain memorandum with his glance. All at once, whirling about and facing the other, he said quickly:
"You are short to our firm two million bushels at a dollar a bushel."
"Nothing of the sort," cried the other. "It's a million and a half."
Jadwin could not forbear a twinkle of grim humour as he saw how easily Scannel had fallen into the trap.
"You're short a million and a half, then," he repeated. "I'll let you have six hundred thousand of it at a dollar and a half a bushel."
"A dollar and a half! Why, my God, man! Oh well"—Scannel spread out his hands nonchalantly—"I shall simply go into bankruptcy—just as you said."
"Oh, no, you won't," replied Jadwin, pushing back and crossing his legs. "I've had your financial standing computed very carefully, Mr. Scannel. You've got the ready money. I know what you can stand without busting, to the fraction of a cent."
"Why, it's ridiculous. That handful of wheat will cost me three hundred thousand dollars."
And then all at once Scannel surrendered. Stony, imperturbable, he drew his check book from his pocket.
"Make it payable to bearer," said Jadwin.
The other complied, and Jadwin took the check and looked it over carefully.
"Now," he said, "watch here, Dave Scannel. You see this check? And now," he added, thrusting it into Hargus's hands, "you see where it goes. There's the principal of your debt paid off."
"You haven't forgotten the interest, have you? won't compound it, because that might bust you. But six per cent interest on three hundred thousand since 1878, comes to—let's see—three hundred and sixty thousand dollars. And you still owe me nine hundred thousand bushels of wheat." He ciphered a moment on a sheet of note paper. "If I charge you a dollar and forty a bushel for that wheat, it will come to that sum exactly… . Yes, that's correct. I'll let you have the balance of that wheat at a dollar forty. Make the check payable to bearer as before."
For a second Scannel hesitated, his face purple, his teeth grinding together, then muttering his rage beneath his breath, opened his check book again.
"Thank you," said Jadwin as he took the check.
He touched his call bell.
"Kinzie," he said to the clerk who answered it, "after the close of the market to-day send delivery slips for a million and a half wheat to Mr. Scannel. His account with us has been settled."
Jadwin turned to the old man, reaching out the second check to him.
"Here you are, Hargus. Put it away carefully. You see what it is, don't you? Buy your Lizzie a little gold watch with a hundred of it, and tell her it's from Curtis Jadwin, with his compliments… . What, going, Scannel? Well, good-by to you, sir, and hey!" he called after him, "please don't slam the door as you go out."
But he dodged with a defensive gesture as the pane of glass almost leaped from its casing, as Scannel stormed across the threshold.
Jadwin turned to Hargus, with a solemn wink.
"He did slam it after all, didn't he?"
The old fellow, however, sat fingering the two checks in silence. Then he looked up at Jadwin, scared and trembling.
"I—I don't know," he murmured, feebly. "I am a very old man. This—this is a great deal of money, sir. I—I can't say; I—I don't know. I'm an old man … an old man."
"You won't lose 'em, now?"
"No, no. I'll deposit them at once in the Illinois Trust. I shall ask—I should like."
"I'll send a clerk with you."
"Yes, yes, that is about what—what I—what I was about to suggest. But I must say, Mr. Jadwin—"
He began to stammer his thanks. But Jadwin cut him off. Rising, he guided Hargus to the door, one hand on his shoulder, and at the entrance to the outer office called a clerk.
"Take Mr. Hargus over to the Illinois Trust, Kinzie, and introduce him. He wants to open an account."
The old man started off with the clerk, but before Jadwin had reseated himself at his desk was back again. He was suddenly all excitement, as if a great idea had abruptly taken possession of him. Stealthy, furtive, he glanced continually over his shoulder as he spoke, talking in whispers, a trembling hand shielding his lips.
"You—you are in—you are in control now," he said. "You could give—hey? You could give me—just a little—just one word. A word would be enough, hey? hey? Just a little tip. My God, I could make fifty dollars by noon."
"Why, man, I've just given you about half a million."
"Half a million? I don't know. But"—he plucked Jadwin tremulously by the sleeve—"just a word," he begged. "Hey, just yes or no."
"Haven't you enough with those two checks?"
"Those checks? Oh, I know, I know, I know I'll salt 'em down. Yes, in the Illinois Trust. I won't touch 'em—not those. But just a little tip now, hey?"
"Not a word. Not a word. Take him along, Kinzie."
One week after this Jadwin sold, through his agents in Paris, a tremendous line of "cash" wheat at a dollar and sixty cents the bushel. By now the foreign demand was a thing almost insensate. There was no question as to the price. It was, "Give us the wheat, at whatever cost, at whatever figure, at whatever expense; only that it be rushed to our markets with all the swiftness of steam and steel." At home, upon the Chicago Board of Trade, Jadwin was as completely master of the market as of his own right hand. Everything stopped when he raised a finger; everything leaped to life with the fury of obsession when he nodded his head. His wealth increased with such stupefying rapidity, that at no time was he able to even approximate the gains that accrued to him because of his corner. It was more than twenty million, and less than fifty million. That was all he knew. Nor were the everlasting hills more secure than he from the attack of any human enemy. Out of the ranks of the conquered there issued not so much as a whisper of hostility. Within his own sphere no Czar, no satrap, no Caesar ever wielded power more resistless.
"Sam," said Curtis Jadwin, at length to the broker, "Sam, nothing in the world can stop me now. They think I've been doing something big, don't they, with this corner. Why, I've only just begun. This is just a feeler. Now I'm going to let 'em know just how big a gun C. J. really is. I'm going to swing this deal right over into July. I'm going to buy in my July shorts."
The two men were in Gretry's office as usual, and as Jadwin spoke, the broker glanced up incredulously.
"Now you are for sure crazy."
Jadwin jumped to his feet.
"Crazy!" he vociferated. "Crazy! What do you mean? Crazy! For God's sake, Sam, what—Look here, don't use that word to me. I—it don't suit. What I've done isn't exactly the work of—of—takes brains, let me tell you. And look here, look here, I say, I'm going to swing this deal right over into July. Think I'm going to let go now, when I've just begun to get a real grip on things? A pretty fool I'd look like to get out now—even if I could. Get out? How are we going to unload our big line of wheat without breaking the price on us? No, sir, not much. This market is going up to two dollars." He smote a knee with his clinched fist, his face going abruptly crimson. "I say two dollars," he cried. "Two dollars, do you hear? It will go there, you'll see, you'll see."
"Reports on the new crop will begin to come in in June." Gretry's warning was almost a cry. "The price of wheat is so high now, that God knows how many farmers will plant it this spring. You may have to take care of a record harvest."
"I know better," retorted Jadwin. "I'm watching this thing. You can't tell me anything about it. I've got it all figured out, your 'new crop.'"
"Well, then you're the Lord Almighty himself."
"I don't like that kind of joke. I don't like that kind of joke. It's blasphemous," exclaimed Jadwin. "Go, get it off on Crookes. He'd appreciate it, but I don't. But this new crop now—look here."
And for upwards of two hours Jadwin argued and figured, and showed to Gretry endless tables of statistics to prove that he was right.
But at the end Gretry shook his head. Calmly and deliberately he spoke his mind.
"J., listen to me. You've done a big thing. I know it, and I know, too, that there've been lots of times in the last year or so when I've been wrong and you've been right. But now, J., so help me God, we've reached our limit. Wheat is worth a dollar and a half to-day, and not one cent more. Every eighth over that figure is inflation. If you run it up to two dollars—"
"It will go there of itself, I tell you."
"—if you run it up to two dollars, it will be that top-heavy, that the littlest kick in the world will knock it over. Be satisfied now with what you got. J., it's common sense. Close out your long line of May, and then stop. Suppose the price does break a little, you'd still make your pile. But swing this deal over into July, and it's ruin, ruin. I may have been mistaken before, but I know I'm right now. And do you realise, J., that yesterday in the Pit there were some short sales? There's some of them dared to go short of wheat against you—even at the very top of your corner—and there was more selling this morning. You've always got to buy, you know. If they all began to sell to you at once they'd bust you. It's only because you've got 'em so scared—I believe—that keeps 'em from it. But it looks to me as though this selling proved that they were picking up heart. They think they can get the wheat from the farmers when harvesting begins. And I tell you, J., you've put the price of wheat so high, that the wheat areas are extending all over the country."
"You're scared," cried Jadwin. "That's the trouble with you, Sam. You've been scared from the start. Can't you see, man, can't you see that this market is a regular tornado?"
"I see that the farmers all over the country are planting wheat as they've never planted it before. Great Scott, J., you're fighting against the earth itself."
"Well, we'll fight it, then. I'll stop those hayseeds. What do I own all these newspapers and trade journals for? We'll begin sending out reports to-morrow that'll discourage any big wheat planting."
"And then, too," went on Gretry, "here's another point. Do you know, you ought to be in bed this very minute. You haven't got any nerves left at all. You acknowledge yourself that you don't sleep any more. And, good Lord, the moment any one of us contradicts you, or opposes you, you go off the handle to beat the Dutch. I know it's a strain, old man, but you want to keep yourself in hand if you go on with this thing. If you should break down now—well, I don't like to think of what would happen. You ought to see a doctor."
"Oh-h, fiddlesticks," exclaimed Jadwin, "I'm all right. I don't need a doctor, haven't time to see one anyhow. Don't you bother about me. I'm all right."
Was he? That same night, the first he had spent under his own roof for four days, Jadwin lay awake till the clocks struck four, asking himself the same question. No, he was not all right. Something was very wrong with him, and whatever it might be, it was growing worse. The sensation of the iron clamp about his head was almost permanent by now, and just the walk between his room at the Grand Pacific and Gretry's office left him panting and exhausted. Then had come vertigoes and strange, inexplicable qualms, as if he were in an elevator that sank under him with terrifying rapidity.
Going to and fro in La Salle Street, or sitting in Gretry's office, where the roar of the Pit dinned forever in his ears, he could forget these strange symptoms. It was the night he dreaded—the long hours he must spend alone. The instant the strain was relaxed, the gallop of hoofs, or as the beat of ungovernable torrents began in his brain. Always the beat dropped to the same cadence, always the pulse spelled out the same words:
And of late, during the long and still watches of the night, while he stared at the ceiling, or counted the hours that must pass before his next dose of bromide of potassium, a new turn had been given to the screw.
This was a sensation, the like of which he found it difficult to describe. But it seemed to be a slow, tense crisping of every tiniest nerve in his body. It would begin as he lay in bed—counting interminably to get himself to sleep—between his knees and ankles, and thence slowly spread to every part of him, creeping upward, from loin to shoulder, in a gradual wave of torture that was not pain, yet infinitely worse. A dry, pringling aura as of billions of minute electric shocks crept upward over his flesh, till it reached his head, where it seemed to culminate in a white flash, which he felt rather than saw.
His body felt strange and unfamiliar to him. It seemed to have no weight, and at times his hands would appear to swell swiftly to the size of mammoth boxing-gloves, so that he must rub them together to feel that they were his own.
He put off consulting a doctor from day to day, alleging that he had not the time. But the real reason, though he never admitted it, was the fear that the doctor might tell him what he guessed to be the truth.
Were his wits leaving him? The horror of the question smote through him like the drive of a javelin. What was to happen? What nameless calamity impended?
His watch under his pillow took up the refrain. How to grasp the morrow's business, how control the sluice gates of that torrent he had unchained, with this unspeakable crumbling and disintegrating of his faculties going on?
Jaded, feeble, he rose to meet another day. He drove down town, trying not to hear the beat of his horses' hoofs. Dizzy and stupefied, he gained Gretry's office, and alone with his terrors sat in the chair before his desk, waiting, waiting.
Then far away the great gong struck. Just over his head, penetrating wood and iron, he heard the mighty throe of the Pit once more beginning, moving. And then, once again, the limp and ravelled fibres of being grew tight with a wrench. Under the stimulus of the roar of the maelstrom, the flagging, wavering brain righted itself once more, and—how, he himself could not say—the business of the day was despatched, the battle was once more urged. Often he acted upon what he knew to be blind, unreasoned instinct. Judgment, clear reasoning, at times, he felt, forsook him. Decisions that involved what seemed to be the very stronghold of his situation, had to be taken without a moment's warning. He decided for or against without knowing why. Under his feet fissures opened. He must take the leap without seeing the other edge. Somehow he always landed upon his feet; somehow his great, cumbersome engine, lurching, swaying, in spite of loosened joints, always kept the track.
Luck, his golden goddess, the genius of glittering wings, was with him yet. Sorely tried, flouted even she yet remained faithful, lending a helping hand to lost and wandering judgment.
So the month of May drew to its close. Between the twenty-fifth and the thirtieth Jadwin covered his July shortage, despite Gretry's protests and warnings. To him they seemed idle enough. He was too rich, too strong now to fear any issue. Daily the profits of the corner increased. The unfortunate shorts were wrung dry and drier. In Gretry's office they heard their sentences, and as time went on, and Jadwin beheld more and more of these broken speculators, a vast contempt for human nature grew within him.
Some few of his beaten enemies were resolute enough, accepting defeat with grim carelessness, or with sphinx-like indifference, or even with airy jocularity. But for the most part their alert, eager deference, their tame subservience, the abject humility and debasement of their bent shoulders drove Jadwin to the verge of self-control. He grew to detest the business; he regretted even the defiant brutality of Scannel, a rascal, but none the less keeping his head high. The more the fellows cringed to him, the tighter he wrenched the screw. In a few cases he found a pleasure in relenting entirely, selling his wheat to the unfortunates at a price that left them without loss; but in the end the business hardened his heart to any distress his mercilessness might entail. He took his profits as a Bourbon took his taxes, as if by right of birth. Somewhere, in a long-forgotten history of his brief school days, he had come across a phrase that he remembered now, by some devious and distant process of association, and when he heard of the calamities that his campaign had wrought, of the shipwrecked fortunes and careers that were sucked down by the Pit, he found it possible to say, with a short laugh, and a lift of one shoulder:
His wife he saw but seldom. Occasionally they breakfasted together; more often they met at dinner. But that was all. Jadwin's life by now had come to be so irregular, and his few hours of sleep so precious and so easily disturbed, that he had long since occupied a separate apartment.
What Laura's life was at this time he no longer knew. She never spoke of it to him; never nowadays complained of loneliness. When he saw her she appeared to be cheerful. But this very cheerfulness made him uneasy, and at times, through the murk of the chaff of wheat, through the bellow of the Pit, and the crash of collapsing fortunes there reached him a suspicion that all was not well with Laura.
Once he had made an abortive attempt to break from the turmoil of La Salle Street and the Board of Trade, and, for a time at least, to get back to the old life they both had loved—to get back, in a word, to her. But the consequences had been all but disastrous. Now he could not keep away.
"Corner wheat!" he had exclaimed to her, the following day. "Corner wheat! It's the wheat that has cornered me. It's like holding a wolf by the ears, bad to hold on, but worse to let go."
But absorbed, blinded, deafened by the whirl of things, Curtis Jadwin could not see how perilously well grounded had been his faint suspicion as to Laura's distress.
On the day after her evening with her husband in the art gallery, the evening when Gretry had broken in upon them like a courier from the front, Laura had risen from her bed to look out upon a world suddenly empty.
Corthell she had sent from her forever. Jadwin was once more snatched from her side. Where, now, was she to turn? Jadwin had urged her to go to the country—to their place at Geneva Lake—but she refused. She saw the change that had of late come over her husband, saw his lean face, the hot, tired eyes, the trembling fingers and nervous gestures. Vaguely she imagined approaching disaster. If anything happened to Curtis, her place was at his side.
During the days that Jadwin and Crookes were at grapples Laura found means to occupy her mind with all manner of small activities. She overhauled her wardrobe, planned her summer gowns, paid daily visits to her dressmakers, rode and drove in the park, till every turn of the roads, every tree, every bush was familiar, to the point of wearisome contempt.
Then suddenly she began to indulge in a mania for old books and first editions. She haunted the stationers and second-hand bookstores, studied the authorities, followed the auctions, and bought right and left, with reckless extravagance. But the taste soon palled upon her. With so much money at her command there was none of the spice of the hunt in the affair. She had but to express a desire for a certain treasure, and forthwith it was put into her hand.
She found it so in all other things. Her desires were gratified with an abruptness that killed the zest of them. She felt none of the joy of possession; the little personal relation between her and her belongings vanished away. Her gowns, beautiful beyond all she had ever imagined, were of no more interest to her than a drawerful of outworn gloves. She bought horses till she could no longer tell them apart; her carriages crowded three supplementary stables in the neighbourhood. Her flowers, miracles of laborious cultivation, filled the whole house with their fragrance. Wherever she went deference moved before her like a guard; her beauty, her enormous wealth, her wonderful horses, her exquisite gowns made of her a cynosure, a veritable queen.
And hardly a day passed that Laura Jadwin, in the solitude of her own boudoir, did not fling her arms wide in a gesture of lassitude and infinite weariness, crying out:
"Oh, the ennui and stupidity of all this wretched life!"
She could look forward to nothing. One day was like the next. No one came to see her. For all her great house and for all her money, she had made but few friends. Her "grand manner" had never helped her popularity. She passed her evenings alone in her "upstairs sitting-room," reading, reading till far into the night, or, the lights extinguished, sat at her open window listening to the monotonous lap and wash of the lake.
At such moments she thought of the men who had come into her life—of the love she had known almost from her girlhood. She remembered her first serious affair. It had been with the impecunious theological student who was her tutor. He had worn glasses and little black side whiskers, and had implored her to marry him and come to China, where he was to be a missionary. Every time that he came he had brought her a new book to read, and he had taken her for long walks up towards the hills where the old powder mill stood. Then it was the young lawyer—the "brightest man in Worcester County"—who took her driving in a hired buggy, sent her a multitude of paper novels (which she never read), with every love passage carefully underscored, and wrote very bad verse to her eyes and hair, whose "velvet blackness was the shadow of a crown." Or, again, it was the youthful cavalry officer met in a flying visit to her Boston aunt, who loved her on first sight, gave her his photograph in uniform and a bead belt of Apache workmanship. He was forever singing to her—to a guitar accompaniment—an old love song:
"At midnight hour
Beneath the tower
He murmured soft,
'Oh nothing fearing
With thine own true soldier fly.'"
Then she had come to Chicago, and Landry Court, with his bright enthusiasms and fine exaltations had loved her. She had never taken him very seriously but none the less it had been very sweet to know his whole universe depended upon the nod of her head, and that her influence over him had been so potent, had kept him clean and loyal and honest.
And after this Corthell and Jadwin had come into her life, the artist and the man of affairs. She remembered Corthell's quiet, patient, earnest devotion of those days before her marriage. He rarely spoke to her of his love, but by some ingenious subtlety he had filled her whole life with it. His little attentions, his undemonstrative solicitudes came precisely when and where they were most appropriate. He had never failed her. Whenever she had needed him, or even, when through caprice or impulse she had turned to him, it always had been to find that long since he had carefully prepared for that very contingency. His thoughtfulness of her had been a thing to wonder at. He remembered for months, years even, her most trivial fancies, her unexpressed dislikes. He knew her tastes, as if by instinct; he prepared little surprises for her, and placed them in her way without ostentation, and quite as matters of course. He never permitted her to be embarrassed; the little annoying situations of the day's life he had smoothed away long before they had ensnared her. He never was off his guard, never disturbed, never excited.
And he amused her, he entertained her without seeming to do so. He made her talk; he made her think. He stimulated and aroused her, so that she herself talked and thought with a brilliancy that surprised herself. In fine, he had so contrived that she associated him with everything that was agreeable.
She had sent him away the first time, and he had gone without a murmur; only to come back loyal as ever, silent, watchful, sympathetic, his love for her deeper, stronger than before, and—as always timely—bringing to her a companionship at the moment of all others when she was most alone.
Now she had driven him from her again, and this time, she very well knew, it was to be forever. She had shut the door upon this great love.
Laura stirred abruptly in her place, adjusting her hair with nervous fingers.
And, last of all, it had been Jadwin, her husband. She rose and went to the window, and stood there a long moment, looking off into the night over the park. It was warm and very still. A few carriage lamps glimpsed among the trees like fireflies. Along the walks and upon the benches she could see the glow of white dresses and could catch the sound of laughter. Far off somewhere in the shrubbery, she thought she heard a band playing. To the northeast lay the lake, shimmering under the moon, dotted here and there with the coloured lights of steamers.
She turned back into the room. The great house was still. From all its suites of rooms, its corridors, galleries, and hallways there came no sound. There was no one upon the same floor as herself. She had read all her books. It was too late to go out—and there was no one to go with. To go to bed was ridiculous. She was never more wakeful, never more alive, never more ready to be amused, diverted, entertained.
She thought of the organ, and descending to the art gallery, played Bach, Palestrina, and Stainer for an hour; then suddenly she started from the console, with a sharp, impatient movement of her head.
"Why do I play this stupid music?" she exclaimed. She called a servant and asked:
"Has Mr. Jadwin come in yet?"
"Mr. Gretry just this minute telephoned that Mr. Jadwin would not be home to-night."
When the servant had gone out Laura, her lips compressed, flung up her head. Her hands shut to hard fists, her eye flashed. Rigid, erect in the middle of the floor, her arms folded, she uttered a smothered exclamation over and over again under her breath.
All at once anger mastered her—anger and a certain defiant recklessness, an abrupt spirit of revolt. She straightened herself suddenly, as one who takes a decision. Then, swiftly, she went out of the art gallery, and, crossing the hallway, entered the library and opened a great writing-desk that stood in a recess under a small stained window.
She pulled the sheets of note paper towards her and wrote a short letter, directing the envelope to Sheldon Corthell, The Fine Arts Building, Michigan Avenue.
"Call a messenger," she said to the servant who answered her ring, "and have him take—or send him in here when he comes."
She rested the letter against the inkstand, and leaned back in her chair, looking at it, her fingers plucking swiftly at the lace of her dress. Her head was in a whirl. A confusion of thoughts, impulses, desires, half-formed resolves, half-named regrets, swarmed and spun about her. She felt as though she had all at once taken a leap—a leap which had landed her in a place whence she could see a new and terrible country, an unfamiliar place—terrible, yet beautiful—unexplored, and for that reason all the more inviting, a place of shadows.
Laura rose and paced the floor, her hands pressed together over her heart. She was excited, her cheeks flushed, a certain breathless exhilaration came and went within her breast, and in place of the intolerable ennui of the last days, there came over her a sudden, an almost wild animation, and from out her black eyes there shot a kind of furious gaiety.
But she was aroused by a step at the door. The messenger stood there, a figure ridiculously inadequate for the intensity of all that was involved in the issue of the hour—a weazened, stunted boy, in a uniform many sizes too large.
Laura, seated at her desk, held the note towards him resolutely. Now was no time to hesitate, to temporise. If she did not hold to her resolve now, what was there to look forward to? Could one's life be emptier than hers—emptier, more intolerable, more humiliating?
"Take this note to that address," she said, putting the envelope and a coin in the boy's hand. "Wait for an answer."
The boy shut the letter in his book, which he thrust into his breast pocket, buttoning his coat over it. He nodded and turned away.
Still seated, Laura watched him moving towards the door. Well, it was over now. She had chosen. She had taken the leap. What new life was to begin for her to-morrow? What did it all mean? With an inconceivable rapidity her thoughts began racing through, her brain.
She did not move. Her hands, gripped tight together, rested upon the desk before her. Without turning her head, she watched the retreating messenger, from under her lashes. He passed out of the door, the curtain fell behind him.
And only then, when the irrevocableness of the step was all but an accomplished fact, came the reaction.
"Stop!" she cried, springing up. "Stop! Come back here. Wait a moment."
What had happened? She could neither understand nor explain. Somehow an instant of clear vision had come, and in that instant a power within her that was herself and not herself, and laid hold upon her will. No, no, she could not, she could not, after all. She took the note back.
"I have changed my mind," she said, abruptly. "You may keep the money. There is no message to be sent."
As soon as the boy had gone she opened the envelope and read what she had written. But now the words seemed the work of another mind than her own. They were unfamiliar; they were not the words of the Laura Jadwin she knew. Why was it that from the very first hours of her acquaintance with this man, and in every circumstance of their intimacy, she had always acted upon impulse? What was there in him that called into being all that was reckless in her?
And for how long was she to be able to control these impulses? This time she had prevailed once more against that other impetuous self of hers. Would she prevail the next time? And in these struggles, was she growing stronger as she overcame, or weaker? She did not know. She tore the note into fragments, and making a heap of them in the pen tray, burned them carefully.
During the week following upon this, Laura found her trouble more than ever keen. She was burdened with a new distress. The incident of the note to Corthell, recalled at the last moment, had opened her eyes to possibilities of the situation hitherto unguessed. She saw now what she might be capable of doing in a moment of headstrong caprice, she saw depths in her nature she had not plumbed. Whether these hidden pitfalls were peculiarly hers, or whether they were common to all women placed as she now found herself, she did not pause to inquire. She thought only of results, and she was afraid.
But for the matter of that, Laura had long since passed the point of deliberate consideration or reasoned calculation. The reaction had been as powerful as the original purpose, and she was even yet struggling blindly, intuitively.
For what she was now about to do she could give no reason, and the motives for this final and supreme effort to conquer the league of circumstances which hemmed her in were obscure. She did not even ask what they were. She knew only that she was in trouble, and yet it was to the cause of her distress that she addressed herself. Blindly she turned to her husband; and all the woman in her roused itself, girded itself, called up its every resource in one last test, in one ultimate trial of strength between her and the terrible growing power of that blind, soulless force that roared and guttered and sucked, down there in the midst of the city.
She alone, one unaided woman, her only auxiliaries her beauty, her wit, and the frayed, strained bands of a sorely tried love, stood forth like a challenger, against Charybdis, joined battle with the Cloaca, held back with her slim, white hands against the power of the maelstrom that swung the Nations in its grip.
In the solitude of her room she took the resolve. Her troubles were multiplying; she, too, was in the current, the end of which was a pit—a pit black and without bottom. Once already its grip had seized her, once already she had yielded to the insidious drift. Now suddenly aware of a danger, she fought back, and her hands beating the air for help, turned towards the greatest strength she knew.
"I want my husband," she cried, aloud, to the empty darkness of the night. "I want my husband. I will have him; he is mine, he is mine. There shall nothing take me from him; there shall nothing take him from me."
Her first opportunity came upon a Sunday soon afterward. Jadwin, wakeful all the Saturday night, slept a little in the forenoon, and after dinner Laura came to him in his smoking-room, as he lay on the leather lounge trying to read. His wife seated herself at a writing-table in a corner of the room, and by and by began turning the slips of a calendar that stood at her elbow. At last she tore off one of the slips and held it up.
"Well, old girl?"
"Do you see that date?"
He looked over to her.
"Do you see that date? Do you know of anything that makes that day different—a little—from other days? It's June thirteenth. Do you remember what June thirteenth is?"
Puzzled, he shook his head.
Laura took up a pen and wrote a few words in the space above the printed figures reserved for memoranda. Then she handed the slip to her husband, who read aloud what she had written.
"'Laura Jadwin's birthday.' Why, upon my word," he declared, sitting upright. "So it is, so it is. June thirteenth, of course. And I was beast enough not to realise it. Honey, I can't remember anything these days, it seems."
"But you are going to remember this time?" she said. "You are not going to forget it now. That evening is going to mark the beginning of—oh, Curtis, it is going to be a new beginning of everything. You'll see. I'm going to manage it. I don't know how, but you are going to love me so that nothing, no business, no money, no wheat will ever keep you from me. I will make you. And that evening, that evening of June thirteenth is mine. The day your business can have you, but from six o'clock on you are mine." She crossed the room quickly and took both his hands in hers and knelt beside him. "It is mine," she said, "if you love me. Do you understand, dear? You will come home at six o'clock, and whatever happens—oh, if all La Salle Street should burn to the ground, and all your millions of bushels of wheat with it—whatever happens, you—will—not—leave—me—nor think of anything else but just me, me. That evening is mine, and you will give it to me, just as I have said. I won't remind you of it again. I won't speak of it again. I will leave it to you. But—you will give me that evening if you love me. Dear, do you see just what I mean? … If you love me… . No—no don't say a word, we won't talk about it at all. No, no, please. Not another word. I don't want you to promise, or pledge yourself, or anything like that. You've heard what I said—and that's all there is about it. We'll talk of something else. By the way, have you seen Mr. Cressler lately?"
"No," he said, falling into her mood. "No haven't seen Charlie in over a month. Wonder what's become of him?"
"I understand he's been sick," she told him. "I met Mrs. Cressler the other day, and she said she was bothered about him."
"Well, what's the matter with old Charlie?"
"She doesn't know, herself. He's not sick enough to go to bed, but he doesn't or won't go down town to his business. She says she can see him growing thinner every day. He keeps telling her he's all right, but for all that, she says, she's afraid he's going to come down with some kind of sickness pretty soon."
"Say," said Jadwin, "suppose we drop around to see them this afternoon? Wouldn't you like to? I haven't seen him in over a month, as I say. Or telephone them to come up and have dinner. Charlie's about as old a friend as I have. We used to be together about every hour of the day when we first came to Chicago. Let's go over to see him this afternoon and cheer him up."
"No," said Laura, decisively. "Curtis, you must have one day of rest out of the week. You are going to lie down all the rest of the afternoon, and sleep if you can. I'll call on them to-morrow."
"Well, all right," he assented. "I suppose I ought to sleep if I can. And then Sam is coming up here, by five. He's going to bring some railroad men with him. We've got a lot to do. Yes, I guess, old girl, I'll try to get forty winks before they get here. And, Laura," he added, taking her hand as she rose to go, "Laura, this is the last lap. In just another month now—oh, at the outside, six weeks—I'll have closed the corner, and then, old girl, you and I will go somewheres, anywhere you like, and then we'll have a good time together all the rest of our lives—all the rest of our lives, honey. Good-by. Now I think I can go to sleep."
She arranged the cushions under his head and drew the curtains close over the windows, and went out, softly closing the door behind her. And a half hour later, when she stole in to look at him, she found him asleep at last, the tired eyes closed, and the arm, with its broad, strong hand, resting under his head. She stood a long moment in the middle of the room, looking down at him; and then slipped out as noiselessly as she had come, the tears trembling on her eyelashes.
Laura Jadwin did not call on the Cresslers the next day, nor even the next after that. For three days she kept indoors, held prisoner by a series of petty incidents; now the delay in the finishing of her new gowns, now by the excessive heat, now by a spell of rain. By Thursday, however, at the beginning of the second week of the month, the storm was gone, and the sun once more shone. Early in the afternoon Laura telephoned to Mrs. Cressler.
"How are you and Mr. Cressler?" she asked. "I'm coming over to take luncheon with you and your husband, if you will let me."
"Oh, Charlie is about the same, Laura," answered Mrs. Cressler's voice. "I guess the dear man has been working too hard, that's all. Do come over and cheer him up. If I'm not here when you come, you just make yourself at home. I've got to go down town to see about railroad tickets and all. I'm going to pack my old man right off to Oconomowoc before I'm another day older. Made up my mind to it last night, and I don't want him to be bothered with tickets or time cards, or baggage or anything. I'll run down and do it all myself. You come right up whenever you're ready and keep Charlie company. How's your husband, Laura child?"
"Oh, Curtis is well," she answered. "He gets very tired at times."
"Well, I can understand it. Lands alive, child whatever are you going to do with all your money? They tell me that J. has made millions in the last three or four months. A man I was talking to last week said his corner was the greatest thing ever known on the Chicago Board of Trade. Well, good-by, Laura, come up whenever you're ready. I'll see you at lunch. Charlie is right here. He says to give you his love." An hour later Laura's victoria stopped in front of the Cressler's house, and the little footman descended with the agility of a monkey, to stand, soldier-like, at the steps, the lap robe over his arm.
Laura gave orders to have the victoria call for her at three, and ran quickly up the front steps. The front entrance was open, the screen door on the latch, and she entered without ceremony.
"Mrs. Cressler!" she called, as she stood in the hallway drawing off her gloves. "Mrs. Cressler! Carrie, have you gone yet?"
But the maid, Annie, appeared at the head of the stairs, on the landing of the second floor, a towel bound about her head, her duster in her hand.
"Mrs. Cressler has gone out, Mrs. Jadwin," she said. "She said you was to make yourself at home, and she'd be back by noon."
Laura nodded, and standing before the hatrack in the hall, took off her hat and gloves, and folded her veil into her purse. The house was old-fashioned, very homelike and spacious, cool, with broad halls and wide windows. In the "front library," where Laura entered first, were steel engravings of the style of the seventies, "whatnots" crowded with shells, Chinese coins, lacquer boxes, and the inevitable sawfish bill. The mantel was mottled white marble, and its shelf bore the usual bronze and gilt clock, decorated by a female figure in classic draperies, reclining against a globe. An oil painting of a mountain landscape hung against one wall; and on a table of black walnut, with a red marble slab, that stood between the front windows, were a stereoscope and a rosewood music box.
The piano, an old style Chickering, stood diagonally across the far corner of the room, by the closed sliding doors, and Laura sat down here and began to play the "Mephisto Walzer," which she had been at pains to learn since the night Corthell had rendered it on her great organ in the art gallery.
But when she had played as much as she could remember of the music, she rose and closed the piano, and pushed back the folding doors between the room she was in and the "back library," a small room where Mrs. Cressler kept her books of poetry.
As Laura entered the room she was surprised to see Mr. Cressler there, seated in his armchair, his back turned toward her.
"Why, I didn't know you were here, Mr. Cressler," she said, as she came up to him.
She laid her hand upon his arm. But Cressler was dead; and as Laura touched him the head dropped upon the shoulder and showed the bullet hole in the temple, just in front of the ear.