“Something has got to be done,” replied the General. “The banking situation in this country at the present moment is simply unendurable; the legitimate banker is practically driven from the field by the speculator. A man finds himself in the position where he has either to submit to the dictation of such men, or else permit himself to be supplanted. It is a new element that has forced itself in. Apparently all a man needs in order to start a bank is credit enough to put up a building with marble columns and bronze gates. I could name you a man who at this moment owns eight banks, and when he started in, three years ago, I don't believe he owned a million dollars.”

“But how in the world could he manage it?” gasped Montague.

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“Just as I stated,” said the General. “You buy a piece of land, with as big a mortgage as you can get, and you put up a million-dollar building and mortgage that. You start a trust company, and you get out imposing advertisements, and promise high rates of interest, and the public comes in. Then you hypothecate your stock in company number one, and you have your dummy directors lend you more money, and you buy another trust company. They call that pyramiding—you have heard the term, no doubt, with regard to stocks; it is a fascinating game to play with banks, because the more of them you get, the more prominent you become in the newspapers, and the more the public trusts you.”

And the General went on to tell of some of the cases of which he knew. There was Stewart, the young Lochinvar out of the West. He had tried to buy the Trust Company of the Republic long ago, and so the General knew him and his methods. He had fought the Copper Trust to a standstill in Montana; the Trust had bought up the Legislature and both political machines, but Cummings had appealed to the public in a series of sensational campaigns, and had got his judges into office, and in the end the Trust had been forced to buy him out. And now he had come to New York to play this new game of bank-gambling, which paid even quicker profits than buying courts.—And then there was Holt, a sporting character, a vulgar man-about-town, who was identified with everything that was low and vile in the city; he, too, had turned his millions into banks.—And there was Cummings, the Ice King, who for years had financed the political machine in the city, and, by securing a monopoly of the docking-privileges, had forced all his rivals to the wall. He had set out to monopolise the coastwise steamship trade of the country, and had bought line after line of vessels by this same device of “pyramiding”; and now, finding that he needed still more money to buy out his rivals, he had purchased or started a dozen or so of trust companies and banks.

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“Anyone ought to realise that such things cannot go on indefinitely,” said the General. “I know that the big men realise it. I was at a directors' meeting the other day, and I heard Waterman remark that it would have to be ended very soon. Anyone who knows Waterman would not expect to get a second hint.”

“What could he do?” asked Montague.

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“Waterman!” exclaimed young Curtiss.

“He would find a way,” said the General, simply. “That is the one hope that I see in the situation—the power of a conservative man like him.”

“You trust him, then?” asked Montague.

“Yes,” said the General, “I trust him.—One has to trust somebody.”

“I heard a curious story,” put in Harry Curtiss. “My uncle had dinner at the old man's house the other night, and asked him what he thought of the market. 'I can tell you in a sentence,' was the answer. 'For the first time in my life I don't own a security.'”

The General gave an exclamation of surprise. “Did he really say that?” he asked. “Then one can imagine that things will happen before long!”

“And one can imagine why the stock market is weak!” added the other, laughing.

At that moment the door of the dining-room was opened, and Mrs. Prentice appeared. “Are you men going to talk business all evening?” she asked. “If so, come into the drawing-room, and talk it to us.”