“That is what I had in mind to propose to you,” said the other. “I anticipate no difficulty in satisfying you—the project is largely of my own originating, and my own reputation will be behind it. The Gotham Trust Company will lend its credit to the enterprise so far as possible.”

Ryder said this with just a trifle of hauteur, and Montague felt that perhaps he had spoken too strenuously. No one could sit in Ryder's office and not be impressed by its atmosphere of magnificence; after all, it was here, and its seventy or eighty million dollars of deposits were real, and this serene and aristocratic gentleman was the master of them. And what reason had Montague for his hesitation, except the gossip of idle and cynical Society people?

Whatever doubts he himself might have, he needed to reflect but a moment to realise that his friends in Mississippi would not share them. If he went back home with the name of Stanley Ryder and the Gotham Trust Company to back him, he would come as a conqueror with tidings of triumph, and all the old friends of the family would rush to follow his suggestions.

Ryder waited awhile, perhaps to let these reflections sink in. Finally he continued: “I presume, Mr. Montague, that you know something about the Mississippi Steel Company. The steel situation is a peculiar one. Prices are kept at an altogether artificial level, and there is room for large profits to competitors of the Trust. But those who go into the business commonly find themselves unexpectedly handicapped. They cannot get the credit they want; orders overwhelm them in floods, but Wall Street will not put up money to help them. They find all kinds of powerful interests arrayed against them; there are raids upon their securities in the market, and mysterious rumours begin to circulate. They find suits brought against them which tend to injure their credit. And sometimes they will find important papers missing, important witnesses sailing for Europe, and so on. Then their most efficient employees will be bought up; their very bookkeepers and office-boys will be bribed, and all the secrets of their business passed on to their enemies. They will find that the railroads do not treat them squarely; cars will be slow in coming, and all kinds of petty annoyances will be practised. You know what the rebate is, and you can imagine the part which that plays. In these and a hundred other ways, the path of the independent steel manufacturer is made difficult. And now, Mr. Montague, this is a project to extend a railroad which will be of vast service to the chief competitor of the Steel Trust. I believe that you are man of the world enough to realise that this improvement would have been made long ago, if the Steel Trust had not been able to prevent it. And now, the time has come when that project is to be put through in spite of every opposition that the Trust can bring; and I have come to you because I believe that you are a man to be counted on in such a fight.”

“I understand you,” said Montague, quietly; “and you are right in your supposition.”

“Very well,” said Ryder. “Then I will tell you that the syndicate of which I speak is composed of myself and John S. Price, who has recently acquired control of the Mississippi Steel Company. You will find out without difficulty what Price's reputation is; he is the one man in the country who has made any real headway against the Trust. The business of the Mississippi Company has almost doubled in the past year, and there is no limit to what it can do, except the size of the plant and the ability of the railroads to handle its product. This new plan would have been taken up through the Company, but for the fact that the Company's capital and credit is involved in elaborate extensions. Price has furnished some of the capital personally, and I have raised the balance; and what we want now is an honest man to whom we can entrust this most important project, a man who will take the road in hand and put it on its feet, and make it of some service in the community. You are the man we have selected, and if the proposition appeals to you, why, we are ready to do business with you without delay.”

For a minute or two Montague was silent; then he said: “I appreciate your confidence, Mr. Ryder, and what you say appeals to me. But the matter is a very important one to me, as you can readily understand, and so I will ask you to give me until to-morrow to make up my mind.”

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“Very well,” said Ryder.

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Montague's first thought was of General Prentice. “Come to me any time you need advice,” the General had said; so Montague went down to his office. “Do you know anything about John S. Price?” he asked.

“I don't know him very well personally,” was the reply. “I know him by reputation. He is a daring Wall Street operator, and he's been very successful, I am told.”

“Price began life as a cowboy, I understand,” continued the General, after a pause. “Then he went in for mines. Ten or fifteen years ago we used to know him as a silver man. Several years ago there was a report that he had been raiding Mississippi Steel, and had got control. That was rather startling news, for everybody knew that the Trust was after it. He seems to have fought them to a standstill.”

“That sounds interesting,” said Montague.

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“Price was brought up in a rough school,” said the General, with a smile. “He has a tongue like a whip-lash. I remember once I attended a creditors' meeting of the American Stove Company, which had got into trouble, and Price started off from the word go. 'Mr. Chairman,' he said, 'when I come into the office of an industrial corporation, and see a stock ticker behind the president's chair with the carpet worn threadbare in front of it, I know what's the matter with that corporation without asking another word.'”

“What do you want to know about him for?” asked the General, after he had got through laughing over this recollection.