George Allan England.

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Beginnings have been made, but no large-scale work has been done, so
far. Still, the principle - "

"Is sound?"

"Yes, sir. I imagine - "

"Cut that! You aren't paid for imagining!" interrupted the Billionaire,
stabbing at him with that characteristic gesture. "Just what do you know
about it? No technicalities, mind! Essentials, that's all, and in a few
words!"

"Well, sir," answered Herzog, plucking up a little courage under this
pointed goading, "so far as the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen goes,
more progress has been made in England and Scandinavia, than here.
They're working on it, over there, to obtain cheap and plentiful
fertilizer from the air. Nitrogen _can_ be obtained from the air, even
now, and made into fertilizers even cheaper than the Chili saltpeter.
Oxygen is liberated as a by-product, and - "

"Oh, it is, eh? And could it be saved? In liquid form for instance?"

"I think so, sir. The Siemens & Halske interests, in Germany, are doing
it already, on a limited scale. In Norway and Austria, nitrogen has been
manufactured from air, for some years."

"On a paying, commercial basis?" demanded Flint, while Waldron, now a
trifle less scornful, seemed to listen with more interest as his eyes
rested on the rotund form of the scientist.

"Yes, sir, quite so," answered Herzog. "It's commercially feasible,
though not a very profitable business at best. The gas is utilized in
chemical combination with a substantial base, and - "

"No matter about that, just yet," interrupted Flint. "We can have
details later. Do you know of any such business as yet, in the United
States?"

"Well, sir, there's a plant building at Great Falls, South Carolina, for
the purpose. It is to run by waterpower and will develop 5000 H.P."

"Hear that, Waldron?" demanded the Billionaire. "It's already beginning
even here! But not one of these plants is working for what I see as the
prime possibility. No imagination, no grasp on the subject! No wonder
most inventors and scientists die poor! They incubate ideas and then
lack the warmth to hatch them into general application. It takes men
like us, Wally - practical men - to turn the trick!" He spoke a bit
rapidly, almost feverishly, under the influence of the subtle drug. "Now
if _we_ take hold of this game, why, we can shake the world as it has
never yet been shaken! Eh, Waldron? What do you think now?"

Waldron only grunted, non-committally. Flint with a hard glance at his
unresponsive partner, once more turned to Herzog.

"See here, now," directed he. "What's the best process now in use?"

"For what, sir?" ventured the timid chemist.

"For the simultaneous production of nitrogen and oxygen, from the
atmosphere!"

"Well, sir," he answered, deprecatingly, as though taking a great
liberty even in informing his master on a point the master had expressly
asked about, "there are three processes. But all operate only on a small
scale."

"Who ever told you I wanted to work on a large scale?" demanded Flint,
savagely.

"I - er - inferred - beg pardon, sir - I - " And Herzog quite lost himself
and floundered hopelessly, while his mismated eyes wandered about the
room as though seeking the assurance he so sadly lacked.

"Confine yourself to answering what I ask you," directed Flint, crisply.
"You're not paid to infer. You're paid to answer questions on chemistry,
and to get results. Remember _that_!"

"Yes, sir," meekly answered the chemist, while Waldron smiled with
cynical amusement. He enjoyed nothing so delightedly as any grilling of
an employee, whether miner, railroad man, clerk, ship's captain or
what-not. This baiting, by Flint, was a rare treat to him.

"Go on," commanded the Billionaire, in a badgering tone. "What are the
processes?" He eyed Herzog as though the man had been an ox, a dog or
even some inanimate object, coldly and with narrow-lidded condescension.
To him, in truth, men were no more than Shelley's "plow or sword or
spade" for his own purpose - things to serve him and to be ruled - or
broken - as best served his ends. "Go on! Tell me what you know; and no
more!"

"Yes, sir," ventured Herzog. "There are three processes to extract
nitrogen and oxygen from air. One is by means of what the German
scientists call _Kalkstickstoff_, between calcium carbide and nitrogen,
and the reaction-symbols are - "

"No matter," Flint waived him, promptly. "I don't care for formulas or
details. What I want is results and general principles. Any other way to
extract these substances, in commercial quantities, from the air we
breathe?"

"Two others. But one of these operates at a prohibitive cost. The
other - "

"Yes, yes. What is it?" Flint slid off the edge of the table and walked
over to Herzog; stood there in front of him, and bored down at him with
eager eyes, the pupils contracted by morphine, but very bright. "What's
the best way?"

"With the electric arc, sir," answered the chemist, mopping his brow.
This grilling method reminded him of what he had heard of "Third Degree"
torments. "That's the best method, sir."

"Now in use, anywhere?"

"In Notodden, Norway. They have firebrick furnaces, you understand, sir,
with an alternating current of 5000 volts between water-cooled copper
electrodes. The resulting arc is spread by powerful electro-magnets,
so." And he illustrated with his eight acid-stained fingers. "Spread
out like a disk or sphere of flame, of electric fire, you see."

"Yes, and what then?" demanded Flint, while his partner, forgetting now
to smile, sat there by the window scrutinizing him. One saw, now, the
terribly keen and prehensile intellect at work under the mask of assumed
foppishness and jesting indifference - the quality, for the most part
masked, which had earned Waldron the nickname of "Tiger" in Wall Street.

"What then?" repeated Flint, once more levelling that potent forefinger
at the sweating Herzog.

"Well, sir, that gives a large reactive surface, through which the air
is driven by powerful rotary fans. At the high temperature of the
electric arc in air, the molecules of nitrogen and oxygen dissociate
into their atoms. The air comes out of the arc, charged with about one
per cent. of nitric oxide, and after that - "

"Jump the details, idiot! Can't you move faster than a paralytic snail?
What's the final result?"

"The result is, sir," answered Herzog, meek and cowed under this
harrying, "that calcium nitrate is produced, a very excellent
fertilizer. It's a form of nitrogen, you see, directly obtained from
air."

"At what cost?"

"One ton of fixed nitrogen in that form costs about $150 or $160."

"Indeed?" commented Flint. "The same amount, combined in Chile
saltpeter, comes to - ?"

"A little over $300, sir."

"Hear that, Wally?" exclaimed the Billionaire, turning to his now
interested associate. "Even if this idea never goes a step farther,
there's a gold mine in just the production of fertilizer from air! But,
after all, that will only be a by-product. It's the oxygen we're after,
and must have!"

He faced Herzog again.

"Is any oxygen liberated, during the process?" he demanded.

"At one stage, yes, sir. But in the present process, it is absorbed,
also."

Flint's eyebrows contracted nervously. For a moment he stood thinking,
while Herzog eyed him with trepidation, and Waldron, almost forgetting
to smoke, waited developments with interest. The Billionaire, however,
wasted but scant time in consideration. It was not money now, he lusted
for, but power. Money was, to him, no longer any great desideratum. At
most, it could now mean no more to him than a figure on a check-book or
a page of statistics in his private memoranda. But power, unlimited,
indisputable power over the whole earth and the fulness thereof, power
which none might dispute, power before which all humanity must bow - God!
the lust of it now gripped and shook his soul.

Paling a little, but with eyes ablaze, he faced the anxious scientist.

"Herzog! See here!"

"Yes, sir?"

"I've got a job for you, understand?"

"Yes, sir. What is it?"

"A big job, and one on which your entire future depends. Put it through,
and I'll do well by you. Fail, and by the Eternal, I'll break you! I
can, and will, mark that! Do you get me?"

"I - yes, sir - that is, I'll do my best, and - "

"Listen! You go to work at once, immediately, understand? Work out for
me some process, some practicable method by which the nitrogen and
oxygen can both be collected in large quantities from the air.
Everything in my laboratories at Oakwood Heights is at your disposal.
Money's no object. Nothing counts, now, but _results_!

"I want the process all mapped out and ready for me, in its essential
outlines, two weeks from today. If it isn't - " His gesture was a menace.
"If it is - well, you'll be suitably rewarded. And no leaks, now. Not a
word of this to any one, understand? If it gets out, you know what I can
do to you, and will! Remember Roswell; remember Parker Hayes. _They_ let
news get to the Dillingham-Saunders people, about the new Tezzoni
radio-electric system - and one's dead, now, a suicide; the other's in
Sing-Sing for eighteen years. Remember that - and keep your mouth shut!"

"Yes, sir. I understand."

"All right, then. A fortnight from today, report to me here. And mind
you, have something to report, or - !"

"Yes, sir."

"Very well! Now, go!"

Thus dismissed, Herzog gathered together his books and papers, blinked a
moment with those peculiar wall-eyes of his, arose and, bowing first to
Flint and then to the keenly-watching Waldron, backed out of the office.

When the door had closed behind him, Flint turned to his partner with a
nervous laugh.

"That's the way to get results, eh?" he exclaimed. "No dilly-dallying
and no soft soap; but just lay the lash right on, hard - they jump then,
the vermin! Results! That fellow will work his head off, the next two
weeks; and there'll be something doing when he comes again. You'll see!"

Waldron laughed nonchalantly. Once more the mask of indifference had
fallen over him, veiling the keen, incisive interest he had shown during
the interview.

"Something doing, yes," he drawled, puffing his cigar to a glow. "Only I
advise you to choose your men. Some day you'll try that on a real
man - one of the rough-necks you know, and - "

Flint snapped his fingers contemptuously, gazed at Waldron a moment with
unwinking eyes and tugged at his mustache.

"When I need advice on handling men, I'll ask for it," he rapped out.
Then, glancing at the Louis XIV clock: "Past the time for that C.P.S.
board-meeting, Wally. No more of this, now. We'll talk it over at the
Country Club, tonight; but for the present, let's dismiss it from our
minds."

"Right!" answered the other, and arose, yawning, as though the whole
subject were of but indifferent interest to him. "It's all moonshine,
Flint. All a pipe-dream. Defoe's philosophers, who spent their lives
trying to extract sunshine from cucumbers, never entertained any more
fantastic notion than this of yours. However, it's your funeral, not
mine. You're paying for it. I decline to put in any funds for any such
purpose. Amuse yourself; you've got to settle the bill."

Flint smiled sourly, his gold tooth glinting, but made no answer.

"Come along," said his partner, moving toward the door. "They're waiting
for us, already, at the board meeting. And there's big business coming
up, today - that strike situation, you remember. Slade's going to be on
deck. We've got to decide, at once, whether or not we're going to turn
him loose on the miners, to smash that gang of union thugs and Socialist
fanatics, and do it right. _That's_ a game worth playing, Flint; but
this Air Trust vagary of yours - stuff and nonsense!"

Flint, for all reply, merely cast a strange look at his partner, with
those strongly-contracted pupils of his; and so the two vultures of prey
betook themselves to the board room where already, round the long
rosewood table, Walter Slade of the Cosmos Detective Company was laying
out his strike-breaking plans to the attentive captains of industry.




CHAPTER IV.

AN INTERLOPER.


On the eleventh day after this interview between the two men who,
between them, practically held the whole world in their grasp, Herzog
telephoned up from Oakwood Heights and took the liberty of informing
Flint that his experiments had reached a point of such success that he
prayed Flint would condescend to visit the laboratories in person.

Flint, after some reflection, decided he would so condescend; and
forthwith ordered his limousine from his private garage on William
Street. Thereafter he called Waldron on the 'phone, at his Fifth Avenue
address.

"Mr. Waldron is not up, yet, sir," a carefully-modulated voice answered
over the wire. "Any message I can give him, sir?"

"Oh, hello! That you, Edwards?" Flint demanded, recognizing the suave
tones of his partner's valet.

"Yes, sir."

"All right. Tell Waldron I'll call for him in half an hour with the
limousine. And mind, now, I want him to be up and dressed! We're going
down to Staten Island. Got that?"

"Yes, sir. Any other message, sir?"

"No. But be sure you get him up, for me! Good-bye!"

Thirty minutes later, Flint's chauffeur opened the door of the big
limousine, in front of the huge Renaissance pile that Waldron's
millions had raised on land which had cost him more than as though he
had covered it with double eagles; and Flint himself ascended the steps
of Pentelican marble. The limousine, its varnish and silver-plate
flashing in the bright spring sun, stood by the curb, purring softly to
itself with all six cylinders, a thing of matchless beauty and rare
cost. The chauffeur, on the driver's seat, did not even bother to shut
off the gas, but let the engine run, regardless. To have stopped it
would have meant some trifling exertion, in starting again; and since
Flint never considered such details as a few gallons of gasoline, why
should _he_ care? Lighting a Turkish cigarette, this aristocrat of labor
lolled on the padded leather and indifferently - with more of contempt
than of interest - regarded a swarm of iron-workers, masons and laborers
at work on a new building across the avenue.

Flint, meanwhile, had entered the great mansion, its bronze
doors - ravished from the Palazzo Guelfo at Venice - having swung inward
to admit him, with noiseless majesty. Ignoring the doorman, he addressed
himself to Edwards, who stood in the spacious, mahogany-panelled hall,
washing both hands with imaginary soap.

"Waldron up, yet, Edwards?"

"No, sir. He - er - I have been unable - "

"The devil! Where is he?"

"In his apartments, sir."

"Take me up!"

"He said, sir," ventured Edwards, in his smoothest voice. "He said - "

"I don't give a damn what he said! Take me up, at once!"

"Yes, sir. Immediately, sir!" And he gestured suavely toward the
elevator.

Flint strode down the hall, indifferent to the Kirmanshah rugs, the rare
mosaic floor and stained-glass windows, the Parian fountain and the
Azeglio tapestries that hung suspended up along the stairway - all old
stories to him and as commonplace as rickety odds and ends of furniture
might be to any toiler "cribbed, cabin'd and confined" in fetid East
Side tenement or squalid room on Hester Street.

The elevator boy bowed before his presence. Edwards hesitated to enter
the private elevator, with this world-master; but Flint beckoned him to
come along. And so, borne aloft by the smooth force of the electric
motor, they presently reached the upper floor where "Tiger" Waldron
laired in stately splendor, like the nabob that he was.

Without ceremony, Flint pushed forward into the bed-chamber of the
mighty one - a chamber richly finished in panels of the rare sea-grape
tree, brought from Pacific isles at great cost of money and some
expenditure of human lives; but this latter item was, of course, beneath
consideration.

By the softened light which entered through rich curtains, one saw the
famous frieze of De Lussac, that banded the apartment, over the
panelling - the frieze of Bacchantes, naked and unashamed, revelling with
Satyrs in an abandon that bespoke the age when the world was young.
Their voluptuous forms entwined with clustering grapes and leaves, they
poured tipsy libations of red wine from golden chalices; while old
Silenus, god of drink, astride a donkey, applauded with maudlin joy.

Flint, however, had no eyes for this scene which would have gladdened a
voluptuary's heart - and which, for that reason was dear to Waldron - but
walked toward the huge, four-posted bed where Wally himself, now rather
paler than usual, with bloodshot eyes, was lying. This bed, despite the
fact that it had been transported all the way from Tours, France, and
that it once had belonged to an archbishop, had only too often witnessed
its owner's insomnia.

"Hm! You're a devil of a man to keep an appointment, aren't you?" Flint
sneered at the master of the house. "Eleven o'clock, and not up, yet!"

"Pardon me for remarking, my dear Flint," replied Waldron, stretching
himself between the silken sheets and reaching for a cigarette, "that
the appointment was not of my making. Also that I was up, last
night - this morning, rather - till three-thirty. And in the next place,
that scoundrel Hazeltine, trimmed me out of eighty-six thousand in four
hours - "

"Roulette again, you idiot?" demanded Flint.

"And in conclusion," said Wally, "that the bigness of my head and the
brown taste in my mouth are such as no 'soda and sermons, the morning
after' can possibly alleviate. So you understand my dalliance.

"Damn those workmen!" he exclaimed, with sudden irritation, as a louder
chattering of pneumatic riveters from the new building all at once
clattered in at the window. "A free country, eh? And men are permitted
to make _that_ kind of a racket when a fellow wants to sleep! By God, if
I - "

"Drop that, Wally, and get up!" commanded Flint. "There's no time for
this kind of thing today. Herzog has just informed me his experiments
have brought results. We're going down to Oakwood Heights to sea a few
things for ourselves. And the quicker you get dressed and in your right
mind, the better. Come along, I tell you!"

"Still chasing sunbeams from cucumbers, eh?" drawled the magnate,
inhaling cigarette smoke and blowing a thin cloud toward the wanton
Bacchantes. He affected indifference, but his dull eyes brightened a
trifle in his wan face, deep-lined by the savage dissipations of the
previous night. "And you insist on dragging me out on the same fatuous
errand?"

"Don't be an ass!" snapped the Billionaire. "Get up and come along. The
sooner we have this thing under way, the better."

"All right, anything to oblige," conceded Waldron, inwardly stirred by
an interest he took good care not to divulge in word or look. "Give me
just time for a cold plunge, a few minutes with my masseur and my
barber, a bite to eat and - "

Flint laid hold on his partner and shook him roughly.

"Move, you sluggard!" he commanded. And Tiger Waldron obeyed.

Forty-five minutes later, the two financiers were speeding down the
asphalt of the avenue at a good round clip. Flint's gleaming car formed
one unit of the never-ending procession of motors which, day and night,
year in and year out, spin unceasingly along the great, hard, splendid,
cruel thoroughfare.

"I tell you," Flint was asserting as they swung into Broadway, at
Twenty-third Street, and headed for South Ferry, "I tell you, Wally,
the thing is growing vaster and more potent every moment. The longer I
look at it, the huger its possibilities loom up! With air under our
control, as a source of manufacturing alone, we can pull down perfectly
inconceivable fortunes. We shan't have to send anywhere for our raw
material. It will come to us; it's everywhere. No cost for
transportation, to begin with.

"With oxygen, nitrogen and liquid air as products, think of the
possibilities, will you? Not an ice-plant in the country could compete
with us, in the refrigerating line. With liquid air, we could sweep that
market clean. By installing it on our fruit cars and boats, and our beef
cars, the saving effected in many ways would run to millions. The sale
of nitrogen, for fertilizer, would net us billions. And, above all, the
control of the world's air supply, for breathing, would make us the
absolute, undisputed masters of mankind!

"We'd have the world by the windpipe. Its very life-breath would be at
our disposal. Ha! What about revolution, then? What about popular
discontent, and stiff-necked legislators, and cranky editors? What about
commercial and financial rivals? What about these damned Socialists,
with their brass-lunged bazoo, howling about monopoly and capitalism and
all the rest of it? Eh, what? Just one squeeze," here Flint closed his
corded, veinous fingers, "just one tightening of the fist, and - all
over! We win, hands down!"

"Like shutting the wind off from a runaway horse, eh?" suggested
Waldron, squinting at his cigar as though to hide the involuntary gleam
of light that sparkled in his narrow-set eyes.

"Precisely!" assented Flint, smiling his gold-toothed smile. "The
wildest bolter has got to stop, or fall dead, once you close his
nostrils. That's what we'll do to the world, Wally. We'll get it by the
throat - and there you are!"

"Yes, there we are," repeated Waldron, "but - "

"But what, now?"

Waldron did not answer, for a moment, but squinted up at the tall
buildings, temples of Mammon and of Greed, filled from pave to cornice
with toiling, sweated hordes of men and women, all laboring for
Capitalism; many of them, directly or indirectly, for him. Then, as the
limousine slowed at Spring Street, to let a cross-town car pass - a car
whose earnings he and Flint both shared, just as they shared those of
every surface and subway and "L" car in the vast metropolis - he said:

"Have you weighed the consequences carefully, Flint? Quite carefully?
This thing of cornering all the oxygen is a pretty big proposition. Do
you think you really ought to undertake it?"

"Why not?"

"Have you considered the frightful suffering and loss of life it might
entail? Almost certainly would entail? Are you quite sure you _want_ to
take the world by the throat and - and choke it? For money?"

"No, not for money, Waldron. We're both staggering under money, as it
is. But power! Ah, that's different!"

"I know," admitted Waldron. "But ought we - you - to attempt this, even
for the sake of universal power? Your plan contemplates a monopoly such
that everybody who refused or was unable to buy your product would, at
best, have to get along with vitiated air, and at worst would have to
stifle. Do you really think we ought to undertake this?"

Keenly he eyed Flint, as he thus sounded the elder man's inhuman
determination. Flint, fathoming nothing of his purpose, retorted with
some heat:

"Ha! Getting punctilious, all at once, are you? Talk ethics, eh? Where
were your scruples, a year ago, when people were paying 25 cents a loaf
for bread, because of that big wheat pool you put through? How about the
oil you've just lately helped me boost by a 20 per cent. increase? And
when the papers - though mostly those infernal Socialist or Anarchist
papers, or whatever they were - shouted that old men and women were
freezing in attics, last winter, what then? Did you vote to arbitrate
the D.K. coal strike? Not by a jugful! You stood shoulder to shoulder
with me, then, Wally, while _now_ - !"

"It's a bit different, now," interposed "Tiger," with an evil smile,
still leading his partner along. "Since then I've had the - ah - the
extreme happiness to become engaged to your daughter, Catherine. New
thoughts have entered my mind. I've experienced a - a - "

"You quitter!" burst out Flint. "No, by God! you aren't going to put
this thing over on me. I'll have no quitter for _my_ son-in-law! Wally,
I'm astonished at you. Astonished and disappointed. You're not yourself,
this morning. That eighty-six thousand you dropped last night, has
shaken your heart. Come, come, pull together! Where's your nerve, man?
Where's your nerve?"

Waldron answered nothing. In silence the partners watched the press of
traffic, each busy with his own thoughts, Waldron waiting for Flint to
reopen fire on him, and the Billionaire decided to say no more till his
associate should make some move. Thus the limousine reached the Staten
Island ferry, that glorious monument of municipal ownership wrecked by
Tammany grafting. In silence they smoked while the car rolled down the
incline and out onto the huge ferry boat. Then, as the crowded craft got


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Online LibraryGeorge Allan EnglandThe Air Trust → online text (page 2 of 19)