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among us, and beg to assure you that Miss Sargent
will be received with affection, if she should consent to
honour us with this alliance."

The pause this time was not for rhetorical effect. It
was a period, which was emphasised by the fact that



266 THE BALL OF FIRE

Nicholas leaned back in his chair to restore his hands
to their natural resting place.

" We are honoured," observed Mrs. Davies, with ex
cellent courtesy suppressing a gasp. The Van Ploons !
The Van Ploons amid the stars ! Why, they were so
high in the social firmament that they dared live and
talk and act like common people and did it. To be
above the need of pretence is greatness indeed ! " I
shall take up the matter with my niece."

" I thank you," responded the head of the Van
Ploons. " You have rendered it possible for me to in
form my son that he is at liberty to speak to Miss Sar
gent. He is anxious to call this evening, if he may,"
whereupon he smiled indulgently, and his daughter also
smiled indulgently, and Mrs. Davies smiled indulgently.

" If you will pardon me, I will ascertain if my niece
will be at liberty this evening," offered Mrs. Davies,
rising.

" We shall be highly gratified," accepted Mr. Van
Ploon, rising and bowing.

" We are so fond of Gail," added Miss Van Ploon,
beaming with sincerity, and the beam was reflected in
the face of her father, who nodded his spherical head
emphatically.

Mrs. Helen Davies paused at the head of the stairs
to calm herself. The Mrs. Waverly-Gaites annual
faded into dim obscurity. Mrs. Waverly-Gaites would
beg Gail on her bended knees to attend the annual, and
Mrs. Helen Davies could attend if she liked. She
went into her own room, and took a drink of water, and
sat down for thirty or forty seconds ; then she went into
Gail s suite, where she found that young lady, all un
conscious of the honour which was about to befall her,
reading a six hundred page critique of Chopin s music,



A QUESTION OF EUGENICS 267

and calmly munching chocolates out of a basket deco
rated with eight shades of silk roses.

" Sit down and have a chocolate, Aunt Helen," hos
pitably offered Gail, slipping a marker in her book.

Mrs. Davies consumed a great deal of time in select
ing a chocolate, but she did not sit down.

" Shall you be at liberty this evening, Gail? " she in
quired, with much carelessness.

" Why ? " and Gail, whose feet were stretched out and
crossed, in lazy ease, looked up at her aunt sidewise
from under her curving lashes.

Mrs. Davies hesitated a moment.

" Houston Van Ploon would like to call."

"Are they still downstairs?" Gail suddenly un
veiled her eyes, and brought her slippers squarely in
front of her divan. Also she sat bolt upright.

" Yes," and Mrs. Davies betrayed signs of nervous
ness.

" Are they making the appointment for Houston ? "

"Yes." The word drawled.

" Why? " and Gail s brown eyes began to crackle.

Mrs. Davies thought it better to sit down.

" My dear, a great honour has come to you."

Gail leaned forward towards her aunt, and tilted her
chin.

" Houston wants to propose, and he s sent his father
and sister to find out if he may ! " she charged.

" Yes," acknowledged Mrs. Davies, driven past the
possibility of delay or preparation, and feeling herself
unjustly on the defensive.

" I shall not be at home this evening," announced
Gail decisively, and stretched out her feet again, and
crossed her little grey slippers, and took a chocolate.
" Or any other evening," she added.



268 THE BALL OF FIRE

Mrs. Davies lost her flutter immediately. This was
too stupendously serious a matter to be weakly treated.

" My dear, you don t understand ! " she protested,
not in anger, but in patient reason. " Houston Van
Ploon has been the unattainable match of New York.
He is a gentleman in every particular, a desirable young
man in every respect, and gifted with everything a
young girl would want. He has so much money that
you could buy a kingdom and be a queen, if you chose
to amuse yourself that way. He has a dignified old
family, which makes mere social position seem like an
ignominious scramble for cotillion favours ; and it is
universally admitted that he is the most perfect of all
the Van Ploons for many generations. Not exception
ally clever ; but that is one of the reasons the Van Ploons
are so particular to find a suitable matrimonial alliance
for him."

Gail, nibbling daintily at her chocolate, closed her
eyelids for a second, the long, brown lashes curved
down on her cheeks, and from, beneath them there es
caped a sparkle like the snap of live coals, while the
corners of her lips twitched in that little smile which she
kept for her own enjoyment.

" You can not appreciate the compliment which has
been paid you, Gail. Every debutante for the past
five years has been most carefully considered by the
Van Ploons, and I sincerely believe this to be the first
time they have unanimously agreed on a choice. It is
a matter of eugenics, Gail, but in addition to that, Mr.
Van Plaon assures me that Houston is most fervently
interested."

" How careless of them," criticised Gail. " They
have neither asked for my measurements nor examined
my teeth."



A QUESTION OF EUGENICS 269

" Gail ! " Her chaperon and sponsor was both
shocked and stern.

" I positively decline to even discuss the Van Ploon
eugenics," stated Gail, pushing aside her chocolates,
while a red spot began to appear on her cheeks. " I
shall not, as I stated before, be at home to Houston
Van Ploon this evening or any other evening."

" I shall not deliver that message," announced Mrs.
Davies, setting her lips. " As your present sponsor, I
shall insist that you take more time to consider a mat
ter so important."

" I shall insist on refusing to consider it for one sec
ond," returned Gail quietly. " I am very fond of Hous
ton Van Ploon, and I hope to remain so, but I wouldn t
marry him under any circumstances. This is firm, flat,
and final."

Mrs. Helen Davies dropped patient reason instantly.
She was aware of an impulsive wish that Gail were in
pinafores, and her own child, so she could box her ears.

" Gail, you compel me to lose my patience ! " she de
clared. " When you came, I strained every influence
I possessed to have you meet the most desirable eligi-
bles this big city could offer, just as if you were my
own daughter ! I have succeeded in working miracles !
I have given you an opportunity to interest the very
best ! You have interested them, but I have never seen
such extravagance in the waste of opportunities ! You
have refused men whom thousands in the highest circles
have sought ; and now you refuse the very choice of
them all ! What or whom do you want ? "

Gail s red spots were deepening, but she only clasped
her knee in her interlocked fingers, her brown hair wav
ing about her face, and her chin uptilted.

" You can t always expect to retain your youth, and



270 THE BALL OF FIRE

beauty and charm ! " went on her Aunt Helen. " You
can t expect to come to New York every year and look
over the eligibles until you find one to suit your fastidi
ous taste! You re capricious, you re ungrateful, and
you re unsatisfactory ! "

Gail s eyes turned suddenly moist, and the red flashed
out of her cheeks.

" Oh, Aunt Helen ! " she exclaimed in instant contri
tion. " I m so very, very sorry that I am such a dis
appointment to you! But if I just can t marry Mr.
Van Ploon, I can t, can I? Don t you see? " She was
up now and down again, sitting on a hassock in front
of Mrs. Davies, and the face which she upturned had
in it so much of beautiful appeal that even her chaperon
and sponsor was softened. " I was nasty a while ago,
and I had no excuse for it, for you have been loving
and sincere in your desire to make my future happy.
I m so very, very sorry! I ll tell you what I ll do!
You may go down and tell Mr. Van Ploon and his
daughter that I will see Houston this evening," and then
she smiled ; " but you mustn t say with pleasure.



CHAPTER XXVI

AN EMPIRE AND AN EMPRESS

THE soft air which blew upon Gail s cheek was like
the first breath of spring, and there was the far-
off prophecy of awakening in the very sunshine, as she
sped out the river road with Allison in his powerful
runabout. For days the weather had been like this,
mild and still invigorating, and it had been a tremen
dous rest from the protracted crispness of the winter.
There was the smell of moist earth, and the vague sense
of stirring life, as if the roots and the seeds, deep in
the ground, were answering to the thrill of coming
birth.

" It s glorious ! " exclaimed Gail, her cheeks answer
ing to the caress of the air with a flush of blossom-like
delicacy. She was particularly contented to-day. Al
lison had been so busy of late, and she had missed him.
With all his strength, he was restful.

" I feel like a n ., man at this time of the year,"
returned Allison, glancing at Gail with cool apprecia
tion. A car full of men passed them, and the looks
they cast in his runabout pleased him. " Gail, do you
remember the first time we drove out here ? "

" Indeed yes," she laughed. " With the snow in our
eyes, and the roads all white, with the lights gleaming
through the flakes like Arctic will-o -the-wisps. We ran

away that night, and dined at Roseleaf Inn, and wor-

271



272 THE BALL OF FIRE

ried the folks to death, for fear we had had an acci
dent."

" I had more than an accident that night," said Al
lison. " I had a total wreck."

Gail glanced at him quickly, but his face was clear of
any apparent purpose. He was gazing straight ahead,
his clean-cut profile, always a pleasant thing to look
upon, set against the shifting background of rocky
banks as if it were the one steadfast and unalterable
thing in the universe ; and he was smiling irrespectively.

" It was about here that it happened," he went on.
" I think I d been bragging a little, and I think you
meant to slyly prick my balloon, which I will admit
seemed a kind and charitable thing to do."

" What was it? " wondered Gail, trying to recall that
unimportant conversation.

" Oh, a gentle intimation that I hadn t done so much,"
he laughed. " I had just finished consolidating all the
traction cars in New York, subways, L s, and surface :
and I felt cocky about it. I even remarked that I had
achieved the dream of my life, and intended to rest a
while. All you said was, Why? and his laugh
pealed out. Four birds in a wayside bush sprang into
the air and flew on ahead.

" I used to be conspicuous for impertinence," smiled
Gail. " I m trying to reform."

" I m glad you hadn t started when I met you," re
turned Allison, steering around a sharp stone with the
firm accuracy which Gail had so often admired. " I
never had so stinging a reproof as that little why. It
did me more good than any sermon I ever heard."

" That s positively startling," replied Gail lightly.
" I usually hear from my impertinences, long after, as a
source of discomfort."



AN EMPIRE AND AN EMPRESS 273

" Why? " repeated Allison. "I took that why
home with me. If you had said, * Why should you
rest a while ? or Why should you stop when you ve
just made a start? or something of that nature, it
might not have impressed me so much; but just the one
unexplained word was like a barbed hook in my mind.
It wouldn t come out. I asked myself that why until
daylight, and I found no answer. Why, when I was
young and strong, and had only tasted of victory,
should I sit by the fireside and call myself old? If I
had ability to conquer this situation with so much ease,
why should I call it a great accomplishment; for great
accomplishments are measured by the power employed."

Gail looked at him in questioning perplexity. She
could not gather what he meant, but she had a sense
of something big, and once more she was impressed with
the tremendous reserve force in the man. His clear
grey eyes were fixed on the road ahead, and the very
symbol of him seemed to be this driving; top speed, a
long road, a steady hand, a cool determination, a sub
lime disregard of hills and valleys which made them
all a level road.

" Why ? That word set me out on a new principle
that never, while I had strength in me, would I con
sider my work finished, no matter how great an achieve
ment I had made. I am still at work."

Something within her leaped up in answer to the
thrill of exultation in his voice. To have been the in
spiration of great deeds, even by so simple an agency
as the accidental use of a word, was in itself an exalt
ing thing, though an humbling one, too. And there
were great deeds. She was sure of that as she looked at
him. He was too calm about it, and too secure to have
been speaking of trifles.



274 THE BALL OF FIRE

" When I was a boy I lived on ancient history," he
went on, with a smile for the bygone dreamer he had
been. " I wanted to be a soldier, a great general, a war
rior, in the sturdy old sense, and my one hero was
Alexander the Great, because he conquered the world !
That s what I wanted to do. I wanted to go out and
fight and kill, and bring kingdom after kingdom under
my sway, and finally set myself on a mighty throne,
which should have for its boundaries the north and the
south pole ! When I grew older, and found how small
was the world which Alexander had conquered, not
much bigger than the original thirteen states, I grew
rather disillusioned, particularly as I was working at
about that time for a dollar and a quarter a day. I
spent a few busy years, and had forgotten the dream ;
then you said why and it all came back."

" Hurry ! " commanded Gail. " Curiosity is bad for
me."

Allison laughed heartily at her impatience. He had
meant to arouse her interest, and he had done so. She
would not have confessed it, but she was fascinated by
the thing he had held in reserve. It was like the cruelty
erf telling a child of a toy in a trunk which is still at
the station.

" I conquered it," he told her, with an assumption
of nonchalance which did not deceive her. There was
too much of undervibration in his tone, and the eyes
which he turned upon her were glowing in spite of his
smile. " In my hand I hold control of the transporta
tion of the world! If a pound of freight is started
westward or eastward from New York, addressed to me
at its starting point, it will circle the globe, and on
every mile of its passage it will pay tribute to me. If
a man starts to travel north or south or east or wet,



AN EMPIRE AND AN EMPRESS 275

anywhere on the five continents or the seven seas, he
must pay tribute to me. With that shipment of every
necessity and luxury under my control, I control the
necessities and luxuries themselves; so there is no hu
man being in the world who can escape contributing
tithes to the monster company I have consolidated."

He was disappointed, for a moment. She seemed
almost unimpressed. In reality, she was struggling to
comprehend what he had just said to her. It was so
incredibly huge in its proportions, so gigantic, so ex
travagantly far reaching that she had only words in
her ears. He must be speaking in hyperbole.

" I don t understand," she said.

"It is difficult to grasp," he admitted. "When I
first conceived of it, in answer to your why, I could not
myself comprehend any more than that I had thought
of an absurdity, like the lover who wished that the sea
were ink and the land a pen that he might seize it, and
write across the sky I love you ! It was as fantastic
as that in my mind, at first, and in order to reduce the
idea to actual thought, I had to break it into fragments ;
and that is the way I set about my campaign."

Gail was listening eagerly now. She was beginning
to dimly comprehend that Allison had actually wrought
a miracle of commerce, probably the most stupendous
in this entire century of commercial miracles ; and her
admiration of him grew. She had always admired great
force, great strength, great power, and here, unfolding
before her, was the evidence of it at its zenith.

" Let me build it up, step by step, for you. Inci
dentally, I ll give you some confidential news which you
will be reading in months to come. I hope," and he
laughed, " that you will not tell your friends the re
porters about it."



276 THE BALL OF FIRE

" Cross my heart, I won t," she gaily replied. The
sting of her one big newspaper experience had begun to
die away.

" When you asked me why, I was trying to secure
Vedder Court for a terminal station for my city traction
lines. Vedder Court quickly became, in my imagina
tion, the terminal point not only of the city traction
lines, but of the world s transportation. From that I
would run a railroad tube to the mainland, so that I
could land passengers, not only in the heart of New
York, but at the platforms of every street car and L
and subway train."

" How wonderful ! " exclaimed Gail, in enthusiasm.
This was an idea she could grasp. " And have you se
cured Vedder Court? "

" It s a matter of days," he returned carelessly.
" The next step was the trans-continental line. I built
it up, piece by piece, and to-day, under my own per
sonal control, with sufficient stock to elect my own di
rectors, who will jump when I crack the whip, I possess
a railroad line from the Atlantic to the Pacific so di
rect, so straight, and so allied with ninety-five per cent,
of the freight interests of the United States that, within
two years, there will not be a car wheel turning in
America which does not do so at the command of the
A.-P. Railroad. That is the first step leading out of
Vedder Court. The news of that consolidation will be
in to-morrow morning s papers, and from that minute
on, the water will begin to drip from railroad stocks."

"How about Uncle Jim s road?" Gail suddenly in
terrupted.

" I am taking care of him," he told her easily.
" From Vedder Court run subways along the docks."

" I see ! " interrupted Gail. " You have secured con-



AN EMPIRE AND AN EMPRESS 277

trol of the steamship companies, of the foreign rail
roads, of everything which hauls and carries ! "

" Airships excepted," he laughingly informed her.
" Gail, it s an empire, and none so great ever existed in
all the world ! The giant monopolies of which so much
has been said, are only parts of it, like principalities in
a kingdom. There isn t a nook or corner on the globe
where one finger of my giant does not rest. The armies
which swept down from the north and devastated Eu
rope, the hoards which spread from Rome, the legions
which marched to Moscow, even those mighty armies
of the Iliad and the Odyssey were insignificant as com
pared to the sway of this tremendous organisation ! All
commerce, all finance, all politics, must bow the knee to
it, and serve it! Maps will be shifted for its needs.
Nations will rise and fall as it shall decree, and the
whole world, every last creature of it, shall feed it and
be fed by it!"

He paused, and turned to her with a positive radi
ance on the face which she had always considered heavy.
She had looked on him as a highly successful money-
grubber, as a commercial genius, as a magician of
manipulation, as a master of men ; but he was more than
all these ; he was a poet, whose rude epics were written
in the metre of whirling wheels and flying engines and
pounding propellers ; a poet whose dreams extended be
yond the confines of imagination itself; and then, above
that, a sorcerer who builded what he dreamed!

There is a magic thrill in creation. It extends be
yond the creator to the created, and it inspires all who
come in contact with it. Gail s eager mind traversed
again and again the girdle he had looped around the
world, darting into all its intricacies and ramifications,
until she, too, had pursued it into all the obscure nooks



278 THE BALL OF FIRE

and crannies, and saw the most remote and distant peo
ples dependent upon it, and paying toll to it, and sway
ing to its command. This was a dream worthy of ac
complishment ; a dream beyond which there could be no
superlative; and the man beside her had dreamed it,
and had builded it; and all this would not have hap
pened if she had not given him the hint with one potent
word which had spurred him, and set his marvellously
constructive mind to work.

In so far they were partners in this mighty enter
prise, and he had been magnanimous enough to ac
knowledge her part in it. It drew them strangely near.
It was a universe, in the conception of which no other
minds than theirs had dabbled, in the modelling of
which no other hand had been thrust. What agile mind,
gifted with ambition, and broad conception, and the
restlessness which, in her, had not only ranged world
wide but beyond the aether and across the vast seas of
superstition and ignorance and credulity to God him
self; what mind such as this could resist the insidious
flattery of that mighty collaboration?

She was silent now, and he left her silent, brooding,
himself, upon the vast scope of his dreaming, and plan
ning still to centre more and more the fruits of that
dreaming within his own eager hand.

Roseleaf Inn. Gail recognised it with a smile as they
turned in at the drive. She was glad that they had
come here, for it was linked in her mind with the begin
nings of that great project of which she had been the
impulse, and in which the thing in her that had been
denied opportunity because she was a woman, claimed
a hungry share. At his suggestion it was more like
a command, but she scarcely noticed she telephoned
that she was going to remain to dinner with Allison;




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AN EMPIRE AND AN EMPRESS 279

and then they enjoyed a two-hour chat of many things,
trivial in themselves, but fraught now with delightful
meaning, because they had to think on so many unex
pressed things, larger than these idle people about them
could conceive, or grasp if they knew.

Homeward again in the starlit night, still in that
whirl of exultation. It was somewhat chillier now, and
Allison bundled her into the machine with rough ten
derness. She felt the thrill of him as he sat beside her,
and the firm strength with which he controlled the
swiftly speeding runabout, was part her strength. They
were kindred spirits, these two, soaring above the affairs
of earth in the serene complacency of those who make
trifles of vastness itself. They did not talk much, for
they had not much to talk about. The details of a
scheme so comprehensive as Allison s were not things to
be explained, they were things to be seen in a vision.
Once she asked him about the bringing of the foreign
railroads into the combination, and he told her that
this would only be accomplished by a political up
heaval, which would take place next month, and would
probably involve the whole of Europe. It was another
detail; and it seemed quite natural. She was so inter
ested that he told her all about his foreign visitors.

In the Park, Allison stopped at the little outlook
house where they had climbed on that snowy night, and
they stood there, with the stars above and the trees
below and the twinkling lights stretching out to the
horizon, all alone above the world of civilisation. Be
low sounded the clang of street cars, and far off to
the left, high in the air, there gleamed the lights of a
curving L train. That was a part of Allison s world
which he had long since conquered, a part which he
already held in the hollow of his hand ; and the fact that



28o THE BALL OF FIRE

every moving thing which clung upon a track in all this
vast panorama was under his dominion, served only to
illustrate and make plain the marvel of the accomplish
ment which was now under way. Beyond that dim
horizon lay another and still another, and in them all,
wherever things moved or were transported, the lift of
Allison s finger was to start and stop the wheels, to the
uttermost confines of the earth ! Oh, it was wonderful ;
wonderful ! And she was part of it !

It was there that he proposed to her. It did not sur
prise her. She had known it when they had entered the
Park, and that this was the place.

He told her that all this empire was being builded
to lay at her feet, that she was the empress of it and
he the emperor, hut that their joy was to he not in the
sway, not in the sceptre and crown, but in the doing,
and in the having done, and in the conceiving and hav
ing conceived!

Was this a cold painting of pomp and glory and ad
vantage and reward? He added to it the fire of a
lover, and to that the force and mastery and compulsion
of his dynamic power. She felt again the potent thrill


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Online LibraryGeorge Randolph ChesterThe ball of fire → online text (page 18 of 24)