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for the sensation to subside, put a buckle on it.) The
acquisition of the foreign railroads will be made possi
ble only by a war, which is already arranged. (The
little squib got writer s cramp. Hickey waited for de
tails. The hollow-cheeked reporter grabbed for a ciga
rette, but with no intention of lighting it.) The war,
which will be between Germany and France, will begin
within a month. France, unable to raise a war fund
otherwise, will sell her railroads. The Russian line is
already being taken from its present managers, and will
be turned over to Allison s world syndicate within a
week. The important steamship lines will become in
volved in financial difficulties, which have already been
set afoot in England. Following these events will come
a successful rebellion in India, and the independence of
all the British colonies. (The little squib laid down
his pencil, and sat in open-mouthed despair. He was
three sentences behind, and knew that he would be com-



FOSLAND MAKES A SPEECH 329

petted to trust his memory and his imagination, and
neither were equal to this task. Hickey had seven se
rene jabs on his notebook, and was peacefully -framing
his introductory paragraph. A seraphic smile was on
his thick lips, and his softened eyes were gazing fondly
into the fields of rich fancy. The hollow-cheeked young
man had cocked his cigarette perpendicularly, and he
was writing a few words with artistic precision. The
red-headed reporter was tearing off page after page of
his notebook and stuffing them loosely in his pocket.
One of the boys, a thick-breasted one with large hands,
was making microscopic notes on the back of an en
velope, and had plenty of room to spare.) You will
probably require some tangible evidence that these large
plans are on the way to fulfilment. I call your atten
tion to the fact that, last week, the Russian Duomo be
gan a violent agitation over the removal of Olaf Pe-
trovy, who was the controller of the entire Russian rail
road system. Day before yesterday, Pctrovy was un
fortunately assassinated, and the agitation in the
Duomo subsided. (Hickey only nodded. His eyes
glowed with the light of a poet. The little squib sighed
dejectedly.) This morning I read that France is
greatly incensed over a diplomatic breach in the Ger
man war office; and it is commented that the breach
is one which can not possibly be healed. Kindly take
note of the following facts. From the first to the eighth
of this month, Baron von Slachten, who is directly re
sponsible for Germany s foreign relations, was seen in
this city at the Fencing Club, under the incognito of
Henry Brokaw. Chevalier Duchambeau, director of
the combined banking interests of France, was here in
that same week, and was seen at the Montparnasse
Cercle. He bore the name of Andree Tirez. The



330 THE BALL OF FIRE

Grand Duke Jan, of Russia, was here as Ivan Strolesky.
James Wellington Hodge, the master of the banking
system of practically all the world, outside the United
States, was here as E. E. Chalmers. Prince Nito of
Japan, Yu-Hip-Lun of China and Count Cassioni of
Rome, were here at the same time ; and they all called
on Edward E. Allison. (Furious writing on the part
of all the young gentlemen except the little squib and
Hickey; the former in an acute paralysis of body and
mind and soul, and Hickey in an acute ecstasy. He had
symbols down for all the foreign gentlemen named, a
pretzel for the Baron, and had the local records of Ivan
Strolesky and Baron von Slachten up a tree. He had
seen them both, and interviewed the former.) Further
more, gentlemen, I will give you now the names of the
eight financiers, who, with Edward E. Allison, are in
terested in the formation of the International Trans
portation Company, which proposes to control the
commerce of the world. These gentlemen are Joseph
G. Clark (the little squib jumped up and sat down.
Hickey produced a long, low whistle of unbounded joy.
The hollow-faced one jerked the useless cigarette from
his mouth and threw it in the fireplace. The red-headed
reporter laughed hysterically, though he never stopped
writing. Every young gentleman there made one or an
other sharp physical movement expressive of his as
tonishment and delight), Eldridge Babbitt (more sensa
tion), W. T. Chisholm (Hickey wrote the rest of the
list), Richard Haverman, Arthur Grandin, Robert E.
Taylor, A. L. Vance. I would suggest that, if you
disturb these gentlemen in the manner which I have
understood you to be quite capable of doing, you might
secure from some one of them a trace of corroboration
of the things I have said. This is all." He paused,



FOSLAND MAKES A SPEECH 331

and bowed stiffly. " Gentlemen, I wish to add one word.
I thank you for your kind attention, and I desire to
say that, while I have violated to-night several of the
rules which I had believed that I would always hold
unbroken, I have done so in the interest of a justice
which is greater than all other considerations. Gen
tlemen, good-night."

" Have you a good photograph handy ? " asked the
squib, awakening from his trance.

Nine young gentlemen put the squib right about that
photograph. Hickey was lost in the fields of Elysian
phantasy, and the red-headed reporter was still writ
ing and stuffing loose pages in his pocket, and the one
with the beard was making a surreptitious sketch of
Gerald Fosland, to use on the first plausible occasion.
He had in mind a special article on wealthy clubmen
at home.

"Company incorporated?" inquired Hickey, who
was the most practical poet of his time.

" I should consider that a pertinent question,"
granted Gerald. " Gentlemen, you will pardon me for
a moment," and he bowed himself from the room.

He had meant to ask that one simple question and
return, but, in Arlene s blue room, where sat two young
women in a high state of quiver, he had to make his
speech all over again, verbatim, and detail each inter
ruption, and describe how they received the news, and
answer, several times, the variously couched question,
if he really thought their names would not be men
tioned. It was fifteen minutes before he returned, and
he found the twelve young gentlemen suffering with
an intolerable itch to be gone! Five of the young men
were in the library, quarrelling, in decently low voices,
over the use of phone. The imperturbable Hickey,



332 THE BALL OF FIRE

however, had it, and he held on, handing in a story, em
bellished and coloured and frilled and be-ribboned as he
went, which would make the cylinders on the presses
curl up.

" I am sorry to advise you, gentlemen, that I am
unable to tell you if the International Transportation
Company is, or is about to be, incorporated," reported
Gerald gravely, and he signalled to William to open
the front door.

The air being too cold, however, he had it closed pres
ently, for now he was the centre of an interrogatory
circle from every degree of which came questions so
sharply pointed that they seemed to flash as they darted
towards him. Gerald Fosland listened to this babble
of conversation with a courtesy beautiful to behold, but
at the first good pause, he advised them that he had
given them all the information at his command, and
once more caused the door to be opened; whereupon
the eager young gentlemen, with the exception of the
squib, who was on his knees under a couch looking for
a lost subway ticket, shook hands cordially and admir
ingly with the host of the evening, and bulged out into
the night.

As the rapt and enchanted Hickey passed out of
the door, a grip like a pair of ice tongs caught him by
the arm, and drew him gently but firmly back.

"Sorry," observed Gerald; "but you don t go."

" Hasn t that damn boy got here yet ? " demanded
Hickey, in an immediate mood for assassination. He
was a large young man, and defective messenger boys
were the bane of his existence.

" William says not," replied Gerald.

" For the love of Mike, let me go ! " pleaded Hickey.
" This stuff has to be handled while it s still sizzling !



FOSLAND MAKES A SPEECH 333

It s the biggest story of the century ! That boy ll be
here any minute."

" Sorry," regretfully observed Gerald ; " but I shall
be compelled to detain you until he arrives."

" Can t do it ! " returned the desperate Hickey. " I
have to go ! " and he made a dash for the door.

Once more the ice tongs clutched him by the shoulder
and sank into the flesh.

" If you try that again, young man, I shall be com
pelled to thrash you," stated the host, again mildly.

Hickey looked at him, very thoroughly. Gerald was a
slim waisted gentleman, but he had broad shoulders and
a depressingly calm eye, and he probably exercised
twenty minutes every morning by an open window, after
his cold plunge, and took a horseback ride, and walked
a lot, and played polo, and a few other effete things
like that. Hickey sat down and waited, and, though
the night was cold, he mopped his brow until the mes
senger came!



CHAPTER XXXIII

CHICKEN, OR STEAK?

ON the outbreak of a bygone rudeness between the
United States and Spain, one free and entirely
uncurbed metropolitan paper, unable to adequately ex
press its violent emotions on the subject, utilised its
whole front page with the one word " War ! " printed
in red ink, and since this edition was jumped off the
press as fast as that word could be matrixed and cast,
there was not another line anywhere in the paper about
the subject which was so prominently indexed, and the
read-overs about the latest briberies and murders and
scandals had no beginnings at all. But that was good
journalism. The public had been expecting war for
some days. They knew what it was all about, and here
it was. They bought up that edition with avidity, and
read the one word of news, which they had seen from
afar, and threw down the paper, satisfied.

Now, however, the free and entirely uncurbed, hav
ing risen most gloriously in the past to every emergency,
no matter how great, positively floundered in the very
wealth of its opportunities. To begin with, the free
and entirely uncurbed, usually a unit in what consti
tuted the news of the day, found itself ignominiously
scattered, foozled in its judgment, inadequate in its
expression of anything; and one brilliant head writer,
after trying in vain to combine the diverse elements of
this uncomfortably huge sensation, landed on the sin-

334



CHICKEN, OR STEAK? 335

gle word " Yow ! " and went out, in a daze, for a drink.
One paper landed on the Franco-German War as the
leading thrill in this overly rich combination of news,
one took up the greed of Allison, one featured the world
monopoly, one the assured downfall of England, and
one, that represented by the squib, the general absorp
tion of everything by the cereal trust.

Saturday night, however, saw no late extras. The
" story " was too big to touch without something more
tangible than the word of even so substantial a man as
Gerald Fosland ; and long before any of the twelve
eager young gentlemen had reached the office, the scout
brigade, hundreds strong, were sniffing over every trail
and yelping over every scent.

They traced the visiting diplomats from the time they
had stepped down their respective gangplanks to the
time they walked up them again. They besieged and
bombarded and beleaguered the eight members of the
International Transportation Company, or as many of
them as they could locate, and they even found their
way out to Gerald Fosland s yacht, in mad pursuit of
Eldridge Babbitt. Here, however, they were foiled,
for Gerald, ordering the anchor hoist at the first
hail, stepped out on the deck from his belated din
ner, and informed the gentlemen of the press that the
rights of hospitality on his yacht would be held in
violate, whereupon he headed for Sandy Hook. The
scout brigade were also unable to locate Joseph G.
Clark, the only multi-millionaire in America able to
crawl in a hole and pull the hole in after him, Robert
E. Taylor, who never permitted anybody but a per
sonal friend to speak to him from dinner time on, and
Edward E. Allison, of whom there had been no trace
since noon. They might just as well not have found



336 THE BALL OF FIRE

the others, for neither Chisholm, nor Haverman, nor
Grandin, nor Vance, could be induced to make any ad
missions, be trapped into a yes or no, or grunt in the
wrong place. They had grown up with the art of in
terviewing, and had kept one lap ahead of it, in obedi
ence to nature s first law, which, as every school boy
knows, though older people may have forgotten it, is
the law of self-preservation.

Until three o clock in the morning every newspaper
office in New York was a scene of violent gloom.
Throughout all the city, and into many outside nooks
and crannies, were hundreds of human tentacles, bur
rowing like moles into the sandy soil of news, but un
earthing nothing of any value. The world s biggest
sensation was in those offices, and they couldn t touch it
with a pair of tongs ! Nor were libel suits, or any such
trivial considerations, in the minds of the astute man
agers of the free and entirely uncurbed. The deter
rent was that the interests involved were so large that
one might as well sit on a keg of gunpowder and light
it, as to make the slightest of errors. The gentlemen
mentioned as the organisers of the International Trans
portation Company collectively owned about all the
money, and all the power, and all the law, in the glori
ously independent United States of America; and if
they got together on any one subject, such as the
squashing of a newspaper, for instance, something calm
and impressive was likely to happen. On the other
hand, if the interesting story the free and entirely un
curbed had in its possession were true, the squashing
would be reversed, and the freeness and entirely un-
curbedness would be still more firmly seated than ever,
which is the paladium of our national liberties; and
Heaven be good to us.



CHICKEN, OR STEAK? 337

It was a distressing evening. Whole reams of copy,
more throbbing than any fiction, more potent than any
explosion, more consequential than any war, hung on
the " hold " hooks, and grew cold ! Whole banks of
galleys of the same gorgeous stuff stood on the racks,
set and revised, and ready to be plated, and not a line
of it could be released!

Towards morning there was an army of newspaper
men so worried and distressed, and generally consumed
with the mad passion of restraint, that there was
scarcely a fingernail left in the profession, and fright
ened-eyed copy boys hid behind doors. Suddenly a
dozen telegraph operators, in as many offices, jumped
from their desks, as if they had all been touched at the
same instant by a powerful current from their instru
ments, and shouted varying phrases, a composite of
which would be nearest expressed by:

"Let er go!"

It had been eight o clock in the evening in New York
when Gerald Fosland had first given out his informa
tion, and at that moment it was one A. M. in Ber
lin. At three A. M., Berlin time, which was ten p. M.
in New York, the Baron von Slachten, who had been
detained by an unusual stress of diplomatic business,
strolled to his favourite cafe. At three-five, the
Baron von Slachten became the most thought
about man in his city, but the metropolitan press
of Berlin is slightly fettered and more or less
curbed, and there are certain formalities to be ob
served. It is probable, therefore, that the Baron
might have gone about his peaceful way for two
or three days, had not a fool American, in the adver
tising branch of one of the New York papers, in an
entire ignorance of decent formalities, walked straight



338 THE BALL OF FIRE

out Untcr den Linden, to Baron von Slachten s favour
ite cafe, and, picking out the Baron at a table with
four bushy-faced friends, made this cheerful remark, in
the manner and custom of journalists in his native land:

" Well, Baron, the International Transportation
Company has confessed. Could you give me a few
words on the subject? "

The Baron, who had been about to drink a stein of
beer, set down his half leiter and stared at the young
man blankly. His face turned slowly yellow, and he rose.

" Lass bleiben," the Baron ordered the handy per
sons who were about to remove the cheerful advertis
ing representative and incarcerate him for life, and then
the Baron walked stolidly out of the cafe, and rode
home, and wrote for an hour or so, and ate a heavy
early breakfast, and returned to his study, and oblig
ingly shot himself.

This was at seven A. M., Berlin time, which was two
A. M., in New York; and owing to the nervousness of
an old woman sen-ant, the news reached New York at
three A. M., and the big wheels began to go around.

Where was Edward E. Allison? There was nothing
the free and entirely uncurbed wanted to know so much
as that ; but the f . and e. u. was doomed to disappoint
ment in that one desire of its heart. Even as he had
stumbled down the steps of the Sargent house, Allison
was aware of the hideous thing he had done ; aware,
too, that Jim Sargent was as violent as good-natured
men are apt to be. This thought, it must be said in
justice to Allison, came last and went away first. It
was from himself that he tried to run away, when he
shot his runabout up through the Park and into the
north country, and, by devious roads, to a place which
had come to him as if by inspiration ; the Willow Club,



CHICKEN, OR STEAK? 339

which was only open in the summertime, and employed
a feeble old caretaker in the winter. To this haven,
bleak and cold as his own numbed soul, Allison drove
in mechanical firmness, and ran his machine back into
the garage, and closed the doors on it, and walked
around to the kitchen, where he found old Peabody
smoking a corncob pipe, and laboriously mending a
pair of breeches.

" Why, howdy, Mr. Allison," greeted Peabody, ris
ing, and shoving up his spectacles. " It s a treat to
see anybody these days. I ain t had a visitor for nigh
onto a month. There ain t any provisions in the house,
but if you d like anything I can run over to the vil
lage and get it. I got a jug of my own, if you d like
a little snifter. How s things in the city ? " and still
rambling on with unanswered questions and miscellane
ous offers and club grounds information, he pottered to
the corner cupboard, and produced his jug, and poured
out a glass of whiskey.

" Thanks," said Allison, and drank the liquor me
chanically. He was shuddering with the cold, but he
had not noticed it until now. He glanced around the
room slowly and curiously, as if he had not seen it
before. " I think I ll stay out here over night," he told
Peabody. " I ll occupy the office. If any one rings
the phone, don t answer."

"Yes-sir," replied Peabody. "Tell you what I ll
do, Mr. Allison. I ll muffle the bell. I guess I better
light a fire in the office."

" Eh? Yes. Oh yes. Yes, you might light a fire."

" Get you a nice chicken maybe."

"Eh? Yes. Oh yes. Yes."

" Chicken or steak? Or maybe some chops."

" Anything you like," and Allison went towards the



340 THE BALL OF FIRE

office. At the door he turned. " You ll understand,
Peabody, that I have come here to be quiet. I wish
to be entirely alone, with certain important matters
which I must decide. If anybody should happen to
drop in, get rid of him. Do not say that I am here
or have been here."

" Yes-sir," replied Peabody. " I know how it is that
away. I want to be by myself, often. Shall I make
up the bed in the east room or the west room? Seems
to me the west room is a little pleasanter."

Allison went into the office, and closed the door after
him. It was damp and chill in there, but he did not
notice it. He sat down in the swivel chair behind the
flat top desk, and rested his chin in his hands, and stared
out of the window at the bleak and dreary landscape.
Just within his range of vision was a lonely little creek,
shadowed by a mournful drooping willow which had
given the Club its name, and in the wintry breeze it
waved its long tendrils against the leaden grey sky.
Allison fixed his eyes on that oddly beckoning tree, and
strove to think. Old Peabody came pottering in, and
with many a clang and clatter builded a fire in the ca
pacious Dutch stove; with a longing glance at Allison,
for he was starved with the hunger of talk, he went out
again.

At dusk he once more opened the door. Allison had
not moved. He still sat with his chin in his hands,
looking out at that weirdly waving willow. Old Pea-
body thought that he must be asleep, until he tiptoed
up at the side. Allison s grey eyes, unblinking, were
staring straight ahead, with no expression in them. It
was as if they had turned to glass.

" Excuse me, Mr. Allison. Chicken or steak ? I



CHICKEN, OR STEAK? 341

got em both, one for supper and one for breakfast."

Allison turned slowly, part way towards Peabody;
not entirely.

" Chicken or steak ? " repeated Peabody.

"Eh? Yes. Oh yes. Yes. The chicken."

The fire had gone out. Peabody rebuilt it. He
came in an hour later, and studied the silent man at
the desk for a long minute, and then he decided an im
portant question for himself. He brought in Allison s
dinner on a tray, and set it on a corner of the desk.

"Shall I spread a cloth?"

" No," returned Allison. The clatter had aroused
him for the moment, and Peabody went away with a
very just complaint that if he had to be bothered with
a visitor on a grey day like this, he d rather not have
such an unsociable cuss.

At eleven Peabody came in again, to see if Allison
were not ready to go to bed ; but Allison sent him away
as soon as he had fixed the fire. The tray was un
touched, and out there in the dim moonlight, which
peered now and then through the shifting clouds, the
long-armed willow beckoned and beckoned.

Morning came, cold and grey and damp as the night
had been. Allison had fallen asleep towards the dawn,
sitting at his desk with his heavy head on his arms, and
not even the clatter of the building of the fire roused
him. At seven when Peabody came, Allison raised up
with a start at the opening of the door, but before he
glanced at Peabody, he looked out of the window at
the willow.

" Good-morning," said Peabody with a cheerfulness
which sounded oddly in that dim, bare room. " I
brought you the paper, and some fresh eggs. There



342 THE BALL OF FIRE

was a little touch of frost this morning, but it went
away about time for sun-up. How will you have your
eggs? Fried, I suppose, after the steak. Seems like
you don t have much appetite," and he scrutinised the
untouched tray with mingled regret and resentment.
Since Allison paid no attention to him, he decided on
eggs fried after the steak, and started for the door.

Allison had picked up the paper mechanically. It
had lain with the top part downwards, but his own pic
ture was in the centre. He turned the paper over, so
that he could see the headlines.

" Peabody ! " No longer the dead tones of a man
in a mental stupor, a man who can not think, but in
the sharp tones of a man who can feel.

" Yes-sir." Sharp and crisp, like the snap of a whip.
Allison had scared it out of him.

" Don t come in again until I call you."

" Yes-sir." Grieved this time. Darn it, wasn t he
doing his best for the man!

So it had come ; the time when his will was not God !
A God should be omnipotent, impregnable, unassail
able, absolute. He was surprised at the calmness with
which he took this blow. It was the very bigness of
the hurt which left it so little painful. A man with his
leg shot off suffers not one-tenth so much as a man
who tears his fingernail to the quick. Moreover, there
was that other big horror which had left him stupefied
and numb. He had not known that in his ruthlessness
there was any place for remorse, or for terror of him
self at anything he might choose to do. But there was.
He entered into no ravings now, no writhings, no out
cries. He realised calmly and clearly all he had done,
and all which had happened to him in retribution. He
saw the downfall of his stupendous scheme of world-



CHICKEN, OR STEAK? 343

wide conquest. He saw his fortune, to the last penny,
swept away, for he had invested all that he could raise
on his securities and his business and his prospects,
in the preliminary expenses of the International Trans
portation Company, bearing this portion of the finan
cial burden himself, as part of the plan by which he
meant to obtain ultimate control and command of the
tremendous consolidation, and become the king among


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Online LibraryGeorge Randolph ChesterThe ball of fire → online text (page 22 of 24)