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“But he owns a majority of the stock!” said Montague. “They can't take it away from him outright.”

“Not if he's got it locked up in his safe,” was the reply; “and if he's got no debts or obligations. But suppose he's overextended; and suppose some bank has loaned him money on the stock—what then?”

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Montague was now keenly interested. He went with his brother while the latter drew his money from the bank, and called at his brokers and ordered them to sell Mississippi Steel. The other was called away then by an engagement in court, which occupied him for several hours; when he came out, he made for the nearest ticker, and the first figures he saw were Mississippi Steel—quoted at nearly twenty points below the price of the morning!

The bare figures were eloquent to him of many tragedies; they brought before him half a dozen different personalities, with their triumphs and despairs. He could read in them the story of a Titan struggle. Oliver had made his killing; but what of Price and Ryder? Montague knew that most of Price's stock was hypothecated at the Gotham Trust. And now what would become of it? And what would become of the Northern Mississippi?

He bought the afternoon papers. Their columns were full of the sensational events of the day. The bottom had dropped out of Mississippi Steel, as they phrased it. The wildest rumours were afloat. The Company was known to be making enormous extensions, and it was said to have overreached itself; there were whispers that its officers had been speculating, that the Company would be unable to meet the next quarterly payment upon its bonds, that a receivership would be necessary. There were hints that the concern was to be taken over by the Trust, but this was vigorously denied by officers of the latter.

All of which had come like a bolt out of the blue. To Montague it was an amazing and terrible thing. It counted little to him that he was out of the struggle himself; that he no longer had anything to lose personally. He was like a man who had been through an earthquake, and who stood and stared at a gaping crack in the ground. Even though he was safe at the moment, he could not forget that this was the earth upon which he had to spend the rest of his life, and that the next crack might open where he stood.

Montague could not see that there was the least chance for Price and Ryder; he pictured them bowled clean out, and he would not have been surprised to read that they were ruined. But apparently they weathered the storm. The episode passed with no more than a crop of rumours. Mississippi Steel did not go back, however; and he noticed that Northern Mississippi stock had also “gone off” eight or ten points on the curb.

It was a period of great anxiety in the financial world. Men felt the unrest, even though they could not give definite reasons. There had been several panics in the stock market throughout the summer; and leading financiers and railroad presidents seemed to have got the habit of prognosticating the ruin of the country every time they made a speech at a banquet.

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But apparently men could not agree about the causes of the trouble. Some insisted that it was owing to the speeches of the President, to his attacks upon the great business interests of the country. Others maintained that the world's supply of capital was inadequate, and pointed out the destruction of great wars and earthquakes and fires. Others argued that there was not enough currency to do the country's business. Now and again there rose above the din the shrill voice of some radical who declared that the stock collapses had been brought about deliberately; but such statements seemed so preposterous that they were received with ridicule whenever they were heeded at all. To Montague the idea that there were men in the country sufficiently powerful to wreck its business, and sufficiently unscrupulous to use their power—the idea seemed to him sensational and absurd.

But he had a talk about it one evening with Major Venable, who laughed at him. The Major named half a dozen men—Waterman and Duval and Wyman among them—who controlled ninety per cent of the banks in the Metropolis. They controlled all three of the big insurance companies, with their resources of four or five hundred million dollars; one of them controlled a great transcontinental railroad system, which alone kept a twenty-or thirty-million dollar “surplus” for stock-gambling purposes.

“If any two or three of those men were to make up their minds,” declared the Major, “they could wreck the business of this country in a day. If there were stocks they wanted to pick up, they could knock them to any price they chose.”

“How would they do it?” asked the other.

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“There are many ways. You noticed that the last big slump began with the worst scarcity of money the Street has known for years. Now suppose those men should gradually accumulate a lot of cash in the banks, and make an agreement to withdraw it at a certain hour. Suppose that the banks that they own, and the banks where they own directors, and the insurance companies which they control—suppose they all did the same! Can't you imagine the scurrying around for money, the calling in of loans, the rush to realise on holdings? And when you have a public as nervous as ours is, when you have credit stretched to the breaking-point, and everybody involved—don't you see the possibilities?”

“It seems like playing with dynamite,” said Montague.