Ebooks, Fiction, Non-Fiction 1000s of Free books and stories online to read now ~ Main Page

 

 

 

The "Monitor" and the "Merrimac" by Gouverneur Morris

THE STORY OF A PANIC

I

Two long-faced young men and one old man with a long face sat upon the veranda of the Country Club of Westchester, and looked, now into the depths of pewter mugs containing mint and ice among other things, and now across Pelham Bay to the narrow pass of water between Fort Schuyler and Willets Point. Through this pass the evening fleet of Sound steamers had already torn with freight and passengers for New Haven, Newport, Fall River, and Portland; and had already disappeared behind City Island Point, and in such close order that it had looked as if the Peck, which led, had been towing the others. The first waves from the paddle-wheels of the great ships had crossed the three miles of intervening bay, and were slapping at the base of the seawall that supported the country club pigeon grounds and lawn-tennis terraces, when another vessel came slowly and haughtily into view from between the forts. She was as black as the king of England's brougham, and as smart; her two masts and her great single funnel were stepped with the most insolent rake imaginable. Here and there where the light of the setting sun smote upon polished brass she shone as with pools of fire.

"There she is," said Powers. He had been sitting in his shirt sleeves, but now he rose and put on his coat as if the sight of the huge and proud yacht had chilled him. Brett, with a petulant slap, killed a swollen mosquito against his black silk ankle bone. The old man, Callender, put his hand to his forehead as if trying to remember something; and the yacht, steaming slower and slower, and yet, as it seemed, with more and more grandeur and pride of place—as if she knew that she gave to the whole bayscape, and the pale Long Island shore against which she moved in strong relief, an irrefutable note of dignity—presently stopped and anchored, midway between the forts and City Island Point; then she began to swing with the tide, until she faced New York City, from which she had just come.

Callender took his hand from his forehead. He had remembered.

"Young gentlemen," he said, "that yacht of Merriman's has been reminding me every afternoon for a month of something, and I've just thought what. You remember one day the Merrimac came down the James, very slowly, and sunk the Cumberland, and damaged and frightened the Union fleet into fits, just the way Merriman has been going down to Wall Street every morning and frightening us into fits? Well, instead of finishing the work then and there, she suddenly quit and steamed off up the river in the same insolent, don't-give-a-hoot way that Merriman comes up from Wall Street every afternoon. Of course, when the Merrimac came down to finish destroying the fleet the next day, the Monitor had arrived during the night and gave her fits, and they called the whole thing off. Anyhow, it's that going-home-to-sleep-on-it expression of the Merrimac's that I've been seeing in the Sappho."

"You were on the Monitor, weren't you?" asked Powers cheerfully.

The old man did not answer, but he was quite willing that Powers and Brett, and the whole world for that matter, should think that he had been. Powers and Brett, though in no cheerful mood, exchanged winks.

"I don't see why history shouldn't repeat itself," said Powers.

"You don't!" said Brett. "Why, because there isn't any Monitor waiting for Merriman off Wall Street."

"And just like the Civil War," said Callender, "this trouble in the street is a rich man's quarrel and a poor man's war. Just because old Merriman is gunning for Waters, you, and I, and the rest of us are about to go up the spout."

Callender was a jaunty old man, tall, of commanding presence and smart clothes. His white mustache was the epitome of close-cropped neatness. When he lost money at poker his brown eyes held exactly the same twinkle as when he won, and it was current among the young men that he had played greatly in his day—great games for great stakes. Sometimes he had made heavy winnings, sometimes he had faced ruin; sometimes his family went to Newport for the summer and entertained; sometimes they went to a hotel somewhere in some mountains or other, where they didn't even have a parlor to themselves. But this summer they were living on in the town house, keeping just enough rooms open, and a few servants who had weathered former panics, and who were willing to eat dry bread in bad times for the sake of the plentiful golden butter that they knew was to be expected when the country believed in its own prosperity and future. Just now the country believed that it was going to the dogs. And Mr. Merriman, the banker, had chosen the opportunity to go gunning for Mr. Waters, the railroad man. The quarrel between the great men was personal; and so because of a couple of nasty tempers people were being ruined daily, honest stocks were selling far below their intrinsic value, United States Steel had been obliged to cut wages, there was a strike on in the Pennsylvania coal fields, and the Callenders, as I have said, were not even going to the cheapest mountain top for the summer. Brett alone was glad of this, because it meant that little Miss Callender would occasionally come out to the country club for a game of tennis and a swim, and, although she had refused to marry him on twenty distinct occasions, he was not a young man to be easily put from his purpose. Nor did little Miss Callender propose to be relinquished by him just yet; and she threw into each refusal just the proper amount of gentleness and startled-fawn expression to insure another proposal within a month.

Brett, looking upon Callender as his probable father-in-law, turned to the old gentleman and said, with guileful innocence:

"Isn't there anything you can do, sir, to hold Merriman off? Powers and I are in the market a little, but our customers are in heavy, and the way things are going we've got to break whether we like it or not."

Ordinarily Callender would have pretended that he could have checkmated Merriman if he had wanted to—for in some things he was a child, and it humored him to pretend, and to intimate, and to look wise; but on the present occasion, and much to Powers's and Brett's consternation, he began to speak to them gravely, and confidentially, and a little pitifully. They had never before seen him other than jaunty and debonair, whether his family were at Newport or in the mountains.

"It's all very well for you boys," he said; "you have youth and resiliency on your side. No matter what happens to you now, in money or in love, you can come again. But we old fellows, buying and selling with one foot in the grave, with families accustomed to luxury dependent on us"—he paused and tugged at his neatly ordered necktie as if to free his throat for the passage of more air—"some of us old fellows," he said, "if we go now can never come again—never."

He rose abruptly and walked into the house without a word more; but Brett, after hesitating a moment, followed him. Mr. Callender had stopped in front of the "Delinquent List." Seeing Brett at his elbow, he pointed with a well-groomed finger to his own name at the beginning of the C's.

"If I died to-night," he said, neither gravely nor jocosely, but as if rather interested to know whether he would or would not, "the club would have a hard time to collect that sixteen dollars."

"Are you serious, sir?" Brett asked.

"If to-morrow is a repetition of to-day," said Mr. Callender, "you will see the name of Callender & Co. in the evening papers." His lips trembled slightly under his close-cropped mustache.

"Then," said Brett, "this is a good opportunity to ask you, sir, if you have any objection to me as a candidate for your youngest daughter."

Mr. Callender raised his eyebrows. So small a thing as contemplated matrimony did not disturb him under the circumstances.

"My boy," he said, "I take it you are in earnest. I don't object to you.
I am sure nobody does."

"Oh, yes," said Brett; "she does."

He had succeeded in making Mr. Callender laugh.

"But," Brett went on, "I'd like your permission to go on trying."

"You have it," said her father. "Will you and Powers dine with me?"

"No," said Brett. "Speaking as candidate to be your son-in-law, you cannot afford to give us dinner; and in the same way I cannot afford to buy dinner for you and Powers. So Powers will have to be host and pay for everything. I shall explain it to him…. But look here, sir, are you really up against it?"

To Brett's consternation, Callender suddenly buried his face in his hands and groaned aloud.

"Don't," said Brett; "some one's coming."

Callender recovered his usual poise with a great effort. But no one came.

"As far as my wishes go, sir," said Brett, "I'm your son. You never had a son, did you? If you had a son, and if he were young and resilient, you'd talk to him and explain to him, and in that way, perhaps, you'd get to see things so clearly in your own mind that you'd be able to think a way out. Why don't you talk to me as if I were your son? You see I want to be so very much, and that's half the battle."

Callender often joked about his affairs, but he never talked about them. Now, however, he looked for a moment keenly into the young man's frank and intelligent face, hesitated, and then, with a grave and courtly bow, he waved his hand toward two deep chairs that stood in the corner of the room half facing each other, as if they themselves were engaged in conversation.

Twenty minutes later Callender went upstairs to dress for dinner, but Brett rejoined Powers on the piazza. He sat down without looking at Powers or speaking to him, and his eyes, crossing the darkening bay, rested once more on the lordly silhouette of the Sappho. In the failing light she had lost something of her emphatic outline, and was beginning to melt, as it were, into the shore.

Brett and Powers were partners. Powers was the floor member of the firm and Brett ran the office. But they were partners in more ways than the one, and had been ever since they could remember. As little boys they had owned things in common without dispute. At St. Marks Powers had pitched for the nine, and Brett had caught. In their senior year at New Haven they had played these positions to advantage, both against Harvard and Princeton. After graduation they had given a year to going around the world. In Bengal they had shot a tiger, each giving it a mortal wound. In Siam they had won the doubles championship at lawn tennis. When one rode on the water wagon the other sat beside him, and vice versa. Powers's family loved Brett almost as much as they loved Powers, and if Brett had had a family it would probably have felt about Powers in the same way.

As far as volume of business and legitimate commissions went, their firm was a success. It could execute orders with precision, despatch, and honesty. It could keep its mouth shut. But it had not yet learned to keep out of the market on its own account. Regularly as a clock ticks its profits were wiped out in speculation. The young men believed in the future of the country, and wanted to get rich quick, not because they were greedy, but because that desire is part of the average American's nature and equipment. Gradually, however, they were "getting wise," as the saying is. And they had taken a solemn oath and shaken hands upon it, that if ever they got out of their present difficulties they would never again tempt the goddess of fortune.

"Old man's in bad, I guess," said Powers.

"I shouldn't wonder," said Brett, and was ashamed to feel that he must not be more frank with his partner. "We're all in bad."

"The Cumberland has been sunk," said Powers, "and the rest of us are aground and helpless, waiting for the Merrimac to come down the river in the morning." He shook his fist at the distant Sappho. "Why," he said, "even if we knew what he knows it's too late to do anything, unless he does it. And he won't. He won't quit firing until Waters blows up."

"I've a good notion," said Brett, "to get out my pigeon gun, take the club launch, board the Sappho about midnight, hold the gun to old Merriman's head, and make him promise to save the country; or else make him put to sea, and keep him there. If he were kidnapped and couldn't unload any more securities, the market would pull up by itself." The young men chuckled, for the idea amused them in spite of their troubles.

By a common impulse they turned and looked at the club's thirty-foot naphtha launch at anchor off the club's dock; and by a common impulse they both pointed at her, and both exclaimed:

"The Monitor!"

Then, of course, they were very careful not to say anything more until they had crooked together the little fingers of their right hands, and in silence registered a wish each. Then each spoke the name of a famous poet, and the spell was ended.

"What did you wish?" said Brett idly.

Powers could be very courtly and old fashioned.

"My dear boy," he said, "I fancy that I wished for you just what you wished for yourself."

Before this they had never spoken about her to each other.

"I didn't know that you knew," said Brett. "Thanks."

They shook hands. Then Brett broke into his gay, happy laugh.

"That," said he, "is why you have to pay for dinner for Mr. Callender and me."

"Are we to dine?" asked Powers, "before attacking the Merrimac?"

"Always," assented Brett, "and we are to dress first."

The two young men rose and went into the house, Powers resting his hand affectionately on Brett's further shoulder. It was so that they had come off the field after striking out Harvard's last chance to score.

At dinner Mr. Callender, as became his age and experience, told the young men many clean and amusing stories. Though the clouds were thick about his head he had recovered his poise and his twinkling eye of the good loser. Let his night be sleepless, let the morrow crush him, but let his young friends remember that he had gone to his execution calm, courteous, and amusing, his mustache trimmed, his face close-shaved, his nails clean and polished. They had often, he knew, laughed at him for his pretensions, and his affectation of mysterious knowledge, and all his little vanities and superiorities, but they would remember him for the very real nerve and courage that he was showing, and knew that he was showing. The old gentleman took pleasure in thinking that although he was about to fail in affairs, he was not going to fail in character. He even began to make vague plans for trying again, and when, after a long dinner, they pushed back their chairs and rose from the table, there was a youthful resiliency in the voice with which he challenged Powers to a game of piquet.

"That seems to leave me out," said Brett.

"Well," said Mr. Callender, with snapping eyes, "can you play well enough to be an interesting opponent, or can't you?"

"No, I can't," said Brett. "And anyway, I'm going out in the launch to talk things over with Merriman." He shrugged his shoulders in a superior way, and they laughed; but when they had left him for the card-room he walked out on the veranda and stood looking through the darkness at the Sappho's distant lights, and he might have been heard muttering, as if from the depths of very deep thought:

"Why not?"

II

At first Brett did not head the launch straight for the Sappho. He was not sure in his own mind whether he intended to visit her, or just to have a near-by look at her and then return to the club. He had ordered the launch on an impulse which he could not explain to himself. If she had been got ready for him promptly he might not have cared at the last minute to go out in her at all. But there had been a long delay in finding the engineer, and this had provoked him and made him very sure that he wanted to use the launch very much. And it hadn't smoothed his temper to learn that the engineer had been found in the kitchen eating a Virginia ham in company with the kitchen maid.

But the warmth and salt freshness that came into his face, and the softness and great number of the stars soon pacified him. If she were only with him, he thought, if her father were only not on the brink of ruin, how pleasant the world would be. He pretended that she was with him, just at his shoulder, where he could not see her, but there just the same, and that he was steering the launch straight for the ends of the world. He pretended that for such a voyage the launch would not need an engineer. He wondered if under the circumstances it would be safe to steer with only one hand.

But the launch ran suddenly into an oyster stake that went rasping aft along her side, and at the same moment the searchlight from Fort Schuyler beamed with dazzling playfulness in his face, and then having half blinded him wheeled heavenward, a narrow cornucopia of light that petered out just short of the stars. He watched the searchlight. He wondered how many pairs of lovers it had discovered along the shores of Pelham Bay, how many mint-juleps it had seen drunk on the veranda of the country club, how many kisses it had interrupted; and whether it would rather pry into people's private affairs or look for torpedo-boats and night attacks in time of war. But most of all he wondered why it spent so much of its light on space, sweeping the heavens like a fiery broom with indefatigable zeal. There were no lovers or torpedo-boats up there. Even the birds were in bed, and the Wright brothers were known to be at Pau.

Once more the searchlight smote him full in the face and then, as if making a pointed gesture, swept from him, and for a long second illuminated the black hull and the yellow spars of the Sappho. Then, as if its earthly business were over, the shaft of light, lengthening and lengthening as it rose above intervening obstacles, the bay, the Stepping Stone light, the Long Island shore, turned slowly upward until it pointed at the zenith. Then it went out.

"That," thought Brett, "was almost a hint. First it stirred me up; then it pointed at the Sappho; then it indicated that there is One above, and then it went out."

He headed the launch straight for the Sappho, and began to wonder what one had to do to get aboard of a magnate's yacht at night. He turned to the engineer.

"Gryce," he said, "what do you know about yachts?"

"What about 'em?" Gryce answered sulkily. He was still thinking of the kitchen-maid and the unfinished ham, or else of the ham and the unfinished kitchen maid, I am not sure which.

"What about 'em?" Brett echoed. "Do they take up their gangways at night?"

"Unless some one's expected," said Gryce.

"Do they have a watchman?"

"One forward and one aft on big yachts."

"Making two," said Brett. "But aren't there usually two gangways—one for the crew and one for the owner's guests?"

"Crew's gangway is to starboard," Gryce vouchsafed.

Brett wondered if there was anything else that he ought to know. Then, in picturing himself as running the launch alongside the Sappho, and hoping that he would not bump her, a question presented itself.

"If I were going to visit the Sappho," he asked, "would I approach the gangway from the stern or from the bow?"

"I don't know," said Gryce.

"Do you mean," said Brett, "that you don't know which is the correct thing to do, or that you think I can't steer?"

"I mean," said Gryce, "that I know it's one or the other, but I don't know which."

"In that case," said Brett, "we will approach from the rear. That is always the better part of valor. But if the gangway has been taken up for the night I don't know what I shall do."

"The gangway was down when the light was on her," said Gryce. "I seen it."

And that it was still down Brett could presently see for himself. He doubted his ability to make a neat landing, but they seemed to be expecting him, for a sailor ran down to the gangway landing armed with a long boat-hook, and made the matter easy for him. When he had reached the Sappho's deck an officer came forward in the darkness, and said:

"This way, sir, if you please."

"There's magic about," thought Brett, and he accompanied the officer aft.

"Mr. Merriman," said the latter, "told us to expect you half an hour ago in a motor-boat. Did you have a breakdown?"

"No," said Brett, and he added mentally, "but I'm liable to."

They descended a companionway; the officer opened a sliding door of some rich wood, and Brett stepped into the highly lighted main saloon of the Sappho.

In one corner of the room, with his back turned, the famous Mr. Merriman sat at an upright piano, lugubriously drumming. Brett had often heard of the great man's secret vice, and now the sight of him hard at it made him, in spite of the very real trepidation under which he was laboring, feel good-natured all over—the Colossus of finance was so earnest at his music, so painstaking and interested in placing his thick, clumsy fingers, and so frankly delighted with the effect of his performance upon his own ear. It seemed to Brett homely and pleasant, the thought that one of the most important people of eighty millions should find his pleasure in an art for which he had neither gift nor training.

Mr. Merriman finished his piece with a badly fumbled chord, and turned from the piano with something like the show of reluctance with which a man turns from a girl who has refused him. That Mr. Merriman did not start or change expression on seeing a stranger in the very heart of his privacy was also in keeping with his reputed character. It was also like him to look steadily at the young man for quite a long while before speaking. But finally to be addressed in courteous and pleasant tones was not what Brett expected. For this he had his own good looks to thank, as Mr. Merriman hated, with the exception of his own music, everything that was ugly.

"Good-evening, sir," said Mr. Merriman. "But I can't for the life of me think what you are doing on my yacht. I was expecting a man, but not you."

"You couldn't guess," said Brett, "why I have been so impertinent as to call upon you without an invitation."

"Then," said Mr. Merriman, "perhaps you had better tell me. I think I have seen you before."

"My name is Brett," said Brett. "You may have seen me trying to play tennis at Newport. I have often seen you there, looking on."

"You didn't come to accuse me of being a looker-on?" Mr. Merriman asked.

"No, sir," said Brett, "but I do wish that could have been the reason. I've come, sir, as a matter of fact, because you are, on the contrary, so very, very active in the game."

"I don't understand," said Merriman rather coldly,

"Oh," said Brett, "everybody I care for in the world is being ruined, including myself, and I said, 'Mr. Merriman could save us all if he only would.' So I came to ask you if you couldn't see your way to letting up on us all."

"'Mr. Brett," said Mr. Merriman, "you may have heard, since gossip occasionally concerns herself with me, that in my youth I was a priest."

Brett nodded.

"Well," continued Mr. Merriman, "I have never before listened to so naïve a confession as yours."

Brett blushed to his eyes.

"I knew when I came," he said, "that I shouldn't know how to go about what I've come for."

"But I think I have a better opinion of you," smiled Mr. Merriman, and his smile was very engaging. "You have been frank without being fresh, you have been bashful without showing fear. You meet the eye in a manly way, and you seem a clean and worthy young man. As opposed to these things, what you might have thought out to say to me would hardly matter."

"Oh," cried Brett impulsively, "if you would only let up!"

"I suppose, Mr. Brett," the banker smiled, even more engagingly, "that you mean you would like me to come to the personal rescue of all those persons who have recently shown bad judgment in the conduct of their affairs. But let me tell you that I have precisely your own objections to seeing people go to smash. But they will do it. They don't even come to me for advice."

"You wouldn't give it to them if they did," said Brett.

"No," said Mr. Merriman, "I couldn't. But I should like to, and a piece of my mind to boot. Now, sir, you have suggested something for me to do. Will you go further and tell me how I am to do it?"

"Why," said Brett, diffidently but unabashed, "you could start in early to-morrow morning, couldn't you, and bull the market?"

"Mr. Brett," said Mr. Merriman forcefully, "I have for the last month been straining my resources to hold the market. But it is too heavy, sir, for one pair of shoulders."

A look of doubt must have crossed Brett's face, for the banker smote his right fist into the palm of his left hand with considerable violence, and rose to his feet, almost menacingly.

"Have the courtesy not to doubt my statements, young sir," he said sharply. "I have made light of your intrusion; see that you do not make light of the courtesy and consideration thus shown you."

"Of course, I believe you," said Brett, and he did.

"You are one of those," said Mr. Merriman, "who listen to what the run of people say, and make capital of it."

"Of course, I can't help hearing what people say," said Brett.

"Or believing it!" Mr. Merriman laughed savagely, "What are they saying of me these days?" he asked.

Brett hesitated.

"Come, come," said the great man, in a mocking voice. "You are here without an invitation. Entertain me! Entertain me! Make good!"

Brett was nettled.

"Well," said he, "they say that Mr. Waters was tremendously extended for a rise in stocks, and that you found it out, and that you hate him, and that you went for him to give him a lesson, and that you pulled all the props out of the market, and smashed it all to pieces, just for a private spite. That's what they say!"

The banker was silent for quite a long time.

"If there wasn't something awful about that," he said at last, "it would be very funny."

The officer who had ushered Brett into the saloon appeared at the door.

"Well?" said Merriman curtly.

"There's a gentleman," said the officer, "who wants to come aboard. He says you are expecting him. But as you only mentioned one gentleman—"

"Yes, yes," said Merriman, "I'm expecting this other gentleman, too."

He turned to Brett.

"I am going to ask you to remain," he said, "to assist at a conference on the present state of the market between yourself, and myself, and my arch-enemy—Mr. Waters."

III

Even if Brett should live to be a distinguished financier himself—which is not likely—he will never forget that midnight conference on board the Sappho. He had supposed that famous men—unless they were dead statesmen—thought only of themselves, and how they might best and most easily increase their own power and wealth. He had believed with the rest of the smaller Wall Street interests that the present difficulties were the result of a private feud. Instead of this he now saw that the supposed quarrellers had forgotten their differences, and were in the closest kind of an alliance to save the situation. He discovered that until prices had fallen fifty points neither of them had been in the market to any significant extent; and that, to avert the appalling calamities which seemed imminent, both were ready if necessary to impoverish themselves or to take unusual risks of so doing. He learned the real causes of the panic, so far as these were not hidden from Merriman and Waters themselves, and when at last the two men decided what should be attempted, to what strategic points they should send re-enforcements, and just what assistance they should ask the Secretary of the Treasury to furnish, Brett felt that he had seen history in the making.

Waters left the Sappho at one in the morning, and Brett was for going, too, but Merriman laid a hand on the young man's shoulder and asked him to remain for a few moments.

"Now, my son," he said, "you see how the panic has affected some of the so-called big interests. It may be that Waters and I can't do very much. But it will be good for you to remember that we tried; it will make you perhaps see others in a more tolerant light. But for purposes of conversation you will, of course, forget that you have been here. Now, as to your own affairs—"

Mr. Merriman looked old and tired, but very indulgent and kind.

"Knowing what I know now," said Brett, "I would rather take my chances with the other little fools who have made so much trouble for you and Mr. Waters. If your schemes work out I'll be saved in spite of myself; and if they don't—well, I hope I've learned not to be so great a fool again."

"In every honest young man," said Merriman, "there is something of the early Christian—he is very noble and very silly. Write your name and telephone number on that sheet of paper. At least, you won't refuse orders from me in the morning. Waters and I will have to use many brokers to-morrow, of whom I hope you will consent to be one."

Brett hung his head in pleasure and shame. Then he looked Mr. Merriman in the face with a bright smile.

"If you've got to help some private individual, Mr. Merriman, I'd rather you didn't make it me; I'd rather you made it old man Callender. If he goes under now he'll never get to the top again."

"Not Samuel B. Callender?" said Merriman, with a note of surprise and very real interest in his voice. "Is he in trouble? I didn't know. Why, that will never do—a fine old fighting character like that—and besides … why, wouldn't you have thought that he would have come to me himself or that at least he would have confided in my son Jim?"

Brett winced.

Merriman wrote something upon a card and handed it to Brett.

"Can you see that he gets that?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," said Brett.

"Tell him, then, to present it at my office the first thing in the morning. It will get him straight to me. I can't stand idle and see the father of the girl my boy is going to marry ruined."

"I didn't know—" said Brett. He was very white, and his lips trembled in spite of his best efforts to control them. "I congratulate you, sir. She is very lovely," he added.

Mr. Merriman regarded the miserable young man quizzically.

"But," he said, "Mr. Callender has three daughters."

"Oh, no," said Brett dismally, "there is only the one."

"My boy," said Mr. Merriman, "I am afraid that you are an incorrigible plunger—at stocks, at romance, and at conclusions. I don't know if I am going to comfort you or give you pain, but the girl my son is going to marry is Mary Callender."

The color returned to Brett's cheek and the sparkle to his eyes. He grasped Mr. Merriman by both hands, and in a confidential voice he said:

"Mr. Merriman, there is no such person."