THE AIR TRUST
By George Allan England
Author of "Darkness and Dawn," "Beyond the Great Oblivion," "The Afterglow," etc., etc.
Illustrations by John Sloan
TO EUGENE V. DEBS
Lover of All Mankind and Apostle of the World's Emancipation,
I dedicate THIS BOOK
This book is the result of an attempt to carry the monopolistic principle to its logical conclusion. For many years I have entertained the idea that if a monopoly be right in oil, coal, beef, steel or what not, it would also be right in larger ways involving, for example, the use of the ocean and the air itself. I believe that, had capitalists been able to bring the seas and the atmosphere under physical control, they would long ago have monopolized them. Capitalism has not refrained from laying its hand on these things through any sense of decency, but merely because the task has hitherto proved impossible.
Granting, then, the premise that some process might be discovered whereby the air-supply of the world could be controlled, the Air Trust logically follows. I have endeavored to show how such a Trust would inevitably lead to the utter enslavement of the human race, unless overthrown by the only means then possible, i.e., violence. This book is not a brief for "direct action." Doubtless the capitalist press (if it indeed notice the work at all) will denounce it as a plea for "bomb-throwing" and apply the epithet of "Anarchist" to me; but at this the judicious and the intelligent will only smile; and as for our friends the enemy, we esteem their opinion at its precise real value, zero.
Given the conditions supposed in this book, I repeat—a complete monopoly of the air, with an absolute suppression of all political rights—no other outcomes are possible than slavery or violent, physical revolution. As I have made Gabriel Armstrong say: "The masters would have it so. Academic discussion becomes absurd, in the face of plutocratic savagery. And in a case of self-defense, no measures are unjustifiable."
I believe in political action. I hope for a peaceful and bloodless revolution. But if that be impossible, then by all means let us have revolution in its other sense. And with the hope that this book may perhaps revive some fainting spirit or renew the vision of emancipation in some soul where it has dimmed, I give "The Air Trust" to the workers of America and of the world.
GEORGE ALLAN ENGLAND.
Boston, Mass., November 1, 1915.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I. THE BIRTH OF AN IDEA II. THE PARTNERS III. THE BAITING OF HERZOG IV. AN INTERLOPER V. IN THE LABORATORY VI. OXYGEN, KING OF INTOXICATORS VII. A FREAK OF FATE VIII. ONE UNBIDDEN, SHARES GREAT SECRETS IX. DISCHARGED X. A GLIMPSE OF THE PARASITES XI. THE END OF TWO GAMES XII. ON THE GREAT HIGHWAY XIII. CATASTROPHE XIV. THE RESCUE XV. AN HOUR AND A PARTING XVI. TIGER WALDRON "COMES BACK" XVII. THOUGHTS XVIII. FLINT AND WALDRON PLAN XIX. CATHERINE'S DEFIANCE XX. THE BILLIONAIRE'S PLOT XXI. GABRIEL, GOOD SAMARITAN XXII. THE TRAP IS SPRUNG XXIII. THE BEAST GLOATS XXIV. CATHERINE'S SUPREME DECISION XXV. THROUGH STEEL BARS XXVI. "GUILTY" XXVII. BACK IN THE SUNLIGHT XXVIII. IN THE REFUGE XXIX. "APRES NOUS LE DELUGE!" XXX. TRAPPED! XXXI. ESCAPE! XXXII. OMINOUS DEVELOPMENTS XXXIII. "NOW COMES THE HOUR SUPREME" XXXIV. THE ATTACK XXXV. TERROR AND RETREAT XXXVI. THE STORMING OF THE WORKS XXXVII. DEATH IN THE PIT OF STEEL XXXVIII. VISIONS
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"VISIONS!" SHE SAID SOFTLY, "DO YOU BEHOLD THEM TOO?"
"CAN'T BE DONE, EH?" SAID FLINT
HE GATHERED HER UP AS THOUGH SHE HAD BEEN A CHILD
AIMING AT THE BASE OF THE SKULL SHE STRUCK
THE SPY'S BODY BURST INTO A SHEAF OF FIRE
HIS FINGERS LOST THEIR HOLD—HE DROPPED LIKE A PLUMMET
THE AIR TRUST
THE BIRTH OF AN IDEA.
Sunk far back in the huge leather cushions of his morris chair, old Isaac Flint was thinking, thinking hard. Between narrowed lids, his hard, gray eyes were blinking at the morning sunlight that poured into his private office, high up in the great building he had reared on Wall Street. From his thin lips now and then issued a coil of smoke from the costly cigar he was consuming. His bony legs were crossed, and one foot twitched impatiently. Now and again he tugged at his white mustache. A frown creased his hard brow; and, as he pondered, something of the glitter of a snake seemed reflected in his pupils.
"Not enough," he muttered, harshly. "It's not enough—there must be more, more, more! Some way must be found. Must be, and shall be!"
The sunlight of early spring, glad and warm over Manhattan, brought no message of cheer to the Billionaire. It bore no news of peace and joy to him. Its very brightness, as it flooded the metropolis and mellowed his luxurious inner office, seemed to offend the master of the world. And presently he arose, walked to the window and made as though to lower the shade. But for a moment he delayed this action. Standing there at the window, he peered out. Far below him, the restless, swarming life of the huge city crept and grovelled. Insects that were men and women crowded the clefts that were streets. Long lines of cars, toy-like, crept along the "L" structures. As far as the eye could reach, tufted plumes of smoke and steam wafted away on the April breeze. The East River glistened in the sunlight, its bosom vexed by myriad craft, by ocean liners, by tugs and barges, by grim warships, by sailing-vessels, whose canvas gleamed, by snow-white fruitboats from the tropics, by hulls from every port. Over the bridges, long slow lines of traffic crawled. And, far beyond to the dim horizon, stretched out the hives of men, till the blue depths of distance swallowed all in haze.
And as Flint gazed on this marvel, all created and maintained by human toil, by sweat and skill and tireless patience of the workers, a hard smile curved his lips.
"All mine, more or less," said he to himself, puffing deep on his cigar. "All yielding tribute to me, even as the mines and mills and factories I cannot see yield tribute! Even as the oil-wells, the pipe-lines, the railroads and the subways yield—even as the whole world yields it. All this labor, all this busy strife, I have a hand in. The millions eat and drink and buy and sell; and I take toll of it—yet it is not enough. I hold them in my hand, yet the hand cannot close, completely. And until it does, it is not enough! No, not enough for me!"
He pondered a moment, standing there musing at the window, surveying "all the wonders of the earth" that in its fulness, in that year of grace, 1921, bore tribute to him who toiled not, neither spun; and though he smiled, the smile was bitter.
"Not enough, yet," he reflected. "And how—how shall I close my grip? How shall I master all this, absolutely and completely, till it be mine in truth? Through light? The mob can do with less, if I squeeze too hard! Through food? They can economize! Transportation? No, the traffic will bear only a certain load! How, then? What is it they all must have, or die, that I can control? What universal need, vital to rich and poor alike? To great and small? What absolute necessity which shall make my rivals in the Game as much my vassals as the meanest slave in my steel mills? What can it be? For power I must have! Like Caesar, who preferred to be first in the smallest village, rather than be second at Rome, I can and will have no competitor. I must rule all, or the game is worthless! But how?"
Almost as in answer to his mental question, a sudden gust of air swayed the curtain and brushed it against his face. And, on the moment, inspiration struck him.
"What?" he exclaimed suddenly, his brows wrinkling, a strange and eager light burning in his hard eyes. "Eh, what? Can it—could it be possible? My God! If so—if it might be—the world would be my toy, to play with as I like!
"If that could happen, kings and emperors would have to cringe and crawl to me, like my hordes of serfs all over this broad land. Statesmen and diplomats, president and judges, lawmakers and captains of industry, all would fall into bondage; and for the first time in history one man would rule the earth, completely and absolutely—and that man would be Isaac Flint!"
Staggered by the very immensity of the bold thought, so vast that for a moment he could not realize it in its entirety, the Billionaire fell to pacing the floor of his office.
His cigar now hung dead and unnoticed between his thinly cruel lips. His hands were gripped behind his bent back, as he paced the priceless Shiraz rug, itself having cost the wage of a hundred workmen for a year's hard, grinding toil. And as he trod, up and down, up and down the rich apartments, a slow, grim smile curved his mouth.
"What editor could withstand me, then?" he was thinking. "What clergyman could raise his voice against my rule? Ah! Their 'high principles' they prate of so eloquently, their crack-brained economics, their rebellions and their strikes—the dogs!—would soon bow down before that power! Men have starved for stiff-necked opposition's sake, and still may do so—but with my hand at the throat of the world, with the world's very life-breath in my grip, what then? Submission, or—ha! well, we shall see, we shall see!"
A subtle change came over his face, which had been growing paler for some minutes. Impatiently he flung away his cigar, and, turning to his desk, opened a drawer, took out a little vial and uncorked it. He shook out two small white tablets, on the big sheet of plate-glass that covered the desk, swallowed them eagerly, and replaced the vial in the desk again. For be it known that, master of the world though Flint was, he too had a master—morphine. Long years he had bowed beneath its whip, the veriest slave of the insidious drug. No three hours could pass, without that dosage. His immense native will power still managed to control the dose and not increase it; but years ago he had abandoned hope of ever diminishing or ceasing it. And now he thought no more of it than of—well, of breathing.
Breathing! As he stood up again and drew a deep breath, under the reviving influence of the drug, his inspiration once more recurred to him.
"Breath!" said he. "Breath is life. Without food and drink and shelter, men can live a while. Even without water, for some days. But without air—they die inevitably and at once. And if I make the air my own, then I am master of all life!"
And suddenly he burst into a harsh, jangling laugh.
"Air!" he cried exultantly, "An Air Trust! By God in Heaven, it can be! It shall be!—it must!"
His mind, somewhat sluggish before he had taken the morphine, now was working clearly and accurately again, with that fateful and undeviating precision which had made him master of billions of dollars and uncounted millions of human lives; which had woven his network of possession all over the United States, Europe and Asia and even Africa; which had drawn, as into a spider's web, the world's railroads and steamship lines, its coal and copper and steel, its oil and grain and beef, its every need—save air!
And now, keen on the track of this last great inspiration, the Billionaire strode to his revolving book-case, whirled it round and from its shelves jerked a thick volume, a smaller book and some pamphlets.
"Let's have some facts!" said he, flinging them upon his desk, and seating himself before it in a costly chair of teak. "Once I get an outline of the facts and what I want to do, then my subordinates can carry out my plans. Before all, I must have facts!"
For half an hour he thumbed his references, noting all the salient points mentally, without taking a single note; for, so long as the drug still acted, his brain was an instrument of unsurpassed keenness and accuracy.
A sinister figure he made, as he sat there poring intently over the technical books before him, contrasting strangely with the beauty and the luxury of the office. On the mantel, over the fireplace of Carrara marble, ticked a Louis XIV clock, the price of which might have saved the lives of a thousand workingmen's children during the last summer's torment. Gold-woven tapestries from Rouen covered the walls, whereon hung etchings and rare prints. Old Flint's office, indeed, had more the air of an art gallery than a place where grim plots and deals innumerable had been put through, lawmakers corrupted past counting, and the destinies of nations bent beneath his corded, lean and nervous hand. And now, as the Billionaire sat there thinking, smiling a smile that boded no good to the world, the soft spring air that had inspired his great plan still swayed the silken curtains.
Of a sudden, he slammed the big book shut, that he was studying, and rose to his feet with a hard laugh—the laugh that had presaged more than one calamity to mankind. Beneath the sweep of his mustache one caught the glint of a gold tooth, sharp and unpleasant.
A moment he stood there, keen, eager, dominant, his hands gripping the edge of the desk till the big knuckles whitened. He seemed the embodiment of harsh and unrelenting Power—power over men and things, over their laws and institutions; power which, like Alexander's, sought only new worlds to conquer; power which found all metes and bounds too narrow.
"Power!" he whispered, as though to voice the inner inclining of the picture. "Life, air, breath—the very breath of the world in my hands—power absolutely, at last!"
Then, as was his habit, translating ideas into immediate action, he strode to a door at the far end of the office, flung it open and said:
"See here a minute, Wally!"
"Busy!" came an answering voice, from behind a huge roll-top desk.
"Of course! But drop it, drop it. I've got news for you."
"Urgent?" asked the voice, coldly.
"Very. Come in here, a minute. I've got to unload!"
From behind the big desk rose the figure of a man about five and forty, sandy-haired, long-faced and sallow, with a pair of the coldest, fishiest eyes—eyes set too close together—that ever looked out of a flat and ugly face. A man precisely dressed, something of a fop, with just a note of the "sport" in his get-up; a man to fear, a man cool, wary and dangerous—Maxim Waldron, in fact, the Billionaire's right-hand man and confidant. Waldron, for some time affianced to his eldest daughter. Waldron the arch-corruptionist; Waldron, who never yet had been "caught with the goods," but who had financed scores of industrial and political campaigns, with Flint's money and his own; Waldron, the smooth, the suave, the perilous.
"What now?" asked he, fixing his pale blue eyes on the Billionaire's face.
"Come in here, and I'll tell you."
"Right!" And Waldron, brushing an invisible speck of dust from the sleeve of his checked coat, strolled rather casually into the Billionaire's office.
Flint closed the door.
"Well?" asked Waldron, with something of a drawl. "What's the excitement?"
"See here," began the great financier, stimulated by the drug. "We've been wasting our time, all these years, with our petty monopolies of beef and coal and transportation and all such trifles!"
"So?" And Waldron drew from his pocket a gold cigar-case, monogrammed with diamonds. "Trifles, eh?" He carefully chose a perfecto. "Perhaps; but we've managed to rub along, eh? Well, if these are trifles, what's on?"
"Air?" Waldron's match poised a moment, as with a slight widening of the pale blue eyes he surveyed his partner. "Why—er—what do you mean, Flint?"
"The Air Trust!"
"Eh?" And Waldron lighted his cigar.
"A monopoly of breathing privileges!"
"Ha! Ha!" Waldron's laugh was as mirthful as a grave-yard raven's croak. "Nothing to it, old man. Forget it, and stick to—"
"Of course! I might have expected as much from you!" retorted the Billionaire tartly. "You've got neither imagination nor—"
"Nor any fancy for wild-goose chases," said Waldron, easily, as he sat down in the big leather chair. "Air? Hot air, Flint! No, no, it won't do! Nothing to it nothing at all."
For a moment the Billionaire regarded him with a look of intense irritation. His thin lips moved, as though to emit some caustic answer; but he managed to keep silence. The two men looked at each other, a long minute; then Flint began again:
"Listen, now, and keep still! The idea came to me not an hour ago, this morning, looking over the city, here. We've got a finger on everything but the atmosphere, the most important thing of all. If we could control that—"
"Of course, I understand," interrupted the other, blowing a ring of smoke. "Unlimited power and so on. Looks very nice, and all. Only, it can't be done. Air's too big, too fluid, too universal. Human powers can't control it, any more than the ocean. Talk about monopolizing the Atlantic, if you will, Flint. But for heaven's sake, drop—"
"Can't be done, eh?" exclaimed Flint, warmly, sitting down on the desk-top and levelling a big-jointed forefinger at his partner. "That's what every new idea has had to meet. It's no argument! People scoffed at the idea of gas lighting when it was new. Called it 'burning smoke,' and made merry over it. That was as recently as 1832. But ten years later, gas-illumination was in full sway.
"Electric lighting met the same objection. And remember the objection to the telephone? When Congress, in 1843, granted Morse an appropriation of $30,000 to run the first telegraph line from Baltimore to Washington, one would-be humorist in that supremely intelligent body tried to introduce an amendment that part of the sum should be spent in surveying a railroad to the moon! And—"
"Granted," put in Waldron, "that my objection is futile, just what's your idea?"
"This!" And Flint stabbed at him with his forefinger, while the other financier regarded him with a fishily amused eye. "Every human being in this world—and there are 1,900,000,000 of them now!—is breathing, on the average, 16 cubic feet of air every hour, or about 400 a day. The total amount of oxygen actually absorbed in the 24 hours by each person, is about 17 cubic feet, or over 30 billions of cubic feet of oxygen, each day, in the entire world. Get that?"
"Well?" drawled the other.
"Don't you see?" snapped Flint, irritably. "Imagine that we extract oxygen from the air. Then—"
"You might as well try to dip up the ocean with a spoon," said Waldron, "as try to vitiate the atmosphere of the whole world, by any means whatsoever! But even if you could, what then?"
"Look here!" exclaimed the Billionaire. "It only needs a reduction of 10 per cent. in the atmospheric oxygen to make the air so bad that nobody can breathe it without discomfort and pain. Take out any more and people will die! We don't have to monopolize all the oxygen, but only a very small fraction, and the world will come gasping to us, like so many fish out of water, falling over each other to buy!"
"Possibly. But the details?"
"I haven't worked them out yet, naturally. I needn't. Herzog will take care of those. He and his staff. That's what they're for. Shall we put it up to him? What? My God, man! Think of the millions in it—the billions! The power! The—"
"Of course, of course!" interposed Waldron, calmly, eyeing his smoke. "Don't get excited, Flint. Rome wasn't built in a day. There may be something in this; possibly there may be the germ of an idea. I don't say it's impossible. It looks visionary to me; but then, as you well say, so has every new idea always looked. Let me think, now; let me think."
"Go ahead and think!" growled the Billionaire. "Think and be hanged to you! I'm going to act!"
Waldron vouchsafed no reply, but merely eyed his partner with cold interest, as though he were some biological specimen under a lens, and smoked the while.
Flint, however, turned to his telephone and pulled it toward him, over the big sheet of plate glass. Impatiently he took off the receiver and held it up to his ear.
"Hello, hello! 2438 John!" he exclaimed, in answer to the query of "Number, please?"
Silence, a moment, while Waldron slowly drew at his cigar and while the Billionaire tugged with impatience at his gray mustache.
"Hello! That you, Herzog?"
* * * * *
"All right. I want to see you at once. Immediately, understand?"
* * * * *
"Very well. And say, Herzog!"
"Bring whatever literature you have on liquid air, nitrogen extraction from the atmosphere, and so on. Understand? And come at once!"
* * * * *
"That's all! Good-bye!"
Smiling dourly, with satisfaction, he hung up and shoved the telephone away again, then turned to his still reflecting partner, who had now hoisted his patent leather boots to the window sill and seemed absorbed in regarding their gloss through a blue veil of nicotine.
"Herzog," announced the Billionaire, "will be here in ten minutes, and we'll get down to business."
"So?" languidly commented the immaculate Waldron. "Well, much as I'd like to flatter your astuteness, Flint, I'm bound to say you're barking up a false trail, this time! Beef, yes. Steel, yes. Railroads, steamships, coal, iron, wheat, yes. All tangible, all concrete, all susceptible of being weighed, measured, put in figures, fenced and bounded, legislated about and so on and so forth. But air—!"
He snapped his manicured fingers, to show his well-considered contempt for the Billionaire's scheme, and, throwing away his smoked-out cigar, chose a fresh one.
Flint made no reply, but with an angry grunt flung a look of scorn at the calm and placid one. Then, furtively opening his desk drawer, he once more sought the little vial and took two more pellets—an action which Waldron, without moving his head, complacently observed in a heavily-bevelled mirror that hung between the windows.
"Air," murmured Waldron, suavely. "Hot air, Flint?"
No answer, save another grunt and the slamming of the desk-drawer.
And thus, in silence, the two men, masters of the world, awaited the coming of the practical scientist, the proletarian, on whom they both, at last analysis, had to rely for most of their results.
THE BAITING OF HERZOG.
Herzog was not long in arriving. To be summoned in haste by Isaac Flint, and to delay, was unthinkable. For eighteen years the chemist had lickspittled to the Billionaire. Keen though his mind was, his character and stamina were those of a jellyfish; and when the Master took snuff, as the saying is, Herzog never failed to sneeze.
He therefore appeared, now, in some ten minutes—a fat, rubicund, spectacled man, with a cast in his left eye and two fingers missing, to remind him of early days in experimental work on explosives. Under his arm he carried several tomes and pamphlets; and so, bowing first to one financier, then to the other, he stood there on the threshold, awaiting his masters' pleasure.
"Come in, Herzog," directed Flint. "Got some material there on liquid air, and nitrogen, and so on?"
"Yes, sir. Just what is it you want, sir?"
"Sit down, and I'll tell you,"—for the chemist, hat in hand, ventured not to seat himself unbidden in presence of these plutocrats.
Herzog, murmuring thanks for Flint's gracious permission, deposited his derby on top of the revolving book-case, sat down tentatively on the edge of a chair and clutched his books as though they had been so many shields against the redoubted power of his masters.
"See here, Herzog," Flint fired at him, without any preliminaries or beating around the bush, "what do you know about the practical side of extracting nitrogen from atmospheric air? Or extracting oxygen, in liquid form? Can it be done—that is, on a commercial basis?"
"Why, no, sir—yes, that is—perhaps. I mean—"
"What the devil do you mean?" snapped Flint, while Waldron smiled maliciously as he smoked. "Yes, or no? I don't pay you to muddle things. I pay you to know, and to tell me! Get that? Now, how about it?"
"Well, sir—hm!—the fact is," and the unfortunate chemist blinked through his glasses with extreme uneasiness, "the fact of the matter is that the processes involved haven't been really perfected, as yet. Beginnings have been made, but no large-scale work has been done, so far. Still, the principle—"
"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!"
"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—!"
"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.
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.
"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?"
"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 under way, a minute later, both men left the car and strolled to the rail to watch the glittering sparkle of the sunlight on the harbor; the teeming commerce of the port; the creeping liners and busy tugs; the towering figure of Liberty, her flameless torch held far aloft in mockery.
Suddenly Waldron spoke.
"You can't do it, I tell you!" said he, waving an eloquent hand toward the sky. "It's too big, the air is, as I said before. Too damned big! Own coal and copper, if you will, and steel and ships, here; own those buildings back there," with a gesture at the frowning line of skyscrapers buttressing Manhattan, "but don't buck the impossible! And incidentally, Flint, don't misunderstand me, either. When I asked you if we ought to try it, I merely meant, would it be safe? The world, Flint, is a dangerous toy to play with, too hard. The people are perilous baubles, if you step on their corns a bit too often or too heavily. Every Caesar has a Brutus waiting for him somewhere, with a club.
"Once let the unwashed get an idea into their low brows, and you can't tell where it may lead them. Even a rat fights, in its last corner. These human rats of ours have been getting a bit nasty of late. True, they swallowed the Limited Franchise Bill, three years ago, with only a little futile protest, so that now we've got them politically hamstrung. True, there's the Dick Military Bill, recently enlarged and perfected, so they can't move a hand without falling into treason and court-martial. True again, they've stood for the Censorship and the National Mounted Police—the Grays—all in the last year. But how much more will they stand, eh? You close your hand on their windpipes, and by God! something may happen even yet, after all!"
Flint snapped his fingers with contempt.
"Machine guns!" was all he said.
"Yes, of course," answered Waldron. "But there may be life in the old beast yet. They may yet kick the apple cart over—and us with it. You never can tell. And those infernal Socialists, always at it, night and day, never letting up, flinging firebrands into the powder magazine! Sometime there's going to be one hell of a bang, Flint! And when it comes, suave qui peut! So go slow, old man—go damned slow, that's all I've got to say!"
"On the contrary," said Flint, blinking in the golden spring sunshine as he peered out over the swashing brine at a raucous knot of gulls, "on the contrary, Wally, I'm going to push it as fast as the Lord will let me. You can come in, or not, as you see fit—but remember this, no quitter ever gets a daughter of mine! And another thing; we're in the year 1921, now, not 1910 or 1915. Developments, political and otherwise, have moved swiftly, these few years past. Then, there might have been trouble. To-day, there can't be. We've got things cinched too tight for that!
"Ten years ago, they might have had our blood, the people might, or given us a hemp-tea party in Wall Street. today, all's safe. Come, be a man and grip your courage! We can put the initial stages through in absolute secrecy—and then, once we get our clutch on the world's breath, what have we to fear?"
"Go slow, Flint!"
"Nonsense! Oxygen is life itself. There's no substitute. Vitiate the air by removing even 10 per cent. of it, and the world will lick our boots for a chance to breathe! Everybody's got to have oxygen, all the way from kings and emperors down to the toiling cattle, the Henry Dubbs, as I believe they're commonly called in vulgar speech. Shut off the air, and 'the captains and the kings' will run to heel like the rabble itself. Run to heel, and pay for the privilege of doing it! We've got the universities, press, churches, laws, judges, army and navy and everything already in our hands. We'll be secure enough, no fear!"
"Shhhhh!" And Waldron nudged the Billionaire with his elbow.
In his excitement, Flint had permitted his voice to rise, a little. Not far from him, leaning on the rail, a stockily built young fellow in overalls, a cap pulled down firmly over his well-shaped head, was apparently watching the gulls and the passing boats, with eyes no less blue than the bay itself; eyes no less glinting than the sunlight on the waves. He seemed to be paying no heed to anything but what lay before him. But "Tiger" Waldron, possessed of something of the instinct of the beast whose name he bore, subconsciously sensed a peril in his nearness. The man's ear—if unusually quick—might, just might possibly have caught a word or two meant for no interloper. And at that thought, Waldron once more nudged his partner.
"Shhh!" he repeated, "Enough. We can finish this, in the limousine."
Flint looked at him a moment, in silence, then nodded.
"Right you are," said he. And both men climbed back into the closed car.
"You never can tell what ears are primed for news," said Waldron. "Better take no chances."
"Before long, we can throw away all subterfuge," the Billionaire replied as he shut the door. "But for now, well, you're correct. Once our grasp tightens on the windpipe of the world, we're safe. From our office in Wall Street you and I can play the keys of the world-machine as an organist would finger his instrument. But there must be no leak; no publicity; no suspicion aroused. We'll play our music pianissimo, Wally, with rare accompaniments to the tune of 'great public utility, benefit to the public health,' and all that—the same old game, only on a vastly larger scale.
"Every modern composer in the field of Big Business knows that score and has played it many times. We will play it on a monstrous pipe organ, with the world's lungs for bellows and the world's breath to vibrate our reeds—and all paying tribute, night and day, year after year, all over the world, Wally, all over the world!
"God! What power shall be ours! What infinite power, such as, since time began, never yet lay in mortal hands! We shall be as gods, Waldron, you and I—and between us, we shall bring the human race wallowing to our feet in helpless bondage, in supreme abandon!"
The ferry boat, nearing the Staten Island landing, slowed its ponderous screws. The chauffeur flung away his cigarette, drew on his gauntlets and accelerated his engine. Forward the human drove began to press, under the long slave-driven habit of haste, of eagerness to do the masters' bidding.
The young mechanic by the rail—he of the overalls and keen blue eyes—turned toward the bows, picked up a canvas bag of tools and stood there waiting with the rest.
For a moment his glance rested on the limousine and the two half-seen figures within. As it did so, a wanton breeze from off the Island flapped back the lapel of his jumper. In that brief instant one might have seen a button pinned upon his blue flannel shirt—clasped hands, surrounded by the legend: "Workers of the World, Unite!"
But neither of the plutocrats observed this; nor, had they seen, would they have understood.
And whether the sturdy toiler had overheard aught of their infernal conspiring—or, having heard it, grasped its dire and criminal significance—who, who in all this weary and toil-burdened world, could say?
IN THE LABORATORY.
Half an hour's run down Staten Island, along smooth roads lined with sleepy little towns and through sparse woods beyond which sparkled the shining waters of the harbor, brought the two plutocrats to the quiet settlement of Oakwood Heights.
Now the blase chauffeur swung the car sharply to the left, past the aviation field, and so came to the wide-scattered settlement—almost a colony—which, hidden behind high, barb-wire-topped fences, carried on the many and complex activities of the partners' experiment station. Here were the several laboratories where new products were evolved and old ones refined, for Flint's and Waldron's greater profit. Here stood a complete electric power plant, for lighting and heating the works, as well as for current to use in the retorts and many powerful machines of the testing works.
Here, again, were broad proving grounds, for fuel and explosives; and, at one side, stood a low, skylighted group of brick buildings, known as the electro-chemical station. Dormitories and boarding-houses for the small army of employees occupied the eastern end of the enclosure, nearest the sea. Over all, high chimney stacks and the aerials of a mighty wireless plant dominated the entire works. A private railroad spur pierced the western side of the enclosure, for food and coal supplies, as well as for the handling of the numerous imports and exports of this wonderfully complete feudal domain. As the colony lay there basking in the sunshine of early spring, under its drifting streamers of smoke, it seemed an ideal picture of peaceful activities. Here a locomotive puffed, shunting cars; there, a steam-jet flung its plumes of snowy vapor into air; yonder, a steam hammer thundered on a massive anvil. And forges rang, and through open windows hummed sounds of industry.
And yet, not one of all those sounds but echoed more bitter slavery for men. Not one of all those many activities but boded ill to humanity. For the whole plan and purpose of the place was the devising of still wider forms of human exploitation and enslavement. Its every motive was to serve the greed of Flint and Waldron. Outwardly honest and industrious, it inwardly loomed sinister and terrible, a type and symbol of its masters' swiftly growing power. Such, in its essence, was the great experiment station of these two men who lusted for dominion over the whole world.
As the long, glittering car drew up at the main gate of the enclosure, a sharp-eyed watchman peered through a sliding wicket therein. Satisfied by his inspection, he withdrew; and at once the big gate rolled back, smoothly actuated by electricity. The car purred onward, into the enclosure. When the gate had closed noiselessly behind it, the chauffeur ran it down a splendidly paved roadway, swung to the right, past the machine shops, and drew it to a stand in front of the administration building.
Flint and his partner alighted, and stood for a moment surveying the scene with satisfaction. Then Flint turned to the chauffeur.
"Put the car in the garage," he directed. "We may not want it till afternoon."
The blase one touched his cap and nodded, in obedience. Then, as the car withdrew, the partners ascended the broad steps.
"Good chap, that Herrick," commented Waldron, casting a glance at the retreating chauffeur. "Quick-witted, and mum. Give me a man who knows how to mind and keep still about it, every time!"
"Right," assented Flint. "Obedience is the first of all virtues, and the second is silence. Well, it looks to me as though we had the whole world coming our way, now, along that very same path of virtue. Once we get this air proposition really to working, the world will obey. It will have to! And as for silence, we can manage that, too. The mere turn of a valve, and—!"
Waldron smiled grimly, as though in derision of what he seemed to think his partner's chimerical hopes, but made no answer. Together they entered the administration building. Five minutes later, Herzog, their servile experimenter, stood bowing and cringing before them.
"Got it, Herzog?" demanded Flint, while Waldron lighted still another of those costly cigars—each one worth a good mechanic's daily wage.
"Yes, sir, I believe so, sir," the scientist replied, depreciatingly. "That is, at least, on a small scale. Two weeks was the time you allowed me, sir, but—"
"I know. You've done it in eleven days," interrupted, the Billionaire. "Very well. I knew you could. You'll lose nothing by it. So no more of that. Show us what you've done. Everything all ready?"
"Quite ready, sir," the other answered. "If you'll be so good as to step into the electro-chemical building?"
Flint very graciously signified his willingness thus to condescend; and without delay, accompanied by the still incredulous Waldron, and followed by Herzog, he passed out of the administration building, through a covered passage and into the electro-chemical works.
A variety of strange odors and stranger sounds filled this large brick structure, windowless on every side and lighted only by broad skylights of milky wire-glass—this arrangement being due to the extreme secrecy of many processes here going forward. The partners had no intention that any spying eyes should ever so much as glimpse the work in this department; work involving foods, fuels, power, lighting, almost the entire range of the vast network of exploiting media they had already flung over a tired world.
"This way, gentlemen," ventured Herzog, pointing toward a metal door at the left of the main room. He unlocked this, which was guarded by a combination lock, like that of a bank vault, and waited for them to enter; then closed it after them, and made quite sure the metal door was fast.
A peculiar, pungent smell greeted the partners' nostrils as they glanced about the inner laboratory. At one side an electric furnace was glowing with graphite crucibles subjected to terrific heat. On the other a dynamo was humming. Before them a broad, tiled bench held a strange assortment of test tubes, retorts and complex apparatus of glass and gleaming metal. The whole was lighted by a strong white light from above, through the milk-hued glass—one of Herzog's own inventions, by the way; a wonderful, light-intensifying glass, which would bend but not break; an invention which, had he himself profited by it, would have brought him millions, but which the partners had exploited without ever having given him a single penny above his very moderate salary.
"Is that it?" demanded Flint, a glitter lighting up his morphia-contracted pupils. He jerked his thumb at a complicated nexus of tubes, brass cylinders, coiled wires and glistening retorts which stood at one end of the broad work-bench.
"That is it, sir," answered Herzog, apologetically, while "Tiger" Waldron's hard face hardened even more. "Only an experimental model, you understand, sir, but—"
"It gets results?" queried Flint sharply. "It produces oxygen and nitrogen on a scale that indicates success, with adequate apparatus?"
"Yes, sir. I believe so, sir. No doubt about it; none whatever."
"Good!" exclaimed the Billionaire. "Now show us!"
"With pleasure, sir. But first, let me explain, a little."
"Well, what?" demanded Flint. His partner, meanwhile, had drawn near the apparatus, and was studying it with a most intense concentration. Plain to see, beneath this man's foppish exterior and affected cynicism, dwelt powerful purposes and keen intelligence.
"Explain what?" repeated the Billionaire. "As far as details go, I'm not interested. All I want is results. Go ahead, Herzog; start your machine and let me see what it can do."
"I will, sir," acceded the scientist. "But first, with your permission, I'll point out a few of its main features, and—"
"Damn the main features!" cried Flint. "Get busy with the demonstration!"
"Hold on, hold on," now interrupted Waldron. "Let him discourse, if he wants to. Ever know a scientist who wasn't primed to the muzzle with expositions? Here, Herzog," he added, turning to the inventor, "I'll listen, if nobody else will."
Undecided, Herzog smiled nervously. Even Flint had to laugh at his indecision.
"All right, go on," said the Billionaire. "Only for God's sake, make it brief!"
Herzog, thus adjured, cleared his throat and blinked uneasily.
"Oxygen," he said. "Yes, I can produce it quickly, easily and in large quantities. As a gas, or as a liquid, which can be shipped to any desired point and there transformed into gaseous form. Liquid air can also be produced by this same machine, for refrigerating purposes. You understand, of course, that when liquid air evaporates, it is only the nitrogen that goes back into the atmosphere at 313 degrees below zero. The residue is pure liquid oxygen. In other words, this apparatus will make money as a liquid air plant, and furnish you oxygen as a by-product.
"It will also turn out nitrogen, for fertilizing purposes. The income from a full-sized machine, on this pattern, from all three sources, should be very large indeed."
"Good," put in Waldron. "And liquid air, for example, would cost how much to produce?"
"With power-cost at half a cent per H.P. hour, about $2.50 a ton. The oxygen by-product alone will more than pay for that, in purifying and cooling buildings, or used to promote combustion in locomotives and other steam engines. The liquid air itself can be used as a motive power for a certain type of expansion engine, or—"
"There, there, that's enough!" interposed Flint, brusquely. "We don't need any of your advice or suggestions, Herzog. As far as the disposal of the product is concerned, we can take care of that. All we want from you is the assurance that that product can be obtained, easily and cheaply, and in unlimited quantities. Is that the case?"
"It is, sir."
"All right. And can liquid oxygen be easily transported any considerable distance?"
"Yes, sir. In what is known as Place's Vacuum-jacketed Insulated Container, it can be kept for weeks at a time without any appreciable loss."
Flint pondered a moment, then asked, again:
"Could large tanks, holding say, a million gallons, be built on that principle, for wholesale storage? And could vacuum-jacketed pipes be laid, for conveying liquid oxygen or its gas?"
"No reason why not, sir. Yes, I may say all that is quite feasible."
"Very well, then," snapped Flint. "That's enough for the present. Now, show us your machine at work! Start it Herzog. Let's see what you can do!"
The Billionaire's eyes glittered as Herzog laid a hand on a gleaming switch. Even Waldron forgot to smoke.
"Gentlemen, observe," said Herzog, as he threw the lever.
OXYGEN, KING OF INTOXICATORS.
A soft humming note began to vibrate through the inner laboratory—a note which rose in pitch, steadily, as Herzog shoved the lever from one copper post to another, round the half-circle.
"I am now heating the little firebrick furnace," said the scientist. "In Norway, they use an alternating current of only 5,000 volts, between water-cooled copper electrodes, as I have already told you. I am using 30,000 volts, and my electrodes, my own invention, are—"
"Never mind," growled Flint. "Just let's see some of the product—some liquid oxygen, that's all. The why and wherefore is your job, not ours!"
Herzog, with a pained smile, bent and peered through a red glass bull's-eye that now had begun to glow in the side of his apparatus.
"The arc is good," he muttered, as to himself. "Now I will throw in the electro-magnets and spread it; then switch in my intensifying condenser, and finally set the turbine fans to work, to throw air through the field. Then we shall see, we shall see!"
Suiting the action to the words, he deftly touched here a button, there a lever; and all at once a shrill buzzing rose above the lower drone of the induction coils.
"Gentlemen," said Herzog, straightening up and facing his employers, "the process is now already at work. In five minutes—yes, in three—I shall have results to show you!"
"Good!" grunted Waldron. "That's all we're after, results. That's the only way you hold your job, Herzog, just getting results!"
He relighted his cigar, which had gone out during Herzog's explanation—for "Tiger" Waldron, though he could drop thousands at roulette without turning a hair, never yet had been known to throw away a cigar less than half smoked. Flint, meanwhile, took out a little morocco-covered note book and made a few notes. In this book he had kept an outline of his plan from the very first; and now with pleasure he added some memoranda, based on what Herzog had just told him, as well as observations on the machine itself.
Thus two minutes passed, then three.
"Time's up, Herzog!" exclaimed Waldron, glancing at the electric clock on the wall. "Where's the juice?"
"One second, sir," answered the scientist. Again he peeked through the glowing bull's-eye. Then, his face slightly pale, his bulging eyes blinking nervously, he took two small flint glass bottles, set them under a couple of pipettes, and deftly made connections.
"Oxygen cocktail for mine," laughed Waldron, to cover a certain emotion he could not help feeling at sight of the actual operation of a process which might, after all, open out ways and means for the utter subjugation of the world.
Neither Flint nor the inventor vouchsafed even a smile. The Billionaire drew near, adjusted a pair of pince-nez on his hawk-like nose, and peered curiously at the apparatus. Herzog, with a quick gesture, turned a small silver faucet.
"Oxygen! Unlimited oxygen!" he exclaimed. "I have found the process, gentlemen, commercially practicable. Oxygen!"
Even as he spoke, a lambent, sparkling liquid began to flow through the pipette, into the flask. At sight of it, the Billionaire's eyes lighted up with triumph. Waldron, despite his assumed nonchalance, felt the hunting thrill of Wall street, the quick stab of exultation when victory seemed well in hand.
"These bottles," said Herzog, "are double, constructed on the principle of the Thermos bottle. They will keep the liquid gases I shall show you, for days. Huge tanks could be built on the same principle. In a short time, gentlemen, you can handle tons of these gases, if you like—thousands of tons, unlimited tons.
"The Siemens and Halske people, and the Great Falls, S.C., plant, will be mere puttering experimenters beside you. For neither they nor any other manufacturers have any knowledge of the vital process—my secret, polarizing transformer, which does the work in one-tenth the time and at one-hundredth the cost of any other known process. For example, see here?"
He turned the faucet, disconnected the flask and handed it to Flint.
"There, sir," he remarked, "is a half-pint of pure liquid oxygen, drawn from the air in less than eight minutes, at a cost of perhaps two-tenths of a cent. On a large scale the cost can be vastly reduced. Are you satisfied, sir?"
Flint nodded, curtly.
"You'll do, Herzog," he replied—his very strongest form of commendation. "You're not half bad, after all. So this is liquid oxygen, eh? Very cheap, and very cold?"
His eyes gleamed with joy at sight of the translucent potent stuff—the very stuff of life, its essence and prime principle, without which neither plant nor animal nor man can live—oxygen, mother of all life, sustainer of the world.
"Very cheap, yes, sir," answered the scientist. "And cold, enormously cold. The specimen you hold in your hand, in that vacuum-protected flask, is more than three hundred degrees below zero. One drop of it on your palm would burn it to the bone. Incidentally, let me tell you another fact—"
"And that is?"
"This specimen is the allotropic or condensed form of oxygen, much more powerful than the usual liquified gas."
"Ozone, you mean?"
"Precisely. Would you like to sense its effect as a ventilating agent?"
"None, sir. Here, allow me."
Herzog took the flask, pressed a little spring and liberated the top. At once a whitish vapor began to coil from the neck of the bottle.
"Hm!" grunted Waldron, smiling. "Mountain winds and sea breezes have nothing on that!" He sniffed with appreciation. "Some gas, all right!"
"You're right, Wally," answered the Billionaire. "If this works out on a large scale, in all its details—well—I needn't impress its importance on you!"
Yielding to the influence of the wonderful, life-giving gas, the rather close air of the laboratory, contaminated by a variety of chemical odors, and vitiated by its recent loss of oxygen, had begun to freshen and purify itself in an astonishing manner. One would have thought that through an open window, close at hand, the purest ocean breeze was blowing. A faint tinge of color began to liven the somewhat pasty cheek of the Billionaire. Waldron's big chest expanded and his eye brightened. Even the meek Herzog stood straighter and looked more the man, under the stimulus of the life-giving ozone.
"Fine!" exclaimed Flint, with unwonted enthusiasm, and nearly yielded to a laugh. Waldron went so far as to slap Herzog on the shoulder.
"You're some wizard, old man!" he exclaimed, with a warmth hitherto never known by him—for already the subtle gas was beginning to intoxicate his senses. "And you can handle nitrogen with the same ease and precision?"
"Exactly," answered Herzog. "This other vial contains pure nitrogen. With enlarged apparatus, I can supply it by the trainload. The world's fertilizer problem is solved!"
"Great work!" ejaculated Waldron, even more excited than before, but Flint, his natural sourness asserting itself, merely growled some ungracious remark.
"Nitrogen can go hang," said he. "It's oxygen we're after, primarily. Once we get our grip on that, the world will be—"
Waldron checked him just in time.
"Enough of this," he interrupted sharply. "I admit, I'm not myself, in this rich atmosphere. I know you're feeling it, already, Flint. Come along out of this, where we can regain our aplomb. We've seen enough, for once."
He turned to Herzog.
"For God's sake, man," cried he, "cork that magic bottle of yours, before all the oxygen-genii escape, or you'll have us both under the table! And, see here," he added, pulling out his check-book, while Flint stared in amazed disgust. "Here, take a blank check." He took his fountain pen and scrawled his name on one. "The amount? That's up to you. Now, let us out," he bade, as Herzog stood there regarding the check with entire uncomprehension. "Out, I say, before I get extravagant!"
Herzog, perfectly comprehending the magnates' unusual conduct as due to oxygen-intoxication in its initial stage, made no comment, but walked to the door, spun the combination and flung it open.
"Glad to have had the pleasure of demonstrating the process to you, gentlemen," said he. "If you're convinced it's practicable, I'm at your orders for any larger extension of the work. Have you any other question or suggestion?"
Neither magnate answered. Flint was trying hard to hold his self-control. Waldron, red-faced now and highly stimulated, looked as though he had been drinking even more than usual.
Both passed out of the laboratory with rather unsteady steps. Together they retraced their way to the administration building; and there, safe at last in the private inner office, with the door locked, they sat down and stared at each other with expressions of amazement.
A FREAK OF FATE.
Waldron was the first to speak. With a sudden laugh, boisterous and wild, he cried:
"Flint, you old scoundrel, you're drunk!"
"Drunk yourself!" retorted the Billionaire, half starting from his chair, his fist clenched in sudden passion. "How dare you—?"
"Dare? I dare anything!" exclaimed Waldron. "Yes, I admit it—I am half seas over. That ozone—God! what a stimulant! Must be some wonderfully powerful form. If we—could market it—"
Flint sank back in his chair, waving an extravagant hand.
"Market it?" he answered. "Of course we can market it, and will! Drunk or sober, Wally, I know what I'm talking about. The power now in our grasp has never yet been equalled on earth. On the one side, we can half-stifle every non-subscriber to our service, or wholly stifle every rebel against us. On the other, we can simply saturate every subscriber with health and energy, or even—if they want it—waft them to paradise on the wings of ozone. The old Roman idea of 'bread and circus' to rule the mob, was child's play compared to this! Science has delivered the whole world into our hands. Power, man, power! Absolute, infinite power over every living, breathing thing!"
He fell silent, pondering the vast future; and Waldron, gazing at him with sparkling eyes, nodded with keen satisfaction. Thus for a few moments they sat, looking at each other and letting imagination ran riot; and as they sat, the sudden, stimulating effect of the condensed oxygen died in their blood, and calmer feelings ensued.
Presently Waldron spoke again.
"Let's get down to brass tacks," said he, drawing his chair up to the table. "I'm almost myself again. The subtle stuff has got out of my brain, at last. Generalities and day-dreams are all very well, Flint, but we've got to lay out some definite line of campaign. And the sooner we get to it the better."
"Hm!" sneered Flint. "If it's not more practical than your action in giving Herzog that blank check, it won't be worth much. As an extravagant action, Wally, I've never seen it equalled. I'm astonished, indeed I am!"
Waldron laughed easily.
"Don't worry," he answered his partner. "That temporary aberration of judgment, due to oxygen-stimulus, will have no results. Herzog won't dare fill out the check, anyhow, because he knows he'd get into trouble if he did; and even though he should, he can collect nothing. I'll have payment stopped, at once, on that number. No danger, Flint!"
"I don't know," mused the Billionaire. "It may be that this man has us just a little under his thumb. He, and he alone, understands the process. We've got to treat him with due consideration, or he may leave us and carry his secret to others—to Masterson, for instance, or the Amalgamated people, or—"
"Nothing doing on that, old man!" interrupted "Tiger." "Have no fear. The first move he makes, off to Sing Sing he goes, the way we jobbed Parker Hayes. Slade and the Cosmos Agency can take care of him, all right, if he asserts himself!"
"Very likely," answered Flint, who had now at last entirely recovered his sang-froid. "But in that event, our work would be at a standstill. No, Waldron, we mustn't oppose this fellow. Better let the check go through, if he has nerve enough to fill it out and cash it. He won't dare gouge very deep; and no matter what he takes, it won't be a drop in the ocean, compared to the golden flood now almost within our grasp!"
Waldron pondered a moment, then nodded assent.
"All right. Correct," he finally answered. "So then, we can dismiss that trifle from our minds. Now, to work! We've got the process we were after. What next?"
"First of all," answered the Billionaire, "we'll let this Herzog understand that he's to have a share in the results; that in this, as in everything so far, he's merely a tool—and that when tools lose their cutting edge we break 'em. He's a meek devil. We can hold him easily enough."
"Right. And then?" asked Waldron.
"Then? First of all, a good, big, wide-sweeping publicity campaign. That must begin today, to prepare opinion for the forthcoming development of the new idea."
"Henderson can handle that, all right," said Wally, leaning forward in his chair. "Give him the idea, and turn him loose, and he'll get results. A clever dog, that. He and his press bureau, working through all the big dailies and many of the magazines, can turn this country upside down in six months. Let him get on this job, and before you know it the public will be demanding, be fighting for a chance to subscribe to the new ventilating-service. That part of it is easy!"
"Yes, you're right," replied Flint. "We'll see Henderson no later than this afternoon. He and his writers can lay out a series of popular articles and advertisements, to be run as pure reading matter, with no distinguishing mark that they are ads, which will get the country—the whole world, in fact—coming our way."
"Good," the other assented. "Meantime, we can begin installing oxygen machines on a big scale, a huge scale, to supply the demand that's bound to arise. Where do you think we'd best manufacture? Herzog says water power is the correct thing. We might use Niagara—use some of the surplus power we already own there."
"Niagara would do, very well," answered Flint. He had once more taken out his little morocco-covered note book, and was now jotting down some further memoranda. "It's a good location. Pipe-lines could easily be extended, from it, to cover practically a quarter to a third of the United States. Eventually we'll put in another plant in Chicago, one in Denver and one on the Pacific Coast. Then, in time, there must be distributing centers in Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. But for the present, we'll begin with the Niagara plant. After we get that under full operation, the others will develop in due course of time."
"Our charter covers this new line of work. There will be no need of any legal technicalities," said Waldron, with a smile. "Some charter, if I do say it, who shouldn't. I drew it, you remember. Nothing much in the way of possible business-extension got past me!"
"You're right," he answered. "Nothing stands in our way, now. Positively nothing. We have land, power and capital without limit. We have the process. We control press, law, courts, judges, military and every other form of government. All we need look out for is to secure public confidence and keep the bandage on the eyes of the world till our system is actually in operation—then there will be no redress, no come back, no possible rebellion. As I've already said, Wally, we'll have the whole world by the windpipe; and let the mob howl then, if they dare!"
"Yes, let 'em howl!" chimed in "Tiger," with a snarl that proved his nickname no misnomer. "Inside of a year we'll have them all where we want them. You were right, Flint, when you called oil, coal, iron and all the rest of it mere petty activities. Air—ah! that's the talk! Once we get the air under our control, we're emperors of all life!"
His words rang frank and bold, but something in his look, as he blinked at his partner, might have given Flint cause for uneasiness, had the Billionaire noticed that oblique and dangerous glance. One might have read therein some shifty and devious plan of Waldron's to dominate even Flint himself, to rule the master or to wreck him, and to seize in his own hands the reins of universal power. But Flint, bending over his note-book and making careful memoranda, saw nothing of all this.
Waldron, an inveterate smoker, lighted a fresh cigar, leaned back, surveyed his partner and indulged in a short inner laugh, which hardly curved his cruel lips, but which hardened still more those pale-blue, steely eyes of his.
"All right," said he, at last. "Enough of this, Flint. Let's get back to town, now, and have a conference with Henderson. That's the first step. By tonight, the whole campaign of publicity must be mapped out. Come, come; you can finish your memoranda later. I'm impatient to be back in Wall Street. Come along!"
Five minutes later, having left orders that Herzog was to attend upon them in their private offices, next morning, they had ordered the limousine and were making way along the hard road toward the gate of the enclosure.
The gate opened to let them pass, then swung and locked again, behind them. At a good clip, the powerful car picked up speed on the homeward way. The two magnates, exultant and flushed with the consciousness of coming victory, lolled in the deeply-cushioned seat and spoke of power.
As they swung past the aviation field and neared the Oakwood Heights station, a train pulled out. Down the road came tramping a workingman in overalls and jumper, with a canvas bag of tools swinging from his brawny right hand. As he walked, striding along with splendid energy, he whistled to himself—no cheap ragtime air, but Handel's Largo, with an appreciation which bespoke musical feeling of no common sort.
The Billionaire caught sight of him, just as the car slowed to take the sharp turn by the station. Instant recognition followed. Flint's eyes narrowed sharply.
"Hm! The same fellow," he grunted to himself. "The same rascal who stood beside us on the ferry boat, as we were talking over our plans. Now, what the devil?"
Shadowed by a kind of instinctive uneasiness, not yet definite or clear but more in the nature of a premonition of trouble, Flint gazed fixedly at the mechanic as the car swung round the bend in the road. The glance was returned.
Yielding to some kind of imperative curiosity, the Billionaire leaned over the side of the car—leaned out, with his coat flapping in the stiff wind—and for a moment peered back at the disquieting workman.
Then the car swept him out of sight, and Flint resumed his seat again.
He did not know—for he had not seen it happen—that in that moment the slippery, leather-covered note-book had slid from his lolling coat pocket and had fallen with a sharp slap on the white macadam, skidded along and come to rest in the ditch.
The workingman, however, who had paused and turned to look after the speeding car, he had seen all this.
A moment he stood there, peering. Then, retracing his steps with resolution he picked up the little book and slid it into the pocket of his jeans.
Deserted was the road. Not a soul was to be seen, save the crossing flagman, musing in his chair beside his little hut, quite oblivious to everything but a rank cob pipe. The workman's act had not been noticed.
Nobody had observed him. Nobody knew. Not a living creature had witnessed the slight deed on which, by a strange freak of fate, the history of the world was yet to turn.
ONE UNBIDDEN, SHARES GREAT SECRETS.
Immediately on discovering his loss—which was soon after having reached his office—Flint, in something like a fright, telephoned down to the Oakwood Heights laboratory and instructed Herzog, in person, to make a careful search for it and to report results inside an hour. Even though some of the essentials of his plan were written in a code of his own devising, Flint paled before the possible results should the book fall into the hands of anybody intelligent enough to fathom its meaning.
"Damn the luck!" he ejaculated, pacing the office floor, his fists knotted. "If it had been a pocket book with a few thousand inside, that would have been a trifle. But to lose my plan of campaign—God grant no harm may come of it!"
Waldron, slyly observing him, could not suppress a smile.
"Calling on God, eh?" sneered he. "You must be agitated. I haven't heard that kind of entreaty on your lips, Flint, since the year of the big coal strike, when you prayed God the gun-men might 'get' the strikers before they could organize. Come, come, man, brace up! Your book will turn up all right; and even if it doesn't there's no cause for alarm. It would take a man of extraordinary acumen to read your hieroglyphics! Cheer up, Flint. There's really nothing to excite you."
The Billionaire thus adjured, sat down and tried to calm his agitation.
"Rotten luck, eh?" he queried. "But after all, Herzog is likely to find the book. And even if he doesn't, I guess we're safe enough. The very boldness of the plan—supposing even that the finder could grasp it—would put it outside the seeming range of the possible. It's hardly a hundred to one shot any harm may come of it."
"All right, then, let it go at that," said Waldron. "And now, to business. Suppose, for example, you've got a perfectly unlimited supply of oxygen-gas and liquid. How are you going to market it? Just what details have you worked out?"
Flint pondered a moment, before replying. At last he said:
"Of course you understand, Wally, I can't give you every point. The whole thing will be an evolution, and new ideas and processes, new uses and demands will develop as time passes. But in the main, my idea is this: The big producing stations will steadily extract oxygen from the atmosphere, thus leaving the air increasingly poorer and less adapted to sustaining human life.
"I shall store the oxygen in vast tanks, like the ordinary gas-tanks to be found in every city, only much bigger. These tanks will be fed by pipe-lines from the central stations, thus."
Flint drew toward him a sheet of his heavily embossed letter-paper, and, picking up a pencil, began to sketch a rough diagram. Waldron, making no comment, followed every stroke with keen interest.
"From these tanks," the Billionaire continued, "smaller pipes will convey the gaseous oxygen to every house taking our service."
"Just like ordinary gas?"
"Precisely. Each room will be fitted with an oxygen jet apparatus, something like a gas burner, with a safety device to prevent over supply and avoid the dangers of combustion."
"Yes. In pure oxygen, a glowing bit of wire will burst into flame. Your cigar, there, would catch fire, from the merest spark in its inmost folds. Too much oxygen in a room not only intoxicates the occupants—we've already seen that effect—but also develops a great fire risk. So we shall have to make some provision for that, Wally. It will be absolutely essential."
"All right. Allowing it's been made, what then?" asked "Tiger," with extraordinary interest.
"Can't you see? We'll have every household under our absolute thumb?" And Flint pressed his thumb on the table to illustrate. "My God, man, think of it! Every city honeycombed by our pipes—yes, and every village and hamlet too, and even every farm house that can afford it! At first, the cost will be very low, till people have become accustomed to ozone as they are to water. The whole ventilation problem will be solved, at once and for all time. Where we can't pipe in the ozone, we can use portable vaporizers, to be supplied once a month, and of sufficient capacity to keep the air of an average-sized house perfectly pure for thirty days.
"Pure? More than pure! Exhilarating, life-giving, delicious! Under this system, Wally, the middle and upper classes will thrive as never before. They'll grow in size and weight, in health and intelligence, under the steady influence of ozone, day and night. Every vital process will be stimulated. Our invention will mark a new era in the welfare of the world!"
"Bunk!" sneered Wally. "That's all very well for your prospectuses and newspaper articles, old man, but the fact is we don't give a damn whether it helps the world or wrecks it. We're out for money and power. My motto is, Get 'em and do good, if you can—but get 'em anyhow! So you had better can the philanthropic part of it. Just show me the cash, and you can have all the credit!"
Flint shot a grim look at his partner, then continued:
"Don't be flippant, Wally. This is a serious business and must be treated as such. In addition to the respiratory service, we can put in water-cooling and refrigerating services, at low cost, also cold-pipes for cooling houses in summer. In fine, we can immeasurably add to the health and comfort of the better classes; and can at last have everybody using our gas, which, registering through our own sealed meters, will flood us with wealth so vast as to make that of these Standard Oil pifflers look like the proverbial thirty cents!"
"Fine!" exclaimed Waldron, nodding approval. "Also, any time any rebellion develops we can merely shut off the supply in that quarter, and quickly reduce it. Or, again, we can increase the potency of the gas, and fairly intoxicate the people, till they stand for anything. Just fancy, now, our pipes connected with the sacred Halls of Congress and with the White House! Even if any difficulty could possibly be expected from these sources, just imagine how quickly we could nip it in the bud!"
"Quickly isn't the word, Wally," answered the Billionaire. "I tell you, old man, the world lies in our hands, today. And we have only to close our fingers, in order to possess it!"
He glanced at his own fingers, as though he visibly perceived the great world lying there for him to squeeze. Waldron's eyes, following the Billionaire's, saw that Flint's hand was trembling, and understood the reason. More than three hours had passed—nay, almost four—since Flint had had any opportunity to take his necessary dose of morphia. Waldron arose, paced to the window and stood there looking out over the vast panorama of city, river and harbor, apparently absorbed in contemplation, but really keen to hear what Flint might do.
His expectations were not disappointed. Hardly had he turned his back, when he heard the desk-drawer open, furtively, and knew the Billionaire was taking out the little vial of white tablets, dearer to him than ever the caress of woman to a Don Juan. A moment later, the drawer closed again.
"He'll do now, for a while," thought Waldron, with satisfaction. "Let him go the limit, if he likes—the fool! The more he takes, the quicker I win. It'll kill him yet, the dope will. And that means, my mastery of the world will be complete. Let him go it! The harder, the better!"
He turned back toward Flint, again, veiling in that impenetrable face of his the slightest hint or expression which might have told Flint that he understood the Billionaire's vice. If Flint were Vulture, Waldron was Tiger, indeed. And so, for a brief moment, these two soulless men of gold and power stood eyeing each other, in silence.
Suddenly Waldron spoke.
"There's one thing you've forgotten to speak of, Flint," he said.
"And that is?" demanded the other, already calmed by the quick action of the subtle, enslaving drug.
"The effect on the world's poor—on the toiling millions! The results of this innovation, in slum, and slave-quarter, and in the haunts of poverty. Your talk has all been of the middle and upper classes, and of the benefits accruing to them, from increased oxygen-consumption. But how about the others? Every ounce of oxygen you take out of the air, leaves it just so much poorer. Store thousands of tons of the life-giving gas, in monster tanks, and you vitiate the entire atmosphere. How about that? How can even the well-to-do breathe, then, out-doors, to say nothing of the poverty-stricken millions?"
Flint grimaced, showing a glint of his gold tooth—his substitute for a smile.
"That's all reckoned for," he answered. "I thought I made it quite clear, in our previous talk. To begin with, we will withdraw the oxygen from the atmosphere so slowly that at first there won't be any noticeable effect on the out-door air. For a while, the only thing that will be noticed by the world will be that our gas service, to private residences and institutions, will result in greatly increased comfort and health to the better classes. And the cost will be so low—at first, mind you, only at first—that every family of any means at all can take it. In fact, Wally, we can afford practically to give away the service, for the first year, until we get our grip firmly fixed on the throat of the world. Do you get the idea?"
Waldron nodded, as he drew leisurely on his cigar.
"Practical to a degree," he answered. "That is, until the poor begin to gasp for breath. But what then?"
"By the time the outer atmosphere really begins to show the effect of withdrawing a considerable percentage of the oxygen," Flint answered, "we will have our pocket respirators on the market. Well-to-do people will as soon think of going out without their shoes, as they will with their respirators. No, there won't be any visible tubes or attachments, Wally. Nothing of that kind. Only, each person will carry a properly insulated cake of solidified oxygen that will evaporate through the special apparatus and surround him with a normally rich atmosphere. And—"
"Yes, but the poor? The workers? What of them?"
"Devil take them, if it comes to that!" retorted Flint, with some heat. "Who ever gives them any serious attention, as it is? Who bothers about their health? They eat and drink and breathe the leavings, anyhow—eat the cheapest and most adulterated food, drink the vilest slop and breathe the most vitiated slum air. Nobody cares, except perhaps those crazy Socialists that once in a while get up on the street-corner and howl about the rights of man and all that rubbish! Working-class? What do I care about the cattle? Let them die, if they want to! D'you suppose, for one minute, I'm going to limit or delay this big innovation, because there's a working-class that may suffer?"
"They'll do more than suffer, Flint, if you seriously depreciate the atmosphere. They'll die!"
"Well, let them, and be damned to them!" retorted Flint, already showing symptoms of drug-stimulation. Waldron, smoking meanwhile, eyed him with a dangerous smile lurking in his cold eyes. "Let them, I say! They die off, now, twice or thrice as fast as the better classes, but what difference does it make? Great breeders, those people are. The more they die, the faster they multiply. Let them go their way and do as they like, so long as they don't interfere with us! The only really important factor to reckon on is this, that with an impoverished air to breathe, their rebellious spirit will die out—the dogs!—and we'll have no more talk of social revolution. We'll draw their teeth, all right enough; or rather, twist the bowstring round their damned necks so tight that all their energy, outside of work, will be consumed in just keeping alive. Revolution, then? Forget it, Waldron! We'll kill that viper once and for all!"
"Good idea, Flint," the other replied, with approbation. "Only a master-mind like yours could have conceived it. I'm with you, all right enough. Only, tell me—do you really believe we can put this whole program through, without a hitch? Without a leak, anywhere? Without barricades in the streets, wild-eyed agitators howling, machine-guns chattering, and Hell to pay?"
Flint smiled grimly.
"Wait and see!" he growled.
"Maybe you're right," his partner answered. "But slow and easy is the only way."
"Slow and easy," Flint assented. "Of course we can't go too fast. In 1850, for example, do you suppose the public would have tolerated the sudden imposition of monopolies? Hardly! But now they lie down under them, and even vote and fight to keep them! So, too, with this Air Trust. Time will show you I'm right."