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He made a violent gesture of affirmation. 'Why, certainly, it is permissible! You don't think us silly enough to risk a failure? To say nothing of the fact that we need the support of men of standing, men who can control the market should matters be difficult at the outset. And now, at any rate, four-fifths of our shares are placed in sure hands. We can proceed to sign the articles of association at the notary's.'

She was daring enough to oppose him. 'I thought that the law required the subscription of the entire capital before that was done?'

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This time, greatly surprised, he looked her in the face. 'You read the Code then?' he asked.

She coloured slightly, for he had guessed the truth. On the previous day, yielding to her uneasiness, that secret fear[Pg 116] without any precise cause, she had read the law which regulated joint-stock companies. Still, just for a moment, she was on the point of denying it. Then she confessed with a laugh: 'Yes, it's true; I read the Code yesterday; and after my perusal, I found myself examining into my own honesty and that of others, just as after reading medical books one fancies oneself afflicted with every disease.'

He, however, took offence; for the circumstance that she had wished to inform herself showed that she distrusted him, and was prepared to watch him, with her searching intelligent woman's eyes.

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'Ah!' he replied, with a gesture which swept all vain scruples away, 'do you suppose that we are going to conform to the trumperies of the Code? Why! we could not take two steps; we should be met by obstacles at every turn, while others, our rivals, would go ahead at full speed and outstrip us. No, no, I certainly shan't wait till all the capital is subscribed; moreover, I prefer to reserve some shares for ourselves, and I shall find a man with whom I will open an account, and who, in short, will be our man of straw.'

'It is forbidden,' she declared, simply, in that beautiful, grave voice of hers.

'Oh yes, it is forbidden, but all companies do it.'

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'They do wrong, then, since it isn't right.'

Calming himself by a sudden effort of will, and smiling in his turn, Saccard thereupon thought it best to turn to Hamelin, who, in his embarrassment, was listening without intervening. 'I hope that you don't doubt me, my dear friend; I am an old stager of some experience; you can trust yourself in my hands, so far as the financial side of the affair is concerned. Bring me good ideas, and I will undertake to make them yield all desirable profit with the least possible risk. I believe that a practical man can say nothing better.'

The engineer, with his invincible timidity and weakness, turned the matter into a joke, in order to avoid giving a direct answer. 'Oh! you will have a real censor in Caroline,' said he. 'She is a born schoolmistress.'

'But I am quite willing to join her class,' declared Saccard gallantly.

Madame Caroline herself had begun laughing again. And the conversation continued in a familiar good-natured way.

'You see,' she said, 'I love my brother very much, and I like you yourself more than you think, and it would give me great sorrow to see you engage in shady transactions with nothing but disaster and grief at the end of them. Thus I may say, now that we are upon the matter, that I have a great terror of speculation and Bourse gambling. I was so glad, therefore, to read in the eighth clause of the proposed bye-laws which you made me copy that the company forbade itself all dealings "for account." That was a prohibition of gambling, was it not? And then you disenchanted me by laughing at me and explaining that it was simply a show clause, a formula which all companies made it a point of honour to insert in their bye-laws, but which none of them ever observed. Do you know what I should like? Why, that instead of these shares, these fifty thousand shares which you are going to issue, you should issue only debentures. Oh! you see that I have become very learned since I read the Code; I am no longer ignorant that folks do not gamble in debentures, that a debenture-holder is a simple lender who receives a certain percentage for his loan without being interested in the profits, whereas the shareholder is a partner who runs the risk of profit and loss. So, why not debentures? That would tranquillise me so much; I should be so happy!'

She jocularly exaggerated the supplicating tone of her request in order to conceal her real anxiety. And Saccard answered in the same tone, with comical passion: 'Debentures, debentures! No, never! What would you have us do with debentures? They are so much dead matter. You must understand that speculation, gambling, is the central mechanism, the heart itself, of a vast affair like ours. Yes, it attracts blood, takes it from every source in little streamlets collects it, sends it back in rivers in all directions, and establishes an enormous circulation of money, which is the[Pg 118] very life of great enterprises. But for this, the great movements of capital and the great civilising works that result therefrom would be impossible. It is the same with joint-stock companies. Has there not been a great outcry against them? Has it not been said again and again that they are gambling, cut-throat institutions? But the truth is that without them we should have no railways nor any of the huge modern enterprises that have made the world a new one; for no single fortune would have sufficed to carry them through, just as no single individual or group of individuals would have been willing to run the risk. The risk and the grandeur of the object are everything. There must be a vast project, the magnitude of which will strike the imagination; there must be the hope of a considerable gain, of some stroke that will increase the investment tenfold, provided it is not swept away; and then passions kindle, life abounds, each brings his money, and you can knead the earth over again. What evil do you see in that? The risks incurred are voluntary, they are spread over an infinite number of persons, they are unequal, limited by the fortune and audacity of each. One man loses, but another wins; all hope to secure a lucky number, but must always expect to draw a blank; and humanity has no more obstinate, no more ardent dream, than that of trying fortune, of striving to obtain everything from its capricious decisions, of becoming a king, a demi-god!'

Little by little, Saccard had ceased laughing, and straightening himself upon his short legs, he became inflamed with a lyric ardour, indulging the while in gestures that scattered his words to the four corners of heaven. 'See!' he cried, 'we, with our Universal Bank, are we not going to open up a broad horizon, pierce through that old world of Asia, that unlimited field for the pickaxe of progress and the dreams of the goldfinder? Certainly there was never a more colossal ambition, and, I grant it, never were the chances of success or failure more obscure. But, precisely for that reason, we are within the very terms of the problem, and shall arouse, I am convinced, extraordinary infatuation among the public as soon as we become known. Our Universal Bank will, in the first[Pg 119] place, be one of the orthodox establishments which transact all banking and discount business, which receive funds on deposit, and contract, negotiate, or issue loans. But what I especially wish to make of it, is a machine to launch your brother's grand projects: that will be its real r?le, the r?le in which it will find increasing profits and a gradually commanding power. We establish it, in short, in order that it may assist the financial and industrial companies which we shall organise in foreign countries, the companies whose shares we shall place, and which will owe us life and assure us sovereignty. And now that we are already in sight of this dazzling future of conquest, you come and ask me if it is allowable to form a syndicate and grant a premium to the syndicators, a premium which will be charged among the initial expenses. You worry yourself about inevitable petty irregularities, such as unsubscribed shares, which the Bank will do well to retain under cover of a man of straw; in short, you start on a campaign against gambling—gambling, good heavens! which is the very soul, the furnace, of the mechanical giant that I dream of! Know then that all this is nothing! that this paltry little capital of twenty-five millions is a simple faggot thrown under the machine to heat it! that I hope to double, quadruple, quintuple this capital as fast as our operations extend! that we must have a hail of gold, a dance of millions, if we wish to accomplish over yonder the prodigies we have predicted! Ah! I won't say there will be no breakage—one can't move the world, you know, without crushing the feet of a few passers-by.'

She looked at him, and, in her love of life, of all that was strong and active, she ended by finding him handsome, seductive, by reason of his fervour and faith. Accordingly, without espousing his theories, at which the uprightness of her clear intelligence revolted, she pretended to be vanquished.

'Well, then, say that I am only a woman, and that the battles of existence frighten me. Only do try to crush as few people as possible, and especially crush none of those I love.'

Saccard, intoxicated by his own outburst of eloquence, as[Pg 120] triumphant at the mere exposition of his vast plans as though the work were already done, made a display of great good-nature. 'Oh, don't be afraid!' said he; 'if I play the ogre, it is for fun. We shall all be rich.'