Ralph of the Roundhouse/Chapter 30
THE RIGHT OF WAY
The peculiar announcement of Ralph's host was so grandiloquent, and his manner so lofty and important, that the young railroader smiled despite himself.
Certainly Ralph decided the Dover & Springfield Short Line had its headquarters in a particularly isolated place, and its presentation of physical resources was limited.
"I never heard of that road before," observed Ralph.
"Probably not," answered his host—"you will hear of it, though, and others, in the near future."
Ralph did not attach much importance to the prediction. He had seen at a glance that Gibson was an erratic individual, his hermit life had probably given birth to some visionary ideas, and his railroad, simmered down to the tangible, had undoubtedly little real foundation outside of his own fancies and dreams.
Ralph changed his mind somewhat, however, as he crossed the threshold of the door, for he stood in the most remarkable apartment he had ever entered.
This was a long, low room with a living space at one end, but the balance of the place had the unmistakable characteristics of a depot and railway office combined.
In fact it was the most "railroady" place Ralph had ever seen. Its walls were rude and rough, its furniture primitive and even grotesque, but everything harmonized with the idea that this was the center of an actual railroad system in operation.
There were benches as if for passengers. In one corner with a grated window was a little partitioned off space labeled "President's Office." Hanging from a strap were a lot of blank baggage checks, on the walls were all kinds of railroad time-tables, and painted on a board running the entire width of the room were great glaring black letters on a white background, comprising the announcement: "Dover & Springfield Short Line Railroad."
To complete the presentment, many sheets of heavy manilla paper formed one entire end of the room, and across their surface was traced in red and black paint a zigzag railway line.
One terminal was marked "Dover," the other "Springfield." There were dots for minor stations, crosses for bridges and triangles for water tanks.
Ralph readily comprehended that this was the plan of a railroad right-of-way crossing The Barrens north and south from end to end, and the big blue square in the center was intended to indicate the headquarters where he now stood in the presence of the actual and important president of the Dover & Springfield Short Line Railroad.
Ralph must have been two full minutes taking in all this, and when he had concluded his inspection he turned to confront Gibson, whose face showed lively satisfaction over the fact that the layout had interested and visibly impressed his visitor.
"Well," he challenged in a pleased, proud way, "how does it strike you?"
"Why," said Ralph, "to tell the truth, I am somewhat astonished."
"That is quite natural," responded Gibson. "The idea of the world in general of a railroad headquarters is plate glass, mahogany desks and pompous heads of departments, looking wise and spending money. The Short Line has no capital, so we have to go in modest at the start. All the same, we have system, ideas and, what is surer and better than all that put together, we have the Right of Way."
"The Right of Way?" repeated Ralph, taking in the announcement at its full importance.
"Yes, that means what? That under the strictest legal and full state authority we have a franchise, empowering us to construct and operate a railway from Dover to Springfield, and vesting in us the sole title to a hundred-foot strip of land clear across The Barrens, with additional depot and terminal sites.
"That must be a very valuable acquisition," said Ralph.
"I am not used to talking my business to outsiders," responded Gibson, "and you are one of the very few who have ever been allowed to enter this place. I admit you for strong personal reasons, and I want to explain to you what they are."
He sat down on one of the benches and waved Ralph to the one opposite. His mobile face worked, as silently for a minute or two he seemed concentrating his ideas and choosing his words.
"I am a strange man," he said finally, "probably a crank, and certainly not a very good man, as my record goes, but circumstances made me what I am."
A twinge of bitterness came into the tones, and his eyes hardened.
"The beginning of my life," proceeded Gibson, "was honest work as a farmer—the end of it is holding on with bulldog tenacity to all there is left of the wreck of a fortune. That's the layout here. The Short Line, no one knows it—no one cares—just yet. But no one can ever wrest it from me. Ten years ago, when the Great Northern was projected, your father saw that a road across here was a tactical move, but the investors were in a hurry to get a line through to Springfield, and dropped this route. Later the Midland Central cut into Dover. They too never guessed what a big point they might have made cutting through here to Springfield. Well, I got possession of the franchise. I had to bide my time and stay in the dark. To-day, with the Short Line completed, I would hold the key to the traffic situation of two States, could demand my own price from either railroad for it, and they would run up into the millions outbidding each other, for the road getting the Short Line completely dominates all transfer passenger and freight business north and south."
"Why, I see that," said Ralph, roused up with keen interest. "It becomes a bee-line route, saving twenty or thirty miles' distance, and opens up a new territory."
"You've struck it. Now then, what I want to lead up to is Farrington—Gasper Farrington. You know him?"
"Yes, I know him," assented Ralph emphatically.
"Between my old honest life and the dregs here his figure looms up prominently," resumed Gibson. "Around him has revolved much concerning your father and myself in the past. Around him will loom up considerable concerning you and myself in the future. For this reason I take you into my confidence—to join issues, to grasp the situation and to move down on the enemy. In a word: Gasper Farrington ruined my chances in life. In another, he robbed your father."
Ralph was becoming intensely interested.
"He robbed my father, you say?"
"Are you sure of that, Mr. Gibson?"
"I am positive of it. I have the proofs. Even without those proofs, my unsupported word would substantiate the charge. The more so, because I helped him do it."