by Harold Frederic
THE battle was over, and the victor remained on the field—sitting alone with the hurly-burly of his thoughts.
His triumph was so sweeping and comprehensive as to be somewhat shapeless to the view. He had a sense of fascinated pain when he tried to define to himself what its limits would probably be. Vistas of unchecked, expanding conquest stretched away in every direction. He held at his mercy everything within sight. Indeed, it rested entirely with him to say whether there should be any such thing as mercy at all—and until he chose to utter the restraining word the rout of the vanquished would go on with multiplying terrors and ruin. He could crush and torture and despoil his enemies until he was tired. The responsibility of having to decide when he would stop grinding their faces might come to weigh upon him later on, but he would not give it room in his mind to-night.
A picture of these faces of his victims shaped itself out of the flames in the grate. They were moulded in a family likeness, these phantom visages: they were all Jewish, all malignant, all distorted with fright. They implored him with eyes in which panic asserted itself above rage and cunning. Only here and there did he recall a name with which to label one of these countenances; very few of them raised a memory of individual rancour. The faces were those of men he had seen, no doubt, but their persecution of him had been impersonal; his great revenge was equally so. As he looked, in truth, there was only one face—a composite mask of what he had done battle with, and overthrown, and would trample implacably under foot. He stared with a conqueror's cold frown at it, and gave an abrupt laugh which started harsh echoes in the stillness of the Board Room. Then he shook off the reverie, and got to his feet. He shivered a little at the sudden touch of a chill.
A bottle of brandy, surrounded by glasses, stood on the table where the two least-considered of his lieutenants, the dummy Directors, had left it. He poured a small quantity and sipped it. During the whole eventful day it had not occurred to him before to drink; the taste of the neat liquor seemed on the instant to calm and refresh his brain. With more deliberation, he took a cigar from the broad, floridly-decorated open box beside the bottle, lit it, and blew a long draught of smoke thoughtfully through his nostrils. Then he put his hands in his pockets, looked again into the fire, and sighed a wondering smile. God in heaven! it was actually true!
This man of forty found himself fluttering with a novel exhilaration, which yet was not novel. Upon reflection, he perceived that he felt as if he were a boy again—a boy excited by pleasure. It surprised as much as it delighted him to experience this frank and direct joy of a child. He caught the inkling of an idea that perhaps his years were an illusion. He had latterly been thinking of himself as middle-aged; the grey hairs thickening at his temples had vaguely depressed him. Now all at once he saw that he was not old at all. The buoyancy of veritable youth bubbled in his veins. He began walking up and down the room, regarding new halcyon visions with a sparkling eye. He was no longer conscious of the hated foe beneath his feet; they trod instead elastic upon the clouds.
The sound of someone moving about in the hallway outside, and of trying a door near by, suddenly caught his attention. He stood still and listened with alertness for a surprised instant, then shrugged his shoulders and began moving again. It must be nearly seven o'clock; although the allotment work had kept the clerks later than usual that day, everybody connected with the offices had certainly gone home. He realized that his nerves had played him a trick in giving that alarmed momentary start—and smiled almost tenderly as he remembered how notable and even glorious a warrant those nerves had for their unsettled state. They would be all right after a night's real rest. He would know how to sleep NOW, thank God!
But yes—there was somebody outside—and this time knocking with assurance at the right door, the entrance to the outer office. After a second's consideration, he went into this unlighted outer office, and called out through the opaque glass an enquiry. The sound of his voice, as it analyzed itself in his own ears, seemed unduly peremptory. The answer which came back brought a flash of wonderment to his eyes. He hurriedly unlocked and opened the door.
"I saw the lights in what I made out to be the Board Room," said the newcomer, as he entered. "I assumed it must be you. Hope I don't interrupt anything."
"Nothing could have given me greater pleasure, Lord Plowden," replied the other, leading the way back to the inner apartment. "In fact, I couldn't have asked anything better."
The tone of his voice had a certain anxious note in it not quite in harmony with this declaration. He turned, under the drop-light overhanging the Board-table, and shook hands with his guest, as if to atone for this doubtful accent. "I shake hands with you again," he said, speaking rapidly, "because this afternoon it was what you may call formal; it didn't count. And—my God!—you're the man I owe it all to."
"Oh, you mustn't go as far as that—even in the absence of witnesses," replied Lord Plowden, lightly. "I'll take off my coat for a few minutes," he went on, very much at his ease. "It's hot in here. It's by the merest chance I happened to be detained in the City—and I saw your lights, and this afternoon we had no opportunity whatever for a quiet talk. No—I won't drink anything before dinner, but I'll light a cigar. I want to say to you, Thorpe," he concluded, as he seated himself "that I think what you've done is very wonderful. The Marquis thinks so too—but I shouldn't like to swear that he understands much about it."
The implication that the speaker did understand remained in the air like a tangible object. Thorpe took a chair, and the two men exchanged a silent, intent look. Their faces, dusky red on the side of the glow from the fire, pallid where the electric light fell slantwise upon them from above, had for a moment a mysterious something in common. Then the tension of the glance was relaxed—and on the instant no two men in London looked less alike.
Lord Plowden was familiarly spoken of as a handsome man. Thorpe had even heard him called the handsomest man in England—though this seemed in all likelihood an exaggeration. But handsome he undoubtedly was—tall without suggesting the thought of height to the observer, erect yet graceful, powerfully built, while preserving the effect of slenderness. His face in repose had the outline of the more youthful guardsman-type—regular, finely-cut, impassive to hardness. When he talked, or followed with interest the talk of others, it revealed almost an excess of animation. Then one noted the flashing subtlety of his glance, the swift facility of his smile and comprehending brows, and saw that it was not the guardsman face at all. His skin was fresh-hued, and there was a shade of warm brown in his small, well-ordered moustasche, but his hair, wavy and worn longer than the fashion, seemed black. There were perceptible veins of grey in it, though he had only entered his thirty-fifth year. He was dressed habitually with the utmost possible care.
The contrast between this personage and the older man confronting him was abrupt. Thorpe was also tall, but of a burly and slouching figure. His face, shrouded in a high-growing, dust-coloured beard, invited no attention. One seemed always to have known this face—thick-featured, immobile, undistinguished. Its accessories for the time being were even more than ordinarily unimpressive. Both hair and beard were ragged with neglect. His commonplace, dark clothes looked as if he had slept in them. The hands resting on his big knees were coarse in shape, and roughened, and ill-kept.
"I couldn't have asked anything better than your dropping in," he repeated now, speaking with a drag, as of caution, on his words. "Witnesses or no witnesses, I'm anxious to have you understand that I realize what I owe to you."
"I only wish it were a great deal more than it is," replied the other, with a frank smile.
"Oh, it'll mount up to considerable, as it stands," said Thorpe.
He could hear that there was a kind of reservation in his voice; the suspicion that his companion detected it embarrassed him. He found himself in the position of fencing with a man to whom all his feelings impelled him to be perfectly open. He paused, and was awkwardly conscious of constraint in the silence which ensued. "You are very kind to put it in that way," said Lord Plowden, at last. He seemed also to be finding words for his thoughts with a certain difficulty. He turned his cigar round in his white fingers meditatively. "I gather that your success has been complete—as complete as you yourself could have desired. I congratulate you with all my heart."
"No—don't say my success—say our success," put in Thorpe.
"But, my dear man," the other corrected him, "my interest, compared with yours, is hardly more than nominal. I'm a Director, of course, and I'm not displeased that my few shares should be worth something instead of nothing, but——"
Thorpe lifted one of his heavy hands. "That isn't my view of the thing at all. To be frank, I was turning over in my mind, just awhile ago, before you came in, some way of arranging all that on a different footing. If you'll trust it to me, I think you'll find it's all right."
Something in the form of this remark seemed to restore to Lord Plowden his accustomed fluency of speech.
"I came here to say precisely that thing," he began—"that I do trust it to you. We have never had any very definite talk on the subject—and pray don't think that I want to go into details now. I'd much rather not, in fact. But what I do want to say to you is this: I believe in you. I feel sure that you are going to go far, as the saying is. Well, I want to tie myself to your star. Do you see what I mean? You are going to be a power in finance. You are going to be able to make and unmake men as you choose. I should be very much obliged indeed if you would make me."
Thorpe regarded the handsome and titled man of fashion with what seemed to the other a lethargic gaze. In truth, his mind was toiling with strenuous activity to master, in all its bearings, the significance of what had been said. This habit of the abstracted and lack-lustre eye, the while he was hard at work thinking, was a fortuitous asset which he had never up to that time learned that he possessed. Unconsciously, he dampened the spirits of his companion.
"Don't imagine I'm trying to force myself upon you," Lord Plowden said, growing cool in the face of this slow stare. "I'm asking nothing at all. I had the impulse to come and say to you that you are a great man, and that you've done a great thing—and done it, moreover, in a very great way."
"You know how it was done!" The wondering exclamation forced itself from Thorpe's unready lips. He bent forward a little, and took a new visual hold, as it were, of his companion's countenance.
Lord Plowden smiled. "Did you think I was such a hopeless duffer, then?" he rejoined.
For answer, Thorpe leant back in his chair, crossed his legs, and patted his knee contentedly. All at once his face had lightened; a genial speculation returned to his grey eyes.
"Well, I was in a curious position about you, you see," he began to explain. The relief with which he spoke was palpable. "I could not for the life of me make up my mind whether to tell you about it or not. Let's see—this is Thursday; did I see you Tuesday? At any rate, the scheme didn't dawn on me myself until toward evening Tuesday. But yesterday, of course, I could have told you—and again this afternoon—but, as I say, I couldn't make up my mind. Once I had it on the tip of my tongue—but somehow I didn't. And you—you never gave me a hint that you saw what was going on."
Again Lord Plowden smiled. "I voted with you," he put in softly.
Thorpe laughed, and relit his cigar. "Well, I couldn't have asked anything better than this," he declared once again. "It beats all the rest put together, to my mind."
"Perhaps I don't quite follow your meaning," commented the other tentatively.
"Why man," Thorpe explained, hesitating a little in his choice of words, but speaking with evident fervour; "I was more anxious about you—and the way you'd take it—than about anything else. I give you my word I was. I couldn't tell at all how you'd feel about the thing. You might think that it was all right, and then again you might round on me—or no, I don't mean quite that—but you might say it wasn't good enough for you, and wash your hands of the whole affair. And I can't tell you what a relief it is to find that you—that you're satisfied. Now I can go ahead."
"Ah, yes—ahead," said the younger man, thoughtfully. "Do you mind telling me—you see I'm quite in the dark as to details—how much further ahead we are likely to go? I comprehend the general nature of our advance—but how far off is the goal you have in sight?"
"God knows!" answered Thorpe, with a rising thrill of excitement in his voice. "I don't give it any limit. I don't see why we should stop at all. We've got them in such a position that—why, good heavens! we can squeeze them to death, crush them like quartz." He chuckled grimly at the suggestion of his simile. "We'll get more ounces to the ton out of our crushings than they ever heard of on the Rand, too."
"Might I ask," interposed the other, "who may 'they' be?"
Thorpe hesitated, and knitted his brows in the effort to remember names. "Oh, there are a lot of them," he said, vaguely. "I think I told you of the way that Kaffir crowd pretended to think well of me, and let me believe they were going to take me up, and then, because I wouldn't give them everything—the very shirt off my back—turned and put their knife into me. I don't know them apart, hardly—they've all got names like Rhine wines—but I know the gang as a whole, and if I don't lift the roof clean off their particular synagogue, then my name is mud."
Lord Plowden smiled. "I've always the greatest difficulty to remember that you are an Englishman—a Londoner born," he declared pleasantly. "You don't talk in the least like one. On shipboard I made sure you were an American—a very characteristic one, I thought—of some curious Western variety, you know. I never was more surprised in my life than when you told me, the other day, that you only left England a few years ago."
"Oh, hardly a 'few years'; more like fifteen," Thorpe corrected him. He studied his companion's face with slow deliberation.
"I'm going to say something that you mustn't take amiss," he remarked, after a little pause. "If you'd known that I was an Englishman, when we first met, there on the steamer, I kind o' suspect that you and I'd never have got much beyond a nodding acquaintance—and even that mostly on my side. I don't mean that I intended to conceal anything—that is, not specially—but I've often thought since that it was a mighty good thing I did. Now isn't that true—that if you had taken me for one of your own countrymen you'd have given me the cold shoulder?"
"I dare say there's a good deal in what you say," the other admitted, gently enough, but without contrition. "Things naturally shape themselves that way, rather, you know. If they didn't, why then the whole position would become difficult. But you are an American, to all intents and purposes."
"Oh, no—I never took any step towards getting naturalized," Thorpe protested. "I always intended to come back here. Or no, I won't say that—because most of the time I was dog-poor—and this isn't the place for a poor man. But I always said to myself that if ever I pulled it off—if I ever found my self a rich man—THEN I'd come piking across the Atlantic as fast as triple-expansion engines would carry me."
The young man smiled again, with a whimsical gleam in his eye. "And you ARE a rich man, now," he observed, after a momentary pause.
"We are both rich men," replied Thorpe, gravely.
He held up a dissuading hand, as the other would have spoken. "This is how it seems to me the thing figures itself out: It can't be said that your name on the Board, or the Marquis's either, was of much use so far as the public were concerned. To tell the truth, I saw some time ago that they wouldn't be. Titles on prospectuses are played out in London. I've rather a notion, indeed, that they're apt to do more harm than good—just at present, at least. But all that aside—you are the man who was civil to me at the start, when you knew nothing whatever about my scheme, and you are the man who was good to me later on, when I didn't know where to turn for a friendly word. Very well; here I am! I've made my coup! And I'd be a sweep, wouldn't I? to forget to-day what I was so glad to remember a week ago. But you see, I don't forget! The capital of the Company is 500,000 pounds, all in pound shares. We offered the public only a fifth of them. The other four hundred thousand shares are mine as vendor—and I have ear-marked in my mind one hundred thousand of them to be yours."
Lord Plowden's face paled at the significance of these words. "It is too much—you don't reflect what it is you are saying," he murmured confusedly. "Not a bit of it," the other reassured him. "Everything that I've said goes."
The peer, trembling a little, rose to his feet. "It is a preposterously big reward for the merest act of courtesy," he insisted. "Of course it takes my breath away for joy—and yet I feel I oughtn't to be consenting to it at all. And it has its unpleasant side—it buries me under a mountain of obligation. I don't know what to do or what to say."
"Well, leave the saying and doing to me, then," replied Thorpe, with a gesture before which the other resumed his seat. "Just a word more—and then I suppose we'd better be going. Look at it in this way. Your grandfather was Lord Chancellor of England, and your father was a General in the Crimea. My grandfather kept a small second-hand book-shop, and my father followed him in the business. In one sense, that puts us ten thousand miles apart. But in another sense, we'll say that we like each other, and that there are ways in which we can be of immense use to each other, and that brings us close together. You need money—and here it is for you. I need—what shall I say?—a kind of friendly lead in the matter of establishing myself on the right footing, among the right people—and that's what you can do for me. Mind—I'd prefer to put it all in quite another way; I'd like to say it was all niceness on your part, all gratitude on mine. But if you want to consider it on a business basis—why there you have it also—perfectly plain and clear."
He got up as he finished, and Lord Plowden rose as well. The two men shook hands in silence.
When the latter spoke, it was to say: "Do you know how to open one of those soda-water bottles? I've tried, but I can never get the trick. I think I should like to have a drink—after this."
When they had put down their glasses, and the younger man was getting into his great-coat, Thorpe bestowed the brandy and cigars within a cabinet at the corner of the room, and carefully turned a key upon them.
"If you're going West, let me give you a lift," said Lord Plowden, hat in hand. "I can set you down wherever you like. Unfortunately I've to go out to dinner, and I must race, as it is, to get dressed."
Thorpe shook his head. "No, go along," he bade him. "I've some odds and ends of things to do on the way."
"Then when shall I see you?"—began the other, and halted suddenly with a new thought in his glance. "But what are you doing Saturday?" he asked, in a brisker tone. "It's a dies non here. Come down with me to-morrow evening, to my place in Kent. We will shoot on Saturday, and drive about on Sunday, if you like—and there we can talk at our leisure. Yes, that is what you must do. I have a gun for you. Shall we say, then—Charing Cross at 9:55? Or better still, say 5:15, and we will dine at home."
The elder man pondered his answer—frowning at the problem before him with visible anxiety. "I'm afraid I'd better not come—it's very good of you all the same."
"Nonsense," retorted the other. "My mother will be very glad indeed to see you. There is no one else there—unless, perhaps, my sister has some friend down. We shall make a purely family party."
Thorpe hesitated for only a further second. "All right. Charing Cross, 5:15," he said then, with the grave brevity of one who announces a momentous decision.
He stood still, looking into the fire, for a few moments after his companion had gone. Then, going to a closet at the end of the room, he brought forth his coat and hat; something prompted him to hold them up, and scrutinize them under the bright light of the electric globe. He put them on, then, with a smile, half-scornful, half-amused, playing in his beard.
The touch of a button precipitated darkness upon the Board Room. He made his way out, and downstairs to the street. It was a rainy, windy October night, sloppy underfoot, dripping overhead. At the corner before him, a cabman, motionless under his unshapely covered hat and glistening rubber cape, sat perched aloft on his seat, apparently asleep. Thorpe hailed him, with a peremptory tone, and gave the brusque order, "Strand!" as he clambered into the hansom.
"LOUISA, the long and short of it is this," said Thorpe, half an hour later: "you never did believe in me, as a sister should do."
He was seated alone with this sister, in a small, low, rather dismally-appointed room, half-heartedly lighted by two flickering gasjets. They sat somewhat apart, confronting a fireplace, where only the laid materials for a fire disclosed themselves in the cold grate. Above the mantel hung an enlarged photograph of a scowling old man. Thorpe's gaze recurred automatically at brief intervals to this portrait—which somehow produced the effect upon him of responsibility for the cheerlessness of the room. There were other pictures on the walls of which he was dimly conscious—small, faded, old prints about Dido and AEneas and Agamemnon, which seemed to be coming back to him out of the mists of his childhood.
Vagrant impressions and associations of this childhood strayed with quaint inconsequence across the field of his preoccupied mind. The peculiar odour of the ancient book-shop on the floor below remained like snuff in his nostrils. Somewhere underneath, or in the wainscoting at the side, he could hear the assiduous gnawing of a rat. Was it the same rat, he wondered with a mental grin, that used to keep him awake nights, in one of the rooms next to this, with that same foolish noise, when he was a boy?
"I know you always say that," replied Louisa, impassively.
She was years older than her brother, but, without a trace of artifice or intention, contrived to look the younger of the two. Her thick hair, drawn simply from her temples into a knot behind, was of that palest brown which assimilates grey. Her face, long, plain, masculine in contour and spirit, conveyed no message as to years. Long and spare of figure, she sat upright in her straight-backed chair, with her large, capable hands on her knees.
"I believed in you as much as you'd let me," she went on, indifferently, almost wearily. "But I don't see that it mattered to you whether I did or didn't. You went your own way: you did what you wanted to do. What had I to do with it? I don't suppose I even knew what part of the world you were in more than once in two or three years. How should I know whether you were going to succeed, when I didn't even know what it was you were at? Certainly you hadn't succeeded here in London—but elsewhere you might or you might not—how could I tell? And moreover, I don't feel that I know you very well; you've grown into something very different from the boy Joel that left the shop—it must be twenty years ago. I can only know about you and your affairs what you tell me."
"But my point is," pursued Thorpe, watching her face with a curiously intent glance, "you never said to yourself: 'I KNOW he's going to succeed. I KNOW he'll be a rich man before he dies.'"
She shook her head dispassionately. Her manner expressed fatigued failure to comprehend why he was making so much of this purposeless point.
"No—I don't remember ever having said that to myself," she admitted, listlessly. Then a comment upon his words occurred to her, and she spoke with more animation: "You don't seem to understand, Joel, that what was very important to you, didn't occupy me at all. You were always talking about getting rich; you kept the idea before you of sometime, at a stroke, finding yourself a millionaire. That's been the idea of your life. But what do I know about all that? My work has been to keep a roof over my head—to keep the little business from disappearing altogether. It's been hard enough, I can tell you, these last few years, with the big jobbers cutting the hearts out of the small traders. I had the invalid husband to support for between three and four years—a dead weight on me every week—and then the children to look after, to clothe and educate."
At the last word she hesitated suddenly, and looked at him. "Don't think I'm ungrateful"—she went on, with a troubled effort at a smile—"but I almost wish you'd never sent me that four hundred pounds at all. What it means is that they've had two years at schools where now I shan't be able to keep them any longer. They'll be spoiled for my kind of life—and they won't have a fair chance for any other. I don't know what will become of them."
The profound apprehension in the mother's voice did not dull the gleam in Thorpe's eyes. He even began a smile in the shadows of his unkempt moustache.
"But when I sent that money, for example, two years ago, and over," he persisted, doggedly—"and I told you there'd be more where that came from, and that I stood to pull off the great event—even then, now, you didn't believe in your innermost heart that I knew what I was talking about, did you?"
She frowned with impatience as she turned toward him. "For heaven's sake, Joel," she said, sharply—"you become a bore with that stupid nonsense. I want to be patient with you—I do indeed sympathize with you in your misfortunes—you know that well enough—but you're very tiresome with that eternal harping on what I believed and what I didn't believe. Now, are you going to stop to supper or not?—because if you are I must send the maid out. And there's another thing—would it be of any help to you to bring your things here from the hotel? You can have Alfred's room as well as not—till Christmas, at least."
"Supposing I couldn't get my luggage out of the hotel till I'd settled my bill," suggested Thorpe tentatively, in a muffled voice.
The practical woman reflected for an instant. "I was thinking," she confessed then, "that it might be cheaper to leave your things there, and buy what little you want—I don't imagine, from what I've seen, that your wardrobe is so very valuable—but no, I suppose the bill ought to be paid. Perhaps it can be managed; how much will it be?"
Thorpe musingly rose to his feet, and strolled over to her chair. With his thick hands on his sister's shoulders he stooped and kissed her on the forehead.
"You believe in me now, anyway, eh, Lou?" he said, as he straightened himself behind her.
The unaccustomed caress—so different in character from the perfunctory salute with which he had greeted her on his arrival from foreign parts, six months before—brought a flush of pleased surprise to her plain face. Then a kind of bewilderment crept into the abstracted gaze she was bending upon the fireless grate. Something extraordinary, unaccountable, was in the manner of her brother. She recalled that, in truth, he was more than half a stranger to her. How could she tell what wild, uncanny second nature had not grown up in him under those outlandish tropical skies? He had just told her that his ruin was absolute—overwhelming—yet there had been a covert smile in the recesses of his glance. Even now, she half felt, half heard, a chuckle from him, there as he stood behind her!
The swift thought that disaster had shaken his brain loomed up and possessed her. She flung herself out of the chair, and, wheeling, seized its back and drew it between them as she faced him. It was with a stare of frank dismay that she beheld him grinning at her.
"What"—she began, stammering—"What is the matter, Joel?"
He permitted himself the luxury of smiling blankly at her for a further moment. Then he tossed his head, and laughed abruptly.
"Sit down, old girl," he adjured her. "Try and hold yourself together, now—to hear some different kind of news. I've been playing it rather low down on you, for a fact. Instead of my being smashed, it's the other way about."
She continued to confront him, with a nervous clasp upon the chair-back. Her breathing troubled her as she regarded him, and tried to take in the meaning of his words.
"Do you mean—you've been lying to me about—about your Company?" she asked, confusedly.
"No—no—not at all," he replied, now all genial heartiness. "No—what I told you was gospel truth—but I was taking a rise out of you all the same." He seemed so unaffectedly pleased by his achievement in kindly duplicity that she forced an awkward smile to her lips.
"I don't understand in the least," she said, striving to remember what he had told her. "What you said was that the public had entirely failed to come in—that there weren't enough applications for shares to pay flotation expenses—those were your own words. Of course, I don't pretend to understand these City matters—but it IS the case, isn't it, that if people don't subscribe for the shares of a new company, then the company is a failure?"
"Yes, that may be said to be the case—as a general rule," he nodded at her, still beaming.
"Well, then—of course—I don't understand," she owned.
"I don't know as you'll understand it much more when I've explained it to you," he said, seating himself, and motioning her to the other chair. "But yes, of course you will. You're a business woman. You know what figures mean. And really the whole thing is as simple as A B C. You remember that I told you——"
"But are you going to stop to supper? I must send Annie out before the shops close."
"Supper? No—I couldn't eat anything. I'm too worked up for that. I'll get something at the hotel before I go to bed, if I feel like it. But say!"—the thought suddenly struck him—"if you want to come out with me, I'll blow you off to the swaggerest dinner in London. What d'ye say?"
She shook her head. "I shall have some bread and cheese and beer at nine. That's my rule, you know. I don't like to break it. I'm always queer next day if I do. But now make haste and tell me—you're really not broken then? You have really come out well?"
For answer he rose, and drew himself to his full height, and spread his bulky shoulders backward. His grey-blue eyes looked down upon her with a triumphant glow.
"Broken?" he echoed her word, with emphasis. "My dear Louisa, I'm not the sort that gets broken. I break other people. Oh, God, how I shall break them!"
He began pacing up and down on the narrow rug before the fender, excitedly telling his story to her. Sometimes he threw the words over his shoulder; again he held her absorbed gaze with his. He took his hands often from his pockets, to illustrate or enforce by gestures the meaning of his speech—and then she found it peculiarly difficult to realize that he was her brother.
Much of the narrative, rambling and disconnected, with which he prefaced this story of the day, was vaguely familiar to her. He sketched now for her in summary, and with the sonorous voice of one deeply impressed with the dramatic values of his declamation, the chronicle of his wanderings in strange lands—and these he had frequently told her about before. Soon she perceived, however, that he was stringing them together on a new thread. One after another, these experiences of his, as he related them, turned upon the obstacles and fatal pitfalls which treachery and malice had put in his path. He seemed, by his account, to have been a hundred times almost within touch of the goal. In China, in the Dutch Indies, in those remoter parts of Australia which were a waterless waste when he knew them and might have owned them, and now were yielding fabulous millions to fellows who had tricked and swindled him—everywhere he had missed by just a hair's breadth the golden consummation. In the Western hemisphere the tale repeated itself. There had been times in the Argentine, in Brazil just before the Empire fell, in Colorado when the Silver boom was on, in British Columbia when the first rumours of rich ore were whispered about—many times when fortune seemed veritably within his grasp. But someone had always played him false. There was never a friendship for him which could withstand the temptation of profitable treason.
But he had hung dauntlessly on. He had seen one concession slipping through his fingers, only to strain and tighten them for a clutch at another. It did not surprise his hearer—nor indeed did it particularly attract her attention—that there was nowhere in this rapid and comprehensive narrative any allusion to industry of the wage-earning sort. Apparently, he had done no work at all, in the bread-winner's sense of the word. This was so like Joel that it was taken for granted in his sister's mind. All his voyages and adventures and painful enterprises had been informed by the desire of the buccaneer—the passion to reap where others had sown, or, at the worst, to get something for nothing.
The discursive story began to narrow and concentrate itself when at last it reached Mexico. The sister changed her position in her chair, and crossed her knees when Tehuantepec was mentioned. It was from that place that Joel had sent her the amazing remittance over two years ago. Curiously enough, though, it was at this point in his narrative that he now became vague as to details. There were concessions of rubber forests mentioned, and the barter of these for other concessions with money to boot, and varying phases of a chronic trouble about where the true boundary of Guatemala ran—but she failed clearly to understand much about it all. His other schemes and mishaps she had followed readily enough. Somehow when they came to Mexico, however, she saw everything jumbled and distorted, as through a haze. Once or twice she interrupted him to ask questions, but he seemed to attach such slight importance to her comprehending these details that she forbore. Only one fact was it necessary to grasp about the Mexican episode, apparently. When he quitted Tehuantepec, to make his way straight to London, at the beginning of the year, he left behind him a rubber plantation which he desired to sell, and brought with him between six and seven thousand pounds, with which to pay the expenses of selling it. How he had obtained either the plantation or the money did not seem to have made itself understood. No doubt, as his manner indicated when she ventured her enquiries, it was quite irrelevant to the narrative.
In Mexico, his experience had been unique, apparently, in that no villain had appeared on the scene to frustrate his plans. He at least mentioned no one who had wronged him there. When he came to London, however, there were villains and to spare. He moved to the mantel, when he arrived at this stage of the story, and made clear a space for his elbow to rest among the little trinkets and photographs with which it was burdened. He stood still thereafter, looking down at her; his voice took on a harsher note.
Much of this story, also, she knew by heart. This strange, bearded, greyish-haired brother of hers had come very often during the past half-year to the little book-shop, and the widow's home above it, his misshapen handbag full of papers, his heart full of rage, hope, grief, ambition, disgust, confidence—everything but despair. It was true, it had never been quite real to her. He was right in his suggestion that she had never wholly believed in him. She had not been able to take altogether seriously this clumsy, careworn, shabbily-dressed man who talked about millions. It was true that he had sent her four hundred pounds for the education of her son and daughter; it was equally true that he had brought with him to London a sum which any of his ancestors, so far as she knew about them, would have deemed a fortune, and which he treated as merely so much oil, with which to lubricate the machinery of his great enterprise. She had heard, at various times, the embittered details of the disappearance of this money, little by little. Nearly a quarter of it, all told, had been appropriated by a sleek old braggart of a company-promoter, who had cozened Joel into the belief that London could be best approached through him. When at last this wretch was kicked downstairs, the effect had been only to make room for a fresh lot of bloodsuckers. There were so-called advertising agents, so-called journalists, so-called "men of influence in the City,"—a swarm of relentless and voracious harpies, who dragged from him in blackmail nearly the half of what he had left, before he summoned the courage and decision to shut them out.
Worse still, in some ways, were the men into whose hands he stumbled next—a group of City men concerned in the South African market, who impressed him very favourably at the outset. He got to know them by accident, and at the time when he began to comprehend the necessity of securing influential support for his scheme. Everything that he heard and could learn about them testified to the strength of their position in the City. Because they displayed a certain amiability of manner toward him and his project, he allowed himself to make sure of their support. It grew to be a certainty in his mind that they would see him through. He spent a good deal of money in dinners and suppers in their honour, after they had let him understand that this form of propitiation was not unpleasant to them. They chaffed him about some newspaper paragraphs, in which he was described as the "Rubber King," with an affable assumption of amusement, under which he believed that he detected a genuine respect for his abilities.
Finally, when he had danced attendance upon them for the better part of two months, he laid before them, at the coffee-and-cigars stage of a dinner in a private room of the Savoy, the details of his proposition. They were to form a Syndicate to take over his property, and place it upon the market; in consideration of their finding the ready money for this exploitation, they were to have for themselves two-fifths of the shares in the Company ultimately to be floated. They listened to these details, and to his enthusiastic remarks about the project itself, with rather perfunctory patience, but committed themselves that evening to nothing definite. It took him nearly a week thereafter to get an answer from any of them. Then he learned that, if they took the matter up at all, it would be upon the basis of the Syndicate receiving nine-tenths of the shares.
He conceived the idea, after he had mastered his original amazement, that they named these preposterous terms merely because they expected to be beaten down, and he summoned all his good nature and tact for the task of haggling with them. He misunderstood their first show of impatience at this, and persevered in the face of their tacit rebuffs. Then, one day, a couple of them treated him with overt rudeness, and he, astonished out of his caution, replied to them in kind. Suddenly, he could hardly tell why or how, they were all enemies of his. They closed their office doors to him; even their clerks treated him with contemptuous incivility.
This blow to his pride enraged and humiliated him, curiously enough, as no other misadventure of his life had done.
Louisa remembered vividly the description he had given to her, at the time, of this affair. She had hardly understood why it should disturb him so profoundly: to her mind, these men had done nothing so monstrous after all. But to him, their offense swallowed up all the other indignities suffered during the years of his Ishmaelitish wanderings. A sombre lust for vengeance upon them took root in his very soul. He hated nobody else as he hated them. How often she had heard him swear, in solemn vibrating tones, that to the day of his death his most sacred ambition should be their punishment, their abasement in the dust and mire!
And now, all at once, as she looked up at him, where he leant against the mantel, these vagabond memories of hers took point and shape. It was about these very men that he was talking.
"And think of it!" he was saying, impressively. "It's magnificent enough for me to make this great hit—but I don't count it as anything at all by comparison with the fact that I make it at their expense. You remember the fellows I told you about?" he asked abruptly, deferring to the confused look on her face.
"Yes—you make it out of them," she repeated, in an uncertain voice. It occurred to her that she must have been almost asleep. "But did I miss anything? Have you been telling what it is that you have made?"
"No—that you shall have in good time. You don't seem to realize it, Louisa. I can hardly realize it myself. I am actually a very rich man. I can't tell how much I've got—in fact, it can be almost as much as I like—half a million pounds, I suppose, at the start, if I want to make it that much. Yes—it takes the breath away, doesn't it? But best of all—a thousand times best of all—practically every dollar of it comes out of those Kaffir swine—the very men that tried to rob me, and that have been trying to ruin me ever since. I tell you what I wish, Louise—I wish to God there could only be time enough, and I'd take it all in half-sovereigns—two millions of them, or three millions—and just untwist every coin, one by one, out from among their heart-strings. Oh—but it'll be all right as it is. It's enough to make a man feel religious—to think how those thieves are going to suffer."
"Well" she said, slowly after reflection, "it all rather frightens me."
As if the chill in the air of the cheerless room had suddenly accentuated itself, she arose, took a match-box from the mantel, and, stooping, lit the fire.
He looked down at the tall, black-clad figure, bent in stiff awkwardness over the smoking grate, and his eyes softened. Then he took fresh note of the room—the faded, threadbare carpet, the sparse old furniture that had seemed ugly to even his uninformed boyish taste, the dingy walls and begrimed low ceiling—all pathetic symbols of the bleak life to which she had been condemned.
"Frightens you?" he queried, with a kind of jovial tenderness, as she got to her feet; "frightens you, eh? Why, within a month's time, old lady, you'll be riding in the Park in your own carriage, with niggers folding their arms up behind, and you'll be taking it all as easy and as natural as if you'd been born in a barouche."
He added, in response to the enquiry of her lifted brows: "Barouche? That's what we'd call in England a landau."
She stood with a foot upon the fender, her tired, passive face inclined meditatively, her rusty old black gown drawn back by one hand from the snapping sparks. "No," she said, slowly, joyless resignation mingling with pride in her voice. "I was born here over the shop."
"Well, good God! so was I," he commented, lustily. "But that's no reason why I shouldn't wind up in Park Lane—or you either."
She had nothing to say to this, apparently. After a little, she seated herself again, drawing her chair closer to the hearth. "It's years since I've lit this fire before the first of November," she remarked, with the air of defending the action to herself.
"Oh, we're celebrating," he said, rubbing his hands over the reluctant blaze. "Everything goes, tonight!"
Her face, as she looked up at him, betrayed the bewilderment of her mind. "You set out to tell me what it was all about," she reminded him. "You see I'm completely in the dark. I only hear you say that you've made a great fortune. That's all I know. Or perhaps you've told me as much as you care to."
"Why, not at all," he reassured her, pulling his own chair toward him with his foot, and sprawling into it with a grunt of relief. "If you'll draw me a glass of that beer of yours, I'll tell you all about it. It's not a thing for everybody to know, not to be breathed to a human being, for that matter—but you'll enjoy it, and it'll be safe enough with you."
As she rose, and moved toward a door, he called merrily after her: "No more beer when that keg runs dry, you know. Nothing but champagne!"
THORPE took a long, thoughtful pull at the beer his sister brought him.
"Ah, I didn't know I was so thirsty," he said, when he put the glass down. "Truth is—I've lost track of myself altogether since—since the big thing happened. I seem to be somebody else—a comparative stranger, so to speak. I've got to get acquainted with myself, all over again. You can't imagine what an extraordinary feeling it is—this being hit every few minutes with the recollection that you're worth half a million. It's like being struck over the head. It knocks you down. There are such thousands of things to do—you dance about, all of a flutter. You don't know where to begin."
"Begin where you left off," suggested Louisa. "You were going to tell me how—how 'the big thing' happened. You're always coming to it—and never getting any further."
Nodding comprehension of the rebuke's justification, he plunged forthwith into the tale.
"You remember my telling you at the time how I got my Board together. I'm speaking now of the present Company—after I'd decided to be my own promoter, and have at least some kind of 'a look-in' for my money. There wasn't much money left, by the way; it was considerably under three thousand. But I come to that later. First there was the Board. Here was where that Lord Plowden that I told you about—the man that came over on the ship with me—came in. I went to him. I—God! I was desperate—but I hadn't much of an idea he'd consent. But he did! He listened to me, and I told him how I'd been robbed, and how the Syndicate would have cut my throat if I hadn't pulled away,—and he said, 'Why, yes, I'll go on your Board.' Then I told him more about it, and presently he said he'd get me another man of title—a sky-scraper of a title too—to be my Chairman. That's the Marquis of Chaldon, a tremendous diplomatic swell, you know, Ambassador at Vienna in his time, and Lord Lieutenant and all sorts of things, but willing to gather in his five hundred a year, all the same."
"Do you mean that YOU pay HIM five hundred pounds a year?" asked the sister.
"Yes, I've got a live Markiss who works for me at ten quid a week, and a few extras. The other Directors get three hundred. This Lord Plowden is one of them—but I'll tell you more about him later on. Then there's Watkin, he's a small accountant Finsbury way; and Davidson, he's a wine-merchant who used to belong to a big firm in Dundee, but gets along the best way he can on a very dicky business here in London, now. And then there's General Kervick, awfully well-connected old chap, they say, but I guess he needs all he can get. He's started wearing his fur-coat already. Well, that's my Board. I couldn't join it, of course, till after allotment—that's because I'm the vendor, as they call it—but that hasn't interfered at all with my running the whole show. The Board doesn't really count, you know. It only does what I want it to do. It's just a form that costs me seventeen hundred a year, that's all."
"Seventeen hundred a year," she repeated, mechanically.
"Well, then we got out the prospectus, d'ye see. Or first, there were other things to be done. I saw that a good broker's name counted for a lot on a prospectus. I picked out one that I'd heard was reasonable—it'd been a splendid name if I could have got it—but he calmly said his price was two thousand pounds, all cash down—and I came away. Finally I got a fellow who hadn't done much of anything yet, and so wasn't so stiff about his figure. He agreed to take 500 pounds cash, and 2,000 in shares. It was God's luck that I hit on him, for he turned out, at the pinch, to be the one man in a million for me. But I'll tell you about him later. He's the Broker, mind; you mustn't forget him. Well, then, he and I got a Solicitor—he took 200 pounds cash, but he had to have 2,000 shares—and the firm of Auditors—they were 100 pounds cash and 1,000 shares. Every company has to have these people pasted on to it, by law. Oh yes, and then you must have your Bankers. You don't pay them anything, though, thank God! Well, then, there was the machinery complete, all ready to start. I took a handsome set of offices, and furnished them up to the nines—but that I was able to do pretty well on credit. You see, ready money was getting short.
"And now came the biggest pull of all. There was the press to be worked."
He spoke as if there were no other papers in London but the financial journals.
"I didn't sleep much while that was being fixed up. You've got no more idea of what the press means, Louisa, than you have of—of a coil of snakes thawing out hungry in the spring. Why, if one blackmailer came to me, I swear a hundred did. They scared the life out of me, the first month or so. And then there's a swarm of advertising agents, who say they can keep these blackmailers off, if you'll make it worth their while. But they all wanted too much money for me—and for a while I was at my wits' ends. At last I got a fellow—he's not behaved so badly, all things considered—who had some sporting blood in his veins, and he was willing to do the whole thing for 5,000 pounds, if I could pay 1,500 pounds down, and the rest in shares. But that was just what I couldn't do, you see, so finally he took 1,000 pounds down and 5,000 in shares—and as I say he's done it tolerably well. There was one editor that I had to square personally—that is to say, 100 pounds cash—it had to be in sovereigns, for notes could be traced—and a call of 2,000 shares at par,—he's the boss pirate that everybody has to square—and of course there were odd ten-pound notes here and there, but as a rule I just opened the door and fired the black-mailers out. The moment a fellow came in, and handed me his card, and said he had proofs of two kinds of articles in his pocket, one praising me, one damning me, I told him to go and see my advertising agent, and if he wouldn't do that, then to go to hell. That's the way you've got to talk in the City," he added, as if in apologetic explanation.
Louisa looked impassively at her brother. "Oh, I've heard the expression as far west as the Strand," she remarked.
"Well, then came the issue. That was last Saturday. You saw the prospectus in Saturday morning's papers, and in the weeklies. The list was to be kept open, it said, till Wednesday morning—that was yesterday. That is to say, during all that time, people could apply for shares."
"Which they didn't do—according to your account," the sister suggested, dryly.
Thorpe passed his fingers through his roughened hair, and eyed her with a momentary quizzical gleam in his eye. Then he became serious again. The recollection of what he was now to narrate brought a frown to his brows.
"On Tuesday afternoon," he began, with portentous deliberation—"Or no, first I must explain something. You see, in bringing out a company, you can't put up too stout a bluff. I mean, you've got to behave as if you were rolling in wealth—as if everything was coming your way, and fortunes were to be made by fastening to you. I don't know that it often fools anybody very much, but it's part of the game, and you must play it. Well, accordingly, my Broker goes on 'change Saturday morning, and has his jobber shout out that he'll buy 'Rubber Consols'—that's what our shares are called on the street—at an eighth premium; that is to say, he offered to buy for twenty-two-and-six what we were offering to the public for twenty shillings. Of course, you see, the object of that was to create the impression that there was a regular God-almighty rush for our shares. As I say, I don't know whether that ever fooled anybody—but at least there was the chance that it might start up some dealing in the shares—and all those things help. Besides, you got the sales noticed in the papers, and that might start up applications from the public. Well, the Broker bought 1,000 shares this way on Saturday. On Monday, when it might still be possible to change the luck, he bought 3,500 more, still at that premium of an eighth. He bought some Tuesday morning too—say 4,000. Well, now, keep those figures in your head, and keep an eye on the Broker. He's worth watching—as you'll see."
"What's his name?" asked the sister, with an accession of alertness in her face. "You call him 'Broker'—and that doesn't mean anything to me. They're all brokers, aren't they?"
"Semple—Colin Semple, that's his name. He's a young Scotchman—father's a Presbyterian minister. He's a little, insignificant runt of a chap to look at—but I learned a long time ago not to judge a singed cat by his looks. However—where was I?"
"You were going to tell about Tuesday afternoon, weren't you?"
He nodded gravely, and straightened himself, drawing a long breath in preparation for the dramatic recital before him. "On Tuesday afternoon," he began again, with impressive slowness, "I was walking on Throgmorton Street, about four o'clock. It was raining a little—it had been raining on and off all day—a miserable, rotten sort of a day, with greasy mud everywhere, and everybody poking umbrellas into you. I was out walking because I'd 'a' cut my throat if I'd tried to stay in the office another ten minutes. All that day I hadn't eaten anything. I hadn't slept worth speaking of for three nights. The whole game was up for me. I was worse than ruined. I had half a crown in my pocket. I had ten or twelve pounds in the bank—and they wouldn't let me overdraw a farthing. I tell you, I was just plumb busted.
"There came along in the gutter a sandwich-man. I'd seen the cuss before during the day, walking up and down near my offices. I took notice of him, because he was the raggedest, dirtiest, most forlorn-looking cripple you ever saw in your life. Now I read what was on his boards. It was the bill of a paper that I had refused to be bled by, and there it was in big letters: 'The Rubber Bubble Burst!' 'Thorpe's Audacity Punished!' Those were the words. I can see them with my eyes shut. I stood there, looking at the fellow, and I suppose there was something in the way I looked, for he stopped too. Of course, he didn't know me from Adam, but all the same, I'm damned if he didn't wink his eye at me—as if we two had a joke between us. And at that I burst out laughing—I simply roared with laughter, like a boy at a pantomime—and I took that last half-crown out of my pocket, and I gave it to the sandwich-man. God! you should have seen his face."
"I don't particularly mind, Joel," said his sister, "but I never heard you swear so much before."
"Oh, what the—what the deuce!" he protested, impatiently. "Don't interrupt me now! Well, I went on down the street. The members of the Stock Exchange were coming out of 'the house,' and making up little groups on the pavement. They do business inside, you know, until closing time—this day it happened to be four o'clock—and then they come out and deal in the street with one another, with the kerb-stone mob, who are not allowed inside, standing round to watch the thing. I came along into the thick of these fellows; they were yelling out all sorts of things—'East Rands,' 'Oroyas,' 'Lake View Centrals,' and what not, but these went in one ear and out the other. If there ever was a man with no stomach for the market it was me. But then someone roared out:
"'At seven-eighths, sell Rubber Consols! Sell five hundred Rubber at seven-eighths! Sell five hundred at three-quarters! At three-quarters you have 'em! Rubber Consols! Sell a thou. at three-quarters!'
"This thing went into my brain like a live coal. I stopped and looked up at the fellow—and by God, it was one of the men I've been talking about—one of those Kaffir scoundrels. I wish I was better at remembering names—but I knew his face. There were some of the others around him, and they laughed at me, and he laughed at me. Oh, they had a heap of fun out of me—for a minute or two. Pretty good fun, too! I guess they'll remember it quite a while."
"Go on!" Louisa adjured him. The obvious proximity of the dramatic climax drew her forward in her chair, and brought a glow of expectation to her eyes.
"I got myself away from that crowd somehow—I think I was afraid if I stayed I'd strangle the one who was shouting on the steps—and I went toward my office. But when I got to the door, I didn't have the courage to go in. I'd furnished it better, I suppose, than any other office in Austin Friars, and I had a kind of feeling that the sight of those carpets, and oak-tables and desks, and brass-railings and so on would make me sick. I owed for 'em all, bear in mind——"
"But—Joel," the sister interposed. "One thing I don't understand. How many people had applied for shares? You haven't mentioned that."
A fleeting smile lighted up the saturnine gloom of his present mood. "It was hardly worth mentioning," he answered, with bitter mirth. "Between five and six thousand shares were subscribed, all told. I think the withdrawals by telegraph brought it down to practically five thousand. We offered a hundred thousand, you know.—But let me go on with my story. I stood there, in front of our street-door, in a kind of trance. The words of that Jew—'Sell Rubber Consols at three-quarters!'—buzzed inside my head as if they would burst it open. I turned—and I happened to see my Broker—the Scotchman, Semple, you know—coming along toward me. Right at that minute, like a flash, something dawned on me. In less than a second, I saw the whole damned rotten outfit turned upside down, with me on top. I made a jump, and ran to meet Semple.
"'How many shares of ours have you bought?' I asked him, with a grip tight on his arm.
"The little chap was looking mighty sick. He figured up in his mind. 'I'm afraid it's eight thousand five hundred, all told,' he said, in a sort of Presbyterian whimper.
"'Well—how would these gentlemen go about it to deliver their goods—that is, supposing we got a settlement?'
"I asked him this, and kept my eye on his face. He looked puzzled for a minute. Then he put out his lip. Then he shot me a glance as sharp as a razor, and we looked into one another's eyes.
"'They were shouting them out to me at three-quarters, a minute ago,' I told him.
"He was onto the game like lightning. 'Wait for me in the office,' he whispered. 'We'll go nap on this!'
"With that he was off like a streak. He stopped running just before he got to the corner, though, and began walking slowly, sauntering along, you know, as if his mind was on nothing but second-hand books. I watched him out of sight—and then I went back, and up to the offices. The furniture didn't scare me a bit this time. Why, I stopped and felt of the brass-railing just outside the Board Room, and I said to myself—'Pshaw! We could have you of solid gold, if we wanted to.'"
He paused here, and regarded his sister with what she felt was intended to be a significant look. She shrank from the confession that its meaning was Greek to her. "Well—and what next?" she asked, guardedly.
"Semple came back in twenty minutes or so—and the next morning he was at it again—and what with him and his jobber, by George, on the quiet, they picked up nearly eighteen thousand of our shares. Some they paid fifteen shillings for, some they got at twelve-and-six and even ten. That doesn't matter; it's of no more importance than the coppers you give to crossing-sweepers. The thing was to get the shares—and by God we've got them! Twenty-six thousand two hundred shares, that's what we've got. Now, do you see what that means?"
"Why yes," she answered, with a faint-hearted assumption of confidence. "Of course, you know the property is so good that you'll make a profit on the shares you've bought far below their value. But I don't think I quite see——"
He interrupted her with an outburst of loud laughter. "Don't think you quite see?" he gurgled at her, with tears of pleasure in his eye. "Why, you dummy, you haven't got the faintest glimmer of a notion of what it's all about. The value of the property's got nothing in the world to do with it. That's neither here nor there. If there wasn't any such property in existence, it would be just the same."
He had compassion upon her blank countenance, at this, and explained more gently: "Why, don't you see, Lou, it's this way. This is what has happened. We've got what's called a corner on the bears. They're caught short, and we can squeeze them to our hearts' content. What—you don't understand now? Why, see here! These fellows who've sold twenty-six thousand of our shares—they haven't got them to sell, and they can't get them. That is the point—they can't get them for love nor money—they must pay me my own price for them, or be ruined men. The moment they realize the situation, they will begin offering a premium for Rubber Consols. The price of a one-pound share will be two pounds, then four—six—ten—twenty—thirty—whatever I want to drive it to."
Louisa stared up at him with wide open eyes. It seemed to her that she understood now. It was very exciting.
"You see," he went on, taking approving note of the new light of comprehension in her glance, "we did something that Tuesday afternoon beside buy up these shares. Semple rushed off to his office, and he and his clerks got up a lot of dummy applications for shares, made out in all the different names they could be safe in using, and they put these into the bank with the application money—Semple found that—and next day he went and saw the advertising agent and the solicitor and the auditors—and got them to pool the shares that I've promised to give them. A pool? That means they agree to transfer their shares to me as trustee, and let me deal with them as I like—of course to their advantage. In any case, their shares are vendor's shares, and couldn't be dealt with in this transaction. So you see the thing is hermetically sealed. Nobody can get a share except from me, and at my price. But these fellows that have sold them—they've got to have them, don't you see. They had their little temporary joke with me on the street that afternoon—and now they must walk up to the captain's office and settle. They've got to pay me at least half a million pounds for that few minutes' fun of theirs. I may make it a good deal more; I don't know yet."
"Oh, Joel!" she groaned at him, in awed stupefaction. His rather languid indecision as to whether half a million was going to be enough, impressed her more powerfully than had any detail of his narrative.
In a few comprehensive sentences he finished up for her what there was to tell. "This afternoon my Board met to allot the shares. They saw the applications, amounting in all to over ninety thousand shares. It took their breath away—they had heard that things were going quite the other way with us. They were so tickled that they asked no questions The allotment went through like a greased pig. About 5,000 shares went to those who had actually applied for them, and 88,000 were solemnly given to the dummy applicants. Of course, there wasn't a whisper about these dummies. Nobody winked so much as an eyelash. But I've found since that one of the directors—that Lord Plowden I told you about—was onto the thing all the while. But he's all right. Everybody's all right. Of course the dummies' shares still stand in their names—on paper—but in reality I've got them all in my safe—in my pocket you might say. They are really mine, you understand. So now there's nothing for us to do but to apply to the Stock Exchange for a special settlement date, and meanwhile lie quiet and watch the Jews stew in their own juice. Or fry in their own fat, eh? That's better."
"But," she commented slowly, "you say there are no shares to be bought—and yet as I understand it, there are those five thousand that were sent out to the people who really applied."
"Bravo, Lou!" he answered her jovially. "You actually do understand the thing. You've put your finger straight on the point. It is true that those shares are out against us—or might be turned against us if they could be bought up. But in reality, they don't count at all. In the first place, you see, they're scattered about among small holders, country clergymen and old maids on an annuity and so on—all over the country. Even if these people were all traced, and hunted up, suppose it was worth the trouble and expense, they wouldn't sell. The bigger the price they were offered, the more mulish they would be about holding. That's always the way with them. But even if they did all sell, their five thousand would be a mere drop in the bucket. There would be over twenty thousand others to be accounted for. That would be quite enough for my purposes. Oh, I figured all that out very carefully. My own first notion was to have the dummies apply for the whole hundred thousand, and even a little over. Then, you see, we might have allotted everything to the dummies, and sent back the money and applications of the genuine ones. But that would have been rather hard to manage with the Board. The Markiss would have said that the returns ought to be made pro rata—that is, giving everybody a part of what they applied for—and that would have mixed everything up. And then, too, if anybody suspected anything, why the Stock Exchange Committee would refuse us a special settlement—and, of course, without that the whole transaction is moonshine. It was far too risky, and we didn't send back a penny."
"It's all pretty risky, I should think," she declared as she rose. "I should think you'd lie awake more than ever now—now that you've built your hopes so high and it'd be so awful to have them come to nothing."
He smilingly shook his head. "No, it can no more fail than that gas can fail to burn when you put a light to it. It's all absolute. My half-million is as right as if it were lying to my credit in the Bank of England. Oh, that reminds me," he went on in a slightly altered tone—"it's damned comical, but I've got to ask you for a little money. I've only got about seven pounds at my bank, and just at the minute it would give me away fearfully to let Semple know I was hard up. Of course he'd let me have anything I wanted—but, you can see—I don't like to ask him just at the moment."
She hesitated visibly, and scanned his face with a wistful gaze. "You're quite sure, Joel?"—she began—"and you haven't told me—how long will it be before you come into some of this money?"
"Well,"—he in turn paused over his words—"well, I suppose that by next week things will be in such shape that my bank will see I'm good for an overdraft. Oh heavens, yes! there'll be a hundred ways of touching some ready. But if you've got twenty or thirty pounds handy just now—I tell you what I'll do, Lou. I'll give you a three months bill, paying one hundred pounds for every sovereign you let me have now. Come, old lady: you don't get such interest every day, I'll bet."
"I don't want any interest from you, Joel," she replied, simply. "If you're sure I can have it back before Christmas, I think I can manage thirty pounds. It will do in the morning, I suppose?"
He nodded an amused affirmative. "Why—you don't imagine, do you," he said, "that all this gold is to rain down, and none of it hit you? Interest? Why of course you'll get interest—and capital thrown in. What did you suppose?"
"I don't ask anything for myself," she made answer, with a note of resolution in her voice. "Of course if you like to do things for the children, it won't be me who'll stand in their light. They've been spoiled for my kind of life as it is."
"I'll do things for everybody," he affirmed roundly. "Let's see—how old is Alfred?"
"He'll be twenty in May—and Julia is fourteen months older than he is."
"Gad!" was Thorpe's meditative comment. "How they shoot up! Why I was thinking she was a little girl." "She never will be tall, I'm afraid," said the literal mother. "She favours her father's family. But Alfred is more of a Thorpe. I'm sorry you missed seeing them last summer—but of course they didn't stop long with me. This was no place for them—and they had a good many invitations to visit schoolfellows and friends in the country. Alfred reminds me very much of what you were at his age: he's got the same good opinion of himself, too—and he's not a bit fonder of hard work."
"There's one mighty big difference between us, though," remarked Thorpe. "He won't start with his nose held down to the grindstone by an old father hard as nails. He'll start like a gentleman—the nephew of a rich man."
"I'm almost afraid to have such notions put in his head," she replied, with visible apprehension. "You mustn't encourage him to build too high hopes, Joel. It's speculation, you know—and anything might happen to you. And then—you may marry, and have sons of your own."
He lifted his brows swiftly—as if the thought were new to his mind. A slow smile stole into the little wrinkles about his eyes. He opened his lips as if to speak, and then closed them again.
"Well," he said at last, abruptly straightening himself, and casting an eye about for his coat and hat. "I'll be round in the morning—on my way to the City. Good-bye till then."
IN Charing Cross station, the next afternoon, Mr. Thorpe discovered by the big clock overhead that he had arrived fully ten minutes too soon. This deviation from his deeply-rooted habit of catching trains at the last possible moment did not take him by surprise. He smiled dryly, aud nodded to the illuminated dial, as if they shared the secret of some quaint novelty. This getting to the station ahead of time was of a piece with what had been happening all day—merely one more token of the general upheaval in the routine of his life.
From early morning he had been acutely conscious of the feeling that his old manners and usages and methods of thought—the thousand familiar things that made up the Thorpe he had been—were becoming strange to him. They fitted him no longer; they began to fall away from him. Now, as he stood here on the bustling platform, it was as if they had all disappeared—been left somewhere behind him outside the station. With the two large bags which the porter was looking after—both of a quite disconcerting freshness of aspect—and the new overcoat and shining hat, he seemed to himself a new kind of being, embarked upon a voyage of discovery in the unknown.
Even his face was new. A sudden and irresistible impulse had led him to the barber-shop in his hotel at the outset; he could not wait till after breakfast to have his beard removed. The result, when he beheld it in the mirror, had not been altogether reassuring. The over-long, thin, tawny moustasche which survived the razor assumed an undue prominence; the jaw and chin, revealed now for the first time in perhaps a dozen years, seemed of a sickly colour, and, in some inexplicable way, misshapen. Many times during the day, at his office, at the restaurant where he lunched, at various outfitters' shops which he had visited, he had pursued the task of getting reconciled to this novel visage in the looking-glass. The little mirrors in the hansom cabs had helped him most in this endeavour. Each returned to him an image so different from all the others—some cadaverous, some bloated, but each with a spontaneous distortion of its own—that it had become possible for him to strike an average tolerable to himself, and to believe in it.
His sister had recognized him upon the instant, when he entered the old book-shop to get the money promised overnight, but in the City his own clerks had not known him at first. There was in this an inspiring implication that he had not so much changed his appearance as revived his youth. The consciousness that he was in reality still a young man spread over his mind afresh, and this time he felt that it was effacing all earlier impressions. Why, when he thought of it, the delight he had had during the day in buying new shirts and handkerchiefs and embroidered braces, in looking over the various stocks of razors, toilet articles, studs and sleeve-links, and the like, and telling the gratified tradesmen to give him the best of everything—this delight had been distinctively boyish. He doubted, indeed, if any mere youth could have risen to the heights of tender satisfaction from which he reflected upon the contents of his portmanteaus. To apprehend their full value one must have been without them for such a weary time! He had this wonderful advantage—that he supplemented the fresh-hearted joy of the youth in nice things, with the adult man's knowledge of how bald existence could be without them. It was worth having lived all those forty obscure and mostly unpleasant years, for this one privilege now of being able to appreciate to the uttermost the touch of double-silk underwear.
It was an undoubted pity that there had not been time to go to a good tailor. The suit he had on was right enough for ordinary purposes, and his evening-clothes were as good as new, but the thought of a costume for shooting harassed his mind. He had brought along with him, for this eventful visit, an old Mexican outfit of yellowish-grey cloth and leather, much the worse for rough wear, but saved from the disreputable by its suggestion of picturesque experiences in a strange and romantic country. At least it had seemed to him, in the morning, when he had packed it, to be secure in this salvation. Uneasy doubts on the subject had soon risen, however, and they had increased in volume and poignancy as his conceptions of a wardrobe expanded in the course of the day's investigations and purchases. He had reached the point now of hoping that it would rain bitterly on the morrow.
It was doubly important to keep a close look-out for Lord Plowden, since he did not know the name of the station they were to book for, and time was getting short. He dwelt with some annoyance upon his oversight in this matter, as his watchful glance ranged from one entrance to another. He would have liked to buy the tickets himself, and have everything in readiness on the arrival of his host. As it was, he could not even tell the porter how his luggage was to be labelled, and there was now less than two minutes! He moved forward briskly, with the thought of intercepting his friend at the front of the station; then halted, and went back, upon the recollection that while he was going out one way, Plowden might come in by the other. The seconds, as they passed now, became severally painful to his nerves. The ringing of a bell somewhere beyond the barrier provoked within him an impulse to tearful profanity.
Then suddenly everything was all right. A smooth-faced, civilly-spoken young man came up, touched his hat, and asked: "Will you kindly show me which is your luggage, sir?"
Thorpe, even while wondering what business of his it was, indicated the glaringly new bags—and then only half repressed a cry of pleasure at discovering that Lord Plowden stood beside him.
"It's all right; my man will look out for your things," said the latter, as they shook hands. "We will go and get our places."
The fat policeman at the gate touched his helmet. A lean, elderly man in a sort of guard's uniform hobbled obsequiously before them down the platform, opened to them a first-class compartment with a low bow and a deprecatory wave of the hand, and then impressively locked the door upon them. "The engine will be the other way, my Lord, after you leave Cannon Street," he remarked through the open window, with earnest deference. "Are there any of your bags that you want in the compartment with you?"
Plowden had nodded to the first remark. He shook his head at the second. The elderly man at this, with still another bow, flapped out a green flag which he had been holding furled behind his back, and extended it at arm's length. The train began slowly to move. Mr. Thorpe reflected to himself that the peerage was by no means so played-out an institution as some people imagined.
"Ho-ho!" the younger man sighed a yawn, as he tossed his hat into the rack above his head. "We shall both be the better for some pure air. London quite does me up. And you—you've been sticking at it months on end, haven't you? You look rather fagged—or at all events you did yesterday. You've smartened yourself so—without your beard—that I can't say I'd notice it to-day. But I take it every sensible person is glad to get away from London."
"Except for an odd Sunday, now and then, I haven't put my nose outside London since I landed here." Thorpe rose as he spoke, to deposit his hat also in the rack. He noted with a kind of chagrin that his companion's was an ordinary low black bowler. "I can tell you, I SHALL be glad of the change. I would have bought the tickets," he went on, giving words at random to the thought which he found fixed on the surface of his mind, "if I'd only known what our station was."
Plowden waved his hand, and the gesture seemed to dismiss the subject. He took a cigar case from his pocket, and offered it to Thorpe.
"It was lucky, my not missing the train altogether," he said, as they lighted their cigars. "I was up late last night—turned out late this morning, been late all day, somehow—couldn't catch up with the clock for the life of me. Your statement to me last night—you know it rather upset me."
The other smiled. "Well, I guess I know something about that feeling myself. Why, I've been buzzing about today like a hen with her head cut off. But it's fun, though, aint it, eh? Just to happen to remember every once in a while, you know, that it's all true! But of course it means a thousand times more to me than it does to you."
The train had come to a stop inside the gloomy, domed cavern of Cannon Street. Many men in silk hats crowded to and fro on the platform, and a number of them shook the handle of the locked door. There was an effect of curses in the sound of their remarks which came through the closed window. Mr. Thorpe could not quite restrain the impulse to grin at them.
"Ah, that's where you mistake," said Plowden, contemplating the mouthful of smoke he slowly blew forth. "My dear man, you can't imagine anybody to whom it would mean more than it does to me—I hope none of those fellows have a key. They're an awful bore on this train. I almost never go by it, for that reason. Ah, thank God we're off!—But as I was saying, this thing makes a greater difference to me than you can think of. I couldn't sleep last night—I give you my word—the thing upset me so. I take it you—you have never had much money before; that is, you know from experience what poverty is?"
Thorpe nodded with eloquent gravity.
"Well—but you"—the other began, and then paused. "What I mean is," he resumed, "you were never, at any rate, responsible to anybody but yourself. If you had only a sovereign a day, or a sovereign a week, for that matter, you could accommodate yourself to the requirements of the situation. I don't mean that you would enjoy it any more than I should—but at least it was open to you to do it, without attracting much attention. But with me placed in my ridiculous position—poverty has been the most unbearable torture one can imagine. You see, there is no way in which I can earn a penny. I had to leave the Army when I was twenty-three—the other fellows all had plenty of money to spend, and it was impossible for me to drag along with a title and an empty pocket. I daresay that I ought to have stuck to it, because it isn't nearly so bad now, but twelve years ago it was too cruel for any youngster who had any pride about him—and, of course, my father having made rather a name in the Army, that made it so much harder for me. And after that, what was there? Of course, the bar and medicine and engineering and those things were out of the question, in those days at least. The Church?—that was more so still. I had a try at politics—but you need money there as much as anywhere else—money or big family connections. I voted in practically every division for four years, and I made the rottenest speeches you ever heard of at Primrose League meetings in small places, and after all that the best thing the whips could offer me was a billet in India at four hundred a year, and even that you took in depreciated rupees. When I tried to talk about something at home, they practically laughed in my face. I had no leverage upon them whatever. They didn't care in the least whether I came up and voted or stopped at home. Their majority was ten to one just the same—yes, twenty to one. So that door was shut in my face. I've never been inside the House since—except once to show it to an American lady last summer—but when I do go again I rather fancy"—he stopped for an instant, and nodded his handsome head significantly—"I rather fancy I shall turn up on the other side."
"I'm a Liberal myself, in English politics," interposed Thorpe.
Plowden seemed not to perceive the connection. They had left London Bridge behind, and he put his feet up on the cushions, and leant back comfortably. "Of course there was the City," he went on, speaking diagonally across to his companion, between leisurely intervals of absorption in his cigar. "There have been some directors' fees, no doubt, and once or twice I've come very near to what promised to be a big thing—but I never quite pulled it off. Really, without capital what can one do?—I'm curious to know—did you bring much ready money with you to England?"
"Between six and seven thousand pounds."
"And if it's a fair question—how much of it have you got left?"
Thorpe had some momentary doubts as to whether this was a fair question, but he smothered them under the smile with which he felt impelled to answer the twinkle in Plowden's eyes. "Oh, less than a hundred," he said, and laughed aloud.
Plowden also laughed. "By George, that's fine!" he cried. "It's splendid. There's drama in it. I felt it was like that, you know. Something told me it was your last cartridge that rang the bell. It was that that made me come to you as I did—and tell you that you were a great man, and that I wanted to enlist under you. Ah, that kind of courage is so rare! When a man has it, he can stand the world on its head." "But I was plumb scared, all the while, myself," Thorpe protested, genially. "Courage? I could feel it running out of my boots."
"Ah, yes, but that's the great thing," insisted the other. "You didn't look as if you were frightened. From all one could see, your nerve was sublime. And nothing else matters—it was sublime."
"Curious—that thing happened to me once before," commented Thorpe, with ruminating slowness. "It was out on the plains, years ago, and I was in pretty hard luck, and was making my way alone from Tucson north, and some cowboys held me up, and were going to make kindling wood of me, they being under the impression that I was a horse-thief they were looking after. There was five or six minutes there when my life wasn't worth a last year's bird's-nest—and I tell you, sir, I was the scaredest man that ever drew the breath of life. And then something happened to be said that put the matter right—they saw I was the wrong man—and then—why then they couldn't be polite enough to me. They half emptied their flasks down my throat, and they rode with me all the way to the next town, and there they wanted to buy everything liquid in the place for me. But what I was speaking of—do you know, those fellows got a tremendous notion of my nerve. It wasn't so much that they told me so, but they told others about it. They really thought I was game to the core—when in reality, as I tell you, I was in the deadliest funk you ever heard of."
"That's just it," said Plowden, "the part of you which was engaged in making mental notes of the occasion thought you were frightened; we will say that it was itself frightened. But the other part of you, the part that was transacting business, so to speak—that wasn't in the least alarmed. I fancy all born commanders are built like that. Did you ever see General Grant?"