City Chronicles/A Modern Sibyl
No. I.—A MODERN SIBYL.
MESSRS. GRANWICK & SHINE called it No. 42, Doddington Street, W. But their business—they were the furnishing trade, and had not been doing well at it of late years—only occupied the ground floor and a part of the basement. The upper storey was let as bachelor chambers, and had a separate entrance, and on the fanlight the house was described as Doddington Mansions. The remainder of the basement was the abode of the porter and housekeeper to the chambers. It was an old-fashioned house, occupying a good deal of ground space, with wide passages and staircase. There were nine sets of chambers altogether, and the names of the residents were painted upon a board in the hall. The last name on the board was S. Bywater Soames, Esq.
Mr. Soames was a man of thirty. His father had been a successful dentist, and his parents had intended that Samuel (that was his first name) should follow the same profession; they had educated him with a view to that end. They died when he had just completed that education, and six months later Soames sold his father's practice, and intimated to his near relations that he had given up the idea of being a dentist himself. The only reason he could give was that he felt he had not the energy for it; he would have four hundred a year, and could live on that. They spoke of the possibility of marriage, and remonstrated with eloquence but without much hope; they had always said among themselves that Samuel was most extraordinary, and there was no knowing what he would do. He said that he should not marry, and that if he ever wanted more money he hoped that he would be able to make it without having to work for it. Soames was a fair-haired, clean-shaven little man, of almost boyish appearance; he always looked tired.
At the age of thirty—a critical age with many men—Soames woke up. He never gambled at all seriously; he had no vicious tastes, and believed he had no extravagant tastes; but for the last few years he had been spending a good deal more than his annual four hundred. He was not in debt, but he had begun to nibble at his capital. He paid a hundred a year for his chambers and went abroad for three months of the year; he entertained his friends, not ostentatiously, but well; his tailor was expensive; the booksellers sent him particulars of anything good on the Stuart period, and he could rarely resist the purchase; there was the Opera, of course, for Soames was rather by way of being a musician; and there were hansoms, for Soames never walked if he could avoid it. He still looked tired, but he was awake now. He noted with surprise how many things there were on which one's money slipped away; but he did realise it, and he realised, moreover, that it is with capital as it is with cake—you cannot both eat it and have it. What was to be done?
Money can be made in two ways—by doing and by knowing—as Soames was well aware. The man who does, makes little and makes it slowly; the man who knows, makes much and makes it quickly. There are, of course, cases where the man both does and knows, but in those cases the knowledge is the essential factor. Knowledge without labour presented strong attractions to Soames. But not all knowledge has a commercial value; Soames was learned in the Stuart period, and knew something of heraldry and more of Wagner, but such things do not replace the thousands lapsed from one's treasury chest.
There was also a possibility of economy. The chambers at Doddington Mansions might be given up, and Soames might live on two hundred a year until his finances were on a proper footing again. There were certainly bachelors in London who got along on two hundred a year, and among the very poor there might even be some who got along on less. But Soames thought of this with horror; he had got used to his comfortable way of life and he did not want to change it. It made him so depressed that, in order to recover his self-respect, he took a hansom to Hesketh's to order some more clothes.
He happened to arrive at the moment when Hesketh's manager was turning a client out of the shop—customers are "clients" at Hesketh's. The customer was a tall, portly man, with a ragged, black moustache, and a very shining hat tilted back on his head; he was very angry and the manager was perfectly calm.
"We decline to make for you, and we don't want to have you about the place. That's all I've got to say."
The customer blustered and swore badly. He was excited, his face was flushed, his eyes seemed to be starting out of his head. The manager took no notice of him, but escorted Soames into the shop.
"Very sorry, sir," he said, "that you should have arrived just when that little scene was going on. Unfortunately, there was no avoiding it. Brought it on himself."
"What was the row, Bland?" asked Soames. "Is that the way you treat us when we're broke?"
"No, sir, no, Mr. Soames, I hope you don't think that. That man's worth half a million, and as far as his money's concerned he's all right. But he doesn't understand the ways of a place like this. He comes here half drunk and uses the most offensive language; he loses his temper without any reason, for it's not our fault he's grown so stout. He's Mr. Walter Chive, and one never heard of him till last year."
"Do anything?" asked Soames lazily.
"Oh, yes, he's one of the Anglo-Foreign Hotels Syndicate. Minting money, they tell me. Quick elevators, ice-water, servants not too formal, and everything to suit the foreigners visiting England. He's a man who might have introduced a lot of valuable business, and I put up with him for a bit. The other day he was carrying on when Lord Carris came in. His Lordship said to me privately, 'I wonder you let that filthy bounder into the shop at all, Bland.' Oh, I was quite ashamed! What could I say? However, we've seen the last of him now. He came in to-day in his usual state, and began, 'Where's that fool Bland?' Oh, I very soon showed him where I was. If we do lose the custom of his friends, it won't ruin us."
And then Soames refused a whisky-and-soda, lit a cigarette, and permitted patterns to be shown him. The incident mildly amused him. It seemed to him a queer thing that a man who was clever enough and knew enough to make money could not pick up a way of behaviour which would spare him the contempt of strangers that he met and the humiliation of being turned out of his tailor's.
A few days later Soames came across this same Mr. Walter Chive again. Soames was coming slowly down the stairs at Doddington Mansions, drawing on his gloves as he went. Chive was in the hall at the bottom of the stairs, in earnest conversation with two other men.
"Well," he was saying, "you've seen it yourselves, and you like the position. G. and S. have only two years to run, and we know for a fact that they will be glad to clear out any time. Shearing's going the deuce of a pace and will have to part with something soon."
"Vell, vell," said a middle-aged man whose appearance as well as his accent bore evidence to his nationality, "dat may be ver' true. But vy do nod Aston and Blaig know somedings? And vot about dese?" he tapped with his stick on the board on which were the names of the residents.
"Yearly agreements, all of them. Aston and Blake are old-fashioned people. They did this property for his father before him, and they think things are going on the same way for ever. Besides, he won't tell 'em before he must."
"I must think over it," said the third man, who was a handsome old gentleman of a rather military appearance.
And then Soames passed through them and got into the cab which was waiting for him. He told the man to drive to his club. He was now in possession of some information that interested him. It seemed that the Anglo-Foreign Syndicate had cast their speculative eye on No. 42, Doddington Street. If they purchased it from Lord Shearing, they would probably pull it down, and put up a nice little hotel, five storeys higher, on the site. They expected that they would have no trouble in getting Granwick and Shine to part with their lease, and the occupants of the residential chambers had only yearly agreements. He thought things over, and realised that there was the knowledge which might be profitable. He called up through the trap and altered the direction of his cab. A few minutes later he was sitting in Mr. Blake's room at Messrs. Aston and Blake's offices, and Mr. Blake, a gentleman of venerable and kindly appearance, was asking what he could do for him.
"Well," said Soames, "I want those chambers of mine redecorated, if you don't mind."
"By all means," said Mr. Blake. "Redecorate them."
Soames explained that he had wanted rosewood panelling in the three rooms, with a deep frieze above. And he wanted painted ceilings—he knew an artist who was just the man for it. "I thought the landlord paid for these things," he added plaintively. He looked the image of an ignorant boy who has had his enthusiasm damped.
Mr. Blake was much amused. He became patronising and informative. He used the phrase, "When you have lived a little longer," with great effect.
"Well," said Soames, "there's no help for it; as you won't do it, I must. Only, how am I to know that you won't turn me out as soon as I have spent my money on the place? It would be quite fair, wouldn't it?"
"It would be quite legal," said Mr. Blake. "But it is not the sort of thing we should dream of doing."
"But suppose Lord Shearing died or wanted to sell the place, and it passed out of your hands. I've only got that thing I signed, and that only lasts a year. Couldn't you fix it in some way so that I couldn't be turned out? You see, this will cost me a lot of money; you said so yourself."
"His Lordship is not at all likely to sell. Yes, I know there are some ill-natured stories about, but we attach no importance to them. However, you are a good tenant, if I may say so, Mr. Soames, and we'll make an exception for you. You shall have a lease. Do you know what a lease is?"
And Mr. S. Bywater Soames was so forgetful of the sacred character of truth that he said he was afraid he was not very clear upon it. A week later he had a seven years of his chambers.
That was precisely what he had gone to Mr. Blake to get. If he had asked for it straight out, he have aroused suspicions. Also, it was no part game to pose as the hard-headed business man. His youthful appearance had been in his favour, and he had played up to it. He was regarded by Messrs. Aston and Blake as a luxurious young ass, and this estimate of his character might very possibly come in useful.
He went back to his chambers and thought it over. If Lord Shearing and the Anglo-Foreign Hotels Syndicate never came to terms, he would be in the same position as before, with the exception of the money that he laid out on the redecoration of the chambers. A sum had been named, and its expenditure had been made a condition of the lease. But Soames had the right to sub-let to an approved tenant. He could go elsewhere and economise, or he might be more successful in his next attempt to make use of knowledge commercially.
If, on the other hand, the property were sold—then, he thought to himself with some pleasure, the fun would begin.
A month later Messrs. Granwick and Shine, crushed by the competition of Tottenham Court Road, went suddenly and savagely bankrupt. They owed a year's rent at the time. Lord Shearing wrote a letter to Messrs. Aston and Blake on the subject which made that venerable firm feel extremely sick. Mr. Blake said sadly that his Lordship's father would never have written such a letter.
A few days afterwards Lord Shearing's brown filly, Fiametta, annoyed by three false starts, stopped and kicked when she should have been otherwise engaged. Lord Shearing watched the performance through his field-glasses. His smile was a trifle metallic and artificial; but, considering the amount that the mare was losing for him, it did him some credit that he was able to smile at all. When, a few days later, Messrs. Aston and Blake wrote to him that the Anglo-Foreign Hotels Syndicate had offered to him a fair price for No. 42, Doddington Street, his laconic Lordship wired back the simple word "Sell."
To Messrs. Aston and Blake, Mr. Walter Chive, representing the Syndicate on this occasion, came as somewhat of a shock. He swore heavily and he smoked in the office; he spoke with marked disrespect of Lord Shearing; and he was always suspecting Messrs. Aston and Blake of sharp practice that had never entered their innocent and venerable heads.
"Now," said Mr. Chive, after a little preliminary conversation, "all this talk won't buy the baby a new frock, will it? Let's get to business. Give me your lowest price, and I'll say if we will buy. And for goodness' sake don't try anything on with me; I don't like it."
"We received this letter from his Lordship this morning," said Mr. Blake. "You will see that he states in it the amount which he is prepared to accept."
Mr. Chive read through the letter and put it down. Then he got up, turned his back to Mr. Blake, walked to the window and looked out. The price asked was less than the Syndicate had been prepared to give. After a minute's reflection Mr. Chive turned round again.
"Well," he said, "this plunger of yours has got his mouth open quite wide enough. However, we'll buy his shanty at that price if we can have immediate possession."
"There is a lease, and there are certain yearly agreements. But I do not anticipate any difficulty. These people are all old tenants of ours, and I think we can deal with them on a footing that would not be possible for a stranger. Besides, they are gentlemen who would not care to reside at the Mansions while your builders and house-breakers were at work. The noise and dust would be unpleasant to them; in fact, I feel pretty sure that they will be glad to have the chance to leave at once. I will guarantee that you shall have possession in nine months.
"You might as well talk about nine blooming years," said Mr. Chive. "Look here, I'll put my cards on the table and let you see how we're placed. There's a bit of rivalry going on. Some people have picked our brains and are going to put up an hotel or two on our lines. They've got a site in this neighbourhood, and they'll begin to clear it next week. Our hotel has got to be ready before theirs is. See?"
"Of course, it is possible that we might be able to get the tenants out before the nine months. I only say that we will not guarantee to give you possession before then. But we will do our best—you may depend on that."
"I don't depend on that or anything else. Let's see the lease. And what sort of a chap has got it? The yearlies can be managed, anyhow."
After a good deal of talk it was arranged that the Syndicate should make the best terms they could with Soames and the other tenants, and that a sum of £500 should be deducted from the purchase price.
When all was signed and settled Mr. Blake permitted himself to ask, "And if Mr. Soames refuses to go?"
"He won't. I shall put it to him in a gentlemanly way."
"But if he won't be persuaded?"
"A little ready money has a great effect on these young asses about town. You've told us the kind of fellow he is."
"And if even that doesn't work?"
"I shall cut off the water, the electric light, and the staircase."
"I'm afraid you did not read that lease very carefully."
"Can't I do that? Oh, well, I'll find something else. Soames be hanged! He's not going to block us."
The two men whom Soames had seen in conversation with Chive in the hall at Doddington Mansions were Mr. Eugene Mandelbaum and Mr. Farshaw. Mr. Farshaw was more attractive in manner and appearance than the other two men. He had a truthful blue eye and bore himself erect; there was something simple and soldierly about the old gentleman. He had probably made more money out of burst straights than any other poker player in the kingdom.
He had no difficulty at all in persuading the yearly tenants at Doddington Mansions to hasten their departure. He was extremely sorry, but the place had to come down. There would be workmen all over it, and dust and noise everywhere. The porter and housekeeper would be turned out of the basement at once, and there would be nobody to attend to the chambers. His Syndicate regretted—really regretted— all the inconvenience and discomfort they were causing. Was there anything that they could do? That was all he wanted to know.
With every appearance of generosity, and very little actual expenditure, he got them all to go. But he did not get Mr. S. Bywater Soames to go.
Mr. Farshaw called upon Mr. Soames one morning by appointment. He was afraid Mr. Soames was not very glad to see him.
"On the contrary," said Soames, who looked very tired, "I'm charmed. I had been expecting to hear from the Syndicate."
"What I wanted to see you particularly about was the panelling in these rooms. We understand from Mr. Blake that you put this in quite recently at your own expense."
"That is so."
"The other directors and myself wish to say that if you care to remove this panelling, they are not disposed to press their rights in the matter. In fact, we shall be having some experienced workmen of our own in the place in a fortnight, and if you like they shall take it down and. pack it for you free of charge. We can do that for you, and of course, as we are making the chambers absolutely uninhabitable, we will cancel the lease and decline to take any rent that may be still due. Is there anything else we can do? People who keep hotels cannot afford to make enemies, and I am afraid that at the best we have given you a good deal of inconvenience."
"Not at all," said Soames politely. "And I shan't have to trouble your men about that panelling, because I am not leaving."
"Mr. Soames," said Farshaw, "I can see that you are angry with us, and I confess that it doesn't surprise me. This is hard lines for you. But do you think you are well advised in making bad worse? Let us suppose that you stay. It may give us a little trouble, but it will make no difference in the end. The hotel will be built, and your chambers will remain, just in the middle of the kitchen and the servants' quarters. You will have to use the servants' stairs and entrance. Will that be pleasant for you or for friends who come to see you? I say nothing of what you will have to go through in consequence of the building operations."
"It won't be pleasant, but I am going to stay. I shouldn't have thought that the first-floor front was the best place for the kitchens and servants' bedrooms, but——"
"One moment, Mr. Soames. Now, suppose that you have the good sense to make up your mind to go. I will sit down now if you like and give you a note to the manager of one of our hotels in Jermyn Street. You can stay there for a week or a fortnight while you are looking for other chambers. You will get special attention and comfort there, and there will be no bill—you will be the guest of the Syndicate. We will do your removal free of charge, and hand you our cheque for twenty-five pounds to cover any incidental expenses. In your case we would sooner err on the generous side than on the other. Now, I'll write that cheque and the note to our man in Jermyn Street, and I'm sure——"
"No, thanks," said Soames. "I don't feel that I know your Syndicate well enough to be its guest. Besides, I don't want to leave."
"Well," said Farshaw, "I'll let you think it over. In less than a week our men will be at work. If you change your mind then, let me know, and I will do the best I can for you. But, of course, I can't promise that I shall be able to get the other directors to offer you the same terms then that they do now."
"Quite so," said Soames. "Good morning."
The next three months were occupied with a series of minor hostilities. The Syndicate pulled down as much of No. 42, Doddington Street, as they could, carefully watched on behalf of Soames by a builder and a solicitor, and that builder and solicitor worried the Syndicate a good deal. They got letters of solemn warning from that solicitor about once a week. Soames thought that rather more dust and rubbish fell on him as he went up and down the stairs than was absolutely necessary, and he did not like the Syndicate's builder's foreman's smile; so be ordered in a case of the most atrocious whisky that could be bought for money. Next morning bricks appeared to be falling against Soames's door, and an iron girder was being beaten with a hammer continuously until the dinner-hour. Then Soames came out into the passage, found a couple of the men, and suggested that they might like a drink. He handed out four bottles of the destructive whisky to them, and Nature did the rest. Five men were too hopelessly drunk to work that afternoon, and the foreman did not smile any more. The builder required measurements which could only be got by entering Soames's chambers; Soames refused to allow the man to come in. The Syndicate's builder's foreman then punched Soames's servant's head, and was given the usual option; Soames distributed the rest of his paralysis brand of whisky and got a new servant; the Syndicate's architect went mad; and things came to a deadlock.
It was Mr. Eugene Mandelbaum who was next deputed by the Syndicate to interview Soames. He looked like a cross between a philosopher and a pig, and appearances did not belie him.
"I am a man of few vortz," he said to Soames.
"I beg your pardon?" said Soames.
"I mean, I am a man that has not moch to zay. And vot I zay is, how moch for you to go?"
"Three thousand pounds," said Soames.
"My frient, I am not kom here to shoke."
"That's all right. I'm not joking. My offer's good for twenty-four hours."
Mr. Farshaw was of the opinion that the three thousand should be paid. "He's on top and he knows it. While we thought he didn't know it, it was all very well to try to shunt him on the cheap. But it's no good to go on fighting when you're beaten. He's done us, and it can't be helped."
But Mr. Farshaw's opinion did not prevail. It was decided to offer half the amount; the offer was refused by return of post.
Soames had made up his mind quickly, but not easily. He was playing a big game, and it was quite possible that they might turn obstinate, in which case he would lose everything. Fifteen hundred pounds was a large sum to risk. But the offer was a sign in itself that the Syndicate was weakening, and he guessed that the weakening would be a gradual process. Also the workmen, whose intoxication he had so obligingly financed, were not ungrateful; they had talked to Soames and had told him what they knew. Soames was aware that the new hotel could not be erected without a certain iron girder which would have to pass through the middle of his chambers. Besides, the lust of battle had entered into him. He felt now that he would sooner lose all than give in.
A month passed, during which the Syndicate's builder did next to nothing, and the Syndicate's rival's builder did quite a good deal. It was during this month that the hair of Mr. Eugene Mandelbaum began definitely to go grey. Soames came out of his chambers and wandered about the site of the proposed Doddington Hotel; he examined the excavations and asked the foreman why he did not get on. And all this time Farshaw was urging the other directors to give Soames his price; three thousand was, after all, a very small sum in comparison to what they were in danger of losing.
Mr. Eugene Mandelbaum observed, "I should like to haf that yonk man as a pardner," and reluctantly assented to Farshaw's proposal.
Mr. Walter Chive said, "Then I suppose it's no good my sticking out. The only thing that I stipulate for is that I hand him the cheque myself; and then at least I shall have a chance to tell him what I think of him. And I will, too."
"I should nod blay aboud with dat Zoames, if I vos you," said Mandelbaum. "It vill be no goot. He is a deffil."
"And he'll find he ain't the only devil about, too. I'll give him a dressing down that will take some of the edge off his enjoyment. You leave him to me. My belief is that if I had gone at the first we should never have been put in this infernal hole."
So Mr. Walter Chive went, with the Syndicate's cheque for three thousand in his pocket. He had seen a good many men, and they had most of them "taken another" with him, and he was not quite at his best that morning.
"No, thanks, I won't sit down," he said in answer to Soames's invitation. "I'll say what I got to say standing, Mr. Bugwater Soames, or whatever your name may be. If there were law and justice in this country you would be on the treadmill. You're asking three thousand; if it were a railway company, with Parliamentary powers to buy, I doubt if you would get three hundred. You're a swindler, a dirty swindler. You may find yourself in the dock on a charge of conspiracy yet. It's blackmail, that's what it is. However, the worse the vermin, the more one is willing to pay to be quit of them. Here's your three thousand. Sit down and write the receipt, and be out of these premises before this time to-morrow."
Soames had been lying lazily back in his chair with his eyes closed. He now opened them.
"My price was three thousand; it is now six thousand, and in twenty-four hours it will be twelve thousand. If a cheque is sent, I shall leave on the day it is cleared, and not before; and the cheque must be sent by post or by some decent messenger." He paused and rang the bell. "Now get out. I can't have drunken swine like you about the place."
The bell was answered by Soames's new servant. Soames had seen the necessity of getting someone who would not be likely to have his head punched. The new man was a quiet, steady-looking fellow, but he was powerful and clever with his hands.
At first Mr. Chive was unable to speak. He gesticulated with a clenched fist. Then he burst into a flood of stuttering blasphemy and obscenity. He seemed smitten with a desire to say all the bad words he knew in the shortest possible time. Saliva trickled from one corner of his mouth down his chin.
Soames jerked his thumb in the direction of Mr. Chive and turned to the servant. "You can clear that away, James," he said.
James approached. Mr. Chive caught up his hat. "Threat of assault!" he cried. "By God! you'll pay for it! You've let yourself in for it now!" He had more to say, but by this time James had shut the door on him.
Soames received a cheque for six thousand next morning, with a very polite letter from the Syndicate. He cashed the cheque, warehoused his furniture, and went down to the sea to rest.
The Doddington Hotel is now completed and doing very well. Mr. Chive, who, after all, decided to do nothing about that threatened assault, has retired from the directorate. It is always better to retire than to be thrown out.