City Chronicles/Fifteen per Cent
No. VI.—FIFTEEN PER CENT.
THE offices of Mr. James Pellet, solicitor, in the City, were rather useful than ornamental. Fifteen minutes in their waiting-room were calculated to damp any client who had arrived with an enthusiastic idea of giving his solicitor instructions. The mural decorations consisted of deed-boxes, whose very inscriptions bore witness to the brevity of human life and the frequency of human bankruptcy. The table was plain, the chairs were severe, and the rigid linoleum was discouraging.
There one fine morning sat a young man of twenty-three, by name Ernest Langley Tewson. He looked careful and thoughtful, but he did not look clever, though he was ready with a scheme for making fifteen per cent. with perfect safety. So far, E. L. Tewson had not, as the French say, invented gunpowder. He was an orphan, whose father had left him some two hundred a year. He was at present employed in the office of his uncles, Tewson Brothers, and there made an additional hundred. He supposed that one day he would be made a partner, in spite of the brusque—one might almost have said offensive—manner of Uncle Braxton, and the absence of any great encouragement from the more genial Uncle Langley. Uncle Langley admitted that the young man was not brilliant, but said that steadiness was what was most wanted in business. Certainly there was not in the City of London anything steadier than Ernest. He had not a vice or an extravagance, and as long as he was doing routine work did not do so badly. He was at present spending about a quarter of his income, and regretted very much that he ever had to spend anything at all. He was steady even to the point of being slightly unpopular with the men of his own age he came across. It was when he was required to use his own initiative, to do something that he had never done before, that Ernest invariably broke down. Uncle Braxton had at various times called his nephew a sheep's head, a boiled owl, and some other things that are much too shocking to repeat; he regarded the hundred which rewarded his nephew's services as an amiable waste of money. If anyone had suggested to him the propriety of one day making Ernest a partner, he would have had apoplexy. If there was one person in the world that Mr. Braxton Tewson heartily disliked, it was his young nephew, and, but for Uncle Langley, Ernest would have had to seek for employment elsewhere long before. He, on his part, was just as strong in his dislike of Uncle Braxton. He kept a list of all the offensive expressions that Uncle Braxton had used to him, with the date of each and a thoughtful note of the circumstances. He did not quite know why he did this, but it was certainly in its way a great comfort. He pictured a financial crisis in the firm. The business of Tewson Brothers was not speculative, and they were about as likely to have a financial crisis as the Bank of England, which, by the way, had before this been driven to pay its customers in sixpences. Then Ernest would step forward with his accumulated savings, rescue the firm, and be made a partner. He would then turn to his uncle and say with dignity, "Uncle Braxton, you must understand for the future that our relative positions have changed. I shall tolerate no disrespect from you." He rehearsed this little scene frequently in his own mind. Uncle Braxton would have laughed till he was ill if he had ever heard of it.
But Ernest, like most thoughtful young men, was secretive. Not even Uncle Langley knew what his savings were or how they were invested. The young man had a kind of pig-headed independence, and loved to veil himself in mystery. He had chosen his own solicitor to do such legal work as was unavoidable in connection with those investments. So far he had believed in first class investments and third class economies. He abhorred gambling and speculation of all kinds. There is a good deal to be said for that method, but it is not rapid. Now, Ernest wanted rapidity and perfect safety together, fifteen per cent. and gilt-edged stuff. There are many men who want the same thing, and it is generally believed that they very seldom get it. Ernest had recognised the improbability of it, and had, so far, resigned himself to four per cent. and safety. But now, now at last, he had had a bright idea, and it was this idea which had brought him to Mr. Pollet's office.
He had got tired of the waiting-room copy of a financial paper, and was looking out of the window at the busy traffic below when a clerk entered.
"Mr. Pollet will see you now, sir." And forthwith Ernest was ushered into the presence.
Mr. James Pollet did not look at all like the traditional solicitor of the stage. He had neither grey hair nor an archidiaconal manner. He was rather a fat man of about forty, with hair that was definitely sandy, parted in the middle, and kept in a state of immaculate shine and smoothness. His shirt was always a size or two too big, and seemed to have broken its front in sheer despair of ever fitting him. His waistcoat was expansive and cut unusually low. He had chubby hands, and on one finger wore a plain gold ring, which could never have been pawned unless the finger had been pawned with it, or Mr. Pollet had gone in for the Banting system. His manner was almost nervous and very quiet. His friends would have smiled slightly if they had been told that Mr. Pollet was nervous.
He greeted Ernest cordially. He was pleased to see him; the rain was still holding off; there had not been much in the papers lately; and what was the business? Ernest looked a little doubtful. His passion for secrecy was strong in him.
"Well, Mr. Pollet," he said, "I know that I can speak to you in confidence."
Mr. Pollet seemed rather hurt. "Is that necessary, Mr. Tewson?" he asked in a high-pitched voice of querulous resignation. "Surely, if you have the slightest doubt, you would do better to——"
"Not at all, not at all," broke in Ernest hurriedly. "But—well, the fact is that an idea has occurred to me that I have never come across before; and it seems to me to be one of very considerable commercial value. It would be spoilt if it became generally known. I get into the habit of being very much on my guard, and the habit persists even when there is no occasion for it."
"I see," said Mr. Pollet.
"Well, now," Ernest continued, "I should like to go through my scheme with you. It has to do with my—er—insignificant investments. Perhaps you would check me if there is a flaw in it anywhere."
"Certainly," said Mr. Pollet.
"As you know, I have at present eight hundred pounds out at four per cent. on Pagmore's place at Orstanton. I have also about two hundred pounds at my banker's, which I must put into something or other. Now, I think you know my views on investment."
"They are very natural and not uncommon," said Mr. Pollet, "but it is very difficult to meet them. You want four per cent. securities, and ten or twelve per cent. interest. I must tell you again that it can't be done."
"Are you quite sure it can't be done?" asked Ernest, with a smile of dark but triumphant cunning.
"If it can, I should be very glad to hear the way. I confess that I don't know it."
"My idea is merely a combination of two very simple things. I have figured it out, and I should say that house property that had been bought with discretion, and was well looked after, ought to bring in about eight per cent."
"Possibly," said Mr. Pollet guardedly. "Much depends on what is meant 'by discretion."
"Very well. Now we come to the second thing. "all I can get when I lend money on mortgages is four per cent."
"That is so; you insist on first class mortgages."
"Precisely. Don't think I am blaming you at all. I know you are not responsible for the market conditions, and that you do the very best that can be done with them. Let us pass to my combination of the two things that I have just mentioned. Suppose for three thousand pounds, could I borrow two-thirds of that sum on it?"
"Very easily," said Mr. Pollet. "I have always clients who would lend you the money, and be thankful for the investment."
"Then you see my notion?"
Mr. Pollet looked the image of perplexity, and said that he had not quite tumbled to it yet.
"Yet it is as simple as possible; in fact, I can't make out why other people have not thought of it before. If I buy that three thousand pound property, I make eight per cent. on my invested thousand. But I also make eight per cent. on the two thousand that I am able to borrow, less the four per cent. that I pay for the use of them. That is equivalent to saying that I make sixteen per cent. on my invested thousand, and I have about as good security as it is possible to get."
"That is so," said Mr. Pollet. "Less, of course, the necessary legal expenses."
"I had not forgotten them. There are charges for stamps and engrossing and so on. I cannot estimate it exactly, but I dare say it mounts up; but of course those costs would be distributed over the period for which the investment lasted. However, there is no need to press it; suppose I call it fifteen per cent., which would quite satisfy me, considering the high class of security that I should be holding, it still seems to me to be good business. Fifteen per cent. is a very nice thing."
Mr. Pollet agreed cordially.
"Now," said Ernest, with the air of a man in an impregnable position, "just tell me where I am wrong."
"It is a most ingenious idea," Mr. Pollet owned. "You must not expect me, of course, to say anything which could be construed as a guarantee. On the figures as you give them you are all right. But we solicitors learn to take nothing for granted. Suppose, for instance, that some sudden subsidence of the soil swallowed up your property. That is a remote chance, but it is a chance. Suppose that your tenant bolted and left no address. You would probably take precautions not to get that kind of tenant, but one cannot leave that kind of thing out of one's calculations. All I can say is, that on paper your idea seems feasible. I think that I should prefer to give you a written opinion, embodying what I have just said."
"That will do for me," said Ernest. "I am no gambler, but there are some chances that one simply must take if any business is to be done at all. We can't stop for a billion to nothing chance of some tremendous upheaval of Nature. That is a risk which one has to take every day, business or no business. I should like you to call in that money of mine, please, and for the next few weeks I will be looking about me to find something that will suit me. You shall hear from me as soon as I am successful. I am not going to take the first thing that offers. Until I can see my way to my money I shall do nothing."
On the following morning Ernest got a letter from Mr. Pollet, "referring to our interview of yesterday." It was not a very encouraging letter, and there were parts of it that Ernest hardly understood; they were apparently referring to something that Mr. Pollet had said at the interview, and Ernest could not remember anything that Mr. Pollet had said which would quite fit in. However, no specific objection was raised to the scheme.
Ernest began to be very busy. He studied the lists of house agents. He attended auctions and inspected properties when he had the time, and that was not always. The ideas of Tewson Brothers as to office hours were strict. On one occasion there was a very tempting little thing in Surbiton that Ernest thought he ought to have a look at. He tried for Uncle Langley, but Mr. Langley Tewson was away for a day or two. There was no help for it; he approached the room devoted to Uncle Braxton, knocked, and was bidden to enter.
"What do you want?" asked Mr. Braxton Tewson, without looking up from the letter he was writing.
"I'm very sorry to interrupt you, uncle," he began. He paused a moment for his uncle to say it did not matter; but Uncle Braxton said nothing, went on with his letter, and seemed hardly to be aware that his nephew was in the room. Ernest had no choice but to continue. "I wanted particularly to get down to Surbiton this afternoon, on some business with regard to one of my investments. Could I have a couple of hours? I don't often ask for anything of the kind."
Uncle Braxton wrote three more lines of his letter, picked it up and read what he had written. Ernest stood and waited, with the propitiatory smile on his face frozen and fixed. At last his uncle spoke, apparently to the inkpot.
"We are very busy just now, and it is inconvenient to spare even a duffer like you. But take your two hours if you like."
It was not very graceful, but Ernest thanked him warmly.
"And," Mr. Braxton Tewson added grimly, "if you go, you need not trouble to come back to the office again at all."
And Ernest sighed and went away and wrote it all down in the book where he kept the list of things that he had against Uncle Braxton. Very methodical and careful young men are not infrequently rather childish as well.
A man's first drive at golf is proverbial, and it is bad to play poker with a beginner. When Ernest finally bought his property he had the beginner's luck, he got a fairly good bargain. Ernest would have ascribed this to his judgment, of which he had a high opinion. The price, exactly three thousand, just suited him. There was no difficulty about the mortgage. Mr. Pollet had a client, a widow, who was quite willing to lend the money. Ernest saw roseate visions. His thousand would bring him in one hundred and sixty in the first year. Not a penny of that would be spent. It would be added to his savings and invested on the new principle discovered by Ernest Langley Tewson, by which fifteen per cent. may be made with perfect safety. In ten years he would be a pretty warm man. If in that time his uncles had been so blind to their own interest that they had not taken him into partnership, he would be in a position to talk to them. He swelled with pride. He wanted to talk to somebody about himself. He invented little conversations in which Uncle Braxton first became acquainted with the scheme and realised its merits. He imagined Uncle Braxton in the act of confessing that he had been wrong, and that the office had entertained a financial genius unawares. Under those circumstances he decided that the right attitude for Ernest Langley Tewson to take would be one of dignified goodwill. He would smile and observe that bygones might be bygones.
These were pretty and consolatory thoughts, and they lasted fairly well for a time. They fell to pieces when he opened the foolscap envelope which contained Mr. James Pollet's bill of costs, and felt poignantly, as others have done before him, the hideous injustice by which a solicitor, acting for mortgagor and mortgagee, charges everything to the man who borrows the money, and is therefore presumably the less able to pay. In some ways it was a good bill; it was comprehensive; you felt at once that nothing had been left out from carelessness. It was all there—every letter, every stamp, every minute of time. Around the main item many little items clustered; like children round their mother. There was Mr. Pellet's authorised commission for finding the money. There was the surveyor's fee; he was Mr. Pellet's usual surveyor, and his charges were high. There were certain sums paid to counsel. It was all there, and the total amounted to just about seven times as much as Ernest had supposed possible. He checked the figures and found them quite correct; Mr. Pollet's clerks did not make mistakes. He examined the different items. Some of them he could understand, and some he could not, but he did not see his way to dispute with any success those of them that he did understand. In this frame of mind, with anguish knitting his brow and with nothing in his mind beyond a vague idea of getting something taken off the bill, he hurried off to Mr. Pollet. Mr. Pollet gave him precisely three minutes. At the end of that time Ernest left the office with that bill in statu quo ante, and with a misty conviction that if there ever was a cad in the world who tried to swindle his benefactor, that cad was Ernest Langley Tewson, and that benefactor was Mr. James Pollet. Ernest's economies for the next few months were exceptionally severe. That fifteen per cent. with safety was fading away, and the loss had to be made up somehow. The serious injury to his fifteen per cent. haunted his mind when he should have been thinking of other things, and gave Uncle Braxton occasion for providing more material for Ernest's little book.
A brief interval followed, and then another blow fell. Mr. Ernest received a short and business-like letter giving him the usual notice that the widow intended to call her money in. There was no help for it. Ernest had to rush off to pay another visit to Mr. Pollet, a visit that would be poisoned by the knowledge that it would assuredly go down in the bill. Mr. Pollet soothed him as he might have soothed a frightened child.
"Really, Mr. Tewson, there is no occasion for you to upset yourself at all. This is all perfectly regular—quite in order. If Mrs. Feloes is altering her investments, we must find somebody else who will lend the money. The property is all right, and I think I may guarantee that you will not have the slightest trouble about it."
"Yes, I know," said Ernest irritably. "You can find someone to lend the money, but I shall have another bill to pay."
"Do you suggest that I should do all this work for you, pay the out-of-pocket expenses, and make no charge?"
"No, not that precisely."
"Then, Mr. Tewson," said Mr. Pollet with some severity, "I am afraid I don't quite follow you. But observations of this kind are not very pleasant or very reasonable. I think we had something of the kind from you before. Under the circumstances I——" Mr. Pollet rose from his chair.
Ernest was immediately and profusely apologetic, and Mr. Pollet did not, after all, refuse to act for him. As Ernest walked along the street from the office he murmured bitterly, "Fifteen per cent." That dream had had its awakening now. Later in the morning Uncle Braxton inquired if his nephew could brush his own hair or blow his own nose without help. It was merely a matter of curiosity, because he did not seem able to do anything else. Uncle Braxton's sarcasm was a trifle heavy, perhaps.
On the other hand, Uncle Langley invited him for a Saturday to Monday. Ernest had long ago worked out the Saturday to Monday problem, and had found that by avoiding the degrading practice of giving tips to servants, and by travelling first class with a third class ticket, it could be made to pay.
It was during that visit, as he sat in the smoking-room with his uncle, that Uncle Langley said, a propos of something that he had just read in the paper, that he could not for the life of him make out why any solicitor was fool enough to play about with trust funds.
"A solicitor has so many ways of making money that are perfectly legal. The swells of the profession may turn up their noses at them, but you ask Jimmy Pollet. He doesn't know what a slack time is. He doesn't let his clerks sit idle for want of business. He always keeps something going, does Jimmy."
Ernest pricked up his ears. "Who is this Mr. Pollet?" he asked in the off-hand way of one who hears the name for the first time.
"Jimmy's a solicitor in the City, and a pretty smart man, too, though he doesn't look it. About two years ago a man offered to take three pounds to one that Jimmy would be struck off in twelve months. I laid it and won the bet. When you want to find Jimmy, you look on the right side of the hedge. He'll be there, and he may be pretty near the border."
Ernest reflected. "I don't quite understand, uncle, what you meant by this Pollet never having a slack time and always keeping something going. His business must be subject to the same fluctuations as others."
"Well, like most other solicitors, he has got a certain number of clients who practically leave their money in his hands for him to invest at his discretion. When he finds things are slack he has nothing to do but to move that money round a little. Every time that money moves some sticks to Jimmy's hands, as by law appointed. Suppose he puts old Mrs. Blank's money out of rails into industrials, or vice versâ—and he can always find a good reason for some such change—he gets half commission from the broker. And in all probability Mrs. Blank is very pleased at this evidence that he is keeping a watchful eye on her investments. When you come to do that, all along the line, that mounts up. I should say that Jimmy is far from being a poor man now, and yet when he started I remember that he had to borrow money from your Uncle Braxton to do it with. By the way, you look pretty gloomy."
"Yes, uncle—I mean, no. I was only thinking about something. Now, how would that man act with regard to mortgages?"
"Mortgages? Why, they are about the fattest thing of the lot. Jimmy makes a very good bill of costs, to start with; of course, he takes the rough with the smooth there; all don't pay alike, but I fancy the average is good. After that the fun begins. When Jimmy's got nothing better to do he shuffles the mortgages. A. takes B.'s, and B. takes C.'s, and so on. And of course, each change is more money for Jimmy. I don't know whether you understand."
"Yes," said Ernest mournfully, "I understand all right. And you said, uncle, that this was all perfectly legal."
"I believe so."
Ernest was quiet and meditative for the rest of his visit. His fifteen per cent. scheme was in ashes, but from those ashes another scheme was arising. He did not generally do things in any hurry, but by the end of the week he had decided on a momentous step, and sought and obtained audience of his two uncles.
"I wanted to ask," he said, "what my prospects are in working here."
"None," said Uncle Braxton at once.
"Of course," said Uncle Langley, "if you showed more ability and could do more responsible work, your salary would be advanced."
"Can't show what he's not got," murmured Uncle Braxton.
"Then I may take it," said Ernest, "that I have no chance of a partnership ultimately." He was not contradicted, and continued, "Well, I don't seem to be getting on very well here. It's possible this sort of business is not altogether in my line. I have been thinking lately that I should like to try something else. I suppose you would find no difficulty in getting another man who could do my work."
"Could get fifty of them in ten minutes by putting my head out of window and whistling," said Uncle Braxton.
And so it was arranged that Ernest should leave. "I suppose," said Uncle Langley, "you have other plans already made. But you are young, and I think you should take advice before deciding anything."
"Well," said Ernest, "it will mean a lot of money, and work, and waiting. But the fact is, that I have been thinking that I should like to be a solicitor."