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City Chronicles/Greasewell's House Paints

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No. II.—GREASEWELL'S HOUSE PAINTS.

A VERY nervous condition characterised the speculative and investing public the moment.

A few months before it had been tickled by the papers into coming in for a boom; and it had been caught in a slump. Then it wiped its forehead and said that nothing was safe except the old-fashioned respectable concerns that gave you five per cent. in a good year. Next week Leslie's broke and altered the suicide statistics. All this was noted by Mr. Alfred Peach, millionaire and company promoter. In the present state of the markets he felt especially glad that he had never been caught out yet. He was spoken of with respect. His companies were all of them flourishing; they were all dividend-payers, and some of them paid a very fair dividend indeed. As long as they did that, no inconvenient questions were likely to be asked as to how Mr. Peach had made his money. As a matter of fact, his system had always been to give the public as much as he thought good for them, and scoop the rest. Some people diddle the public; Mr. Peach thought this a mistake, except within reasonable limits—you may want them again. There were one or two inventors who walked about the City, raging against Mr. Peach; but in the City they allow a special extra broad margin for inventors. They go on their knees to be financed; terms are fixed and the financier adheres to them; and then the inventors think they have a right to go about grumbling. The inventors did Mr. Alfred Peach no harm, and the public confidence in him did him a lot of good. In spite of the nervous tension, Mr. Peach had no doubt that the public would come into his "Greasewell's House Paints, Limited," as soon as it had a chance, seeing that Mr. Peach was the chairman, and remembering that Mr. Peach had done them good aforetime. That, indeed, was the general opinion, and the stags prepared to be busy.

Alfred Peach was a dried-up man of fifty-five, taking little or no pleasure in the things that money can bring, and immense pleasure in making more money. He was fond of chess, but chess is cheap. He was no sportsman, and had never owned a yacht or a racehorse. He was very abstemious, more from temperance than conviction; he smoked one cigarette per diem after dinner and drank a very little claret-and-water. Personally, he cared nothing for splendour and luxury, and he did not want a title; but he meant to be a baronet one of these days; his wife wished it. He mostly did what his wife wished.

One morning, shortly before the public appearance of "Greasewell's House Paints, Limited," Mr. Peach was in his office in conversation with Mr. St. John Bulstrode, of Somnerley Park, Weybridge. The two men were strangers to each other, but Bulstrode had written to Peach with reference to an electrical invention, and this interview was the result. Bulstrode was a clean-shaven man of thirty-five, tall, good-looking, and well turned out. Peach looked almost insignificant beside him.

"Well, now, Mr. Bulstrode," said Peach, "what have you got and what do you want? First, what have you got? I don't know anything about electricity; so put it simply. Excuse me if I seem abrupt, but my time's precious."

"Certainly. My invention gets electricity direct from heat. At present you get only fifteen or twenty per cent. out of your coal."

"Where's the rest go?"

"Up the chimney and in the latent heat of steam. My invention gets seventy-five or eighty per cent. out of the coal."

"I see. That cuts down the coal bill. What other bills does it run up instead?"

"None. My generating plant is cheaper in the original cost, as well as in the working, than any other."

"Pardon me if I don't seem enthusiastic. You see, if this were all right, it would be such a very, very big thing. Now, I get a lot of things brought me; and it's my experience that most of the very big things are all wrong. To come to the second point, what do you want?"

"As I said in my letter, I want you to take this thing over and sell it to the public. I'm not a man of business; I was never brought up to it. I'm an electrician that has worked on one thing for ten years and has got it. Of course, I have private means, or I could not have done it; electrical experiments on a large scale are costly. Now I have got it, I want to sell it well. There you can help me; you understand company business and you have a great name with the public."

"And, putting it plainly, where should I come in?"

"If you took the thing up, you would come in as partner on even terms."

"It's worth looking into. Where's it running?"

"At my place—Somnerley Park, Weybridge."

"When could I send a man down?"

"Whenever you like, if you come as well. Not at all, if you don't, You see what I mean? It is, as you say, a big thing. For that reason—and I don't say you're wrong—you suspect it already. If your own engineer comes down without you, you will be but little more convinced than you are now, and the thing will drag on. Come down yourself; don't leave me alone with your man for a moment; that's what I want. I mean the examination and report to be beyond the possibility of a doubt. I am offering you a half share in a thing that is going to revolutionise the electrical business and decrease the price of the electric current something like three hundred per cent. But, understand me, Mr. Peach, I am not offering this for nothing. It must have your time and personal attention from the start. What have I to gain if you do come down and find the thing rotten?"

"Nothing, that I can see. You don't want money, and the thing is finished instead of being still in the air—two points in which you differ from the ordinary inventor. Still, you might be a crank, just a plain crank, deceiving yourself. You don't look that type, though. I don't see how I can come; I'm too busy; I've got this company on my hand just now. … Well, I don't know; if I did, it would have to be an evening. … But you might just as well let me send an expert."

"You may bring twenty experts with you, if you like."

"Now you're getting simply obstinate," said Mr. Peach.

But his mind was already made up. It was something more than an ordinary big thing; it was gigantic. Apart from his profits from the partnership with Bulstrode, the mere knowledge that such an invention was completed would turn to millions. It was a chance that could not be let go. And, now that he had decided that, his one fear was that somebody might get in before him.

"Well, then," he continued, "if you must have your own way, would Tuesday night next week do?"

"Perfectly."

"I can't make it quite a certainty. Our lists (that's Greasewell's thing, you know) close on Wednesday at noon. By Tuesday afternoon I expect to know that everything is all right. Barring accidents, I shall be there. What time?"

"If you could meet me at Waterloo for the five ten, we might travel down together. Of course, I shall be only too glad to put you and your experts up for the night. I think we can make you comfortable. The only thing I don't like is asking you to work after dinner."

"That's very kind of you. I never mind work; I don't do much sleeping. It will be all right about my being at the office here early on Wednesday morning?"

"You shall breakfast any time you like."

"That's good. Then, if my man likes the look of your machine, we can go into the question of the patents and so on afterwards. In a fortnight I should be able to give my time to you almost entirely."

"I've got counsel's opinion on the patents already. I thought you would want that first."

"No, I begin at the beginning. First, is the thing worth patenting? Then, are the patents good? See?" Mr. Alfred Peach rose from his seat. "Well, Mr. Bulstrode, you may expect me at Waterloo on Tuesday. I shall be there by five."

"That is, barring accidents," said Mr. Bulstrode, also rising.

Mr. Peach smiled. "To tell you the truth, we are not very much afraid of them. We haven't underwritten a single share. The public have always followed me, and they've always had something. Leslie's was a bad business, and I wish it hadn't happened. Of course, we knew in the City that they were weak a year before. But this is quite a different thing, and I don't fancy Leslie's will hurt us. In fact, though I don't often give tips, you might do worse than to apply for a few Greasewell's, and resist the temptation to sell them at a profit on the day they're allotted. Let me see, is there anything else? If I want to leave my engineer for a day or two to look into things a little more thoroughly——"

"Certainly, he can stop until he's satisfied."

"Thanks. And, look here, whom else have you taken this thing to?"

"Nobody else. You are the only man we want."

"That's all right. And—well, I shouldn't talk much about it, if I were you. You see, it can't do any good, and might——"

"Of course. You may depend on me. Address at the Cecil till Tuesday. I don't return to Somnerley Park till then, but I'll write to my engineer to have everything ready. Good-morning, Mr. Peach, and many thanks for your kindness in coming down."

"Not at all; I hope it will be to our mutual advantage. Good-morning, Mr. Bulstrode."

Then Bulstrode went, and Mr. Peach spoke through the telephone to his old friend Twyford, the electrical engineer, and arranged to lunch with him that day. At luncheon Mr. Peach said—

"I want you to go down to Weybridge with me next Tuesday evening, to look at something for me and report on it."

"Very well; what is it?"

"Probably the usual mare's nest. In that case I lose nothing but a little time and your fees. If it's not that, it's the biggest thing I ever heard of."

"I must put the fees in proportion," said Twyford jokingly.

"If it's right, you won't want any fees. You'll make a fortune. I've got to let somebody else in because I don't know anything about electricity, and I've picked you because I think you're a man I can trust. But, mind you, I don't want anybody besides you let in. Two's enough. You must come prepared to stop a week at the place, and perhaps longer. Tell 'em at your office and at home that you have to go down into the country on business for a few days, and you'll let 'em know when you'll be back. You meet me at Waterloo at five on Tuesday. You'll be there?"

"Yes, I suppose so. You're very mysterious."

"Don't you mind that, Twyford. If this is right, you won't regret a little preliminary mystery. And, in any case, you'll be no loser. Two o'clock! Bless my soul, and I've got six hours' work before me! Good-bye. See you on Tuesday."

Mr. Alfred Peach hurried away. Twyford, watching his departure, wondered if Peach had ever trusted anybody. Mr. Peach himself would have confessed that he had not often been guilty of that weakness. But he had trusted somebody that morning—to wit, Mr. St. John Bulstrode.

Mr. Bulstrode lunched at the Hotel Cecil; his companion was a man of quiet manners and gigantic frame, whom he addressed as Bill; and Bill addressed Mr. Bulstrode as Jeff or Captain. Bulstrode did most of the talking.

"He's in mortal fear that somebody else will get hold of it," said Bulstrode. "You may take it for a certainty that we shall only have the two to deal with. Peach and his tame expert. Peach thinks he's going to make another fortune, and he is not a man that cares to share things more than he can help. You, myself, and the Frenchy can manage the two all right."

"There'll be a week of it, Captain, and one has to sleep sometimes. If we had Jim as well——"

"Won't do. Jim must be here to watch the market and operate at the right time. Besides, there must be no traceable connection between him and us. Your wife and Berthe can help at plain watching, so long as there's one of us in call. If all goes well, we shall be able to take a long rest afterwards; you must not mind a little discomfort for a time. It's a pretty big coup you know."

"It is. About the hottest thing you've done yet. I wasn't thinking about discomfort, though. My only idea was that it would make us sick if we got him and then didn't keep him."

"We shall keep him. My fear is that we shan't get him—he's a very shy bird, and if he gets any suspicion he'll be off, and we shall have lost our trouble and a good deal of money besides. To start with, you meet us at the station with the carriage. For Heaven's sake don't forget that you're my coachman! Your livery's all right, and as you've got nothing to say, you can't go wrong there; but there are some little points. For instance, when we first come up to the carriage you will want to look round to see what sort of a man Peach is. Don't. Look straight before you and touch your hat like this. See? The Frenchy will be all right as butler, because he was used to that kind of work before——"

"Before he got into bad company," said the big, quiet man, with a grim smile.

"Quite so. Besides, anything odd in his manner would be put down to his being a foreigner. Berthe's rather a mad little devil, and I'm not sure she won't make a fool of herself when she's waiting at dinner. You and the Frenchy must coach her well when you get back. Remember that the house must look as if it were inhabited by a wealthy bachelor of position, of refinement, of scientific tastes. You'd better buy a few pounds' worth of really good works on electricity—they must be recent books—and put them about; for, though Peach knows nothing, his expert will know a lot."

"Won't he bowl you out?"

"Not a bit. I decline to talk shop till after dinner. It is not until we are smoking our cigars after dinner that they are to find out that there is anything wrong. Your wife's a clever woman, luckily, and will cook to perfection, and she will see that the table looks right. Think out each detail, practise, rehearse. I want the thing to go smoothly—artistically, in fact."

"You're a little doubtful whether we shall get him. I'm afraid he or the expert will get away, or manage to get a message sent, unless we take the rather forcible measures to which you object. Frenchy is quite sure we shall get him and keep him; but then he's afraid of something else."

"Yes," said Mr. St. John Bulstrode. (And if that was not his real name, neither was it Jeffrey, neither was he a captain.) "Frenchy is not used to doing things on the large scale yet. He thinks that the bigger the coup, the greater the risk must be. But it is not so. In fact, the total risk is less. The little sneak-thief has to be always at it in order to make a living, and we know what happens to the pitcher that goes often to the well. The man who conducts an operation, as we are doing, with a view to influence the price of a stock in his favour, can afford a long rest. If we get him and keep him, I don't admit even the possibility that we could be caught."

Then the waiter entered with the coffee and found the two men discussing with animation the new piece at the Gaiety.

On Tuesday afternoon Mr. Peach and Mr. Twyford found Mr. St. John Bulstrode waiting for them on the platform at Waterloo. Mr. Peach was in good spirits. "Greasewell's House Paints" had already been subscribed twice over.

"If poor electrical engineers had any capital to play with," said Twyford, "I'd have some more of them."

"Ah!" said Peach, "Mr. Bulstrode here is going to give us all more capital than we shall know what to do with."

"That will be for Mr. Twyford to decide," said Bulstrode. "Perhaps he will find that there is nothing in my little invention, and that I have merely wasted your time. I have been very busy, and have only just posted my modest application for the House Paints myself."

"The funny thing is," said Peach, "that some fool is selling them. I fancy I know who it is, and he'll burn his fingers over the job. It's not the first time he's come up against me, but I am pretty sure it will be the last." The little man looked quite fierce.

But Mr. Peach did not know, though he thought he knew, who was selling. Mr. St. John, who had not, as a matter of fact, applied for any shares, really did know: the shares were being sold under different names on behalf of the Bulstrode gang.

Mr. Bulstrode's brougham was waiting for them at Weybridge Station.

"I shouldn't much care to have a row with your coachman, Mr. Bulstrode," said Twyford, after they had got in and driven off.

"He's a big man, isn't he? Fortunately, he's not pugnacious—one of the quietest of men, really."

"He's driving us very fast," said Mr. Peach rather nervously. "You are sure he has the horses under control?"

"Quite. I always keep fast horses. You see, Somnerley Park, my little place, is a good many miles from the station, and a long drive is apt to be tedious. As a rule, I have the dogcart and do the driving myself. By the way, this is a neat little thing I bought at Waterloo. Seen it? Opens just like a pocket-book, and takes no more room."

It was a pocket chess-board; the pieces were so arranged that they could not be upset by the jolting of a carriage; and if a game were interrupted, the board could be folded up and put in the pocket without disturbing their position.

"I've always been meaning to get one of those. It's a capital idea."

"You play, then?"

"Yes; I'm not first class, but I'm very fond of it. But for the fact that Twyford would think us unsociable——"

"Oh, don't mind me!" said Twyford. "I'll watch the game; or it is not impossible that I may take a nap."

The game was prolonged, both men playing very carefully; it was still unfinished when the carriage drew up.

"Here we are," said Bulstrode.

Twyford awoke and stretched himself. "Had a good game?" he asked.

"Excellent. We must finish it to-night."

The front doors were thrown wide open, and a servant of slightly foreign appearance came down the steps to the carriage.

Dinner was over. It had been a simple but pretty little dinner, well served, but for the fact that the parlourmaid who helped to wait on them had a curious tendency to smile when anybody said "electricity." And the word was used quite a good deal, for it was at dinner that Twyford was first told the nature of the invention that he was to examine. He at once became as keen as mustard, slightly incredulous, and full of questions. It seemed to him that Peach's one daily cigarette took an unusually long time to finish this evening, and even then Mr. Bulstrode lingered, sipping his coffee and talking chess. At last he seemed to notice Twyford's impatience.

"You're eager to get to work, I see. Very well, we'll give you ten minutes start of us. The machine's running in the annexe; my man will show you the way. You'll find it very simple, and wonder that you never happened to think of it yourself. My engineer's there to tell you anything you want to know."

Twyford did not need much persuasion. As soon as he had gone, Mr. Bulstrode turned to the sideboard and picked up the pocket chess-board that they had used in the carriage. "The fact is," he said, "I can't get this game of ours out of my mind, and I've got an idea that I see my way now. Do you mind?"

"To tell the truth, it's been rather haunting me, too. Let's see. It's your move."

They played on in silence for a few minutes, and then Mr. Peach, after a careful scrutiny of the board, rose from his place. "You're too strong for me," he said; "it's your game."

"Yes," said Mr. Bulstrode meditatively, as he cut off the end of his second cigar, "it's my game."

"Well, now," said Mr. Peach, "it is not for me to suggest, but perhaps Twyford will be expecting us. Eh?"

"I can answer for it that he will not. Pray sit down again, Mr. Peach. There are one or two explanations with regard to this electrical invention of mine which I should make before we go any further. Won't you sit down again?"

Mr. Peach looked somewhat surprised, but sat down. "Well?" he said.

"Firstly, there is no electrical invention for you or Mr. Twyford to see. My knowledge of electricity is elementary, and I have never invented anything. If I had invented anything, I should not have brought it to you. If I had offered it to you, I should not have offered it on those terms."

"Are you mad? What on earth does this mean?"

"No, I am not mad. I wished to get you away from London at this juncture for a week. I have got you. You will remain here for a week——"

"I shall do nothing of the kind," exclaimed Mr. Peach excitedly.

"Don't interrupt me, Peach, or you may make ms angry. You will remain, because you will not be able to get away. You may shout for assistance, for instance. The house stands a quarter of a mile back from the road, and it is a lonely road. You will not be heard. Similarly, you will not be able to bribe my servants to send a telegram for you or let you out. For, just as there is no invention, so also there are no servants. Those you have seen are my partners, playing the rôle. Your friends will not be able to trace you when they miss you, for you have left the address, 'Somnerley Park, Weybridge.' Just as there is no invention and there are no servants, so also there is no Somnerley Park. The house you are in is called something quite different, which I will not bore you with. Also, they will not find you at Weybridge, because this house is twelve miles away from Weybridge. It was a long drive, as you might have noticed if you had not been wrapped up in your game. I do not want any vulgar violence, and, so long as you do not try to escape, there will be none. You will not be locked up or chained, and I will make you as comfortable as I can. But one or other of us will always be near you, and any one of us would much sooner shoot you then let you escape."

"This is not just a joke?"

"It has its amusing side," said Mr. Bulstrode, "but that is accidental. From your point of view it is deadly earnest."

"Now, look here. I've got to be back in town to-morrow. If it's not a joke, it's money. I'll give you a thousand and my word of honour not to put the police on—not to say a word to a soul about it. I'm a man of my word. One of you can go up early to-morrow, send a wire for me—which you can read—to my office, and cash the cheque over the counter at ten. When he's got the money he can wire back to you to release me; so that I don't go until the money's actually in your hands."

"You still seem to think I'm a baby, Peach. I wouldn't trust you, but we can leave that point out; the absurdity is in talking about a thousand. What do you think it has cost me to get you? I've had to take this place furnished for three months—couldn't get it for less— and we shall not occupy it for three weeks. Do you think a man can live at the Cecil for nothing? And don't think that I am fool enough to spoil a big coup by any silly little minor swindle; every penny is paid. Then there are four of us—apart from the two women—three here and one in London; and the one in London is forced to spend a lot to cover his tracks, as you will discover later when you try to track him. We four expect at least two thousand five hundred each, after all expenses are paid. If you could put down eleven thousand, now, I might let you go and take my chance. But you yourself would be a fool to do it. Sit here quietly till your week's out, and you won't lose a penny. Other people will, but you will be all right."

"Don't you see?" moaned the millionaire, his head between his hands. "The public's as nervous as a cat just now. Mysterious disappearance of the chairman of Greasewell's House Paints! They'll drop like lead, and they were a quarter premium this afternoon and will be better to-morrow until the news comes. Look at the disorganisation, too."

"The other directors will rub along all right without you."

"They're all fools—that's why I picked 'em; they can only do what they're told."

"Your fault; not mine. The shares will drop, of course, and there are likely to be some queer stories about you. But what does that matter to you? Behave nicely, and we will let you go back in a week. You and Twyford will tell the story of the way you were kidnapped. Then the reaction will set in and the shares will go bounding up again higher than ever. In fact, it would be idle to deny that it was in view of such fluctuations in the market that we arranged to get you here and keep you here a little."

Mr, Peach glared at him for a few moments in silence. Then he sank back in his chair. "What an infernal scoundrel you are!" he moaned. "This is criminal conspiracy, you know. And when you're caught, you won't like it."

"Don't talk rubbish, Peach. I don't take immense trouble to make money unless I am pretty sure that I am going to keep it when I have made it. And do behave nicely; for if you don't, I shan't, and you won't like that. Don't, for instance, use offensive language."

There was a long pause. Mr. Peach sighed. He looked broken and dejected. "What have you done about Twyford?" he asked at last.

"A friend of mine—who acted as our coachman to-night—has in all probability just finished explaining the situation to Twyford; and, unless I am mistaken, Twyford will accept it. He is a commonplace man and will see that he is losing nothing; he is here on your business, and you will have to pay him. If he attempts to get away, he risks losing a good deal—his life amongst other things. I am sorry to inconvenience him in any way. But you must see for yourself that we have no choice."

Mr. Peach stared blankly before him and said nothing. Then his shifty eyes roamed round the room. Suddenly he made a dart for the window, flung it open, and yelled "Murder!" at the top of his rather small voice. A dog barked. Mr. Bulstrode laughed. Nothing else happened.

"Now'," said Bulstrode, "you have been behaving like a child and must be treated like one. You will have no breakfast to-morrow morning. Take my advice and let us make your enforced stay here as little unpleasant for you as possible. Accept the situation; come into the library with me and see if you can't improve your game at chess. At present you are only good second class."

Mr. Peach paced the room once or twice.

"All right," he said at last. "I'm done. Come and show me where I went wrong in that game." And he followed his captor into the library.

But when he got to his bedroom that night the idea of escape again occurred to him. He was not an athletic man, and he did not fancy the idea of letting himself down from the window by a rope extemporised from his sheets and blankets. But what else was there to be done? He pushed up the window very softly and looked out; from below came the deep growl of a dog. He pulled the window down again hurriedly—that was no good. But his door was not locked from the outside. Later, when they would have got tired of watching, and satisfied themselves that he was safe for the night, it would be worth while to reconnoitre.

At three in the morning he dressed himself, put his boots under his arm, opened his door noiselessly, and stole out. The passage was quite dark, but there seemed to be a glimmer of light coming from the end where the staircase was. When he reached the staircase he saw that the light came upward from the hall. He went to the balustrade and peeped over. Below him in the hall sat the pretty French girl who had helped to wait upon him at dinner. She was no longer dressed as a servant. She wore a somewhat elaborate tea-gown, and was smoking a cigarette and reading a yellow-covered book. On the low table beside her were a cigarette-case and ash-tray, a small bottle of champagne and a glass, an electric reading-lamp, and a revolver. Mr. Peach watched her for a minute or two, and then—as stealthily as before—crept back again to his room.

Mr. Peach had no breakfast that morning, and he did himself unusually well at luncheon. At that hour, in London, the newsboys were shouting, "Mysterious disappearance of a millionaire!" the evening papers were selling remarkably well, and people were tumbling over each other to sell "Greasewell's House Paints."

A week later Mr. Bulstrode's carriage, driven by the same coachman as before, drew up in the road about four miles from Weybridge Station. The blinds were drawn. Mr. Bulstrode stepped out, followed by Mr. Alfred Peach and Mr. Twyford. The latter was in the best of humours and had taken the whole thing as a splendid joke.

"Sorry we can't take you any further," said Mr. Bulstrode politely. "However, it's a pleasant morning for a walk, and you will have no trouble in finding your way. Your bags will be waiting for you at Waterloo. I'm afraid my hospitality has been of rather a rough order, but under the circumstances we couldn't have any regular servants, you see. Good-bye, both of you. Your friends will get a surprise when they play chess with you again, Mr. Peach."

"Good-bye," said Mr. Peach sulkily. "Come on, Twyford."

"Good-bye," said Twyford. "Awfully obliged for those electrical books."

"You're most welcome," said Mr. Bulstrode. "They are of no more use to me."

Twyford turned to the coachman. "I forgot to settle over our piquet last night. Twenty-three and six, wasn't it? Good-bye."

The gigantic coachman took the money, touched his hat solemnly as if he had received a tip, and then burst into a hearty laugh. Twyford also laughed. Mr. Peach did not. "Come on," he called impatiently.

Scotland Yard succeeded ultimately in finding the house to which Mr. Peach had been taken. When they found it, it was in charge of a policeman and his wife, who were acting as caretakers. They were paid by the owner by arrangement with the tenants, who had been compelled to leave before their term was up. But though that owner gave the detective every assistance in his power, they never found Mr. St. John Bulstrode or any member of his gang.

"Greasewell's House Paints," which ran down to ½ during the period of Mr. Peach's disappearance, in spite of the energetic protests and declarations of the other directors, rose to 2¾ within a fortnight of his return. If the Bulstrode gang are taking a much-needed rest, it is probable that they can very well afford it.