City Chronicles/In the Lock
No. lV.—IN THE LOCK.
YOU must know that Reginald Barton Hove, aged thirty-five, fell madly in love with Delia Muir, aged nineteen, and told her so in one of the flirtoria at the Garstin-Yenn's dance. His proposal being curtly refused, he stammered out his sense of his awful presumption and an appeal that her decision might not be taken as absolutely final. He would gladly accept any conditions.
Miss Muir shrugged the prettiest shoulders within the cab radius and looked at him thoughtfully and critically. "You may call at Erciston Square to-morrow afternoon if you like, and I will tell you what I think about all this. You will hear some plain speaking, and I don't think you will like it, Mr. Hove. But still, if you want to know the position exactly, I can tell you it."
If this was not distinctly encouraging, it was not final rejection, and lovers are grateful for very little. Hove called at the Muirs' house in Erciston Square on the following afternoon, and was received in the boudoir by Delia. Her figure was exquisite; her face was poetical and divinely lovely; her dress and the arrangement of her beautiful hair were Fashion's last and most entrancing work; and her manner was quite unperturbed.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Hove. Tired? Oh, no, thanks. I'm not old enough for that yet. Tea? No? You won't mind if I have some. Now, if you'll sit just there we can talk. It's impossible to have long discussions at a dance, isn't it?"
Mr. Hove said he liked talking to her anywhere and always. It was not quite right, but it was the best he could do at the moment. She continued in her gentle, almost sleepy voice—
"I must tell you at the start that I do not love you, Mr. Hove, and shall never love you in the sense you understand the word. I shall never, by any possible chance, love any man like that. Do you wish me to go on?"
"Yes, you must go on."
"After all, what reason is there why a woman should love a man? There may be, and often are, scores of reasons why a woman should marry a man, but I cannot see how she is to love him. Speaking frankly, men are not attractive. The strong men are generally ugly; and the idea of marrying any man who is not strong is revolting. Other women may think and feel differently; I don't doubt it. But that does not affect you, of course; you want to know about me. If you didn't, by the way, it would be inexpressibly comic for a girl of nineteen to be talking to a man of thirty-five in this way. It's rather funny, anyhow. … I am modern, you see. And the modern girl has knowledge, foresight, and self-respect; and all those qualities, especially the last, are dead against the possibility of her forming a romantic attachment to any man. But she may marry; and in happy cases long and sympathetic association may bring her a real, though not passionate, affection for her husband. One gets fond of a cat, even, if it comes in to breakfast every morning with one. Have I insulted your sex enough? If I go on I shall insult you, too. I cannot tell you the position truly without saying things that sound brutal—perhaps really are. Shall I be polite instead, and talk to you about the people we know—as I should be doing now but for the absurd things you said so seriously last night?"
"No. Tell me all truly. I never supposed you were like the ordinary women. Tell me everything and do not spare me."
"Just as certainly as I shall never love, I shall marry. Like most passionless women I have ambitions; they can never be satisfied unless I marry. You can have nothing without paying for it. Well, I am prepared to pay. Does that shock you?"
"One does not get shocked nowadays. I hate you for being so hard and cynical; and I love you."
"I don't want to be hard or cynical, but I do want to speak the truth. I know of many marriages that have taken place; and I do not know of one—not one—where love was the only consideration on both sides. And I know of many where even the pretence that this was so was not kept up. I give myself; in return I must have power."
"You have it already."
"That is a fair answer, and it is quite true. I can do what I like with most men. I know it; it is all calculated—calculated to an eyelash. I enjoy it. And it will go on dwindling until it has vanished altogether; kittens become cats, you know. I must have another kind of power—political power, social power, the power of money. And I must have it through my husband. If he has not got it at the time that I marry him, I must feel certain that he will get it. That brings me to the main question—why should I marry you?"
"I will tell you anything you like to ask about myself."
"I shall not need to ask very much. Men like to talk about themselves, and I like to please them. At different times and in a fragmentary way you have told me a good deal about yourself, and I have put the fragments together. Also I have observed on my own account. You are in business in the City, a business that was your father's and your grandfather's before him. And you are not doing as well with it as your father was."
"No. But then times have changed."
"True. And methods should change, too."
"The fact is, I hate the business. I leave things to Hewetson. It gives me more money than I want to spend as a bachelor, and so I don't trouble much now. It would be different if I were married."
"In the normal course you would be discussing this sort of thing with my father, and not with me. My correct pose would be to talk about love, think business horrid, and say that money didn't matter. But I am modern, and not sentimental. If I married you, as things stand at present we should have to live in the suburbs. I have seen too much of the people who live in London and cannot afford it. We should have what the suburb would call quite a nice house, and three or four acres of garden. I should drive a fat pony in a governess cart. You would go to the City every day. In good years we should have a month in Paris, and in bad years a fortnight at Ramsgate. I see it all biographed before me. It would be quite comfortable and utterly hopeless, leading to nothing. And you would be sorely tempted to leave business early to get back to your dear little home. Hewetson—obliging man—would always tell you that there was nothing to be done which he could not very well see after; because, you see, it is the dream of Hewetson's life to be made a partner."
"How on earth do you know these things?"
"I talk to the people who know whenever I can, and I do not practise the piano. Am I right about Hewetson?"
"Absolutely, I should say."
"Well, he would be made a partner, and we should have him to dinner to celebrate it, and discuss afterwards whether he was vulgar or not. It wouldn't much matter, because by that time I fancy we should have grown fairly vulgar ourselves. I ask you, why should I change my present mode of life for one so infinitely inferior?"
"You paint it in the darkest colours. I never knew you were so ambitious, though. I've known you for a year. I suppose I could not ask you to come down to that."
"The really ambitious people do not like purposeless chatter about their ambitions; that is why I did not speak before. I have a purpose in talking about them now. If I thought you were the really strong man—the man who would have to arrive—I would marry you now, if you had not a pound a week for us to live on. What I will not stand is comfortable stagnation; and, unfortunately, you—a clever man—seem to like it."
"I suppose I have been slack."
"Never mind the conventions; let me speak plainly—you have been slack and self-indulgent. You read of immense fortunes and high place, but you never regard them as concerning you personally. They belong to another set of people. You never use your energy to get the great fortune. You never try to fit yourself for the high place, or dream of filling it. Or, if you do, you never go beyond the dream. No; you jog along and leave what you can to Hewetson. You are lazy and as self-indulgent as a decent man can be nowadays. How could we marry? Why do I care—and I do care immensely—for my beauty? Because it is a means towards power? Why must I marry a strong man? For power. Power, power! There's nothing else in this world worth living for; if I did not think that I should get it, I would die to-night!"
She stood up, excited, her eyes bright, breathing quickly, wonderfully beautiful. She was quite obviously sincere, and she was only nineteen.
Hove also rose. "You would make a dead man ambitious," he said. "But is it of any good for me to talk? You have said a good many hard things about me—all of them true—but you have left out one of the hardest. I am thirty-five, an age when men are beginning to find it difficult to change their ways. But you say that you think that I am clever; it does not amount to much; we are all clever nowadays. Still, I should like to say this. If you will marry me, Miss Muir, I will give you what you want; I will get it for you; and I will make you love me, whether you will or not." His habitual diffidence of manner had vanished.
"I like," she said thoughtfully, "to hear a man speak with decision. Would you have liked to be praised? I could have said one more thing about you; I heard it from the Garstin-Yenns; when a boat upsets in a lock you are a very useful man to have about."
"I don't want to talk about that; the Yenns exaggerate; anyhow, that is not anything which leads to anything."
"Courage? I happen to like it."
"I love you," he said passionately. "You don't even know what that means yet; but you shall. If there is anything that you like in the least about me, give me time; give me a chance; tell me what to do."
Delia Muir sat down again and remained for a moment or two without speaking. "Yes," she said at last, "I will marry you, if your acts are as good as your words. Do not see me for six months. Come back then and tell me what you have done. You are fond of social life: cut it. You have got to work, to find the way to power, and lay the lines that lead to it. One does not get there in six months, but one can start."
They talked on for another hour. Her ideal of marriage, as she explained it, was an association of two well-bred, educated people, with a mutual aim. He did not argue against this, though it sounded perhaps a little chilly. Experience would expand that ideal.
"Come back in six months, then," she said. "Tell me then what changes you have made, and on what projects you are working. Do not be afraid of boring me with figures and business details—that kind of thing does not bore me in the least; besides, if one wishes to arrive somewhere, it is silly not to study the road. And then I will tell you if I will marry you. Good-bye."
Hove spent the next few days in a close examination of his financial position, settling with himself what was the next thing to be done, mapping out plans for the future, concentrating himself. He had caught Delia Muir's fever. The indolent and rather extravagant life that he had lived hitherto filled him with disgust. He had been asleep and had missed his opportunities. It had taken a young girl of nineteen to wake him up. He had connections who might ultimately be of use to him, but the first lever that he meant to touch was money; after all, money was a power in itself.
He reflected that (with an occasional exception for a drunken genius) the people whose word matters, who play the really big game and win it, are water-drinkers. He had never been an intemperate man, but now he drank water only. He abandoned late hours, dined out very seldom, and never touched a cigarette until after dinner. He came early to the office, stayed late, and worked hard. Within two weeks he had dismissed two clerks and got to know the truth about Hewetson. Hewetson was an excellent fellow, hard working, trustworthy, and valuable from his experience; but he was not fit to have the charge of men, because he was too easy, and he was just a little bit of an old woman; he was safe, but timorous, afraid of assuming a responsibility.
The business began to feel the clever, energetic man at the back of it. But on the usual and legitimate business lines progress was necessarily slow. Hove was looking out for a coup. He did not wish to go into a syndicate, and therefore the article that he tried to corner would have to be within his own means. It should not be an article that from its perishable nature would perhaps force him to sell when it was to his advantage to hold. It should be an article for which there was no good substitute, and one in steady demand.
He was thinking over one or two possibilities one morning when Hewetson came in. "Some time ago, as you will remember," said Hewetson, "you bought a little lot of Turkey galls at my suggestion."
"Certainly," said Hove. He did not really remember. It had happened in the days when he generally assented to Hewetson's suggestions and saved himself trouble.
"Well," Hewetson continued, "I can get ten shillings a bag better than when we bought, and we hold two hundred and fifty bags. Would it be as well to take the profit, Mr. Hove?"
Hove thought for a minute. "I'll decide to-morrow and let you know," he said. Hewetson looked a little surprised as he went out.
Turkey galls are sent to us from Busorrah, in the Persian Gulf. The bag contains two. If you buy Turkey galls—rather more than there are, for instance—at forty shillings the hundredweight, and can sell at twelve pounds the bag, you will be much cursed and highly respected. You will also have made a profit. But the trade is chiefly in the hands of Armenians, and their friends say that the Armenians are not slothful in business; their enemies put it more strongly than that, and make allusions to the cunning of a cart-load of monkeys. Also, it is as well to remember that you are not the only man in the City of London, and that you may tumble up against somebody else and hurt yourself.
Hove reflected on these things. Turkey galls are practically imperishable, and he would be able to wait as long as his financial position permitted. They produced tannic acid, and he rather fancied that tannic acid was connected with the textiles. Well; what the textiles want, they must and will have. Syrietta, an Armenian gentleman and Hove's correspondent, had said that the crop was almost sure to be very short. The rains had been delayed, and in consequence the galls had fallen before they were in a ripe state. So far as he could gather from Smith's list, the stocks of galls held in London were unusually small. That was an indication. It was not infallible, of course; private warehouses would make no return, nor, for that matter, will some of the others, as you will know if you deal in essential oils. But Turkey galls are indisputably not essential oils. Hove came to the conclusion that it might perhaps do.
In the course of the next week he made numberless inquiries and interminable calculations. He collected, so far as he could, all his resources, and gave Hewetson orders that scared him badly. He interviewed his bank manager and got some very interesting but slightly disappointing information as to what banks would do and what they most emphatically would not. Finally, he resolved to take the plunge.
His information as to the crop was accurate. His calculations as to the stocks held in London were fairly correct. But Hove was not destined to succeed this time. He saw where he was caught just in time, and only just in time. Galls, as has already been said, are practically an imperishable article. When crops of record abundance kept prices low, certain intelligent Armenians kept their Turkey galls back and waited till a bad year put the price better. They took this opportunity to unload their back numbers, and were very much obliged to some gentleman in London who, by his persistent buying, kept the thing up much longer than it could otherwise have done. The crop was short; but the supply was not. Hove had taken on very much more than he could carry.
Hewetson, who had had dreams of partnership, was in a deplorable condition. His nerve had all gone. He could see nothing but ships—whole fleets of ships in a thick, endless line—steaming for England, and all heavily laden with nothing but Turkey galls. He could neither sleep nor eat. Ordinarily the most sober of men, he began on occasions to drink heavily. On occasions, too, he lost his self-command and his temper, and used language to Hove for which a few days before he would certainly have been thrown out into the street. Hove checked him and he became penitent; then Hove said he had better go away for a holiday for a while, and Hewetson replied that if the ship was sinking, he was not a rat.
There came the final day. The two men met in the morning, but Hewetson was practically useless for business purposes. He moaned and bewailed. "They'll put this down to me," he said. "They all know what I was in this firm, and they'll say I got you into it."
"I shall tell a different story," said Hove, white and patient.
"They won't believe you. No; we're broken, and it's worse for me than you. No one will look at me. I'm ruined for life. And after all these year's I've worked! It was in this very room where we are now that your father, only a few weeks before he died, held out great hopes to me. I took a pride in the firm. Not one of the biggest, but good repute for three-quarters of a century is something. And now we're broken, and (if I may say so without disrespect, sir) all through your silly foolishness."
"Listen to me, Hewetson," said Hove. "I do not think we are broken. It is impossible to say for certain, but I do not think so. I shall know before the end of the day. I will tell you what I am going to do, but there are one or two other things to say first. If you had come into my father's room at half-past ten in the morning, smelling of liquor as you do now, and used the language to him that you have used to me, and shown your utter uselessness in an emergency as you have been exhibiting it this last week, I don't think he would have held out any great hopes to you. No, don't speak; I don't want any apologies. I want you to pull yourself together. I also want you for an hour or two to help me get out some figures. Then I am going out; there are several people that I must see. I may not be back till late; but when I come back I shall know where we stand. It may be seven or eight before I am back at the office; I suppose you will be here?"
"Yes, Mr. Hove, I'll wait." Hewetson passed one hand across his forehead. "I'll do the best I can with the figures. And I'll stick to the firm to the last. But you must excuse me, Mr. Hove. I'm not so young as I was, and I'm not used to this kind of thing. I think my nerves have gone. But I'll do the best I can."
"That's all right," said Hove kindly. He was angry with Hewetson, but at the same time he was sorry for him.
"And if any questions are put to me, I suppose I had better keep a cheerful face and say we're all right?"
"Not at all," said Hove. "Look just as doleful as you do now, and if anybody tries to pump you, I want you to imply—not say, but imply—that we're absolutely broken over this deal. You may even go so far as to apply for a similar post to that which you hold here. Don't trouble to think. Don't ask me to explain. Just do what you're told. And don't touch drink again to-day. Now, then, we've not got a moment to spare; I want those figures by twelve, if possible."
Hewetson was visibly impressed, though he had no idea of what Hove was driving at. While Hove was with him he seemed to have recovered his spirits somewhat. He was always clever at figures, and he was of great service in getting out the statements that Hove required. But the moment that Hove had left the office he broke down again; he went out and whimpered and boozed; and, in so far as he gave the impression of blank ruin, he exactly served Hove's purpose.
Hove went out and interviewed, in rapid succession, a number of men who were clever, but did not think they had been sent into the world to help Hove. He asked some of them for time, and others for a little financial assistance; he pointed out to all of them that if they would not help he would be compelled to throw the whole of his tremendous holding of galls on the market, and the price would go to nothing and he would be ruined. They gave him sympathy and good advice, but they did not give him anything else. And as soon as his back was turned, they went out and sold a bear of galls, and considered that they were on velvet. If a man goes mucking the market about, and trying to corner a thing that is too big for him, he has only himself to thank for disaster. And yet Hove's spirits rose considerably from these refusals. They were precisely what he had expected and part of his game. He spent hours in creating and encouraging bears of Turkey galls.
It was at half-past five that he called on old Jevon, of Jevon and Bast, a firm of considerable strength and importance. This was Hove's second move in his game.
"And what's the popular tip to-day?" asked Hove airily.
"The tip is, sell Turkey galls. I'm busy. Give ye five minutes."
"I think I can show you the position in that time," said Hove, becoming serious at once. He took from his pocket the statements that he had prepared that morning; he had not shown these at his other calls.
At the end of five minutes old Jevon rang his bell sharply. "I don't see anybody else to-day. Don't care what their business is. See? Engaged with this gentleman."
The clerk withdrew, and the two men went on talking earnestly. It was nearly eight when they parted. Hove took a hansom hack to his office to convey the good news to Hewetson.
It was very simple. Everything is anticipated in the City. Hove's smash and a consequent fall in galls had been anticipated. And, as sometimes happens, it had been too much anticipated; there was every reason to believe that there was a considerable bear movement among men who were not very strong. More bears would come in on the following day, when Hove began to sell. And what would happen if Hove did not go on selling? That was the question that he put to old Jevon.
If you sell what you have not got, you must in the end buy it from someone else. From whom were the bears to buy. There would be but small shipments, if any, from Busorrah. Hove had soaked up all that the Armenians were likely to part with. Therefore the bears would have to buy from Hove. He had got far more than he could carry, and in the normal course he would have been compelled to sell. If he could afford to hold, those anticipatory bears would be put in a very tight place, and the figure at which they were let out was for Hove to settle.
Jevon had already formed the opinion that the selling of galls was being overdone, and from his own information he expected some American buying. He did not hesitate long in deciding that some kind of partnership with Hove in this deal would be profitable.
But it took time to settle terms. When they were settled they were magnificent terms for Mr. Jevon; they were good enough for Hove; they saved him, even if they gave most of the profits that he had hoped for to another man.
Hove passed through the empty outer office into his own room. As he entered, Hewetson rose from the desk behind which he had been crouching and fired a revolver at Hove. The shot missed him handsomely. Three seconds later Hove had the revolver, and Hewetson was on the floor.
"Get up," said Hove, as he slid the cartridges out of the revolver. He listened at the door to see if the shot had been overheard. If so, the people who heard it concluded that it was none of their business.
Hewetson rose to his feet, dazed and trembling. His knees shook. He held on to the mantelpiece.
"So," said Hove, "you wanted to kill me because I had ruined you."
Hewetson said feebly that he had intended the next shot for himself; that death was better than dishonour.
"You're like several men that I have seen to-day; you're too previous. You have the additional disadvantage of being very much the worse for liquor. I am not going to give you any details in your present state, but I am not ruined, and I shall probably come out with a profit on the deal. I have got the help I wanted to pull the thing through. But it strikes me that when I give you the sack and hand you over to the police, you will be very much ruined yourself."
Hewetson whined monotonously that he had been a fool; he had been a fool, and it was no good for him to say anything. And then, being drank, he began to weep.
"Stop that," said Hove sharply; "you make me sick. You have done well for my father, and you've done well for me; but at present you've broken down—you're hopeless. I can understand it, but I don't want to see it. Go home, and to-morrow go down to the sea for a fortnight. Come back at the end of that time. You will quit drinking, of course; you will remember your position here, do your duty, and try not to lose your head in future—you are not likely to go through as bad a crisis as this again. Do what I tell you and you will hear no more about this silly business."
Hewetson was incapable of answering verbally. He looked grotesque penitence, nodded his head twice in sign of acquiescence, and went out. Hove shrugged his shoulders and rolled a cigarette.
Next morning Hove sold a few bags of Turkey galls, just to give the market the right colour. Sundry speculative young gentlemen sold many more bags. Then the bears waited for Hove to smash, as he was in duty bound to do. And Hove, with Jevon's firm at his back, kept them waiting.
At the end of a fortnight Hewetson returned—a machine in excellent order and quite respectable. His references to the time when he drank and tried to murder Hove always took the form of "during my illness."
In the end the very men who had refused to give Hove any assistance had to come crawling to Hove to ask him to let them out as lightly as possible. Hove had one invariable answer: "Unfortunately, I have a partner to think of in this deal." And then he took all that he thought he could get.
In her boudoir Delia Muir listened gravely to the plain, truthful story that Hove had to tell. Occasionally she interrupted him to ask an intelligent question.
"Well," she said at last, "I did not tell you to go in for a wild gamble in an article of which, on your own showing, you knew very little. You came within an ace of bankruptcy. But you saved yourself. It is true—you are a good man when the boat upsets in the lock; and for that I trust you. Trust? I almost think I——"
"Oh, you cannot love me!" he cried, taking her hands.
And her eyes answered.