City Chronicles/Soames v. Farshaw
No. VII.—SOAMES v. FARSHAW
"Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes."
HOW Mr. S. Bywater Soames was a young man who wanted money without working for It, by the simple process of knowing some- thing, may possibly be remembered. It may also be remembered how he triumphed over the Anglo-Foreign Hotels Syndicate, and milked them of the sum of six thousand pounds, in the matter of Soames's lease of his chambers in Doddington Street.
About a year after that event Soames was lunching by himself at the Continental, when a tall old gentleman, of somewhat military appearance, touched him on the shoulder.
"Mr. Soames, I think. I wonder if you remember me."
"Certainly. Mr. Farshaw, of the Anglo-Foreign Hotels Syndicate. Won't you sit down?"
"Thanks. It will be far pleasanter than lunching alone. We were opponents once, but I'm glad to see that you bear no malice. After all, why should you? You got six thousand for what was not worth six hundred in the open market."
"But I was not dealing in the open market. So far as I remember, the offer you made to me was twenty-five pounds."
"True. Twenty-five and a few little extras. You looked so young. You still do; happy man! Of course, in business one has to try to buy as cheaply as possible. Indeed, as a director, acting on behalf of others, it was my duty to do so. I think we may call it quits there. I'm afraid Chive was rude to you, but I was not responsible for that drunken brute; we threw him out soon afterwards. Still, I'm sorry."
"That's all right," said Soames languidly. "Syndicate doing pretty well?"
"Not more than fairly well, I'm afraid. But I have nothing to do with it now. It was splendid business once, but there's a lot of competition nowadays; any new idea's copied at once. When you've had the cream you come down to the milk. I thought it best to leave before we were right on to it. I sold out. I thought I saw better ways of using my little savings. Then, again, in business you must not be too particular what company you keep; but Chive was a bit too strong for my taste, and the man who followed him was not much better. Then there was old Mandelbaum—remember him?"
"I shall never forget him."
"Oh, he was typical; he was chronic; he was too hot! I'd had as much as I could stand. And what has been your latest coup Mr. Soames, if one may ask?"
"I've done nothing. I've been resting. I require a good deal of rest; I'm easily tired. For the last few months I've been abroad. I came back to attend a sale of Stuart relics. But I think, perhaps, I ought to be making some more money now. Perhaps you have some opportunities to offer me?" he said, with a smile.
"Well," said Mr. Farshaw, "after I'd left the Syndicate I had a few deals in house property. I made some successes, and I made some disappointments. There wasn't much in it, anyway. Then I went into the jungle—West Africans, you know. That's been much better, and we're not at the end of it yet. There are opportunities for a man with a little capital, if you like."
"Ah!" said Soames, "I don't know anything about mines and that sort of thing."
"Let me tell you, then. Let me just give you a few instances."
Mr. Farshaw began on his instances. He reeled off big figures with conviction, and pronounced many names with ease and familiarity that would have baffled Soames completely. He exhibited the pitfalls of the market and gave the simplest possible rules for avoiding them. He became descriptive. After hearing him one might have thought it idle and slovenly to take more than three weeks over making a large fortune. His candid blue eyes gleamed as he attempted to paint some—only some—of the miraculous possibilities that were awaiting the investor. And he was not ungenerous, for in some of the things that held out the brightest hopes Mr. Farshaw was quite prepared to sell his own personal holding—to give Soames a start.
When he had quite finished, Soames, who had appeared interested, said, with a sigh, that he did not go in for that kind of thing. He might, perhaps, see if there were anything that would suit him in the way of house property.
Mr. Farshaw did not look perfectly satisfied, but he remained as obliging as ever. "Well," he said, "since you ask me for opportunities, I can tell you of something in that direction, too. It doesn't represent the big thing that can be done by judicious investment in West Africans. It's simply a good and certain profit for a man who can afford to put a little capital by for a few years. It's on a very small scale, but, so far as it goes, it's very particularly all right. I found it myself and fully intended to tackle it myself. But at that time I was already nibbling at the West African business, and I'm not a rich man, and cannot afford to lock up any capital. It's simply a question of buying a narrow, triangular strip of road frontage to sell to the owner of a larger property behind it."
"Why can't the present owner of the larger property buy the strip for himself?"
"He can, but he won't. He doesn't care about making money. He's a scholar and a collector, and so on. He's also a recluse, and it wouldn't be far wrong to say that he's a little cracked, as well. But he's an old man and a bit of an invalid. He can't last long. And the next owner, whoever he may be, will want that long strip of road frontage. You can buy it now for £750, and you will be able to sell it then for £1,500. It stands to reason. Why——"
"Pardon me," said Soames. "You don't own any of this property, or any in the neighbourhood?"
"Not one solitary inch."
"Why do you give me this chance? Why do you show such remarkable generosity to me, of all people?"
Mr. Farshaw watched Soames keenly and for one moment seemed to be reflecting on his answer. He was always more ready for a subtle than a simple question. "At present," he said, "I have given you nothing. You would not know where to go to find this property. You have no names or addresses. I could not afford to give, and I am sure you would not care to take a present from me so valuable as this information is. I will sell you it on fair business terms."
"I see. What are they?"
"We adjourn, say, to the smoking-room. I give you all the necessary details and answer your questions as far as I can. You go down to the place and look into it for yourself. If you buy the strip, you call on me on the day of the purchase and hand me three twenty-fives—that is, ten per cent. on the price you pay—as my commission. If you decide it is not good enough, you pay me nothing, but you agree to keep the information to yourself, so that I may have a chance of selling it elsewhere."
"Very well," said Soames. "I agree to that. You shall put it in writing and I will sign."
"It would perhaps be more regular," said Mr. Farshaw, as he rose from the table. In the smoking-room, Soames reclined in the most comfortable chair he could find, his habitual air of weariness being, if anything, more marked than usual. Mr. Farshaw wrote a few lines on a sheet of notepaper, drew a rough plan beneath them, and handed it to Soames.
"That'll do, I should think," said Mr. Farshaw.
"Thanks," said Soames, as he examined the paper. On it was written—
"In the event of my purchasing any part of the property referred to in the plan below, and situated in the parish of Salsay Bois, Bucks, I agree to pay to James Edward Farshaw the sum of seventy-five pounds in cash, in consideration of information supplied by him. And in the event of my not purchasing, I agree to make no further use of that information whatever."
To that was appended this rough plan:—
And underneath was a space for the signature.
"It wouldn't satisfy the lawyers," said Mr. Farshaw; "at least, I suppose not. I'm no lawyer myself, but the meaning is perfectly clear, and it is a memorandum that would be binding on gentlemen."
"Certainly," said Soames, in an absent-minded way, as he examined the plan carelessly. "I think I see," he went on. "The part marked 'Croft's field' is the part I have got to buy, and it is to the future owner of Heriot's that I have got to sell. By the way, what is the name of the present owner?"
"His name's Gilfrew."
"And he won't buy Croft's field. Yet he must see that it would add immensely to the value of his property."
"He sees that all right; but the lunatic doesn't care. 'Why should I buy it?' he said to me. 'I've been here twenty years without having that field, and I've never felt the want of it. I bought this place to live in, and not as a speculation, and I hate alterations.' And you can't shake him."
"But this James Gilfrew——"
"How do you know his name's James?"
"I happen to have a book or two that he wrote. I had heard that he lived as a recluse in the country. It must be the same man. If he won't buy Croft's field, could he be induced to sell Heriot's?"
"No, he won't do anything—not one single blessed thing. I tried that, too. There's a very good demand for small residences there just now, and there's next to no land to be had. If he would have sold Heriot's, you may be quite sure that I should have bought it. As it was, I was on the verge of buying Croft's field and waiting for my profit; but—well, I've explained all that."
"Why doesn't Croft keep his land himself, and sell it to the next owner of Heriot's?"
"Because Croft, like a good many farmers nowadays, is in want of ready money. He has an idea that the land will be worth something one of these days, and thinks he is asking a pretty stiff price for it. But he has not quite realised that it puts from fifty to a hundred pounds an acre on to the value of the twelve acres behind it."
"When you gave up the idea of buying, why didn't Croft go about and find another purchaser?"
"Croft's not the kind of man that goes about and finds things. Besides, he is by no means sure that I have given the thing up. He has written to me twice about it within the last fortnight, and I've put him off."
Soames looked at the plan again. "You don't mind me asking all these questions?" he said.
"On the contrary, I particularly want you to ask them. If you buy this land, you must do it on your own responsibility and judgment. I give you the information, but it must be understood that I do not advise. Now, what else can I tell you?"
"You have not marked the position of the house at Heriot's."
"No, I've not put in any details. The position is very curious, and much what one might have expected from that idiot Gilfrew. He has put the house as far away as possible from the road. Doesn't like to hear or see his own species, I suppose. You go through three fields before you get to the gardens, and his house is at the end of the gardens, with its back to the road."
"And the land round Heriot's?"
"All farm-land. Some of it's Croft's; some of it's Belman's; and some belongs to another chap whose name I've forgotten. You'll find out all about that easily enough when you go down there."
"Thanks," said Soames. "I think that's all. I'll just sign that document for you." He rose and went in his turn to the writing-table. Then he gave the signed paper to Mr. Farshaw and sank back in his chair with the air of one who has completed a hard day's work. Shortly afterwards Mr. Farshaw left to keep an appointment in the City. For a time Soames still remained in his place. His eyes were closed, and it might have been thought that he was asleep. But he was not; he was merely trying, unsuccessfully, to think out a puzzle.
A trap was being laid for him—of that he had never since the beginning of his conversation with Farshaw had the slightest doubt. He was perfectly well aware that Farshaw hated him and wanted to get even with him. He knew it as well as if Farshaw himself had told him so. But he did not quite see what Mr. Farshaw was to make out of it. He was convinced that the £75 commission had simply been an afterthought to provide a reason for making the offer. And he did not see in the least where the trap lay. It was clearly not in the figures, since these could so easily be checked. Indeed, all Farshaw's statements could easily be checked, and he had nothing to gain by lying in that way. The trap, if there were a trap, would consist, not in what Farshaw had said, but in what he had left out. And that was as far as Soames could get for the present.
On the following morning he called on Croft's agents. They talked like agents and were of no sort of use to Soames. Then he caught a train to the nearest station to Salsay Bois, and succeeded in interviewing Croft. He was a somnolent and unsatisfactory old farmer. Croft was vague on most points. He said that there had been a Mr. Farshaw, but he didn't seem to be going on with it. He didn't answer letters, this Farshaw. The field was a splendid investment, and Croft declared that it was only a series of bad years that forced him to part with it. Soames had much the same feeling that he had had with Farshaw, the feeling that something was being kept back. Soames succeeded in obtaining an option to purchase for a fortnight. Croft was very reluctant here. At last he said, "Well, if at the end of the time you haven't bought, I shall expect something." That was arranged, and so far Soames was content; but he had not yet found out where the trap lay.
He found it out next morning when he called on Mr. James Gilfrew, armed with a letter of introduction and three important manuscripts relating to Charles I., of which one was spurious. The manuscripts alone would have constituted sufficient introduction, but Soames liked to do things in their proper order. He remained to luncheon with the eccentric old recluse; by four o'clock in the afternoon, when he left, he had a very fair idea of the trap, and of how to put Mr. James Farshaw into it. Soames, as he travelled back to town, looked the very picture of a man who was at peace with the world.
For a man who tired easily Soames got a good deal done in the course of the next day. He called on Croft's agents in London and arranged to purchase Croft's field for considerably less than the sum that had originally been asked. He could and did produce a fair reason why the reduction should be made. They said dejectedly that they would write to their client, and had no doubt that he would be ready under the circumstances to meet Mr. Soames's views. Then he rushed off to Salsay Bois and had an interview with a much more prosperous farmer, of the name of Belman, who owned the land to the south of Heriot's. When that was over he returned to London in time to see two solicitors. The next day he rested, and the day following, being Sunday, he rested some more. And on Monday he paid another visit to Mr. Gilfrew, with a document or two in his pocket.
When he was walking back to the station he met something which was not exactly a common object of the country roadside, but nevertheless occasioned him no surprise. It was Mr. Farshaw, suitably dressed in country clothes and walking fast. He saluted Soames with his usual genial smile.
"Come down to look at the place? That's right. I mustn't stop. I'm down here on business."
"I'm afraid," said Soames wearily, "that you're a little too late for it."
Farshaw's smile vanished. He looked at Soames with suspicion. "How do you know? What do you mean?"
"If you were not going to Heriot's, I don't mean anything. If you were, I give you my word that you will save yourself time and trouble by walking back to the station with me. You are too late to do anything. Even if Gilfrew would see you, which I very much doubt, Heriot's is no longer at his disposal. I'm perfectly willing to tell you the whole story. It would interest me. But I shall expect you to be as candid with me as I am going to be with you."
"I was half afraid of this," said Farshaw. "Very well. Go on. Let's have it."
"When you gave me that opportunity to invest some money profitably in property here, you forgot one point. I refer to the new road to be made through Belman's land, skirting the south side of Heriot's."
"Croft never told you that. He only suspected it himself."
"Croft was a monument of discretion, and told me nothing. The new road will be a short cut, the other road makes a big loop just there; it will also be a better road, because the old one is flooded regularly whenever there is a heavy rain. Consequently, when Heriot's gets a frontage all along the south side, the frontage on the north, where Croft's field is, must necessarily be of comparatively no importance. In fact, the bottom drops out of the investment that you suggested to me. If I had given £750 for Croft's field, I should never have seen my money back again. I think you knew all that, and that you tried to put me in the cart, and I think I know why. And I don't think you were influenced by the commission that you were to make."
"That's all right," said Farshaw genially, and not in the least perturbed. "The game's up, and I may as well put my cards on the table. You knocked the syndicate of which I was a director for six thousand pounds. It is true that the loss fell on the syndicate, and not on me personally. It is also true that if my advice had been taken you would have got only half that sum. But the fact remained—I am fairly old, and I have always thought that I knew my way about, and I, in company with two other men of experience, had been knocked out of time by a youngster. I did not like it. I wanted to get more or less even with you. You are quite right in supposing that I was not playing for the commission. I had to make my offer to you seem more plausible, and that's why I spoke of the commission. All I really wanted was to put you in the cart, as you say. I knew Croft and Croft's agents would tell you nothing. I doubt if they knew that the road would be made so soon; it's been talked of for a long time. I knew that Gilfrew had said to me some time before that the next person who came and bothered him about the property would be turned out at once, and I think he meant it; also I am pretty sure he did not know about the new road. Belman did, because it practically rested with him whether the road would be made or not. But why should you think of going to him? For that matter, why should you suspect that a new road was likely to be made at all?"
"It's all very simple. I wasn't satisfied with Croft. Next day I called on Gilfrew with an excuse connected with the work in which he is interested. I got on very well with him. Shortly before I left, I was admiring his place, and he began at once to tell his sorrows. He had heard the news from Belman, and he was in despair about it. 'Of course,' he said, 'I can't stop here now. Their road will run within thirty yards of my windows. And it was only the other day that I missed a chance to sell!' That was a clear invitation to me. I took advantage of it. I offered to buy if the new road were made. He accepted. I saw Belman about the road next day, and now all is settled."
"Got Croft's field, too?"
"Got the whole block right through from road to road. Of course, I didn't pay Croft anything like the price he asked when he thought I didn't know anything about the new road."
"It's my own fault," said Farshaw. "I ought to have seen it sooner. It flashed across my mind this morning that the new road would make a great change in that lunatic Gilfrew's ideas, and that I might have another chance to buy. Oh, I ought to have seen it before! But I was thinking so much about the new road, and the chance of getting you over Croft's field, that I never saw my own line to take. Of course, as soon as I did think of it I started off at once; and now it's too late, and I've been beaten once again."
They had reached the railway-station.
"Look here," Farshaw continued. "If you like, I will give you the sum you have paid for Heriot's and Croft's field, and another thousand pounds into the bargain."
"It sounds a good offer," said Soames, "but I've got fifteen acres very cheap, and I think I can make more by cutting it up. In fact, I'm seeing some building people about it when I get back. They may be willing to work with me or to buy from me. By the way, I have your little commission here."
"Oh, thanks! Perhaps you wouldn't mind sending it to the office?"
"Certainly. Here's our train. Going smoking?"
"Thanks," said Farshaw grimly. "I think I'll travel in a compartment by myself. We go through a long tunnel, and I've got a very good knife in my pocket. I think I might be tempted."