City Chronicles/The Code
No. III.—THE CODE.
CHARLES STETSWORTH was the senior partner in Marion and Stetsworth. There had been no Marion in the firm for the last one hundred and twenty years, but the old style was still kept up. They were South American merchants, and if you had asked a man in Mincing Lane he would have told you that Marion and Stetsworth were all right. So they were.
All the same, Charles was in a bad temper, and was rude to Eustace, his younger brother and junior partner, and had good reason for it.
The trouble had begun with coffee. The firm had regular consignments from Santos, taking lots of 2,500 to 8,000 bags at a time, and Santos drew on them against the consignments. That was quite usual, and all right when coffee was seventy and Santos was drawing forty; but it was much less right when coffee shaded down to fifty-three and a fraction and Santos still drew as before. And the market went on falling, and Marion and Stetsworth went on holding, and Santos went on drawing, and the gloom went on settling. A point was reached when the firm was holding much more coffee than a platonic friendship for Santos justified; and they cabled to the effect that they were feeling rather tired, and if they were to hang on Santos would have to send margins. And the Santos people (always regarded as a solid firm) replied that their heart was broken in three places, but they were not sending any margins. I am not giving the exact words of the cable, but that was the general drift. Nor will I give the exact words that Charles used when Marion and Stetsworth unloaded their holding on the market at twenty-eight. Eustace observed that he had never thought much of the Santos people and had said so; this would have been easier for Charles to bear if it had not been the absolute truth. As it was, Charles told his brother to go to the devil, which, we all know, is not the way to speak.
Then there was quinine. That looked cheap at one-and-nine, very cheap. The falling-off on the shipments of bark from Java was very marked. Well-informed people were saying that the supply was giving out. So Charles bought 50,000 ounces on the distinct understanding, with himself, that quinine was to jump to four shillings in the course of a fortnight. No sooner had Charles settled himself comfortably in quinine than the bottom dropped out. Java was doing very nicely, thank you, and would be happy to send you enough bark to fill the Albert Hall twice over (or thereabouts) and still leave enough for the hospitals. Marion and Stetsworth sold their quinine at eleven-pence. Charles became very despondent; he reduced his luncheon in the Commercial Sale Rooms to the most ascetic proportions, and said, with a sigh, whither he thought legitimate commerce had gone. And his younger brother Eustace reminded him that he had always said that quinine was rotten and there were too many weak "bulls" messing it about. I do not say that Eustace was not trying; he was the kind of man who would have made Job himself irritable.
Charles certainly had reason for his bad temper. It was generally considered that he knew enough to come in when it rained, and he prided himself on his acuteness, and yet he had been caught twice, and in his own special articles. The temper passed and left him limp. He had the lowest opinion of anything and everything. When Eustace came in and said that it might be as well to sell a little cotton, he drearily assented and said he would see to it. And then Pilbrick came in and talked to him. Pilbrick was a friend. Pilbrick said that he was glad to see that coffee was improving again. Charles Stetsworth grunted. Pilbrick went on to inquire airily if Charles had been doing anything in quinine lately. Charles lied and said he had not. He added that he was just going to luncheon, and, much to his disappointment, Pilbrick said that he would go with him. As they passed through the clerks' office, Charles remembered that he wanted to sell 10,000 bales of cotton, and gave the order to a clerk. "Wire Winshed, Liverpool. Code-word, 'adept.’"
The clerk repeated the words as he wrote them down. "Winshed, Liverpool. Adept."
So Charles Stetsworth went out with Pilbrick, and with the conviction that he had just sold 10,000 bales of cotton; and so he would have done if he had consulted the code-book instead of trusting to his own memory. The word which he should have used was not "adept," but "transept." The mistake would have mattered less if the word "adept" had not been in the code-book; but it was in and it conveyed to Mr. Winshed, of Liverpool, an order to buy 100,000 bales of cotton on behalf of Messrs. Marion and Stetsworth.
The day passed without Charles discovering his mistake. He put on his hat and overcoat, said "Good-night" to his brother, and took the train to Blackheath, where he lived. After dinner, as he sat engaged in the innocent occupation of cracking a walnut, he astounded his wife and daughters by springing to his feet and rushing up-stairs to the library. It had suddenly occurred to him that "transept" was the word he should have wired; he had a copy of the code-book in the library, and he was naturally anxious to find out at once what was signified by the word "adept." He came down again, and said that he had been to see if he had put out his letters for the post, and he went on with his walnut. His wife and children found him rather silent for the rest of the evening. It is difficult to be very gossipy and cheerful when you are calculating the chances of your own bankruptcy. Cotton was too dear, he had not a doubt of that, and, owing to this appalling blunder of his, he had just bought a very large quantity of it. The question was, what would it fall to before he could get out? A heavy and sudden drop would be very serious indeed; and that was exactly what he and his brother had both expected when they made up their minds to sell.
Charles never talked business at home under any provocation, and he did not break through his rule now. But he only got one hour's sleep that night, and during that hour he dreamed that he was attempting to file his petition, and was having bricks thrown at him by his brother Eustace, who was making excellent practice at a short range. He came down to breakfast looking sick and melancholy, and picked up his copy of the Times.
Could he believe his eyes? There, staring him in the face at the head of a column, were the lines—
SUDDEN FROST IN
CROP ALMOST TOTALLY DESTROYED.
He read the item out to his wife, and she said how sad it was. He fully agreed with her. It was very sad for cotton-growers in Florida; it was also very sad for anyone who wanted cotton to go cheaper. But it was a long way off being sad for Marion and Stetsworth, who by a slip of memory had bought 100,000 bales the day before, and would have the pleasure of seeing the price go up like a rocket all day. Before the end of breakfast Charles had almost persuaded himself that this amazing piece of good fortune was due entirely to his own miraculous prescience. And he had quite made up his mind that that was the impression which Eustace should be led to take of it.
An hour later he found Eustace at the office with a very long face, and asked what was the matter. Eustace asked him sarcastically if he ever read the paper.
"Well," said Charles, "what is it?"
"Only the entire crop destroyed, and we sold yesterday."
"I didn't know you meant that. Yes, I saw it; in fact, I was expecting something of the kind."
"And yet you went and sold 10,000 bales yesterday!"
"Oh, no! You suggested something of the kind, I believe, and I was rather inclined to agree with you at the time, but things came to my knowledge afterwards, and I sent a buying order instead."
"Good! How much?"
"Hundred thousand. I should have consulted you, but you were out at the time, and——"
"Oh, don't apologise. You can do some more of the same sort if you like. All the same, it's a biggish gamble."
"I wish you wouldn't use that word," said Charles rather irritably. "I never gamble. I should not have dreamed of giving an order like that unless I had known that there was no possibility of my information being wrong, especially without consulting you. I cannot tell you how I got the information; I'm bound by my word not to tell you. I may say, though, that it was a source that I may never have at my disposal again.
After this Charles retired to his room with dignity. He gave no outward signs of his satisfaction with things in general; but at luncheon he did a thing which is sometimes done in the Commercial Sale Rooms by those who feel that they have deserved it, and occasionally by those who know that they have not. He gave an order in a low tone of voice, and the waiter brought him the tankard which he generally brought to Mr. Charles Stetsworth at luncheon. But this time the tankard was filled, not with bitter, but with Pommery '89. By such dark and surreptitious ways do the successful in the Commercial Sale Rooms avoid the appearance of insolence, ostentation, and indiscretion.