Learning Business

Learning Business  (1923) 
by E. R. Punshon

Extracted from Everybody's magazine, June 1923, pp. 13-35. Accompanying illustrations by C. H. Taffs omitted. A Christmassy, Wodehouse-y novelette of cut-throat business.


Learning Business

In Which It Is Shown That the Practise of Mixing Love and Business Is Becoming More Universal—Perhaps More Successful

By E. R. Punshon

SINCE he left school at the age of eighteen, Reggie Halstan’s life had been divided into two unequal parts—the first, and briefer, devoted to cricket; the second, and longer, to war. Cricket he had almost entirely forgotten; war he remembered too well. Of no other single subject did be know enough either for memory or forgetfulness, and it was with the feeling of an unguided wanderer in an unknown country that he found himself, within a week of being “demobed,” listening to the account of the present position and future prospects of Halstan & Company, of Egg Alley, Cheapside, as expounded by Mr. Thewn, the manager, in whose hands the sole direction of the concern had rested since the death of Reggie’s father, the founder of the business, soon after the outbreak of the war.

“Sounds pretty blue,” he commented when, at last, Mr. Thewn paused; for that things were, generally speaking, in a very bad way was the one fact that seemed to emerge clearly from the bewildering hail of facts and figures which the manager had thrown at his head.

“I felt it my duty,” said Mr. Thewn, a tall, thin man, with heavy eyes and a clean shaven face, “to put the matter as plainly as possible. That is why I had this special balance-sheet drawn up, so that you could see at a glance exactly how things stand.”

As he spoke he tapped with his long, lean forefinger one of the papers in the pile littering the table at which they sat, and mechanically Reggie picked it up and looked vaguely at the two parallel rows of figures which, he knew, revealed at a glance to those who understood exactly how the business stood but which conveyed to him just nothing at all.

“By Jove!” be said presently. “That’s jolly curious, isn’t it?”

“What?” asked Mr. Thewn, a little surprised that Reggie understood the figures sufficiently well to find anything about them either curious or anything else.

“Perhaps you hadn’t noticed.” said Reggie; “but the totals on both sides are the same exactly—the same to a penny.”

The glance Mr. Thewn threw at him when he said this was almost savage in its contempt.

“The figures are meant to agree,” he said curtly. “That’s what they are for.”

“Oh!” said Reggie. flushing a little, feeling he had made a mistake and floundering further into the morass. “Oh, I see; but—er—is that quite—square? Isn’t it rather like—well, faking the thing?”

“This balance-sheet isn’t faked,” retorted Mr. Thewn. “It would probably show better results if it were.”

He made not the least attempt to explain, and it was more his manner than his words that made Reggie realize he had been guilty of an unpardonable blunder.

He felt he was flushing to the roots of his hair, and he almost—but not quite—wished himself back in muddy trenches with the playful shrapnel bursting near and the gay high explosive rollicking round.

With what he intended to be an impressive air, he laid the balance-sheet down.

“I will go into it thoroughly later on,” he said. But the only effect of this brave declaration was to draw a palpable sneer from Mr. Thewn, who remarked crushingly,

“Yes, Mr. Halstan; I would if I were you.”

“You know, all this is a bit of a facer,” Reggie went on, half to himself.. “But out at the front we always thought every one at home was making pots of money.”

“The business has suffered,” answered Mr. Thewn coldly, “and suffered severely, from having no responsible head. I have done my best, but a manager is not a proprietor or a partner and has not the same influence or authority.”

THIS was the invariable explanation Mr. Thewn offered when Reggie expressed any surprise over the fact that the business his father had built up and left in such a flourishing condition had, during these five years of war, drifted perilously near bankruptcy. Nor was there any mistaking the tone of bitter resentment in which the manager spoke and which made Reggie feel distinctly uncomfortable. For he knew well that Mr. Thewn considered he ought to have been taken into partnership, but almost the last letter Reggie had received from his father had contained a warning that was almost a command to do nothing of the sort.

“Thewn is competent and energetic and an excellent man of business,” old Mr. Halstan had written in the last letter he ever wrote to his son, “and he will do well under your strict supervision. But never take him into partnership.”

This injunction Reggie had not felt he could ignore, even though he knew that Mr. Thewn felt very strongly on the point, and though he was also well aware that the clause: “Under your strict supervision” bore, as things had turned out, an intensely ironic significance, and one that went far to nullify old Mr. Halstan’s last command.

“Oh, well,” he said drearily; “I suppose we must just put our backs into it and try to shove the old thing up again where she belonged while father was alive.”

“No doubt,” agreed Mr. Thewn smoothly, “matters will improve now there is once more a responsible head of affairs on the spot.”

The bitterness of the tone was unmistakable, but Reggie gave no sign of having noticed it. He felt allowance must be made for the manager’s not unnatural sense of injury.

“I shall have to depend a lot on you, Thewn,” he said, looking full at him. “Is there anything you can suggest?”

“There is, of course, the offer from the Mottram people,” remarked Mr. Thewn.

“Oh, yes,” agreed Reggie, and fidgeted aimlessly in the litter of documents before him. “They offer to buy us up for ten thousand, don’t they?”

“Yes,” said Mr. Thewn.

“What do you think?” asked Reggie.

“I think,” answered Mr. Thewn, “it is entirely for you to decide. We of the staff”—his tone was acid as he said this—“are hardly concerned. Miss Mottram would carry on the business much as before, and I have no doubt she would be willing to keep us all on.”

Now, indeed, he hardly troubled to conceal the hostility and resentment that sounded in his voice, and Reggie, who had, at least during five long years of war, learned to judge men, began to realize that his manager was also his enemy.

A feeling of extraordinary helplessness came over him. He knew so little; he understood so little; his experience was so limited. He felt like a child playing amidst forces of which it knew nothing.

“Miss Mottram? Did you say, ‘Miss Mottram’?” Reggie asked.

“Yes,” answered Thewn. “Mr. Mottram has practically retired, and Miss Mottram controls the business now—and controls it very well. There isn’t a smarter man of business in the City, or one who knows more.”

Reggie permitted himself a moment of envious admiration for this unknown woman who was so smart and capable and who knew as much as any business man in the City.

“And it is she who is offering to buy us up?” he remarked.

“She says she will give ten thousand spot cash for the business as a going concern,” answered Mr. Thewn.

Reggie understood that Mr. Thewn both wished and hoped for the acceptance of the offer.

“Ten thousand is a lot of money,” he said thoughtfully, and he reflected that with that amount of capital one could go to one of the colonies and make a good start, in a new country, in a new land, far away from all mysterious, puzzling things like balance-sheets, away from all this atmosphere of doubt and suspicion that he felt round him on every side like a fog.

“It's a good offer,” observed Mr. Thewn. “Better than bankruptcy.”

In spite of himself, Reggie jumped in his chair, and he wondered what his father would have thought if he could have foreseen that within five years of his death that word “bankruptcy” would come to be pronounced in connection with the business he had been so proud of.

“I must think it over,” Reggie said aloud. “It was the Mottram people, wasn’t it, who got the Scottish Supply contract we had so long?”

“Yes,” agreed Mr. Thewn; “they have always been our chief rivals. And they have got a share now of the Jackson connection. If they secure much more of it, we may as well put up the shutters—and then the business would not be worth ten thousand pence.”

“Then you think I ought to accept?”

“It would be safer—perhaps it would be the most prudent thing to do,” answered Mr. Thewn slowly. “But it is for you to decide. At any rate, it would do no harm to call on Miss Mottram. She is a very remarkable woman, and a chat with her need not bind you in any way.”

This advice seemed good to Reggie.

“Right-o! I will,” he said. “I’ll go and lunch now, and then I’ll drop round there before I come back.”

He nodded and presently took his departure, and as soon as he had gone Mr. Thewn went to his private telephone and rang up Mottram’s.

“I want Miss Mottram herself,” he said. “Is that Miss Mottram? Our young man is coming round to see you after lunch. I think he is prepared to sell out, but if you hold back a little and don’t seem too eager, I think you can get the business for half your offer or less.”

“For five thousand?” repeated Miss Mottram’s voice. Evidently she was a good deal surprised and it was with almost a note of remonstrance that she added, “Why, it’s worth that ten times over!”

“To us it is,” agreed Thewn. “And once we have it in our hands we can soon make it worth double and treble that. But to this your slacker it’s worth nothing—it’s a charity to give him anything at all. We ought to let it go into bankruptcy and then buy it for a few hundreds. He is simply the most utter young fool I ever met—why—” And, with a giggle, Mr. Thewn repeated the story of the balance-sheet and of Reggie’s unlucky wonder that both sides thereof corresponded to a penny.

Miss Mottram laughed heartily, her merriment thin and clear over the line.

“But is that true?” she asked.

“Oh, perfectly! I’m not exaggerating in the least,” Thewn answered. “The boy’s a regular rotter, and we’ve a soft thing on. You needn’t give a penny more than five thousand—less if you like. If he shies at all, hint at bankruptcy and mention that you have already a good share of the Jackson connection. There is the Singapore United Planters’ Agency, too—tell him you are thinking of bidding for that. Oh, you can soon bring him to heel, I can tell you, a young fool like that!”

“We don’t want to skin him too close,” said the voice over the ’phone doubtfully. “It doesn’t look well to go too near the bone. I’ll give him five thousand anyhow, if only out of charity.”

“All right,” answered Thewn, and as he hung up the receiver he muttered: “Charity indeed! Charity begins at home. Anyhow, if Mottram’s buy the concern at such a bargain-price, I shall have earned the directorship they promise me.”

ABOUT half-past four that afternoon the ’phone-bell rang again, however, and Miss Mottram’s voice inquired ill-temperedly:

“Are you there? Is that Mr. Thewn? Are you alone? Young Halstan has not been in yet.”

“No; I know,” Thewn answered, his voice very ruffled and angry. “The youngster is a bigger fool even than I thought—he has just got back, and he told me in the calmest way in the world that he met a pal at lunch and they had a game of billiards together till it got so late he thought he would put off seeing you till to-morrow. Billiards! That’s his idea of business—billiards!”

“Perhaps it’s as well,” said Miss Mottram calmly. “We have just landed another big order from Jackson’s. When he does come, I can mention that casually. It will help him to make up his mind to sell.”

“I don’t believe he has a mind to make up,” growled Thewn, as he hung up the receiver. And, indeed, how was he to know that the brilliant raid Reggie had planned and carried out on the German trenches before Arras and that won him his company and the D. S. O. had been thought out during a long afternoon he had spent playing billiards at a certain rest-camp?

IT WAS in a somewhat nervous and apprehensive mood that Reggie, the next afternoon, paid his postponed visit to Mottram’s, the firm which his father had so often met and beaten in fair and open competition, but to which it seemed that hard necessity was now about to compel him to surrender.

“The dad would be awfully cut up if he knew,” Reggie found himself thinking, dismally enough.

But all that morning he had seemed to be listening to one tale of disaster after another as on every side Mr. Thewn showed where they had lost ground, nor had the manager seemed to feel anything but a gloomy satisfaction as he piled proof upon proof of the precarious condition of the business—the Scottish contract gone, the Jackson connection going, the Singapore Planters’ Supply threatened. Such was the tune on which Mr. Thewn had played adroit variations all the forenoon, till Reggie had come to feel that he hardly ought to expect Mottram’s to be willing to give anything at all for the business, since it seemed that, in getting it, they would get little more than they had already except a mass of complicated losses to liquidate as cheaply as possible.

At Mottram’s, it seemed he was expected, but he was kept waiting for nearly twenty minutes before being admitted to the presence of Miss Mottram, the wait being designed to produce in him a proper sense of his unimportance. Then he was informed by a pert youth—one who looked, Reggie thought, as if six months in the ranks would improve him out of all recognition—that Miss Mottram was now at liberty and would see him, and as he followed his guide down a long corridor to Miss Mottram’s private room, he had an odd memory of a tall German officer he had once seen meekly following the little cockney to whom he had surrendered along a deep trench on his way to headquarters. It seemed to him he also had surrendered, and was following his captor, to be shown in triumph to the victorious commander, and then his guide stopped before a door marked “Private” and opened it for Reggie to pass through.

He found himself in a large, well-lighted room, furnished in a strictly businesslike style, without a trace of feminine fripperies such as he had half expected to see. At a large writing-table in the center of the room, covered with papers in orderly, array, sat a woman, middle-aged, very plainly dressed, her hair brushed tightly back from her forehead, her features thin and sharp, and with as little trace of gentleness or refinement showing in them as was displayed by the room in which she sat.

“Hard as nails,” was Reggie’s instant thought as he saw her. “Put her in khaki and she would make a first-class R.S.M.”

She looked up as he entered, nodded in curt greeting and, pointing to a chair, said in a harsh, abrupt voice:

“Young Mr. Halstan, isn’t it? Pleased to see you. Sit down. Try a cigar. I can recommend them. I smoke them myself.”

“Oh, thanks so awfully!” said Reggie, lowering himself into the indicated chair and becoming vaguely aware of another presence in the room, that of some one seated at a small table near the window and busily engaged bending over a writing-pad. That this form was that of another woman he was dimly conscious, but his mind was too full of his errand and his attention too much occupied with Miss Mottram for him to have any thoughts to spare for this third occupant.

Indeed, he forgot all about her as he lit his own cigar and watched Miss Mottram light hers. When she had it well alight, she leaned back in her chair and, looking at him through the cloud of smoke she puffed out, said briskly,

“Well, young gentleman, I suppose you’ve called about our offer to buy your business.”

This was the second time she had called him “young,” and Reggie did not like it. Also, he didn’t like her, and he didn’t like her her snappy voice, or her manner, or anything about her—except, indeed, her cigars, which were excellent. But he remembered that business is not a matter of personal likes and dislikes, and, besides, beggars—and after his morning’s talk with Mr. Thewn he felt exceedingly like a beggar—can’t be choosers. So it was meekly enough that he answered:

“Mr. Thewn showed me your letter. He thought I might as well come round and see you about it”

Miss Mottram’s cold eyes flickered with a quick scorn. The boy would be easy to deal with, she thought. Mr. Thewn this; Mr. Thewn that—evidently young Halstan had no mind of his own.

“Frankly,” she began—and she was one of those people who always begin “Frankly” when they contemplate some specially gross deception—“things have changed since we wrote that letter. Of course we should have been bound by it if you had accepted at once. Luckily for us you didn’t The sum we mentioned was ten thousand, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” answered Reggie gloomily. “I know six or seven years ago my father refused even to consider a much large offer.”

“I dare say,” snapped Miss Mottram in her abrupt, harsh voice. “But this is to-day, not six or seven years ago. And what we are buying is the business to-day—not the business of six or seven years ago. Frankly, I don’t see how we can possibly give more now than half our previous offer.”

“Half?” repeated Reggie in tones of utter dismay, “Oh, I say!”

“Frankly,” add Miss Mottram, “we are not very keen on your accepting. I am not sure the business is worth anything. If we buy, it is only the name we shall pay for.”

“Oh, the name!” said Reggie, and remembered that Mr. Thewn had remarked that morning that the firm’s name was about the best asset left to them.

“Of course, I haven’t seen your balance-sheet,” Miss Mottram went on. “But I doubt if it will show very satisfactory results this year. I don’t know if you have had one drawn up. If not, do so. When you come to look at it you won’t see much shown there that my firm need be anxious to acquire. If you compare it with our results— I asked Miss Selwyn to take the figures out of the books to-day. Miss Selwyn, have you that balance-sheet?”

THE figure at the table by the window rose, and Reggie saw it was that of a small, thin girl, with a thin face, of which the most prominent features were the eyes, large, dark and very clear, and the firm little mouth. Except for the beauty of the large and mournful eyes, not one feature of the girl’s face even approached prettiness, nor was her complexion good, and as for her hair, it was tucked away into the tightest and closest of glossy bands. Yet the total effect of the face seemed to Reggie curiously charming, with a quiet and wistful appeal that was all its own. But it was not all this that he thought of at the moment; indeed, he hardly noticed her looks at all, so much was he impressed by the apparent fact that this frail little slip of a thing seemed to be able to deal with the dark mysteries of balance-sheets as with familiar friends, and was even able to perform the staggering, baffling feat of “taking the figures out of the books” as easily as he himself could eat his dinner.

She came forward now with a quick, light step and with a paper in her hands, and as she laid it on Miss Mottram’s table Reggie was able to see two neat parallel rows of figures and the most beautiful red-ink ruling.

“I say—how awfully jolly!” he murmured, and Miss Mottram looked puzzled and frowned at a remark she did not understand but decided to ignore.

“This shows our position to-day,” she said, picking the paper up.

Miss Selwyn had remained standing by the writing-table in case she was wanted. Now she was in the act of turning away to go back to her own seat when Reggie, unable to control any longer his honest admiration, burst out with,

“Oh, I say—did you do that all by yourself?”

Miss Selwyn gave him a surprised glance from eyes of whose strange depth and sadness he now became aware for the first time. She did not speak, and Miss Mottram interrupted impatiently:

“Miss Selwyn is a competent bookkeeper. That is why I employ her. These figures—they are confidential, of course, but in the circumstances I think I am justified in letting you glance at them.”

She rose and handed him the paper, and he knew very well that his manner as he rose, too, and took it, his glance, even the way in which he held the thing betrayed the fact that to him it conveyed no more meaning than a lot of Egyptian hieroglyphics would have done.

“You can see for yourself,” Miss Mottram went on. “A firm like this, showing such results, is not likely to be very keen on taking over a concern in the position of yours. You lose ground every day. Take the Scottish contract—we have it. Take the Jackson connection—we are getting it.” She selected another paper from one of the orderly piles before her. “That came from them to-day,” she said. “A big order. Frankly, I don’t think you will get much more from them in the future. We believe we are handling their business to better advantage than any one else can do or than Halstan’s ever did. And the Singapore Planters’—well, I want to be frank with you, Mr. Halstan. Anyhow, you would know it soon enough. We are preparing to offer for that also.”

“Are you, though?” said Reggie, trying to laugh and not succeeding very well. “Why—by Jove!—you won’t leave us even a bare bone soon.”

Miss Mottram condescended to smile, though it was not a smile that seemed much to deserve that pleasant and friendly name.

“That is why,” she said, recovering quickly from such unwonted relaxation and looking as grim and harsh as ever, “we must withdraw our offer of ten thousand. But if you care to accept five thousand, Miss Selwyn will make you out a check on the spot.”

IN HIS depressed and melancholy mood Reggie felt strongly tempted. Five thousand was little enough, but for the wreck of business left him, perhaps it was as much as he could expect. And five thousand pounds is not a great fortune, but it is a capital more than most possess, and with it one could make a good start in one of the colonies. And it would be worth something to break loose from this atmosphere of failure and suspicion by which he felt him self surrounded, to get clear away from all these mysteries of business he so little understood, away to a fresher, cleaner life, where at least be would be a man among men, not a pigeon among hawks, a lamb helpless in the hands of the shearers. And this hesitation that his features showed clearly enough, Miss Mottram felt she understood.

“Miss Selwyn”—her voice rang out harshly—“make out a check to Mr. Halstan’s order for five thousand pounds.”

She took his consent for granted, then.

Nor, for his part, did he feel much inclined to contradict her.

Suddenly he was aware that Miss Selwyn was looking at him, and in her great mournful eyes he seemed to read—was it a touch of contempt that showed glimmering there?

“Miss Selwyn, did you hear me?” Miss Mottram snapped out.

The girl started violently and began to unlock a drawer of the table at which she sat. But, though her eyes were averted now, Reggie still seemed to feel them resting on him with their look of questioning doubt and wonder, and he came to a sudden, swift determination. After all, to sell out like this, was it not a little like abandoning a position the moment the enemy began to bombard it? If the army had held on to the front with no greater tenacity than he was showing, would the war ever have been won?

“We won’t trouble Miss Selwyn just now,” he said, and even at the moment was aware of an odd satisfaction in pronouncing her name. “I must think it over—take advice.”

Miss Mottram’s face, which had clouded over at his sudden revolt, cleared again. She had no doubt but that those two last words meant Reggie intended to consult Mr. Thewn—probably his character was so weak he did not dare decide without consulting his manager—and she knew very well what advice Mr. Thewn would give.

“Right!” she snapped out in her abrupt, aggressive voice. “I will keep our offer open till the end of the month. That is sixteen days. But if you haven’t accepted by then, don’t blame me if we refuse to give five thousand pence. Good-by, Mr. Halstan.”

She struck the bell on her table for a clerk to show Reggie out, and became instantly absorbed in the papers before her, as though the very memory of his existence had already passed entirely from her mind. But as Reggie walked slowly away it occurred to him that two things were a little strange, each in their own way; first, that Miss Mottram had used that expression which Mr. Thewn had also employed the previous day—about the concern being soon not worth five thousand pence, and, secondly, that Miss Selwyn, who had not spoken one word during the whole interview, had nevertheless been the dominating factor in it.

“But for her, I should have accepted,” he said to himself.

MISS ANNE SELWYN, confidential clerk to Miss Mottram, of Mottram, Limited, was, in fact, as her employer had remarked, a highly competent accountant. Figures were to her friendly and familiar things, always ready to do just what she wanted. But, all the same, even she, with all her skill, was finding it difficult to devise a method whereby a weekly salary of three pounds five would fit into her bills amounting to three pounds fifteen—the task on which she was employed on the evening of the day of the interview between Reggie and Miss Mottram.

For when one has an ailing mother who requires many small comforts, and when prices, apparently subject to the same law as balloons, perpetually rise, it is difficult to cut down expenses; and when one is in the employ of a Miss Mottram, it is even more difficult to secure any increase in salary.

“She would simply sack me on the spot if I asked for a penny more,” mused Miss Selwyn sadly. “All the same, something has got to be done—it’s a case of either spend less or earn more or bust.”

Having said this, she wept a little, and while thus engaged she perceived, to her great astonishment, the figure of Mr. Reginald Halstan appear at their garden gate, open it, pass through, approach their front door and ring their bell, all this happening in the most ordinary manner, just as though it were real and not a specially absurd dream.

She was, indeed, so astounded that she stopped in the very middle of a sob, and even the tear trickling down one cheek paused likewise, and hung suspended, poised on the very summit of the roundness of her cheek’s soft curve.

“Whatever is the man coming here for?” she said aloud in her bewildered surprise; and she still sat there, rigid in her amazement, as her mother came out of the kitchen and went down the passage to the front door.

With even increased bewilderment she heard Reggie’s voice inquire if Miss Selwyn lived there and if she were in, and her mother reply, as they say in police courts and in Parliament, in the affirmative to both questions. And she still sat completely paralyzed as the door opened and her mother announced, in tones of mingled gratification, surprise, doubt, suspicion and warning:

“A young gentleman wants to see you, Anne. He says his name is Halstan and that he met you in the City this morning and that it’s on business.”

Business! But what business could the head of Halstan’s have to discuss with a junior employee of Mottram’s?

Hard on the announcement of Mrs. Selwyn’s, Reggie himself appeared; and when she saw him, Anne shut her eyes tight, hoping that, when she opened them again, the absurd, impossible vision would have vanished. But when she did look, Reggie was still there, and, moreover, he had somehow edged himself quite inside the room and was in the act of speaking.

“Oh, I say,” he began; “I know you must be awfully surprised and all that, and you must think it’s the most awful cheek, too. But it isn’t really at all—not a scrap, honor bright. I’m most awfully serious, and I thought you wouldn’t mind if I had a chat with you—about business, and all that sort of thing, you know.”

Anne was still feeling too hopelessly astonished and bewildered to be able to stir a finger or so much as utter a single word. All she could do was sit and gape, and she even forgot to wipe away the tear still trembling on that exact spot where the curve of her cheek was at its fullest, while Reggie worked his way to the center of the room like one establishing himself there for an hour or two at the least. Feebly Anne looked at him and wondered if it were not due to herself to order him out of the house on the spot; only, she did so want to know what on earth he had come for. So she compromised by looking still more feebly at her mother, who quite misunderstood her silent appeal, replied to it by another look full of all those emotions her voice had expressed before and many more, condensed them into one final nod of maternal triumph and, to Anne’s horror, discreetly melted away, closing the door behind her with a firm yet kind significance there was no mistaking.

IT WAS at this precise moment, when Anne saw herself thus abandoned to her fate, that Reggie Halstan noticed the tear still quiescent on her cheek, as though it loved to be there—a sensible, right-minded tear, one perceives.

“Oh, I say!” he exclaimed in tones of the most heartfelt dismay and sympathy. “Oh—I beg your pardon—I didn’t know—I—” He stopped abruptly, blighted by such a glare as a tigress robbed of her young might have bestowed on him.

For at that moment Anne felt she simply detested the man. It was like his impudence to come there at all. It was still more like his impudence to notice her tear. And it was most of all like his impudence to presume to dare appear to offer her his sympathy—as if she wanted his sympathy!

The worst of it was that she could not wipe away the tear without seeming to admit its presence—a thing she was steadfastly minded not to do. And it is difficult to look sufficiently cold and dignified to keep a pushing young man in his place when one is acutely aware of a tear still poised upon one’s cheek. So she adopted the very poor and cheap expedient of knocking a book off the table with her elbow so that, while stooping to pick it up, she might give herself a furtive dab with her handkerchief.

But in carrying out this scheme she forgot to reckon with Reggie, who sprang with such alacrity to retrieve her book that a collision between their two heads was only averted by inches. Now, it is difficult to remain very haughty and aloof with a person against whose head you have just as nearly as possible banged your own. Besides, Reggie had a pleasant laugh, and Anne herself could not help smiling a little at their escape as she accepted the book he had picked up for her with such agility.

“Oh, thank you so much,” she said.

It was the first time he had heard her voice, and this amazed him when he thought of it, for he had the impression that they had known each other for years. And he perceived that his instinct had been right when it told him that the sound of her voice would be more sweet and pleasant than any one he had ever heard before.

“I say; nearly a collision—what?” he exclaimed cheerfully—too cheerfully, Anne thought, and her tone had grown severe again as she said,

“May I ask why you are here?”

“I suppose it is a bit of a surprise,” agreed Reggie thoughtfully.

“Not at all,” said Anne in her most icy tones.

“Oh, I say; did you expect me?” he cried.

“How—how dare you?” demanded Anne, choking with fury as she sprang to her feet in indignation.

“I say; what’s the matter?” he expostulated. “Have I said something I shouldn’t? If you weren’t surprised——

“I was—of course I was!”

“Well, you said——

“No, I didn’t; I never did—at least, I mean—I didn’t mean—I did—didn’t—Mr. Halstan, will you be so kind as to explain as quickly as you can what you want and why you have come here?”

“Well, I’m trying to, ain’t I?” he asked reproachfully. “Only, you do jump on a chap so, both feet together. You see—well—it’s that beast of a balance-sheet.”

“Balance-sheet?” she repeated, still more bewildered, and beginning to be inclined to suspect Reggie’s sanity.

“Yes; rotten things, aren’t they? At least, I suppose you don’t mind ’em, but I would almost rather face a Jack Johnson or two—my word! I know you think I’m an awful fool.” And he beamed on her cheerfully, as though he felt he had made it all absolutely clear.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “What have balance-sheets got to do with your coming here?”

“Ah, there you are, you see,” he answered, still beaming.

“But I don’t see at all.”

“Well. I know it must seem rotten silly to you. but I can’t get the hang of them at all. Honest, I can’t. They are so much bally Hebrew to me. You see, we never had balance-sheets in the army, at least not in my battalion. Very likely there was a branch at G.H.Q. to deal with them. I don’t know. But give me a balance-sheet and you give me a knock-out. And before I had been demobed a week, old Thewn comes along and claps the bally thing down—how was I to know the rotten idea was to have both sides the same?”

“But I still don’t quite understand,” she protested.

“Well then,” he went on, “after old Thewn had bowled me out like that, middle stump, first ball, there you went handing another of the things to Miss Mottram just like handing a pal a drink. Awfully jolly it looked, too, with all that ripping red ruling and all that. So I thought if you could turn them out like that, perhaps you could show me how to do the trick myself. You see the idea?” he asked anxiously.

“Do you mean,” she asked incredulously, “that you want me to teach you how to draw up a balance-sheet?”

“That’s the ticket!” he exclaimed delightedly. “You will, won’t you?”

“But why ever do you come to me?”

“Because,” he answered simply, “I didn’t know any one else.”

“But you are the head of Halstan’s—in your own office—Mr. Thewn, for instance?”

“I have reasons,” he replied, “for not saying anything to Mr. Thewn.”

He looked full at her as he spoke, and for the first time she seemed to catch a glimpse of his real personality.

“How did you know where I lived?” she asked.

“Ah!” he said, and looked as if, were he encouraged, he would wink. “Half a crown.”

“Why—how?” she asked.

“The office-boy,” he explained.

“Mr. Halstan,” she cried indignantly, “do you mean to say you bribed the office-boy to tell you my address?”

“Not bribed,” he protested. “It was half a crown, but it wasn’t a bribe.”

“Pray, what was it, then?” she demanded in her loftiest tone.

“Gratitude,” he answered promptly.

“I am surprised—” she began in the same lofty tone, but he interrupted her.

“It’s all right,” he said. “The kid’s a little sportsman, and promised not to tell.”

“Really, Mr. Halstan,” Anne protested, exceedingly angry that she did not feel as angry as she knew she ought, “it is most extraordinary—I don’t know what to say.”

“I know,” he said sympathetically. “Like me when I’m up against a balance-sheet. Now, look here; there’s this one. Old Thewn gave it to me this morning. It shows the position of the firm at—er—a glance.”

“Yes,” she said, taking it and looking at it.

“Well, does it?” he asked.

“Certainly.”

“Then I wish to goodness you would show me how.”

“It’s perfectly simple.”

“Oh, is it? Perhaps I should find it simple if I had your brains.”

“It isn’t a question of brains at all; it’s merely knowing a little about bookkeeping.”

“Well then, will you teach me a little about bookkeeping?”

“But I’m not a teacher——

“Be one,” he urged. “I’m in a regular fix. If you give me the go-by, I’m done. I know you think I’m a fool, but it’s not that—at least, it’s not all that. I come home and I get demobed and I go to the office to take hold, as they say. But I don’t know a thing about it, and I don’t know what to take hold of or how to keep hold if I get hold. I don’t know what you do in business or how or why. They didn’t teach us business in the army; they only taught us how to kill Germans. Well, I learned that, and it’s over now—thank the Lord!—unless the politicians manage to start us off again. So now I want to learn business.”

“But——

“And I want you to teach me.”

“What——”'

“Balance-sheets first; other things later. Of course, we must be businesslike and arrange terms. Shall we say a guinea a lesson?”

ANNE gasped, and a vision flashed before her of all weekly bills easily settled with something left over for small luxuries.

“But that’s an absurd fee—” she began, and he interrupted her at once.

“Two guineas,” he said.

“Mr. Halstan, you’ll never make a business man,” she told him severely. “Half a crown would be more like it.”

“Now you’re rotting me,” he protested. “Well, look here; you shall name your own terms. That’s all right, isn’t it? Very well; now we’ll start. Take this balance-sheet? Is it square?”

“Square?”

“Yes; because I’ve rather thought once or twice that Miss Mottram and old Thewn were trying to squeeze me out.”

“Oh, surely Miss Mottram would never try to do that!” exclaimed Anne, rather horrified at the idea. She paused and added hesitatingly, “Of course, it seems ridiculous to offer five thousand pounds for Halstan’s.”

“I should have taken it if you hadn’t looked at me just then,” he said softly.

“I didn’t!” she declared, with some heat. “Certainly not! I never would. I only thought you were giving in a little easily.”

“I know you did. That’s why I made up my mind I wouldn’t,” he answered, and she decided it would be better to change the subject and talk of balance-sheets.

“This makes a very bad showing,” she said, picking up the one he had given her. “On the face of it, that is. But you ought to verify the items. And you ought to see the profit-and-loss account as well.”

“What’s that?”

“Good-will is omitted—that’s all right from one point of view. I prefer a balance-sheet without that item. But there’s no need to forget it altogether. Are not your premises freehold?”

“Yes.”

“That ought to be shown, anyhow. You must go through the books.”

“So I will the moment you have told me what books and how.”

“We should have to start from the very beginning of everything,” she warned him.

“Just what I should like,” he answered, with enthusiasm.

“I mean, of course,” she explained sternly, “the beginning of everything in bookkeeping.”

“Yes; I know,” said Reggie, slightly discouraged.

“Then please listen carefully. There are two kinds of bookkeeping—single entry and double entry. Double entry depends on the obvious fact that every transaction has two sides—every sale means a purchase; every creditor means— It’s only necessary to listen, Mr. Halstan; you needn’t stare as well.”

“But I can listen so much better if I can watch you at the same time,” he urged humbly.

“I can talk better if you don’t,” she retorted. “Besides, you ought to take notes.”

“So I will!” he declared, producing notebook and pen. “Now, if you will kindly begin again.”

“Double entry—” she said, and for the next hour they worked really hard, Anne finding, a little to her surprise, that her pupil was intensely serious about it all, and that he displayed great quickness in following her teaching.

THREE weeks later, in the same room, at about the same hour of the evening, Anne sat back in her chair and looked thoughtfully at Reggie, and then at a paper in her hand, on which were neat columns of figures neatly ruled in red ink, and then back again at him.

“Mr. Halstan,” she said, “this is a very good, sound piece of work. No one could have drawn up a clearer balance-sheet.”

Reggie looked tired and a little worn. His hair was not tidy and his collar was crumpled, and beneath his eyes black lines were visible. When Anne spoke, he laid down his pen and looked up.

“Do you think that I can now call myself a competent bookkeeper?” he said slowly.

“I should never have believed it possible,” she exclaimed, with a note of read admiration in her voice, “that any one could have done it in such a short time!”

“You see, I knew I had to,” he explained gravely. “When you are right up against a thing and you’ve simply got to—well then, very often you find you can. The army rather taught that to a chap.”

“You have worked dreadfully hard,” she said meditatively.

“Twenty hours a day, seven days a week,” he agreed. “Since you began to teach me, I have never once spent more than three hours in bed.” He paused and yawned. “When it’s over,” he remarked, “I shall sleep a week without stopping.”

“It’s a wonder you haven’t made yourself ill,” declared Anne severely.

“Oh, one can stand a lot for a limited time,” he answered. “Besides, I’ve done it before. In March, 1918, I never slept at all for six days on end. Will you look at these?” he added, passing a handful of papers across the table to her.

But she shook her head and laid them down again without looking at them.

“There is no need,” she said. “You know as much as I do now—more. You have a real faculty for figures—much more than I have.”

Rising to her feet, she began with great deliberation to clear away the books and papers cumbering the table between them. When he had watched her for a little, he said,

“What is that for?”

“I have taught you all I can,” she answered. “Our lessons are over.”

“Does that mean,” he asked, “that I am to clear out?”

“There is nothing else for you to come here for, is there?” she returned. “I have taught you everything I know.”

“Are you sure of that?” he asked.

“Everything,” she repeated firmly. “About bookkeeping,” she added.

“But there are other subjects——

“None that I am competent to teach,” she answered. “And now, if you will take my advice, you will pack up your books and go home and go to bed.”

“No,” he said firmly. “If I did, I should stop there, and that wouldn’t do. Not yet.”

“Of course,” she conceded, “you need actual experience, both in handling books and in office routine.”

“I’ll begin getting that first thing to-morrow,” he declared, rising to his feet. “You think I shall be thoroughly equipped then?”

“Oh, thoroughly,” she answered.

He began slowly to collect his books and papers and to pack them into a leather bag he had with him.

“I’m awfully obliged to you, Miss Selwyn,” he said. “You have been more than patient. I’m sure no one else would have taken such pains or been at such trouble; no poor unlucky greenhorn could have hoped for a better teacher. I am afraid you must have found me a sad trial at times.”

“Oh, no; not at all,” she said politely. “It has been a pleasure.”

“I wish I knew,” he murmured, half to himself it seemed, “whether you meant that.”

She did not answer, but continued to watch him in silence as he finished packing up his books. When he had completed that task, he turned to her again, holding out an envelope.

“I can never pay you,” he said, “for all the care and trouble and attention you have given me. But if you will accept this as your fee, I shall be very glad.”

She knew it was both foolish and unreasonable that this should hurt her so badly, and she knew it was absurd of her to wince and hesitate. With an effort she put out her hand and took the envelope.

“Thank you,” she said formally. “Shall I write you a receipt?”

And it was a satisfaction to her to feel that now, in her turn, she had succeeded in hurting him.

“I don’t think it’s necessary,” he answered, flushing a little, and then he held out his hand. “Well, good-by,” he said. “And thank you again.”

“Good-by,” she said, taking the hand he offered and dropping it again. “When you are a well-known, successful, wealthy business man, and chairman and director of ever so many companies, I shall always be proud to think I gave you your first business lessons.”

WITHOUT answering, he bowed and went out of the room. She heard his firm, familiar tread in the passage. She heard the front door close. She heard his step die away in the distance, and she became exceedingly busy, moving about the room and tidying it and putting things straight. But gradually her activities slackened; she came to a standstill. Slowly she let herself sink on the nearest chair, and gradually a tear or two stole out and furtively, as if more than half ashamed of being there at all, began to creep down her cheeks. Their timidity was justified, for the moment she was aware of them she dashed them away with an impatient gesture, and then all at once she began to giggle as she remembered that when Reggie Halstan first appeared he had found her in tears, just as now she discovered herself weeping at the moment of his departure. But she did not remember that between his coming and his going she had ever wept at all.

“Anne Selwyn,” she said aloud to herself, with extreme severity, “you are a perfect little fool and you ought to be thoroughly ashamed of yourself—stop it; do you hear?”

This command she uttered with such decision, such ferocity, indeed, that no one but herself could possibly have ventured to disobey. But disobey she did; for first one more tear appeared, and then another and another, and it seemed a whole downpour threatened when the door opened and Mrs. Selwyn put her head cautiously in.

“Has Mr. Halstan gone?” she asked. “He is off early to-night.”

“We’ve finish,” Anne explained. “He is not coming back; the lessons are done.”

“Oh!” said Mrs. Selwyn, and she looked very disappointed indeed. “But surely he will come back after the trouble you’ve taken and all?”

“No,” said Anne firmly. “He won’t, Never!”

Mrs. Selwyn looked still more disappointed.

“Has he paid you?” she asked presently in a tone that indicated that in this world one must put up with the best one can get.

Anne indicate the envelope on the table.

“He gave me that before he went,” she said.

Mrs. Selwyn picked it up.

“It’s not coins,” she said, with satisfaction. She bent it between her fingers. “And I don’t think it’s notes,” she decided. “Anne, it must be a check!”

“Open it if you like and see,” said Anne indifferently.

Mrs. Selwyn needed no second invitation. Visions of ten, of twenty pounds or more crossed her mind. She tore open the envelope and drew out a sheet of ordinary note-paper, across which was written the name: “Reggie Halstan”—that, and nothing more.

“Goodness me!” said Mrs. Selwyn, looking at it with great doubt and suspicion. “Whatever’s this?”

“What is it?” asked Anne.

“It’s a do,” said Mrs. Selwyn firmly; “that’s what it is! He’s done you, Anne; he has!”

“May I look?” said Anne, and she took the paper.

That was all it was—a sheet of paper with his name written across it and nothing more. She stood looking at it with a very bewildered air, and in tones trembling with disappointment and vexation Mrs. Selwyn burst out,

“I never did trust that young man—never!”

“Mother!” protested Anne.

“And the hours and hours you’ve worked with him!” cried Mrs. Selwyn. “And then to go off like this and cheat you of your due! Anne, you must put him in the County Court for it.”

“Oh, please don’t say such things!” cried Anne. “Please don’t!”

“But you must!” insisted Mrs. Selwyn. “Haven’t you a right to your hard-earned money? What next, I wonder? How much did you arrange for?”

“I think the arrangement was,” confessed Anne, “that he could pay whatever he thought the lessons worth.”

“Anne!” cried Mrs. Selwyn in despair. “Why, then, you can’t do anything at all! And you call yourself a business girl! And you were to teach him business! Little,” said Mrs. Selwyn grimly, “did he need it.”

“Don’t worry, mother,” said Anne soothingly. “I’m not out of pocket, and the lessons have been quite good f-f-fun.”

“Fun!” repeated Mrs. Selwyn, and, not daring to trust herself to express all she felt, she withdrew, letting the paper with Reggie’s name on it flutter unheeded to the ground.

When the door had closed behind her and Anne was alone again, she looked at this paper and hesitated, and then slowly picked it up. What did it mean? Why had he played on her what had the appearance of being a specially cruel trick, for he well knew that she had need of the money? Was it simply a mistake, a piece of casual carelessness? Had he meant to enclose a check in the envelope and had this piece of paper got in by some error? Oh, what did it mean?

“Oh, well,” she said at last; “that’s all over and done with.” And with some care she folded up this piece of paper that was to be, it seemed, her fee for all the work she had done, and put it very carefully away.

MR. THEWN was quite astonished and possibly not too well pleased when, the next morning, Reggie reached the office before the hour of eleven. For that was early for Reggie, and the later he appeared the better Mr. Thewn like it. Indeed, had Reggie never come near the office at all, Mr. Thewn would have made no complaint. But the manager’s face cleared when he noticed how pale and wan Reggie looked, and how the great dark rings beneath his eyes seemed to-day more marked, even, than before.

“Morning, Mr. Halstan,” he said genially. “Morning. You look tired.”

“Got a beastly head,” Reggie confessed—quite truly—for he was beginning to approach the limits of his endurance, and this morning his head ached badly as a result of his recent nights spent in tedious study instead of sleep. “I shall have to go out and get a pick-me-up,” he added, for he knew he would have need of clear brains before that day was over.

“I hope you weren’t making a night of it?” said Mr. Thewn, laughing.

“Got to bed,” confessed Reggie ruefully, “at half-past four.”

Mr. Thewn laughed again. He knew life, he would have told you; he knew young men, too.

“Ah, well, Mr. Halstan,” he said tolerantly, “I’m glad you have a little pleasure at night, for I fear I have not too good news for you. I had a message over the ’phone yesterday afternoon after you had gone out to lunch—I was hoping you would look in again. It was from Sir John Jackson himself. He is coming in to-day, he says. He says that, in view of the long connection between his firm and Haltan’s, he does not want to make any change too abruptly, and so he wants a chat with us this morning. So I think it would be as well for you to stay till he comes, so that you can hear yourself what he has to say.”

“Well, if you really think I ought to be present,” agreed Reggie meekly.

“It would be better,” declared Mr. Thewn emphatically, for the presence of his principal—his nominal principal—would be a protection against any unkind rumors the future might see developing, and he had no fear that Reggie would understand the coming discussion with Sir John Jackson sufficiently well to be able to form any opinion on it. “Of course,” he remarked, “we shall have to go into the figures rather closely. You need only agree with me when I appeal to you and say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ as the case may be.”

“I see,” said Reggie. “I shall only have to be careful not to say ‘Yes’ when it ought to be ‘No,’ and ‘No’ when it ought to be ‘Yes,’ eh—what?”

Then they both laughed heartily at Reggie’s little joke, and Reggie asked,

“What do you think the old thing is coming round himself for?”

Mr. Thewn shook his head dolefully.

“I have had the feeling for a long time that the Jackson connection was slipping from us.” He sighed.

“Mottram’s, I suppose?” remarked Reggie.

“Oh, Mottram’s undoubtedly,” agreed Mr. Thewn. “Well, we must hope for the best.”

BUT Mr. Thewn made this remark with an air that said plainly that also they must expect the worst. He added that Jackson’s had a new manager—a Scot—very keen, a demon for figures, hard as nails. It was most likely he who had suggested to Sir John that Mottram’s would suit them better than Halstan’s.

“A perfect demon for figures, they say, this new manager,” repeated Mr. Thewn admiringly.

“Sort of chap who knows all about balance-sheets?” said Reggie, and he and Mr. Thewn laughed again together.

“But that’s not the worst,” continued Mr, Thewn, recovering his gravity, “there’s a letter from Singapore Planters’ saying they consider that expenses are high and asking if development should not be possible now on the Continent, especially in Belgium, and they want us to submit a scheme. They hint that a scheme has been submitted from another quarter by which they have been much impressed, and they want us to give them our views. Here is their letter.”

“I suppose that means,” observed Reggie, “that some one is after them to cut us out—Mottram’s?”

“Oh, Mottram’s beyond a doubt,” declared Mr. Thewn.

“Why are Mottram’s like roses?” asked Reggie dreamily. “Because it’s ‘Mottram’s, Mottram’s all the way.’ Well, I suppose we can’t complain. She gave me full warning that day I went to see them. I told you, didn’t I?”

“Yes; but I never dreamed they would act so soon,” answered Mr. Thewn. “I shouldn’t have thought they were ready.”

“Is it Mottram’s who have the Malay States Producers’ business?”

“Yes,” answered Mr. Thewn, faintly surprised that Reggie had ever heard of the Malay States Producers’ Syndicate.

“I suppose,” suggested Reggie timidly, “it wouldn’t be any good our trying to retaliate there—sort of hitting back, you know—trying to cut Mottram’s out there, just as they are trying to cut us out everywhere else?”

Mr. Thewn roared with laughter at the idea. He thought it too funny for words.

“I am afraid,” he said, “we have our hands too full trying to keep our own connection to attempt to raid other people’s. And I only wish we had half the grip on our business Mottram’s have on all theirs—on the Malay States Producers’ in especial. Why, even your father never dreamed of trying for them.”

“It was just an idea,” said Reggie humbly. “You see, in the army, when we could hardly hang on to our own lines by the skin of our teeth, then was the time when we used to raid the Germans for all we were worth.”

“Army methods are hardly applicable to business,” said Mr. Thewn. “You must forget the army now you’re in the City, Mr. Halstan. You won’t forget about Sir John Jackson’s visit?”

“I’ll be on hand when you want me,” Reggie promised.

“You see,” said Mr. Thewn, “if we go on losing connections like this, there is only one possible end—bankruptcy.”

“Oh, bankruptcy, eh?” repeated Reggie, and, looking for once thoroughly disturbed, he went out of the room, muttering to himself, “Bankruptcy, eh—what?”

“I managed to wake the young slacker up a bit that time,” Mr. Thewn thought, with some satisfaction, and turned again to his work, with which, however, he was not destined to make much progress, for before long one of the clerks announced that Miss Mottram was in the outer office.

MR. THEWN was not pleased, and his manner to his visitor when she was shown in was somewhat disturbed.

“I didn’t expect you,” he said, closing the office door with some care. “I thought we agreed it would be more prudent—we don’t want to give any opportunity for stupid gossip, do we?”

“Oh, stop cackling like that!” snapped Miss Mottram. “This is serious. That’s why I’m here. Not for pleasure, you know. Besides, there’s a perfectly good reason. I’ve never had any reply to my offer. Quite natural I should call to see what you are doing about it, isn’t it? But never mind that. Have you heard from the Jackson people?”

“Sir John himself is calling this morning; he may be here any minute,” answered Mr. Thewn. “That’s all right. He evidently means to give us a last chance, and the young slacker here is too big a fool even to see it.”

“If you think that’s what it means, all right,” said Miss Mottram, looking relieved. “He has written to say he is coming round to see us as well.”

“No doubt,” said Mr. Thewn easily. “Quite natural. Having broken with us definitively, he will want to offer you the sole agency. Really, Miss Mottram, I wish you hadn’t come round here, especially for such a trivial reason. One can’t be too careful.”

“Perhaps I am a bit too jumpy,” confessed Miss Mottram. “I sha’n’t feel all right till this deal has gone through. When Halstan’s is in my pocket, I shall feel different. Till then I shall be raggy. I wish we hadn’t tried to cut the figure. I believe young Halstan would have taken the ten thousand, and the Lord knows it’s worth that ten times over.”

“You can get it for half the five soon,” declared Thewn, “though I dare say he will take more if you wish to offer it. This Jackson affair will go near finishing us. If he tries to hold out, let him go into bankruptcy. I shall be trustee, and I shall earn the gratitude of the creditors if I get as much as five thousand out of you for the wreckage. Then, once you have control, we can go ahead; we shall have something like a monopoly for the time.”

“We shall be able to cut expenses,” Miss Mottram agreed. “We shall be able to sack half your staff and some of mine. I made a start this morning. A fool of a girl asked me for a rise. I gave her five minutes to collect her week’s salary in lieu of notice and walk out of the office. That was Anne Selwyn.”

“Oh, we shall have a little gold mine,” declared Mr. Thewn.

“A bit rough on young Halstan—eh?” suggested Miss Mottram.

“It’s the young rotter’s own fault,” declared Mr. Thewn vehemently, “Serves him right. If he had chosen to take me into partnership, I could have kept the firm afloat well enough. But he wouldn’t, so he must take the consequences. Besides, he will be all right. With your five thousand, it you chose to pay as much, he will do well in the colonies somewhere. Of I course, if you are weakening——

Miss Mottram chuckled grimly,

“Not me,” she said. “But I am a bit jumpy. Another thing: I’ve had rather an odd letter from Malay States Producers’—they say they think expenses seem a little high, and they suggest that development should be possible now on the Continent—Belgium, especially. Want us to submit a scheme. Hint they have one from another source.”

“Why, that’s almost exactly what Singapore Planters’ have written to us!” exclaimed Mr. Thewn, much startled. “Don’t you think you were a little premature in approaching them? I thought we had agreed a delay there would do no harm. Here’s their letter.”

Miss Mottram took it and looked very bewildered and worried,

“I don’t understand,” she said. “It’s not us—we made no such suggestion to them. Who can it be?”

“Not you?” repeated Mr. Thewn incredulously. “But it must be! There’s no one but Mottram’s and Halstan’s with the experience or the facilities for handling the business. It’s not us—that’s certain. So it must be you.”

“Don’t talk like a fool!” retorted Miss Mottram. “Is it likely we should make competitive proposals against Halstan’s when I mean to have control of Halstan’s myself in a few weeks?”

“But there’s no one else,” persisted Thewn, “except Halstan’s and Mottram’s.”

“Looks like there is,” snapped Miss Mottram, “unless they’re bluffing—and that might account for this letter you’ve had from Singapore Planters’ being so like the one I’ve got from Malay Producers’.”

Thewn brought his clenched fist down on the table before him with all his force.

“That’s it!” he cried excitedly. “We ought to have seen that at once. It’s a bluff. They’ve put their heads together—old Syd Mears, very likely; he’s on the board of both concerns. It’s a bluff to try to squeeze us. That’s the game!”

“If I thought that,” said Miss Mottram slowly, “I’d call the bluff. If they are trying to squeeze us, I won’t stand that. I’ll call their hand. Why, as soon as I get control of Halstan’s, I mean to increase all charges fifty per cent.”

“So we will!” cried Thewn. “Or more! They’re trying to run a bluff. Very well. Bluff back; we hold all the cards.”

“I will,” said Miss Mottram and walked over to the ’phone. “May I use it?” she said, and gave the number without waiting for a reply.

When connection was made, she lost no time in beating about the bush.

“You are Malay Producers’?” she asked. “This is Mottram’s talking. About your letter. We have considered it. We have no other scheme to suggest. We don’t think one necessary. If you don’t like the way we handle your business, we are quite willing to withdraw. If you wish it, we cancel all contracts and arrangements here and now if you think you can find any other firm to act on lower terms and show as good results.”

“That’s the stuff to give them!” chuckled Mr. Thewn delightedly. “You see, we’ve got them where the hair is short. They know as well as you no other firm in the country can take on the business without at least twelve months’ preparation.”

“Certainly I mean it.” Miss Mottram was speaking into the telephone again. “Our considered decision. … By all means. I will confirm it by letter at once. Mr. Thewn, pen and paper, please!”

SHE turned away from the telephone as she spoke, and, to her extreme astonishment, saw Reggie himself standing, smiling inanely, in the doorway.

“Oh, beg pardon,” he said. “So sorry. Didn’t know you were here. Come to talk things over with Thewn, Miss Mottram?”

“Yes,” she answered quietly enough, though in reality more than a little shaken by his sudden appearance; “or, rather, with you. I must know what you mean to do about that offer of mine. You see, young gentleman, a firm like ours can’t keep five thousand locked up for weeks at a stretch. We must know one way or the other.”

Reggie looked all round with a very worried air.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “Tell you what—I’ll let you know to-day. I was just going to slip out for a little drink—got an awful head this morning. But you shall know for sure some time to-day.”

He nodded again and withdrew, and Mr. Thewn smiled.

“That means,” he said, “he will accept.”

“Good!” said Miss Mottram, and drew a long breath and then looked faintly anxious again. “You don’t think,” she said, “he heard anything?”

“What would it matter?” asked Mr. Thewn contemptuously. “The young fool wouldn’t understand a word.”

Miss Mottram sat don and wrote her note to the Malay Producers’ and had it sent off by a boy messenger, and hardly had it gone when one of the clerks appeared with word that Sir John Jackson had arrived.

“He’s before his time,” Thewn said, and looked at Miss Mottram a little uneasily.

“Oh, that’s all right,” Miss Mottram said carelessly. “Let’s see him together. Why not? I’ll let him know I am negotiating to take you over, and if he has any idea of trying to cut terms, he may as well know what he’ll be up against.”

SIR JOHN JACKSON was a tall, portly man with a very red face and side-whiskers in the Victorian style that gave him an odd resemblance to the traditional stage butler. At the moment of his entry into Mr. Thewn’s room he wore a somewhat troubled and worried look, for he was genuinely sorry to feel, as he did, that Halstan’s was going down-hill. He had known Reggie’s father well and by no means wished to sever the connection with his firm, but at the same time he did not see how in justice to his own shareholders he could do otherwise.

His look of worry and concern changed to one of considerable surprise as he saw that Miss Mottram was present, since she was about the last person he would have expected to see comfortably established in the private office of her chief-competitor’s manager. Nor was she a lady for whom he had any great liking, though he had a deep respect for her business abilities.

“I was coming round to see you later, Miss Mottram,” he remarked, as they shook hands. “I didn’t expect to meet you here. Is Mr. Halstan in?”

“I’m afraid not,” answered Mr. Thewn, with apparent reluctance. “I reminded him you would be here soon, but I think he felt the need of a little liquid refreshment—army ways, you know, Sir John.”

“I see,” said Sir John, and looked vexed and disappointed, and Miss Mottram said:

“I had better explain, Sir John. I have made an offer to purchase Halstan’s. I looked in this morning to try to settle details Of course, you understand this is confidential.”

“Indeed!” exclaimed Sir John, much startled. “Is young Halstan thinking of giving up, then?”

“Oh, I dare say life in one of the colonies will suit him better than the City does,” declared Mr. Thewn.

“I shall endeavor,” observed Miss Mottram, “to carry on Halstan’s on the same lines. Increase efficiency, too. That will make up for the increased charges we shall have to make.”

“Ah, yes,” said Sir John warily, feeling that here was a challenge thrown down. “Yes; that’s a point I wanted to discuss. The fact is, a scheme has been laid before us. It impressed MacLean a good deal. He showed it me, and it impress me, too. It provides for a considerable decrease in expenses and a very marked development of business. Unless you can put something of the same sort before me, I shall have to consider this new scheme seriously, very seriously—in fairness to my shareholders I could do no less.”

Miss Mottram and Mr. Thewn looked at each other, and Mr. Thewn’s lips formed the word “bluff.” Miss Mottram saw and nodded almost imperceptibly to show she thought the same, and then turned to Sir John.

“Indeed!” she said. “Frankly, I’m surprised to hear any one but Halstan’s or Mottram’s is in a condition to handle your business. May I ask who it is has submitted this wonderful new scheme?”

“That I can’t tell you,” Sir John answered, “because I don’t know.”

Miss Mottram permitted herself to laugh outright. Mr. Thewn, more prudent, contented himself with smiling at the ceiling. Flushing slightly. Sir John went on:

“Naturally, I shall require adequate guarantees for carrying the thing through, but it did not impress me as put forward by any irresponsible person. Quite the contrary. But before going further into the matter, I wished to see both your firms—both Halstan’s and Mottram’s—as we have had dealings with both. I wished you to have full warning before we took any steps in the matter.”

“Oh, very good of you,” declared Miss Mottram. “But please don’t consider us at all. Frankly, our position is that no firm except my own and Halstan’s could begin to handle your business without at least a year’s preparation—or longer. And, frankly, we can’t handle it any longer on past terms. I have drawn up a memorandum on the point. I will send it round to you to-day. It will provide for considerable increases. If you can find another firm to handle your connections at a lower figure, you must do so, of course. Frankly, I don’t believe such a firm exists. To submit a scheme is one thing. To be prepared to carry it out in actual practise is another. Sir John, we have the selling organization and—no one else has. Don’t forget it.”

SIR JOHN hesitated. He knew there was much truth in what Miss Mottram said. There existed, so far as he knew, no other firm with the organization ready to carry on the business. And if the scheme that had so much impressed his manager and himself turned out not to be backed with adequate experience or resources, he might find himself in a very awkward position if he had broken with Mottram’s and with Halstan’s. Miss Mottram saw the impression she had made.

“I must go now,” she said. “I dare say you and Mr. Thewn have business to talk over together, and my purchase of Halstan's is not formally complete yet. I’ll send you that memo, Sir John. You will be able to let me have an answer this week, I hope?”

“Oh, certainly,” said Sir John, beginning to feel he had been rather foolish in allowing a communication from an unknown source to impress him so much. “Oh, quite so.” And, as he spoke, the door opened and Reggie came smiling in.

“They told me you were here, Sir John,” he said cheerfully. “Miss Mottram, too! How do, Miss Mottram? Regular conference—isn’t it?—like those peace johnnies, eh—what?”

“I came in to ask for a prompt reply to my offer,” explained Miss Mottram. “I must know now, one way or the other. Sir John is thinking of handing over his firm’s business to another quarter. Frankly, that’ll mean a heavy loss to both you and me, young gentleman. But of course I stand by my offer. Can’t very well draw back now I’ve made it. But you must let me know.”

“I hear you are thinking of selling to Miss Mottram?” observed Sir John.

“Not at all,” answered Reggie amiably. “Miss Mottram is thinking of buying, but that’s quite different.”

“Well, I can’t buy without your selling; can I, young gentleman?” demanded Miss Mottram.

Reggie was fed up with being called “young gentleman,” and the glance he gave Miss Mottram was almost malign.

“No,” he said; “you jolly well can’t.”

“Well then,” said Miss Mottram, puzzled by some indefinite change she perceived in the young man—a new briskness in his voice, a new energy in his manner.

“Sir John,” explained Thewn, “has had a new scheme laid before him from an outside source containing suggestions for handling his firm’s affairs. He is thinking of adopting it, he tells us. He is kind enough to warn us, so to speak. If he does decide to sever his connection——

“Oh, I’ve not at all decided,” interposed Sir John, with some haste. “I merely thought it would be fair to mention it to you. Naturally, acceptance will have to depend on guarantees for the successful carrying-out of the suggestions——

“You will find those quite satisfactory,” interposed Reggie smilingly.

All three turned to stare at him in blank amazement.

“What do you know about it, young gentleman?” snapped Miss Mottram.

“Sir John is speaking,” explained Mr. Thewn, as you might explain elementary matters to a quite small child, “of the scheme for a different handling of his business I told you has been shown to him from another quarter and of the necessary guarantees for its being successfully carried out. I shall be surprised to learn that any firm except our own and Miss Mottram’s can give such guarantees.”

“Well, if we can, isn’t that enough?” asked Reggie.

“It would be,” agreed Mr. Thewn, still more patiently, “if we had happened to submit the scheme in question. But as we did not——

“That,” interrupted Reggie, “is where you miss your guess. We did.”

“Do you mean—” began Sir John, and paused with a puzzled and bewildered air.

Mr. Thewn began to laugh, and in the middle of his laughter stopped abruptly and looked very oddly across the table at Reggie. In her loudest and harshest voice, Miss Mottram said,

“Rubbish!”

“Not at all,” answered Reggie mildly. “I drew up the scheme Sir John refers to and dropped in yesterday to show it to MacLean. I ask him to show it you, Sir John, but not to say at first who it came from. However, if we are to discuss business, I should like a shorthand writer present to take a note—my confidential clerk.” He went to the door. “Miss Selwyn, will you please come in?”

{dhr}} ANNE entered promptly, note-book and pencil in hand and looking rather dazed, as if she did not quite understand the position in which she found herself. Reggie pulled forward a chair for her to seat herself at the table, and Miss Mottram burst out indignantly:

“She’s not your clerk; she’s mine! I sacked her this morning.”

“Quite so,” agreed Reggie. “And thereon I engaged her. I happened to meet Miss Selwyn as I was passing your place on my way to see the Malay States Producers’ people.”

“The Malay States Producers’!” almost shouted Miss Mottram. “What did you want there?”

“Well,” answered Reggie, “if you will discuss your business with my manager in my office in a loud voice, you mustn’t wonder if you are overheard. I was lucky enough to drop in on Malay Producers’ just as they got your message, giving notice of canceling all your contracts with them. I had submitted them a scheme on much the same lines as the one I showed Sir John. They seem to have liked it all right, and as I turned up just when your message came to hand, they signed at once a new set of contracts with me.”

“But—but—but—” stammered Miss Mottram, “you said you were going out for a drink.”

“A cup of tea,” explained Reggie blandly, “at the nearest tea-shop.”

“But this—this is absurd!” cried Mr. Thewn. “How could you get to know enough about the business—to prepare schemes or anything else? Why, you told me yourself you were never in bed before half-past four or five in the morning!”

“No,” agreed Reggie mildly. He turned to Sir John. “You see, I had a lot of leeway to make up when I was demobed,” he explained. “I’ve been rather swotting. I had to start at the beginning. Miss Selwyn taught me a lot, starting at the elements of bookkeeping. Once I got the hang of the figures, the rest was pretty simple. As Thewn says, I was up till four or five every morning, working out new plans and studying the details of the business.”

“I thought,” groaned Mr. Thewn, “it was cards, dancing, suppers.”

“No; it was hard work—jolly hard work,” answered Reggie. “So, when I felt I had the hang of the thing, I thought I saw how the show could be reorganized. I sent in schemes accordingly to Sir John, to Malay Producers’, to Singapore Planters’. I have the Malay Producers’ contract signed. I signed with Singapore Planters’ first thing this morning. I am hoping to sign with Sir John——

“Sir John,” interrupted Miss Mottram, her voice shrill and excited, “I’ll reduce all our charges to you fifty per cent.!”

“Ah!” said Reggie, sighing. “That’s an offer I can’t rival. Only, it will mean Mottram’s will be working at a dead loss—and business handled at a dead loss is not, as a rule, handled satisfactorily. It don’t develop. But of course Sir John must decide if he thinks it good enough.”

“I don’t,” said Sir John promptly. “Mr. Halstan, you seem to have shown much energy and ability. But what on earth made you think of selling out to Miss Mottram?”

“I never did,” answered Reggie gently. “It was quite her own idea—all her own.”

Miss Mottram’s look at him was not pleasant. She had lost that morning fully a half of her firm’s business, and she realized that unless she were careful the rest might well follow. Without a word or a look to any one she walked out of the office, and Thewn, ghastly pale and shaking in every limb, looked pitiably at Reggie.

“Thewn,” Reggie said slowly, “you were a long time with my father, and I believe you felt you had a grievance. You shall stay on if you wish to. In his last letter to me, my father said you would do well as manager under my strict supervision. I hope he was right.”

Overwhelmed by a relief almost too great to be borne, Mr. Thewn sank back in his chair, covering his face with his hands, and Reggie turned to Sir John.

‘There may be some little details,” he suggested, “you might care to discuss——

WHEN, an hour or so later, after a long and detailed discussion of many matters, Sir John rose at last to go, he was in a very good temper.

“I shall look for great results,” he purred, with visions of an increased dividend to declare to appreciative shareholders at the next general meeting. “I congratulate you Mr. Halstan. For so young a man you show a remarkable grip of essentials. Your father had an unusual gift for figures; you have evidently inherited it in an even more marked degree.”

“Oh, I don’t know—anyhow, I’m very glad you think so,” said Reggie, blushing a little. “It’s chiefly that I’ve been tackling the thing good and hard—had to, you know. If you stick to a thing, you’re bound to master it in the end, gift or no gift. And then I was well grounded by a jolly good teacher. It’s really Miss Selwyn taught me what I do know.”

Sir John looked at Miss Selwyn, who had been very pale, and now began very slowly but none the less thoroughly to turn exceedingly red. Sir John chuckled.

“Well,” he said, “I congratulate Miss Selwyn on her pupil—you on your teacher.”

Then he chuckled again and went away, and Reggie remarked carelessly:

“Well, I suppose there had better be a memo drawn up of all this. Miss Selwyn, please come into my room. I shall want to look through your notes.”

Into the privacy of Reggie’s own room Miss Selwyn therefore followed him, and the moment the door was closed behind them she burst into tears.

“Oh, I say!” exclaimed Reggie in dismay.

Miss Selwyn positively howled.

“I haven’t got a single note hardly—not any proper ones,” she wailed. “I was too excited; I was all upset. It wasn’t fair—oh, it wasn’t; it wasn’t!”

“What wasn’t?” asked Reggie. “I——

“I only told you Miss Mottram had sent me away,” Anne answered reproachfully, “and you rushed me here and you rush me there, and you never listened, and you never explained, and,” she added in tones of still deeper reproach, “you gave me a pencil without any point.”

“Did I, though?” exclaimed Reggie, conscience-stricken.

“Yes, you did!” she declared indignantly. “And I was all in a muddle and I didn’t hardly know where I was or what had happened or whether I was standing on my head or my heels, and you tell me to take a shorthand note—I did get the last half down pretty well, but all the first half is just the most awful mix-up you ever saw—like I was myself.”

“Is it, though?” said Reggie, much concerned.

“I suppose,” said Anne dolefully, “you’ll want to send me away now, like Miss Mottram.”

Reggie got swiftly between her and the door. He thought it well to take no chances.

“You’ve never told me yet,” he said gently, “whether you mean to accept the fee I offered you yesterday for teaching me bookkeeping.”

“But you didn’t offer me anything,” answered Anne, a little puzzled and even resentful. “I thought you meant it wasn’t worth anything. There was only your name——

“My name,” he interrupted; “yes. The man goes with the name, you know.”

Anne cast a hurried glance toward the door. But Reggie, with his gift of foresight, stood between her and it.

“I—” she stammered.

He leaned forward and took her hand—a most unbusinesslike proceeding.

“My dear,” he said.

And then he kissed her.

“You mustn’t; you mustn’t!” she cried though she could not truthfully have protested that she found the sensation disagreeable. “Oh, you mustn’t! Why, I’m only a poor girl, and you’re rich, you know.”

“Now I’ve got you,” he answered contentedly, drawing her nearer to him, “I certainly am.”

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.


The author died in 1956, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.