"Yours, with the profoundest respect and gratitude,
"Otherwise RICHARD PEPLOE BRABAZON."
Charles laid down the letter with a deep-drawn sigh. "Sey, my boy," he mused aloud, "no fortune on earth—not even mine—can go on standing it. These perpetual drains begin really to terrify me. I foresee the end. I shall die in a workhouse. What with the money he robs me of when he is Colonel Clay, and the money I waste upon him when he isn't Colonel Clay, the man is beginning to tell upon my nervous system. I shall withdraw altogether from this worrying life. I shall retire from a scheming and polluted world to some untainted spot in the fresh, pure mountains."
"You must need rest and change," I said, "when you talk like that. Let us try the Tyrol."
THE EPISODE OF THE TYROLEAN CASTLE
We went to Meran. The place was practically decided for us by Amelia's French maid, who really acts on such occasions as our guide and courier.
She is such a clever girl, is Amelia's French maid. Whenever we are going anywhere, Amelia generally asks (and accepts) her advice as to choice of hotels and furnished villas. Cesarine has been all over the Continent in her time; and, being Alsatian by birth, she of course speaks German as well as she speaks French, while her long residence with Amelia has made her at last almost equally at home in our native English. She is a treasure, that girl; so neat and dexterous, and not above dabbling in anything on earth she may be asked to turn her hand to. She walks the world with a needle-case in one hand and an etna in the other. She can cook an omelette on occasion, or drive a Norwegian cariole; she can sew, and knit, and make dresses, and cure a cold, and do anything else on earth you ask her. Her salads are the most savoury I ever tasted; while as for her coffee (which she prepares for us in the train on long journeys), there isn't a chef de cuisine at a West-end club to be named in the same day with her.
So, when Amelia said, in her imperious way, "Cesarine, we want to go to the Tyrol—now—at once—in mid-October; where do you advise us to put up?"—Cesarine answered, like a shot, "The Erzherzog Johann, of course, at Meran, for the autumn, madame."
"Is he ... an archduke?" Amelia asked, a little staggered at such apparent familiarity with Imperial personages.
"Ma foi! no, madame. He is an hotel—as you would say in England, the 'Victoria' or the 'Prince of Wales's'—the most comfortable hotel in all South Tyrol; and at this time of year, naturally, you must go beyond the Alps; it begins already to be cold at Innsbruck."
So to Meran we went; and a prettier or more picturesque place, I confess, I have seldom set eyes on. A rushing torrent; high hills and mountain peaks; terraced vineyard slopes; old walls and towers; quaint, arcaded streets; a craggy waterfall; a promenade after the fashion of a German Spa; and when you lift your eyes from the ground, jagged summits of Dolomites: it was a combination such as I had never before beheld; a Rhine town plumped down among green Alpine heights, and threaded by the cool colonnades of Italy.
I approved Cesarine's choice; and I was particularly glad she had pronounced for an hotel, where all is plain sailing, instead of advising a furnished villa, the arrangements for which would naturally have fallen in large part upon the shoulders of the wretched secretary. As in any case I have to do three hours' work a day, I feel that such additions to my normal burden may well be spared me. I tipped Cesarine half a sovereign, in fact, for her judicious choice. Cesarine glanced at it on her palm in her mysterious, curious, half-smiling way, and pocketed it at once with a "Merci, monsieur!" that had a touch of contempt in it. I always fancy Cesarine has large ideas of her own on the subject of tipping, and thinks very small beer of the modest sums a mere secretary can alone afford to bestow upon her.
The great peculiarity of Meran is the number of schlosses (I believe my plural is strictly irregular, but very convenient to English ears) which you can see in every direction from its outskirts. A statistical eye, it is supposed, can count no fewer than forty of these picturesque, ramshackled old castles from a point on the Kuechelberg. For myself, I hate statistics (except as an element in financial prospectuses), and I really don't know how many ruinous piles Isabel and Amelia counted under Cesarine's guidance; but I remember that most of them were quaint and beautiful, and that their variety of architecture seemed positively bewildering. One would be square, with funny little turrets stuck out at each angle; while another would rejoice in a big round keep, and spread on either side long, ivy-clad walls and delightful bastions. Charles was immensely taken with them. He loves the picturesque, and has a poet hidden in that financial soul of his. (Very effectually hidden, though, I am ready to grant you.) From the moment he came he felt at once he would love to possess a castle of his own among these romantic mountains. "Seldon!" he exclaimed contemptuously. "They call Seldon a castle! But you and I know very well, Sey, it was built in 1860, with sham antique stones, for Macpherson of Seldon, at market rates, by Cubitt and Co., worshipful contractors of London. Macpherson charged me for that sham antiquity a preposterous price, at which one ought to procure a real ancestral mansion. Now, these castles are real. They are hoary with antiquity. Schloss Tyrol is Romanesque—tenth or eleventh century." (He had been reading it up in Baedeker.) "That's the sort of place for me!—tenth or eleventh century. I could live here, remote from stocks and shares, for ever; and in these sequestered glens, recollect, Sey, my boy, there are no Colonel Clays, and no arch Madame Picardets!"
As a matter of fact, he could have lived there six weeks, and then tired for Park Lane, Monte Carlo, Brighton.
As for Amelia, strange to say, she was equally taken with this new fad of Charles's. As a rule she hates everywhere on earth save London, except during the time when no respectable person can be seen in town, and when modest blinds shade the scandalised face of Mayfair and Belgravia. She bores herself to death even at Seldon Castle, Ross-shire, and yawns all day long in Paris or Vienna. She is a confirmed Cockney. Yet, for some occult reason, my amiable sister-in-law fell in love with South Tyrol. She wanted to vegetate in that lush vegetation. The grapes were being picked; pumpkins hung over the walls; Virginia creeper draped the quaint gray schlosses with crimson cloaks; and everything was as beautiful as a dream of Burne-Jones's. (I know I am quite right in mentioning Burne-Jones, especially in connection with Romanesque architecture, because I heard him highly praised on that very ground by our friend and enemy, Dr. Edward Polperro.) So perhaps it was excusable that Amelia should fall in love with it all, under the circumstances; besides, she is largely influenced by what Cesarine says, and Cesarine declares there is no climate in Europe like Meran in winter. I do not agree with her. The sun sets behind the hills at three in the afternoon, and a nasty warm wind blows moist over the snow in January and February.
However, Amelia set Cesarine to inquire of the people at the hotel about the market price of tumbledown ruins, and the number of such eligible family mausoleums just then for sale in the immediate neighbourhood. Cesarine returned with a full, true, and particular list, adorned with flowers of rhetoric which would have delighted the soul of good old John Robins. They were all picturesque, all Romanesque, all richly ivy-clad, all commodious, all historical, and all the property of high well-born Grafs and very honourable Freiherrs. Most of them had been the scene of celebrated tournaments; several of them had witnessed the gorgeous marriages of Holy Roman Emperors; and every one of them was provided with some choice and selected first-class murders. Ghosts could be arranged for or not, as desired; and armorial bearings could be thrown in with the moat for a moderate extra remuneration.
The two we liked best of all these tempting piles were Schloss Planta and Schloss Lebenstein. We drove past both, and even I myself, I confess, was distinctly taken with them. (Besides, when a big purchase like this is on the stocks, a poor beggar of a secretary has always a chance of exerting his influence and earning for himself some modest commission.) Schloss Planta was the most striking externally, I should say, with its Rhine-like towers, and its great gnarled ivy-stems, that looked as if they antedated the House of Hapsburg; but Lebenstein was said to be better preserved within, and more fitted in every way for modern occupation. Its staircase has been photographed by 7000 amateurs.
We got tickets to view. The invaluable Cesarine procured them for us. Armed with these, we drove off one fine afternoon, meaning to go to Planta, by Cesarine's recommendation. Half-way there, however, we changed our minds, as it was such a lovely day, and went on up the long, slow hill to Lebenstein. I must say the drive through the grounds was simply charming. The castle stands perched (say rather poised, like St. Michael the archangel in Italian pictures) on a solitary stack or crag of rock, looking down on every side upon its own rich vineyards. Chestnuts line the glens; the valley of the Etsch spreads below like a picture.
The vineyards alone make a splendid estate, by the way; they produce a delicious red wine, which is exported to Bordeaux, and there bottled and sold as a vintage claret under the name of Chateau Monnivet. Charles revelled in the idea of growing his own wines.
"Here we could sit," he cried to Amelia, "in the most literal sense, under our own vine and fig-tree. Delicious retirement! For my part, I'm sick and tired of the hubbub of Threadneedle Street."
We knocked at the door—for there was really no bell, but a ponderous, old-fashioned, wrought-iron knocker. So deliciously mediaeval! The late Graf von Lebenstein had recently died, we knew; and his son, the present Count, a young man of means, having inherited from his mother's family a still more ancient and splendid schloss in the Salzburg district, desired to sell this outlying estate in order to afford himself a yacht, after the manner that is now becoming increasingly fashionable with the noblemen and gentlemen in Germany and Austria.
The door was opened for us by a high well-born menial, attired in a very ancient and honourable livery. Nice antique hall; suits of ancestral armour, trophies of Tyrolese hunters, coats of arms of ancient counts—the very thing to take Amelia's aristocratic and romantic fancy. The whole to be sold exactly as it stood; ancestors to be included at a valuation.
We went through the reception-rooms. They were lofty, charming, and with glorious views, all the more glorious for being framed by those graceful Romanesque windows, with their slender pillars and quaint, round-topped arches. Sir Charles had made his mind up. "I must and will have it!" he cried. "This is the place for me. Seldon! Pah, Seldon is a modern abomination."
Could we see the high well-born Count? The liveried servant (somewhat haughtily) would inquire of his Serenity. Sir Charles sent up his card, and also Lady Vandrift's. These foreigners know title spells money in England.
He was right in his surmise. Two minutes later the Count entered with our cards in his hands. A good-looking young man, with the characteristic Tyrolese long black moustache, dressed in a gentlemanly variant on the costume of the country. His air was a jager's; the usual blackcock's plume stuck jauntily in the side of the conical hat (which he held in his hand), after the universal Austrian fashion.
He waved us to seats. We sat down. He spoke to us in French; his English, he remarked, with a pleasant smile, being a negligeable quantity. We might speak it, he went on; he could understand pretty well; but he preferred to answer, if we would allow him, in French or German.
"French," Charles replied, and the negotiation continued thenceforth in that language. It is the only one, save English and his ancestral Dutch, with which my brother-in-law possesses even a nodding acquaintance.
We praised the beautiful scene. The Count's face lighted up with patriotic pride. Yes; it was beautiful, beautiful, his own green Tyrol. He was proud of it and attached to it. But he could endure to sell this place, the home of his fathers, because he had a finer in the Salzkammergut, and a pied-a-terre near Innsbruck. For Tyrol lacked just one joy—the sea. He was a passionate yachtsman. For that he had resolved to sell this estate; after all, three country houses, a ship, and a mansion in Vienna, are more than one man can comfortably inhabit.
"Exactly," Charles answered. "If I can come to terms with you about this charming estate I shall sell my own castle in the Scotch Highlands." And he tried to look like a proud Scotch chief who harangues his clansmen.
Then they got to business. The Count was a delightful man to do business with. His manners were perfect. While we were talking to him, a surly person, a steward or bailiff, or something of the sort, came into the room unexpectedly and addressed him in German, which none of us understand. We were impressed by the singular urbanity and benignity of the nobleman's demeanour towards this sullen dependant. He evidently explained to the fellow what sort of people we were, and remonstrated with him in a very gentle way for interrupting us. The steward understood, and clearly regretted his insolent air; for after a few sentences he went out, and as he did so he bowed and made protestations of polite regard in his own language. The Count turned to us and smiled. "Our people," he said, "are like your own Scotch peasants—kind-hearted, picturesque, free, musical, poetic, but wanting, helas, in polish to strangers." He was certainly an exception, if he described them aright; for he made us feel at home from the moment we entered.
He named his price in frank terms. His lawyers at Meran held the needful documents, and would arrange the negotiations in detail with us. It was a stiff sum, I must say—an extremely stiff sum; but no doubt he was charging us a fancy price for a fancy castle. "He will come down in time," Charles said. "The sum first named in all these transactions is invariably a feeler. They know I'm a millionaire; and people always imagine millionaires are positively made of money."
I may add that people always imagine it must be easier to squeeze money out of millionaires than out of other people—which is the reverse of the truth, or how could they ever have amassed their millions? Instead of oozing gold as a tree oozes gum, they mop it up like blotting-paper, and seldom give it out again.
We drove back from this first interview none the less very well satisfied. The price was too high; but preliminaries were arranged, and for the rest, the Count desired us to discuss all details with his lawyers in the chief street, Unter den Lauben. We inquired about these lawyers, and found they were most respectable and respected men; they had done the family business on either side for seven generations.
They showed us plans and title-deeds. Everything quite en regle. Till we came to the price there was no hitch of any sort.
As to price, however, the lawyers were obdurate. They stuck out for the Count's first sum to the uttermost florin. It was a very big estimate. We talked and shilly-shallied till Sir Charles grew angry. He lost his temper at last.
"They know I'm a millionaire, Sey," he said, "and they're playing the old game of trying to diddle me. But I won't be diddled. Except Colonel Clay, no man has ever yet succeeded in bleeding me. And shall I let myself be bled as if I were a chamois among these innocent mountains? Perish the thought!" Then he reflected a little in silence. "Sey," he mused on, at last, "the question is, are they innocent? Do you know, I begin to believe there is no such thing left as pristine innocence anywhere. This Tyrolese Count knows the value of a pound as distinctly as if he hung out in Capel Court or Kimberley."
Things dragged on in this way, inconclusively, for a week or two. We bid down; the lawyers stuck to it. Sir Charles grew half sick of the whole silly business. For my own part, I felt sure if the high well-born Count didn't quicken his pace, my respected relative would shortly have had enough of the Tyrol altogether, and be proof against the most lovely of crag-crowning castles. But the Count didn't see it. He came to call on us at our hotel—a rare honour for a stranger with these haughty and exclusive Tyrolese nobles—and even entered unannounced in the most friendly manner. But when it came to L. s. d., he was absolute adamant. Not one kreutzer would he abate from his original proposal.
"You misunderstand," he said, with pride. "We Tyrolese gentlemen are not shopkeepers or merchants. We do not higgle. If we say a thing we stick to it. Were you an Austrian, I should feel insulted by your ill-advised attempt to beat down my price. But as you belong to a great commercial nation—" he broke off with a snort and shrugged his shoulders compassionately.
We saw him several times driving in and out of the schloss, and every time he waved his hand at us gracefully. But when we tried to bargain, it was always the same thing: he retired behind the shelter of his Tyrolese nobility. We might take it or leave it. 'Twas still Schloss Lebenstein.
The lawyers were as bad. We tried all we knew, and got no forrarder.
At last Charles gave up the attempt in disgust. He was tiring, as I expected. "It's the prettiest place I ever saw in my life," he said; "but, hang it all, Sey, I won't be imposed upon."
So he made up his mind, it being now December, to return to London. We met the Count next day, and stopped his carriage, and told him so. Charles thought this would have the immediate effect of bringing the man to reason. But he only lifted his hat, with the blackcock's feather, and smiled a bland smile. "The Archduke Karl is inquiring about it," he answered, and drove on without parley.
Charles used some strong words, which I will not transcribe (I am a family man), and returned to England.
For the next two months we heard little from Amelia save her regret that the Count wouldn't sell us Schloss Lebenstein. Its pinnacles had fairly pierced her heart. Strange to say, she was absolutely infatuated about the castle. She rather wanted the place while she was there, and thought she could get it; now she thought she couldn't, her soul (if she has one) was wildly set upon it. Moreover, Cesarine further inflamed her desire by gently hinting a fact which she had picked up at the courier's table d'hote at the hotel—that the Count had been far from anxious to sell his ancestral and historical estate to a South African diamond king. He thought the honour of the family demanded, at least, that he should secure a wealthy buyer of good ancient lineage.
One morning in February, however, Amelia returned from the Row all smiles and tremors. (She had been ordered horse-exercise to correct the increasing excessiveness of her figure.)
"Who do you think I saw riding in the Park?" she inquired. "Why, the Count of Lebenstein."
"No!" Charles exclaimed, incredulous.
"Yes," Amelia answered.
"Must be mistaken," Charles cried.
But Amelia stuck to it. More than that, she sent out emissaries to inquire diligently from the London lawyers, whose name had been mentioned to us by the ancestral firm in Unter den Lauben as their English agents, as to the whereabouts of our friend; and her emissaries learned in effect that the Count was in town and stopping at Morley's.
"I see through it," Charles exclaimed. "He finds he's made a mistake; and now he's come over here to reopen negotiations."
I was all for waiting prudently till the Count made the first move. "Don't let him see your eagerness," I said. But Amelia's ardour could not now be restrained. She insisted that Charles should call on the Graf as a mere return of his politeness in the Tyrol.
He was as charming as ever. He talked to us with delight about the quaintness of London. He would be ravished to dine next evening with Sir Charles. He desired his respectful salutations meanwhile to Miladi Vandrift and Madame Ventvorth.
He dined with us, almost en famille. Amelia's cook did wonders. In the billiard-room, about midnight, Charles reopened the subject. The Count was really touched. It pleased him that still, amid the distractions of the City of Five Million Souls, we should remember with affection his beloved Lebenstein.
"Come to my lawyers," he said, "to-morrow, and I will talk it all over with you."
We went—a most respectable firm in Southampton Row; old family solicitors. They had done business for years for the late Count, who had inherited from his grandmother estates in Ireland; and they were glad to be honoured with the confidence of his successor. Glad, too, to make the acquaintance of a prince of finance like Sir Charles Vandrift. Anxious (rubbing their hands) to arrange matters satisfactorily all round for everybody. (Two capital families with which to be mixed up, you see.)
Sir Charles named a price, and referred them to his solicitors. The Count named a higher, but still a little come-down, and left the matter to be settled between the lawyers. He was a soldier and a gentleman, he said, with a Tyrolese toss of his high-born head; he would abandon details to men of business.
As I was really anxious to oblige Amelia, I met the Count accidentally next day on the steps of Morley's. (Accidentally, that is to say, so far as he was concerned, though I had been hanging about in Trafalgar Square for half an hour to see him.) I explained, in guarded terms, that I had a great deal of influence in my way with Sir Charles; and that a word from me— I broke off. He stared at me blankly.
"Commission?" he inquired, at last, with a queer little smile.
"Well, not exactly commission," I answered, wincing. "Still, a friendly word, you know. One good turn deserves another."
He looked at me from head to foot with a curious scrutiny. For one moment I feared the Tyrolese nobleman in him was going to raise its foot and take active measures. But the next, I saw that Sir Charles was right after all, and that pristine innocence has removed from this planet to other quarters.
He named his lowest price. "M. Ventvorth," he said, "I am a Tyrolese seigneur; I do not dabble, myself, in commissions and percentages. But if your influence with Sir Charles—we understand each other, do we not?—as between gentlemen—a little friendly present—no money, of course—but the equivalent of say 5 per cent in jewellery, on whatever sum above his bid to-day you induce him to offer—eh?—c'est convenu?"
"Ten per cent is more usual," I murmured.
He was the Austrian hussar again. "Five, monsieur—or nothing!"
I bowed and withdrew. "Well, five then," I answered, "just to oblige your Serenity."
A secretary, after all, can do a great deal. When it came to the scratch, I had but little difficulty in persuading Sir Charles, with Amelia's aid, backed up on either side by Isabel and Cesarine, to accede to the Count's more reasonable proposal. The Southampton Row people had possession of certain facts as to the value of the wines in the Bordeaux market which clinched the matter. In a week or two all was settled; Charles and I met the Count by appointment in Southampton Row, and saw him sign, seal, and deliver the title-deeds of Schloss Lebenstein. My brother-in-law paid the purchase-money into the Count's own hands, by cheque, crossed on a first-class London firm where the Count kept an account to his high well-born order. Then he went away with the proud knowledge that he was owner of Schloss Lebenstein. And what to me was more important still, I received next morning by post a cheque for the five per cent, unfortunately drawn, by some misapprehension, to my order on the self-same bankers, and with the Count's signature. He explained in the accompanying note that the matter being now quite satisfactorily concluded, he saw no reason of delicacy why the amount he had promised should not be paid to me forthwith direct in money.
I cashed the cheque at once, and said nothing about the affair, not even to Isabel. My experience is that women are not to be trusted with intricate matters of commission and brokerage.
Though it was now late in March, and the House was sitting, Charles insisted that we must all run over at once to take possession of our magnificent Tyrolese castle. Amelia was almost equally burning with eagerness. She gave herself the airs of a Countess already. We took the Orient Express as far as Munich; then the Brenner to Meran, and put up for the night at the Erzherzog Johann. Though we had telegraphed our arrival, and expected some fuss, there was no demonstration. Next morning we drove out in state to the schloss, to enter into enjoyment of our vines and fig-trees.
We were met at the door by the surly steward. "I shall dismiss that man," Charles muttered, as Lord of Lebenstein. "He's too sour-looking for my taste. Never saw such a brute. Not a smile of welcome!"
He mounted the steps. The surly man stepped forward and murmured a few morose words in German. Charles brushed him aside and strode on. Then there followed a curious scene of mutual misunderstanding. The surly man called lustily for his servants to eject us. It was some time before we began to catch at the truth. The surly man was the real Graf von Lebenstein.
And the Count with the moustache? It dawned upon us now. Colonel Clay again! More audacious than ever!
Bit by bit it all came out. He had ridden behind us the first day we viewed the place, and, giving himself out to the servants as one of our party, had joined us in the reception-room. We asked the real Count why he had spoken to the intruder. The Count explained in French that the man with the moustache had introduced my brother-in-law as the great South African millionaire, while he described himself as our courier and interpreter. As such he had had frequent interviews with the real Graf and his lawyers in Meran, and had driven almost daily across to the castle. The owner of the estate had named one price from the first, and had stuck to it manfully. He stuck to it still; and if Sir Charles chose to buy Schloss Lebenstein over again he was welcome to have it. How the London lawyers had been duped the Count had not really the slightest idea. He regretted the incident, and (coldly) wished us a very good morning.
There was nothing for it but to return as best we might to the Erzherzog Johann, crestfallen, and telegraph particulars to the police in London.
Charles and I ran across post-haste to England to track down the villain. At Southampton Row we found the legal firm by no means penitent; on the contrary, they were indignant at the way we had deceived them. An impostor had written to them on Lebenstein paper from Meran to say that he was coming to London to negotiate the sale of the schloss and surrounding property with the famous millionaire, Sir Charles Vandrift; and Sir Charles had demonstratively recognised him at sight as the real Count von Lebenstein. The firm had never seen the present Graf at all, and had swallowed the impostor whole, so to speak, on the strength of Sir Charles's obvious recognition. He had brought over as documents some most excellent forgeries—facsimiles of the originals—which, as our courier and interpreter, he had every opportunity of examining and inspecting at the Meran lawyers'. It was a deeply-laid plot, and it had succeeded to a marvel. Yet, all of it depended upon the one small fact that we had accepted the man with the long moustache in the hall of the schloss as the Count von Lebenstein on his own representation.
He held our cards in his hands when he came in; and the servant had not given them to him, but to the genuine Count. That was the one unsolved mystery in the whole adventure.
By the evening's post two letters arrived for us at Sir Charles's house: one for myself, and one for my employer. Sir Charles's ran thus:—
"HIGH WELL-BORN INCOMPETENCE,—
"I only just pulled through! A very small slip nearly lost me everything. I believed you were going to Schloss Planta that day, not to Schloss Lebenstein. You changed your mind en route. That might have spoiled all. Happily I perceived it, rode up by the short cut, and arrived somewhat hurriedly and hotly at the gate before you. Then I introduced myself. I had one more bad moment when the rival claimant to my name and title intruded into the room. But fortune favours the brave: your utter ignorance of German saved me. The rest was pap. It went by itself almost.
"Allow me, now, as some small return for your various welcome cheques, to offer you a useful and valuable present—a German dictionary, grammar, and phrase-book!
"I kiss your hand.
The other note was to me. It was as follows:—
"DEAR GOOD MR. VENTVORTH,—
"Ha, ha, ha; just a W misplaced sufficed to take you in, then! And I risked the TH, though anybody with a head on his shoulders would surely have known our TH is by far more difficult than our W for foreigners! However, all's well that ends well; and now I've got you. The Lord has delivered you into my hands, dear friend—on your own initiative. I hold my cheque, endorsed by you, and cashed at my banker's, as a hostage, so to speak, for your future good behaviour. If ever you recognise me, and betray me to that solemn old ass, your employer, remember, I expose it, and you with it to him. So now we understand each other. I had not thought of this little dodge; it was you who suggested it. However, I jumped at it. Was it not well worth my while paying you that slight commission in return for a guarantee of your future silence? Your mouth is now closed. And cheap too at the price.—Yours, dear Comrade, in the great confraternity of rogues,
"CUTHBERT CLAY, Colonel."
Charles laid his note down, and grizzled. "What's yours, Sey?" he asked.
"From a lady," I answered.
He gazed at me suspiciously. "Oh, I thought it was the same hand," he said. His eye looked through me.
"No," I answered. "Mrs. Mortimer's." But I confess I trembled.
He paused a moment. "You made all inquiries at this fellow's bank?" he went on, after a deep sigh.
"Oh, yes," I put in quickly. (I had taken good care about that, you may be sure, lest he should spot the commission.) "They say the self-styled Count von Lebenstein was introduced to them by the Southampton Row folks, and drew, as usual, on the Lebenstein account: so they were quite unsuspicious. A rascal who goes about the world on that scale, you know, and arrives with such credentials as theirs and yours, naturally imposes on anybody. The bank didn't even require to have him formally identified. The firm was enough. He came to pay money in, not to draw it out. And he withdrew his balance just two days later, saying he was in a hurry to get back to Vienna."
Would he ask for items? I confess I felt it was an awkward moment. Charles, however, was too full of regrets to bother about the account. He leaned back in his easy chair, stuck his hands in his pockets, held his legs straight out on the fender before him, and looked the very picture of hopeless despondency.
"Sey," he began, after a minute or two, poking the fire, reflectively, "what a genius that man has! 'Pon my soul, I admire him. I sometimes wish—" He broke off and hesitated.
"Yes, Charles?" I answered.
"I sometimes wish ... we had got him on the Board of the Cloetedorp Golcondas. Mag—nificent combinations he would make in the City!"
I rose from my seat and stared solemnly at my misguided brother-in-law.
"Charles," I said, "you are beside yourself. Too much Colonel Clay has told upon your clear and splendid intellect. There are certain remarks which, however true they may be, no self-respecting financier should permit himself to make, even in the privacy of his own room, to his most intimate friend and trusted adviser."
Charles fairly broke down. "You are right, Sey," he sobbed out. "Quite right. Forgive this outburst. At moments of emotion the truth will sometimes out, in spite of everything."
I respected his feebleness. I did not even make it a fitting occasion to ask for a trifling increase of salary.
THE EPISODE OF THE DRAWN GAME
The twelfth of August saw us, as usual, at Seldon Castle, Ross-shire. It is part of Charles's restless, roving temperament that, on the morning of the eleventh, wet or fine, he must set out from London, whether the House is sitting or not, in defiance of the most urgent three-line whips; and at dawn on the twelfth he must be at work on his moors, shooting down the young birds with might and main, at the earliest possible legal moment.
He goes on like Saul, slaying his thousands, or, like David, his tens of thousands, with all the guns in the house to help him, till the keepers warn him he has killed as many grouse as they consider desirable; and then, having done his duty, as he thinks, in this respect, he retires precipitately with flying colours to Brighton, Nice, Monte Carlo, or elsewhere. He must be always "on the trek"; when he is buried, I believe he will not be able to rest quiet in his grave: his ghost will walk the world to terrify old ladies.
"At Seldon, at least," he said to me, with a sigh, as he stepped into his Pullman, "I shall be safe from that impostor!"
And indeed, as soon as he had begun to tire a little of counting up his hundreds of brace per diem, he found a trifling piece of financial work cut ready to his hand, which amply distracted his mind for the moment from Colonel Clay, his accomplices, and his villainies.
Sir Charles, I ought to say, had secured during that summer a very advantageous option in a part of Africa on the Transvaal frontier, rumoured to be auriferous. Now, whether it was auriferous or not before, the mere fact that Charles had secured some claim on it naturally made it so; for no man had ever the genuine Midas-touch to a greater degree than Charles Vandrift: whatever he handles turns at once to gold, if not to diamonds. Therefore, as soon as my brother-in-law had obtained this option from the native vendor (a most respected chief, by name Montsioa), and promoted a company of his own to develop it, his great rival in that region, Lord Craig-Ellachie (formerly Sir David Alexander Granton), immediately secured a similar option of an adjacent track, the larger part of which had pretty much the same geological conditions as that covered by Sir Charles's right of pre-emption.
We were not wholly disappointed, as it turned out, in the result. A month or two later, while we were still at Seldon, we received a long and encouraging letter from our prospectors on the spot, who had been hunting over the ground in search of gold-reefs. They reported that they had found a good auriferous vein in a corner of the tract, approachable by adit-levels; but, unfortunately, only a few yards of the lode lay within the limits of Sir Charles's area. The remainder ran on at once into what was locally known as Craig-Ellachie's section.
However, our prospectors had been canny, they said; though young Mr. Granton was prospecting at the same time, in the self-same ridge, not very far from them, his miners had failed to discover the auriferous quartz; so our men had held their tongues about it, wisely leaving it for Charles to govern himself accordingly.
"Can you dispute the boundary?" I asked.
"Impossible," Charles answered. "You see, the limit is a meridian of longitude. There's no getting over that. Can't pretend to deny it. No buying over the sun! No bribing the instruments! Besides, we drew the line ourselves. We've only one way out of it, Sey. Amalgamate! Amalgamate!"
Charles is a marvellous man! The very voice in which he murmured that blessed word "Amalgamate!" was in itself a poem.
"Capital!" I answered. "Say nothing about it, and join forces with Craig-Ellachie."
Charles closed one eye pensively.
That very same evening came a telegram in cipher from our chief engineer on the territory of the option: "Young Granton has somehow given us the slip and gone home. We suspect he knows all. But we have not divulged the secret to anybody."
"Seymour," my brother-in-law said impressively, "there is no time to be lost. I must write this evening to Sir David—I mean to My Lord. Do you happen to know where he is stopping at present?"
"The Morning Post announced two or three days ago that he was at Glen-Ellachie," I answered.
"Then I'll ask him to come over and thrash the matter out with me," my brother-in-law went on. "A very rich reef, they say. I must have my finger in it!"
We adjourned into the study, where Sir Charles drafted, I must admit, a most judicious letter to the rival capitalist. He pointed out that the mineral resources of the country were probably great, but as yet uncertain. That the expense of crushing and milling might be almost prohibitive. That access to fuel was costly, and its conveyance difficult. That water was scarce, and commanded by our section. That two rival companies, if they happened to hit upon ore, might cut one another's throats by erecting two sets of furnaces or pumping plants, and bringing two separate streams to the spot, where one would answer. In short—to employ the golden word—that amalgamation might prove better in the end than competition; and that he advised, at least, a conference on the subject.
I wrote it out fair for him, and Sir Charles, with the air of a Cromwell, signed it.
"This is important, Sey," he said. "It had better be registered, for fear of falling into improper hands. Don't give it to Dobson; let Cesarine take it over to Fowlis in the dog-cart."
It is the drawback of Seldon that we are twelve miles from a railway station, though we look out on one of the loveliest firths in Scotland.
Cesarine took it as directed—an invaluable servant, that girl! Meanwhile, we learned from the Morning Post next day that young Mr. Granton had stolen a march upon us. He had arrived from Africa by the same mail with our agent's letter, and had joined his father at once at Glen-Ellachie.
Two days later we received a most polite reply from the opposing interest. It ran after this fashion:—
"DEAR SIR CHARLES VANDRIFT—Thanks for yours of the 20th. In reply, I can only say I fully reciprocate your amiable desire that nothing adverse to either of our companies should happen in South Africa. With regard to your suggestion that we should meet in person, to discuss the basis of a possible amalgamation, I can only say my house is at present full of guests—as is doubtless your own—and I should therefore find it practically impossible to leave Glen-Ellachie. Fortunately, however, my son David is now at home on a brief holiday from Kimberley; and it will give him great pleasure to come over and hear what you have to say in favour of an arrangement which certainly, on some grounds, seems to me desirable in the interests of both our concessions alike. He will arrive to-morrow afternoon at Seldon, and he is authorised, in every respect, to negotiate with full powers on behalf of myself and the other directors. With kindest regards to your wife and sons, I remain, dear Sir Charles, yours faithfully,
"Cunning old fox!" Sir Charles exclaimed, with a sniff. "What's he up to now, I wonder? Seems almost as anxious to amalgamate as we ourselves are, Sey." A sudden thought struck him. "Do you know," he cried, looking up, "I really believe the same thing must have happened to both our exploring parties. They must have found a reef that goes under our ground, and the wicked old rascal wants to cheat us out of it!"
"As we want to cheat him," I ventured to interpose.
Charles looked at me fixedly. "Well, if so, we're both in luck," he murmured, after a pause; "though we can only get to know the whereabouts of their find by joining hands with them and showing them ours. Still, it's good business either way. But I shall be cautious—cautious."
"What a nuisance!" Amelia cried, when we told her of the incident. "I suppose I shall have to put the man up for the night—a nasty, raw-boned, half-baked Scotchman, you may be certain."
On Wednesday afternoon, about three, young Granton arrived. He was a pleasant-featured, red-haired, sandy-whiskered youth, not unlike his father; but, strange to say, he dropped in to call, instead of bringing his luggage.
"Why, you're not going back to Glen-Ellachie to-night, surely?" Charles exclaimed, in amazement. "Lady Vandrift will be so disappointed! Besides, this business can't be arranged between two trains, do you think, Mr. Granton?"
Young Granton smiled. He had an agreeable smile—canny, yet open.
"Oh no," he said frankly. "I didn't mean to go back. I've put up at the inn. I have my wife with me, you know—and, I wasn't invited."
Amelia was of opinion, when we told her this episode, that David Granton wouldn't stop at Seldon because he was an Honourable. Isabel was of opinion he wouldn't stop because he had married an unpresentable young woman somewhere out in South Africa. Charles was of opinion that, as representative of the hostile interest, he put up at the inn, because it might tie his hands in some way to be the guest of the chairman of the rival company. And I was of opinion that he had heard of the castle, and knew it well by report as the dullest country-house to stay at in Scotland.
However that may be, young Granton insisted on remaining at the Cromarty Arms, though he told us his wife would be delighted to receive a call from Lady Vandrift and Mrs. Wentworth. So we all returned with him to bring the Honourable Mrs. Granton up to tea at the Castle.
She was a nice little thing, very shy and timid, but by no means unpresentable, and an evident lady. She giggled at the end of every sentence; and she was endowed with a slight squint, which somehow seemed to point all her feeble sallies. She knew little outside South Africa; but of that she talked prettily; and she won all our hearts, in spite of the cast in her eye, by her unaffected simplicity.
Next morning Charles and I had a regular debate with young Granton about the rival options. Our talk was of cyanide processes, reverberatories, pennyweights, water-jackets. But it dawned upon us soon that, in spite of his red hair and his innocent manners, our friend, the Honourable David Granton, knew a thing or two. Gradually and gracefully he let us see that Lord Craig-Ellachie had sent him for the benefit of the company, but that he had come for the benefit of the Honourable David Granton.
"I'm a younger son, Sir Charles," he said; "and therefore I have to feather my nest for myself. I know the ground. My father will be guided implicitly by what I advise in the matter. We are men of the world. Now, let's be business-like. You want to amalgamate. You wouldn't do that, of course, if you didn't know of something to the advantage of my father's company—say, a lode on our land—which you hope to secure for yourself by amalgamation. Very well; I can make or mar your project. If you choose to render it worth my while, I'll induce my father and his directors to amalgamate. If you don't, I won't. That's the long and the short of it!"
Charles looked at him admiringly.
"Young man," he said, "you're deep, very deep—for your age. Is this candour—or deception? Do you mean what you say? Or do you know some reason why it suits your father's book to amalgamate as well as it suits mine? And are you trying to keep it from me?" He fingered his chin. "If I only knew that," he went on, "I should know how to deal with you."
Young Granton smiled again. "You're a financier, Sir Charles," he answered. "I wonder, at your time of life, you should pause to ask another financier whether he's trying to fill his own pocket—or his father's. Whatever is my father's goes to his eldest son—and I am his youngest."
"You are right as to general principles," Sir Charles replied, quite affectionately. "Most sound and sensible. But how do I know you haven't bargained already in the same way with your father? You may have settled with him, and be trying to diddle me."
The young man assumed a most candid air. "Look here," he said, leaning forward. "I offer you this chance. Take it or leave it. Do you wish to purchase my aid for this amalgamation by a moderate commission on the net value of my father's option to yourself—which I know approximately?"
"Say five per cent," I suggested, in a tentative voice, just to justify my presence.
He looked me through and through. "Ten is more usual," he answered, in a peculiar tone and with a peculiar glance.
Great heavens, how I winced! I knew what his words meant. They were the very words I had said myself to Colonel Clay, as the Count von Lebenstein, about the purchase-money of the schloss—and in the very same accent. I saw through it all now. That beastly cheque! This was Colonel Clay; and he was trying to buy up my silence and assistance by the threat of exposure!
My blood ran cold. I didn't know how to answer him. What happened at the rest of that interview I really couldn't tell you. My brain reeled round. I heard just faint echoes of "fuel" and "reduction works." What on earth was I to do? If I told Charles my suspicion—for it was only a suspicion—the fellow might turn upon me and disclose the cheque, which would suffice to ruin me. If I didn't, I ran a risk of being considered by Charles an accomplice and a confederate.
The interview was long. I hardly know how I struggled through it. At the end young Granton went off, well satisfied, if it was young Granton; and Amelia invited him and his wife up to dinner at the castle.
Whatever else they were, they were capital company. They stopped for three days more at the Cromarty Arms. And Charles debated and discussed incessantly. He couldn't quite make up his mind what to do in the affair; and I certainly couldn't help him. I never was placed in such a fix in my life. I did my best to preserve a strict neutrality.
Young Granton, it turned out, was a most agreeable person; and so, in her way, was that timid, unpretending South African wife of his. She was naively surprised Amelia had never met her mamma at Durban. They both talked delightfully, and had lots of good stories—mostly with points that told against the Craig-Ellachie people. Moreover, the Honourable David was a splendid swimmer. He went out in a boat with us, and dived like a seal. He was burning to teach Charles and myself to swim, when we told him we could neither of us take a single stroke; he said it was an accomplishment incumbent upon every true Englishman. But Charles hates the water; while, as for myself, I detest every known form of muscular exercise.
However, we consented that he should row us on the Firth, and made an appointment one day with himself and his wife for four the next evening.
That night Charles came to me with a very grave face in my own bedroom. "Sey," he said, under his breath, "have you observed? Have you watched? Have you any suspicions?"
I trembled violently. I felt all was up. "Suspicions of whom?" I asked. "Not surely of Simpson?" (he was Sir Charles's valet).
My respected brother-in-law looked at me contemptuously.
"Sey," he said, "are you trying to take me in? No, not of Simpson: of these two young folks. My own belief is—they're Colonel Clay and Madame Picardet."
"Impossible!" I cried.
He nodded. "I'm sure of it."
"How do you know?"
I seized his arm. "Charles," I said, imploring him, "do nothing rash. Remember how you exposed yourself to the ridicule of fools over Dr. Polperro!"
"I've thought of that," he answered, "and I mean to ca' caller." (When in Scotland as laird of Seldon, Charles loves both to dress and to speak the part thoroughly.) "First thing to-morrow I shall telegraph over to inquire at Glen-Ellachie; I shall find out whether this is really young Granton or not; meanwhile, I shall keep my eye close upon the fellow."
Early next morning, accordingly, a groom was dispatched with a telegram to Lord Craig-Ellachie. He was to ride over to Fowlis, send it off at once, and wait for the answer. At the same time, as it was probable Lord Craig-Ellachie would have started for the moors before the telegram reached the Lodge, I did not myself expect to see the reply arrive much before seven or eight that evening. Meanwhile, as it was far from certain we had not the real David Granton to deal with, it was necessary to be polite to our friendly rivals. Our experience in the Polperro incident had shown us both that too much zeal may be more dangerous than too little. Nevertheless, taught by previous misfortunes, we kept watching our man pretty close, determined that on this occasion, at least, he should neither do us nor yet escape us.
About four o'clock the red-haired young man and his pretty little wife came up to call for us. She looked so charming and squinted so enchantingly, one could hardly believe she was not as simple and innocent as she seemed to be. She tripped down to the Seldon boat-house, with Charles by her side, giggling and squinting her best, and then helped her husband to get the skiff ready. As she did so, Charles sidled up to me. "Sey," he whispered, "I'm an old hand, and I'm not readily taken in. I've been talking to that girl, and upon my soul I think she's all right. She's a charming little lady. We may be mistaken after all, of course, about young Granton. In any case, it's well for the present to be courteous. A most important option! If it's really he, we must do nothing to annoy him or let him see we suspect him."
I had noticed, indeed, that Mrs. Granton had made herself most agreeable to Charles from the very beginning. And as to one thing he was right. In her timid, shrinking way she was undeniably charming. That cast in her eye was all pure piquancy.
We rowed out on to the Firth, or, to be more strictly correct, the two Grantons rowed while Charles and I sat and leaned back in the stern on the luxurious cushions. They rowed fast and well. In a very few minutes they had rounded the point and got clear out of sight of the Cockneyfied towers and false battlements of Seldon.
Mrs. Granton pulled stroke. Even as she rowed she kept up a brisk undercurrent of timid chaff with Sir Charles, giggling all the while, half forward, half shy, like a school-girl who flirts with a man old enough to be her grandfather.
Sir Charles was flattered. He is susceptible to the pleasures of female attention, especially from the young, the simple, and the innocent. The wiles of women of the world he knows too well; but a pretty little ingenue can twist him round her finger. They rowed on and on, till they drew abreast of Seamew's island. It is a jagged stack or skerry, well out to sea, very wild and precipitous on the landward side, but shelving gently outward; perhaps an acre in extent, with steep gray cliffs, covered at that time with crimson masses of red valerian. Mrs. Granton rowed up close to it. "Oh, what lovely flowers!" she cried, throwing her head back and gazing at them. "I wish I could get some! Let's land here and pick them. Sir Charles, you shall gather me a nice bunch for my sitting-room."
Charles rose to it innocently, like a trout to a fly.
"By all means, my dear child, I—I have a passion for flowers;" which was a flower of speech itself, but it served its purpose.
They rowed us round to the far side, where is the easiest landing-place. It struck me as odd at the moment that they seemed to know it. Then young Granton jumped lightly ashore; Mrs. Granton skipped after him. I confess it made me feel rather ashamed to see how clumsily Charles and I followed them, treading gingerly on the thwarts for fear of upsetting the boat, while the artless young thing just flew over the gunwale. So like White Heather! However, we got ashore at last in safety, and began to climb the rocks as well as we were able in search of the valerian.
Judge of our astonishment when next moment those two young people bounded back into the boat, pushed off with a peal of merry laughter, and left us there staring at them!
They rowed away, about twenty yards, into deep water. Then the man turned, and waved his hand at us gracefully. "Good-bye!" he said, "good-bye! Hope you'll pick a nice bunch! We're off to London!"
"Off!" Charles exclaimed, turning pale. "Off! What do you mean? You don't surely mean to say you're going to leave us here?"
The young man raised his cap with perfect politeness, while Mrs. Granton smiled, nodded, and kissed her pretty hand to us. "Yes," he answered; "for the present. We retire from the game. The fact of it is, it's a trifle too thin: this is a coup manque."
"A what?" Charles exclaimed, perspiring visibly.
"A coup manque," the young man replied, with a compassionate smile. "A failure, don't you know; a bad shot; a fiasco. I learn from my scouts that you sent a telegram by special messenger to Lord Craig-Ellachie this morning. That shows you suspect me. Now, it is a principle of my system never to go on for one move with a game when I find myself suspected. The slightest symptom of distrust, and—I back out immediately. My plans can only be worked to satisfaction when there is perfect confidence on the part of my patient. It is a well-known rule of the medical profession. I never try to bleed a man who struggles. So now we're off. Ta-ta! Good luck to you!"
He was not much more than twenty yards away, and could talk to us quite easily. But the water was deep; the islet rose sheer from I'm sure I don't know how many fathoms of sea; and we could neither of us swim. Charles stretched out his arms imploringly. "For Heaven's sake," he cried, "don't tell me you really mean to leave us here."
He looked so comical in his distress and terror that Mrs. Granton—Madame Picardet—whatever I am to call her—laughed melodiously in her prettiest way at the sight of him. "Dear Sir Charles," she called out, "pray don't be afraid! It's only a short and temporary imprisonment. We will send men to take you off. Dear David and I only need just time enough to get well ashore and make—oh!—a few slight alterations in our personal appearance." And she indicated with her hand, laughing, dear David's red wig and false sandy whiskers, as we felt convinced they must be now. She looked at them and tittered. Her manner at this moment was anything but shy. In fact, I will venture to say, it was that of a bold and brazen-faced hoyden.
"Then you are Colonel Clay!" Sir Charles cried, mopping his brow with his handkerchief.
"If you choose to call me so," the young man answered politely. "I'm sure it's most kind of you to supply me with a commission in Her Majesty's service. However, time presses, and we want to push off. Don't alarm yourselves unnecessarily. I will send a boat to take you away from this rock at the earliest possible moment consistent with my personal safety and my dear companion's." He laid his hand on his heart and struck a sentimental attitude. "I have received too many unwilling kindnesses at your hands, Sir Charles," he continued, "not to feel how wrong it would be of me to inconvenience you for nothing. Rest assured that you shall be rescued by midnight at latest. Fortunately, the weather just at present is warm, and I see no chance of rain; so you will suffer, if at all, from nothing worse than the pangs of temporary hunger."
Mrs. Granton, no longer squinting—'twas a mere trick she had assumed—rose up in the boat and stretched out a rug to us. "Catch!" she cried, in a merry voice, and flung it at us, doubled. It fell at our feet; she was a capital thrower.
"Now, you dear Sir Charles," she went on, "take that to keep you warm! You know I am really quite fond of you. You're not half a bad old boy when one takes you the right way. You have a human side to you. Why, I often wear that sweetly pretty brooch you gave me at Nice, when I was Madame Picardet! And I'm sure your goodness to me at Lucerne, when I was the little curate's wife, is a thing to remember. We're so glad to have seen you in your lovely Scotch home you were always so proud of! Don't be frightened, please. We wouldn't hurt you for worlds. We are so sorry we have to take this inhospitable means of evading you. But dear David—I must call him dear David still—instinctively felt that you were beginning to suspect us; and he can't bear mistrust. He is so sensitive! The moment people mistrust him, he must break off with them at once. This was the only way to get you both off our hands while we make the needful little arrangements to depart; and we've been driven to avail ourselves of it. However, I will give you my word of honour, as a lady, you shall be fetched away to-night. If dear David doesn't do it, why, I'll do it myself." And she blew another kiss to us.
Charles was half beside himself, divided between alternate terror and anger. "Oh, we shall die here!" he exclaimed. "Nobody'd ever dream of coming to this rock to search for me."
"What a pity you didn't let me teach you to swim!" Colonel Clay interposed. "It is a noble exercise, and very useful indeed in such special emergencies! Well, ta-ta! I'm off! You nearly scored one this time; but, by putting you here for the moment, and keeping you till we're gone, I venture to say I've redressed the board, and I think we may count it a drawn game, mayn't we? The match stands at three, love—with some thousands in pocket?"
"You're a murderer, sir!" Charles shrieked out. "We shall starve or die here!"
Colonel Clay on his side was all sweet reasonableness. "Now, my dear sir," he expostulated, one hand held palm outward, "Do you think it probable I would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, with so little compunction? No, no, Sir Charles Vandrift; I know too well how much you are worth to me. I return you on my income-tax paper as five thousand a year, clear profit of my profession. Suppose you were to die! I might be compelled to find some new and far less lucrative source of plunder. Your heirs, executors, or assignees might not suit my purpose. The fact of it is, sir, your temperament and mine are exactly adapted one to the other. I understand you; and you do not understand me—which is often the basis of the firmest friendships. I can catch you just where you are trying to catch other people. Your very smartness assists me; for I admit you are smart. As a regular financier, I allow, I couldn't hold a candle to you. But in my humbler walk of life I know just how to utilise you. I lead you on, where you think you are going to gain some advantage over others; and by dexterously playing upon your love of a good bargain, your innate desire to best somebody else—I succeed in besting you. There, sir, you have the philosophy of our mutual relations."
He bowed and raised his cap. Charles looked at him and cowered. Yes, genius as he is, he positively cowered. "And do you mean to say," he burst out, "you intend to go on so bleeding me?"
The Colonel smiled a bland smile. "Sir Charles Vandrift," he answered, "I called you just now the goose that lays the golden eggs. You may have thought the metaphor a rude one. But you are a goose, you know, in certain relations. Smartest man on the Stock Exchange, I readily admit; easiest fool to bamboozle in the open country that ever I met with. You fail in one thing—the perspicacity of simplicity. For that reason, among others, I have chosen to fasten upon you. Regard me, my dear sir, as a microbe of millionaires, a parasite upon capitalists. You know the old rhyme:
Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em, And these again have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum!
Well, that's just how I view myself. You are a capitalist and a millionaire. In your large way you prey upon society. YOU deal in Corners, Options, Concessions, Syndicates. You drain the world dry of its blood and its money. You possess, like the mosquito, a beautiful instrument of suction—Founders' Shares—with which you absorb the surplus wealth of the community. In my smaller way, again, I relieve you in turn of a portion of the plunder. I am a Robin Hood of my age; and, looking upon you as an exceptionally bad form of millionaire—as well as an exceptionally easy form of pigeon for a man of my type and talents to pluck—I have, so to speak, taken up my abode upon you."
Charles looked at him and groaned.
The young man continued, in a tone of gentle badinage. "I love the plot-interest of the game," he said, "and so does dear Jessie here. We both of us adore it. As long as I find such good pickings upon you, I certainly am not going to turn away from so valuable a carcass, in order to batten myself, at considerable trouble, upon minor capitalists, out of whom it is difficult to extract a few hundreds. It may have puzzled you to guess why I fix upon you so persistently. Now you know, and understand. When a fluke finds a sheep that suits him, that fluke lives upon him. You are my host: I am your parasite. This coup has failed. But don't flatter yourself for a moment it will be the last one."
"Why do you insult me by telling me all this?" Sir Charles cried, writhing.
The Colonel waved his hand. It was small and white. "Because I love the game," he answered, with a relish; "and also, because the more prepared you are beforehand, the greater credit and amusement is there in besting you. Well, now, ta-ta once more! I am wasting valuable time. I might be cheating somebody. I must be off at once.... Take care of yourself, Wentworth. But I know you will. You always do. Ten per cent is more usual!"
He rowed away and left us. As the boat began to disappear round the corner of the island, White Heather—so she looked—stood up in the stern and shouted aloud through her pretty hands to us. "By-bye, dear Sir Charles!" she cried. "Do wrap the rug around you! I'll send the men to fetch you as soon as ever I possibly can. And thank you so much for those lovely flowers!"
The boat rounded the crags. We were alone on the island. Charles flung himself on the bare rock in a wild access of despondency. He is accustomed to luxury, and cannot get on without his padded cushions. As for myself, I climbed with some difficulty to the top of the cliff, landward, and tried to make signals of distress with my handkerchief to some passer-by on the mainland. All in vain. Charles had dismissed the crofters on the estate; and, as the shooting-party that day was in an opposite direction, not a soul was near to whom we could call for succour.
I climbed down again to Charles. The evening came on slowly. Cries of sea-birds rang weird upon the water. Puffins and cormorants circled round our heads in the gray of twilight. Charles suggested that they might even swoop down upon us and bite us. They did not, however, but their flapping wings added none the less a painful touch of eeriness to our hunger and solitude. Charles was horribly depressed. For myself, I will confess I felt so much relieved at the fact that Colonel Clay had not openly betrayed me in the matter of the commission, as to be comparatively comfortable.
We crouched on the hard crag. About eleven o'clock we heard human voices. "Boat ahoy!" I shouted. An answering shout aroused us to action. We rushed down to the landing-place and cooee'd for the men, to show them where we were. They came up at once in Sir Charles's own boat. They were fishermen from Niggarey, on the shore of the Firth opposite.
A lady and gentleman had sent them, they said, to return the boat and call for us on the island; their description corresponded to the two supposed Grantons. They rowed us home almost in silence to Seldon. It was half-past twelve by the gatehouse clock when we reached the castle. Men had been sent along the coast each way to seek us. Amelia had gone to bed, much alarmed for our safety. Isabel was sitting up. It was too late, of course, to do much that night in the way of apprehending the miscreants, though Charles insisted upon dispatching a groom, with a telegram for the police at Inverness, to Fowlis.
Nothing came of it all. A message awaited us from Lord Craig-Ellachie, to be sure, saying that his son had not left Glen-Ellachie Lodge; while research the next day and later showed that our correspondent had never even received our letter. An empty envelope alone had arrived at the house, and the postal authorities had been engaged meanwhile, with their usual lightning speed, in "investigating the matter." Cesarine had posted the letter herself at Fowlis, and brought back the receipt; so the only conclusion we could draw was this—Colonel Clay must be in league with somebody at the post-office. As for Lord Craig-Ellachie's reply, that was a simple forgery; though, oddly enough, it was written on Glen-Ellachie paper.
However, by the time Charles had eaten a couple of grouse, and drunk a bottle of his excellent Rudesheimer, his spirits and valour revived exceedingly. Doubtless he inherits from his Boer ancestry a tendency towards courage of the Batavian description. He was in capital feather.
"After all, Sey," he said, leaning back in his chair, "this time we score one. He has not done us brown; we have at least detected him. To detect him in time is half-way to catching him. Only the remoteness of our position at Seldon Castle saved him from capture. Next set-to, I feel sure, we will not merely spot him, we will also nab him. I only wish he would try on such a rig in London."
But the oddest part of it all was this, that from the moment those two people landed at Niggarey, and told the fishermen there were some gentlemen stranded on the Seamew's island, all trace of them vanished. At no station along the line could we gain any news of them. Their maid had left the inn the same morning with their luggage, and we tracked her to Inverness; but there the trail stopped short, no spoor lay farther. It was a most singular and insoluble mystery.
Charles lived in hopes of catching his man in London.
But for my part, I felt there was a show of reason in one last taunt which the rascal flung back at us as the boat receded: "Sir Charles Vandrift, we are a pair of rogues. The law protects you. It persecutes me. That's all the difference."
THE EPISODE OF THE GERMAN PROFESSOR
That winter in town my respected brother-in-law had little time on his hands to bother himself about trifles like Colonel Clay. A thunderclap burst upon him. He saw his chief interest in South Africa threatened by a serious, an unexpected, and a crushing danger.
Charles does a little in gold, and a little in land; but his principal operations have always lain in the direction of diamonds. Only once in my life, indeed, have I seen him pay the slightest attention to poetry, and that was when I happened one day to recite the lines:—
Full many a gem of purest ray serene The dark, unfathomed caves of ocean bear.
He rubbed his hands at once and murmured enthusiastically, "I never thought of that. We might get up an Atlantic Exploration Syndicate, Limited." So attached is he to diamonds. You may gather, therefore, what a shock it was to that gigantic brain to learn that science was rapidly reaching a point where his favourite gems might become all at once a mere drug in the market. Depreciation is the one bugbear that perpetually torments Sir Charles's soul; that winter he stood within measurable distance of so appalling a calamity.
It happened after this manner.
We were strolling along Piccadilly towards Charles's club one afternoon—he is a prominent member of the Croesus, in Pall Mall—when, near Burlington House, whom should we happen to knock up against but Sir Adolphus Cordery, the famous mineralogist, and leading spirit of the Royal Society! He nodded to us pleasantly. "Halloa, Vandrift," he cried, in his peculiarly loud and piercing voice; "you're the very man I wanted to meet to-day. Good morning, Wentworth. Well, how about diamonds now, Sir Gorgius? You'll have to sing small. It's all up with you Midases. Heard about this marvellous new discovery of Schleiermacher's? It's calculated to make you diamond kings squirm like an eel in a frying-pan."
I could see Charles wriggle inside his clothes. He was most uncomfortable. That a man like Cordery should say such things, in so loud a voice, on no matter how little foundation, openly in Piccadilly, was enough in itself to make a sensitive barometer such as Cloetedorp Golcondas go down a point or two.
"Hush, hush!" Charles said solemnly, in that awed tone of voice which he always assumes when Money is blasphemed against. "Please don't talk quite so loud! All London can hear you."
Sir Adolphus ran his arm through Charles's most amicably. There's nothing Charles hates like having his arm taken.
"Come along with me to the Athenaeum," he went on, in the same stentorian voice, "and I'll tell you all about it. Most interesting discovery. Makes diamonds cheap as dirt. Calculated to supersede South Africa altogether."
Charles allowed himself to be dragged along. There was nothing else possible. Sir Adolphus continued, in a somewhat lower key, induced upon him by Charles's mute look of protest. It was a disquieting story. He told it with gleeful unction. It seems that Professor Schleiermacher, of Jena, "the greatest living authority on the chemistry of gems," he said, had lately invented, or claimed to have invented, a system for artificially producing diamonds, which had yielded most surprising and unexceptionable results.
Charles's lip curled slightly. "Oh, I know the sort of thing," he said. "I've heard of it before. Very inferior stones, quite small and worthless, produced at immense cost, and even then not worth looking at. I'm an old bird, you know, Cordery; not to be caught with chaff. Tell me a better one!"
Sir Adolphus produced a small cut gem from his pocket. "How's that for the first water?" he inquired, passing it across, with a broad smile, to the sceptic. "Made under my own eyes—and quite inexpensively!"
Charles examined it close, stopping short against the railings in St. James's Square to look at it with his pocket-lens. There was no denying the truth. It was a capital small gem of the finest quality.
"Made under your own eyes?" he exclaimed, still incredulous. "Where, my dear sir?—at Jena?"
The answer was a thunderbolt from a blue sky. "No, here in London; last night as ever was; before myself and Dr. Gray; and about to be exhibited by the President himself at a meeting of Fellows of the Royal Society."
Charles drew a long breath. "This nonsense must be stopped," he said firmly—"it must be nipped in the bud. It won't do, my dear friend; we can't have such tampering with important Interests."
"How do you mean?" Cordery asked, astonished.
Charles gazed at him steadily. I could see by the furtive gleam in my brother-in-law's eye he was distinctly frightened. "Where is the fellow?" he asked. "Did he come himself, or send over a deputy?"
"Here in London," Sir Adolphus replied. "He's staying at my house; and he says he'll be glad to show his experiments to anybody scientifically interested in diamonds. We propose to have a demonstration of the process to-night at Lancaster Gate. Will you drop in and see it?"
Would he "drop in" and see it? "Drop in" at such a function! Could he possibly stop away? Charles clutched the enemy's arm with a nervous grip. "Look here, Cordery," he said, quivering; "this is a question affecting very important Interests. Don't do anything rash. Don't do anything foolish. Remember that Shares may rise or fall on this." He said "Shares" in a tone of profound respect that I can hardly even indicate. It was the crucial word in the creed of his religion.
"I should think it very probable," Sir Adolphus replied, with the callous indifference of the mere man of science to financial suffering.
Sir Charles was bland, but peremptory. "Now, observe," he said, "a grave responsibility rests on your shoulders. The Market depends upon you. You must not ask in any number of outsiders to witness these experiments. Have a few mineralogists and experts, if you like; but also take care to invite representatives of the menaced Interests. I will come myself—I'm engaged to dine out, but I can contract an indisposition; and I should advise you to ask Mosenheimer, and, say, young Phipson. They would stand for the mines, as you and the mineralogists would stand for science. Above all, don't blab; for Heaven's sake, let there be no premature gossip. Tell Schleiermacher not to go gassing and boasting of his success all over London."
"We are keeping the matter a profound secret, at Schleiermacher's own request," Cordery answered, more seriously.
"Which is why," Charles said, in his severest tone, "you bawled it out at the very top of your voice in Piccadilly!"
However, before nightfall, everything was arranged to Charles's satisfaction; and off we went to Lancaster Gate, with a profound expectation that the German professor would do nothing worth seeing.
He was a remarkable-looking man, once tall, I should say, from his long, thin build, but now bowed and bent with long devotion to study and leaning over a crucible. His hair, prematurely white, hung down upon his forehead, but his eye was keen and his mouth sagacious. He shook hands cordially with the men of science, whom he seemed to know of old, whilst he bowed somewhat distantly to the South African interest. Then he began to talk, in very German-English, helping out the sense now and again, where his vocabulary failed him, by waving his rather dirty and chemical-stained hands demonstratively about him. His nails were a sight, but his fingers, I must say, had the delicate shape of a man's accustomed to minute manipulation. He plunged at once into the thick of the matter, telling us briefly in his equally thick accent that he "now brobosed by his new brocess to make for us some goot and sadisfactory tiamonds."
He brought out his apparatus, and explained—or, as he said, "eggsblained"—his novel method. "Tiamonds," he said, "were nozzing but pure crystalline carbon." He knew how to crystallise it—"zat was all ze secret." The men of science examined the pots and pans carefully. Then he put in a certain number of raw materials, and went to work with ostentatious openness. There were three distinct processes, and he made two stones by each simultaneously. The remarkable part of his methods, he said, was their rapidity and their cheapness. In three-quarters of an hour (and he smiled sardonically) he could produce a diamond worth at current prices two hundred pounds sterling. "As you shall now see me berform," he remarked, "viz zis simple abbaradus."
The materials fizzed and fumed. The Professor stirred them. An unpleasant smell like burnt feathers pervaded the room. The scientific men craned their necks in their eagerness, and looked over one another; Vane-Vivian, in particular, was all attention. After three-quarters of an hour, the Professor, still smiling, began to empty the apparatus. He removed a large quantity of dust or powder, which he succinctly described as "by-broducts," and then took between finger and thumb from the midst of each pan a small white pebble, not water-worn apparently, but slightly rough and wart-like on the surface.
From one pair of the pannikins he produced two such stones, and held them up before us triumphantly. "Zese," he said, "are genuine tiamonds, manufactured at a gost of fourteen shillings and siggspence abiece!" Then he tried the second pair. "Zese," he said, still more gleefully, "are broduced at a gost of eleffen and ninebence!" Finally, he came to the third pair, which he positively brandished before our astonished eyes. "And zese," he cried, transported, "haff gost me no more zan tree and eightbence!"
They were handed round for inspection. Rough and uncut as they stood, it was, of course, impossible to judge of their value. But one thing was certain. The men of science had been watching close at the first, and were sure Herr Schleiermacher had not put the stones in; they were keen at the withdrawal, and were equally sure he had taken them honestly out of the pannikins.
"I vill now disdribute zem," the Professor remarked in a casual tone, as if diamonds were peas, looking round at the company. And he singled out my brother-in-law. "One to Sir Charles!" he said, handing it; "one to Mr. Mosenheimer; one to Mr. Phibson—as representing the tiamond interest. Zen, one each to Sir Atolphus, to Dr. Gray, to Mr. Fane-Fiffian, as representing science. You will haff zem cut and rebort upon zem in due gourse. We meet again at zis blace ze day afder do-morrow."
Charles gazed at him reproachfully. The profoundest chords of his moral nature were stirred. "Professor," he said, in a voice of solemn warning, "Are you aware that, if you have succeeded, you have destroyed the value of thousands of pounds' worth of precious property?"
The Professor shrugged his shoulders. "Fot is dat to me?" he inquired, with a curious glance of contempt. "I am not a financier! I am a man of science. I seek to know; I do not seek to make a fortune."
"Shocking!" Charles exclaimed. "Shocking! I never before in my life beheld so strange an instance of complete insensibility to the claims of others!"
We separated early. The men of science were coarsely jubilant. The diamond interest exhibited a corresponding depression. If this news were true, they foresaw a slump. Every eye grew dim. It was a terrible business.
Charles walked homeward with the Professor. He sounded him gently as to the sum required, should need arise, to purchase his secrecy. Already Sir Adolphus had bound us all down to temporary silence—as if that were necessary; but Charles wished to know how much Schleiermacher would take to suppress his discovery. The German was immovable.
"No, no!" he replied, with positive petulance. "You do not unterstant. I do not buy and sell. Zis is a chemical fact. We must bublish it for the sake off its seoretical falue. I do not care for wealse. I haff no time to waste in making money."
"What an awful picture of a misspent life!" Charles observed to me afterwards.
And, indeed, the man seemed to care for nothing on earth but the abstract question—not whether he could make good diamonds or not, but whether he could or could not produce a crystalline form of pure carbon!
On the appointed night Charles went back to Lancaster Gate, as I could not fail to remark, with a strange air of complete and painful preoccupation. Never before in his life had I seen him so anxious.
The diamonds were produced, with one surface of each slightly scored by the cutters, so as to show the water. Then a curious result disclosed itself. Strange to say, each of the three diamonds given to the three diamond kings turned out to be a most inferior and valueless stone; while each of the three intrusted to the care of the scientific investigators turned out to be a fine gem of the purest quality.
I confess it was a sufficiently suspicious conjunction. The three representatives of the diamond interest gazed at each other with inquiring side-glances. Then their eyes fell suddenly: they avoided one another. Had each independently substituted a weak and inferior natural stone for Professor Schleiermacher's manufactured pebbles? It almost seemed so. For a moment, I admit, I was half inclined to suppose it. But next second I changed my mind. Could a man of Sir Charles Vandrift's integrity and high principle stoop for lucre's sake to so mean an expedient?—not to mention the fact that, even if he did, and if Mosenheimer did likewise, the stones submitted to the scientific men would have amply sufficed to establish the reality and success of the experiments!
Still, I must say, Charles looked guiltily across at Mosenheimer, and Mosenheimer at Phipson, while three more uncomfortable or unhappy-faced men could hardly have been found at that precise minute in the City of Westminster.
Then Sir Adolphus spoke—or, rather, he orated. He said, in his loud and grating voice, we had that evening, and on a previous evening, been present at the conception and birth of an Epoch in the History of Science. Professor Schleiermacher was one of those men of whom his native Saxony might well be proud; while as a Briton he must say he regretted somewhat that this discovery, like so many others, should have been "Made in Germany." However, Professor Schleiermacher was a specimen of that noble type of scientific men to whom gold was merely the rare metal Au, and diamonds merely the element C in the scarcest of its manifold allotropic embodiments. The Professor did not seek to make money out of his discovery. He rose above the sordid greed of capitalists. Content with the glory of having traced the element C to its crystalline origin, he asked no more than the approval of science. However, out of deference to the wishes of those financial gentlemen who were oddly concerned in maintaining the present price of C in its crystalline form—in other words, the diamond interest—they had arranged that the secret should be strictly guarded and kept for the present; not one of the few persons admitted to the experiments would publicly divulge the truth about them. This secrecy would be maintained till he himself, and a small committee of the Royal Society, should have time to investigate and verify for themselves the Professor's beautiful and ingenious processes—an investigation and verification which the learned Professor himself both desired and suggested. (Schleiermacher nodded approval.) When that was done, if the process stood the test, further concealment would be absolutely futile. The price of diamonds must fall at once below that of paste, and any protest on the part of the financial world would, of course, be useless. The laws of Nature were superior to millionaires. Meanwhile, in deference to the opinion of Sir Charles Vandrift, whose acquaintance with that fascinating side of the subject nobody could deny, they had consented to send no notices to the Press, and to abstain from saying anything about this beautiful and simple process in public. He dwelt with horrid gusto on that epithet "beautiful." And now, in the name of British mineralogy, he must congratulate Professor Schleiermacher, our distinguished guest, on his truly brilliant and crystalline contribution to our knowledge of brilliants and of crystalline science.
Everybody applauded. It was an awkward moment. Sir Charles bit his lip. Mosenheimer looked glum. Young Phipson dropped an expression which I will not transcribe. (I understand this work may circulate among families.) And after a solemn promise of death-like secrecy, the meeting separated.
I noticed that my brother-in-law somewhat ostentatiously avoided Mosenheimer at the door; and that Phipson jumped quickly into his own carriage. "Home!" Charles cried gloomily to the coachman as we took our seats in the brougham. And all the way to Mayfair he leaned back in his seat, with close-set lips, never uttering a syllable.
Before he retired to rest, however, in the privacy of the billiard-room, I ventured to ask him: "Charles, will you unload Golcondas to-morrow?" Which, I need hardly explain, is the slang of the Stock Exchange for getting rid of undesirable securities. It struck me as probable that, in the event of the invention turning out a reality, Cloetedorp A's might become unsaleable within the next few weeks or so.
He eyed me sternly. "Wentworth," he said, "you're a fool!" (Except on occasions when he is very angry, my respected connection never calls me "Wentworth"; the familiar abbreviation, "Sey"—derived from Seymour—is his usual mode of address to me in private.) "Is it likely I would unload, and wreck the confidence of the public in the Cloetedorp Company at such a moment? As a director—as Chairman—would it be just or right of me? I ask you, sir, could I reconcile it to my conscience?"
"Charles," I answered, "you are right. Your conduct is noble. You will not save your own personal interests at the expense of those who have put their trust in you. Such probity is, alas! very rare in finance!" And I sighed involuntarily; for I had lost in Liberators.
At the same time I thought to myself, "I am not a director. No trust is reposed in me. I have to think first of dear Isabel and the baby. Before the crash comes I will sell out to-morrow the few shares I hold, through Charles's kindness, in the Cloetedorp Golcondas."
With his marvellous business instinct, Charles seemed to divine my thought, for he turned round to me sharply. "Look here, Sey," he remarked, in an acidulous tone, "recollect, you're my brother-in-law. You are also my secretary. The eyes of London will be upon us to-morrow. If you were to sell out, and operators got to know of it, they'd suspect there was something up, and the company would suffer for it. Of course, you can do what you like with your own property. I can't interfere with that. I do not dictate to you. But as Chairman of the Golcondas, I am bound to see that the interests of widows and orphans whose All is invested with me should not suffer at this crisis." His voice seemed to falter. "Therefore, though I don't like to threaten," he went on, "I am bound to give you warning: if you sell out those shares of yours, openly or secretly, you are no longer my secretary; you receive forthwith six months' salary in lieu of notice, and—you leave me instantly."
"Very well, Charles," I answered, in a submissive voice; though I debated with myself for a moment whether it would be best to stick to the ready money and quit the sinking ship, or to hold fast by my friend, and back Charles's luck against the Professor's science. After a short, sharp struggle within my own mind, I am proud to say, friendship and gratitude won. I felt sure that, whether diamonds went up or down, Charles Vandrift was the sort of man who would come to the top in the end in spite of everything. And I decided to stand by him!
I slept little that night, however. My mind was a whirlwind. At breakfast Charles also looked haggard and moody. He ordered the carriage early, and drove straight into the City.
There was a block in Cheapside. Charles, impatient and nervous, jumped out and walked. I walked beside him. Near Wood Street a man we knew casually stopped us.
"I think I ought to mention to you," he said, confidentially, "that I have it on the very best authority that Schleiermacher, of Jena—"
"Thank you," Charles said, crustily, "I know that tale, and—there's not a word of truth in it."
He brushed on in haste. A yard or two farther a broker paused in front of us.
"Halloa, Sir Charles!" he called out, in a bantering tone. "What's all this about diamonds? Where are Cloetedorps to-day? Is it Golconda, or Queer Street?"
Charles drew himself up very stiff. "I fail to understand you," he answered, with dignity.
"Why, you were there yourself," the man cried. "Last night at Sir Adolphus's! Oh yes, it's all over the place; Schleiermacher of Jena has succeeded in making the most perfect diamonds—for sixpence apiece—as good as real—and South Africa's ancient history. In less than six weeks Kimberley, they say, will be a howling desert. Every costermonger in Whitechapel will wear genuine Koh-i-noors for buttons on his coat; every girl in Bermondsey will sport a riviere like Lady Vandrift's to her favourite music-hall. There's a slump in Golcondas. Sly, sly, I can see; but we know all about it!"
Charles moved on, disgusted. The man's manners were atrocious. Near the Bank we ran up against a most respectable jobber.
"Ah, Sir Charles," he said; "you here? Well, this is strange news, isn't it? For my part, I advise you not to take it too seriously. Your stock will go down, of course, like lead this morning. But it'll rise to-morrow, mark my words, and fluctuate every hour till the discovery's proved or disproved for certain. There's a fine time coming for operators, I feel sure. Reports this way and that. Rumours, rumours, rumours. And nobody will know which way to believe till Sir Adolphus has tested it."
We moved on towards the House. Black care was seated on Sir Charles's shoulders. As we drew nearer and nearer, everybody was discussing the one fact of the moment. The seal of secrecy had proved more potent than publication on the housetops. Some people told us of the exciting news in confidential whispers; some proclaimed it aloud in vulgar exultation. The general opinion was that Cloetedorps were doomed, and that the sooner a man cleared out the less was he likely to lose by it.
Charles strode on like a general; but it was a Napoleon brazening out his retreat from Moscow. His mien was resolute. He disappeared at last into the precincts of an office, waving me back, not to follow. After a long consultation he came out and rejoined me.
All day long the City rang with Golcondas, Golcondas. Everybody murmured, "Slump, slump in Golcondas." The brokers had more business to do than they could manage; though, to be sure, almost every one was a seller and no one a buyer. But Charles stood firm as a rock, and so did his brokers. "I don't want to sell," he said, doggedly. "The whole thing is trumped up. It's a mere piece of jugglery. For my own part, I believe Professor Schleiermacher is deceived, or else is deceiving us. In another week the bubble will have burst, and prices will restore themselves." His brokers, Finglemores, had only one answer to all inquiries: "Sir Charles has every confidence in the stability of Golcondas, and doesn't wish to sell or to increase the panic."
All the world said he was splendid, splendid! There he stationed himself on 'Change like some granite stack against which the waves roll and break themselves in vain. He took no notice of the slump, but ostentatiously bought up a few shares here and there so as to restore public confidence.
"I would buy more," he said, freely, "and make my fortune; only, as I was one of those who happened to spend last night at Sir Adolphus's, people might think I had helped to spread the rumour and produce the slump, in order to buy in at panic rates for my own advantage. A chairman, like Caesar's wife, should be above suspicion. So I shall only buy up just enough, now and again, to let people see I, at least, have no doubt as to the firm future of Cloetedorps."
He went home that night, more harassed and ill than I have ever seen him. Next day was as bad. The slump continued, with varying episodes. Now, a rumour would surge up that Sir Adolphus had declared the whole affair a sham, and prices would steady a little; now, another would break out that the diamonds were actually being put upon the market in Berlin by the cart-load, and timid old ladies would wire down to their brokers to realise off-hand at whatever hazard. It was an awful day. I shall never forget it.
The morning after, as if by miracle, things righted themselves of a sudden. While we were wondering what it meant, Charles received a telegram from Sir Adolphus Cordery:—
"The man is a fraud. Not Schleiermacher at all. Just had a wire from Jena saying the Professor knows nothing about him. Sorry unintentionally to have caused you trouble. Come round and see me."
"Sorry unintentionally to have caused you trouble." Charles was beside himself with anger. Sir Adolphus had upset the share-market for forty-eight mortal hours, half-ruined a round dozen of wealthy operators, convulsed the City, upheaved the House, and now—he apologised for it as one might apologise for being late ten minutes for dinner! Charles jumped into a hansom and rushed round to see him. How had he dared to introduce the impostor to solid men as Professor Schleiermacher? Sir Adolphus shrugged his shoulders. The fellow had come and introduced himself as the great Jena chemist; he had long white hair, and a stoop in the shoulders. What reason had he for doubting his word? (I reflected to myself that on much the same grounds Charles in turn had accepted the Honourable David Granton and Graf von Lebenstein.) Besides, what object could the creature have for this extraordinary deception? Charles knew only too well. It was clear it was done to disturb the diamond market, and we realised, too late, that the man who had done it was—Colonel Clay, in "another of his manifold allotropic embodiments!" Charles had had his wish, and had met his enemy once more in London!
We could see the whole plot. Colonel Clay was polymorphic, like the element carbon! Doubtless, with his extraordinary sleight of hand, he had substituted real diamonds for the shapeless mass that came out of the apparatus, in the interval between handing the pebbles round for inspection, and distributing them piecemeal to the men of science and representatives of the diamond interest. We all watched him closely, of course, when he opened the crucibles; but when once we had satisfied ourselves that something came out, our doubts were set at rest, and we forgot to watch whether he distributed those somethings or not to the recipients. Conjurers always depend upon such momentary distractions or lapses of attention. As usual, too, the Professor had disappeared into space the moment his trick was once well performed. He vanished like smoke, as the Count and Seer had vanished before, and was never again heard of.
Charles went home more angry than I have ever beheld him. I couldn't imagine why. He seemed as deeply hipped as if he had lost his thousands. I endeavoured to console him. "After all," I said, "though Golcondas have suffered a temporary loss, it's a comfort to think that you should have stood so firm, and not only stemmed the tide, but also prevented yourself from losing anything at all of your own through panic. I'm sorry, of course, for the widows and orphans; but if Colonel Clay has rigged the market, at least it isn't YOU who lose by it this time."
Charles withered me with a fierce scowl of undisguised contempt. "Wentworth," he said once more, "you are a fool!" Then he relapsed into silence.
"But you declined to sell out," I said.
He gazed at me fixedly. "Is it likely," he asked at last, "I would tell you if I meant to sell out? or that I'd sell out openly through Finglemore, my usual broker? Why, all the world would have known, and Golcondas would have been finished. As it is, I don't desire to tell an ass like you exactly how much I've lost. But I did sell out, and some unknown operator bought in at once, and closed for ready money, and has sold again this morning; and after all that has happened, it will be impossible to track him. He didn't wait for the account: he settled up instantly. And he sold in like manner. I know now what has been done, and how cleverly it has all been disguised and covered; but the most I'm going to tell you to-day is just this—it's by far the biggest haul Colonel Clay has made out of me. He could retire on it if he liked. My one hope is, it may satisfy him for life; but, then, no man has ever had enough of making money."
"You sold out!" I exclaimed. "You, the Chairman of the company! You deserted the ship! And how about your trust? How about the widows and orphans confided to you?"
Charles rose and faced me. "Seymour Wentworth," he said, in his most solemn voice, "you have lived with me for years and had every advantage. You have seen high finance. Yet you ask me that question! It's my belief you will never, never understand business!"
THE EPISODE OF THE ARREST OF THE COLONEL
How much precisely Charles dropped over the slump in Cloetedorps I never quite knew. But the incident left him dejected, limp, and dispirited.
"Hang it all, Sey," he said to me in the smoking-room, a few evenings later. "This Colonel Clay is enough to vex the patience of Job—and Job had large losses, too, if I recollect aright, from the Chaldeans and other big operators of the period."