"That," said Hamilton, "is purely a question for the lady. Now, what are you going to do with this lamp. Are you going to float it?"
Bones scowled at the glaring headlight.
"That depends whether the naughty old things float, Ham," he said venomously. "If you think they will, my old eye-witness, how about tyin' a couple of bricks round 'em before I chuck 'em in. What?"
THE BRANCH LINE
Not all the investments of Bones paid dividends. Some cost him money. Some cost him time. Some—and they were few—cost him both.
Somewhere in a marine store in London lie the battered wrecks of what were once electro-plated motor-lamps of a peculiar and, to Bones, sinister design. They were all that was left of a great commercial scheme, based upon the flotation of a lamp that never went out.
On a day of crisis in Bones's life they had gone out, which was bad. They had come on at an inconvenient moment, which was worse, since they had revealed him and his secretary in tender attitudes. And Bones had gone gaily to right the wrong, and had been received with cold politeness by the lady concerned.
There was a week of gloom, when Bones adopted towards his invaluable assistant the air and manner of one who was in the last stages of a wasting disease. Miss Marguerite Whitland never came into Bones's office without finding him sitting at his desk with his head in his hands, except once, when she came in without knocking and Bones hadn't the time to strike that picturesque attitude.
Indeed, throughout that week she never saw him but he was swaying, or standing with his hand before his eyes, or clutching on to the edge of a chair, or walking with feeble footsteps; and she never spoke to him but he replied with a tired, wan smile, until she became seriously alarmed, thinking his brain was affected, and consulted Captain Hamilton, his partner.
"Look here, Bones, you miserable devil," said Hamilton, "you're scaring that poor girl. What the dickens do you mean by it?"
"Scaring who?" said Bones, obviously pleased. "Am I really? Is she fearfully cut up, dear old thing?"
"She is," said Hamilton truthfully. "She thinks you're going dotty."
"Vulgarity, vulgarity, dear old officer," said Bones, much annoyed.
"I told her you were often like that," Hamilton went on wilfully. "I said that you were a little worse, if anything, after your last love affair——"
"Heavens!" nearly screamed Bones. "You didn't tell her anything about your lovely old sister Patricia?"
"I did not," said Hamilton. "I merely pointed out to her the fact that when you were in love you were not to be distinguished from one whom is the grip of measles."
"Then you're a naughty old fellow," said Bones. "You're a wicked old rascal. I'm surprised at you! Can't a fellow have a little heart trouble——"
"Heart? Bah!" said Hamilton scornfully.
"Heart trouble," repeated Bones sternly. "I've always had a weak heart."
"And a weak head, too," said Hamilton. "Now, just behave yourself, Bones, and stop frightening the lady. I'm perfectly sure she's fond of you—in a motherly kind of way," he added, as he saw Bones's face light up. "And, really, she is such an excellent typist that it would be a sin and a shame to frighten her from the office."
This possibility had not occurred to Bones, and it is likely it had more effect than any other argument which Hamilton could use. That day he began to take an interest in life, stepped gaily into the office and as blithely into his secretary's room. He even made jokes, and dared invite her to tea—an invitation which was declined so curtly that Bones decided that tea was an unnecessary meal, and cut it out forthwith.
All this time the business of Schemes Limited was going forward, if not by leaps and bounds, yet by steady progression. Perhaps it was the restraining influence that Hamilton exercised which prevented the leaps being too pronounced and kept the bounds within bounds, so to speak. It was Schemes Limited which bought the theatrical property of the late Mr. Liggeinstein and re-sold those theatres in forty-eight hours at a handsome profit. It was Bones who did the buying, and it was Hamilton who did the selling—in this case, to the intense annoyance of Bones, who had sat up the greater part of one night writing a four-act play in blank verse, and arriving at the office late, had discovered that his chance of acting as his own producer had passed for ever.
"And I'd written a most wonderful part for you, dear old mademoiselle," he said sadly to his secretary. "The part where you die in the third act—well, really, it brought tears to my jolly old eyes."
"I think Captain Hamilton was very wise to accept the offer of the Colydrome Syndicate," said the girl coldly.
In his leisure moments Bones had other relaxations than the writing of poetry—now never mentioned—or four-act tragedies. What Hamilton had said of him was true. He had an extraordinary nose for a bargain, and found his profits in unexpected places.
People got to know him—quite important people, men who handled millions carelessly, like Julius Bohea, and Important Persons whose faces are familiar to the people of Britain, such as the Right Hon. George Parkinson Chenney. Bones met that most influential member of the Cabinet at a very superior dinner-party, where everybody ate plovers' eggs as though it were a usual everyday occurrence.
And Mr. Parkinson Chenney talked on his favourite subject with great ease and charm, and his favourite subject was the question of the Chinese Concession. Apparently everybody had got concessions in China except the British, until one of our cleverest diplomatists stepped in and procured for us the most amazingly rich coalfield of Wei-hai-tai. The genius and foresight of this diplomatist—who had actually gone to China in the Long Vacation, and of his own initiative and out of his own head had evolved these concessions, which were soon to be ratified by a special commission which was coming from China—was a theme on which Mr. Parkinson Chenney spoke with the greatest eloquence. And everybody listened respectfully, because he was a great man.
"It is not for me," said Mr. Parkinson Chenney, toying with the stem of his champagne glass and closing his eyes modestly, "I say it is not for me—thank you, Perkins, I will have just as much as will come up to the brim; thank you, that will do very nicely—to speak boastfully or to enlarge unduly upon what I regard as a patriotic effort, and one which every citizen of these islands would in the circumstances have made, but I certainly plume myself upon the acumen and knowledge of the situation which I showed."
"Hear, hear!" said Bones in the pause that followed, and Mr. Parkinson Chenney beamed.
When the dinner was over, and the guests retired to the smoking-room, Bones buttonholed the minister.
"Dear old right honourable," said Bones, "may I just have a few words in re Chinese coal?"
The right honourable gentleman listened, or appeared to listen. Then Mr. Parkinson Chenney smiled a recognition to another great man, and moved off, leaving Bones talking.
Bones that night was the guest of a Mr. Harold Pyeburt, a City acquaintance—almost, it seemed, a disinterested City acquaintance. When Bones joined his host, Mr. Pyeburt patted him on the back.
"My dear Tibbetts," he said in admiration, "you've made a hit with Chenney. What the dickens did you talk about?"
"Oh, coal," said Bones vaguely.
He wasn't quite certain what he had talked about, only he knew that in his mind at dinner there had dawned a great idea. Was Mr. Pyeburt a thought-reader? Possibly he was. Or possibly some chance word of his had planted the seed which was now germinating so favourably.
"Chenney is a man to know," he said. "He's one of the most powerful fellows in the Cabinet. Get right with him, and you can have a knighthood for the asking."
"A knighthood, dear old broker's man?" he said, with an elaborate shrug. "No use to me, my rare old athlete. Lord Bones—Lord Tibbetts I mean—may sound beastly good, but what good is it, eh? Answer me that."
"Oh, I don't know," said Mr. Pyeburt. "It may be nothing to you, but your wife——"
"Haven't a wife, haven't a wife," said Bones rapidly, "haven't a wife!"
"Oh, well, then," said Mr. Pyeburt, "it isn't an attractive proposition to you, and, after all, you needn't take a knighthood—which, by the way, doesn't carry the title of lordship—unless you want to.
"I've often thought," he said, screwing up his forehead, as though in the process of profound cogitation, "that one of these days some lucky fellow will take the Lynhaven Railway off Chenney's hands and earn his everlasting gratitude."
"Lynhaven? Where's that?" asked Bones. "Is there a railway?"
Mr. Pyeburt nodded.
"Come out on to the balcony, and I'll tell you about it," said Pyeburt; and Bones, who always wanted telling about things, and could no more resist information than a dipsomaniac could refuse drink, followed obediently.
It appeared that Mr. Parkinson Chenney's father was a rich but eccentric man, who had a grudge against a certain popular seaside resort for some obscure reason, and had initiated a movement to found a rival town. So he had started Lynhaven, and had built houses and villas and beautiful assembly rooms; and then, to complete the independence of Lynhaven, he had connected that town with the main traffic line by railway, which he built across eight miles of marshland. By all the rules of the game, no man can create successfully in a spirit of vengeance, and Lynhaven should have been a failure. It was, indeed, a great success, and repaid Mr. Chenney, Senior, handsomely.
But the railway, it seemed, was a failure, because the rival town had certain foreshore rights, and had employed those to lay a tramway from their hustling centre; and as the rival town was on the main line, the majority of visitors preferred going by the foreshore route in preference to the roundabout branch line route, which was somewhat handicapped by the fact that this, too, connected with the branch line at Tolness, a little town which had done great work in the War, but which did not attract the tourist in days of peace.
These were the facts about the Lynhaven line, not as they were set forth by Mr. Pyeburt—who took a much more optimistic view of the possibilities of the railway than did its detractors—but as they really were.
"It's a fine line, beautifully laid and ballasted," said Mr. Pyeburt, shaking his head with melancholy admiration. "All that it wants behind it is a mind. At present it's neglected; the freights and passenger fares are too high, the rolling-stock wants replacing, but the locomotive stock is in most excellent condition."
"Does he want to sell it?" asked the interested Bones, and Mr. Pyeburt pursed his lips.
"It is extremely doubtful," he said carefully, "but I think he might be approached. If he does want to sell it, and you can take it off his hands——"
He raised his own eyebrows with a significant gesture, which expressed in some subtle way that Bones's future was assured.
Bones said he would think the matter over, and he did—aloud, in the presence of Hamilton.
"It's a queer proposition," said Hamilton. "Of course, derelict railways can be made to pay."
"I should be general manager," said Bones more thoughtfully still. "My name would be printed on all the posters, of course. And isn't there a free pass over all the railways for railway managers?"
"I believe there is something of the sort," said Hamilton, "but, on the whole, I think it would be cheaper to pay your fare than to buy a railway to get that privilege."
"There is one locomotive," mused Bones. "It is called 'Mary Louisa.' Pyeburt told me about it just as I was going away. Of course, one would get a bit of a name and all that sort of thing."
He scratched his chin and walked thoughtfully into the office of Miss Marguerite Whitland.
She swung round in her chair and reached for her notebook, but Bones was not in a dictatorial mood.
"Young miss," he asked, "how do you like Sir Augustus?"
"Sir who?" she demanded, puzzled.
"Sir Augustus," repeated Bones.
"I think it's very funny," she said.
It was not the answer he expected, and instinctively she knew she had made a mistake.
"Oh, you're thinking about yourself," she said quickly. "Are you going to be a knight, Mr. Tibbetts? Oh, how splendid!"
"Yes," admitted Bones, with fine indifference, "not bad, dear old miss. I'm pretty young, of course, but Napoleon was a general at twenty-two."
"Are you going back into the Army?" she asked a little hazily, and had visions of Bones at the War Office.
"I'm talking about railways," said Bones firmly. "Sir Augustus Tibbetts—there, now I've said it!"
"Wonderful!" said the girl enthusiastically, and her eyes shone with genuine pleasure. "I didn't see it in the newspaper, or I would have congratulated you before."
Bones shifted uneasily.
"As a matter of fact, dear old miss," he said, "it has not been gazetted yet. I'm merely speaking of the future, dear old impetuous typewriter and future secretary to the Lynhaven Railway Company, and possibly dear old Lady——" He stopped short with one of his audible "tuts."
Happily she could not see the capital "L" to the word "Lady," and missed the significance of Bones's interrupted speech.
He saw Mr. Harold Pyeburt at his office, and Mr. Harold Pyeburt had seen the Right Hon. Parkinson Chenney, and the right honourable gentleman had expressed his willingness to sell the railway, lock, stock, and barrel, for sixty thousand pounds.
"And I advise you"—Mr. Pyeburt paused, as he thought of a better word than "disinterestedly"—"as a friend, to jump at it. Parkinson Chenney spoke in the highest terms of you. You evidently made a deep impression upon him."
"Who is the jolly old Parkinson's agent?" asked Bones, and Mr. Harold Pyeburt admitted without embarrassment that, as a matter of fact, he was acting as Parkinson's attorney in this matter, and that was why he had been so diffident in recommending the property. The audacity of the latter statement passed unnoticed by Bones.
In the end Bones agreed to pay ten per cent. of the purchase price, the remainder to be paid after a month's working of the line, if the deal was approved.
"Clever idea of mine, dear old Ham," said Bones. "The Honours List will be out in a month, and I can easily chuck it."
"That's about the eighth fellow who's paid a ten per cent. deposit," said Mr. Chenney to his agent. "I'll be almost sorry if he takes it."
Three weeks later there were two important happenings. The Prime Minister of England, within an hour of leaving for the West of England to take a well-earned rest, summoned to him his right-hand man.
"Chenney," he said, "I really must go away for this rest, and I'm awfully sorry I cannot be on hand to meet the Chinese Commission. Now, whatever you do, you will not fail to meet them at Charing Cross on their arrival from the Continent. I believe they are leaving Paris to-morrow."
"I shall be there," said Parkinson Chenney, with a little smile. "I rather fancy I have managed their coal concession well, Prime Minister."
"Yes, yes," said the Prime Minister, who was not in the mood for handing out bouquets. "And would you run down to Tolness and settle up that infernal commission of inquiry? They've been asking questions in the House, and I can give no very definite reply. Solebury threatened to force a division when the vote came up. Undoubtedly there's been a great deal of extravagance, but you may be able to wangle a reasonable explanation."
"Trust me, Prime Minister," said Mr. Parkinson Chenney, and left that afternoon by special train for Tolness.
On that very morning Bones, in a pair of overalls and with a rapt expression, stood with his hand on the starting lever of "Mary Louisa," and explained to the secretary of the company—she also wore white overalls and sat in the cab of the engine—just how simple a matter it was to drive a locomotive.
For two glorious days Bones had driven the regular service between Lynhaven and Bayham Junction, where the lines met. He had come to know every twist and turn of the road, every feature of the somewhat featureless landscape, and the four passengers who travelled regularly every day except Sundays—there was no Sunday service—were now so familiar to him that he did not trouble to take their tickets.
The Lynhaven Railway system was not as elaborate as he had thought. He had been impressed by the number of railway trucks which stood in the siding at the terminus, but was to discover that they did not belong to the railway, the rolling stock of which consisted of "Mary Louisa," an asthmatic but once famous locomotive, and four weather-beaten coaches. The remainder of the property consisted of a half right in a bay platform at Bayham Junction and the dilapidated station building at Lynhaven, which was thoughtfully situated about two miles from the town.
Nobody used the railway; that was the stark truth borne in upon Marguerite Whitland. She recognised, with a sense of dismay, the extraordinary badness of the bargain which Bones had made. Bones, with a real locomotive to play with—he had given the aged engine-driver a week's holiday—saw nothing but the wonderful possibilities of pulling levers and making a mass of rusting machinery jerk asthmatically forward at the touch of his hand.
"There are a lot of people," said Bones, affectionately patting a steam pipe, "a lot of people," he said, after sucking his fingers, for the steam was extraordinarily hot, "who think poor old 'Mary Louisa' is done for. Believe me, dear old miss, this locomotive wants a jolly lot of beating, she does really. I haven't tried her full out—have I, jolly old stoker?"
The jolly old stoker, aged seventeen, shook a grimy face.
"And don't you try, neither," he said ominously. "Old George, he never takes her more than quarter speed, he don't."
"Do you hear, dear old miss?" said Bones triumphantly. "Not more than quarter speed. I tell you I could make enough money out of this engine alone to pay the whole cost of the railway.
"What about giving engine-driving lessons? That's an idea! And what about doing wonderful cinema pictures? That's another idea! Thrilling rescues from the train; jolly old hero struggling like mad on the roof of the carriage; railway collisions, and so forth, and so on."
"You can't have a collision unless you've two engines," said the girl.
"Oh, well," said the optimistic Bones, "we could perhaps borrow an engine from the Great Northern."
He looked down at the girl, then looked at his watch.
"Time to be up and doing, dear old thing," he said, and looked back along the little train. The aged guard was sitting on a barrow, his nodding head testifying to the sleep-giving qualities of Lynhaven air. Bones jerked the whistle, there was an unearthly shriek, and the guard woke up. He looked at his watch, yawned, searched the train for passengers, waved his flag, and climbed into his little compartment.
The engine shrieked again. Bones pulled over the lever gently, and there was a gratifying chuck-chuck-chuck. Bones smiled down at the girl.
"Easy as shelling peas, dear old thing," he said, "and this time I'm going to show you just how she can go."
"Old Joe don't let her go more than quarter speed," said the diminutive stoker warningly.
"Blow old Joe!" said Bones severely. "He's a jolly unenterprising old engine-driver. That's why the naughty old line doesn't pay. The idea of running 'Mary Louisa' at quarter speed!"
He turned to the girl for approval, but she felt that, in the circumstances and with only the haziest knowledge of engineering, it would be wiser to offer no opinion.
Bones pushed the lever a little farther over, and the "Mary Louisa" reeled under the shock.
"In re knighthood, dear old miss," said Bones confidentially. His words came jerkily, because the footplate of an outraged locomotive pounding forward at an unaccustomed speed was not a good foundation for continued eloquence. "Rendering the jolly old country a service—helping the Cabinet—dear old Chenney awfully fond of me——"
"Aren't we going rather fast?" said the girl, gripping the side of the cab for support.
"Not at all," jerked Bones, "not at all. I am going to show 'em just how this——"
He felt a touch on his arm, and looked down at the diminutive stoker.
"There's a lot of sand round here," said the melancholy child; "it won't hurt you to jump I'm going to."
"Jump!" gasped Bones. "What do you mean? Hey! Don't do that, you silly young——"
But his black-visaged assistant was already poised on the step of the engine, and Bones, looking back, saw him performing somersaults down a sandy slope. Bones looked at the girl in amazement.
"Suicide, dear old miss!" he said in an awed voice. "Terrible!"
"Isn't that a station?" said the girl, more interested for the moment in her own future.
Bones peered through the windows ahead.
"That's the junction, dear old thing," he said. "This is where we stop her."
He tugged at the lever, but the lever was not to be moved. He tugged desperately, but it seemed the steel bar was riveted in position. The "Mary Louisa" was leaping along at an incredible speed, and less than five hundred yards away was the dead-end of the Bayham platform, into which the Lynhaven train was due to run.
Bones went white and looked at the girl with fearful eyes. He took a swift scrutiny to the left and right, but they had passed out of the sandy country, and any attempt to leave the train now would mean certain destruction.
* * * * *
The Right Honourable Mr. Parkinson Chenney had concluded a very satisfactory morning's work of inspection at Tolness, and had secured all the information he needed to answer any question which might be put to him in Parliament by the best-informed of questioners.
He was lunching with the officers of the small garrison, when a telephone message was brought to him. He read it and smiled.
"Good!" he said. "Gentlemen, I am afraid I have to leave you a little earlier than I expected. Colonel Wraggle, will you see that my special train is ready! I must leave in ten minutes. The Chinese Commission has arrived," he said impressively, "or, rather, it arrives in London this afternoon, and I am deputed by the Prime Minister——"
He explained to his respectful audience just what part he had played in securing Chinese Coal Concessions. He made a little speech on the immense value to the Empire in particular and the world in general of these new coalfields which had been secured to the country through the acumen, genius, forethought, and patriotic disinterestedness of the Cabinet.
He would not claim to set any particular merit on his own action, and went on to claim it. By which time his train was ready. It was indeed vital that he should be in London to meet a commission which had shown such reluctance to trade with foreign devils, and had been, moreover, so punctilious in its demand for ceremonious receptions, but he had not the slightest doubt about his ability to reach London before the boat train arrived. He had two and a half hours, and two and a half hours gave him an ample margin of time.
Just before his special rounded the bend which brought it within sight of Bayham Junction the Lynhaven express had reached within a few hundred yards of annihilation. The signalman at Bayham Junction had watched the oncoming rush of Bones's train, and, having a fairly extensive knowledge of the "Mary Louisa" and her eccentricities, he realised just what had happened.
There was only one thing to be done. He could see the smoke from the Cabinet Minister's special rising above the cutting two miles away, and he threw over two levers simultaneously. The first set the points which brought the Lynhaven express on to the main line, switching it from the deadly bay wherein the runaway train would have been smashed to pieces; the second lever set the distant signal against the special. It was a toss-up whether the special had not already passed the distant signal, but he had to take that risk.
Bones, with his arm round the girl, awaiting a noisy and violent dissolution, felt the "Mary Louisa" sway to the right when it should have swayed to the left, heard the clang of the points as he passed them, and drew a long breath when he found himself headed along a straight clear stretch of line. It was some time before he found his voice, and then it was little more than a squeak.
"We're going to London, dear old thing," he said tremulously.
The girl smiled, though her face was deathly pale.
"I thought we were going to heaven," she said.
"Never, dear old thing," said Bones, recovering something of his spirits as he saw the danger past. "Old Bones will never send you there."
The problem of the "Mary Louisa" was still unsettled. She was tearing away like a Flying Dutchman. She was oozing steam at every pore, and, glancing back, Bones saw the agitated countenance of the aged guard thrust through the window. He waved frantically at Bones, and Bones waved genially back again.
He was turning back to make another attempt on the lever, when, looking past the guard, he saw a sight which brought his heart into his mouth. Pounding along behind him, and emitting feathers of steam from her whistle, was an enormous locomotive. Bones guessed there was a train behind it, but the line was too straight for him to see.
"Gracious heavens!" he gasped. "We're being chased!"
He jerked at the lever—though it was a moment when he should have left it severely alone—and to his ill-founded joy it moved.
The two trains came to a standstill together ten miles from Bayham Junction, and Bones climbed down into the six-foot way and walked back.
Almost the first person he met was a gesticulating gentleman in a frock coat and with a red face, who, mistaking him for an engine-driver, dismissed him on the spot, threatened him with imprisonment—with or without hard labour he did not specify—and demanded what the dickens he meant by holding up a Cabinet Minister?
"Why," chortled Bones, "isn't it my dear friend, Mr. Chenney?"
"Who are you," snarled Mr. Chenney, "and what do you mean by calling me your dear friend? By Heavens, I'll have you kicked out of this service!"
"Don't you know old Tibbetts?" cooed Bones. "Well, well, fancy meeting you!"
He held out a grimy hand, which was not taken.
"Tibbetts!" growled the gentleman. "Oh, you are the foo—the gentleman who bought the Lynhaven line, didn't you?"
"Certainly," said Bones.
"But what is your train doing here?" asked Mr. Chenney violently. "Don't you realise you are holding up a special? Great Heavens, man, this is very serious! You are holding up the business of the country!"
The engine-driver of the special came to the rescue.
"There's a switch-over about half a mile further on," he said. "There's not a down train due for an hour. I'll unlock the switch and put you on to the other line, and, after we have passed, you can come on."
"But I don't want to come on, dear old thing," said Bones. "I want to go back."
"Well, that's simple," said the driver.
He it was who piloted the Lynhaven express for another half-mile up the road. He it was who found the switches, unlocked them, telegraphed to the next station to hold up traffic, and he it was—Bones insisted upon this—who brought the "Mary Louisa" along the switch to the down line.
The position was as follows: The "Mary Louisa" was on the down line. Two coaches were between the down and the up line, and the guard's van was exactly on the up line, when the "Mary Louisa" refused to work any further.
Neither the experienced engine-driver, nor Bones, nor the stoker of the special, nor Mr. Chenney, nor the ancient guard, could coax the "Mary Louisa" to move another yard. The Lynhaven express stretched across both lines and made all further progress for traffic impossible.
Three hours later a breakdown gang arrived and towed the "Mary Louisa" and her appendages back to Bayham Junction.
Bones and the girl went back to London by the last train, and Bones was very thoughtful and silent.
But Bones was ever an optimist. The next morning he saw on a newspaper placard: "Birthday Honours. Twenty-two New Knights." And he actually stopped his car, bought a paper, and searched the lists for his name. It was not there.
A STUDENT OF MEN
Mr. Jackson Hyane was one of those oldish-looking young men to whom the description of "man about town" most naturally applied. He was always well-dressed and correctly dressed. You saw him at first nights. He was to be seen in the paddock at Ascot—it was a shock to discover that he had not the Royal Enclosure badge on the lapel of his coat—and he was to be met with at most of the social functions, attendance at which did not necessarily imply an intimate acquaintance with the leaders of Society, yet left the impression that the attendant was, at any rate, in the swim, and might very well be one of the principal swimmers.
He lived off Albemarle Street in a tiny flat, and did no work of any kind whatever. His friends, especially his new friends, thought he "had a little money," and knew, since he told them, that he had expectations. He did not tell them that his expectations were largely bound up in their credulity and faith in his integrity. Some of them discovered that later, but the majority drifted out of his circle poorer without being wiser, for Mr. Hyane played a wonderful game of piquet, and seemed to be no more than abnormally lucky.
His mother had been a Miss Whitland, his father was the notorious Colonel Hyane, who boasted that his library was papered with High Court writs, and who had had the distinction of being escorted from Monte Carlo by the police of the Principality.
Mr. Jackson Hyane was a student of men and affairs. Very little escaped his keen observation, and he had a trick of pigeon-holing possibilities of profit, and forgetting them until the moment seemed ripe for their exploitation. He was tall and handsome, with a smile which was worth at least five thousand pounds a year to him, for it advertised his boyish innocence and enthusiasm—he who had never been either a boy or enthusiastic.
One grey October day he put away his pass-book into a drawer and locked it, and took from a mental pigeon-hole the materials of an immature scheme. He dressed himself soberly and well, strolled down into Piccadilly, and calling a cab, drove to the block of City buildings which housed the flourishing business of Tibbetts and Hamilton, Limited.
The preliminaries to this invasion had been very carefully settled. He had met Miss Marguerite Whitland by "accident" a week before, had called at her lodgings with an old photograph of her father, which he had providentially discovered, and had secured from her a somewhat reluctant acceptance of an invitation to lunch.
Bones looked up from his desk as the debonair young man strolled in.
"You don't know me, Mr. Tibbetts," said Jackson Hyane, flashing his famous smile. "My name is Hyane."
It was his first meeting with Bones, but by no means the first time that Jackson had seen him.
"My dear old Hyane, sit down," said Bones cheerfully. "What can we do for you?"
Mr. Hyane laughed.
"There's nothing you can do for me, except to spare your secretary for an hour longer than she usually takes."
"My secretary?" said Bones quickly, and shot a suspicious glance at the visitor.
"I mean Miss Whitland," said Hyane easily. "She is my cousin, you know. My mother's brother was her father."
"Oh, yes," said Bones a little stiffly.
He felt a sense of the strongest resentment against the late Professor Whitland. He felt that Marguerite's father had played rather a low trick on him in having a sister at all, and Mr. Hyane was too keen a student to overlook Bones's obvious annoyance.
"Yes," he went on carelessly, "we are quite old friends, Marguerite and I, and you can't imagine how pleased I am that she has such an excellent job as this."
"Oh, yes," said Bones, clearing his throat. "Very nice old—very good typewriter indeed, Mr. Hyane ... very nice person ... ahem!"
Marguerite, dressed for the street, came in from her office at that moment, and greeted her cousin with a little nod, which, to the distorted vision of Bones, conveyed the impression of a lifelong friendship.
"I have just been asking Mr. Tibbetts," said Hyane, "if he could spare you for an extra hour."
"I am afraid that can't——" the girl began.
"Nonsense, nonsense!" said Bones, raising his voice as he invariably did when he was agitated. "Certainly, my dear old—er—my dear young—er—certainly, Miss Marguerite, by all means, take your cousin to the Zoo ... I mean show him the sights."
He was patently agitated, and watched the door close on the two young people with so ferocious a countenance that Hamilton, a silent observer of the scene, could have laughed.
Bones walked slowly back to his desk as Hamilton reached for his hat.
"Come on, Bones," he said briskly. "It's lunch time. I had no idea it was so late."
But Bones shook his head.
"No, thank you, dear old thing," he said sadly. "I'd rather not, if you don't mind."
"Aren't you coming to lunch?" asked Hamilton, astonished.
Bones shook his head.
"No, dear old boy," he said hollowly. "Ask the girl to send me up a stiff glass of soda-water and a biscuit—I don't suppose I shall eat the biscuit."
"Nonsense!" said Hamilton. "Half an hour ago you were telling me you could eat a cart-horse."
"Not now, old Ham," said Bones. "If you've ordered it, send it back. I hate cart-horses, anyway."
"Come along," wheedled Hamilton, dropping his hand on the other's shoulder. "Come and eat. Who was the beautiful boy?"
"Beautiful boy?" laughed Bones bitterly. "A fop, dear old Ham! A tailor's dummy! A jolly old clothes-horse—that's what he was. I simply loathe these people who leap around the City for a funeral. It's not right, dear old thing. It's not manly, dear old sport. What the devil did her father have a sister for? I never knew anything about it."
"They ought to have told you," said Hamilton sympathetically. "Now come and have some food."
But Bones refused. He was adamant. He would sit there and starve. He did not say as much, but he hinted that, when Hamilton returned, his famished and lifeless form would be found lying limply across the desk. Hamilton went out to lunch alone, hurried through his meal, and came back to find Bones alive but unhappy.
He sat making faces at the table, muttering incoherent words, gesticulating at times in the most terrifying manner, and finally threw himself back into his deep chair, his hands thrust into his trousers pockets, the picture of dejection and misery.
It was three o'clock when Miss Marguerite Whitland returned breathless, and, to Bones's jealous eye, unnecessarily agitated.
"Come, come, dear old miss," he said testily. "Bring your book. I wish to dictate an important letter. Enjoyed your lunch?"
The last question was asked in so threatening a tone that the girl almost jumped.
"Yes—no," she said. "Not very much really."
"Ha, ha!" said Bones, insultingly sceptical, and she went red, flounced into her room, and returned, after five minutes, a haughty and distant young woman.
"I don't think I want to dictate, dear old—dear young typewriter," he said unhappily. "Leave me, please."
"Really, my dear Bones," protested Hamilton, when the girl had gone back, scarlet-faced to her office, "you're making a perfect ass of yourself. If a girl cannot go to lunch with her cousin——"
Bones jumped up from his chair, shrugged his shoulders rapidly, and forced a hideous grin.
"What does it matter to me, dear old Ham?" he asked. "Don't think I'm worried about a little thing like a typewriter going out to lunch. Pooh! Absurd! Tommy rot! No, my partner, I don't mind—in fact, I don't care a——"
"Jot," said Hamilton, with the gesture of an outraged bishop.
"Of course not," said Bones wildly. "What does it matter to me? Delighted that young typewriter should have a cousin, and all that sort of thing!"
"Then what the dickens is the matter with you?" asked Hamilton.
"Nothing," said Bones, and laughed more wildly than ever.
Relationships between Mr. Augustus Tibbetts, Managing Director of Schemes Limited, and Miss Marguerite Whitland, his heaven-sent secretary, were strained to the point of breaking that afternoon. She went away that night without saying good-bye, and Bones, in a condition of abject despair, walked home to Devonshire Street, and was within a dozen yards of his flat, when he remembered that he had left his motor-car in the City, and had to take a cab back to fetch it.
"Bones," said Hamilton the next morning, "do you realise the horrible gloom which has come over this office?"
"Gloom, dear old Ham?" said the dark-eyed Bones. He had spent the night writing letters to Marguerite, and had exhausted all the stationery in sight in the process. "Gloom, old thing! Good gracious, no! Nobody is gloomy here!"
"I can tell you somebody who is," said Hamilton grimly. "That unfortunate girl you've been barking at all the morning——"
"Barking at her?" gasped Bones. "Gracious Heavens, I haven't betrayed my worried condition of mind, dear old thing? I thought I hid it rather well."
"What on earth are you worried about?" asked Hamilton, and Bones shrugged.
"Oh, nothing," he said. "Nothing at all. A little fever, dear old thing, contracted in the service of King—God bless him!—and country."
Hamilton's words had this effect, that he brightened visibly, and for the rest of the morning was almost normal. His spirits took a quick downward turn at five minutes to one, when the debonair Mr. Hyane appeared most unexpectedly.
"I'm afraid you'll think I'm a most awful nuisance, Mr. Tibbetts," he said, "but there are so many things which I must really talk to my cousin about—family affairs, you know."
"Don't apologise," said Bones gruffly.
"I shan't keep her beyond the hour," smiled Mr. Hyane. "I realise that you are a very busy man."
Bones said nothing, and when Marguerite Whitland appeared, he had gained sufficient control of his emotions to indulge in a feeble jest. The girl's face was a study at the sight of her cousin. Hamilton, a disinterested observer, read astonishment, annoyance, and resignation in the wide-opened eyes. Bones, who prided himself upon a working knowledge of physiognomy, diagnosed the same symptoms as conveying a deep admiration combined with the re-awakening of a youthful love.
"Hello, Jackson!" she said coldly. "I didn't expect to see you."
"I told you I would call," he smiled. "I must see you, Marguerite, and Mr. Tibbetts has been so kind that I am sure he will not mind me——"
"Mr. Tibbetts is not concerned about the manner in which I spend my lunch hour," she said stiffly, and Bones groaned inwardly.
There was a silence which Hamilton had not the heart to break after the two had gone, and it was Bones who uttered the first comment.
"That's that," he said, and his voice was so quiet and normal that Hamilton stared at him in astonishment.
"Let's have lunch," said Bones briskly, and led the way out.
Not even when Miss Whitland came to him that afternoon and asked for permission to take two days' holiday did his manner change. With a courtesy entirely free from that extravagance to which she had grown accustomed, he acceded to her request, and she was on the point of explaining to him the reason she had so unexpectedly asked for a vacation, but the memory of his earlier manner checked her.
It was a very simple explanation. Jackson Hyane was a very plausible man. Marguerite Whitland had heard something of her erratic cousin, but certainly nothing in his manner supported the more lurid descriptions of his habits. And Mr. Jackson Hyane had begged her, in the name of their relationships, to take a trip to Aberdeen to examine title-deeds which, he explained, would enable her to join with him in an action of the recovery of valuable Whitland property which was in danger of going to the Crown, and she had consented.
The truth was, there had always been some talk in the family of these estates, though nobody knew better than Jackson Hyane how unsubstantial were the claims of the Whitlands to the title. But the Scottish estate had been docketed away in the pigeon-holes of his mind, and promised to be more useful than he had anticipated.
That afternoon he packed his bag at his flat, put his passport and railway tickets together in his inside pocket, and made his final preparations for departure.
An old crony of his called whilst he was drinking the cup of tea which the housekeeper of the flats had prepared, and took in the situation revealed by the packed suit-cases and the burnt papers in the hearth.
"Hello, Johnny!" he said. "You're getting out, eh?"
Jackson nodded. There was no need to pretend anything with one of his own class.
"Couldn't you square the bank?"
Jackson shook his head.
"No, Billy," he said cheerfully, "I couldn't square it. At this identical moment there are several eminent people in the West End of London who are making applications for warrants."
"Dud cheques, eh?" asked the other thoughtfully. "Well, it had to come, Johnny. You've had a lot of bad luck."
"Atrocious," said Mr. Jackson Hyane. "There's plenty of money in Town, but it's absolutely impossible to get at it. I haven't touched a mug for two months, and I've backed more seconds than I care to think about. Still," he mused, "there's a chance."
His friends nodded. In their circle there was always "a chance," but he could not guess that that chance which the student of men, Mr. Jackson Hyane, was banking upon answered indifferently to the name of Tibbetts or Bones.
At half-past eight that night he saw his cousin off from King's Cross. He had engaged a sleeper for her, and acted the part of dutiful relative to the life, supplying her with masses of literature to while away the sleepless hours of the journey.
"I feel awfully uncomfortable about going away," said the girl, in a troubled voice. "Mr. Tibbetts would say that he could spare me even if he were up to his eyes in work. And I have an uncomfortable feeling at the back of my mind that there was something I should have told him—and didn't."
"Queer bird, Tibbetts!" said the other curiously. "They call him Bones, don't they?"
"I never do," said the girl quietly; "only his friends have that privilege. He is one of the best men I have ever met."
"Sentimental, quixotic, and all that sort of thing, eh?" said Jackson, and the girl flushed.
"He has never been sentimental with me," she said, but did not deceive the student of men.
When the train had left the station, he drove straightaway to Devonshire Street. Bones was in his study, reading, or pretending to read, and the last person he expected to see that evening was Mr. Jackson Hyane. But the welcome he gave to that most unwelcome visitor betrayed neither his distrust nor his frank dislike of the young well-groomed man in evening-dress who offered him his hand with such a gesture of good fellowship.
"Sit down, Mr.—er——" said Bones.
There was a cold, cold feeling at his heart, a sense of coming disaster, but Bones facing the real shocks and terrors of life was a different young man from the Bones who fussed and fumed over its trifles.
"I suppose you wonder why I have come to see you, Mr. Tibbetts," said Hyane, taking a cigarette from the silver box on the table. "I rather wonder why I have the nerve to see you myself. I've come on a very delicate matter."
There was a silence.
"Indeed?" said Bones a little huskily, and he knew instinctively what that delicate matter was.
"It is about Marguerite," said Mr. Hyane.
Bones inclined his head.
"You see, we have been great pals all our lives," went on Jackson Hyane, pulling steadily at the cigarette—"in fact, sweethearts."
His keen eyes never left the other's face, and he read all he wanted to know.
"I am tremendously fond of Marguerite," he went on, "and I think I am not flattering myself when I say that Marguerite is tremendously fond of me. I haven't been especially fortunate, and I have never had the money which would enable me to offer Marguerite the kind of life which a girl so delicately nurtured should have."
"Very admirable," said Bones, and his voice came to his own ears as the voice of a stranger.
"A few days ago," Mr. Hyane went on, "I was offered a tea plantation for fourteen thousand pounds. The prospects were so splendid that I went to a financier who is a friend of mine, and he undertook to provide the money, on which, of course, I agreed to pay an interest. The whole future, which had been so black, suddenly became as bright as day. I came to Marguerite, as you saw, with the news of my good luck, and asked her if she would be my wife."
Bones said nothing; his face was a mask.
"And now I come to my difficulty, Mr. Tibbetts," said Hyane. "This afternoon Marguerite and I played upon you a little deception which I hope you will forgive."
"Certainly, certainly" mumbled Bones, and gripped the arms of his chair the tighter.
"When I took Marguerite to lunch to-day," said Hyane, "it was to be—married."
"Married!" repeated Bones dully, and Mr. Hyane nodded.
"Yes, we were married at half-past one o'clock to-day at the Marylebone Registry Office, and I was hoping that Marguerite would be able to tell you her good news herself. Perhaps"—he smiled—"it isn't as good news to her as it is to me. But this afternoon a most tragic thing happened."
He threw away his cigarette, rose, and paced the room with agitated strides. He had practised those very strides all that morning, for he left nothing to chance.
"At three o'clock this afternoon I called upon my financier friend, and discovered that, owing to heavy losses which he had incurred on the Stock Exchange, he was unable to keep his promise. I feel terrible, Mr. Tibbetts! I feel that I have induced Marguerite to marry me under false pretences. I had hoped to-morrow morning to have gone to the agents of the estate and placed in their hands the cheque for fourteen thousand pounds, and to have left by the next mail boat for India."
He sank into the chair, his head upon his hands, and Bones watched him curiously.
Presently, and after an effort, Bones found his voice.
"Does your—your—wife know?" he asked.
Jackson shook his head.
"No," he groaned, "that's the terrible thing about it. She hasn't the slightest idea. What shall I tell her? What shall I tell her?"
"It's pretty rotten, old—Mr. Hyane." Bones found his voice after a while. "Deuced rotten for the young miss—for Mrs.—for her."
He did not move from his chair, nor relax his stiff expression. He was hurt beyond his own understanding, frantically anxious to end the interview, but at a loss to find an excuse until his eyes fell upon the clock over the mantelpiece.
"Come back at ten—no, half-past ten, young Mr. ... awfully busy now ... see you at half-past ten, eh?"
Mr. Hyane made a graceful exit, and left Bones alone with the shattered fragments of great romance.
So that was why she had gone off in such a hurry, and she had not dared to tell him. But why not? He was nothing to her ... he would never see her again! The thought made him cold. Never again! Never again! He tried to summon that business fortitude of his, of which he was so proud. He wanted some support, some moral support in this moment of acute anguish. Incidentally he wanted to cry, but didn't.
She ought to have given him a week's notice, he told himself fiercely, than laughed hysterically at the thought. He considered the matter from all its aspects and every angle, and was no nearer to peace of mind when, at half-past ten to the second, Mr. Jackson Hyane returned.
But Bones had formed one definite conclusion, and had settled upon the action he intended taking. Mr. Hyane, entering the study, saw the cheque book on the desk, and was cheered. Bones had to clear his voice several times before he could articulate.
"Mr. Hyane," he said huskily, "I have been thinking matters out. I am a great admirer of yours—of your—of yours—a tremendous admirer of yours, Mr. Hyane. Anything that made her happy, old Mr. Hyane, would make me happy. You see?"
"I see," said Mr. Hyane, and he had the satisfaction of knowing that he, a student of men, had not misread his victim.
"Fourteen thousand pounds," said Bones, turning abruptly to the desk and seizing his pen. "Make it payable to you?"
"You're too kind," murmured Hyane. "Make it an open cheque, Mr. Tibbetts—I have to pay the agents in cash. These Indian merchants are so suspicious."
Bones wrote the cheque rapidly, marked it "Pay Cash," and initialled the corrections, then tore the slip from the book and handed it to the other.
"Of course, Mr. Tibbetts," said Hyane reverentially, "I regard half this as a loan to me and half as a loan to my dear wife. We shall never forget your kindness."
"Rot!" said Bones. "Nonsense! I hope you'll be happy, and will you tell her——" He swallowed something.
There was a faint tinkle of a bell in the hall, and Ali, his servant, poked an ebony face round the corner of the door.
"Sir," he said, "the telephonic apparatus demands conversation."
Bones was glad of the interruption, and, with a muttered apology to his gratified guest, he strode out into the hall. Ali had accustomed himself to answering the telephone, but this time he had not understood the preliminary inquiry from exchange.
"Hello!" said Bones into the transmitter.
At the sound of the voice which answered him he nearly dropped the receiver.
"Is that Mr. Tibbetts?"
"Yes," said Bones hoarsely, and his heart beat a wild rataplan.
"I'm speaking from York, Mr. Tibbetts. I wanted to tell you that the key of the safe is in the drawer of my desk—the top drawer."
"That's all right, dear old—dear Mrs. Hyane."
"What is that you say?" asked the voice sharply.
"Congratulations, dear old missus," said Bones. "Hope you'll be awfully happy on your plantation."
"What do you mean?" asked the voice. "Did you call me Mrs. Hyane?"
"Yes," said Bones huskily.
He heard her laugh.
"How ridiculous you are! Did you really think I would ever marry my cousin?"
"But haven't you?" yelled Bones.
"What—married? Absurd! I'm going to Scotland to see about some family matter."
"You're not—not a Mrs.?" asked Bones emphatically.
"And never will be," said the girl. "What does it all mean? Tell me."
Bones drew a long breath.
"Come back by the next train, young miss," he said. "Let that jolly old family affair go to blazes. I'll meet you at the station and tell you everything."
"But—but——" said the girl.
"Do as you're told, young miss!" roared Bones, and hung up the receiver with a seraphic smile.
The door of his study was a thick one, and it was, moreover, protected from outside noises by a large baize door, and the student of men had heard nothing. Bones strode back into the room with a face so changed that Mr. Hyane could not but observe that something remarkable had happened.
"I'm afraid I'm keeping you up, Mr. Tibbetts," he said.
"Not at all," said Bones cheerfully. "Let's have a look at that cheque I gave you."
The other hesitated.
"Let me have a look at it," said Bones, and Mr. Hyane, with a smile, took it from his pocket and handed it to the other.
"Half for you and half for her, eh, dear old thing?" said Bones, and tore the cheque in two. "That's your half," he said, handing one portion to Mr. Hyane.
"What the devil are you doing?" demanded the other angrily, but Bones had him by the collar, and was kicking him along the all-too-short corridor.
"Open the door, Ali!" said Bones. "Open it wide, dear old heathen! Ooff!"
The "Ooff!" was accompanied by one final lunge of Bones's long legs.
At midnight Bones was sitting on the platform at King's Cross, alternately smoking a large pipe and singing tuneless songs. They told him that the next train from York would not arrive until three in the morning.
"That doesn't worry me, old thing. I'll wait all night."
"Expecting somebody, sir?" asked the inquisitive porter.
"Everybody, my dear old uniformed official," said Bones, "everybody!"
BONES HITS BACK
It may be said of Bones that he was in the City, but not of it. Never once had he been invited by the great and awe-inspiring men who dominate the finance of the City to participate in any of those adventurous undertakings which produce for the adventurers the fabulous profits about which so much has been written. There were times when Bones even doubted whether the City knew he was in it.
He never realised his own insignificance so poignantly as when he strolled through the City streets at their busiest hour, and was unrecognised even by the bareheaded clerks who dashed madly in all directions, carrying papers of tremendous importance.
The indifference of the City to Mr. Tibbetts and his partner was more apparent than real. It is true that the great men who sit around the green baize cloth at the Bank of England and arrange the bank rate knew not Bones nor his work. It is equally true that the very important personages who occupy suites of rooms in Lombard Street had little or no idea of his existence. But there were men, and rich and famous men at that, who had inscribed the name of Bones in indelible ink on the tablets of their memory.
The Pole Brothers were shipbrokers, and had little in common, in their daily transactions, with Mr. Harold de Vinne, who specialised in industrial stocks, and knew little more about ships than could be learnt in an annual holiday trip to Madeira. Practically there was no bridge to connect their intellects. Sentimentally, life held a common cause, which they discovered one day, when Mr. Fred Pole met Mr. Harold de Vinne at lunch to discuss a matter belonging neither to the realms of industrialism nor the mercantile marine, being, in fact, the question of Mr. de Vinne leasing or renting Mr. Pole's handsome riverside property at Maidenhead for the term of six months.
They might not have met even under these circumstances, but for the fact that some dispute arose as to who was to pay the gardener. That matter had been amicably settled, and the two had reached the coffee stage of their luncheon, when Mr. de Vinne mentioned the inadvisability—as a rule—of discussing business matters at lunch, and cited a deplorable happening when an interested eavesdropper had overheard certain important negotiations and had most unscrupulously taken advantage of his discovery.
"One of these days," said Mr. de Vinne between his teeth, "I'll be even with that gentleman." (He did not call him a gentleman.) "I'll give him Tibbetts! He'll be sorry he was ever born."
"Tibbetts?" said Mr. Fred Pole, sitting bolt upright. "Not Bones?"
The other nodded and seemed surprised.
"You don't know the dear fellow, do you?" he asked, only he did not use the expression "dear fellow."
"Know him?" said Mr. Fred, taking a long breath. "I should jolly well say I did know him. And my brother Joe knows him. That fellow——"
"That fellow——" began Mr. de Vinne, and for several minutes they talked together in terms which were uncomplimentary to Augustus Tibbetts.
It appeared, though they did not put the matter so crudely, that they had both been engaged in schemes for robbing Bones, and that in the pursuance of their laudable plans they had found themselves robbed by Bones.
Mr. de Vinne ordered another coffee and prepared to make an afternoon of it. They discussed Bones from several aspects and in various lights, none of which revealed his moral complexion at its best.
"And believe me," said Mr. de Vinne at the conclusion of his address for the prosecution, "there's money to be made out of that fellow. Why, I believe he has three hundred thousand pounds."
"Three hundred and forty thousand," said the more accurate Mr. Fred.
"A smart man could get it all," said Harold de Vinne, with conviction. "And when I say a smart man, I mean two smart men. I never thought that he had done anybody but me. It's funny I never heard of your case," he said. "He must have got the best of you in the early days."
Mr. Fred nodded.
"I was his first"—he swallowed hard and added—"mug!"
Mr. de Vinne pulled thoughtfully at his black cigar and eyed the ceiling of the restaurant absent-mindedly.
"There's nobody in the City who knows more about Tibbetts than me," he said. He was weak on the classical side, but rather strong on mathematics. "I've watched every transaction he's been in, and I think I have got him down fine."
"Mind you," said Fred, "I think he's clever."
"Clever!" said the other scornfully. "Clever! He's lucky, my dear chap. Things have just fallen into his lap. It's mug's luck that man has had."
Mr. Fred nodded. It was an opinion which he himself had held and ruminated upon.
"It is luck—sheer luck," continued Mr. de Vinne. "And if we'd been clever, we'd have cleaned him. We'll clean him yet," he said, stroking his chin more thoughtfully than ever, "but it's got to be done systematically."
Mr. Fred was interested. The possibility of relieving a fellow-creature of his superfluous wealth by legitimate means, and under the laws and rules which govern the legal transfer of property, was the absorbing interest of his life.
"It has got to be done cleverly, scientifically, and systematically," said Mr. de Vinne, "and there's no sense in jumping to a plan. What do you say to taking a bit of dinner with me at the Ritz-Carlton on Friday?"
Mr. Fred was very agreeable.
"I'll tell you the strength of Bones," said de Vinne, as they left the restaurant. "He was an officer on the West Coast of Africa. His boss was a man named Sanders, who's left the Service and lives at Twickenham. From what I can hear, this chap Tibbetts worships the ground that Sanders walks on. Evidently Sanders was a big bug in West Africa."
On Friday they resumed their conversation, and Mr. de Vinne arrived with a plan. It was a good plan. He was tremulous with pride at the thought of it, and demanded applause and approval with every second breath, which was unlike him.
He was a man of many companies, good, bad, and indifferent, and, reviewing the enterprises with which his name was associated, he had, without the slightest difficulty, placed his finger upon the least profitable and certainly the most hopeless proposition in the Mazeppa Trading Company. And nothing could be better for Mr. de Vinne's purpose, not, as he explained to Fred Pole, if he had searched the Stock Exchange Year Book from cover to cover.
Once upon a time the Mazeppa Trading Company had been a profitable concern. Its trading stores had dotted the African hinterland thickly. It had exported vast quantities of Manchester goods and Birmingham junk, and had received in exchange unlimited quantities of rubber and ivory. But those were in the bad old days, before authority came and taught the aboriginal natives the exact value of a sixpenny looking-glass.
No longer was it possible to barter twenty pounds' worth of ivory for threepennyworth of beads, and the flourishing Mazeppa Trading Company languished and died. Its managers had grown immensely wealthy from their peculations and private trading, and had come home and were occupying opulent villas at Wimbledon, whilst the new men who had been sent to take their places had been so inexperienced that profits fell to nothing. That, in brief, was the history of the Mazeppa Trading Company, which still maintained a few dilapidated stores, managed by half-castes and poor whites.
"I got most of the shares for a song," confessed Mr. de Vinne. "In fact, I happen to be one of the debenture-holders, and stepped in when things were going groggy. We've been on the point of winding it up—it is grossly over-capitalised—but I kept it going in the hope that something would turn up."
"What is the general idea?" asked Mr. Fred Pole, interested.
"We'll get a managing director," said Mr. de Vinne solemnly. "A man who is used to the handling of natives, a man acquainted with the West Coast of Africa, a man who can organise."
"Bones?" suggested Mr. Fred.
"Bones be—jiggered!" replied de Vinne scornfully. "Do you think he'd fall for that sort of thing? Not on your life! We're not going to mention it to Bones. But he has a pal—Sanders; you've heard of him. He's a commissioner or something on the West Coast, and retired. Now, my experience of a chap of that kind who retires is that he gets sick to death of doing nothing. If we could only get at him and persuade him to accept the managing directorship, with six months a year on the Coast, at a salary of, say, two thousand a year, conditional on taking up six or seven thousand pounds' worth of shares, what do you think would happen?"
Mr. Fred's imagination baulked at the problem, and he shook his head.
"I'll tell you what would happen," said Mr. de Vinne. "It happened once before, when another pal of Bones got let in on a motor car company. Bones fell over himself to buy the shares and control the company. And, mind you, the Mazeppa looks good. It's the sort of proposition that would appeal to a young and energetic man. It's one of those bogy companies that seem possible, and a fellow who knows the ropes would say straight away: 'If I had charge of that, I'd make it pay.' That's what I'm banking on."
"What are the shares worth?" said Fred.
"About twopence net," replied the other brutally. "I'll tell you frankly that I'd run this business myself if I thought there was any chance of my succeeding. But if Bones finds all the shares in one hand, he's going to shy. What I'm prepared to do is this. These shares are worth twopence. I'm going to sell you and a few friends parcels at a shilling a share. If nothing happens, I'll undertake to buy them back at the same price."
A week later Hamilton brought news to the office of Tibbetts and Hamilton, Limited.
"The chief is going back to the Coast."
Bones opened his mouth wide in astonishment.
"Back to the Coast?" he said incredulously. "You don't mean he's chucking jolly old Twickenham?"
"He's had an excellent offer from some people in the City to control a trading company. By the way, did you ever hear of the Mazeppa Company?" Bones shook his head.
"I've heard of Mazeppa," he said. "He was the naughty old gentleman who rode through the streets of Birmingham without any clothes."
"If I had your knowledge of history," he said despairingly, "I'd start a bone factory. You're thinking of Lady Godiva, but that doesn't matter. No, I don't suppose you've heard of the Mazeppa Company; it did not operate in our territory."
Bones shook his head and pursed his lips.
"But surely," he said, "dear old Excellency hasn't accepted a job without consulting me?"
Hamilton made derisive noises.
"He fixed it up in a couple of days," he said, after a while. "It doesn't mean he'll be living on the Coast, but he'll probably be there for some months in the year. The salary is good—in fact, it's two thousand a year. I believe Sanders has to qualify for directorship by taking some shares, but the dear chap is enthusiastic about it, and so is Patricia. It is all right, of course. Sanders got the offer through a firm of solicitors."
"Pooh!" said Bones. "Solicitors are nobody."
He learnt more about the company that afternoon, for Sanders called in and gave a somewhat roseate view of the future.
"The fact is, Bones, I am getting stale," he said, "and this looks like an excellent and a profitable occupation."
"How did you get to hear about it, Excellency?". asked Bones.
His attitude was one of undisguised antagonism. He might have been a little resentful that the opportunity had come to Sanders through any other agency than his own.
"I had a letter from the solicitors asking me if the idea appealed to me, and recalling my services on the Coast," said Sanders. "Of course I know very little about the Mazeppa Trading Company, though I had heard of it years gone past as a very profitable concern. The solicitors were quite frank, and told me that business had fallen off, due to inexperienced management. They pointed out the opportunities which existed—the possibilities of opening new stations—and I must confess that it appealed to me. It will mean hard work, but the salary is good."
"Hold hard, Sir and Excellency," said Bones. "What did you have to put up in the way of shares?"
Sanders flushed. He was a shy man, and not given to talking about his money affairs.
"Oh, about five thousand pounds," he said awkwardly. "Of course, it's a lot of money; but even if the business isn't successful, I have a five-year contract with the company, and I get more than my investment back in salary."
That night Bones stayed on after Hamilton had left, and had for companion Miss Marguerite Whitland, a lady in whose judgment he had a most embarrassing faith. He had given her plenty of work to do, and the rhythmical tap-tap of her typewriter came faintly through the door which separated the outer from the inner office.
Bones sat at his desk, his chin in his hand, a very thoughtful young man, and before him was a copy of the latest evening newspaper, opened at the Stock Exchange page. There had been certain significant movements in industrial shares—a movement so interesting to the commentator upon Stock Exchange doings that he had inserted a paragraph to the effect that:
"The feature of the industrial market was the firmness of Mazeppa Trading shares, for which there was a steady demand, the stock closing at 19s. 9d. Mazeppa shares have not been dealt in within the House for many years, and, in fact, it was generally believed that the Company was going into liquidation, and the shares could be had for the price of the paper on which they were printed. It is rumoured in the City that the Company is to be reconstructed, and that a considerable amount of new capital has been found, with the object of expanding its existing business."
Bones read the paragraph many times, and at the conclusion of each reading returned to his reverie. Presently he rose and strolled into the office of his secretary, and the girl looked up with a smile as Bones seated himself on the edge of her table.
"Young miss," he said soberly, "do you ever hear anybody talking about me in this jolly old City?"
"Why, yes," she said in surprise.
"Fearfully complimentarily, dear old miss?" asked Bones carelessly, and the girl's colour deepened.
"I don't think it matters what people say about one, do you?"
"It doesn't matter to me," said Bones, "so long as one lovely old typewriter has a good word for poor old Bones." He laid his hand upon hers, and she suffered it to remain there without protest. "They think I'm a silly old ass, don't they?"
"Oh, no," she said quickly, "they don't think that. They say you're rather unconventional."
"Same thing," said Bones. "Anybody who's unconventional in business is a silly old ass."
He squeezed the hand under his, and again she did not protest or withdraw it from his somewhat clammy grip.
"Dear old darling——" began Bones, but she stopped him with a warning finger.
"Dear old typewriter," said Bones, unabashed, but obedient, "suppose something happened to the clever old Johnny who presides over this office—the brains of the department, if I may be allowed to say so?"
"Captain Hamilton?" said the girl in surprise.
"No, me," said Bones, annoyed. "Gracious Heavens, dear old key-tapper, didn't I say me?"
"Something happen to you?" she said in alarm. "Why, what could happen to you?"
"Suppose I went broke?" said Bones, with the comfortable air of one who was very unlikely to go broke. "Suppose I had terrific and tremendous and cataclysmic and what's-the-other-word losses?"
"But you're not likely to have those, are you?" she asked.
"Not really," said Bones, "but suppose?"
She saw that, for once, when he was speaking to her, his mind was elsewhere, and withdrew her hand. It was a fact that Bones did not seem to notice the withdrawal.
"Poor old Bones, poor old mug!" said Bones softly. "I'm a funny old devil."
The girl laughed.
"I don't know what you're thinking about," she said, "but you never strike me as being particularly funny, or poor, or old, for the matter of that," she added demurely.
Bones stooped down from the table and laid his big hand on her head, rumpling her hair as he might have done to a child.
"You're a dear old Marguerite," he said softly, "and I'm not such a ditherer as you think. Now, you watch old Bones." And, with that cryptic remark, he stalked back to his desk.
Two days after this he surprised Hamilton.
"I'm expecting a visitor to-day, old Ham," he said. "A Johnny named de Vinne."
"De Vinne?" frowned Hamilton. "I seem to know that name. Isn't he the gentleman you had the trouble with over the boots?"
"That's the jolly old robber," said Bones cheerfully. "I've telegraphed and asked him to come to see me."
"About what?" demanded Hamilton.
"About two o'clock," said Bones. "You can stay and see your old friend through, or you can let us have it out with the lad in camera."
"I'll stay," said Hamilton. "But I don't think he'll come."
"I do," said Bones confidently, and he was justified in his confidence, for at two o'clock to the second Mr. de Vinne appeared.
He was bright and cheerful, even genial to Bones, and Bones was almost effusive in his welcome.
"Sit down there in the most comfortable chair, happy old financier," he said, "and open your young heart to old Bones about the Mazeppa Trading Company."
Mr. de Vinne did not expect so direct an attack, but recovered from his surprise without any apparent effort.
"Oh, so you know I was behind that, do you? How the dickens did you find out?"
"Stock Exchange Year Book, dear old thing. Costs umpteen and sixpence, and you can find out everything you want to know about the directors of companies," said Bones.
"By Jove! That's clever of you," said de Vinne, secretly amused, for it was from the Year Book that he expected Bones to make the discovery.
"Now, what's the game, old financial gentleman?" asked Bones. "Why this fabulous salary to friend Sanders and selling this thousands of pounds worth of shares, eh?"
The other shrugged his shoulders.
"My dear chap, it's a business transaction. And really, if I thought you were going to interrogate me on that, I shouldn't have come. Is Mr. Sanders a friend of yours?" he asked innocently.
"Shurrup!" said Bones vulgarly. "You know jolly well he's a friend of mine. Now, what is the idea, young company promoter?"
"It's pretty obvious," replied de Vinne, taking the expensive cigar which Bones had imported into the office for the purpose. "The position is a good one——"
"Half a mo'," said Bones. "Do you personally guarantee Mr. Sanders's salary for five years?"
The other laughed.
"Of course not. It is a company matter," he said, "and I should certainly not offer a personal guarantee for the payment of any salary."
"So that, if the company goes bust in six months' time, Mr. Sanders loses all the money he has invested and his salary?"
The other raised his shoulders again with a deprecating smile.
"He would, of course, have a claim against the company for his salary," he said.
"A fat lot of good that would be!" answered Bones.
"Now, look here, Mr. Tibbetts"—the other leaned confidentially forward, his unlighted cigar between his teeth—"there is no reason in the world why the Mazeppa Company shouldn't make a fortune for the right man. All it wants is new blood and capable direction. I confess," he admitted, "that I have not the time to give to the company, otherwise I'd guarantee a seven per cent. dividend on the share capital. Why, look at the price of them to-day——"
Bones stopped him.
"Any fool can get the shares up to any price he likes, if they're all held in one hand," he said.
"What?" said the outraged Mr. de Vinne. "Do you suggest I have rigged the market? Besides, they're not all in one hand. They're pretty evenly distributed."
"Who holds 'em?" asked Bones curiously.
"Well, I've got a parcel, and Pole Brothers have a parcel."
"Pole Brothers, eh?" said Bones, nodding. "Well, well!"
"Come, now, be reasonable. Don't be suspicious, Mr. Tibbetts," said the other genially. "Your friend's interests are all right, and the shareholders' interests are all right. You might do worse than get control of the company yourself."
"I was thinking of that," he said.
"I assure you," said Mr. de Vinne with great earnestness, "that the possibilities of the Mazeppa Trading Company are unlimited. We have concessions from the Great River to the north of the French territory——"
"Not worth the paper they're written on, dear old kidder," said Bones, shaking his head. "Chiefs' concessions without endorsement from the Colonial Office are no good, dear old thing."
"But the trading concessions are all right," insisted the other. "You can't deny that. You understand the Coast customs better than I do. Trading customs hold without endorsement from the Colonial Office."
Bones had to admit that that was a fact.
"I'll think it over," he said. "It appeals to me, old de Vinne. It really does appeal to me. Who own the shares?"
"I can give you a list," said Mr. de Vinne, with admirable calm, "and you'd be well advised to negotiate privately with these gentlemen. You'd probably get the shares for eighteen shillings." He took a gold pencil from his pocket and wrote rapidly a list of names, and Bones took the paper from his hand and scrutinised them.
Hamilton, a silent and an amazed spectator of the proceedings, waited until de Vinne had gone, and then fell upon his partner.
"You're not going to be such a perfect jackass——" he began, but Bones's dignified gesture arrested his eloquence.
"Dear old Ham," he said, "senior partner, dear old thing! Let old Bones have his joke."
"Do you realise," said Hamilton, "that you are contemplating the risk of a quarter of a million? You're mad, Bones!"
"Go down to our broker and buy ten thousand shares in old Mazeppa, Ham," he said. "You'll buy them on the market for nineteen shillings, and I've an idea that they're worth about the nineteenth part of a farthing."
"But——" stammered Hamilton.
"It is an order," said Bones, and he spoke in the Bomongo tongue.
"Phew!" said Hamilton. "That carries me a few thousand miles. I wonder what those devils of the N'gombi are doing now?"
"I'll tell you something they're not doing," said Bones. "They're not buying Mazeppa shares."
There were two very deeply troubled people in the office of Tibbetts and Hamilton. One was Hamilton himself, and the other was Miss Marguerite Whitland. Hamilton had two causes for worry. The first and the least was the strange extravagance of Bones. The second—and this was more serious—was the prospect of breaking to Sanders that night that he had been swindled, for swindled he undoubtedly was. Hamilton had spent a feverish hour canvassing City opinion on the Mazeppa Trading Company, and the report he had had was not encouraging. He had, much against his will, carried out the instructions of Bones, and had purchased in the open market ten thousand shares in the Company—a transaction duly noted by Mr. de Vinne and his interested partner.
"He is biting," said that exultant man over the 'phone. "All we have to do is to sit steady, and he'll swallow the hook!"
It was impossible that Marguerite Whitland should not know the extent of her employer's commitments. She was a shrewd girl, and had acquired a very fair working knowledge of City affairs during the period of her employment. She had, too, an instinct for a swindle, and she was panic-stricken at the thought that Bones was marching headlong to financial disaster. Hamilton had gone home to his disagreeable task, when the girl came from her office and stood, her hands clasped behind her, before the desk of the senior partner.
Bones peered up in his short-sighted way.
"Well, young miss?" he said quietly.
"Mr. Tibbetts," she began a little unsteadily, "I'm going to be very impertinent."
"Not at all," murmured Bones.
"I've been with you for some time now," said the girl, speaking rapidly, "and I feel that I have a better right to talk to you than—than——"
"Than anybody in the whole wide world," said Bones, "and that's a fact, dear young Marguerite."
"Yes, yes," she said hurriedly, "but this is something about business, and about—about this deal which you're going into. I've been talking to Captain Hamilton this afternoon, while you were out, and I know it's a swindle."
"I know that, too," said Bones calmly.
"But," said the puzzled girl, "you are putting all your money into it. Mr. Hamilton said that, if this failed, you might be ruined."
Bones nodded. Outwardly calm, the light of battle shone in his eye.
"It's a gamble, dear young typewriter," he said, "a terrific gamble, but it's going to turn out all right for did Bones."
"But Mr. Hamilton said you can't possibly make anything from the property—that it is derelict and worth practically nothing. Only a tenth of the stores are open, and the trading is——"
"I'm not gambling on the property," he said softly. "Oh, dear, no, young fiancee, I'm not gambling on the property."
"Then what on earth are you gambling on?" she asked, a little piqued.
"On me," said Bones in the same tone. "On poor old silly ass Bones, and I'm coming through!"
He got up and came across to her and laid his big hand on her shoulder gently.
"If I don't come through, I shan't be a beggar. I shall have enough to build a jolly little place, where we can raise cows and horses and vegetables of all descriptions, dear old typewriter. And if I do come through, we'll still have that same place—only perhaps we'll have more cows and a pig or two."
She laughed, and he raised her smiling lips to his and kissed them.
Mr. de Vinne had dined well and had enjoyed an evening's amusement. He had been to the Hippodrome, and his enjoyment had been made the more piquant by the knowledge that Mr. Augustus Tibbetts had as good as placed ten thousand pounds in his pocket. He was a surprised man, on returning to Sloane Square, to discover, waiting in the hall, his unwilling benefactor.
"Why, Mr. Tibbetts," he said, "this is a great surprise."
"Yes," said Bones, "I suppose it is, old Mr. de Vinne." And he coughed solemnly, as one who was the guardian of a great secret.
"Come in," said Mr. de Vinne, more genial than ever. "This is my little den"—indicating a den which the most fastidious of lions would not have despised. "Sit down and have a cigar, old man. Now, what brings you here to-night?"
"The shares," said Bones soberly. "I've been worrying about the shares."
"Ah, yes," said Mr. de Vinne carelessly. "Why worry about them, dear boy?"
"Well, I thought I might lose the opportunity of buying them. I think there's something to be made out of that property. In fact," said Bones emphatically, "I'm pretty certain I could make a lot of money if I had control."
"I agree with you," said the earnest Mr. de Vinne.
"Now the point is," said Bones, "I've been studying that list of yours, and it seems to me that the majority of the two hundred and fifty thousand shares issued are either held by you or by one of the Poles—jolly old Joe or jolly old Fred, I don't know which."
"Jolly old Fred," said Mr. de Vinne gravely.
"Now, if there's one person I don't want to meet to-night, or to-morrow, or any other day," said Bones, "it's Pole."
"There's no need for you to meet him," smiled de Vinne.
"In fact," said Bones, with sudden ferocity, "I absolutely refuse to buy any shares from Fred. I'll buy yours, but I will not buy a single one from Fred."
Mr. De Vinne thought rapidly.
"There's really no reason," he said carelessly. "As a matter of fact, I took over Fred's shares to-night, or the majority of them. I can let you have—let me see"—he made a rapid calculation—"I can let you have a hundred and eighty thousand shares at nineteen and nine."
"Eighteen shillings," said Bones firmly, "and not a penny more."
They wrangled about the price for five minutes, and then, in an outburst of generosity, Mr. de Vinne agreed.
"Eighteen shillings it shall be. You're a hard devil," he said. "Now, shall we settle this in the morning?"
"Settle it now," said Bones. "I've a contract note and a cheque book."
De Vinne thought a moment.
"Why, sure!" he said. "Let's have your note."
Bones took a note from his pocket, unfolded it, and laid it on the table, then solemnly seated himself at Mr. de Vinne's desk and wrote out the cheque.
His good fortune was more than Mr. de Vinne could believe. He had expected Bones to be easy, but not so easy as this.
"Good-bye," said Bones. He was solemn, even funereal.
"And, my friend," thought Mr. de Vinne, "you'll be even more solemn before the month's out."
He saw Bones to the door, slapped him on the back, insisted on his taking another cigar, and stood outside on the pavement of Cadogan Square and watched the rear lights of Bones's car pass out of sight. Then he went back to his study telephone and gave a number. It was the number of Mr. Fred Pole's house, and Fred Pole himself answered the call.
"Is that you, Pole?"
"That's me," said the other, and there was joy in his voice.
"I say, Pole," chuckled de Vinne, "I shall save you a lot of trouble."
"What do you mean?" asked the other.
"I've sold Bones my shares and yours too."
There was a deep silence.
"Did you hear me?" asked de Vinne.
"Yes, I heard you," said the voice, so strange that de Vinne scarcely recognised it. "How many did you sell?" asked Pole.
"A hundred and eighty thousand. I thought I could easily fix it with you."
"What did Bones say to you?"
"He told me he wouldn't do any more business with you."
"Good Heavens!" groaned Pole, and added, "Gracious Heavens!"
"Why, what's the matter?" asked de Vinne quickly, scenting danger.
"That's what he said to me," moaned the other. "Just hang on. I'll be round in a quarter of an hour."
Mr. Fred Pole arrived under that time, and had a dreadful story to unfold. At nine o'clock that evening Bones had called upon him and had offered to buy his shares. But Bones had said he would not under any circumstances——
"Buy my shares?" said de Vinne quickly.
"Well, he didn't exactly say that," said Fred. "But he gave me to understand that he'd rather buy the shares from me than from anybody else, and I thought it was such an excellent idea, and I could fix it up with you on the telephone, so I sold him——"