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The Market-Place By Harold Frederic Characters: 25249

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:08


THORPE took a long, thoughtful pull at the beer his sister brought him.

"Ah, I didn't know I was so thirsty," he said, when he put the glass down. "Truth is-I've lost track of myself altogether since-since the big thing happened. I seem to be somebody else-a comparative stranger, so to speak. I've got to get acquainted with myself, all over again. You can't imagine what an extraordinary feeling it is-this being hit every few minutes with the recollection that you're worth half a million. It's like being struck over the head. It knocks you down. There are such thousands of things to do-you dance about, all of a flutter. You don't know where to begin."

"Begin where you left off," suggested Louisa. "You were going to tell me how-how 'the big thing' happened. You're always coming to it-and never getting any further."

Nodding comprehension of the rebuke's justification, he plunged forthwith into the tale.

"You remember my telling you at the time how I got my Board together. I'm speaking now of the present Company-after I'd decided to be my own promoter, and have at least some kind of 'a look-in' for my money. There wasn't much money left, by the way; it was considerably under three thousand. But I come to that later. First there was the Board. Here was where that Lord Plowden that I told you about-the man that came over on the ship with me-came in. I went to him. I-God! I was desperate-but I hadn't much of an idea he'd consent. But he did! He listened to me, and I told him how I'd been robbed, and how the Syndicate would have cut my throat if I hadn't pulled away,-and he said, 'Why, yes, I'll go on your Board.' Then I told him more about it, and presently he said he'd get me another man of title-a sky-scraper of a title too-to be my Chairman. That's the Marquis of Chaldon, a tremendous diplomatic swell, you know, Ambassador at Vienna in his time, and Lord Lieutenant and all sorts of things, but willing to gather in his five hundred a year, all the same."

"Do you mean that YOU pay HIM five hundred pounds a year?" asked the sister.

"Yes, I've got a live Markiss who works for me at ten quid a week, and a few extras. The other Directors get three hundred. This Lord Plowden is one of them-but I'll tell you more about him later on. Then there's Watkin, he's a small accountant Finsbury way; and Davidson, he's a wine-merchant who used to belong to a big firm in Dundee, but gets along the best way he can on a very dicky business here in London, now. And then there's General Kervick, awfully well-connected old chap, they say, but I guess he needs all he can get. He's started wearing his fur-coat already. Well, that's my Board. I couldn't join it, of course, till after allotment-that's because I'm the vendor, as they call it-but that hasn't interfered at all with my running the whole show. The Board doesn't really count, you know. It only does what I want it to do. It's just a form that costs me seventeen hundred a year, that's all."

"Seventeen hundred a year," she repeated, mechanically.

"Well, then we got out the prospectus, d'ye see. Or first, there were other things to be done. I saw that a good broker's name counted for a lot on a prospectus. I picked out one that I'd heard was reasonable-it'd been a splendid name if I could have got it-but he calmly said his price was two thousand pounds, all cash down-and I came away. Finally I got a fellow who hadn't done much of anything yet, and so wasn't so stiff about his figure. He agreed to take 500 pounds cash, and 2,000 in shares. It was God's luck that I hit on him, for he turned out, at the pinch, to be the one man in a million for me. But I'll tell you about him later. He's the Broker, mind; you mustn't forget him. Well, then, he and I got a Solicitor-he took 200 pounds cash, but he had to have 2,000 shares-and the firm of Auditors-they were 100 pounds cash and 1,000 shares. Every company has to have these people pasted on to it, by law. Oh yes, and then you must have your Bankers. You don't pay them anything, though, thank God! Well, then, there was the machinery complete, all ready to start. I took a handsome set of offices, and furnished them up to the nines-but that I was able to do pretty well on credit. You see, ready money was getting short.

"And now came the biggest pull of all. There was the press to be worked."

He spoke as if there were no other papers in London but the financial journals.

"I didn't sleep much while that was being fixed up. You've got no more idea of what the press means, Louisa, than you have of-of a coil of snakes thawing out hungry in the spring. Why, if one blackmailer came to me, I swear a hundred did. They scared the life out of me, the first month or so. And then there's a swarm of advertising agents, who say they can keep these blackmailers off, if you'll make it worth their while. But they all wanted too much money for me-and for a while I was at my wits' ends. At last I got a fellow-he's not behaved so badly, all things considered-who had some sporting blood in his veins, and he was willing to do the whole thing for 5,000 pounds, if I could pay 1,500 pounds down, and the rest in shares. But that was just what I couldn't do, you see, so finally he took 1,000 pounds down and 5,000 in shares-and as I say he's done it tolerably well. There was one editor that I had to square personally-that is to say, 100 pounds cash-it had to be in sovereigns, for notes could be traced-and a call of 2,000 shares at par,-he's the boss pirate that everybody has to square-and of course there were odd ten-pound notes here and there, but as a rule I just opened the door and fired the black-mailers out. The moment a fellow came in, and handed me his card, and said he had proofs of two kinds of articles in his pocket, one praising me, one damning me, I told him to go and see my advertising agent, and if he wouldn't do that, then to go to hell. That's the way you've got to talk in the City," he added, as if in apologetic explanation.

Louisa looked impassively at her brother. "Oh, I've heard the expression as far west as the Strand," she remarked.

"Well, then came the issue. That was last Saturday. You saw the prospectus in Saturday morning's papers, and in the weeklies. The list was to be kept open, it said, till Wednesday morning-that was yesterday. That is to say, during all that time, people could apply for shares."

"Which they didn't do-according to your account," the sister suggested, dryly.

Thorpe passed his fingers through his roughened hair, and eyed her with a momentary quizzical gleam in his eye. Then he became serious again. The recollection of what he was now to narrate brought a frown to his brows.

"On Tuesday afternoon," he began, with portentous deliberation-"Or no, first I must explain something. You see, in bringing out a company, you can't put up too stout a bluff. I mean, you've got to behave as if you were rolling in wealth-as if everything was coming your way, and fortunes were to be made by fastening to you. I don't know that it often fools anybody very much, but it's part of the game, and you must play it. Well, accordingly, my Broker goes on 'change Saturday morning, and has his jobber shout out that he'll buy 'Rubber Consols'-that's what our shares are called on the street-at an eighth premium; that is to say, he offered to buy for twenty-two-and-six what we were offering to the public for twenty shillings. Of course, you see, the object of that was to create the impression that there was a regular God-almighty rush for our shares. As I say, I don't know whether that ever fooled anybody-but at least there was the chance that it might start up some dealing in the shares-and all those things help. Besides, you got the sales noticed in the papers, and that might start up applications from the public. Well, the Broker bought 1,000 shares this way on Saturday. On Monday, when it might still be possible to change the luck, he bought 3,500 more, still at that premium of an eighth. He bought some Tuesday morning too-say 4,000. Well, now, keep those figures in your head, and keep an eye on the Broker. He's worth watching-as you'll see."

"What's his name?" asked the sister, with an accession of alertness in her face. "You call him 'Broker'-and that doesn't mean anything to me. They're all brokers, aren't they?"

"Semple-Colin Semple, that's his name. He's a young Scotchman-father's a Presbyterian minister. He's a little, insignificant runt of a chap to look at-but I learned a long time ago not to judge a singed cat by his looks. However-where was I?"

"You were going to tell about Tuesday afternoon, weren't you?"

He nodded gravely, and straightened himself, drawing a long breath in preparation for the dramatic recital before him. "On Tuesday afternoon," he began again, with impressive slowness, "I was walking on Throgmorton Street, about four o'clock. It was raining a little-it had been raining on and off all day-a miserable, rotten sort of a day, with greasy mud everywhere, and everybody poking umbrellas into you. I was out walking because I'd 'a' cut my throat if I'd tried to stay in the office another ten minutes. All that day I hadn't eaten anything. I hadn't slept worth speaking of for three nights. The whole game was up for me. I was worse than ruined. I had half a crown in my pocket. I had ten or twelve pounds in the bank-and they wouldn't let me overdraw a farthing. I tell you, I was just plumb busted.

"There came along in the gutter a sandwich-man. I'd seen the cuss before during the day, walking up and down near my offices. I took notice of him, because he was the raggedest, dirtiest, most forlorn-looking cripple you ever saw in your life. Now I read what was on his boards. It was the bill of a paper that I had refused to be bled by, and there it was in big letters: 'The Rubber Bubble Burst!' 'Thorpe's Audacity Punished!' Those were the words. I can see them with my eyes shut. I stood there, looking at the fellow, and I suppose there was something in the way I looked, for he stopped too. Of course, he didn't know me from Adam, but all the same, I'm damned if he didn't wink his eye at me-as if we two had a joke between us. And at that I burst out laughing-I simply roared with laughter, like a boy at a pantomime-and I took that last half-crown out of my pocket, and I gave it to the sandwich-man. God! you should have seen his face."

"I don't particularly mind, Joel," said his sister, "but I never heard you swear so much before."

"Oh, what the-what the deuce!" he protested, impatiently. "Don't interrupt me now! Well, I went on down the street. The members of the Stock Exchange were coming out of 'the house,' and making up little groups on the pavement. They do business inside, you know, until closing time-this day it happened to be four o'clock-and then they come out and deal in the street with one another, with the kerb-stone mob, who are not allowed inside, standing round to watch the thing. I came along into the thick of these fellows; they were yelling out all sorts of things-'East Rands,' 'Oroyas,' 'Lake View Centrals,' and what not, but these went in one ear and out the other. If there ever was a man with no stomach for the market it was me. But then someone roared out:

"'At seven-eighths, sell Rubber Consols! Sell five hundred Rubber at seven-eighths! Sell five hundred at three-quarters! At three-quarters you have 'em! Rubber Consols! Sell a thou. at three-quarters!'

"This thing went into my brain like a live coal. I stopped and looked up at the fellow-and by God, it was one of the men I've been talking about-one of those Kaffir scoundrels. I wish I was better at remembering names-but I knew his face. There were some of the others around him, and they laughed at me, and he laughed at me. Oh, they had a heap of fun out of me-for a minute or two. Pretty good fun, too! I guess they'll remember it quite a while."

"Go on!" Louisa adjured him. The obvious proximity of the dramatic climax drew her forward in her chair, and brought a glow of expectation to her eyes.

"I got myself away from that crowd somehow-I think I was afraid if I stayed I'd strangle the one who was shouting on the steps-and I went toward my office. But when I got to the door, I didn't have the courage to go in. I'd furnished it better, I suppose, than any other office in Austin Friars, and I had a kind of feeling that the sight of those carpets, and oak-tables and desks, and brass-railings and so on would make me sick. I owed for 'em all, bear in mind--"

"But-Joel,"

the sister interposed. "One thing I don't understand. How many people had applied for shares? You haven't mentioned that."

A fleeting smile lighted up the saturnine gloom of his present mood. "It was hardly worth mentioning," he answered, with bitter mirth. "Between five and six thousand shares were subscribed, all told. I think the withdrawals by telegraph brought it down to practically five thousand. We offered a hundred thousand, you know.-But let me go on with my story. I stood there, in front of our street-door, in a kind of trance. The words of that Jew-'Sell Rubber Consols at three-quarters!'-buzzed inside my head as if they would burst it open. I turned-and I happened to see my Broker-the Scotchman, Semple, you know-coming along toward me. Right at that minute, like a flash, something dawned on me. In less than a second, I saw the whole damned rotten outfit turned upside down, with me on top. I made a jump, and ran to meet Semple.

"'How many shares of ours have you bought?' I asked him, with a grip tight on his arm.

"The little chap was looking mighty sick. He figured up in his mind. 'I'm afraid it's eight thousand five hundred, all told,' he said, in a sort of Presbyterian whimper.

"'Well-how would these gentlemen go about it to deliver their goods-that is, supposing we got a settlement?'

"I asked him this, and kept my eye on his face. He looked puzzled for a minute. Then he put out his lip. Then he shot me a glance as sharp as a razor, and we looked into one another's eyes.

"'They were shouting them out to me at three-quarters, a minute ago,' I told him.

"He was onto the game like lightning. 'Wait for me in the office,' he whispered. 'We'll go nap on this!'

"With that he was off like a streak. He stopped running just before he got to the corner, though, and began walking slowly, sauntering along, you know, as if his mind was on nothing but second-hand books. I watched him out of sight-and then I went back, and up to the offices. The furniture didn't scare me a bit this time. Why, I stopped and felt of the brass-railing just outside the Board Room, and I said to myself-'Pshaw! We could have you of solid gold, if we wanted to.'"

He paused here, and regarded his sister with what she felt was intended to be a significant look. She shrank from the confession that its meaning was Greek to her. "Well-and what next?" she asked, guardedly.

"Semple came back in twenty minutes or so-and the next morning he was at it again-and what with him and his jobber, by George, on the quiet, they picked up nearly eighteen thousand of our shares. Some they paid fifteen shillings for, some they got at twelve-and-six and even ten. That doesn't matter; it's of no more importance than the coppers you give to crossing-sweepers. The thing was to get the shares-and by God we've got them! Twenty-six thousand two hundred shares, that's what we've got. Now, do you see what that means?"

"Why yes," she answered, with a faint-hearted assumption of confidence. "Of course, you know the property is so good that you'll make a profit on the shares you've bought far below their value. But I don't think I quite see--"

He interrupted her with an outburst of loud laughter. "Don't think you quite see?" he gurgled at her, with tears of pleasure in his eye. "Why, you dummy, you haven't got the faintest glimmer of a notion of what it's all about. The value of the property's got nothing in the world to do with it. That's neither here nor there. If there wasn't any such property in existence, it would be just the same."

He had compassion upon her blank countenance, at this, and explained more gently: "Why, don't you see, Lou, it's this way. This is what has happened. We've got what's called a corner on the bears. They're caught short, and we can squeeze them to our hearts' content. What-you don't understand now? Why, see here! These fellows who've sold twenty-six thousand of our shares-they haven't got them to sell, and they can't get them. That is the point-they can't get them for love nor money-they must pay me my own price for them, or be ruined men. The moment they realize the situation, they will begin offering a premium for Rubber Consols. The price of a one-pound share will be two pounds, then four-six-ten-twenty-thirty-whatever I want to drive it to."

Louisa stared up at him with wide open eyes. It seemed to her that she understood now. It was very exciting.

"You see," he went on, taking approving note of the new light of comprehension in her glance, "we did something that Tuesday afternoon beside buy up these shares. Semple rushed off to his office, and he and his clerks got up a lot of dummy applications for shares, made out in all the different names they could be safe in using, and they put these into the bank with the application money-Semple found that-and next day he went and saw the advertising agent and the solicitor and the auditors-and got them to pool the shares that I've promised to give them. A pool? That means they agree to transfer their shares to me as trustee, and let me deal with them as I like-of course to their advantage. In any case, their shares are vendor's shares, and couldn't be dealt with in this transaction. So you see the thing is hermetically sealed. Nobody can get a share except from me, and at my price. But these fellows that have sold them-they've got to have them, don't you see. They had their little temporary joke with me on the street that afternoon-and now they must walk up to the captain's office and settle. They've got to pay me at least half a million pounds for that few minutes' fun of theirs. I may make it a good deal more; I don't know yet."

"Oh, Joel!" she groaned at him, in awed stupefaction. His rather languid indecision as to whether half a million was going to be enough, impressed her more powerfully than had any detail of his narrative.

In a few comprehensive sentences he finished up for her what there was to tell. "This afternoon my Board met to allot the shares. They saw the applications, amounting in all to over ninety thousand shares. It took their breath away-they had heard that things were going quite the other way with us. They were so tickled that they asked no questions The allotment went through like a greased pig. About 5,000 shares went to those who had actually applied for them, and 88,000 were solemnly given to the dummy applicants. Of course, there wasn't a whisper about these dummies. Nobody winked so much as an eyelash. But I've found since that one of the directors-that Lord Plowden I told you about-was onto the thing all the while. But he's all right. Everybody's all right. Of course the dummies' shares still stand in their names-on paper-but in reality I've got them all in my safe-in my pocket you might say. They are really mine, you understand. So now there's nothing for us to do but to apply to the Stock Exchange for a special settlement date, and meanwhile lie quiet and watch the Jews stew in their own juice. Or fry in their own fat, eh? That's better."

"But," she commented slowly, "you say there are no shares to be bought-and yet as I understand it, there are those five thousand that were sent out to the people who really applied."

"Bravo, Lou!" he answered her jovially. "You actually do understand the thing. You've put your finger straight on the point. It is true that those shares are out against us-or might be turned against us if they could be bought up. But in reality, they don't count at all. In the first place, you see, they're scattered about among small holders, country clergymen and old maids on an annuity and so on-all over the country. Even if these people were all traced, and hunted up, suppose it was worth the trouble and expense, they wouldn't sell. The bigger the price they were offered, the more mulish they would be about holding. That's always the way with them. But even if they did all sell, their five thousand would be a mere drop in the bucket. There would be over twenty thousand others to be accounted for. That would be quite enough for my purposes. Oh, I figured all that out very carefully. My own first notion was to have the dummies apply for the whole hundred thousand, and even a little over. Then, you see, we might have allotted everything to the dummies, and sent back the money and applications of the genuine ones. But that would have been rather hard to manage with the Board. The Markiss would have said that the returns ought to be made pro rata-that is, giving everybody a part of what they applied for-and that would have mixed everything up. And then, too, if anybody suspected anything, why the Stock Exchange Committee would refuse us a special settlement-and, of course, without that the whole transaction is moonshine. It was far too risky, and we didn't send back a penny."

"It's all pretty risky, I should think," she declared as she rose. "I should think you'd lie awake more than ever now-now that you've built your hopes so high and it'd be so awful to have them come to nothing."

He smilingly shook his head. "No, it can no more fail than that gas can fail to burn when you put a light to it. It's all absolute. My half-million is as right as if it were lying to my credit in the Bank of England. Oh, that reminds me," he went on in a slightly altered tone-"it's damned comical, but I've got to ask you for a little money. I've only got about seven pounds at my bank, and just at the minute it would give me away fearfully to let Semple know I was hard up. Of course he'd let me have anything I wanted-but, you can see-I don't like to ask him just at the moment."

She hesitated visibly, and scanned his face with a wistful gaze. "You're quite sure, Joel?"-she began-"and you haven't told me-how long will it be before you come into some of this money?"

"Well,"-he in turn paused over his words-"well, I suppose that by next week things will be in such shape that my bank will see I'm good for an overdraft. Oh heavens, yes! there'll be a hundred ways of touching some ready. But if you've got twenty or thirty pounds handy just now-I tell you what I'll do, Lou. I'll give you a three months bill, paying one hundred pounds for every sovereign you let me have now. Come, old lady: you don't get such interest every day, I'll bet."

"I don't want any interest from you, Joel," she replied, simply. "If you're sure I can have it back before Christmas, I think I can manage thirty pounds. It will do in the morning, I suppose?"

He nodded an amused affirmative. "Why-you don't imagine, do you," he said, "that all this gold is to rain down, and none of it hit you? Interest? Why of course you'll get interest-and capital thrown in. What did you suppose?"

"I don't ask anything for myself," she made answer, with a note of resolution in her voice. "Of course if you like to do things for the children, it won't be me who'll stand in their light. They've been spoiled for my kind of life as it is."

"I'll do things for everybody," he affirmed roundly. "Let's see-how old is Alfred?"

"He'll be twenty in May-and Julia is fourteen months older than he is."

"Gad!" was Thorpe's meditative comment. "How they shoot up! Why I was thinking she was a little girl." "She never will be tall, I'm afraid," said the literal mother. "She favours her father's family. But Alfred is more of a Thorpe. I'm sorry you missed seeing them last summer-but of course they didn't stop long with me. This was no place for them-and they had a good many invitations to visit schoolfellows and friends in the country. Alfred reminds me very much of what you were at his age: he's got the same good opinion of himself, too-and he's not a bit fonder of hard work."

"There's one mighty big difference between us, though," remarked Thorpe. "He won't start with his nose held down to the grindstone by an old father hard as nails. He'll start like a gentleman-the nephew of a rich man."

"I'm almost afraid to have such notions put in his head," she replied, with visible apprehension. "You mustn't encourage him to build too high hopes, Joel. It's speculation, you know-and anything might happen to you. And then-you may marry, and have sons of your own."

He lifted his brows swiftly-as if the thought were new to his mind. A slow smile stole into the little wrinkles about his eyes. He opened his lips as if to speak, and then closed them again.

"Well," he said at last, abruptly straightening himself, and casting an eye about for his coat and hat. "I'll be round in the morning-on my way to the City. Good-bye till then."

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