Stranleigh's Millions/A Town in Pawn
A TOWN IN PAWN
Just as Lord Stranleigh was putting up his cue after a most satisfactory game—he was very fond of billiards—an attendant of the Corinthian Club brought him a card on a silver salver. Lord Stranleigh took it rather languidly, but when he saw the name "Peter Mackeller," he brightened, and went down the stairs rather more eagerly than was his wont, to greet the mining engineer in the lobby of the club. He had not seen Peter since July, and it was now November. Even in July Peter had come to him because sent for, and not of his own accord. It is true that Mackeller most cheerfully and effectively aided him in the affair of the Honduras Central Rubber Company, but for over a year now the mining engineer had not consulted Lord Stranleigh regarding any of his own affairs. He had heard, or seen it in the papers, that Mackeller had purchased an old Manor House on the coast south of London, with a considerable acreage of property, and then there had been a rumour that Mackeller was building a town by the shore of the English Channel, which seemed an unnecessary thing to do, because from the South Foreland to Land's End there are more towns now than people to inhabit them. Mackeller had never been an effusive person regarding his own concerns, but for the last twelve months he had become as dumb as an oyster, and the young nobleman felt that somehow a chill had fallen upon their friendship, the cause of which he could only surmise, yet he felt that it was not through any conscious fault of his own. A natural shyness forbade his making any reference to this on the rare occasions when he met Mackeller; nevertheless, he experienced a gentle sorrow when he thought of the intangible estrangement that had come between two who had shared perils together. As he descended the broad, thickly-carpeted stairway of the club, he recognised Peter sitting on the leather-covered bench that ran along the side of the entrance, and Peter's head was bowed, and his shoulders bent as if a heavy burden rested upon them. Indeed, the young man sat motionless, like a very statue of dejection.
"Hello, Peter!" cried Stranleigh, placing his hand on the seated man's shoulder. The carpets in the Corinthian are very thick, and he had approached silently. "I am delighted to see you again. Where have you been keeping yourself all this while back?"
The other raised a face that was seamed with anxiety, and haggard in expression. Mackeller had none of that diplomacy of countenance which distinguished Lord Stranleigh, who would have made an excellent poker-player if he but knew the game. When Mackeller was angry, or glad, or disconcerted, you read it at once in his countenance.
"I want a few words with you," he said, so curtly that a listener might have thought he came to collect a bill.
"Naturally," laughed Stranleigh, "otherwise you wouldn't be here. You've dined, of course? It's after nine o'clock."
"I think so."
"Not sure whether you've dined or not? My dear fellow, you are allowing the important things of life to slip by you. Come with me to a committee room, where we will be alone, and I'll feed you with some sandwiches, or anything else you wish. Perhaps you'd prefer to go into the dining-room, and enjoy some supper with me?"
"No, I wish to see you alone."
He led him up a stairway, then along a corridor, and turned to the left into a medium-sized room where a fire was burning. He snapped on the electric light, pushed a button for the waiter, finally indicating a luxurious and enveloping leathern armchair, into which Peter sank. A waiter entered.
"Bring a couple of plates of chicken-and-ham sandwiches, two Scotch whiskies, and a syphon of soda. By the way, just place the card 'Engaged' on the outside of that door."
Stranleigh sat down and lit a cigarette.
Rather a panicky time they're having over in the States, and our Bank rate up to six per cent., with a prospect of touching seven, which they tell me is very unusual. I wonder what's the cause of it all. I don't understand these things."
"Shortage of money in the States," said Mackeller.
"But that's just what I don't understand. Surely they still possess all the money they held two months ago, or six months? Where does it get to?"
"Stocking," said Peter shortly.
"You mean they're withdrawing it from the Bank and hoarding it?"
"Lack of confidence, I suppose?"
"But what has the Bank of England to do with the crisis? Why is it raising the rate?"
"To protect its reserve."
"Now, that's a funny thing to do. If I were Governor of the Bank of England, and found my reserve lessening, I'd just tell them they couldn't have any cash, that's all. Seems to me it's a simpler method than running up the Bank rate."
To this lucid enunciation of financial procedure, Mackeller did not deign to make a reply.
"Of course," said Stranleigh, hastily, feeling the contempt of silence, "I don't pretend to understand these things. Alexander Corbett, of Selwyn's Bank, generally tries to enlighten me a bit when he's good humoured, but I haven't seen him in the club this week. I suppose he's sitting on his reserve, and holding off borrowers with a pistol."
"It's a very serious outlook," groaned Mackeller.
"Is it? I'm sorry to hear that. You're not entangled in any way, I hope."
"Oh, everybody that needs money is entangled more or less."
"But surely you have a good supply."
"I had," said Mackeller, briefly and significantly.
"And isn't Mrs. Mackeller rather well provided for?"
"Her money was in the Knickerbocker Trust Company, which has closed its doors. They say they will resume payment, but then that is always promised."
Conversation ceased until the waiter, who had placed the refreshments on a table between the two, had withdrawn, closing the door behind him. Lord Stranleigh resumed:
"Well, if you need some cash, Peter, you've only to say so. I'll be your banker till the clouds roll by."
"I need more than cash, Lord Stranleigh. I need an adviser with a head on his shoulders, and that's what brought me to you to-night."
Stranleigh smiled, as he answered:
"You flattered me once before, Peter, by making a similar remark."
"Yes, and you justified it."
"Oh, well, that was a fluke, united with the possession of a little ready money, the lack of which you say is the cause of this panic. I'm sure, if my advice is any use to you, Peter, you are welcome to it, also the cash, as I stated before."
"Thank you. It's rather a long story, and not a very creditable one, so far as my brains are concerned. Have you time to listen?"
"All the time there is, Peter, till daylight to-morrow, and next day, if you choose. Here, pick up a sandwich, and find whether you're hungry or not. I'll pour out the bibulous fluids."
Mackeller took a sandwich, and, with his usual directness, plunged into his narrative.
"When I married," he said, "I bought Gorham Manor, on the south coast, with about two hundred acres of land attached. Our next neighbour to the west is Sir Phillip Sanderson—Squire Sanderson, as they call him locally, who is the largest property owner in our district. Sir Phillip, in his time, was an eminent engineer, who built many railways in South America and elsewhere, accumulating a large fortune, a great part of which he invested in land. Agricultural holdings, as you are aware, who own so many of them, have not been profitable for a number of years past, and Sir Phillip, who is a very hale, active, elderly gentleman, conceived the idea of plotting out a seaside town that might become a second Brighton, and so greatly benefit his descendants even if he himself reaped no immediate profit. The chief obstacle which he saw before him, however, was the fact that the nearest railway station, Oaklands, was fifteen miles distant from the site of his prospective town. He spent a good deal of time and money trying to induce the Great Southern Railway to run a branch from Oaklands station to the sea, offering the directors various inducements, such as free right of way through his own estate, and so forth, but they refused to entertain the idea. The indefatigable old gentleman then proceeded to form a local railway company, and endeavoured, with some success, to enlist the co-operation of various magnates in the southern counties. The capital stock was two hundred thousand pounds, and over half of this he himself subscribed, the rest of the shares being bought by various people all the way from Ramsgate to Brighton. Sir Phillip was now in his element. He himself, without fee, superintended the construction of this fifteen mile railway, and I may say that the line became a hobby with the old man that has cost him a pot of money."
"Is the line completed, then?"
"Completed? It has been in operation for years."
"Why, that's odd. I never heard of it."
"Well, neither, apparently, has anyone else. You see, it ends nowhere, except alongside a shingly beach, where one or two summer cottages have been built; there was no general purchase or leasing of the plots of land that Sir Phillip expected."
"Had he any running arrangement with the Great Southern Railway?"
"That was just the trouble. He had not. His little line was not joined to theirs, although it ran alongside a platform connected with Oaklands Station, which, since the short line was built, has been named Oaklands Junction, but Oaklands is a station where none but the slowest trains stop, and only two of them, therefore even if there had been a town at Gorham-on-Sea, as Sanderson called his prospective village, because it joins Gorham Manor, comparatively few people from London would have come, because it takes more than three hours to arrive there, by trains stopping at every station, whereas Brighton can be reached from London in an hour, and other places along the coast at times varying from an hour-and-a-half to two hours, by express train."
"Did he ever ask the Great Southern to stop an express at the Junction?"
"Oh, of course, but they always pointed out that there was no traffic, even for the local trains that did stop, which was true enough."
"Seems to me, what old Sanderson needed was a town at the end of his line."
"Exactly. He expected other people to build the town on land which he leased to them, but, you see, he found himself involved in a vicious circle. He could not guarantee railway facilities such as other sea-side places possessed, therefore the public would not lease and build, and until the public leased and builded, he could not secure better train service."
"Rather a hopeless position, it seems to me."
"Yes, it was."
"Hadn't he money enough to build the town himself?"
"No; you see, Sir Phillip Sanderson is a very optimistic man. He applied to the Stock Exchange for a quotation, and the shares have been more or less salable since the construction of the line, quoted sometimes as high as forty-nine."
"How could the shares reach such a figure if there was no traffic, and no dividends."
"As a matter of fact, that came through the old man's chivalrous pride in his hobby. The whole management was in his hands, and each half-year he declared a dividend, and paid it out of his own pocket, always hoping for amendment in the situation, and likewise anxious, being an honest man, that friends and neighbours who had invested on his advice, should not go without a return. But this action seriously crippled his own resources. About two years ago the Great Southern Railway made him an offer for the line, but with the proviso that they should either buy or lease for ninety-nine years, about three miles of the shore, running more than a thousand feet back into the country. I believe it would kill the old man to part with his line, and as for his land, he will not sell it under any conditions. Besides, the amount the Great Southern Railway wished to pay was comparatively trivial, so the proposal was refused."
"I see. And now the Great Southern Railway has got the old man in a corner, and is going to seize his line, whether or no, and probably most of his land as well?"
"Yes, that is partly the case, but not quite. The affair becomes much more involved than the condition you have outlined, and I may meet some trouble in making it clear."
"It's clear enough now, Peter. You tried to help the old man, and have suddenly found yourself at the end of your tether. Is that true?"
"Yes, that is true."
"Couldn't so shrewd a man as you see that Sir Phillip had got himself into an impossible situation?"
"Oh, it's easy enough to say that now, but we thought we saw a way out."
"Ah! What was the way?"
"By building a town."
"Sumptuous Cæsar! Building a town without any running arrangement over the Great Southern Railway!"
"Yes; we thought once the town was built, the directors of the Southern Railway, or rather, the general manager, for from what I learn the directors have very little to do with it, would, for the sake of the road, give us the train service we needed."
"But that was very easily found out, surely? They either would, or they wouldn't. If they wouldn't, it was folly to build the town, and if they would there could be no objection to their stating so in writing."
Mackeller drew his handkerchief across his brow.
"Yes," he said, disconsolately, "everything you state is so sensible and so accurate that I almost regret resolving to tell you about it. It's easy to show where we were wrong after the event."
"Oh, come now, Peter, that's hardly fair. I'm not one of the I-told-you-so league. I would have said the same at the time, if I had been asked. From what you have already revealed, I gather that Sir Phillip Sanderson is simply a sentimental muddler of affairs. The quibbling with himself by paying dividends that weren't earned, strikes me as not only dishonest but idiotic."
"Yes, but you won't wait until you hear what's happened. We see it all plainly enough now, but we thought at that time we had the assurance of the railway company."
"There shouldn't be any thinking in a matter of that kind. They should have set it down in black and white."
Again Peter mopped his brow. He was evidently finding this explanation harder than he had expected it to be. For a minute or two there was silence, then Lord Stranleigh said:
"Go on, Peter. Never mind me. I am acting the brute. Remember I have promised to help you out, and therefore show some patience with me, because I'm just beginning to learn how deep and bottomless the hole is. How did you come in on this deal?"
"As I have told you, Sir Phillip Sanderson's land and mine adjoin, and he proposed to place part of the village, when it was built, on my property, to give me the chance of benefiting by his enterprise. I told him I would have nothing to do with the railway, and I kept to that resolution until very lately. At the end of last year, an exceedingly alert business man, armed with the best of credentials, came down to see Sir Phillip Sanderson. He arrived from London, and among his documents was one acknowledging him a secret agent for the Great Southern Railway."
"Did you take any pains to find out whether these credentials were bogus or not?"
"Oh, yes, He was perfectly open and above board. Everything was just as he said."
"Well, what had he to say?"
"He talked very plausibly. He said the railway company would provide for traffic wherever they found it, because railway competition was so intense that no road could overlook any appreciable increase of income."
"‘Now,' he said, 'what you need here is a town. Once you possess a town, you can lease and sell to the people. All the old sea-side resorts are overcrowded, and prices run high. Rents are enormous in places like Eastbourne and Brighton.'
"‘But,' we objected, 'we haven't the money to build a town.'
"‘How much money can you raise?' he asked.
"Sir Phillip said he couldn't raise a penny, and I stated that I had fifty thousand pounds to invest.
"‘With fifty thousand pounds,' he said, 'I can build you a town valued at a hundred and fifty thousand, which, the moment expresses begin to run, will be worth two, three, four, five, six hundred thousand.'
"‘How can you do that?' I asked him.
"‘The first thing necessary is a hotel, costing anywhere from five to ten thousand pounds. Then along the front, on each side, build some fine villas. You spend fifty thousand pounds in erecting the hotel and the villas. The moment they are finished you can mortgage them for forty thousand.'
"‘No, you can't,' said Sir Phillip.
"‘When it is known that the Great Southern Railway takes an interest in this place, you will meet no difficulty at all. You are ignoring the price of the land. We will take it for granted that you have built economically and well. Very good. There is the land underneath your houses, right in the centre of your town, which, before many years, will be of enormous value. Besides, we don't need to discuss that question, because I'll undertake to find you a company that will be only too glad to lend its money on such security.’"
"So you built the hotel and the houses, Peter, and then he was unable to find you such a company?"
"I wish to goodness he had been. He found us the forty thousand pounds at once, then on that expenditure he found us thirty thousand, and when those houses were built, twenty thousand, and ten thousand. Thus we had, as he had stated, a hundred and fifty thousand pound town with an expenditure of only fifty thousand."
"By Jove! And the man kept his word to you throughout?"
"Well, I confess I don't see where the swindle comes in, and his plan of making fifty thousand build a hundred and fifty thousand worth, I never heard before. Perhaps the loan company charged exorbitant interest?"
"No; all we had to pay was five per cent."
"Then while you can raise seven thousand five hundred pounds for the annual interest, they are unable to close you out."
"That is so."
"Go on, Peter, this is getting beyond me. It seems to me that loan company has the heavy end of the stick."
"You will understand that the town of Gorham-on-Sea was built mostly on my land, because I had supplied the capital, and the buildings erected by that capital furnished the further money. Now, Sir Phillip Sanderson wished to do his share, so this obliging young man from London persuaded the loan company to make him an advance on his hundred thousand shares of railway stock. This railway stock, by the way, had steadily risen from nineteen and a half to twenty-six. The agent for the Southern Railway had predicted that it would, and his words came true. Sir Phillip Sanderson was once more jubilant. At last he expected to see his little railway on a paying basis, and through the kindness of the Southern agent, the loan company let Sir Phillip have the full value of his stock, namely, twenty-six thousand pounds, with the proviso, however, that if it dropped lower, he must either repay the loan, and take back his stock, or pay the difference between the selling price of the stock and the amount he had borrowed."
"Ah, I'm beginning to see where you are, Peter. This is beautiful. So your friend. Sir Phillip Sanderson, took the twenty-six thousand pounds, and put up that amount of houses on his side of the estate?"
"Yes, and not only that, but borrowed sixteen thousand pounds on the completed houses, and threw that into bricks and mortar."
"I see. That brings the situation up to this. Both you and Sanderson are tied up, as one might say, in empty houses. You have to furnish forth seven thousand five hundred pounds in interest, and Sanderson two thousand one hundred pounds, or thereabouts, and the stock of your railway is hypothecated on terms that if it drops a point or two, Sir Phillip Sanderson, who now possesses no ready money, will be called upon by the loan company to cover his margin. If he can't do it, the stock is sold, and whoever buys that stock, obtains control of his railway. Well, Peter, I had always looked on you as a young fellow of common sense. How do you square it with your business conscience that you allowed yourself to be wound up in a ball of twine like that?"
"Why, you see, Stranleigh, there was always my wife's money. She was the one who took an interest in Sir Phillip. She is fond of him. He is a fine, courtly gentleman of the old school, you know, and, quite with her permission, there was her money in the States to draw upon. No one could have foreseen this panic of the end of October. My wife drew a bill for fifty thousand pounds on the Knickerbocker Trust Company, which, if you will observe, would have put everything straight, but by ill-luck, that draft arrived in New York the day after the Knickerbocker closed its doors, and whether we'll get anything or not ultimately, we've not been able to obtain a penny now, at the time we need it."
"Yes, I admit the American panic could not have been foreseen. That was hard lines. Well, now you have got things to such a point that anything this clever Southern Railway agent does to depress your stock, you lose control of your road. The new owners may tear it up if they like, or abandon it, and then you hold a town like Mahomet's coffin hung in mid-air. Your visible assets are a couple of estates—oh, by the way, did you and Sanderson mortgage your land?"
"I believe Sanderson has. Mine is clear, but one can neither sell nor mortgage with the bank rate at seven per cent."
"Then your only assets are these unsalable acres and a town in pawn, because Gorham-on-Sea doesn't belong to you—not a brick of it. If it were put in the market to-morrow I venture to say it wouldn't pay back the money that has been lent on it. Now I suppose you and Sanderson are holding your breath, wondering what action the Great Southern Railway will take to depress your stock?"
"No; we're not anxious on that score."
"You still have faith that the railway company will not strike?"
"The railway company has struck."
"One week ago to-day it sent down from London a couple of trains carrying materials and three hundred men. Within six hours Oaklands Junction Station was razed to the ground and everything piled upon the trains. The switches were taken up, signals taken down, even the platform was removed, and before night, when the trains steamed away, there was left nothing to show that a station had ever existed there."
Stranleigh sprang to his feet and paced excitedly up and down the room, a most unusual action on his part, who was generally so self-contained.
"Beautiful! Beautiful!" he cried. "Well, if that isn't the best thing I've ever heard! Lovely! Of course, there's no law compelling them to keep up a station of which they have no need. So now your little railway line ends in the air, miles away from any junction."
"What's happened to the stock?"
"It fell from twenty-six to five, with no takers even at that figure."
"Which is to say, that when the loan company sells the stock the Great Southern Railway may acquire, even on the open market, for five thousand pounds, a parcel of shares for which your friend Sanderson paid a hundred thousand pounds. Of course, the obliteration of Oaklands Junction makes your railway merely two parallel streaks of useless iron, beginning in an empty and pawned town and ending in open fields, where even the goods trains on the main line go by without stopping. Well, that's the most admirable piece of business I've known done in a year!"
"It seems to please you, Lord Stranleigh."
"Please me! How could it do otherwise? The man at the head of the Great Southern knows his business and isn't over-scrupulous. He had to deal with a stubborn, incompetent old duffer who wouldn't sell, and so he eliminated him. You are a sufferer merely because, like the good dog Tray, you fell into bad company. I suppose you think you've seen the end of this stratagem?"
"They can't hurt us any further?"
"My dear boy, don't you know they've determined to grab your new town of Gorham-on-Sea, otherwise they never would have countenanced the payment of twenty-six thousand pounds for stock that at any moment they can render worthless, as they have done. This loan company after due notice—I suppose you've had notice?"
"Yes, I have."
"How long do they give you to settle?"
"Well, you have waited till the last moment, Peter."
"I believe we are allowed three days of grace, but next week they can close down on us."
"Very well, they will sell your stock, and the railway company can buy it for five thousand pounds, or two thousand, or one thousand. There will be nobody to bid against them; the only possible bidder being that old fool Sanderson. I won't for the moment mention any younger incompetent. But the Great Southern Company will acquire your railway for a song in spite of all you can do. Then the loan company will come upon Sanderson for the difference. He has had from them twenty-six thousand pounds. Say the Great Southern pays five thousand, which they won't do, by the way, or anything like it, then the loan company comes on Sanderson to make up twenty-one thousand. He can't do it, so they put his property on the market, his pawned town—why the Great Southern Railway has got everything. Within a week they'll be in possession of all you and Sanderson own: new brick town, railway line, and estate. The panic in America and the stringency of the money market here leave you helpless."
"My dear Lord Stranleigh, we are not helpless if we can find anyone to loan us twenty-six thousand pounds. All those drastic actions you predict are impossible if Sanderson can pay back his loan and rescue his railway stock."
"But the railway stock is valueless so long as you have no connection with the Great Southern."
"I know it is, but, on the other hand, the new town of Gorham-on-Sea is useless to the Great Southern Company as long as we hold the little railway line. Once we rescue the railway stock, valueless or not as it is on the market, we stand between the Great Southern Company and the town of Gorham-on-Sea. The Great Southern Company will then be compelled to come to terms with us."
"I don't see that, Peter. I don't see that at all. The Great Southern Company need do absolutely nothing except run their trains past the end of your line, that is even if I were to give you the twenty- six thousand pounds to-morrow. The Great Southern Railway Company only needs to wait. You can't hold on. You've got to pay that interest, and you've got to keep your houses in repair. Your town will speedily go to rack and ruin if nobody is living there. I'm quite willing to give you the twenty-six thousand pounds, but I beg to point out, Mackeller, that you've only postponed the evil day. You'll never be able to return me the money I lend you, and you've fixed yourself in such a corner that you can't get out."
Peter Mackeller rose slowly to his feet.
"Then you don't care to lend the money, Lord Stranleigh?"
"I've already told you, Mr. Mackeller, that you can have the money to-morrow if you wish it."
"But you believe I'll never be able to repay you?"
"Not so long as you muddle affairs as you are doing."
"Don't you think the money my wife has on deposit in the United States will be more than ample to cover a loan of twenty-six thousand pounds? She has seventy-five thousand pounds in the Knickerbocker Trust Company alone."
"I don't know enough about American finance to be able to answer that question."
"Very well, Lord Stranleigh, I am sorry to have troubled you about this matter. I'm very much obliged to you for receiving me here, and now I shall bid you good-night."
"Peter, sit down for a few moments longer."
"I must get away, Lord Stranleigh. I've a good deal to do."
"I daresay, Peter, but it's after ten o'clock at night now, and nothing can be done until morning. You may remember that when we began this conversation your only anxiety was whether or not I had time to listen to you. I told you I would stand by until daylight if necessary, therefore sit down."
"You have made me regret I came. I won't stop longer."
"Very well, answer me one question."
"What is it?"
"How many men do you know in London to-night who will give you twenty-six thousand pounds to-morrow?"
"If that's the case, Peter, you should treat me gently. Give me time to recover my admiration for the tactics of the Great Southern Railway, and please remember that I am a large shareholder in that road. I own twenty thousand shares of stock, so, in spite of your Scottish rigidity, do show a little compassion for the man who expects his twenty thousand shares to increase in value because of the manipulation you have just explained. Sit down, Peter, with the one man who is able and willing to lend you all you ask, and, believe me, it is only reasonable that I should require some inkling of what you propose to do when you obtain the money. There is no use of babbling about security when you have nothing tangible to offer; nothing that any banker in the City would look at for a moment. Then don't be so cursedly impatient. For the last time I ask you to sit down and reply to a few questions."
Mackeller slowly, reluctantly seated himself.
"Now, you will not need this money for about four days, you think. Kindly find out for me the exact moment at which the twenty-six thousand pounds may be paid to release that worthless stock. Very well. Now, who is the general manager of the Great Southern road?"
"John W. Preston."
"Have you met him?"
"What sort of an individual is he?"
"A taciturn, cast-iron, hard man, who will not budge an inch no matter what arguments are presented to him."
"Good. I'd like to meet Mr. Preston. Knows his own mind, eh?"
"Have you attempted to soften him?"
"Tried him with a compromise or two?"
"Yes. Of course, I was handicapped by the fact that Sir Phillip Sanderson has made a hobby of his road and doesn't wish to part with it."
"Not even when its rail ends connect with the empty air?"
"No. His new proposal is to run a tram-line from the rail ends into London, getting the co-operation of all the District Councils along the way."
"A perfectly mad scheme. He doesn't recognise defeat even yet. Has he met Mr. Preston?"
"I daresay in the olden time, but not now. Preston refuses to see him."
Does Preston refuse to see you?"
"No, I don't think so; still, I can't be sure. He has got us just where he wants us, and I suppose there's no necessity for seeing either of us. Very likely he would refuse to see me."
Well, in that case I shall make an appointment with him on my own behalf. As I told you, I own twenty thousand shares of the Great Southern Railway, and, therefore, Mr. Preston, general manager, cannot very well ignore me. In a situation such as you find yourself I always advise, as you know, a compromise. Save something out of the wreck. Give the other fellow what he wants—he'll take it, anyhow—and get what you can in exchange for complacency. I shall ask Mr. Preston to make an appointment the day after to-morrow, at any hour that best suits him, when he can receive Sir Phillip Sanderson, yourself, and myself."
"Oh, he won't receive Sir Phillip."
"It will do no harm to ask him, and I shall ask. As soon as I learn, I will telegraph to you, and you can arrange with Sir Phillip to come up to town at the hour appointed, meeting me at Mr. John W. Preston's office in the Great Southern Railway building. I shall bring with me a cheque for twenty-six thousand pounds, which I will hand over to you if the conference comes to nothing."
"I don't feel like taking money, Lord Stranleigh, when you are certain it will never be returned to you."
"Oh, I know very well, Peter, it will be returned. The American surety you offer is more than ample. I have really no fear on that score at all, but what 1 wished to get from you was some definite plan of procedure when you have released the shares of your little road. Still, we can discuss all that afterwards. The main thing is to see Mr. Preston, and try to come to an arrangement. You have your pawned town, and your bankrupt railway. He can easily throw business in your way if he likes to do it. I am a stockholder in his line to the extent of twenty thousand shares, so he'll listen to us, at least."
The little clock on the mantelpiece above the fire-place softly chimed eleven. Mackeller glanced up at it, and rose to his feet gloomily. It was evident he was in a state of deep depression, uncomforted by the genial optimism of his friend. November in London is a sombre month at best, and November, 1907, was a terrible period for any man who needed money.
"I am very deeply obliged to you, Stranleigh," he said, "and although I came to borrow money, I am loth to accept it. You are counting on our saying something to General Manager Preston that will make an impression on him. You don't know the man we have to confront. He has a face of flint; he is adamant."
"Nonsense, Peter. He can't be both flint and adamant. They told me at College that these were two different substances, but never mind whether he is one or the other, or both. He is first of all a business man, although there are persons in this country who might dispute that statement, myself among the number. I admit his success in dealing with poor old Sanderson, and a while ago I expressed an admiration for his methods, yet all the same, looking at it more calmly, I think he has paid rather a big price for your little bit of coast railway. Aside from that, the Great Southern itself, under his management, has shown a steadily falling share list, and I believe its stock to-day is rated on the exchange as the lowest of our Home railways, so you see the great Mr. Preston is scarcely in a position to enact the high and mighty magnate over even so wretchedly unbusinesslike a creature as myself."
"You don't know the man," repeated Mackeller, shaking his head.
"Here is all I need to know, Peter. Mr. Preston thinks he has got you in his grasp; thinks that within four days you will be sold out and done for. So long as that idea remains in his mind, I quite admit that nothing you can say will make any impression upon him, but the moment he sees my cheque for twenty-six thousand pounds pass into your hands, he must realise that you have, for the time, at least, got out of his grasp. He will know in a flash that victory has removed to a distance which he is not able at that moment to estimate. It is when he is in this frame of mind that I expect you to be able to negotiate with him. He will prefer to take the half loaf rather than go without bread altogether."
"I'd feel safer, Stranleigh, if you promised to join us after you learn that Preston has refused to deal with us at all."
"All right," cried his lordship, springing to his feet, as joyously as if someone had challenged him to a game of billiards, "I'll stand by you."
"Nevertheless," demurred Mackeller, "I don't want to lure you into a fight which you consider hopeless."
"My dear fellow, nothing is hopeless until your mind says it is so. Hopelessness is a mental quality, not something pertaining to a case. The hopeful man may lose a fight occasionally, but all the same, his very hopefulness makes him enjoy the contest while it is on. Now, the hopeless man neither enjoys the contest, nor ever wins a fight."
"Perhaps you've evolved some scheme already for the struggle with Preston when he has refused to compromise."
"I have formed no plans, Peter."
"A little earlier in the evening you rather censured me for entering into a campaign without definite designs."
"Censured you? I hope not. Still, strategy is rather useful, you know, but if there is to be no contest, there need be no strategy. I don't intend to fight Preston."
"Oh!" cried Mackeller, in a tone of deep disappointment, "I thought you promised to come in with us?"
"Certainly; but you see, my limited scope of mind is such that I can attend only to the thing directly in front of me. The thing directly in front of me now is not a fight, but gentle, persuasive conversation with Mr. Preston. Now you, Peter, possess splendid bull-dog qualities which are entirely absent from my composition. You have the defects that go with your qualities, and I have the defects that go with mine. Your defect is that you arouse antagonism. Preston's bristles will arise the moment he looks at your determined countenance, but my effect upon him will be entirely different. That Preston is a keen judge of character is shown by his refusal to have anything more to do with Sanderson, because even from your own account of Sanderson, you have convinced me that he is a futile sort of person. Now, it is quite probable that Preston will judge me to be futile also. He will see that I am an easy-going, playing young fellow, who nevertheless owns twenty thousand shares in his railway. It will be impossible for me to conceal from him that the people I like can mould me this way or that according to their fancy, so he will doubtless say to himself: 'I'll make a friend of this chap. He may prove a useful ally in the future.' I shall make no remark to Preston that will either arouse his resentment or wound his vanity."
"You can't move him by flattery or soft talk, Stranleigh."
"I know that's your theory, but it's not mine. Never drive a man when you can persuade him. I shan't attempt to drive until I have exhausted my powers of persuasion."
Mackeller said no more, and Lord Stranleigh accompanied him to the portico of the club, and there bade him good-night while the porter whistled for a hansom.
Stranleigh strolled thoughtfully through the hall to the platform where the various tickers were rapping out the latest news of a disastrous day. He ran the tape through his fingers, and tried for a few moments to study the final quotations, muttering to himself:
"I never could understand these cursed hieroglyphics."
Turning, he said to one of the club servants:
"Would you kindly ring up on the telephone Mr. Ernest Montague—his residence, not his office, of course. Come to me in the smoking-room when you have got him."
A few moments later the servant accosted him in the smoking-room.
"Very sorry, sir, but the Exchange can get no answer from Mr. Montague."
Don't let that discourage you," said Stranleigh with a smile. "Say a few complimentary words to the girl at the Exchange, and ask her, as a kindness to Lord Stranleigh, to ring up Montague until he replies. Tell her to make sleep impossible in his house through the ringing of the telephone bell. Make the drowsy Montague's life a burden to him until he rises to the 'phone. There can't be much telephoning going on just now, so the girl can put her whole mind to it."
After a long interval the servant returned.
"I have got Mr. Montague, my lord, who doesn't seem to be in a very amiable frame of mind."
"I dare say," drawled Stranleigh, "things are going rather cross-wise in the City, and Montague's a mere stockbroker."
He rose without hurry, and went to the telephone booth. Montague evidently thought he was talking to the Exchange, and his language was painful and free.
"What the devil do you mean?" he cried, "by making my residence a pandemonium? When the telephone bell isn't answered, then ring off, and say you can't get me. I don't keep a telephone in my house for the convenience of every cursed fool that likes to ring me up, and I want you to understand that when——"
"That you, Montague?"
"Oh, you're there, are you? Who the deuce are you, and what do you want?"
"I want to know how things are going on in the City. They tell me there's rather a crisis on the Stock Exchange."
The reception of this mild request was so lurid that it cannot be set down here, and among the expletives, Stranleigh gathered that the man at the other end of the wire, clad only in pyjamas, at midnight, in a cold hall towards the middle of an English November, did not care to answer a fool question from any blank, blank idiot that liked to call him up, and the tirade ended with the fierce inquiry:
"Who are you? Who are you, anyhow?"
"My dear Montague," said Stranleigh, "please do not boast. I dislike a bragging man. Pyjamas? You know very well you don't own pyjamas. I am told that every stockbroker has put his pyjamas in the pawnshop long ago. What's the matter with you? Why don't you instal American radiators in your hall, as I have all through my house. They diffuse a mild, semi-tropical influence that would counterbalance even such a frost as you've been having on the Stock Exchange. If you pretend to possess pyjamas, you will be swaggering by-and-by about owning a dressing-gown or a pair of slippers. If you own these things, put them on, because I'm going to talk with you for some time."
"Who are you? Who are you?"
"I am Lord Stranleigh of Wychwood, and I am telephoning you from the righteous precincts of the Corinthian Club, which is not accustomed to such language as you've been using."
"Oh, Lord Stranleigh, I beg your pardon. I had no idea, of course——"
"Have you put that dressing-gown on?"
"Yes, yes; I'm all right. You see, this bell's been ringing for about half an hour; seems to me, in fact, it's been ringing all night, and I'd just dropped into a troubled sleep when your call came."
"That's all right, Montague. Don't apologise. I forgive you, but it does seem to me that if I'm willing to serve my country by playing billiards here till after midnight, you, in a comfortable residence, ought not to object to do something on your part. Now, don't begin swearing again."
"No fear. How can I oblige you?"
"Things are pretty bad in the City, aren't they?"
"So I thought. Do you remember buying for me twenty thousand shares in the Great Southern Railway about two years ago?"
"What price did you pay?"
"I can't say off-hand. I could tell you in the morning after I have looked at my books. It was something like thirty-four, I think."
"And what price did the stock close at to-day?"
"Oh, it's away down to eleven and a half. If you are thinking of selling, Lord Stranleigh, I strongly advise you not to. You couldn't sell the Mint itself to-day. You've no idea of the state of business. Why, I sat in my office from nine o'clock till five and I swear there was not a thing doing. I didn't earn my lunch."
"Oh, you always were a luxurious feeder, Montague, and shouldn't expect to earn a lunch every day in the year. I'll give you a chance to accumulate enough for three full meals to-morrow. Are you listening?"
"Oh, yes, my lord."
"Very well, I want you to buy for me a majority of stock in the Great Southern Railway."
"I wish to acquire a majority of stock in the Great Southern Railway, and I mentioned my twenty thousand shares, which I now hold, so that you may take them into your calculations."
"Excuse me, Lord Stranleigh, I'm afraid I haven't quite understood. This telephone is crackling a good deal. It seems that you said you wanted a majority of the Great Southern Railway shares. Am I right?"
"Have you any idea what that will cost you?"
"Not the slightest, Montague. What's the use of my having ideas when I'm compelled to pay you for thinking?"
"But, my dear Lord Stranleigh, it will run into millions. It will run into a good bit of money even if you buy on a margin only. Of course, that's what you intend to do? You don't wish me to buy the stock outright, I suppose?"
"Oh, yes. No margins for me. I don't understand margins, and they keep me awake at night with anxiety, so we'll make a clean job of this. Buy outright and pay cash down."
"Lord Stranleigh, permit me to say that, although the stock is lower than ever it has been since the beginning of the road, this will require an amount of money that will probably exceed your expectations. You would need to give the banks a reasonable amount of notice if you intend to withdraw from them so very considerable a sum, and I suppose you do not expect so large a transaction to be completed in a hurry?"
"Oh, certainly not, Montague. I'll give you ample time, of course. Let's see; it's now just ten minutes to midnight. You were exaggerating a while ago when you said I'd rung you up after midnight."
"But I apologised for that, Lord Stranleigh."
"So you did. Well, it's not midnight yet, and we can talk about to-morrow. I wish to be in possession of that stock by four o'clock to-morrow afternoon. That will give you time enough, won't it?"
"Good lord!" came in a gasp over the telephone wires.
"Can't you do it in that time?"
"Do it? Why, Lord Stranleigh, if you attempt to pull such a sum out of the banks between ten and four to-morrow, some of them will close their doors. You'll precipitate such a crisis in financial circles that it will make the American panic cyclone seem like a summer breeze."
"Why, hang it all, Montague, what are you growling about? Here you've been saying there's nothing doing, and when a man comes along and wants to do something you throw every sort of obstacle in his way. I don't intend to trouble the banks at all. I'm the last man in London to add a straw to their difficulties. Some of these men, Alexander Corbett, for instance, are friends of mine. I'm not going to draw anything from the banks."
Then how do you expect to obtain the money?"
"I've some gold in a safe deposit vault. I'm going to draw on that."
"Gold? How much?"
"Oh, botheration, Montague! I must decline to brag, as you did about your pyjamas. How much do you want?"
"How much have you, Lord Stranleigh?"
"Anywhere from ten to fifteen millions."
"Locked up in a safe deposit vault, and all London and all America clamouring for it? Great heavens!"
"Well, I did think of sending some of it across to New York in the Mauritania, but I changed my mind. Investment begins at home, and I don't understand American finance well enough to meddle with it. Don't understand English finance either for that matter, but would fifteen millions be enough for what I want?"
"Enough? Enough? Why, Lord Stranleigh, you could buy the earth for fifteen millions to-morrow, let alone the Great Southern Railway. Enough! I should say it was, with the stock down at eleven and everybody eager to sell."
"Oh, that cheers me up, Montague. You rather frightened me with your pessimism. So I can buy my little Diabolo plaything and whirl it in the air, can't I?"
"Lord Stranleigh, I fear I am not yet awake. I think I am dreaming. I don't believe I am at one end of the telephone, and I can't credit what I'm hearing from the man at the other."
"Oh, that's the chilliness of the hall and the lack of radiators."
"The hall's hot enough now, I assure you, and I'm not going to bed to-night. Of course, you'll wish this purchase to be made as quietly as possible, otherwise the stock will jump up on us till we won't know where we are. May I call on you at nine o'clock to-morrow morning?"
"Heavens, no! I'll be sound asleep at that unearthly hour. What time do your reach your office in the City, Montague?"
"Nine o'clock. I'll be down there at seven to-morrow, though."
"What an impetuous person you are! Very well; I can't get into my safe deposit vault until ten o'clock, so I'll call at your office at half-past ten. Of course, I want this accomplished with the utmost secrecy. There mustn't be a whisper of what we are doing breathed until the deal is completed. I'm leaving all the details to you, Montague, so if anything leaks out it will be your fault."
"Nothing will leak out from my office, Lord Stranleigh."
"By the way, do you happen to know, Montague, when the next annual meeting of the Great Southern Railway takes place?"
"The last day of the year, my lord."
"Will my ownership of this stock allow me to change the management of the road if I wish?"
"Of course. It is quite possible that you must give a month's notice, or something of that kind, if you intend to put forward a new board of directors, but I'll learn all that to-morrow and let you know. We're somewhat well on in the year now, and perhaps you may have to wait till the end of 1908. In case that should be so, will you go forward with the purchase?"
"Very good. I shall have everything ready for you by half-past ten to-morrow"
"All right, Montague. Excuse my ringing you up at this untimely hour, won't you?"
"Oh, go to thunder! You've made me the happiest man in London, for if such a purchase as this becomes known within the next few days you will not only stop the panic, but you'll make millions on the rise of the stock, even if you wish to sell out after the annual meeting."
"Good-night, Montague. See you to-morrow."
"Good-night, my lord."
"General Manager's Office,
Great Southern Railway,
"November 20th, 1907.
"The General Manager of the Great Southern Railway presents his compliments to Lord Stranleigh of Wychwood, and will be pleased to meet his lordship, Sir Phillip Sanderson, and Mr. Mackeller at this office on Friday morning, November 22nd, at 9.30."
"H—m!" ejaculated Lord Stranleigh, when he read this note. "Curt, but courteous. What a beastly hour he's set! That's what comes of mixing with business men whose time is money. Nine-thirty; how can I manage it? Ah, well it's first blood to me, anyhow. I'll send a chortling telegram to Mackeller, and let him know he was wrong in supposing Preston wouldn't see us. Nine-thirty! Bah! I must walk there in my sleep."
The first impression Lord Stranleigh formed of Mr. Preston was that he seemed glacial, rather than adamantine. His thin, tightly-compressed lips had a frost-bitten look. His keen eyes were icy, g^littering forth under heavy eyebrows that gave the appearance of a perpetual frown on his forehead. He seldom spoke, but when he did his voice was cold and unsympathetic. His presence appeared to lower the fog-laden November temperature of the room. The electric light, burning at nine-thirty in the morning, shed a bluish light through the haze that resembled the radiance in the ice cave of an Alpine glacier. Lord Stranleigh unconsciously rubbed one hand over the other for warmth, and was astonished to notice that a coal fire burned dimly in a grate. A graven image sat silent at a small table beside Mr. Preston's desk with a writing pad before him, a fountain-pen in his hand, ready to take shorthand notes when anyone spoke. He was young in years, but his frozen face would never look older than it did now.
"I introduce myself as Lord Stranleigh of Wychwood, Mr. Preston. I believe an introduction is not necessary so far as my friends, Sir Phillip Sanderson and Mr. Peter Mackeller, are concerned. I may perhaps be permitted to apologise for my intrusion by stating that I come simply as a friend of both parties, as I told Mr, Mackeller. I own twenty thousand shares of Southern Railway stock, and though not financially interested in Mr. Mackeller's and Sir Phillip Sanderson's railway and town of Gorham-on-Sea, yet Mr. Mackeller has long been a friend and colleague of mine, and I have advised him, if possible, to come to some amicable arrangement with you."
Mr. Preston frigidly inclined his head very slightly. His thin lips said nothing, but when Lord Stranleigh mentioned his holding shares in the Great Southern the glittering eyes lit up and seemed to proclaim with great plainness:
"Sir, if you think that twenty thousand shares entitle you to interfere with my decisions you will speedily be disillusionised."
Mr. Preston, after bowing to Lord Stranleigh, turned his face towards Peter Mackeller as if to say:
"Get this talk done with as quickly as possible."
Throughout the interview he ignored Sir Phillip Sanderson, a portly gentleman with a red face that grew redder and bushy hair of the purest white. Lord Stranleigh estimated him as a man who most of his life had been in supreme command, therefore impatient of restraint. He adjudged him to be of irascible temper and an excellent critic of good wine, possibly a gourmand, and probably an appreciator of the best brand of cigars; nevertheless, a hale, genial old fellow if his corns were not trampled upon. The already ruddy face had become almost purple under the superior non-recognition of the General Manager. Peter himself, now that his opportunity had come, seemed almost tongue-tied when confronted by this boreal human iceberg. Very lamely he presented his plea. Lord Stranleigh watched this play of cold storage emotion with amused indifference which, however, had in it no trace of boredom. It was a new experience for his lordship. He had never met a man just like Mr. Preston before. When Mackeller haltingly came to a conclusion, Mr. Preston spoke for the first time, and his tones reminded Stranleigh of chilled steel, so much so that the young man's fancy lightly turned to thoughts of making railroad iron out of them, and a smile came to his lips which certainly appeared misplaced in that ungracious room.
"Do I understand you to affirm, Mr. Mackeller, that I ever promised any traffic arrangements with the so-called Gorham branch?"
"You have never done so to me, Mr. Preston," said Peter, "but your agent certainly intimated that if we——"
Mr. Preston interrupted: "If our agent made any promise on behalf of the Great Southern Railway, it should have been set down in writing, countersigned by myself."
Mackeller sat dumb. This was exactly what Lord Stranleigh had told him at the club a few nights before.
Stranleigh spoke very quietly.
"May I ask, Mr. Preston, if you disclaim the agent referred to? Is he, or is he not, in the employment of the Great Southern Railway Company?"
"He is in the employment of our company, Lord Stranleigh, but he has no power to bind us to any particular course of action. Whatever he does must be sent to this office for confirmation. You may perhaps understand, Lord Stranleigh, that one of the difficulties of those in authority is to repress undue zeal on the part of the less important servants of the company."
"Why, I should think a visit to your office, Mr. Preston, would very effectually accomplish that," said Stranleigh with his gentlest smile, but there was no answering smile on the lips of the General Manager. He went on as icily, as emotionless, as before.
"It is, therefore, our rule that every proposal must be sent to me, and if approved by the board of directors my signature then makes it binding on the company. We should have chaos otherwise."
"I quite appreciate the position, Mr. Preston, and I think your method is most admirable. It has been said that a corporation has neither a body to be kicked nor a soul to be damned, yet it must possess an intellect that may be appealed to upon occasion. We are here, not to demand any right, nor to stand on technicality, but to arrive at some mutually satisfactory arrangement that will be fair to both parties."
"I can come to no arrangement in this matter," said Preston with a snap of the jaws that at least was human, if decisive.
"Oh, don't say that, Mr. Preston," pleaded Lord Stranleigh in his most silken voice. "Look what an example has been set within the past fortnight. All the railway managers of the kingdom said they would not do this and that. All the boards of directors were equally firm. On the other hand, their employees were irrevocably determined to bring on a strike, whereupon a moderate, sane man, like Mr. Lloyd George, President of the Board of Trade, gets the heads of both parties together, and instead of knocking them against one another as an impatient man like myself might be inclined to do, he talks soothingly, away difficulties, and, presto! here's the whole question settled. No strike: directors, shareholders, employees, all satisfied. Now, can't we, on a very, very small scale, do something similar, I enacting, as well as my inefficiency will allow, the part of Mr. Lloyd George, whose cloak, of course, is ludicrously too large for me."
"Lord Stranleigh, out of courtesy to yourself, I shall not declare this conference ended, and will take the trouble to make some explanation to you that may put this in a clearer light in your mind. A great railway company cannot be troubled by branches that do not belong to itself; that: are not under its own control. Branch lines rarely pay their cost of working, even under the most advantageous terms. They are merely feeders to the main line. But when a branch railway is under no control from the central office, an intolerable state of things ensues. If we sell tickets over Mr. Mackeller's line from any of our own stations, we lay ourselves liable to vexatious actions at law should a passenger be injured on that small railway over which we exercise no jurisdiction."
"Could not the owners of the line give you a deed of indemnity, or something of that sort, which would relieve you from responsibility?"
"Not in a case of this kind, Lord Stranleigh, where the owners of the branch are practically bankrupt."
Sir Phillip Sanderson jerked his head back and blurted out:
"That is a lie. Neither Mr. Mackeller nor myself are practically bankrupt."
Mr. Preston rose to his feet.
"I am sorry I cannot oblige you, Lord Stranleigh, and I am compelled to ask you to consider this interview at an end." He glanced at his watch. "There is another deputation waiting."
"Just one moment, Mr. Preston. Would it make any difference to you if you knew you could not become possessed of the Gorham line?"
"Not the slightest. I don't care a straw whether I own it or not."
"Because," said Lord Stranleigh, taking the cheque from his waistcoat pocket, "I have promised Mr. Mackeller the twenty-six thousand pounds necessary to release his stock."
"That has nothing to do with me, Lord Stranleigh."
"You still refuse even to discuss an equitable arrangement?"
"Lord Stranleigh, I discussed it, as I have just pointed out, for a longer time than I had intended. I am already encroaching on the hour set for another delegation."
"Very well, Mackeller, here then is your cheque," said Stranleigh handing it to him. "Sir Phillip Sanderson, will you do me the honour of breakfasting with me at twelve? I think I can count on Peter, and I shall be delighted if both of you come."
"With great pleasure," said Sir Phillip, gruffly, still fuming under the treatment he had received from the General Manager. To the latter Lord Stranleigh turned with a smile.
"I suppose even a General Manager must eat upon occasion. Mr. Preston, will you not oblige me by thinking this matter over for an hour or two? At half-past eleven I shall send my car here for you if I may, and shall be delighted when you join our table at twelve. I am happy in possessing a chef who is really a treasure."
"Thank you. I never transact business at lunch, Lord Stranleigh."
"Neither do I, Mr. Preston, but when you are there we will discuss the cook."
Quite impossible, Lord Stranleigh. Thank you all the same."
"Oh, well, if between now and then you change your mind I shall hope to see you."
He laid a card on the General Manager's desk, took a pen, and wrote the address of his house on it.
"Thank you very much for your courtesy in receiving us. I always feel an interloper in a business office, and therefore my gratitude goes out to those who bear with me in such an unaccustomed place. Good morning, Mr. Preston."
"Good morning, Lord Stranleigh."
As the old and the young man very dejectedly descended the stairs of the Great Southern Railway offices, Lord Stranleigh hurried up behind them and flung an arm over each shoulder.
"Cheer up!" he cried. "My motor is waiting outside, and we will make a dash through the fog to the Corinthian Club. I need a refresher, as our legal friends put it. I also want to thaw out. Peter, why don't you say 'I told you so!'?"
"He's a hard man," growled Mackeller.
"He is an outrageous beast," exploded Sir Phillip Sanderson, apparently glad to find expression at last. "An overbearing, brow-beating brute who knows he's got us under his heel, and I do think that when an Englishman is a beast he's the worst beast in creation."
"Tut-tut-tut," cried Stranleigh. "Don't libel your countrymen, Sir Phillip. A beast is a beast wherever you find him, and, if you ask me, I don't think there's much to choose between them. Everything is all right, so let's put on cheerful countenances, and I'll promise you something good to eat."
"You don't seem afraid to join us, then, Lord Stranleigh?"
"Afraid? Why, hang it, no. I've just been amusing myself this morning. The General Manager looks on our conference as waste of time. So it is. I knew that from the first. I was merely giving the man his chance. He didn't take it. He'll try to recover lost ground when he breakfasts with us at twelve."
"But he said he wasn't coming."
"Oh, he said that, but he doesn't know. He thinks he's General Manager of the Great Southern, instead of which he's Kuropatkin at Mukden. He's looking after his front, and we made a frontal attack, therefore we are repelled, but he has not safeguarded his flanks, always a fatal mistake in war. Ah, here's the automobile."
But there were two automobiles. From one of them an eager young man sprang forward and cried:
"Oh, Lord Stranleigh, does it go?"
Stranleigh flung out his arms.
"It goes!" he cried.
"Lord Stranleigh, how can I ever thank you enough for this?"
"Well, don't try to do it. Spring on your machine, away, and get this news on the wires red hot within ten minutes. I want to see it ticking on the tape when I reach the Corinthian Club."
The eager young man vanished at a rate greatly in excess of the legal limit.
"Now, there goes what they call a hustler out West: a splendid, upright young fellow fighting his way in the world. He's done me one or two good turns in my life. He belongs to the Press Corporation, Limited, and is up to snuff. I have placed in his hands a piece of news that will send a thrill up the congealed backbone of old Preston."
"What have you done?" demanded Mackeller.
"That young man in the swift runabout is a fuse. Didn't you see me light him up with the words, 'It goes'? Now let us get under cover before the explosion."
It was too early in the day for many members to be in the Corinthian Club, so there was no sign of the explosion, although the tape machines of various kinds were chattering away like mad. Lord Stranleigh conducted his two guests to a private room, where they refreshed themselves while he related what had happened. Shortly after the recital was finished the steward of the club, a solemn-faced man, came into the private room.
"Lord Stranleigh," he asked, "do you wish it known that you are in the club?"
"I'd rather not have it known, if you don't mind."
"There have been a great many telephone calls for you, and the number of pressmen in the lobby is increasing every minute."
"Would you tell them that there is nothing to say. That may give away the fact of my presence here, but, nevertheless, it would be quite useless for me to see one or all of them. Say that I have had full particulars of the affair typewritten: how it was done, and all the information they can require; and this document is in the hands of Mr. Jasper Dent, at the offices of the News Corporation, Limited. He has instructions to give them access to the document, only part of which he himself has used in his first messages over the wires."
"Thank you, my lord. Your man, Ponderby, has telephoned to the effect that there is also a crowd collected before your door, and he wants to know what to do with them. Shall he send for the police?"
"Oh, bless you, no. Tell Ponderby what I have said to you, and ask him to make a dignified speech from my front steps, embodying my remarks. Ponderby ought to do this sort of thing impressively."
At half-past eleven the trio walked from the club to Lord Stranleigh's residence. The newspaper boys were flying through the streets with flaring contents bills put out by the evening Press.
"Stock Exchange Thunderbolt!" appeared on one in huge type. "Lord Stranleigh buys the Great Southern. Unprecedented jump of fifteen points in the stock."
Another had it:
"Lord Stranleigh and the Great Southern! Clean Sweep of the Management. Determination to make the Southern equal to the Midland!"
Another sheet read:
"Lord Stranleigh makes twenty-five millions between two games of billiards. Buys Southern at eleven and can sell it now for twenty-seven."
Once inside the hall of Stranleigh House, Ponderby whispered to his master:
"The General Manager of the Great Southern has been waiting here for half an hour, my lord."
"All right. Show him into the breakfast-room."
"I have come to talk business," said Mr. Preston, declining the proffered chair.
"No, you haven't," replied Lord Stranleigh. "Truth is, my dear Preston, you don't know what you're doing to-day. The fog has got into your head."
"Do you intend to make a clean sweep of the management, as the papers say?"
"It all depends on yourself, Mr. Preston. I never shove a man against the wall if I can help it. But, on the other hand, I don't enjoy being pushed into a corner myself. Will you join our metals to the rails of your main line?"
"Will you rebuild the station at Oaklands Junction?"
"It is easily given out that this rebuilding was intended from the first, because I surmise that you are a reticent man, Mr. Preston, and take no one into your confidence. May we have a nice corridor train running without a stop from London to Gorham-on-Sea, labelled in lovely gilt letters, 'The Gorham Express'?"
"It will never pay, Lord Stranleigh."
"Give it time, and it will."
Lord Stranleigh turned to the dignified Ponderby, who stood like the Sphinx in the background.
"Ponderby, just ring up Jasper Dent, Press Corporation, Limited. Tell him from me that the rumour about a change in management on the Great Southern is not true. Say that Mr. Preston remains general manager, and will inaugurate many beneficial changes which he has long contemplated.
"And now, Preston, draw up to the table, for this royal turbot, like the tide it comes from, waits for no man."
R. CLAY AND SONS, LTD., BREAD STREET HILL, E.C., AND BUNGAY, SUFFOLK.