The Great Monopoly
THE GREAT MONOPOLY
BY A. E. W. MASON
FOR many years the mystery remained a dark and haunting problem. It concealed a tragedy—of so much we all in the end, felt sure, but we knew nothing. If the tragedy were a crime, we had no clue to the motive; if an accident, we could discover no trace of its occurrence. The police failed to solve the mystery, and we did not rest content with the inquiries of the police. Every possible kind of investigation was practiced without thought of the money spent. For a great interest was involved, nothing less, in a word, than the revolution of an entire industry. But no hint of a solution was obtained, and it was the merest chance which, after the affair had been almost forgotten, disclosed some part of the truth to me.
But however mysterious the end was to prove, the beginning was commonplace enough. One morning in June, while I was sitting in my chambers in Gray's Inn, thinking over a series of lectures which I was to deliver next term upon the wanderings of Odysseus, my servant entered with a card and a letter, and I read for the first time the name of Reuben Clinch. There was an address upon the card,
I turned to the letter, which was addressed to me in a handwriting vaguely familiar, and tore open the envelope. It was a letter of introduction, written by a professor at Melbourne University, who had been an acquaintance of mine twenty years before, when we were both undergraduates at Balliol. I had never liked him then; I liked him less now for thrusting in upon my seclusion. To speak the truth, I was rather annoyed. The letter described the Australian as a young man of great scientific attainments, and I felt that there could be no possible sympathy between such a man and myself. However, I could hardly refuse to see my visitor, and with a sigh for my wasted morning, I turned from my Homer and said:
"Show Mr. Clinch in."
A young man about twenty-six years of age walked into the room, and at once I could not but grudgingly admit to myself that I was more favorably impressed than I had thought to be. Mr. Clinch was tall and long of limb. He was dark in hair and complexion, and wore a little black mustache, which did not take away from the singular keenness of his appearance. His face was not handsome so much as significant. There was power and ability in every line of it; the features were sharp and extremely mobile, and his eyes were steady.
"I am afraid. Professor Royle, that I am interrupting you," he said as he took my hand.
"Well, Mr. Clinch, the morning is for work, is it not?" I said a little ungraciously, I am afraid. I saw a look of anxiety and disappointment come into his eyes, and I hastened to add: "But I am none the less very glad to see you."
I motioned him to a chair near the open window, and he sat down in it. "I am glad to hear it," he said with a smile; "for I know no one at all in London, or indeed in England. And the letter of introduction which I have brought to you is the only letter of the kind which I possess."
"Then this is your first visit," I said.
"Yes," he replied, still looking at me with a great earnestness. I felt that he was speculating upon my willingness and my ability to serve him; and somehow I was impelled to say to him:
"Well, I must see what I can do for you. I go very little into the world myself. But I can make you an honorary member of my club," and Reuben Clinch smiled, and the smile was supercilious. There was suddenly revealed to me a nature masterful and rather intolerant. But in a moment the contempt had gone, and he was leaning forward, with his hands upon his knees, as though he was concentrating his mind upon persuading me to serve his turn.
"I did not come here to enjoy myself," he said quietly. "Will you let me tell you what you can do for me?"
"Certainly," I replied, sitting back with resignation in my study chair.
Clinch looked out into the garden for a few moments, his eyes resting upon the great leafy trees, and, beneath their shade, the green lawns, splashed with sunlight.
"It is quiet here," he said. "A very pleasant place for a man to work in," and then he turned his eyes to me, and said quietly, "I have made a great discovery."
My heart sank at the words.
"It is of a scientific kind, I presume," I said wearily.
"I am not well versed in scientific matters," I protested, "but I can give you some letters to scientific men of eminence, who will be a help to you."
Reuben Clinch smiled again.
"Thank you, Professor, but I am satisfied with the results of my investigations. My discovery is of a practical kind. The help I want is on the commercial side."
"Then," I hastened to interrupt, "I shall be still more useless to you."
"Are you sure?" he asked earnestly. Hear me first before you answer." He learned forward impressively. "I have discovered how to fix the oil in wool."
"I assure you that this is all Greek to me," I replied.
"No," he persisted. "If it were that it would be clear as daylight to you, Professor. Let me say that it is to you what Greek would be to me."
It was a neatly turned compliment, no doubt. I am not more sensible to such things than other men. But one could not but be pleased to know that one had a reputation even in Australia. The smile, too, with which the compliment was expressed was undoubtedly winning.
"Well, tell me about your discovery," I said.
And he began. Frankly, the man was wonderful. He had enthusiasm, he had confidence, and he was determined that I should listen and understand. It appeared that the difficulty of fixing the oil had been the one great hindrance in the woollen industry, that experts had been in vain trying to overcome it for many years. At last, thanks to a practical experience of sheep farming, combined with a mind scientifically trained, he, Reuben Clinch, had discovered the great secret. The dying of cloth would be simplified, the processes, the machinery of the Yorkshire factories would be superceded, the whole industry would be revolutionized. Colossal fortunes would be made, and prices would be lowered for the public. I seemed to be listening to a great commercial epic. The man was magnetic. He made me see the great discovery in the great, wide aspect in which it appealed to him. It was a great romance which he unfolded, a romance which had begun with a boy tending sheep on an upland farm of Australia, and was to end in the multiplication of factories, and the capture of the entire world's trade in this industry for England.
He stopped and said abruptly:
"Now, what I want you to do for me, if you can, is to give me a strong introduction to a man of capital engaged in the wool trade."
It was astonishing with what confidence Reuben Clinch made his unlikely request. It was still more astonishing, I think, that I was actually able to comply with it. Fortune was once more siding with the masterful. For one of my few friends was a prosperous wool merchant in the City of London, Mr. Ralph Speedy. I knew little of the commercial side of Speedy 's life, but was aware that he held a high reputation and that his opinion was thought of value in his trade. My friendship with him was due to another aspect of his character. He was a man with a great reverence for the classics, though with little knowledge. He would quote Horace upon occasion, without, it is true, either accuracy or appositeness, but with an amiable diffidence which quite prevented criticism. And, above all, he behaved towards those fortunate few who are really scholars with a respect which I find much too rare.
"Yes," I said doubtfully, looking at Reuben Clinch, "I can give you such an introduction. But it will be better perhaps if I first see the man I am thinking of."
A shade of disappointment darkened upon my visitor's face.
"You will not forget?" he said anxiously.
"No," I replied. "And if I do, I think you will probably call and remind me."
Mr. Clinch laughed, wrote his address upon a card, and went away. I turned back to my Homer and very quickly forgot all about Clinch and his famous discovery.
In the afternoon, however, as I was taking my daily walk, he recurred to my mind. I wondered at the strange spell he had cast upon me. I laughed at my momentary obsession as at some foolish hallucination. He was probably an imposter, a quack! And, lo! all the time I was unconsciously walking, not to my usual haunt on an afternoon, the rooms of the British Academy, but down Cheapside towards the City. I woke to the direction of my walk when I was only a few yards from my friend Speedy's office. Since I was so near I might as well go in.
"What?" said my friend genially as I entered his office; "you have deserted Parnassus and the streams of Helicon? Sit down."
I told Speedy the story of my visitor and of his discovery. Speedy shrugged his shoulders and laughed.
"An impostor," said he.
It was my own thought, but now that it was expressed by another man I no longer felt so sure of it. Something of the glamour which Clinch had thrown over his subject came back to me.
"It would be a great discovery?" I asked. "A method of fixing the oil in wool would produce this startling revolution in the industry?"
"Undoubtedly," said Speedy. "But everybody has had a shot at it. No one has succeeded. It is a secret which will never be discovered."
"It might be worth while seeing the man," I suggested. "I confess that he impressed me."
Speedy looked at me with surprise. It was no doubt as strange to him as it was to me that I should be in any way interested in the subject.
"Oh," he said abruptly, "let's go and see him now." He took up his hat and We went out.
Clinch had taken rooms in Duke Street, St. James's, and thither we drove. We found him in.
"I have brought Mr. Speedy to see you," I said.
Clinch's face flushed with pleasure, and he shook me warmly by the hand. "That's very kind of you, Professor," he said. "I did not expect it. I understood quite clearly this morning that you did not want to see me at all. I was prepared to hear nothing further from you." Then he turned to my friend and bowed.
"Mr. Speedy's name is, of course, very well known to me. I could not hope for better assistance."
Speedy did not respond with any warmth to this greeting.
"I promise no assistance," he said coldly. "You must first prove to me the genuineness of your discovery."
"Of course," said Clinch.
He placed chairs, and we sat down. Then he went to a cupboard, and took out two small bundles of wool. These he brought across the room to us.
"Here is the natural wool," he said, holding out one of the bundles.
Speedy took it and examined it, and laid it aside.
"Yes," he said.
Clinch handed him the second bundle.
"Here is wool from the same clip after my treatment."
Speedy took the second bundle and bent his head closely over it. I saw his face change from its indifference. He fingered the wool and examined it in every part. That he was interested was clear enough, but what he actually thought—that was another matter. His face gave us no clue, and he did not speak. We waited upon his decision in a great suspense. I say we, for indeed I believe that I was more excited than Reuben Clinch.
At last Speedy put the bundle down.
"Yes," he said gravely, "this is genuine."
He went to the window and stood looking out upon the street. I had no doubt that the same dream which had been mine this morning was his now. I did not move, neither did Reuben Clinch. But I looked at Clinch. He was now quite calm. Speedy's statement was no more than he expected. He was sitting quietly, unconcernedly in a chair, his whole attitude that of a man who knows he is right.
Speedy turned back from the window.
"Still I make no promises," he said. "I make you a proposition, however. I have a house in the country. Will you come down with me on Friday? I will then place in your hands some wool. I will provide you with whatever chemical products you require, or you can bring what you require yourself. I will give you an empty room, which you can lock, if you like, on the inside. But you must there fix the oil in the wool I give you."
"I accept the test with pleasure."
"Very well, then, we catch the 4:30 train from Waterloo to Dorking on Friday afternoon." Speedy turned to me. "Will you come, too, or will it bore you?"
"No," I answered eagerly. "I shall be very glad."
The experiment was entirely successful. It was conducted under the strictest surveillance. Clinch himself insisted on being searched before he entered his room. And when the finished wool was produced the last of Speedy's distrust vanished forever. We all three traveled up to London together on Monday morning, and I very well remember Speedy looking out through the windows upon the Surrey woods, and seeing nothing whatever of the foliage as we passed. He was a stoutly built, strong man, in face and figure an impersonation of common sense. But on this morning his eyes were alight. Clinch had thrown his spell upon him, too.
"There's a colossal fortune in this," he said. "Oh, not merely for us, but for all Yorkshire, for England. We shall so simplify and economize in the cost of production, not a country will be able to compete. We shall hold a monopoly—a monopoly in cloth!"
In his ears, too, the great commercial epic was sounding loud.
"Think what that means!" he exclaimed. "Think what it means! I don't think it wise to go for a patent. Keep your secret, Clinch! There's no fear that any one else will hit upon it. We must get Bradford to come in. Oh, it can be done. There will be opposition, of course, but we will break that down. Meanwhile I'll finance you."
Speedy was quick to act once he had made up his prudent mind. A house was taken, furnished, near to the Marble Arch, and overlooking Hyde Park. It was a good house and well furnished. "We must do the thing well," said Speedy. "No parsimony and no fireworks." Servants were engaged, an excellent cook—upon that point Speedy laid the greatest stress—a butler and a footman. Within a fortnight of the visit to Dorking, Clinch was installed, and that notable series of dinner parties began which was to prelude the revolution in the woollen industry.
I was present at the first, which was also the smallest. There were only six seated along the dinner table, three leading Yorkshire manufacturers, Speedy, Clinch and myself. I can see that party now, even after this lapse of time. The big dining room, with its polished mahogany, its dark hangings, its air of comfort, the round table, with its decanters and silver, and Pratt, the burly, shrewd Yorkshireman, leaning across the table, with his cigar tilted upwards from the corner of his mouth. He had one hand upon the sample of wool. I remember what a contrast he made to Clinch, who sat opposite to him, with his pale face, dark eyes, and rather supercilious air. "Who knows how the things done?" asked Pratt. "How many are in the secret?"
"Only myself," answered Clinch.
"Let's see!" said Pratt. He looked towards me, and looked away again. "You? No. You don't! But, Speedy! What of you, eh?"
"I, only, know the secret," Clinch repeated. "I will explain to you now three-quarters of the process. The other quarter I keep to myself until you come into the scheme."
"That's fair," said Pratt.
"I will confess to you that the three-quarters will be of no help to any man who does not know the rest."
It seemed to me a dangerous plan. But I looked at Clinch. He had no hesitation, no fear. He leaned back in his chair, perfectly secure that no one of his hearers would penetrate his secret. He explained the process, while those about listened keenly to very word—he explained it with a deliberation which was almost careless. I, of course, could not understand a word. But I understood from the faces of the others about the dinner table that the scheme was being comprehended and thought good. Clinch stopped.
"Another word, and the cat's out of the bag," he said. "I stop here, gentlemen."
"Very well," said Pratt. He had let his cigar go out. He threw it into the grate and lighted another. "I speak for myself," he went on. "The thing's good enough for me. I'm in, Speedy."
Pratt's opinion carried weight, and his two companions followed him.
This dinner took place in July. The summer holidays were coming on. and I think only one more such party took place before the early autumn. I am not quite sure, for I left London myself, and traveled to Greece, in order to follow by sea and land the actual wanderings of Odysseus. The hot weather gave me fever. I was delayed in my undertaking, and I only returned to town in November, just in time to deliver the first of my lectures. It was in the second week of that month that I was again present at a dinner party in the house by the Marble Arch.
As I entered the room I saw that matters had progressed. There were quite twenty people present, most of them, so far as I could gather from the conversation which went on about me, the smaller Bradford manufacturers. Speedy sat next to me, and I asked him how things were going.
"Finely," he replied. "We are going to effect a great combination. The public announcement will be made in less than a month. You see," and he looked round the table, "we have already come to the smaller fry. They must come in, or be crushed out of the trade altogether."
The dinner was in most respects a copy of those which had gone before. The samples of wool were sent round and examined. Some portion of the process was explained, and questions were invited by Clinch. One difference I noticed. There seemed more anxiety on the part of the questioners to know what would be the actual cost of the alterations they would have immediately to make in their businesses and factories than to estimate the subsequent profits which would follow when the process was in use.
"They seem to be niggling," I said to Speedy.
"They are the small men, you see," said Speedy.
The party broke up rather late. It was past twelve when Speedy and I, who had remained to the last, took leave of Clinch. He came through the hall to the door with us and glanced up at the clock as he passed it.
"I won't ask you to stay on to-night," he said. "Good-bye."
That was the last I was ever to see of Clinch. No—I am wrong. The night was mild, and Speedy walked with me a little of my way along Oxford Street. We had gone perhaps a quarter of a mile when a man came up behind us, passed us, and walked quickly on ahead. He was evidently wearing evening dress, and a light overcoat above it. I clutched Speedy by the arm.
"Surely that's Clinch," I said.
"Is it? Where?"
I pointed out the man, who was now some distance in front. I had not seen anything of his face, so that I was not certain.
"It looks like him, certainly." said Speedy. "But one can't be certain. And, anyhow, it's no business of ours."
At the next corner Speedy jumped into a hansom, and drove back westwards to his home. I got into an omnibus, and jolted along to Gray's Inn. Thither, three mornings later, Speedy came to me. He was terribly agitated. He refused to sit down, and paced the room in the greatest distress.
"What do you think?" he exclaimed. "Clinch has disappeared."
I started up from my chair.
"Yes, vanished completely. There's not a trace of him, not a clue to his whereabouts—nothing, absolutely nothing."
At once, just for a second, my old suspicion flashed across my mind. "Was Clinch an impostor?" I asked myself, and I only asked the question to dismiss it. I did not utter it aloud.
"When did he disappear?" I said.
"Three nights ago. You remember we dined at the house."
I uttered a cry.
"It was he, then, who passed us in Oxford Street?"
"No doubt of it," said Speedy. "The butler told me that he left the house immediately after he was free of us. Why didn't we stop him?" He dropped into a chair. The very chair in which Clinch had sat in the early summer, when he paid me his first visit.
"Oh, why didn't we stop him?" he repeated. He was wringing his hands like a woman in distress.
"You know why we didn't stop him," I replied.
Speedy lifted his head and answered:
"Are you sure there was no love affair?"
Speedy knitted his forehead over that problem, and then he cried out in despair:
"I don't know. He never opened out, did he?"
"No," I replied. "But there might be letters in the house."
"There's nothing—absolutely nothing. I have been at the house all the morning. Not one of the servants knows a thing. There's not the merest scrap of writing that will give us any help."
"When did you first hear that he had disappeared?" I asked.
"Two days ago. That's the fatal thing. I have lost two days, and if it's"—he paused for a second, as though he feared to speak the words even to himself—"if it's foul play, the loss of those two days may just stop us from ever finding him. Let's get into a hansom."
He put his hat on his head, helped me into my overcoat, and hurried me out of the room. We went down into the Gray's Inn Road, and hailed a hansom.
"Scotland Yard," cried Speedy, "and as quick as you can." He was in a fever.
"Keep a lookout on your side, Royle," he said, "while I talk to you. I'll look out on mine. One of us might see him. Not much hope, but we mustn't miss a chance. You see, there has been some sort of an affair, I know. Who she is, what she is, whether she is any particular one, I don't know. But Clinch has gone away before. Only he has never stayed away. He has disappeared; only he has come back again. That's why I have lost two days. I thought he would come back until this morning."
"He may have eloped," I suggested as the cab turned down Chancery Lane.
"I have thought of that. But would he?" exclaimed Speedy. "Would he, with all this colossal future waiting for him? I don't know. These quiet, secret men—you never know. But I am afraid of something else."
"Of one of those queer accident things which strike a man down just as he is coming into his kingdom."
I had never seen Speedy so moved. I would not have believed it possible that he could have been so moved by the loss of any one who was not very dear to him. But Clinch had thrown his spell upon us both.
"Here we are," Speedy cried as the cab stopped.
We told our story to the Inspector, and as he listened I noticed that a smile of amusement struggled into his impassive face.
"Oh, I know what you are thinking," said Speedy. "You are thinking that Clinch has fooled us, that he is an impostor and has done a bolt. But that's not true. I know very well what I am talking about. His process was perfectly genuine. He must have made a huge fortune if he had stayed here."
He took all the details which we could give him down in a book, and as he wrote them down I realized how meagre they were. The house in the Bayswater Road was searched from floor to ceiling. We waited with a lingering hope, for a month, for two months, for three. The police could discover nothing. Clinch had disappeared. He carried with him his secret. No one knew the last process by which the oil was fixed. The house by the Marble Arch was given up, and the great monopoly of cloth became once more a dream.
Speculation was rife as to the reason of Clinch's disappearance. The view which gained most adherents held that he had been lured on that night of his last dinner into some foul den and then murdered for what he had upon his person. But thirteen years later I learned the truth.
I was crossing Westminster Bridge one November evening, about six o'clock, on my way to Waterloo Station. It was an evening of fog, although the fog was not dense. As I passed beneath a lamp post there came out of the fog towards me a man whom I seemed dimly to recognize. Then he passed on. I walked slowly on my way for a few paces, trying to recollect where I had seen his face. I stopped again automatically and looked back. I saw the man had stopped, too, just as I had, and was looking after me, as I was looking after him. I turned and walked towards him. Slowly, it seemed to me reluctantly, he in his turn came towards me. As we met he touched his hat.
"I seem to know your face," I said.
"Yes, sir," he replied. "You are Professor Royle. I was butler to poor Mr. Clinch over there at the Marble Arch."
At once I remembered. The story had grown rather dim to me by this time, but the butler's words revived it vividly.
"Yes." I said. "That was sad."
The butler nodded his head.
"Yes, sir," and he added, "You were dining at the house on the night when Mr. Clinch was murdered."
"Murdered?" I exclaimed. "Are you sure of that? He disappeared. That is all we know."
"Oh, yes, sir, he was murdered," the butler persisted. "I know well." Then he looked around him. "It's so very long since, sir, that I'll tell you how I know. That evening as the gentlemen were leaving I helped two of them on with their coats. They took no notice of me. They were thinking of other things. I heard one say, 'That means ruin to us, you know,' and I heard the other reply, 'It would mean ruin, but it will never come off. You'll see.' I didn't take much notice of the words at the time, sir, but I remembered them afterwards. I remembered, too, that they were spoken with a great deal of conviction."
"But why on earth didn't you come forward and say that at the time?" I asked.
The man shuffled his feet.
"Well, sir, I didn't remember the names of the gentlemen. I didn't see what good it would do, Mr. Clinch having gone, and—and—well, I told my wife about it and she said: 'Hold your tongue! It won't do you any good to be mixed up in it.'" And upon that the butler touched his hat again and disappeared into the fog.
I remembered now that that party was a party of the small men. I recollected how the conversation had run on the cost of the alterations consequent upon the revolution of the trade once the process was adopted. And this is clear: the great monopoly which was so to help England was stopped by a crime, and the crime was committed by one of the smaller men who was likely to go under in the process of change.