CHAPTER THREE--THRIFT--AND THE CHILD
But there was nothing improper in my observing to Fyne that, last night, Mrs. Fyne seemed to have some idea where that enterprising young lady had gone to. Fyne shook his head. No; his wife had been by no means so certain as she had pretended to be. She merely had her reasons to think, to hope, that the girl might have taken a room somewhere in London, had buried herself in town--in readiness or perhaps in horror of the approaching day -
He ceased and sat solemnly dejected, in a brown study. "What day?" I asked at last; but he did not hear me apparently. He diffused such portentous gloom into the atmosphere that I lost patience with him.
"What on earth are you so dismal about?" I cried, being genuinely surprised and puzzled. "One would think the girl was a state prisoner under your care."
And suddenly I became still more surprised at myself, at the way I had somehow taken for granted things which did appear queer when one thought them out.
"But why this secrecy? Why did they elope--if it is an elopement? Was the girl afraid of your wife? And your brother-in-law? What on earth possesses him to make a clandestine match of it? Was he afraid of your wife too?"
Fyne made an effort to rouse himself.
"Of course my brother-in-law, Captain Anthony, the son of . . . " He checked himself as if trying to break a bad habit. "He would be persuaded by her. We have been most friendly to the girl!"
"She struck me as a foolish and inconsiderate little person. But why should you and your wife take to heart so strongly mere folly-- or even a want of consideration?"
"It's the most unscrupulous action," declared Fyne weightily--and sighed.
"I suppose she is poor," I observed after a short silence. "But after all . . . "
"You don't know who she is." Fyne had regained his average solemnity.
I confessed that I had not caught her name when his wife had introduced us to each other. "It was something beginning with an S- wasn't it?" And then with the utmost coolness Fyne remarked that it did not matter. The name was not her name.
"Do you mean to say that you made a young lady known to me under a false name?" I asked, with the amused feeling that the days of wonders and portents had not passed away yet. That the eminently serious Fynes should do such an exceptional thing was simply staggering. With a more hasty enunciation than usual little Fyne was sure that I would not demand an apology for this irregularity if I knew what her real name was. A sort of warmth crept into his deep tone.
"We have tried to befriend that girl in every way. She is the daughter and only child of de Barral."
Evidently he expected to produce a sensation; he kept his eyes fixed upon me prepared for some sign of it. But I merely returned his intense, awaiting gaze. For a time we stared at each other. Conscious of being reprehensibly dense I groped in the darkness of my mind: De Barral, De Barral--and all at once noise and light burst on me as if a window of my memory had been suddenly flung open on a street in the City. De Barral! But could it be the same? Surely not!
"The financier?" I suggested half incredulous.
"Yes," said Fyne; and in this instance his native solemnity of tone seemed to be strangely appropriate. "The convict."
Marlow looked at me, significantly, and remarked in an explanatory tone:
"One somehow never thought of de Barral as having any children, or any other home than the offices of the "Orb"; or any other existence, associations or interests than financial. I see you remember the crash . . . "
"I was away in the Indian Seas at the time," I said. "But of course--"
"Of course," Marlow struck in. "All the world . . . You may wonder at my slowness in recognizing the name. But you know that my memory is merely a mausoleum of proper names. There they lie inanimate, awaiting the magic touch--and not very prompt in arising when called, either. The name is the first thing I forget of a man. It is but just to add that frequently it is also the last, and this accounts for my possession of a good many anonymous memories. In de Barral's case, he got put away in my mausoleum in company with so many names of his own creation that really he had to throw off a monstrous heap of grisly bones before he stood before me at the call of the wizard Fyne. The fellow had a pretty fancy in names: the "Orb" Deposit Bank, the "Sceptre" Mutual Aid Society, the "Thrift and Independence" Association. Yes, a very pretty taste in names; and nothing else besides--absolutely nothing--no other merit. Well yes. He had another name, but that's pure luck--his own name of de Barral which he did not invent. I don't think that a mere Jones or Brown could have fished out from the depths of the Incredible such a colossal manifestation of human folly as that man did. But it may be that I am underestimating the alacrity of human folly in rising to the bait. No doubt I am. The greed of that absurd monster is incalculable, unfathomable, inconceivable. The career of de Barral demonstrates that it will rise to a naked hook. He didn't lure it with a fairy tale. He hadn't enough imagination for it . . . "
"Was he a foreigner?" I asked. "It's clearly a French name. I suppose it WAS his name?"
"Oh, he didn't invent it. He was born to it, in Bethnal Green, as it came out during the proceedings. He was in the habit of alluding to his Scotch connections. But every great man has done that. The mother, I believe, was Scotch, right enough. The father de Barral whatever his origins retired from the Customs Service (tide-waiter I think), and started lending money in a very, very small way in the East End to people connected with the docks, stevedores, minor barge-owners, ship-chandlers, tally clerks, all sorts of very small fry. He made his living at it. He was a very decent man I believe. He had enough influence to place his only son as junior clerk in the account department of one of the Dock Companies. "Now, my boy," he said to him, "I've given you a fine start." But de Barral didn't start. He stuck. He gave perfect satisfaction. At the end of three years he got a small rise of salary and went out courting in the evenings. He went courting the daughter of an old sea-captain who was a churchwarden of his parish and lived in an old badly preserved Georgian house with a garden: one of these houses standing in a reduced bit of "grounds" that you discover in a labyrinth of the most sordid streets, exactly alike and composed of six-roomed hutches.
Some of them were the vicarages of slum parishes. The old sailor had got hold of one cheap, and de Barral got hold of his daughter-- which was a good bargain for him. The old sailor was very good to the young couple and very fond of their little girl. Mrs. de Barral was an equable, unassuming woman, at that time with a fund of simple gaiety, and with no ambitions; but, woman-like, she longed for change and for something interesting to happen now and then. It was she who encouraged de Barral to accept the offer of a post in the west-end branch of a great bank. It appears he shrank from such a great adventure for a long time. At last his wife's arguments prevailed. Later on she used to say: 'It's the only time he ever listened to me; and I wonder now if it hadn't been better for me to die before I ever made him go into that bank.'
You may be surprised at my knowledge of these details. Well, I had them ultimately from Mrs. Fyne. Mrs. Fyne while yet Miss Anthony, in her days of bondage, knew Mrs. de Barral in her days of exile. Mrs. de Barral was living then in a big stone mansion with mullioned windows in a large damp park, called the Priory, adjoining the village where the refined poet had built himself a house.
These were the days of de Barral's success. He had bought the place without ever seeing it and had packed off his wife and child at once there to take possession. He did not know what to do with them in London. He himself had a suite of rooms in an hotel. He gave there dinner parties followed by cards in the evening. He had developed the gambling passion--or else a mere card mania--but at any rate he played heavily, for relaxation, with a lot of dubious hangers on.
Meantime Mrs. de Barral, expecting him every day, lived at the Priory, with a carriage and pair, a governess for the child and many servants. The village people would see her through the railings wandering under the trees with her little girl lost in her strange surroundings. Nobody ever came near her. And there she died as some faithful and delicate animals die--from neglect, absolutely from neglect, rather unexpectedly and without any fuss. The village was sorry for her because, though obviously worried about something, she was good to the poor and was always ready for a chat with any of the humble folks. Of course they knew that she wasn't a lady--not what you would call a real lady. And even her acquaintance with Miss Anthony was only a cottage-door, a village-street acquaintance. Carleon Anthony was a tremendous aristocrat (his father had been a "restoring" architect) and his daughter was not allowed to associate with anyone but the county young ladies. Nevertheless in defiance of the poet's wrathful concern for undefiled refinement there were some quiet, melancholy strolls to and fro in the great avenue of chestnuts leading to the park-gate, during which Mrs. de Barral came to call Miss Anthony 'my dear'--and even 'my poor dear.' The lonely soul had no one to talk to but that not very happy girl. The governess despised her. The housekeeper was distant in her manner. Moreover Mrs. de Barral was no foolish gossiping woman. But she made some confidences to Miss Anthony. Such wealth was a terrific thing to have thrust upon one she affirmed. Once she went so far as to confess that she was dying with anxiety. Mr. de Barral (so she referred to him) had been an excellent husband and an exemplary father but "you see my dear I have had a great experience of him. I am sure he won't know what to do with all that money people are giving to him to take care of for them. He's as likely as not to do something rash. When he comes here I must have a good long serious talk with him, like the talks we often used to have together in the good old times of our life." And then one day a cry of anguish was wrung from her: 'My dear, he will never come here, he will never, never come!'
She was wrong. He came to the funeral, was extremely cut up, and holding the child tightly by the hand wept bitterly at the side of the grave. Miss Anthony, at the cost of a whole week of sneers and abuse from the poet, saw it all with her own eyes. De Barral clung to the child like a drowning man. He managed, though, to catch the half-past five fast train, travelling to town alone in a reserved compartment, with all the blinds down . . . "
"Leaving the child?" I said interrogatively.
"Yes. Leaving . . . He shirked the problem. He was born that way. He had no idea what to do with her or for that matter with anything or anybody including himself. He bolted back to his suite of rooms in the hotel. He was the most helpless . . . She might have been left in the Priory to the end of time had not the high-toned governess threatened to send in her resignation. She didn't care for the child a bit, and the lonely, gloomy Priory had got on her nerves. She wasn't going to put up with such a life and, having just come out of some ducal family, she bullied de Barral in a very lofty fashion. To pacify her he took a splendidly furnished house in the most expensive part of Brighton for them, and now and then ran down for a week-end, with a trunk full of exquisite sweets and with his hat full of money. The governess spent it for him in extra ducal style. She was nearly forty and harboured a secret taste for patronizing young men of sorts--of a certain sort. But of that Mrs. Fyne of course had no personal knowledge then; she told me however that even in the Priory days she had suspected her of being an artificial, heartless, vulgar-minded woman with the lowest possible ideals. But de Barral did not know it. He literally did not know anything . . . "
"But tell me, Marlow," I interrupted, "how do you account for this opinion? He must have been a personality in a sense--in some one sense surely. You don't work the greatest material havoc of a decade at least, in a commercial community, without having something in you."
Marlow shook his head.
"He was a mere sign, a portent. There was nothing in him. Just about that time the word Thrift was to the fore. You know the power of words. We pass through periods dominated by this or that word-- it may be development, or it may be competition, or education, or purity or efficiency or even sanctity. It is the word of the time. Well just then it was the word Thrift which was out in the streets walking arm in arm with righteousness, the inseparable companion and backer up of all such national catch-words, looking everybody in the eye as it were. The very drabs of the pavement, poor things, didn't escape the fascination . . . However! . . . Well the greatest portion of the press were screeching in all possible tones, like a confounded company of parrots instructed by some devil with a taste for practical jokes, that the financier de Barral was helping the great moral evolution of our character towards the newly-discovered virtue of Thrift. He was helping it by all these great establishments of his, which made the moral merits of Thrift manifest to the most callous hearts, simply by promising to pay ten per cent. interest on all deposits. And you didn't want necessarily to belong to the well-to-do classes in order to participate in the advantages of virtue. If you had but a spare sixpence in the world and went and gave it to de Barral it was Thrift! It's quite likely that he himself believed it. He must have. It's inconceivable that he alone should stand out against the infatuation of the whole world. He hadn't enough intelligence for that. But to look at him one couldn't tell . . . "
"You did see him then?" I said with some curiosity.
"I did. Strange, isn't it? It was only once, but as I sat with the distressed Fyne who had suddenly resuscitated his name buried in my memory with other dead labels of the past, I may say I saw him again, I saw him with great vividness of recollection, as he appeared in the days of his glory or splendour. No! Neither of these words will fit his success. There was never any glory or splendour about that figure. Well, let us say in the days when he was, according to the majority of the daily press, a financial force working for the improvement of the character of the people. I'll tell you how it came about.
At that time I used to know a podgy, wealthy, bald little man having chambers in the Albany; a financier too, in his way, carrying out transactions of an intimate nature and of no moral character; mostly with young men of birth and expectations--though I dare say he didn't withhold his ministrations from elderly plebeians either. He was a true democrat; he would have done business (a sharp kind of business) with the devil himself. Everything was fly that came into his web. He received the applicants in an alert, jovial fashion which was quite surprising. It gave relief without giving too much confidence, which was just as well perhaps. His business was transacted in an apartment furnished like a drawing-room, the walls hung with several brown, heavily-framed, oil paintings. I don't know if they were good, but they were big, and with their elaborate, tarnished gilt-frames had a melancholy dignity. The man himself sat at a shining, inlaid writing table which looked like a rare piece from a museum of art; his chair had a high, oval, carved back, upholstered in faded tapestry; and these objects made of the costly black Havana cigar, which he rolled incessantly from the middle to the left corner of his mouth and back again, an inexpressibly cheap and nasty object. I had to see him several times in the interest of a poor devil so unlucky that he didn't even have a more competent friend than myself to speak for him at a very difficult time in his life.
I don't know at what hour my private financier began his day, but he used to give one appointments at unheard of times: such as a quarter to eight in the morning, for instance. On arriving one found him busy at that marvellous writing table, looking very fresh and alert, exhaling a faint fragrance of scented soap and with the cigar already well alight. You may believe that I entered on my mission with many unpleasant forebodings; but there was in that fat, admirably washed, little man such a profound contempt for mankind that it amounted to a species of good nature; which, unlike the milk of genuine kindness, was never in danger of turning sour. Then, once, during a pause in business, while we were waiting for the production of a document for which he had sent (perhaps to the cellar?) I happened to remark, glancing round the room, that I had never seen so many fine things assembled together out of a collection. Whether this was unconscious diplomacy on my part, or not, I shouldn't like to say--but the remark was true enough, and it pleased him extremely. "It IS a collection," he said emphatically. "Only I live right in it, which most collectors don't. But I see that you know what you are looking at. Not many people who come here on business do. Stable fittings are more in their way."
I don't know whether my appreciation helped to advance my friend's business but at any rate it helped our intercourse. He treated me with a shade of familiarity as one of the initiated.
The last time I called on him to conclude the transaction we were interrupted by a person, something like a cross between a bookmaker and a private secretary, who, entering through a door which was not the anteroom door, walked up and stooped to whisper into his ear.
"Eh? What? Who, did you say?"
The nondescript person stooped and whispered again, adding a little louder: "Says he won't detain you a moment."
My little man glanced at me, said "Ah! Well," irresolutely. I got up from my chair and offered to come again later. He looked whimsically alarmed. "No, no. It's bad enough to lose my money but I don't want to waste any more of my time over your friend. We must be done with this to-day. Just go and have a look at that garniture de cheminee yonder. There's another, something like it, in the castle of Laeken, but mine's much superior in design."
I moved accordingly to the other side of that big room. The garniture was very fine. But while pretending to examine it I watched my man going forward to meet a tall visitor, who said, "I thought you would be disengaged so early. It's only a word or two"- and after a whispered confabulation of no more than a minute, reconduct him to the door and shake hands ceremoniously. "Not at all, not at all. Very pleased to be of use. You can depend absolutely on my information"--"Oh thank you, thank you. I just looked in." "Certainly, quite right. Any time . . . Good morning."
I had a good look at the visitor while they were exchanging these civilities. He was clad in black. I remember perfectly that he wore a flat, broad, black satin tie in which was stuck a large cameo pin; and a small turn down collar. His hair, discoloured and silky, curled slightly over his ears. His cheeks were hairless and round, and apparently soft. He held himself very upright, walked with small steps and spoke gently in an inward voice. Perhaps from contrast with the magnificent polish of the room and the neatness of its owner, he struck me as dingy, indigent, and, if not exactly humble, then much subdued by evil fortune.
I wondered greatly at my fat little financier's civility to that dubious personage when he asked me, as we resumed our respective seats, whether I knew who it was that had just gone out. On my shaking my head negatively he smiled queerly, said "De Barral," and enjoyed my surprise. Then becoming grave: "That's a deep fellow, if you like. We all know where he started from and where he got to; but nobody knows what he means to do." He became thoughtful for a moment and added as if speaking to himself, "I wonder what his game is."
And, you know, there was no game, no game of any sort, or shape or kind. It came out plainly at the trial. As I've told you before, he was a clerk in a bank, like thousands of others. He got that berth as a second start in life and there he stuck again, giving perfect satisfaction. Then one day as though a supernatural voice had whispered into his ear or some invisible fly had stung him, he put on his hat, went out into the street and began advertising. That's absolutely all that there was to it. He caught in the street the word of the time and harnessed it to his preposterous chariot.
One remembers his first modest advertisements headed with the magic word Thrift, Thrift, Thrift, thrice repeated; promising ten per cent. on all deposits and giving the address of the Thrift and Independence Aid Association in Vauxhall Bridge Road. Apparently nothing more was necessary. He didn't even explain what he meant to do with the money he asked the public to pour into his lap. Of course he meant to lend it out at high rates of interest. He did so--but he did it without system, plan, foresight or judgment. And as he frittered away the sums that flowed in, he advertised for more--and got it. During a period of general business prosperity he set up The Orb Bank and The Sceptre Trust, simply, it seems for advertising purposes. They were mere names. He was totally unable to organize anything, to promote any sort of enterprise if it were only for the purpose of juggling with the shares. At that time he could have had for the asking any number of Dukes, retired Generals, active M.P.'s, ex-ambassadors and so on as Directors to sit at the wildest boards of his invention. But he never tried. He had no real imagination. All he could do was to publish more advertisements and open more branch offices of the Thrift and Independence, of The Orb, of The Sceptre, for the receipt of deposits; first in this town, then in that town, north and south-- everywhere where he could find suitable premises at a moderate rent. For this was the great characteristic of the management. Modesty, moderation, simplicity. Neither The Orb nor The Sceptre nor yet their parent the Thrift and Independence had built for themselves the usual palaces. For this abstention they were praised in silly public prints as illustrating in their management the principle of Thrift for which they were founded. The fact is that de Barral simply didn't think of it. Of course he had soon moved from Vauxhall Bridge Road. He knew enough for that. What he got hold of next was an old, enormous, rat-infested brick house in a small street off the Strand. Strangers were taken in front of the meanest possible, begrimed, yellowy, flat brick wall, with two rows of unadorned window-holes one above the other, and were exhorted with bated breath to behold and admire the simplicity of the head- quarters of the great financial force of the day. The word THRIFT perched right up on the roof in giant gilt letters, and two enormous shield-like brass-plates curved round the corners on each side of the doorway were the only shining spots in de Barral's business outfit. Nobody knew what operations were carried on inside except this--that if you walked in and tendered your money over the counter it would be calmly taken from you by somebody who would give you a printed receipt. That and no more. It appears that such knowledge is irresistible. People went in and tendered; and once it was taken from their hands their money was more irretrievably gone from them than if they had thrown it into the sea. This then, and nothing else was being carried on in there . . . "
"Come, Marlow," I said, "you exaggerate surely--if only by your way of putting things. It's too startling."
"I exaggerate!" he defended himself. "My way of putting things! My dear fellow I have merely stripped the rags of business verbiage and financial jargon off my statements. And you are startled! I am giving you the naked truth. It's true too that nothing lays itself open to the charge of exaggeration more than the language of naked truth. What comes with a shock is admitted with difficulty. But what will you say to the end of his career?
It was of course sensational and tolerably sudden. It began with the Orb Deposit Bank. Under the name of that institution de Barral with the frantic obstinacy of an unimaginative man had been financing an Indian prince who was prosecuting a claim for immense sums of money against the government. It was an enormous number of scores of lakhs--a miserable remnant of his ancestors' treasures-- that sort of thing. And it was all authentic enough. There was a real prince; and the claim too was sufficiently real--only unfortunately it was not a valid claim. So the prince lost his case on the last appeal and the beginning of de Barral's end became manifest to the public in the shape of a half-sheet of note paper wafered by the four corners on the closed door of The Orb offices notifying that payment was stopped at that establishment.
Its consort The Sceptre collapsed within the week. I won't say in American parlance that suddenly the bottom fell out of the whole of de Barral concerns. There never had been any bottom to it. It was like the cask of Danaides into which the public had been pleased to pour its deposits. That they were gone was clear; and the bankruptcy proceedings which followed were like a sinister farce, bursts of laughter in a setting of mute anguish--that of the depositors; hundreds of thousands of them. The laughter was irresistible; the accompaniment of the bankrupt's public examination.
I don't know if it was from utter lack of all imagination or from the possession in undue proportion of a particular kind of it, or from both--and the three alternatives are possible--but it was discovered that this man who had been raised to such a height by the credulity of the public was himself more gullible than any of his depositors. He had been the prey of all sorts of swindlers, adventurers, visionaries and even lunatics. Wrapping himself up in deep and imbecile secrecy he had gone in for the most fantastic schemes: a harbour and docks on the coast of Patagonia, quarries in Labrador--such like speculations. Fisheries to feed a canning Factory on the banks of the Amazon was one of them. A principality to be bought in Madagascar was another. As the grotesque details of these incredible transactions came out one by one ripples of laughter ran over the closely packed court--each one a little louder than the other. The audience ended by fairly roaring under the cumulative effect of absurdity. The Registrar laughed, the barristers laughed, the reporters laughed, the serried ranks of the miserable depositors watching anxiously every word, laughed like one man. They laughed hysterically--the poor wretches--on the verge of tears.
There was only one person who remained unmoved. It was de Barral himself. He preserved his serene, gentle expression, I am told (for I have not witnessed those scenes myself), and looked around at the people with an air of placid sufficiency which was the first hint to the world of the man's overweening, unmeasurable conceit, hidden hitherto under a diffident manner. It could be seen too in his dogged assertion that if he had been given enough time and a lot more money everything would have come right. And there were some people (yes, amongst his very victims) who more than half believed him, even after the criminal prosecution which soon followed. When placed in the dock he lost his steadiness as if some sustaining illusion had gone to pieces within him suddenly. He ceased to be himself in manner completely, and even in disposition, in so far that his faded neutral eyes matching his discoloured hair so well, were discovered then to be capable of expressing a sort of underhand hate. He was at first defiant, then insolent, then broke down and burst into tears; but it might have been from rage. Then he calmed down, returned to his soft manner of speech and to that unassuming quiet bearing which had been usual with him even in his greatest days. But it seemed as though in this moment of change he had at last perceived what a power he had been; for he remarked to one of the prosecuting counsel who had assumed a lofty moral tone in questioning him, that--yes, he had gambled--he liked cards. But that only a year ago a host of smart people would have been only too pleased to take a hand at cards with him. Yes--he went on--some of the very people who were there accommodated with seats on the bench; and turning upon the counsel "You yourself as well," he cried. He could have had half the town at his rooms to fawn upon him if he had cared for that sort of thing. "Why, now I think of it, it took me most of my time to keep people, just of your sort, off me," he ended with a good humoured--quite unobtrusive, contempt, as though the fact had dawned upon him for the first time.
This was the moment, the only moment, when he had perhaps all the audience in Court with him, in a hush of dreary silence. And then the dreary proceedings were resumed. For all the outside excitement it was the most dreary of all celebrated trials. The bankruptcy proceedings had exhausted all the laughter there was in it. Only the fact of wide-spread ruin remained, and the resentment of a mass of people for having been fooled by means too simple to save their self-respect from a deep wound which the cleverness of a consummate scoundrel would not have inflicted. A shamefaced amazement attended these proceedings in which de Barral was not being exposed alone. For himself his only cry was: Time! Time! Time would have set everything right. In time some of these speculations of his were certain to have succeeded. He repeated this defence, this excuse, this confession of faith, with wearisome iteration. Everything he had done or left undone had been to gain time. He had hypnotized himself with the word. Sometimes, I am told, his appearance was ecstatic, his motionless pale eyes seemed to be gazing down the vista of future ages. Time--and of course, more money. "Ah! If only you had left me alone for a couple of years more," he cried once in accents of passionate belief. "The money was coming in all right." The deposits you understand--the savings of Thrift. Oh yes they had been coming in to the very last moment. And he regretted them. He had arrived to regard them as his own by a sort of mystical persuasion. And yet it was a perfectly true cry, when he turned once more on the counsel who was beginning a question with the words "You have had all these immense sums . . . " with the indignant retort "WHAT have I had out of them?"Next