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DAVID WRIGHT O'BRIEN
(WRITING AS CPL. JOHN YORK CABOT)

MATCHES AND KINGS

Cover Image

RGL e-Book Cover


Ex Libris

First published in Amazing Stories, September 1944
This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-01-03
Produced by Paul Sandery, Matthias Kaether and Roy Glashan

All original content added by RGL is protected by copyright.

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Cover Image

Amazing Stories, September 1944, with "Matches and Kings"


Illustration

Klobar took advantage of the fact that superstition over-
rules human reason to make himself the world's richest man!




IT'S funny what you can learn and hear in the Army if you keep your ears open and your eyes sharp. And in general bull sessions like we were having this one particular night, you very often run across some startling information.

We'd thoroughly covered sex and politics, and used up all the rumors that we knew. Somehow or other the conversation got around to superstitions.

Callahan, the short, stocky armorer with the easy smile and the thick mop of black hair, was holding the floor.

"This guy I'm talking about, from the old Nineteenth Bomb Group, never made a mission without that god-awful yellow scarf of his— even on the low altitude jobs when it was hot as hell. He'd always have it wrapped around his neck."

Nolan, the ball turret gunner, nodded solemnly.

"That's easy understood," he said. "Me, I'll never get caught up there without I have my special lucky socks on. And I ain't washing 'em either, until the duration and six months is over."

I made the mistake of taking out a pack of PM's. Callahan grinned.

"Thanks, chum. How'd you know I felt like a smoke?"

Nolan put his hand out. "Pass 'em around."

Fenwick, the crew chief and top turret gunner, said: "Me too."

Viborg, the big, blond husky who was our radio gunner, smiled apologetically and said he'd have one.

When the pack came back to me it was six lighter than it had been thirty seconds before. And of course, none of the so-and- so's had a match.

"I ought to make you lugs rub flints for a light," I said, striking a match. "Here."

I lighted Nolan's, Callahan's, and extended the flaming match to Fenwick.

"Uh-uh!" He shook his head and backed off.

I grinned. "Superstitious?" I extended the match to Viborg. To my surprise he shook his head. "You too, Vi?"

I tossed the match aside, struck a fresh one.

"You're damned right I'm superstitious on that point," Fenwick said. "No three on a match for me."

"Pah," Nolan snorted. "That's as old as the hills. It doesn't bother me."

"Nor me," said Callahan.

I was looking questioningly at Viborg. The big Swede was smart as hell, an old Oxford boy. He had more brains than Nolan and Callahan combined. I was amused by this reaction of his.

"How come it gets you, Vi?"

His grin was sheepish. "It is rather silly, isn't it?"

Fenwick broke in. "Silly, hell. I'm not ashamed to admit I won't three-light on anybody's match. That's been bad luck too long for me to run against it."

"Not so long," Nolan said.

"Goes back hundreds of years, even before matches," Fenwick said.

I shook my head. "I don't think so," I said. "I think it Started in the last war, didn't it?"

"How about it, Vi?" Fenwick asked. He took the big blond's word as final in any argument.

"It started in the last war," Viborg said slowly. "He's right, Fen."

Nolan looked triumphant. Fenwick colored. "Well, anyway," Fenwick said," it was proved in the last war that every time three guys used the same match, one of 'em got knocked off within twenty-four hours."


Illustration

"Light three on a match and one will die before day is done!"


"Proved!" Nolan snorted in typical barracks-room-debate fashion. "Yah, proved my foot. How you know it was proved?"

"From people who were in the last war," Fenwick said. "That's how." He turned to Viborg. "Isn't that right, Vi?"

Viborg shook his head neutrally. "I don't know if that happened or not," he said. "But I do know how the superstition started. It was started by one man. I worked for that man, many years later."

Our curiosity was instantaneous.

"Who was that, Vi?" I demanded.

"Yeah, yeah, who?" the others chorused.

"Klobar," Viborg said. "Lars Klobar, the Match King. Have any of you any recollection of his name?"

I was thinking back. Then, of course, the name came back. I remembered. Viborg was looking at me, and I nodded.

"Sure I remember him. Fabulously wealthy Swedish industrialist, wasn't he? Made his millions manufacturing matches? When did you work for him, Vi?"

"In Paris," Viborg said. "In the year or more preceding his death in the early thirties. Nineteen thirty-three, to be exact. I was just out of Oxford, and had gone to Paris to look for a job. Jobs were hard to get then, remember? Well, I didn't get the kind of work I had come there for, but I did land this job with Lars Klobar, who had just come to Paris for an indefinite stay while he completed some business he had there."

"What kind of a job?" Nolan broke in.

"I was a sort of secretary, bodyguard, masseur and dogwalker," Viborg smiled. Then his face went thoughtful as he continued. I'll tell you the story as he told it to us...


LARS KLOBAR (Viborg said) was an incredible man. I knew that from the first time I met him. I knew it even after his death. He was every inch a tycoon, just as you see tycoons pictured in Hollywood films. He was a short, robust, pink-faced fellow. His dress was always impeccable, his nimble fingers were literally weighted with diamonds.

He was in his early forties when I went to work for him. A genius, an industrial genius, in the prime of life, at the peak of his career. His fortune was legend on the Continent and in England. His power, financially and politically, was greater than any monarch's or prime minister's.

It is good to recall, in thinking of this man Klobar, that the international financial world was in chaotic times, then. The great depression was a worldwide thing. Nations were in bankruptcy. Millionaires had lost everything. But Klobar, amid this chaos, had become even more powerful than he had ever been.

He had made his money in matches. A staggering fortune, that earned him his title of the Match King. But his career had gone far beyond that of a mere match manufacturer. His interests now were in many new fields, finance, oil, shipping, mining, industry. Nonetheless, he still savored the days of his early financial climb, and dearly loved to be thought of as Klobar, the Match King.

He paid me well, though the job I had with him was one in which he might call on me at any hour of the day or night to fulfill any sort of sudden whim. He was a restless man, Lars Klobar, and fired with the energy of two dozen men. Many nights he would rout me from bed, well after midnight, and order me to accompany him of long walks through the almost deserted streets of Paris. Unable to sleep, these nocturnal hikes of his provided an energy outlet that left him weary enough, at last, to slumber.

It was through his conversations on these walks that I got to know Lars Klobar most closely. In them he told me much about his life, from his childhood in Copenhagen, through to his present rise. It was on one such walk as these that he confided to me that he had started the match superstition.

Paid agents of his had cleverly, thoroughly, patiently spread the rumor that soldiers in the first war found their luck turn against them when they were the third men to light cigarettes from one match. Death, so Klobar's concocted rumor went, came to the unfortunate third soon after.

"It was pure fiction, of course," Klobar told me, laughing proudly at the invention. "Not a shred of truth to back the superstitious posh. But you can imagine what it did to my match industry. It more than tripled the use of matches within the first month of its circulation. And when the war had ended, and the soldiers returned to their own homes and own lands to spread the fable, it caught on like wildfire."

"It was an imaginative way to increase your business." I admitted.

"And simple, my boy," Klobar had chortled. "Always remember this—the quickest way to the public is not through its mind, but through its imagination."


THE conversation on that particular midnight stroll stuck in my mind for a long time thereafter. I was able to see the fabulous Lars Klobar use the public imagination in many more subtle ways than rumor in the days that followed. His entire empire was constructed on the groundwork of public imagination. There was something magical about the way in which his manipulations invariably caught public fancy. Just as there had been something cleverly, diabolically, magical in the match superstition which had made him fantastically rich.

I remembered that conversation particularly well, however, about a month after it had taken place. Klobar was having a conference in his office with a certain Romanian Baron. He had called me in to take notes on the discussion.

"You may smoke, Viborg," he told me.

I thanked him, found my cigarettes. As I was about to light a smoke, Klobar produced a box of expensive cigars, extended them to the Baron, took one himself.

I lighted the Baron's cigar.

"Yours next," the Match King insisted as I extended the match to him. Knowing his idiosyncrasies as to courtesy, I lighted my cigarette, then held the match to his cigar.

To my utter amazement, he shook his head.

"No, Viborg. I will not be third on a match," Klobar said.

I stared at him half a moment in surprise, trying to see if he was actually serious. He was indeed serious. Deadly serious. He who had himself invented the fable.

I blew out the match, lighted Klobar's cigar with another, and the incident passed. However, later that day, as I was attending to some correspondence for him, Klobar the Match King, called me into his study.

He was smiling, as if at some secret joke, and I wondered what was wrong.

"You were surprised today, eh, Viborg?" he said.

And then, of course, I realized my expression when he'd refused to be third on a match must have been too evident for him to miss.

"Yes, I was surprised, sir," I admitted.

"You wondered why I should be a victim of my own posh superstition," Klobar went on amiably. "And I don't blame you. However, I think you may learn something from that incident. You see, from the time that I started that three on a match superstition, many years ago, until today, I have always lived by the letter of the law I myself started. I have always refused to be third on a match. You wonder why?"

I admitted that I had, indeed, been wondering why.

"It is not that I believe one iota of that preposterous superstition creation of mine," Klobar said. "It is merely that, in refusing to be a third on a match, I am paying homage to something which has paid me fabulously more than homage, something that has paid me beyond my wildest dreams of fortune. You see, in abiding by the superstition, I am holding fast to a symbol that gave me the beginning of all I own today. I am cherishing that symbol, perpetuating it. I would feel guilty if I were to ignore it."

I was silent.

"Do you see what I mean, Viborg?" he asked.

I nodded. "I think I do, sir," I told him.

He nodded. "It will grow clearer to you as you think it over," he said. "Its basic moral principle is merely that one should not disown the humble factors which have contributed to his success."

"I see what you mean, sir," I said.

"Good," he beamed. "Understand, I am not ass enough to follow the fables of my own imagination. I am not stupid enough to associate genuine superstition with my own commercial creation. It is, and always will be, so much rubbish. But I acknowledge it for what it has meant to me. That is all, Viborg."

That was all he ever said about it, even in the months that followed when, on various occasions, I saw him publicly and privately refusing to be a third on a match. Sometimes, when this happened, he would catch my eye and smile slyly as if at some secret jest between the two of us, but never vocally did he mention it again.


IT was ten months later that the whole of Continental Europe was shaken by a series of financial upheavals. It was a time of great crisis in even the highest of European banking houses. It was, in fact, a vicious back-tide of the great depression. The entire economic structure of the old world, during those perilous weeks, was tottering badly.

Among the great industrial holdings threatened by disaster was Klobar's, perhaps the greatest of them all.

Rumor and public imagination, which Klobar had so often and so successfully employed for his own gain, was working against him this time. There was not a financial name, not a financial house, not a great industry, that was not plagued with rumor of decay, corruption, disaster.

These rumors were becoming a tidal wave sweeping everything before it. Many great men were helpless to stem the wave, and perished because of it. Klobar, however, rose above the rest. In those weeks of crisis, he worked with the fury of one possessed. At his telephone's reach, were the greatest dignitaries in Europe, the most glittering banking names in the world. I was with him eighteen, and sometimes twenty-four, hours a day during that crisis.

He was a man fighting for a fortune seldom seen in the world before or after. He was a man fighting for his very life. And he was doing it admirably, coolly, and calling on every stratagem his incredible mind could think of.

A Frenchman, DuPres, who was president of one of Klobar's subsidiary holding companies, committed suicide during that period. He had given up hope that the Klobar interests could ever survive; he had been washed away by the tidal wave of panic. I recall the afternoon Klobar learned of his underling's suicide.

"The fool," he said. "The cowardly fool. He has given fresh fuel to the rumor mongers. We must do all we can to repair the damage his blundering cowardice has caused."

And to a great extent, he was able to repair it. Later that day, however, Klobar looked up for a moment and asked me a startling question.

"What do you think of the House of Klobar?"

I was taken aback. I didn't know what to say.

"You know what I mean," Klobar insisted. "Do you think we will weather the storm. Do you think our ship is sound enough? Give me the truth. I am not seeking solace, I am merely polling an attitude."

"I think our ship will come through, sir," I said. And I meant it sincerely. With a captain like Klobar at the helm, any vessel could weather any storm.

"But do you think we're sound?" Klobar insisted.

"I do, sir," I told him. Again I spoke truthfully.

He smiled. For an instant he seemed to hesitate.

"Viborg," he said suddenly. "You are right on one count, wrong on the other. We will come through. They cannot defeat me. But our ship is not sound. It is rotten to the core. DuPres knew it. He knew the House of Klobar was a house of cards. That is why he killed himself rather than face what he thought would be horrible disaster."

I was astounded. Klobar read my expression.

"Perhaps I have disillusioned you, Viborg," he said. "But I think the truth, when you are able to digest it, will not hurt. Yes, our house is of rotten timber. It is an empty thing, a thing of paper, foolscap, sham. I constructed it out of nothing, and it is nothing, at this moment. But, in the public imagination it has substance, prestige. I have constructed my fabulous empire with nothing for credit but the public imagination. Remember once I told you the value of imagination? Well, the House of Klobar, the holdings of the Match King, are all constructed on nothing more solid then the public fancy I was able to mold. You are shocked?"

"I... I..." I stammered, "... don't know what to say."

He waved his hand. "Think it over, and watch us ride the storm. We will not go down. The public imagination has broken loose and runs amuck against me. But I will tame it once more. You shall see."

I was about to say something, when one of Klobar's managers came excitedly into the office. The man was pale, over-worked, obviously worried, and even more obviously distraught at a recent bad turn of events.

"What is it now, Jacques?" Klobar demanded of the man, seeing instantly that he brought bad news.

"Starssen," the fellow blurted. "Starssen has followed DuPres!"

Igor Starssen was another puppet president of a Klobar holding company. A legendary banking figure, Starssen had been, nonetheless, a mere figurehead for Klobar for years. The news of his suicide was definitely a blow. But Klobar didn't wince.

"Another coward," he snorted. "A coward and a fool. I knew Starssen was a fool long ago, but I didn't think him such an utter one. Well, there is nothing to do but repair that damage, if we can."

The manager, Jacques, lighted a cigarette. His hands were shaking badly. I took the match from him, lighted a cigarette for myself. My hands, too, were not too steady. Klobar saw our state of nerves instantly, and stepped into the breach to bring us back to normalcy with excellent aplomb. He reached for the match in my hand, shoved one of his special cigars in his mouth, and lighted it with fingers as nerveless as steel.

It had been an excellent demonstration of the Leader calming his men by a demonstration of his own coolness. Jacques and I stared in open admiration at the casual aplomb with which Klobar had carried off that reassuring gesture.

He smiled at us, calmly blowing out the match.

"We should relax a moment, eh, gentlemen. Good tobacco can quiet the nerves. Panic is for the stupid. It is not for us, is it, gentlemen?"

I, myself, was wonderfully braced by that simple act. Jacques, as I watched him leave, was no longer harried, distraught. Klobar's confidence, coolness, had been contagious. His manager was carrying that calm determination back to other underlings. Klobar had braced his entire organization by a simple demonstration of hands that would not tremble.

It was not at all strange that neither Jacques, I, nor Klobar himself gave any thought to a rather startling aspect of the demonstration of iron nerves. We were all too preoccupied with other matters to realize, then, that Klobar had broken a ritual of many years in that demonstration. He had lighted his cigar with a match that had been already used by two others. He had made himself third on a match.


I KNOW Klobar wasn't thinking of that aspect when he took the match from my trembling hand. He was thinking only of calming two of his key underlings, of seizing an opportunity to show us that he was unafraid. The fact that he was making himself third on a match, I am sure, never entered his mind.

I remember the rest of that chaotic night. Lars Klobar fought like a madman against the tide which threatened to sweep away his fortunes. And fought successfully, ruthlessly, brilliantly, marshalling his forces like the genius of financial generals that he was.

I left him in his office at four that morning. He told me to get a few hours sleep, that he would nap at his desk. He said that the next day should mark the turning point.

"We'll be out of danger then, Viborg," he smiled. "We've almost got them beaten. We almost have the public imagination tamed and in harness once again. That's all we need."

That, as I said, was at four o'clock in the morning. At eight o'clock, just four hours later, a cleaning woman found Lars Klobar, the Match King, slumped over his desk, dead.

There was a gun in his hand, and a bullet from it had gone through that brilliant brain. Lars Klobar, the Match King, was dead...


HERE Viborg paused, looked around the barracks. The silence was deafening. We had all been hanging on every word he spoke. I broke the silence.

"Good Lord, Vi," I said, "I recall it all now, the news accounts that flashed across the world. The Match King had committed suicide, his financial house toppled inward with a crash that shook the earth. Lord, yes. It was sensational news!"

Viborg nodded. "Yes it was. It was sensational. The Match King fell, and with him a great part of the continental banking world. But none of the news accounts mentioned the three on a match business. Only two people, Jacques and I, knew that Klobar had died less than twenty-four hours after being the third man on a match—just as the superstition he himself had started indicated he would. I don't really think that Jacques noticed that third on the match angle. I think I'm actually the only one who realized it."

"But now wait a minute, Vi," I protested. "I see what you mean. Three on a match, the third dies before the day ends. But it isn't very cricket to call a self-inflicted death proof of the superstition. Suicide isn't included in the meaning that one will die if he's third on a match."

Viborg smiled. "No, it isn't part of the concept of the superstition, I'll grant you that. If Klobar had committed suicide I'd have no basis for proof of the superstition that destroyed him."

"But that's what he did," I protested. "He killed himself, it was in the papers, you yourself just said so!"

"I said he was found dead," Viborg corrected me. "They presumed it was suicide. But remember this. Suicide was not Klobar's way out. He was no coward. Besides, he was confident that he had saved his empire when I left him that morning. Why, four hours later, would he kill himself?"

"I don't know, but..." I began.

Viborg cut me off, gently. "Besides, I was one of the few people who knew that Klobar had one aversion in his life, and that abhorrence was toward guns of any kind. He loathed them, he feared them. He wouldn't have them around, he couldn't bring himself to touch one. Could he possibly have selected a gun to kill himself with, then?"

I whistled. "He was murdered?"

Viborg shrugged. "Officially it was suicide. It has always been my opinion, however, that someone killed him. He had many enemies. And during that crisis his enemies were twice as many."

I was silent a minute.

"I have to admit that your conception of how he died fits in perfectly to the rules of the three on a match superstition, Vi," I said. "He was the third, and he died before another day had passed."

"Exactly," said Viborg. "Will you have a smoke? I just found these in my jacket pocket."

He passed a pack of Camels around; the boys all dug in. I struck a match, lighted Vi's, lighted Callahan's, and started to light Nolan's.

"Uh-uh," he said. "Not me. Blow it out."

We used three matches to light six cigarettes. But I didn't mind wasting them, scarce as they seemed to be. Hell, you won't catch me being third on a match. Not any more you won't!


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.