LAWRENCE BRAYTON lay back in his chair luxuriously. This was the kind of thing that appealed to him—he liked the silken luxury of it all, the flowers, the shaded lights, the statues, the suggestion of aloofness all around him. There was no vulgar chatter or merry laughter in the dining-room of the Wellesley, no startling display of the 'human form divine' as interpreted by the last audacities from Paris—they did not encourage powdered shoulders at the Wellesley. It was all in the very best of taste, quite subdued, with lights shaded and just an occasional flash from a tiara or a coronet, in the purple, flower-laden lamplight. The coffee was excellent, the cigarette a dream, the liqueur a poem. Brayton was quite glad to be alone in the quiet enjoyment of the picture.
"I ought to have been born a rich man," he muttered as he glanced across the tangle of purple orchids on the table. "Every poet should have money. I wonder if I am a poet really. Anyway, I am blest, or cursed, with the artistic temperament. All the same, I've got to work in the city for my living. A commission agent! If I could only have foreseen it in the old Eton days! Lord! to have money, and cut the city. To be able to say to Gertrude Mallison—Lawrence, my boy, you are a greater fool than I took you for. Still, I suppose I have something to be thankful for. I can put my bands on a thousand pounds, and I've had a good dinner at Harrison Syme's expense without having to put up with the company of that brilliant bounder himself."
As a matter of fact, Harrison Syme had been called away before the soup was finished. Somebody wanted to speak to him on the telephone. He had gone off in his insolent, swaggering way; he had come back looking white and uneasy, quite unlike the financier who was supposed to have made over a million of money in the past four years.
"Beastly nuisance, but I've got to go, Brayton," he muttered. "Most important matter. I'll do my best to get back in an hour. You get on with your dinner; I've ordered it, and I shall have to pay for the same in any case. If I don't get back I'll ask you to call on me tomorrow. You may have made something of the cipher by that time."
Brayton expressed himself quite correctly and conventionally. As a matter of fact, he was not disposed to quarrel with the turn of events.
"Let it go at that," he said. "It looks to me like a variation of the Four-Ace Code. It's the code I've been using for years."
Brayton smiled to himself. He was fond of mysteries and puzzles, and on more than one occasion had been of considerable assistance to Scotland Yard. But then, at the Yard, they knew what Syme was not aware of—that the Four Ace Code was Brayton's own invention. He had sold it some years ago for a trifle, not realising its value, and now the code was one of the most popular amongst business men. The key-card could be changed at pleasure. If the diamond ace was the key letter, then anybody familiar with the clue could decipher. But say a man distrusted his confidential clerk and elected to take hearts instead, the clerk in question was reduced to impotence. All the most precious secrets entrusted to the cable came by the Four-Ace Code.
Syme gulped down a large glass of brandy and departed. Quite content to be alone, Brayton sat there puffing an other cigarette. On one side of him was an ambassador, at the table on his left a personage was dining. It was all very pleasant and very soothing to a well bred, ambitious young city man possessed of the artistic temperament. He longed to have the money to do this kind of thing regularly. And perhaps Gertrude——
Well, why should he not think of her? He knew that she liked him, and she generally chose him as her partner at tennis and in the mixed foursomes at Ranelagh; she had told him once that his step suited her to perfection. But then she was so beastly rich and he was so beastly poor! She wasn't an ordinary type of girl either—she had something besides money and beauty.
One night, up the river—yes, he had seen the glint in her eyes, the faint, unsteady smile. He had been very near speaking that night. To have her for his wife, to order out the motor and drop in here to a little dinner, they two together. And to sit opposite that exquisite face and watch the smile in those glorious eyes.
"I am the biggest fool in England." Brayton told himself. "Well, what is it?"
A telegraph-boy stood by his side, a pert little messenger absolutely at home there.
"My Syme, sir?" he suggested. "Thank you, sir; good night, sir."
The orange envelope was dropped carelessly on the table, and the boy had vanished. Evidently a telegram of importance, and one that Syme had expected, for the sender of the message had known exactly where to find Syme and where he could get him without delay. Very strange. It did not seem quite so strange when Brayton recalled the fact that Syme dined at the Wellesley most nights. Possibly Syme did not want the cable to go to his office.
"Wonder if I'd better open it," Brayton said. "It may be very important. His own man has orders to open any telegram, I know. If it is important he'll pitch into me afterwards for not taking steps to get in touch with him. I think I will."
The envelope was barely fastened down. There were only two words in it, and they were in cipher. In an idle way Brayton spelt them over. What did 'jigshawspi lemonnutsnoseben' mean? Brayton stuck the envelope down again and called one of the waiters.
"Here's a shilling for you," he said. "Try and get Mr Syme on the phone. Try his clubs. When you get him, tell him to hold the wire as I want to speak to him."
The waiter departed on his errand. Brayton could see the queer jumble of words no longer, but he could have repeated them by heart all the same. He had the sort of memory necessary to the solution of cipher. And, in fact, two or three letters in the jumble were oddly familiar. He wondered where he had seen them before. Suddenly the answer flashed upon him.
"By Jove," he muttered, "it's the Four-Ace Code. And the cipher ace is clubs. I don't want to pry into any man's secrets, but I'd like to see if I could work it out."
He took a pencil from his pocket and jotted the sequence of letters down with absolute correctness on the back of the menu card. Then he proceeded to place the consonants in two parallel lines. Now that he had got the start, the rest was child's play. He wrote the answer to the sum in his neat handwriting, so that the words stood out like little letters of flame.
"Agricola main reef forty ounces. Blind. Eighty years. Over a thousand."
To the lay mind even now it looked cryptic to a degree. But not to a man who had spent five of the best years of his life in the city.
"So Agricola is a really big thing," Brayton muttered.
"The Agricola mine that everybody says is a swindle turns out to be a big thing in a main reef, showing forty ounces of gold to the ton.
"Nobody knew but the man who sent this cable, and he has seen that the rest are absolutely 'Blind.' The life of the mine is eighty years, and the dividend should pan out at over a thousand per cent. Well, Syme is a greater rascal than I took him for. It was only today that I read that Agricola was going in for liquidation. Shares a drug in the market at two for three-halfpence. By Jove, if I can get into the market before Syme I shall be——I've got a thousand pounds to play with. And shares to be had for nothing. Oh, Gertrude, Gertrude——"
Brayton stretched out a shaky hand in the direction of the cablegram.
"No, I won't," he said between his teeth. "I'll not suppress it. I'll play the game. Syme shall have his cable if I can possibly find him, but there is no occasion to tell him what I have discovered. He couldn't know that any form of the Four-Ace Code is like an open book to me. He'll probably go quietly to work some time tomorrow, but he'll be too late. By lunch time Agricola will be all mine."
Brayton helped himself to another liqueur and lighted a cigarette with a perfectly steady hand. The whole thing was deliciously simple. He had only to divide his thousand pounds between two brokers, and give them instructions to buy Agricola so long as the money lasted. They could be had for practically nothing. By this time tomorrow Brayton would be rich. People would no doubt say a good many hard things about him, but it was all in the way of business. Let them do it. And Gertrude——
The waiter was some time away. He came back presently with the information that he had got Mr. Syme on the phone at his club. Mr. Syme regretted that he was unable to return to the Wellesley that night, as he was detained on business of the utmost importance, and that he had just gone home.
"You told him about the cable message?" Brayton asked.
"He never gave me a chance, sir," the waiter exclaimed. "He was in a desperate hurry. He cut me off and hung up the receiver. I did all I could, sir."
"I daresay it will be all right," Brayton responded. "I'll take the message myself on my way home. If a man is so foolish as to——That will do, waiter, thank you."
The waiter vanished, and Brayton leisurely donned his hat and coat. Things were going to be very different with him from this night on. By this time tomorrow——He walked as far as his club, the one extravagance he indulged in, feeling on the best of terms with the world. It is not every night that a man strolls down Pall Mall with a secret in the back of his mind worth two hundred thousand pounds. And this was quite a moderate estimate, Brayton thought.
It was not very late as yet and the club was full. Brayton dropped into his accustomed seat in the smoking room and blandly inquired if there was any news. Three or four men were discussing something eagerly by the fireplace. It seemed to Brayton that he caught Syme's name.
"What's that you are saying, Doctor?" he asked. "What about Syme?"
"Dead," Doctor Gladstone said crisply. "I've just come from Syme's room. I'm his man, you know. They fetched me from here by motor half-an-hour ago. Dead before I got there."
A little odd feeling played up and down Brayton's spinal column.
"A sudden trouble with the heart?" he gasped.
"Suicide," Gladstone went on with pseudo-cynical indifference. "Shot himself through the head with a revolver. Walked in quite coolly and took off his hat. Called for a drink and took every drop of it. Then he handed the glass back to his man, took a revolver from his hip-pocket, and shot himself. Mad! Not a bit of it—man was as sane as you or I. Another financial bubble pricked. They say the Agricola smash finished him off."
Brayton called for a drink himself; he felt that he needed it. The cablegram had come too late; perhaps things had gone too far for even the news from South America to save him. And Brayton was the one man in the world, with the exception of the sender of the message, who knew that Agricola was the best thing on the market at the present time.
"It's a bad smash," another man said. "I met poor old Stannard this afternoon nearly out of his mind. He's been advising his clients to put money into Agricola. He began to tell me what one client of his, a girl——"
"Is that Stannard, of Lincoln's Inn, the lawyer?" Brayton asked. "Mr. Mallison used to be his partner. If it's the same man."
"Oh, it's the same man," the other said. "What, are you going already, Brayton?"
Brayton muttered something to the effect that he had work to do. He wanted to be alone to think this matter over. The floating kaleidoscope of events bewildered him. An hour or two ago and he had sat humbly in the Wellesley envying Syme his money and position, and now Syme was dead and Lazarus had a fortune in his pocket.
Not a soul in the world knew except the sender of the cablegram. There would be a great deal of poverty and distress, for the Agricola had been a strong tip with the public, who, a little while back, had rushed for everything that Syme fathered. Scores of these people would be ruined, but Brayton did not allow his mind to dwell on that point. People of that class always lost their money—if one fraudulent scheme didn't have it another would. Why couldn't they be content with a safe interest?
"Oh, yes, a lot of people would suffer. But people like old Stannard! It seemed incredible that he should have been caught. And that he should invest clients' money. Gertrude Mallison was a client of his; in fact, he was her trustee. Suppose he had lost all Gertrude's money. Suppose she had to turn out and get her own living. And suppose Brayton was rich, as he would be soon. Gertrude, Gertrude, those eyes of yours have made a fool of me," he murmured. "Your father was not the man to give his trustee much latitude in the way of investments. Still——"
The papers were full of it next day. It was a tremendous smash. Scotland Yard had been after Syme; they had been looking for him the evening before with a warrant. He had played a desperate game at the finish, but fortune was against him. It was one of the inspectors of the Yard who told Brayton all this. Syme could not afford to wait for that cablegram from South America. Doubtless, he had lingered on till the last possible minute. The authorities had taken possession of Symes' papers, and already a hopeless state of affairs had been divulged. Everything had been disposed of—Syme did not appear to have a share worth keeping left. There was no occasion to hold on to the Agricola, seeing that in the ordinary course of events they could have been bought back for two for three halfpence. Special meetings of the various shareholders would be called at once, but the chance of saving anything out of the wreck was very remote.
Brayton stood impassively. The game was absolutely in his own hands. There was no occasion for any hurry. He took his way leisurely into the city and commenced operations. He was a buyer for cash. His broker was frank to the verge of rudeness.
"My dear fellow, you will lose every penny," he said. "What on earth——"
"Never mind that," Brayton said. "What can you buy the shares for?"
"Well, certainly for sixpence each. Perhaps less."
"Then buy all you can for cash and the account. I'll give you a cheque for £1,000 now. That should secure 40,000 of the ordinaries. Oh, I'm not saying there is anything in Agricolas, but Agricolas may counteract another thing that I shall get 5 per cent out of. It's a pure spec, on my part, but I've had a bit of luck lately, and I'm backing it."
"Come into a fortune?" the broker asked.
"No, I haven't," Brayton said crisply. "But all that you can get for that amount. Good-bye."
He strolled off quietly, and patiently awaited his game. He had parted with all his available capital, and in return he possessed forty thousand Agricola ordinary shares, with a possibility of as many more. Within ten days he would have to find a further thousand pounds or carry over. But the carrying-over would be easy enough, as Brayton very well knew. Within ten days those shares would be standing at a premium of at least five pounds, and he was pretty certain to make half a million of money. A couple of days drifted by, and Brayton was satisfied. There were no more Agricolas to be had. On Thursday morning they were asked for, on Thursday, at closing time, as much as eight shillings were bid. By midday on Friday the stock stood at par, and then the secret leaked out. Whence it came nobody seemed to know or care. Syme's co-directors, harassed out of their lives, cabled to the mine asking pertinent questions of their engineer. His little conspiracy had failed; Syme's tragic death had pricked the bubble, and it behoved the engineer to save his face. He was shocked to find that Syme had suppressed his code message, or perhaps Syme had not received it. At any rate, he begged to repeat his cable, and did so. The directors sighed with relief. At any rate, their holdings were intact; the Agricola was a good thing, and they prepared without delay to call the shareholders together and tell them so. The city rang with the story.
On the day of the extraordinary general meeting Agricolas stood at £4 10s. Brayton turned into the Cannon Street Hotel with the easy mind and placid assurance of one who feels himself in the possession of half a million of money. There were shareholders there who were not shareholders at all. They had parted with their holdings and they came sadly curious to know how the swindle had been worked. Syme was dead and done with, but assuredly he had confederates who had engineered the swindle, and who was going to benefit by it. Possibly the chairman of directors would be able to tell them something.
Brayton glanced curiously around him. He began to wish that he had stayed away. Some of those faces were by no means pleasant to look at. There was an old clergyman with frayed coat and a collar evidently trimmed at the edges, a half-blind working man led by a little girl. And there was a tall lady in deep black with two children by her side. And there was Mr. Stannard with a white, anxious face and a twitching of the lips that told its own tale. And last, there was Gertrude Mallison, grey lipped and forlorn, with an expression in her eyes that brought Brayton to her side.
"I—I did not expect to see you here," he stammered. "I sincerely hope——"
"Oh, we are all in the same boat," Gertrude smiled wistfully. "Only, don't say anything to Mr. Stannard. He is heartbroken about it. Oh, yes, all my money. He says that he must have been mad. You see, my father gave him absolute discretion. And he meant to make me very rich—he——"
What was going on? Oh, yes, the chairman was speaking. But the chairman had very little to say. He and his colleagues had not sold for various reasons. They had lost nothing. But they were quite prepared to pool their shares for the benefit of the company generally. At the huge premium at which the shares stood today, something substantial would be done to mitigate the distress. There had been some dirty, underhand work, and certain people had benefited. Those people were strangers, and the chairman understood that one of them was in the room at the moment. Perhaps he would like to say a few words. If not, then there was very little to be said. Perhaps the Board of Trade——
"You are alluding to me," Brayton said. "To be quite frank, I hold four-fifth of the shares. I bought them for very little on exclusive information. Your engineer betrayed you, and the exclusive information dispatched for Syme's benefit came unexpectedly into my hands. Why I kept the information to myself I need not say. I could not give it to Mr. Syme, because he had gone to his account elsewhere. Neither am I going to explain why I bought those shares. If I had not done so sooner or later, there would have been a rush on the part of the shrewd city speculator, and instead of one man to contend with you would have had a hundred. As a matter of sheer business my position is unassailable. You cannot touch me. But there is another way in which you can touch me and you have. I am touched by the appearance of certain people here. Their silence is more eloquent then words. If I like to leave the room with my hands in my pockets I can do so, and no process, legal or otherwise, can stop me. But I am not going to do it. And I am not going to have my motive questioned either. Call it a tardy repentance on my part, call it what you like, say that I did this to save you from the city sharks, say I did it because a lady shareholder is a great friend of mine, and I wanted above all things to stand well in her eyes. But I'm going to give all those shares back to the people who sold them to me, and the price is exactly what I gave for them. And—and that's all."
The greatest fool in the City of London walked out into Cannon Street feeling at peace with all the world. A hand was laid on his shoulder. He turned round to meet Gertrude's eyes.
"My cab is here," she said. "Please get in. I am going to take you as far as my flat. Did you suppose that I was going to let you run off in that fashion? Oh, I know something about business. My father was a business man, remember. We shall be quite alone there. Please get in."
Brayton obeyed mechanically enough. Right away to Kensington, Gertrude kept her face averted from him. She said no word till the flat was reached. The tears were in her eyes still.
"Sit down in that chair," she commanded. "And tell me everything. Everything, mind!"
Brayton told the story. He omitted nothing. It seemed strange that he should be baring his soul to this girl in so free a fashion. He spoke of his hopes and fears, of the artistic temperament, of his loathing for the city.
"And there it was, thrown at me, Miss Mallison," he said. "Especially——"
"Gertrude," the girl said. "Call me Gertrude, please."
"Well, Gertrude, darling. I could be rich. Why should I consider other people? I—I could ask the girl I love to marry me without any chance of being called a fortune-hunter."
"Is—is the girl rich?" Gertrude whispered. "I mean was she rich this morning?"
"Well, she wasn't," Brayton said. "But she is now, and I am poor, and there is an end of the matter. But, thank God, she knows my story now, and if she thinks none the worse of me——"
"Worse of you, Lawrence! Worse of you! Oh, the boy is clearly mad. Why, you acted splendidly. You acted as few people would have done. You gave everything back to those poor people, you were going to give up the girl you loved so that——What nonsense, what delicious, romantic nonsense! And what does it matter who has the money so long as it belongs to one of the two?"
"I—I don't know what you mean," Brayton stammered.
"Yes, you do, Lawrence. Look at me. Come here. Now put your arms round me like that—and kiss me. And I'll put my arms round you—like this—and I'll kiss you. Oh, my dearest boy, have not you seen for a long time that there was nobody but you? I thought that I should have to ask you. But now that you have given me back my fortune I must offer you something in return. Well, I do, dear! Let me hide my face on your breast and so save my blushes——"
"I don't believe you're blushing a bit, Gertrude."
"Well, then, I'm not. I'm not a bit ashamed of myself. Lawrence, what can I do for you?"
He bent down and kissed her long and passionately.
"Take me to the Wellesley to dinner tonight," he said. "With you opposite me with that love-light in your glorious eyes, even the artistic temperament would have no more to ask for."