The Market Place

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Author: Harold Frederic

Chapter XV

We’ve got a spare room here, haven’t we?" Thorpe asked his niece, when she came out to greet him in the hall of their new home in Ovington Square. He spoke with palpable eagerness before even unbuttoning his damp great-coat, or putting off his hat. "I mean it’s all in working order ready for use?"

"Why yes, uncle," Julia answered, after a moment’s thought. "Is someone coming?"

"I think so," he replied, with a grunt of relief. He seemed increasingly pleased with the project he had in mind, as she helped him off with his things. The smile he gave her, when she playfully took his arm to lead him into the adjoining library, was clearly but a part of the satisfied grin with which he was considering some development in his own affairs.

He got into his slippers and into the easy-chair before the bright fire and lit a cigar with a contented air.

"Well, my little girl?" he said, with genial inconsequence, and smiled again at her, where she stood beside the mantel.

"It will be such a lark to play the hostess to a stranger!" she exclaimed. "When is he coming?—I suppose it is a ’he,’" she added, less buoyantly.

"Oh—that fellow," Thorpe said, as if he had been thinking of something else. "Well—I can’t tell just when he will turn up. I only learned he was in town—or in England—a couple of hours ago. I haven’t seen him yet at all. I drove round to his lodgings, near the British Museum, but he wasn’t there. He only comes there to sleep, but they told me he turned in early—by nine o’clock or so. Then I went round to a hotel and wrote a note for him, and took it back to his lodgings, and left it for him. I told him to pack up his things as soon as he got it, and drive here, and make this his home—for the time being at least."

"Then it’s some old friend of yours?" said the girl. "I know I shall like him."

Thorpe laughed somewhat uneasily. "Well—yes—he’s a kind of a friend of mine," he said, with a note of hesitation in his voice. "I don’t know, though, that you’ll think much of him. He aint what you’d call a ladies’ man."

He laughed again at some thought the words conjured up. "He’s a curious, simple old party, who’d just like a comfortable corner somewhere by himself, and wouldn’t expect to be talked to or entertained at all. If he does come, he’ll keep to himself pretty well. He wouldn’t be any company for you. I mean,—for you or Alfred either. I think he’s a Canadian or West Indian,—British subject, at all events,—but he’s lived all his life in the West, and he wouldn’t know what to do in a drawing-room, or that sort of thing. You’d better just not pay any attention to him. Pass the time of day, of course, but that’s all."

Julia’s alert, small-featured face expressed some vague disappointment at what she heard, but her words were cheerful enough. "Oh of course—whatever he likes best," she said. "I will tell Potter to make everything ready. I suppose there’s no chance of his being here in time for dinner?"

Thorpe shook his head, and then lifted his brows over some new perplexity. "I guess he’d want to eat his meals out, anyway," he said, after some thought. "I don’t seem to remember much about him in that respect— of course, everything was so different in camp out in Mexico—but I daresay he wouldn’t be much of an ornament at the table. However, that’ll be all right. He’s as easy to manage as a rabbit. If I told him to eat on the roof, he’d do it without a murmur. You see it’s this way, Julia: he’s a scientific man—a kind of geologist, and mining expert and rubber expert—and chemical expert and all sort of things. I suppose he must have gone through college—very likely he’ll turn out to have better manners than I was giving him credit for. I’ve only seen him in the rough, so to speak. We weren’t at all intimate then,—but we had dealings together, and there are certain important reasons why I should keep close in touch with him while he’s here in London. But I’ll try and do that without letting you be bothered." "What an idea!" cried Julia. "As if that wasn’t what we had the house for—to see the people you want to see."

Her uncle smiled rather ruefully, and looked in a rather dubious way at his cigar. "Between you and me and the lamp-post, Jule," he said, with a slow, whimsical drawl, "there isn’t a fellow in the world that I wanted to see less than I did him. But since he’s here—why, we’ve got to make the best of it."

After dinner, Thorpe suffered the youngsters to go up to the drawing-room in the tacit understanding that he should probably not see them again that night. He betook himself then once more to the library, as it was called—the little, cozy, dark-panelled room off the hall, where the owner of the house had left two locked bookcases, and where Thorpe himself had installed a writing-desk and a diminutive safe for his papers. The chief purpose of the small apartment, however, was indicated by the two big, round, low-seated easy-chairs before the hearth, and by the cigar boxes and spirit-stand and tumblers visible behind the glass of the cabinet against the wall. Thorpe himself called the room his "snuggery," and spent many hours there in slippered comfort, smoking and gazing contentedly into the fire. Sometimes Julia read to him, as he sat thus at his ease, but then he almost invariably went to sleep.

Now, when he had poured out some whiskey and water and lit a cigar, the lounging chairs somehow did not attract him. He moved about aimlessly in the circumscribed space, his hands in his pockets, his burly shoulders rounded, his face dulled and heavy as with a depression of doubt. The sound of the piano upstairs came intermittently to his ears. Often he ascended to the drawing-room to hear Julia play—and more often still, with all the doors open, he enjoyed the mellowed murmur of her music here at his ease in the big chair. But tonight he had no joy in the noise. more than once, as he slouched restlessly round the room, the notion of asking her to stop suggested itself, but he forbore to put it into action. Once he busied himself for a time in kneeling before his safe, and scrutinizing in detail the papers in one of the bundles it contained.

At last—it was after ten o’clock, and the music above had ceased—the welcome sounds of cab-wheels without, and then of the door-bell, came to dispel his fidgeting suspense. On the instant he straightened himself, and his face rearranged its expression. He fastened upon the door of the room the controlled, calm glance of one who is easily confident about what is to happen.

"Quaker-looking" was not an inapt phrase for the person whom the maid ushered into the room through this door. He was a small, thin, elderly man, bowed of figure and shuffling in gait. His coat and large, low-crowned hat, though worn almost to shabbiness, conveyed an indefinable sense of some theological standard, or pretence to such a standard. His meagre face, too, with its infinity of anxious yet meaningless lines, and its dim spectacled eyes, so plainly overtaxed by the effort to discern anything clearly, might have belonged to any old village priest grown childish and blear-eyed in the solitude of stupid books. Even the blotches of tell-tale colour on his long nose were not altogether unclerical in their suggestion. A poor old man he seemed, as he stood blinking in the electric light of the strange, warm apartment—a helpless, worn old creature, inured through long years to bleak adverse winds, hoping now for nothing better in this world than present shelter.

"How do you do, Mr. Thorpe," he said, after a moment, with nervous formality. "This is unexpectedly kind of you, sir."

"Why—not at all!" said Thorpe, shaking him cordially by the hand. "What have we got houses for, but to put up our old friends? And how are you, anyway? You’ve brought your belongings, have you? That’s right!" He glanced into the hall, to make sure that they were being taken upstairs, and then closed the door. "I suppose you’ve dined. Take off your hat and coat! Make yourself at home. That’s it—take the big chair, there—so! And now let’s have a look at you. Well, Tavender, my man, you haven’t grown any younger. But I suppose none of us do. And what’ll you have to drink? I take plain water in mine, but there’s soda if you prefer it. And which shall it be—Irish or Scotch?"

Mr. Tavender’s countenance revealed the extremity of his surprise and confusion at the warmth of this welcome. It apparently awed him as well, for though he shrank into a corner of the huge chair, he painstakingly abstained from resting his head against its back. Uncovered, this head gained a certain dignity of effect from the fashion in which the thin, iron-grey hair, parted in the middle, fell away from the full, intellectual temples, and curled in meek locks upon his collar. A vague resemblance to the type of Wesley—or was it Froebel?—might have hinted itself to the observer’s mind.

Thorpe’s thoughts, however, were not upon types. "Well"—he said, from the opposite chair, in his roundest, heartiest voice, when the other had with diffidence suffered himself to be served, and had deferentially lighted on one side the big cigar pressed upon him—"Well—and how’s the world been using you?"

"Not very handsomely, Mr. Thorpe," the other responded, in a hushed, constrained tone.

"Oh, chuck the Misters!" Thorpe bade him. "Aren’t we old pals, man? You’re plain Tavender, and I’m plain Thorpe."

"You’re very kind," murmured Tavender, still abashed. For some minutes he continued to reply dolefully, and with a kind of shamefaced reluctance, to the questions piled upon him. He was in evil luck: nothing had gone well with him; it had been with the greatest difficulty that he had scraped together enough to get back to London on the chance of obtaining some expert commission; practically he possessed nothing in the world beyond the clothes on his back, and the contents of two old carpet-bags—these admissions, by degrees, were wormed from him.

"But have you parted with the concession, then, that you bought from me?" Thorpe suddenly asked him. "Help yourself to some more whiskey!"

Tavender sighed as he tipped the decanter. "It isn’t any good," he answered, sadly. "The Government repudiates it—that is, the Central Government at Mexico. Of course, I never blamed you. I bought it with my eyes open, and you sold it in perfect good faith. I never doubted that at all. But it’s not worth the paper it’s written on—that’s certain. It’s that that busted me—that, and some other things."

"Well—well!" said Thorpe, blankly. His astonishment was obviously genuine, and for a little it kept him silent, while he pondered the novel aspects of the situation thus disclosed. Then his eyes brightened, as a new path outlined itself.

"I suppose you’ve got the papers?—the concession and my transfer to you and all that?" he asked, casually.

"Oh, yes," replied Tavender. He added, with a gleam of returning self-command—"That’s all I have got."

"Let’s see—what was it you paid me?—Three thousand eight hundred pounds, wasn’t it?"

Tavender made a calculation in mental arithmetic. "Yes, something like that. Just under nineteen thousand dollars, "he said.

"Well," remarked Thorpe, with slow emphasis, "I won’t allow you to suffer that way by me. I’ll buy it back from you at the same price you paid for it."

Tavender, beginning to tremble, jerked himself upright in his chair, and stared through his spectacles at his astounding host. "You say"—he gasped—"you say you’ll buy it back!"

"Certainly," said Thorpe. "That’s what I said."

"I—I never heard of such a thing!" the other faltered with increasing agitation. "No—you can’t mean it. It isn’t common sense!"

"It’s common decency," replied the big man, in his most commanding manner. "It’s life and death to you—and it doesn’t matter a flea-bite to me. So, since you came to grief through me, why shouldn’t I do the fair thing, and put you back on your legs again?"

Tavender, staring now at those shrunken legs of his, breathed heavily. The thing overwhelmed him. Once or twice he lifted his head and essayed to speak, but no speech came to his thin lips. He moistened them eventually with a long deliberate pull at his glass.

"This much ought to be understood, however," Thorpe resumed, reflecting upon his words as he went along. "If I’m to buy back a dead horse, like that, it’s only reasonable that there should be conditions. I suppose you’ve seen by this time that even if this concession of ours was recognized by the Government there wouldn’t be any money in it to speak of. I didn’t realize that two years ago, any more than you did, but it’s plain enough now. The trade has proved it. A property of rubber trees has no real value—so long as there’s a wilderness of rubber trees all round that’s everybody’s property. How can a man pay even the interest on his purchase money, supposing he’s bought a rubber plantation, when he has to compete with people who’ve paid no purchase money at all, but just get out as much as they like from the free forest? You must know that that is so."

Tavender nodded eloquently. "Oh yes, I know that is so. You can prove it by me."

Thorpe grinned a little. "As it happens, that aint what I need to have you prove," he said, dryly. "Now WE know that a rubber property is no good—but London doesn’t know it. Everybody here thinks that it’s a great business to own rubber trees. Why, man alive, do you know"—the audacity of the example it had occurred to him to cite brought a gratified twinkle to his eyes as he went on—"do you know that a man here last year actually sold a rubber plantation for four hundred thousand pounds—two millions of dollars! Not in cash, of course, but in shares that he could do something with—and before he’s done with it, I’m told, he’s going to make twice that amount of money out of it. That’ll show you what London is like."

"Yes—I suppose they do those things," remarked Tavender, vaguely.

"Well—my point is that perhaps I can do something or other with this concession of yours here. I may even be able to get my money back on it. At any rate I’ll take my chances on it—so that at least you shan’t lose anything by it. Of course, if you’d rather try and put it on the market yourself, why go ahead!" There was a wistful pathos in the way Tavender shook his head. "Big money doesn’t mean anything to me any more," he said, wearily. "I’m too old and I’m too tired. Why—four—five—yes, half a dozen times I’ve had enough money to last me comfortably all my life—and every time I’ve used it as bait to catch bigger money with, and lost it all. I don’t do that any more! I’ve got something the matter with me internally that takes the nerve all out of me. The doctors don’t agree about it, but whatever its name is I’ve got it for keeps. Probably I shan’t live very long"—Thorpe recalled that the old man had always taken a gloomy view of his health after the third glass—"and if you want to pay me the nineteen thousand dollars, or whatever it is, why I shall say ’God bless you,’ and be more than contented."

"Oh, there’s something more to it than that," observed Thorpe, with an added element of business-like briskness in his tone. "If I let you out in this way—something, of course, you could never have dreamed would happen—you must do some things for me. I should want you, for example, to go back to Mexico at once. Of course, I’d pay your expenses out. Or say, I’d give you a round four thousand pounds to cover that and some other things too. You wouldn’t object to that, would you?"

The man who, two hours before, had confronted existence with the change of his last five-pound note in his pocket, did not hesitate now. "Oh no, that would be all right," with reviving animation, he declared. He helped himself again from the cut-glass decanter. "What would you want me to do there?"

"Oh, a report on the concession for a starter," Thorpe answered, with careful indifference. "I suppose they still know your name as an authority. I could make that all right anyway. But one thing I ought to speak of—it might be rather important—I wouldn’t like to have you mention to anybody that the concession has at any time been yours. That might tend to weaken the value of your report, don’t you see? Let it be supposed that the concession has been my property from the start. You catch my point, don’t you? There never was any such thing as a transfer of it to you. It’s always been mine!"

Tavender gave his benefactor a purblind sort of wink. "Always belonged to you? Why of course it did," he said cheerfully.

The other breathed a cautious prolonged sigh of relief "You’d better light a fresh one, hadn’t you?" he asked, observing with a kind of contemptuous tolerance the old man’s efforts to ignite a cigar which had more than once unrolled like a carpenter’s shaving in his unaccustomed fingers, and was now shapelessly defiant of both draught and suction. Tavender laughed to himself silently as he took a new cigar, and puffed at the match held by his companion. The air of innocence and long-suffering meekness was falling rapidly away from him. He put his shabby boots out confidently to the fender and made gestures with his glass as he talked.

"My mistake," he declared, in insistent tones, "was in not turning down science thirty years ago and going in bodily for business. Then I should have made my pile as you seem to have done. But I tried to do something of both. Half the year I was assaying crushings, or running a level, or analyzing sugars, for a salary, and the other half I was trying to do a gamble with that salary on the strength of what I’d learned. You can’t ring the bell that way. You’ve got to be either a pig or a pup. You can’t do both. Now, for instance, if I’d come to London when you did, and brought my money with me instead of buying your concession with it----"

"Why, what good do you suppose you would have done?" Thorpe interrupted him with good-natured brusqueness. "You’d have had it taken from you in a fortnight! Why, man, do you know what London is? You’d have had no more chance here than a naked nigger in a swamp-full of alligators."

"You seem to have hit it off," the other objected. "This is as fine a house as I was ever in."

"With me it’s different," Thorpe replied, carelessly. "I have the talent for money-making. I’m a man in armour. The ’gators can’t bite me, nor yet the rattle-snakes."

"Yes—men are made up differently," Tavender assented, with philosophical gravity. Then he lurched gently in the over-large chair, and fixed an intent gaze upon his host. "What did you make your money in?" he demanded, not with entire distinctness of enunciation. "It wasn’t rubber, was it?"

Thorpe shook his head. "There’s no money in rubber. I’m entirely in finance—on the Stock Exchange—dealing in differences," he replied, with a serious face.

The explanation seemed wholly acceptable to Tavender. He mused upon it placidly for a time, with his reverend head pillowed askew against the corner of the chair. Then he let his cigar drop, and closed his eyes.

The master of the house bent forward, and noiselessly helped himself to another glass of whiskey and water. Then, sinking back again, he eyed his odd guest meditatively as he sipped the drink. He said to himself that in all the miraculous run of luck which the year had brought him, this was the most extraordinary manifestation of the lot. It had been so easy to ignore the existence of this tiresome and fatuous old man, so long as he was in remote Mexico, that he had practically forgotten him. But he should not soon forget the frightened shock with which he had learned of his presence in London, that afternoon. For a minute or two, there in his sister’s book-shop, it had seemed as if he were falling through the air—as if the substantial earth had crumbled away from under him. But then his nerve had returned to him, his resourceful brain had reasserted itself. With ready shrewdness he had gone out, and met the emergency, and made it the servant of his own purposes.

He could be glad now, unreservedly glad, that Tavender had come to London, that things had turned out as they had. In truth, he stood now for the first time on solid ground. When he thought of it, now, the risk he had been running all these months gave him a little sinking of the heart. Upon reflection, the performance of having sold the same property first to Tavender in Mexico and then to the Rubber Consols Company in London might be subject to injurious comment, or worse. The fact that it was not a real property to begin with had no place in his thoughts. It was a concession—and concessions were immemorially worth what they would fetch. But the other thing might have been so awkward—and now it was all right!

For an hour and more, till the fire burnt itself out and the guest’s snoring became too active a nuisance, Thorpe sat lost in this congratulatory reverie. Then he rose, and sharply shaking Tavender into a semblance of consciousness, led him upstairs and put him to bed.

Three days later he personally saw Tavender off at Waterloo station by the steamer-train, en route for Southampton and New York. The old man was in childlike good spirits, looking more ecclesiastical than ever in the new clothes he had been enabled to buy. He visibly purred with content whenever his dim eyes caught sight of the new valise and steamer trunk, which belonged to him, on the busy platform.

"You’ve been very kind to me, Thorpe," he said more than once, as they stood together beside the open door of the compartment. "I was never so hospitably treated before in my life. Your attention to me has been wonderful. I call you a true friend."

"Oh, that’s all right! Glad to do it," replied the other, lightly. In truth he had not let Tavender stray once out of his sight during those three days. He had dragged him tirelessly about London, showing him the sights from South Kensington Museum to the Tower, shopping with him, resting in old taverns with him, breakfasting, lunching, aud dining with him—in the indefatigable resolution that he should strike up no dangerous gossiping acquaintance with strangers. The task had been tiresome in the extreme— but it had been very well worth while.

"One thing I’m rather sorry about," Tavender remarked, in apologetic parenthesis—"I ought to have gone down and seen that brother-in-law of mine in Kent. He’s been very good to me, and I’m not treating him very well. I wrote to tell him I was coming—but since then I haven’t had a minute to myself. However, I can write to him and explain how it happened. And probably I’ll be over again sometime."

"Why, of course," said Thorpe, absently. The allusion to the brother-in-law in Kent had escaped his notice, so intent was he upon a new congeries of projects taking vague shape in his mind.

"Think of yourself as my man out there," he said now, slowly, following the clue of his thoughts. "There may be big things to do. Write to me as often as you can. Tell me everything that’s going on. Money will be no object to me—you can have as much as you like—if things turn up out there that are worth taking up. But mind you say nothing about me—or any connection you’ve ever had with me. You’ll get a letter from the Secretary of a Company and the Chairman asking for a report on a certain property, and naming a fee. You simply make a good report—on its merits. You say nothing about anything else—about me, or the history of the concession, or its validity, or anything. I mustn’t be alluded to in any way. You quite understand that?"

"Trust me!" said the old man, and wrung his benefactor’s hand.

It was indeed with a trustful eye that Thorpe watched the train draw out of the station.

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Chicago: Harold Frederic, "Chapter XV," The Market Place, ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in The Market Place (New York: George E. Wood, 1912), Original Sources, accessed September 25, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3U325H3QYVY1Y1T.

MLA: Frederic, Harold. "Chapter XV." The Market Place, edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in The Market Place, Vol. 22, New York, George E. Wood, 1912, Original Sources. 25 Sep. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3U325H3QYVY1Y1T.

Harvard: Frederic, H, 'Chapter XV' in The Market Place, ed. . cited in 1912, The Market Place, George E. Wood, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 25 September 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3U325H3QYVY1Y1T.