The Battle of Basinghall Street - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

The Battle of Basinghall Street ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim

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Opis

The story of a young man, Lord Sandbrook, who takes revenge against the directors of a company he holds responsible for the deaths of his father and mother. The battlefield is Basinghall Street, where the offices of Woolito, Limited, are situated. A textile business is the center of strange machinations – suicides, failures, conflagrations, disaster to various directors, finally a raid on the stock, and the president is a ruined man. In this story Mr. Oppenheim takes a vacation from international intrigue in a Monte Carlo setting and devotes himself to describing a big business battle in London. The story is told with the usual Oppenheim flourish, a great deal of action, many details of personality and adventures.

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Liczba stron: 375

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Contents

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER XVI

CHAPTER XVII

CHAPTER XVIII

CHAPTER XIX

CHAPTER XX

CHAPTER XXI

CHAPTER XXII

CHAPTER XXIII

CHAPTER XXIV

CHAPTER XXV

CHAPTER XXVI

CHAPTER XXVII

CHAPTER XXVIII

CHAPTER XXIX

CHAPTER XXX

CHAPTER XXXI

CHAPTER I

Nathaniel Edgar Pontifex, first Baron Marsom, chairman of the famous textile business known as Woolito, Limited, stood at the head of a long mahogany table in the magnificent library of his Park Lane mansion and looked swiftly around the room with quick, birdlike glances, as though to assure himself that everything was in order. He had purposely outstripped his guests, who were loitering across the winter garden from the dining room. He wanted just this one minute to himself.

They were a strange-looking company, these warriors of commerce who were following him, not one of them bearing in gait or features any suggestion of gentle birth. There were big men and small men, some dark-haired and some fair-complexioned, differing in many respects, but every one of them with the hard mouth and keen eyes of the successful man. That they had met with success was a proven thing, for each one was a member of the board of the celebrated Woolito Company. Their cheeks were a trifle flushed with wine. Most of them were smoking large and very wonderful cigars. They trooped rather noisily into the room and, as each arrived, he was shown to his seat by a pale-faced, bespectacled young man in morning clothes, Andrew Crooks, Lord Marsom’s private secretary.

“You will sit here, Sir Sigismund,” he indicated, singling out one of the group, a small, elderly man with a narrow chin and prominent forehead, “at Lord Marsom’s right. And you, Sir Alfred,” he added, turning to another of the little company, a man of heavier build and coarser appearance, “exactly opposite. There are place cards everywhere, according to his lordship’s directions.”

They all sank into high-backed, but well-cushioned chairs, still keeping up a running fire of conversation, two or three of them leaning forward to hear the end of a story one of the party had commenced in the winter garden. Lord Marsom paused for a moment before taking his own seat. He was a bulky, dark-complexioned man, with huge shoulders; pale–almost olive–cheeks; black hair in abundance; cruel, curving lips which, hard though they were, still contrived to remain licentious; and deep-set, brilliant eyes. A thousand years ago he might have played well enough the part of a great Asiatic merchant at home in his palace. One almost looked for the turban on his head and the rich magenta robes of the Orient instead of the well-fitting but unbecoming dress coat and oversized, but priceless, pearls…. Then he leaned forward to take his place and another likeness presented itself. The moderation, the gentle dignity of the East had passed away. It was the bird of prey who smiled down the table, his white fingers, with their glossy nails, leisurely tapping its polished surface. Civilisation had marched, after all, with halting footsteps.

“My friends,” he began in a throaty, but somehow clear voice, “this is an informal gathering in order that we may exchange just a word or two together before the meeting to-morrow week. Some of you, perhaps, have not heard the latest news. The official receiver has accepted our offer for the purchase of the Ossulton Company which went into liquidation last month.”

There was a low concerted murmur, which seemed to take to itself the sound of a malevolent chuckle. Lord Marsom moistened his lips.

“The Ossulton Company,” he went on, “was the last of the group who ventured to hold out against us. We have bought them up, as we have bought up all the others. They went into liquidation because their obstinate directors preferred that course to being taken over by our larger interests. Events have proved that they were ill advised.”

Sir Sigismund Lunt, the small, grey-haired man who sat on the chairman’s right, leaned forward.

“Have the board of the Ossulton Company given any public explanation to their shareholders as to why they refused our previous offers?” he asked, in a shrill, parrotlike voice.

“Not yet,” Marsom answered. “When they do, we shall be ready for them. With their passing out of the business, no other licencee of the great Woolito patent remains. In other words, gentlemen, competition is dead. If you will continue to give me your attention for a few minutes, I will place some figures before you which should, I think, help your digestion.”

They all leaned forward in their places. There were seven of them and the expression upon the face of each one was the same. There was the same rapacious gleam in their eyes, the same satyrlike grin on their lips. They had drifted into their positions through a common passion–the hunger and greed for wealth. They were assisting to-night at a banquet. They were tearing to pieces a carcass.

* * * * *

Upstairs Miss Frances Moore, publicity and social secretary to the great Woolito Company, who by virtue of her office had a small but seldom-used room in the mansion of the chairman of the company, dismissed her typist, smoothed her hair before the glass and prepared to receive her unexpected caller. There was a knock at the door and one of the many footmen of the establishment made an announcement.

“The young gentleman to see you, Miss Moore.”

The latter looked curiously at her visitor, who was not in the least the type of person she had expected to see. He was a young man of excellent features and presence, slim and gracious, with the lines of humour abundantly displayed at the corners of his eyes and lips. He had the air of one who found life a great joke, which he was not too eagerly disposed to share with others. His hair was of a pleasing shade of dark brown, brushed up a little behind the ears. He was dressed in informal dinner clothes, with small black pearl studs and a black tie. It occurred to Miss Moore at once that he was not of the type of guests who frequented number 31a, Park Lane.

“Good evening, Miss Moore,” he said, in a pleasant and ingratiating voice, as soon as the door was closed behind the departing servant.

“You asked to see me?” she enquired a little dubiously. “Surely you are Lord Sandbrook?”

“Quite true,” he admitted. “That is my name.”

“You wish to see Lord Marsom, of course,” she continued. “I am very sorry, but he is engaged at a meeting.”

“I should like to attend the meeting,” the young man confided.

“I’m afraid that is quite out of the question,” she told him. “Lord Marsom has been giving a dinner to the directors of the company and he is now engaged with them, making plans for the meeting next week.”

“Miss Moore–”

She responded to the appeal in his tone.

“Lord Sandbrook,” she rejoined more amiably.

“You look good-natured.”

“My friends,” she said, with a faint emphasis upon the word, “usually find me so.”

“Well, consider me as a friend,” he begged. “Take me down to the meeting.”

“And lose my post and a very comfortable salary?”

He shook his head.

“You wouldn’t risk anything. You’re too valuable. If you daren’t land me amongst them unannounced, go down and ask Lord Marsom whether he will receive me for a few minutes. Say I should like to meet him in company with the directors.”

“But why?” she asked curiously.

“Listen,” he explained. “I have been down in the country for several weeks and, not having a perfect secretary, my letters have got a trifle mixed up. Looking through them this evening, I found one from Lord Marsom begging me to call and see him as soon as possible, either here or in the City. Well, here I am.”

“But can’t you see,” she pointed out, “that you have chosen a most inconvenient time?”

“I’m not at all sure about that,” he protested. “I believe Lord Marsom wishes me to become a director of the firm. Well, before I decide, I should like to have a look at the other directors. This would be such a wonderful opportunity. Please do as I ask.”

She considered the matter. There had been rumours of some trouble in connection with his father’s resignation from the board, but she could not remember that they were of any vital importance. It seemed to her that, considering Lord Marsom’s pressing invitation, he had a certain right to be received if he insisted.

“The situation is beyond me,” she confessed at last. “I will grant the last part of your request. I will not risk taking you into the meeting, but I will go down and tell Lord Marsom that you have only just received his letter, that you are here now and wish for a few words. If he snaps my head off, it will be your fault!”

He smiled, and, like a great many other people in the world, she felt the charm of that swift and pleasant lightening of his whole expression.

“You are a dear!” he exclaimed enthusiastically. “I will wait patiently until you come back….”

Miss Moore’s mission met with success. In less than ten minutes Lord Sandbrook was solemnly ushered into the presence of the seven men who, with their chief, formed the board of the great Woolito Company. They all turned to look at him as he walked with long, springy footsteps across the palatial apartment. Marsom, puzzled but determined to take no false step, rose to his feet and awaited the coming of his visitor with a hard, stereotyped smile of welcome. The young man, however, vanquished all hostility from the start. He grasped Marsom’s outstretched hand and made a gesture down the table.

“You I have had the pleasure of meeting before, Lord Marsom,” he said. “Will you present me–en bloc if you will–to the directors of the Woolito Company?”

Marsom laid one hand upon the young man’s shoulder; with the other he indicated separately each member of the gathering.

“Sir Sigismund Lunt, Sir Alfred Honeyman, Mr. Archibald Somerville, Mr. Bomford, Mr. Sidney Littleburn, Mr. Thomas Moody and Mr. Mayden-Harte.”

“Delighted to meet you all, gentlemen,” Sandbrook responded genially. “I flatter myself that I never forget a face, so you are now all known to me. I trust that we may become better acquainted.”

There was a little murmur of polite acquiescence. This self-assured young man, bringing with him the fascinating suggestion of another atmosphere, very quickly took their fancy.

“I must apologise for my intrusion, Lord Marsom,” his visitor continued, “but I have been absent from London for some weeks and have only just received your message. I happened to be disengaged so I called round on the chance of finding you at home.”

“Please sit down,” Lord Marsom invited, pointing to the chair, which Mr. Crooks, the secretary, had just wheeled forward.

Sandbrook accepted the invitation. Some part of the geniality of his manner, however, seemed to have left him. There was a more serious note in his tone as he turned towards his host.

“I think I ought to warn you, Lord Marsom,” he said, “that I have come here in a terribly inquisitive frame of mind.”

Marsom leaned back in his chair. His lips protruded in unpleasant fashion. The light in the hard, dry eyes underneath his clustering brows was almost menacing.

“Inquisitive!” he repeated. “Just what do you mean by that? Your father must have attended at least fifty directors’ meetings and never asked a single question, so far as I can remember.”

“My father was what you might call an acquiescent type of man,” Sandbrook agreed cheerfully. “He found pleasant occupation for his spare time with you and more than ample remuneration for it. The trouble was that towards the end his conscience began to trouble him.”

Conscience! Lord Marsom repeated the word. His tongue seemed to linger over it. Somerville, a large, florid man at the end of the table, laughed softly to himself. Sir Sigismund distinctly chuckled. Sir Alfred Honeyman looked puzzled. A gleam of humour shone behind Mr. Mayden-Harte’s thick spectacles.

“It was very likely because he had foolish ideas,” the young man continued apologetically, “but my father certainly died a very unhappy man. He was flattered at being invited to join your board, but he joined it without the least inside knowledge of your outlook or the details of the business. It was only within the last year that he realised a certain–may I call it, from his undoubtedly old-fashioned point of view–ruthlessness with which the business of the Woolito Company was being carried on. He resigned at once but he never recovered from the shock.”

“Do you mean to tell me that your father’s health was seriously affected because he suddenly took a dislike to our way of doing business?” Marsom asked caustically.

“That is precisely what I am told happened,” was the deprecating reply. “Mind you, I am not associating myself with his point of view, but my father had very old-fashioned ideas. Towards the end Ellerton, our family lawyer, assured me that he was ashamed to walk the streets; he was ashamed to look his friends in the face. Even in the City, you, perhaps, know, Lord Marsom, one hears that Woolito’s methods are not looked upon with great favour.”

Lord Marsom smiled.

“The banks approve of us,” he declared. “Your father approved of his dividend cheques.”

“I’m afraid the poor old gentleman had no idea how the money was being earned.”

“Rubbish!” Marsom scoffed. “You have a lot to learn yourself, young gentleman, I can see that. The first duty of a firm engaged in a business like ours is to rid itself of competition. We were being undersold by half-a-dozen small concerns who were working on unexpired licences of the Woolito patent which we had acquired. They had to sell quickly or come to grief, so they sold at too small a profit. They were doing nobody any good and they were hurting us.”

“So you broke them.”

“Exactly. We broke them to prevent their breaking us.”

“That sounds reasonable enough. There was a strike at Colwell–”

“Precisely,” Marsom interrupted. “I daresay you know the truth and if you don’t, you can hear it. We not only engineered it but we financed the strikers. A great many of them are in our employ at the present moment and the mills are ours.”

“The Croylton mills, which were burnt down?”

“You are venturing upon dangerous ground,” Marsom murmured, leaning back in his chair. “A great misfortune, the burning of the Croylton mills. Fortunately, we were on the spot to take over their contracts and employ as many of their staff as were worth employing.”

“Then there came what my father seems to have thought was the greatest tragedy of all,” Sandbrook went on. “A group of mills near Nottingham–what did they call themselves?–found somehow or other that the whole of their yarns were infected and their pits poisoned. They lost several hundred thousand pounds’ worth of goods and most of their trade.”

“Sheer carelessness on the part of the overseers,” the chairman declared. “We have inspectors watching the process of our manufacture at every stage, and no raw material comes into one of our mills without passing the most rigorous examination. Have I satisfied your curiosity by this time, my young friend?”

“I’m ashamed to have taken up so much of your time,” Sandbrook apologised genially; “but, after all, I did want to hear you deny that these various disasters which happened to your competitors were in any way abetted by you. My father was led to believe that they were. It was for that reason he resigned his directorship, the directorship that you have been kind enough to suggest that I might take over. He died a very unhappy man, you know, Lord Marsom. He was of far too sensitive a nature for the ups and downs of commercial life.”

The chairman of Woolito, Limited, leaned even farther back in his seat. He had the air of one endeavouring to assume a purely judicial attitude.

“Young man,” he said, “your father was elected a director of this board to give us the use of his name, to help us in our publicity campaign and mind his own business. For a time he was a great success and I imagine the cheques he drew were more than an adequate return for his services. Then one day he became afflicted with that disease–what did you call it?–conscience. He visited our offices one morning, when most of the responsible directors were away; he asked certain questions of the managers and obtained possession of certain papers which were outside the sphere of his legitimate activities. Do you understand me?”

“Perfectly.”

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