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9: Finance

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Author Topic: 9: Finance  (Read 31 times)
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« on: March 17, 2023, 04:07:28 am »

"Il n'est pas si dangereux de faire du mal à la plupart des hommes que de leur faire trop de bien."

We have seen how the Baron Giraud was called suddenly away from those pleasures of the country, which he had taken up too late in life, as many do, to the busy---ay, and stormy---scenes of Paris existence during the winter before the great war. It was perhaps a week later---one morning, in fact, soon after the New Year---that my business bade me seek the Vicomte in his study adjoining my own. These two apartments, it will be remembered, were separated by two doors and a small intervening corridor. In the days when the Hôtel Clericy was built, walls had ears, and every keyhole might conceal a watching eye. Builders understood the advantage of privacy, and did not construct rooms where every movement and every spoken word may be heard in the adjoining chambers.

No sound had come to me, and I had no reason for supposing the Vicomte engaged at so early an hour. But as I entered the room, after knocking and awaiting his permission as usual, I saw that some one was leaving it by the other door. His back was presented to my sight, but there was no mistaking the slim form and a nonchalant carriage. Charles Miste again! And only the back of him once more.

"I have had a visit from my late secretary," said the Vicomte, casually, and without looking up from his occupation of opening some letters. There was no reason to suppose that he had seen me glance towards the closing door, recognising him who went from it.

We were still engaged with the morning's correspondence, when a second visitor was announced, and almost on the heels of the servant a little fat man came puffing into the room, red-faced and agitated.

"Ah! Heaven be thanked that I have found you in," he gasped, and although it was a cold morning, he wiped his pasty brow with a gorgeous silk handkerchief whereupon shone the largest coronet obtainable.

His face was quite white and flaccid, like the unbaked loaves into which I had poked inquiring fingers in my childhood, and there was an unwholesome look of fear in his little bright eyes. The Baron had been badly scared, and lacked the manhood to conceal his panic.

"Ah! Mon Dieu, mon Dieu!" he gasped again, and looked at me with insolent inquiry. He was, it must be remembered, a very rich man, and could afford to be ill-mannered. "I must see you, Vicomte."

"You do see me, my friend," replied the old nobleman, in his most amiable manner. "And at your service."

"But----" and the fluttering handkerchief indicated myself.

"Ah! Let me introduce you. Monsieur Howard, my secretary---the Baron Giraud."

I bowed as one only bows to money-bags, and the Baron stared at me. Only very rich or very high-born persons fully understand the introductory stare.

"You may speak before Monsieur Howard," said the Baron, quietly. "He is not a secretary pour rire."

Had Miste been a secretary pour rire, I wondered?

I drew forward a chair and begged the Baron to be seated. He accepted my invitation coldly, and seating himself seemed to lose nothing in stature. There are some men who should always be seated. It is, of course, a mistake to judge of one's neighbour at first sight, but it seemed to me that the Baron Giraud only wanted a little courage to be a first-class scoundrel. He fumbled in his pocket, glancing furtively at me the while. At length he found a letter, which he handed to the Vicomte.

"I have received that," he said. "It is anonymous, as you will see, and cleverly done. There is absolutely no clue. It was sent to my place of business, and my people there telegraphed for me in Provence. Of course I came at once. One must sacrifice everything to affairs."

Naturally I acquiesced fervently, for the last remark had been thrown to me for my good.

The Vicomte was looking for his spectacles.

"But, my friend," he said, "it is atrociously written. One cannot decipher such a scrawl as this."

In his impatience the Baron leant forward, and taking the paper from my patron, handed it to me.

"Here," he said, "the secretary---read it aloud."

Nothing loth, I read the communication in my loudest voice. The world holds that a loud voice indicates honesty or a lack of brain, and the Baron was essentially of that world. The anonymous letter was a warning that a general rising against the rule of the Emperor was imminent, and that in view of the probable state of anarchy that would ensue, wise men should not delay in transferring their wealth to more stable countries. Precisely---in a word---the information that it had been decided to withhold from the recipient of the letter.

The Baron blew and puffed like a prize-fighter when I had finished the perusal.

"There," he cried; "I receive a letter like that---I, the Baron Giraud---of the high finance."

"My poor friend, calm yourself," urged the Vicomte.

It is easy enough to tell another to calm himself, but who among us can compass such a frame of mind when he is hit in a vital spot? The Baron wiped his forehead nervously.

"But," he said, "is it true?"

The Vicomte spread out his hands, and never glanced at me as an ordinary man would have done towards one who shared his knowledge.

"Who can tell---but yes! So far as human foresight goes---it is true enough."

"Then what am I to do?"

I stared at the great financier asking such a question. Assuredly he, of all men, needed no one's counsel in a matter of money.

"Do as I have done," said the Vicomte; "send your money out of the country."

An odd look came over the Baron's face. He glanced from one of us to the other---with the cunning, and somewhat the look, of a cat. The Vicomte was blandly indifferent. As for me, I had, I am told, a hard face in those days---hardened by weather and a disbelief in human nature which has since been modified.

"It is a responsibility that you take there," said the financier.

"I take no responsibility. A man of my years, of my retired life, knows little of such matters." (I thought he looked older as he spoke.) "I only tell you what I have done with my small possessions."

The Baron shook his head with a sly scepticism. After all, the cheapest cunning must suffice for money-making, for I dare swear this man had little else.

"But how?" he said.

"In bank notes, by hand," was the Vicomte's astonishing answer. And the Baron laughed incredulously. It seems that the highest aim of the high finance is to catch your neighbour telling the truth by accident. It would almost be safe to tell the truth always, so rarely is it recognised.

It was not until the Vicomte produced his bankbook and showed the amounts paid in and subsequently withdrawn that the Baron Giraud believed what he had been told. My duties, it may be well to mention in passing, had no part in the expenditure of the Vicomte de Clericy. I had only to deal with the income derived from the various estates, and while being fully aware that large sums had been placed within the hands of his bankers, I had not troubled to be curious respecting the ultimate destination of such moneys. My patron possessed, as has already been intimated, a lively---nay, an exaggerated---sense of the value of money. He was, indeed, as I remember thinking at this time, somewhat of a miser, loving money for its own sake, and not, as did the Baron Giraud, merely for the grandeur and position to be purchased therewith.

"But I am not like you," said the financier at length.

"No; you have a thousand louis for every one that I possess."

"But I have nothing solid---no lands, no estates except my chateau in Var."

His panic had by no means subsided, and presently he found himself on the verge of tears---a pitiable, despicable object. The Vicomte---soothing and benevolent---went on to explain more fully the position of his own affairs. He told us that on information received from a sure source he had months earlier concluded that the Emperor's illness was of a more serious nature than the general public believed.

"You, my dear friend," he said, "engaged as you have been in the affairs of the outside world---the Suez Canal, Mexico, the Colonies---have perhaps omitted to watch matters nearer home. While looking at a distant mountain one may fall over a little stone---is it not so?"

He had, he informed us, withdrawn his small interest in such securities as depended upon the stability of the Government, but that for men occupying a public position, either by accident of birth or---and he bowed in his pleasant way towards the Baron---by the force of their genius, to send their money out of France by the ordinary financial channels would excite comment, and perhaps hasten the crisis that all good patriots would fain avoid. He talked thus collectedly and fairly while the Baron Giraud could but wipe his forehead with a damp handkerchief and gasp incoherent exclamations of terror.

"I could realize a couple of million," said the financier, "in two days, but there is much that I cannot sell just now---the fall of the government makes it necessary to hold much that I could have sold at a profit a fortnight ago."

The Vicomte was playing with a quill pen. How well I knew the action!

It seemed that the millionaire was recovering from his shock, of which re-establishment the outward and visible sign was a dawning gleam of cunning in the eyes. "But I have no one I can trust," he said; and I almost laughed, so well the words bespoke the man. "It is different for you," he added; "you have---Monsieur."

And he glanced keenly at me. Indeed, we were a queer trio; and I began to think that I was as big a scoundrel as my maiden aunts maintained.

"I would trust Mr. Howard with all my possessions," said the old Vicomte, looking at me almost affectionately; "but in this matter I have found another messenger, less valuable to me personally, less necessary to my comfort and daily happiness, but equally trustworthy."

"And if I gave him twenty million francs to take abroad for me----?" suggested the great financier.

"Then, my friend, we should be in the same boat---that is all."

"Your boat," said the Baron, with an unpleasant laugh.

Monsieur de Clericy shrugged his shoulders and smiled. This grave political crisis had rejuvenated him, and he seemed to rise to meet each emergency with a buoyancy that sat strangely on white hairs.

They talked together upon the fascinating topic, while I, who had no part in the game, sat and listened. The Baron was very cunning, and, as it seemed to me, very contemptible. With all the vices that are mine, I thank heaven that I have never loved money; for that love, it seems, undermines much that is manly and honest in upright hearts. Money, it will be remembered, was at the root of the last quarrel I had with my father---the last fatal breach, which will have to be patched up in another world. Money has, as it will be seen by such as care to follow me through these pages, dogged my life from beginning to end. I have run my thick head against those pursuing it, each in his different manner, getting lamentably in their way, and making deadly enemies for myself.

Monsieur de Clericy, in his frank and open way, gave fuller details of his own intentions. It seemed that his possessions were at that moment in the house---in a safe hiding-place; that the messenger was to make several journeys to London, carrying at one time a sum of money which would be no very pleasant travelling companion. A safe depository awaited the sums in England, and, in due course, reinvestment would follow. Money, it will be suspected, was by now beginning to be somewhat of a red rag for me, and I thought I saw some signs of its evil influence over my kindly patron. He spoke of it almost as if there were nothing else on earth worth a man's consideration. In the heat of argument he lowered his voice, and was no longer his open, genial self.

What astonished me most, however, was the facility with which the Baron made a catspaw of him. For the old Vicomte slowly stepped down as it were from his high standpoint of indifference, and allowed himself to be interested in the financier's schemes. It was out of keeping with the attitude which my patron had assumed a few days earlier at the meeting which we had attended, and I was more than ever convinced that the Vicomte was too old and too simple to hold his own in a world of scoundrels.

The Baron led him on from one admission to another, and at last it was settled that twenty millions of francs were to be brought to the Hôtel Clericy and placed in the Vicomte's keeping. To my mind the worst part of the transaction lay in the fact that the financier had succeeded in saddling my patron with a certain moral responsibility which the old man was in no way called upon to assume.

"Then," he said, "I may safely leave the matter thus in your hands? I may sleep to-night?"

"Ah!" replied the other. "Yes---you may sleep, my friend."

"And Monsieur shares the responsibility?" added the upstart, turning to me.

"Of course---for all I am worth," was my reply, and I did not at the time think that even the Vicomte, whose faculties were keener in such matters, saw the sarcasm intended by the words.

"Then I am satisfied," the Baron was kind enough to say; and I thought that his low origin came suddenly to the fore in the manner in which he bowed. A low origin is like an hereditary disease---it will bear no strain.

"By the way," he said, pausing near the door, having risen to go, "you have not told me the name of your trusted messenger."

And before the Vicomte opened his lips the answer flashed across my mind.

"Charles Miste," he said.
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