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6: The Safe Agency

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Author Topic: 6: The Safe Agency  (Read 36 times)
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« on: April 10, 2023, 02:03:14 pm »

THE City of London is filled, as all the world knows, with flourishing and well-established businesses.

It abounds in concerns which proclaim, either with dignity or flamboyantly, the fact that this shop stood where it did a hundred years ago, and is still being carried on by the legitimate descendants of its founders.

There are companies and syndicates and trading associations, housed in ornate and elaborate buildings, suites of offices, which come into existence in the spring and fade away to nothingness in the winter, leaving a residue of unpaid petty accounts, and a landlord who has only this satisfaction---that he was paid his rent in advance.

The tragedies of the City of London lie in a large sense round the ugly and unpretentious buildings of the Stock Exchange, and may be found in the seedy sprinkling of people who perambulate the streets round and round that grimy building like so many disembodied spirits.

But the tragic gambler is not peculiar to the metropolis, and the fortunes made and lost in a day or in an hour have their counterpart in every city in the world where stock transactions are conducted.

The picturesque sorrows of the city are represented in the popular mind with the human wreckage which strews the Embankment after dark, or goes shuffling along the edges of the pavement with downcast eyes seeking for discarded cigar ends. That is sorrowful enough, though the unhappy objects of our pity are considerably more satisfied with their lot than most people would imagine.

The real tragedy and sorrow is to be found in the hundred and one little businesses which come into existence joyfully, and swallow up the savings of years of some two or three optimistic individuals. The flourishing note heads which are issued from brand new offices redolent of paint and fresh varnish, the virgin books imposingly displayed upon new shelves, the mass of correspondence which goes daily forth, the booklets and the leaflets, the explanatory tables and all the paraphernalia of the inexperienced advertiser, and the trickle of replies which come back---they are all part of the sad game.

Some firms endeavour to establish themselves with violence, with a flourish of their largest trumpets. Some drift into business noiselessly, and in some mysterious way make good. Generally, one may suppose, they came with the invaluable asset of a “connection,” shifting up from the suburbs to a more impressive address.

One of the businesses which came into existence in London in the year 1924 was a firm which was defined in the telephone book and in the directory as “The St. Bride’s Safe Company.” It dealt in new and second-hand safes, strong rooms and all the cunning machinery of protection.

In its one show-room were displayed safes of every make, new and old, gratings, burglar alarms, cash boxes, big and small, and the examples of all that iron and steel could do to resist the attention of the professional burglar.

The principal of the business was apparently a Midland gentleman, who engaged a staff, including a manager and a salesman, by advertisement, interviewed the newly-engaged employees in the Midlands, and placed at the disposal of the manager, who came armed with unimpeachable testimonials, a sum of money sufficient to stock the store and carry on the business.

He found more supplies from time to time in addition to the floating stock-in-trade, and though orders came very infrequently, the proprietor of the concern cheerfully continued to pay the large rent and the fairly generous salaries of the staff.

The proprietor would occasionally visit the store, generally late at night, because, as he explained, his business in Birmingham required his constant attention.

The new stock would be inspected; there would be a stock-taking of keys---these were usually kept in the private safe of the firm---and the proprietor would invariably express his satisfaction with the progress of the business.

The Manager himself never quite understood how his chief could make this office pay, but he evidently did a big trade in the provinces, because he was able to keep a large motor lorry and a driver, who from time to time appeared at the Bride Street store, brought a safe which would be unloaded, or carried away some purchased article to its new owners.

The manager, a Mr. Timmings, and a respectable member of Balham society, could only imagine that the provincial branch of the business was fairly extensive. Sometimes the motor lorry would come with every evidence of having travelled for many miles, and it would seem that the business flourished, at any rate, at the Birmingham end.

It was the day following the remarkable occurrence which is chronicled in the previous chapter that Gilbert Standerton decided amongst other things to purchase a safe.

He needed one for his home, and there were reasons which need not be particularised why such an article of furniture was necessary. He had never felt the need of a safe before. When he did, he wanted to get one right away. It was unfortunate, or fortunate as the case may be, that this resolve did not come to him until an hour when most dealers in these unusual commodities were closed. It was after six when he arrived in the City.

Mr. Timmings had gone away early that night, but he had left a most excellent deputy.

The proprietor had come to London a little earlier that evening, and through the glass street doors Gilbert saw him and stared.

The door was locked when he tried it, and with a cheery smile the new proprietor came forward himself and unbolted it.

“We are closed,” he said, “and I am afraid my manager has gone home. Can I do anything for you?”

Gilbert looked at him.

“Yes,” he said slowly, “I want to buy a safe.”

“Then possibly I can help you,” said the gentleman good-naturedly. “Won’t you come in?”

Gilbert entered, and the door was bolted behind him.

“What kind of safe do you want?” asked the man.

“I want a small one,” said the other. “I would like a second-hand Chubb if you have one.”

“I think I have got the very thing. I suppose you want it for your office?”

Gilbert shook his head.

“No, I want it for my house,” he said shortly, “and I would like it delivered almost at once.”

He made an inspection of the various receptacles for valuables, and finally made a choice.

He was on his way out, when he saw the great safe which stood at the end of the store.

It was rather out of the ordinary, being about eight feet in height and about that width. It looked for all the world like a great steel wardrobe. Three sets of locks guarded the interior, and there was in addition a small combination lock.

“That is a very handsome safe,” said Gilbert.

“Isn’t it?” said the other carelessly.

“What is the value of that?”

“It is sold,” said the proprietor a little brusquely.

“Sold? I should like to see the interior,” said Gilbert.

The man smiled at him and stroked his upturned moustache thoughtfully.

“I am sorry I can’t oblige you,” he said. “The fact is, the new proprietor took the keys when he completed the purchase.”

“That is very unfortunate,” said Gilbert, “for this is one of the most interesting safes I have ever seen.”

“It is quite unusual,” said the other briefly. He tapped the sides with his knuckles in a reflective mood. “It is rather an expensive piece of property.”

“It looks as if you had it here permanently.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” said the other absently. “I had to make it comfortable.”

He smiled, then he led the way to another part of the store.

Gilbert would have paid by cheque, but something prevented him. He searched his pockets, and found the fifteen pounds which had been asked for the safe.

With a pleasant good-night he was ushered out of the shop, and the door was closed behind him.

“Where have I seen your face before?” said the proprietor to himself.

Though he was a very clever man in more ways than one, it is a curious fact that he never placed his customer until many months afterwards.

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