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Chapter 4

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« on: April 04, 2023, 11:41:36 am »

AT the Bank, as was only to be expected, they had noticed a slight change in Mr. Marble’s manner of late. He always looked worried, and clearly often he had been drinking. The head of the department to whom Mr. Marble acted as second-in-command noticed it frequently, but he took no drastic action. For one thing, he was glad to have an inefficient second, as that enabled him to keep the work more closely under his own hand, thereby making his retention of his job more probable, and for another he had a queer sort of liking for ‘poor old Marble’, with his worried expression, and his worried eyes, and his worried moustache. In fact, Mr. Henderson was heartily glad that Marble had apparently struggled out of the financial difficulties which had for many months before made him come to Henderson borrowing a fortnight before pay-day. What Henderson did not realize was that for all Marble’s looseness of fibre, and seeming incompetence to grapple with anything worth while, somewhere in Marble there was a keen mind—razor keen still, despite too much whisky of late—and a fount of potential fierce energy which might contrive wonderful things if only something were to rouse him sufficiently. Mr. Henderson, of course, knew nothing of a piece of work that Marble had performed marvellously efficiently some months ago.

So far Mr. Marble had found no opportunity of making the money that he hankered after so pathetically. Yet money was in the air all the time that he was working, more so even than is usually the case in a bank department. For the department of the County National Bank, of which Mr. Henderson was executive chief, with Mr. Marble as his chief assistant, dealt solely with foreign exchange, buying and selling money all day, dollars for cotton spinners, francs for costumiers, pesetas for wine merchants, and dollars, francs, pesetas, and, above all, marks, for speculators of every trade or none. Gambling in foreign exchange was becoming a national habit by which the National County Bank profited largely. Here, if anywhere, would Mr. Marble win the money for which he thirsted. But Mr. Marble knew too much about foreign exchange operations, and he was afraid. There had been times when he had made a pound or two by well-timed buying and selling, but not many. He had the example before him of those who had bought marks at prices seemingly lower than they could ever be again, only to see them change from the absurd thousands to the still more absurd hundred thousands which meant the loss of nine-tenths of their investment. The wise man who speculated in foreign exchange would do well to sell, not buy, in most cases. And one could not sell without first buying unless one could arrange a ‘forward operation’ with a bank. One can only profit by a falling market if one sells what one has not got. And no bank would allow anyone to arrange a forward operation unless he could show some sort of reason for wanting to do so. Not much reason, of course, but a good deal more than a mere bank clerk with sixty pounds only in his account could possibly show. There was another advantage about the forward operation, too. It was only necessary in this case to put up a margin of ten per cent of one’s investment. In that case an increase of five per cent in the value of the sum controlled meant an actual profit on the sum invested of fifty per cent—if one were lucky enough to have bought; if one had sold instead it meant a loss of fifty per cent. If a man were to buy on a ten per cent margin, and the money bought were to double in value, he would multiply the money invested not by two, but by twenty. Mr Marble thought of the sixty pounds he had to invest, and his mouth watered.

But week followed dreary week and nothing could be done. The foreign exchange market seemed to have gone mad. The mark had fallen away to millions, as the Austrian crown had done two years before. The lira seemed to be going the same way. Sterling exchange on New York alone was struggling back to its pre-war position. Even the franc was dropping steadily. Before the war it was little more than 25; now it was over a hundred, and it was being hammered slowly lower and lower. Mr Marble watched the market and hesitated. If the franc and the lira were to drop with a crash as the mark had done, and a wise man had sold in advance, he could look for a profit to be reckoned in terms of thousands per cent. And the brokers with whom Mr. Marble in the course of his daily duties conversed over the telephone all seemed to think it likely. In the foreign exchange department of the National County Bank (Head Office) all the clerks were convinced of the same thing. Some of them had already made minute sums of money by cautious speculation, helped by their friends the clerks in the brokers’ offices. They had sold tiny sums in advance, got out hurriedly immediately afterwards, and then cursed their faint-heartedness as the franc still went on dropping. Mr. Marble saw all this, and was tempted. Twice he nearly ventured but each time that keen judgement of his which was always somewhere in the background ready to be called upon held him back. There was something doubtful somewhere.

And then one morning it happened. Chance flung a fortune within Mr. Marble’s reach, and only asked from him in return the effort to grasp it.

It was ten o’clock in the morning. Mr. Marble was at his desk farthest from the entrance to the room, and close beside the partitioned cubbyhole that housed the superior majesty of Henderson, chief of the department. In front of Mr. Marble lay the opened letters sent across by the correspondence department, and he was casually glancing through them to see that there was nothing that the department could not cope with without troubling Mr. Henderson, or even higher authority still. They were all just ordinary routine letters; notifications mainly, from the various continental branches, of credits given and of drafts honoured. Nothing of any import; the staff of the department could handle them nearly all. Four of them he picked out that he would have to answer; two must go in to Henderson. The last letter was the most ordinary of them all. It was the bi-weekly letter from the Paris branch confirming the actions reported already by cable and telephone. Mr. Marble looked through it. Still there was nothing of any interest. For a wonder the Paris staff had made no mistake in decoding cables. Everything had been done as ordered, and no hasty cable would have to be sent countermanding some ridiculous blunder. No forgeries, no failures. Yet Mr. Marble read the letter to the end, because the man who had written it was known to him personally; it was Collins, who had worked under him in that very department for a couple of years before being sent out to Paris. He was a voluble fellow—‘chatty’, Mr. Marble described him to himself—and his volubility was noticeable even in this official correspondence, for at the end of the letter he had inserted a paragraph that was quite unnecessary by all rules of routine. It was quite brief for Collins, and merely said that more steadiness might be noticed in the French franc in future, as it was rumoured that the Government were taking the matter in hand, and might even resort to ‘pegging’ on the London exchange.

Mr. Marble laid the letter down and gazed through the dusty window at the uninviting view of other dusty windows across the ventilation shaft. There might be something in it. The franc was a point higher this morning than at the close of yesterday. So much the trained foreign clerk’s brain told him—Mr. Marble could at two minutes’ notice give the rate of exchange on anywhere at any time within the last two years—but Mr. Marble was capable, strange though it may seem, of doing more than that if sufficiently stimulated. If the Republic took a hand in restoring its foreign credit, it would do more than merely keep it steady. Mr. Marble suddenly recollected a nebulous idea he had framed some time ago as to the best means that would bring this about. He turned this idea over in his mind. If they were to do that, the franc would recover like a skyrocket. It would easily go to sixty; it might even reach fifty, or perhaps even forty. It would never be better than forty, decided Mr. Marble, weighing the chances with an acuteness of perception that would have astonished him had he only thought about it. Most likely it would be about sixty.

‘What’s Paris now, Netley?’ he asked a passing subordinate.

‘One-nineteen, one-seventeen,’ replied Netley over his shoulder as he hurried on hoping that Mr. Marble would notice that he deliberately did not say ‘sir’.

Two points rise again, thought Mr. Marble. There might be some truth in the wild theories that had been flashing through his brain. On the other hand, it might be only one of the periodic and temporary recoveries that were usual. The price might sag at any minute again. If Mr. Marble were to buy, he might find that he had bought at the beginning of a fall instead of the beginning of a rise. And if he were to buy on a margin—Mr. Marble had already in his mind a scheme to enable him to do so—then the inevitable ten point fall would deprive him of ninety per cent of his capital. But then—Mr. Marble’s silly heart was already bumping heavily against his ribs—the sort of rise he thought possible would bring him in nearly a hundred times the amount invested. Mr. Marble managed to keep his brain deadly clear despite the thumping of his heart, just as he had done that memorable evening some months ago. It was a chance. Mr. Marble’s brain sorted out all the tiny indications it had collected and stored up unbidden for weeks past. It was more than a chance. It was a certainty, decided that clear brain.

Yet Mr. Marble felt the flush of blood in his cheeks, and his heart beat unbearably as he rose from his seat and walked out of the office on what was to be one of the momentous occasions of his life. Even his gait was a little unsteady so great was the strain upon him, and the younger clerks whom he had to pass on the way to the door nudged each other merrily as he went by.

‘Old Marble going out for his usual,’ they said. ‘Bit early even for him. Must have been properly soused last night.’

There was a public-house round the corner, and it was there that Mr. Marble stayed his steps, just as, be it admitted, he had often done before. The girl at the bar knew him, and the double Scotch was ready for him before even he was within reach of it. But Mr. Marble did not, as was usual, drain it off and demand another. Instead, he withdrew, glass in hand, to a bench behind a table, and sat waiting, waiting inexorably, while his heart beat in his finger tips so that his hands shook. It was only just opening time, and there was a steady stream of entrants, stockbrokers and clerks, street-betting agents, all the curious mixture that is to be found in a public-house fifty yards from Threadneedle Street on a weekday morning.

Once or twice men he knew entered, and nodded, but Mr. Marble was not cordial. His return nod carried with it no invitation to share his bench and sit at his table with him. Most probably none of them would have accepted such an invitation anyway, unless it were unavoidable. Mr. Marble continued to stare at the swing doors.

And then Mr. Marble’s heart gave a convulsive throb. He suddenly felt sick with fear, fear of the future. At last his scheme was presented to him in the concrete, instead of the comfortably abstract. For a wild moment he thought of flight, of abandoning the whole business. He could, he knew. He might struggle along for years without the aid that improbable success in this venture would bring him. But Mr. Marble thrust the temptation on one side, and proceeded with the business with bitter determination. He beckoned to Saunders, the man whose entrance had caused this last internal commotion.

Saunders had his drink in his hand; he had greeted those men at the bar whom he knew, and was glancing round the room to make sure that he had missed no one.

He was a plump man of middle height, rosy and prosperous looking. He knew Marble slightly; that is to say, he had talked to him a dozen times in that public-house. He was acquainted with the fact that Marble worked for the National County Bank, which he himself employed, and that was all. Naturally he was a little puzzled at Marble’s beckoning to him, but Saunders took care to be friendly to everyone who spoke to him, seeing that his livelihood depended on the goodwill of the public. Saunders was a bookmaker, in a tiny office five stories up near Old Broad Street, conducting his business almost entirely by telephone and by the men who waited about at lunchtime near the corners of the streets.

Glass in hand, Saunders came across to the table just as Marble had done before him, and almost without knowing it he sat down opposite him. There was that in Marble’s manner which seemed to make it inevitable that he should sit down.

‘Well,’ said Saunders cheerily, ‘how’s things?’

‘Not too bad,’ said Marble. ‘Got ten minutes to spare?’

Saunders supposed he had, a little ruefully, though, for he had at first imagined that this was merely evidence of a desire to open a credit account with him, and, since Marble’s manner did not indicate this, he came to the other conclusion, that he was about to hear a ‘hard luck story’. As far as Saunders’ experience went, men between themselves did nothing but bet or borrow.

‘You do bank with the National County, don’t you?’ began Marble.

‘You’re right.’

‘And you know I work there?’

‘Right again. What’s the matter? Firm going bust? My account overdrawn?’ Saunders was a witty fellow; there never was the slightest chance of the National County suspending payment, and Saunders’ account was never lower than four hundred pounds. But Marble hardly smiled. Instead, he turned his bleak eyes full upon Saunders’ brown ones.

‘No,’ he said; then slowly, ‘I want to do a deal, and I must have the help of a customer of the bank. You’ll do, or, of course, if you don’t want to come in, I’ll have to get someone else.’

‘I should think you were right again,’ said Saunders, but he was not feeling quite so full of levity now. His puzzled mind was searching for Marble’s motives. Either this seedy old boy was balmy or else he was on some illegal lay. In either case Saunders was not having any. Saunders was a law-abiding man, save in the matter of inciting others to street-betting. And yet—and yet——

‘Do you want to hear about it?’ said Marble, grimly. He had himself as well in hand as when he had offered Medland that glass of whisky, but the effort was frightful. His confidence overbore Saunders’ easy scepticism.

‘Right-ho. I don’t say I’ll buy it, though,’ added Saunders hastily.

‘No. But I want your word that you’ll keep quiet if you don’t.’

Saunders agreed. And the word of a bookmaker is accepted all over England.

‘I’ve got some information. It might mean a lot of money if it were used properly.’

‘Racin’ information?’ There was a suspicion of a sneer in Saunders’ voice: he obtained half his income from people with racing information.

‘No. Foreign exchange.’

‘Don’t hardly know what that is.’

‘No,’ said Marble. ‘Lots of people don’t.’

‘Oh, I know a bit,’ said Saunders, anxious to justify himself. ‘I know about how the mark has fallen to half nothing and—and—all that sort of thing, you know.’

Somehow the moral tables had turned during those few minutes. Undoubtedly Marble was now in the ascendant. Largely, of course, this change was due to the fact that the conversation was about a subject of which he knew much and the other nothing. But on the other hand it must be admitted that the vague thing known as ‘Personality’ was affecting the case, too. Marble was putting out all his strength to influence Saunders unobtrusively, and he was succeeding. Men can do much when they have to.

‘Well,’ said Marble, bleak eyes set like stones, ‘the franc is going to rise, and now is the time to buy.’

The secret was out now. Saunders could betray him now at leisure. But Marble, never taking his eyes off Saunders’, was sure he would not.

‘I don’t say you’re not right,’ said Saunders, ‘but what’s the little game? Where do I come in? And where do you come in?’

‘It’s like this,’ said Marble, showing his whole hand, so sure was he. ‘It isn’t much good buying francs outright. I could do that myself next door. But you don’t stand to make much that way. This time you might make a hundred per cent, but of course that’s not good enough.’

‘Of course not,’ said Saunders submissively.

‘The best way to do it is to make a “forward operation” of it. That means you must put up ten per cent.’

‘On a margin,’ put in Saunders, proud of this little bit of argot picked up during much frequenting of City public-houses.

‘Exactly. On a margin. That means that a five per cent rise in the franc gives you fifty per cent profit. As I said, it might be a hundred per cent rise this time. That would be a thousand per cent profit—ten to one, in other words,’ added Marble, countering Saunders’ effort.

Saunders only dimly understood.

‘But I don’t see now why you’re telling me all this,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you get along and do it? Why tell anyone else at all?’

‘Because I’m not allowed to put a forward operation through for myself in the Bank. You have to have some legitimate reason for wanting to.’

‘And what reason would I have?’ Saunders was being rapidly drawn into the net.

‘Oh, that’s easy. You can easily have some business in France, can’t you? Don’t you ever bet on French races?’

‘Of course I do, sometimes.’

‘And don’t you ever send money to France?’

‘Well, I have done, once or twice.’

‘Right, then. If you were to tell the Bank that you wanted to buy francs they’d believe you all right. And they love you in the Bank, anyhow. You keep a big current account, and they love anyone who does that.’

Saunders was still struggling against the mesmeric influence that was beginning to overpower him.

‘Tell me some more about this “forward operation” stunt,’ he pleaded, wavering, conscious that in a minute he would have to decide one way or the other, conscious that he would most probably fall in with Marble’s plans, and conscious, too, that he did not really want to. ‘Tell me what I should have to do.’

Marble explained carefully, drilling it into his man with meticulous care. Then he threw his last bait. He showed how, if a man were to take his profit when it amounted to a mere five times his stake, and had the hardihood to fling both profits and stake into the business again, by the time the currency purchased stood at twice the figure it stood at at the start, the profit would not be ten, but thirty-five units.

Saunders scratched his head wildly.

‘Here, what are you drinking?’ he asked, signalling agitatedly to the barman, and then leaning forward again to go over the details once more. Marble’s cold judgement had chosen his man well. A bookmaker earns his living by other people’s gambling, but even with this practical example always before him there is no one on earth so ready to gamble—in anything not pertaining to the turf.

Then Saunders made a last despairing effort to writhe out of the business. He said that, after all, he was unacquainted with Marble.

‘How do I know it’s straight?’ he asked pitifully.

‘It can’t be very well anything else, can it?’ replied Marble, and the condescension in his tone was an added spur to Saunders. ‘I won’t be able to pinch your money, will I? It will all be in your account, won’t it? If it isn’t straight I can’t make anything out of it.’

Saunders had realized this as soon as the words had left his mouth, and he apologized. Mr. Marble, hope boiling in his veins, was very gracious.

‘Well, what is it you want out of it?’ asked the wretched Saunders.

‘Ten per cent of what you make,’ said Marble uncompromisingly, ‘and, of course, I’m going to have a bit on, too.’

‘How much?’

‘Sixty quid.’ Mr. Marble produced a roll of five-pound notes—the last of those he had been so careful about changing. He was throwing discretion to the winds now. If ever the notes were traced to him, it would be his own fault, but there was no time for complicated manœuvres to change them.

Saunders took them half involuntarily.

‘In fact,’ said Mr. Marble, ‘I should like to have more than that on. Only I haven’t got it with me. I could raise it by to-morrow. But to-morrow will be too late.’

With those baleful eyes upon him, and the reassuring feel of those five-pound notes in his hand, Saunders could do nothing except make the inevitable offer.

‘Thanks,’ said Marble. ‘Look here, I tell you what we’ll do. Put four hundred in. Two hundred of that will be yours. There’s another sixty. Then you lend me the odd one-forty. That makes us just even.’

Saunders agreed helplessly.

‘Time’s getting on,’ said Mr. Marble, with a glance at the clock. ‘We’d better get a move on. I can tell you what to do all over again as we walk back.’

As though in a dream Saunders rose from the table and followed him out. The stimulus of the fresh air outside revived him sufficiently to remember to ask Marble how it was he was so certain that the franc was going to rise.

‘I know all right,’ said Marble casually. He could afford to be casual, so sure was he of himself, and above all, so sure was he of Saunders.

And Saunders weakly yielded to the man with the superior knowledge. He would have hooted with derision at a man who proposed to back a stray acquaintance’s favourite horse to the tune of two hundred pounds; he would have rolled on the ground with mirth if he heard that the same man was going to risk another one hundred and forty by backing that horse for his friend; but this was not horse-racing, about which he was thoroughly well informed. It was business—Big Business—and he was awed and submissive.

Marble ended his instructions just as they reached the main door of the National County Bank.

‘Go in there and say you want to buy francs as a forward operation. They’ll send you along to my department, so don’t worry. I’ll be there. I may even do the business for you. But I expect it’ll be Henderson that you see. Oh, yes, and don’t forget, whatever you do, to ring me up two or three times to-day and to-morrow. Get through to Foreign Exchange and then ask for me. It doesn’t matter what you say. Just say—what is that you always say when you see anyone in the bar?—“Hallo, old bean, how’s things?” Keep it up for a bit; say “Doodle-oodle-oodle” if you can’t think of anything else. That’s just to give me authority to move the account about when it’s necessary. Got it all? All right, then. Good-bye.’

Mr. Saunders, dazed and mazed, walked weakly into the National County Bank. Mr. Marble walked on to the side entrance where dwelt his own among other departments. The sweat was running off him in streams; for a brief space he had been a master of men; he had swayed a hard-headed man into doing something totally unexpected; he had gambled with fate and he had won; for a while he had known the wild exultation of success. He had done something that he would certainly not have done without the urgent impulse due to—a slight indiscretion one stormy night some months ago, but reaction closed upon him with terrible swiftness. His steps dragged as he came into the department of Foreign Exchange. He felt, and he looked, inexpressibly weary. The junior clerks nudged each other again as he walked by.

‘Old Marble’s had as much as he can carry already. He’ll be getting the sack one of these days, just see if he doesn’t.’

And Marble, tired to death, weary with fear, worn out by the thumping of his heart, crept brokenly to his desk and buried his face in his hands.
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