The Three Partners by Bret Harte
A strong southwester was beating against the windows and doors of Stacy's Bank in San Francisco, and spreading a film of rain between the regular splendors of its mahogany counters and sprucely dressed clerks and the usual passing pedestrian. For Stacy's new banking- house had long since received the epithet of "palatial" from an enthusiastic local press fresh from the "opening" luncheon in its richly decorated directors' rooms, and it was said that once a homely would-be depositor from One Horse Gulch was so cowed by its magnificence that his heart failed him at the last moment, and mumbling an apology to the elegant receiving teller, fled with his greasy chamois pouch of gold-dust to deposit his treasure in the dingy Mint around the corner. Perhaps there was something of this feeling, mingled with a certain simple-minded fascination, in the hesitation of a stranger of a higher class who entered the bank that rainy morning and finally tendered his card to the important negro messenger.
The card preceded him through noiselessly swinging doors and across heavily carpeted passages until it reached the inner core of Mr. James Stacy's private offices, and was respectfully laid before him. He was not alone. At his side, in an attitude of polite and studied expectancy, stood a correct-looking young man, for whom Mr. Stacy was evidently writing a memorandum. The stranger glanced furtively at the card with a curiosity hardly in keeping with his suggested good breeding; but Stacy did not look at it until he had finished his memorandum.
"There," he said, with business decision, "you can tell your people that if we carry their new debentures over our limit we will expect a larger margin. Ditches are not what they were three years ago when miners were willing to waste their money over your rates. They don't gamble that way any more, and your company ought to know it, and not gamble themselves over that prospect." He handed the paper to the stranger, who bowed over it with studied politeness, and backed towards the door. Stacy took up the waiting card, read it, said to the messenger, "Show him in," and in the same breath turned to his guest: "I say, Van Loo, it's George Barker! You know him."
"Yes," said Van Loo, with a polite hesitation as he halted at the door. "He was--I think--er--in your employ at Heavy Tree Hill."
"Nonsense! He was my partner. And you must have known him since at Boomville. Come! He got forty shares of Ditch stock--through you--at 110, which were worth about 80! Somebody must have made money enough by it to remember him."
"I was only speaking of him socially," said Van Loo, with a deprecating smile. "You know he married a young woman--the hotel- keeper's daughter, who used to wait at the table--and after my mother and sister came out to keep house for me at Boomville it was quite impossible for me to see much of him, for he seldom went out without his wife, you know."
"Yes," said Stacy dryly, "I think you didn't like his marriage. But I'm glad your disinclination to see him isn't on account of that deal in stocks."
"Oh no," said Van Loo. "Good-by."
But, unfortunately, in the next passage he came upon Barker, who with a cry of unfeigned pleasure, none the less sincere that he was feeling a little alien in these impressive surroundings, recognized him. Nothing could exceed Van Loo's protest of delight at the meeting; nothing his equal desolation at the fact that he was hastening to another engagement. "But your old partner," he added, with a smile, "is waiting for you; he has just received your card, and I should be only keeping you from him. So glad to see you; you're looking so well. Good-by! Good-by!"
Reassured, Barker no longer hesitated, but dashed with his old impetuousness into his former partner's room. Stacy, already deeply absorbed in other business, was sitting with his back towards him, and Barker's arms were actually encircling his neck before the astonished and half-angry man looked up. But when his eyes met the laughing gray ones of Barker above him he gently disengaged himself with a quick return of the caress, rose, shut the door of an inner office, and returning pushed Barker into an armchair in quite the old suppressive fashion of former days. Yes; it was the same Stacy that Barker looked at, albeit his brown beard was now closely cropped around his determined mouth and jaw in a kind of grave decorum, and his energetic limbs already attuned to the rigor of clothes of fashionable cut and still more rigorous sombreness of color.
"Barker boy," he began, with the familiar twinkle in his keen eyes which the younger partner remembered, "I don't encourage stag dancing among my young men during bank hours, and you'll please to remember that we are not on Heavy Tree Hill"--
"Where," broke in Barker enthusiastically, "we were only overlooked by the Black Spur Range and the Sierran snow-line; where the nearest voice that came to you was quarter of a mile away as the crow flies and nearly a mile by the trail."
"And was generally an oath!" said Stacy. "But you're in San Francisco now. Where are you stopping?" He took up a pencil and held it over a memorandum pad awaitingly.
"At the Brook House. It's"--
"Hold on! 'Brook House,'" Stacy repeated as he jotted it down. "And for how long?"
"Oh, a day or two. You see, Kitty"--
Stacy checked him with a movement of his pencil in the air, and then wrote down, "'Day or two.' Wife with you?"
"Yes; and oh, Stacy, our boy! Ah!" he went on, with a laugh, knocking aside the remonstrating pencil, "you must listen! He's just the sweetest, knowingest little chap living. Do you know what we're going to christen him? Well, he'll be Stacy Demorest Barker. Good names, aren't they? And then it perpetuates the dear old friendship."
Stacy picked up the pencil again, wrote "Wife and child S. D. B.," and leaned back in his chair. "Now, Barker," he said briefly, "I'm coming to dine with you tonight at 7.30 sharp. Then we'll talk Heavy Tree Hill, wife, baby, and S. D. B. But here I'm all for business. Have you any with me?"
Barker, who was easily amused, had extracted a certain entertainment out of Stacy's memorandum, but he straightened himself with a look of eager confidence and said, "Certainly; that's just what it is-- business. Lord! Stacy, I'm all business now. I'm in everything. And I bank with you, though perhaps you don't know it; it's in your Branch at Marysville. I didn't want to say anything about it to you before. But Lord! you don't suppose that I'd bank anywhere else while you are in the business--checks, dividends, and all that; but in this matter I felt you knew, old chap. I didn't want to talk to a banker nor to a bank, but to Jim Stacy, my old partner."
"Barker," said Stacy curtly, "how much money are you short of?"
At this direct question Barker's always quick color rose, but, with an equally quick smile, he said, "I don't know yet that I'm short at all."
"But I do!"
"Look here, Jim: why, I'm just overloaded with shares and stocks," said Barker, smiling.
"Not one of which you could realize on without sacrifice. Barker, three years ago you had three hundred thousand dollars put to your account at San Francisco."
"Yes," said Barker, with a quiet reminiscent laugh. "I remember I wanted to draw it out in one check to see how it would look."
"And you've drawn out all in three years, and it looks d----d bad."
"How did you know it?" asked Barker, his face beaming only with admiration of his companion's omniscience.
"How did I know it?" retorted Stacy. "I know you, and I know the kind of people who have unloaded to you."
"Come, Stacy," said Barker, "I've only invested in shares and stocks like everybody else, and then only on the best advice I could get: like Van Loo's, for instance,--that man who was here just now, the new manager of the Empire Ditch Company; and Carter's, my own Kitty's father. And when I was offered fifty thousand Wide West Extensions, and was hesitating over it, he told me you were in it too--and that was enough for me to buy it."
"Yes, but we didn't go into it at his figures."
"No," said Barker, with an eager smile, "but you sold at his figures, for I knew that when I found that you, my old partner, was in it; don't you see, I preferred to buy it through your bank, and did at 110. Of course, you wouldn't have sold it at that figure if it wasn't worth it then, and neither I nor you are to blame if it dropped the next week to 60, don't you see?"
Stacy's eyes hardened for a moment as he looked keenly into his former partner's bright gray ones, but there was no trace of irony in Barker's. On the contrary, a slight shade of sadness came over them. "No," he said reflectively, "I don't think I've ever been foolish or followed out my own ideas, except once, and that was extravagant, I admit. That was my idea of building a kind of refuge, you know, on the site of our old cabin, where poor miners and played-out prospectors waiting for a strike could stay without paying anything. Well, I sunk twenty thousand dollars in that, and might have lost more, only Carter--Kitty's father--persuaded me-- he's an awful clever old fellow--into turning it into a kind of branch hotel of Boomville, while using it as a hotel to take poor chaps who couldn't pay, at half prices, or quarter prices, privately, don't you see, so as to spare their pride,--awfully pretty, wasn't it?--and make the hotel profit by it."
"Well?" said Stacy as Barker paused.
"They didn't come," said Barker.
"But," he added eagerly, "it shows that things were better than I had imagined. Only the others did not come, either."
"And you lost your twenty thousand dollars," said Stacy curtly.
"Fifty thousand," said Barker, "for of course it had to be a larger hotel than the other. And I think that Carter wouldn't have gone into it except to save me from losing money."
"And yet made you lose fifty thousand instead of twenty. For I don't suppose he advanced anything."
"He gave his time and experience," said Barker simply.
"I don't think it worth thirty thousand dollars," said Stacy dryly. "But all this doesn't tell me what your business is with me to-day."
"No," said Barker, brightening up, "but it is business, you know. Something in the old style--as between partner and partner--and that's why I came to you, and not to the 'banker.' And it all comes out of something that Demorest once told us; so you see it's all us three again! Well, you know, of course, that the Excelsior Ditch Company have abandoned the Bar and Heavy Tree Hill. It didn't pay."
"Yes; nor does the company pay any dividends now. You ought to know, with fifty thousand of their stock on your hands."
Barker laughed. "But listen. I found that I could buy up their whole plant and all the ditching along the Black Spur Range for ten thousand dollars."
"And Great Scott! you don't think of taking up their business?" said Stacy, aghast.
Barker laughed more heartily. "No. Not their business. But I remember that once Demorest told us, in the dear old days, that it cost nearly as much to make a water ditch as a railroad, in the way of surveying and engineering and levels, you know. And here's the plant for a railroad. Don't you see?"
"But a railroad from Black Spur to Heavy Tree Hill--what's the good of that?"
"Why, Black Spur will be in the line of the new Divide Railroad they're trying to get a bill for in the legislature."
"An infamous piece of wildcat jobbing that will never pass," said Stacy decisively.
"They said because it was that, it would pass," said Barker simply. "They say that Watson's Bank is in it, and is bound to get it through. And as that is a rival bank of yours, don't you see, I thought that if we could get something real good or valuable out of it,--something that would do the Black Spur good,--it would be all right."
"And was your business to consult me about it?" said Stacy bluntly.
"No," said Barker, "it's too late to consult you now, though I wish I had. I've given my word to take it, and I can't back out. But I haven't the ten thousand dollars, and I came to you."
Stacy slowly settled himself back in his chair, and put both hands in his pockets. "Not a cent, Barker, not a cent."
"I'm not asking it of the bank," said Barker, with a smile, "for I could have gone to the bank for it. But as this was something between us, I am asking you, Stacy, as my old partner."
"And I am answering you, Barker, as your old partner, but also as the partner of a hundred other men, who have even a greater right to ask me. And my answer is, not a cent!"
Barker looked at him with a pale, astonished face and slightly parted lips. Stacy rose, thrust his hands deeper in his pockets, and standing before him went on:--
"Now look here! It's time you should understand me and yourself. Three years ago, when our partnership was dissolved by accident, or mutual consent, we will say, we started afresh, each on our own hook. Through foolishness and bad advice you have in those three years hopelessly involved yourself as you never would have done had we been partners, and yet in your difficulty you ask me and my new partners to help you out of a difficulty in which they have no concern."
"Your new partners?" stammered Barker.
"Yes, my new partners; for every man who has a share, or a deposit, or an interest, or a dollar in this bank is my partner--even you, with your securities at the Branch, are one; and you may say that in this I am protecting you against yourself."
"But you have money--you have private means."
"None to speculate with as you wish me to--on account of my position; none to give away foolishly as you expect me to--on account of precedent and example. I am a soulless machine taking care of capital intrusted to me and my brains, but decidedly not to my heart nor my sentiment. So my answer is, not a cent!"
Barker's face had changed; his color had come back, but with an older expression. Presently, however, his beaming smile returned, with the additional suggestion of an affectionate toleration which puzzled Stacy.
"I believe you're right, old chap," he said, extending his hand to the banker, "and I wish I had talked to you before. But it's too late now, and I've given my word."
"Your word!" said Stacy. "Have you no written agreement?"
"No. My word was accepted." He blushed slightly as if conscious of a great weakness.
"But that isn't legal nor business. And you couldn't even hold the Ditch Company to it if they chose to back out."
"But I don't think they will," said Barker simply. "And you see my word wasn't given entirely to them. I bought the thing through my wife's cousin, Henry Spring, a broker, and he makes something by it, from the company, on commission. And I can't go back on him. What did you say?"
Stacy had only groaned through his set teeth. "Nothing," he said briefly, "except that I'm coming, as I said before, to dine with you to-night; but no more business. I've enough of that with others, and there are some waiting for me in the outer office now."
Barker rose at once, but with the same affectionate smile and tender gravity of countenance, and laid his hand caressingly on Stacy's shoulder. "It's like you to give up so much of your time to me and my foolishness and be so frank with me. And I know it's mighty rough on you to have to be a mere machine instead of Jim Stacy. Don't you bother about me. I'll sell some of my Wide West Extension and pull the thing through myself. It's all right, but I'm sorry for you, old chap." He glanced around the room at the walls and rich paneling, and added, "I suppose that's what you have to pay for all this sort of thing?"
Before Stacy could reply, a waiting visitor was announced for the second time, and Barker, with another hand-shake and a reassuring smile to his old partner, passed into the hall, as if the onus of any infelicity in the interview was upon himself alone. But Stacy did not seem to be in a particularly accessible mood to the new caller, who in his turn appeared to be slightly irritated by having been kept waiting over some irksome business. "You don't seem to follow me," he said to Stacy after reciting his business perplexity. "Can't you suggest something?"
"Well, why don't you get hold of one of your board of directors?" said Stacy abstractedly. "There's Captain Drummond; you and he are old friends. You were comrades in the Mexican War, weren't you?"
"That be d----d!" said his visitor bitterly. "All his interests are the other way, and in a trade of this kind, you know, Stacy, that a man would sacrifice his own brother. Do you suppose that he'd let up on a sure thing that he's got just because he and I fought side by side at Cerro Gordo? Come! what are you giving us? You're the last man I ever expected to hear that kind of flapdoodle from. If it's because your bank has got some other interest and you can't advise me, why don't you say so?" Nevertheless, in spite of Stacy's abrupt disclaimer, he left a few minutes later, half convinced that Stacy's lukewarmness was due to some adverse influence. Other callers were almost as quickly disposed of, and at the end of an hour Stacy found himself again alone.
But not apparently in a very satisfied mood. After a few moments of purely mechanical memoranda-making, he rose abruptly and opened a small drawer in a cabinet, from which he took a letter still in its envelope. It bore a foreign postmark. Glancing over it hastily, his eyes at last became fixed on a concluding paragraph. "I hope," wrote his correspondent, "that even in the rush of your big business you will sometimes look after Barker. Not that I think the dear old chap will ever go wrong--indeed, I often wish I was as certain of myself as of him and his insight; but I am afraid we were more inclined to be merely amused and tolerant of his wonderful trust and simplicity than to really understand it for his own good and ours. I know you did not like his marriage, and were inclined to believe he was the victim of a rather unscrupulous father and a foolish, unequal girl; but are you satisfied that he would have been the happier without it, or lived his perfect life under other and what you may think wiser conditions? If he wrote the poetry that he lives everybody would think him wonderful; for being what he is we never give him sufficient credit." Stacy smiled grimly, and penciled on his memorandum, "He wants it to the amount of ten thousand dollars." "Anyhow," continued the writer, "look after him, Jim, for his sake, your sake, and the sake of-- Phil Demorest."
Stacy put the letter back in its envelope, and tossing it grimly aside went on with his calculations. Presently he stopped, restored the letter to his cabinet, and rang a bell on his table. "Send Mr. North here," he said to the negro messenger. In a few moments his chief book-keeper appeared in the doorway.
"Turn to the Branch ledger and bring me a statement of Mr. George Barker's account."
"He was here a moment ago," said North, essaying a confidential look towards his chief.
"I know it," said Stacy coolly, without looking up.
"He's been running a good deal on wildcat lately," suggested North.
"I asked for his account, and not your opinion of it," said Stacy shortly.
The subordinate withdrew somewhat abashed but still curious, and returned presently with a ledger which he laid before his chief. Stacy ran his eyes over the list of Barker's securities; it seemed to him that all the wildest schemes of the past year stared him in the face. His finger, however, stopped on the Wide West Extension. "Mr. Barker will be wanting to sell some of this stock. What is it quoted at now?"
"But I would prefer that Mr. Barker should not offer in the open market at present. Give him seventy for it--private sale; that will be ten thousand dollars paid to his credit. Advise the Branch of this at once, and to keep the transaction quiet."
"Yes, sir," responded the clerk as he moved towards the door. But he hesitated, and with another essay at confidence said insinuatingly, "I always thought, sir, that Wide West would recover."
Stacy, perhaps not displeased to find what had evidently passed in his subordinate's mind, looked at him and said dryly, "Then I would advise you also to keep that opinion to yourself." But, clever as he was, he had not anticipated the result. Mr. North, though a trusted employee, was human. On arriving in the outer office he beckoned to one of the lounging brokers, and in a low voice said, "I'll take two shares of Wide West, if you can get it cheap."
The broker's face became alert and eager. "Yes, but I say, is anything up?"
"I'm not here to give the business of the bank away," retorted North severely; "take the order or leave it."
The man hurried away. Having thus vindicated his humanity by also passing the snub he had received from Stacy to an inferior, he turned away to carry out his master's instructions, yet secure in the belief that he had profited by his superior discernment of the real reason of that master's singular conduct. But when he returned to the private room, in hopes of further revelations, Mr. Stacy was closeted with another financial magnate, and had apparently divested his mind of the whole affair.