The Tempting of Tavernake by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter X. The Joy of Battle
They sat on the trunk of a fallen tree, in the topmost corner of the field. In the hedge, close at hand, was a commotion of birds. In the elm tree, a little further away, a thrush was singing. A soft west wind blew in their faces; the air immediately around them was filled with sunlight. Yet almost to their feet stretched one of those great arms of the city--a suburb, with its miles of villas, its clanging of electric cars, its waste plots, its rows of struggling shops. And only a little further away still, the body itself--the huge city, throbbing beneath its pall of smoke and cloud. The girl, who had been gazing steadily downwards for several moments, turned at last to her companion.
"Do you know," she said, "that this makes me think of the first night you spoke to me? You remember it--up on the roof at Blenheim House?"
Tavernake did not answer for a moment. He was looking through a queerly-shaped instrument that he had brought with him at half-a-dozen stakes that he had laboriously driven into the ground some distance away. He was absolutely absorbed in his task.
"The main avenue," he muttered softly to himself. "Yes, it must be a trifle more to the left. Then we get all the offshoots parallel and the better houses have their southern aspect. I beg your pardon, Beatrice, did you say anything?" he broke off suddenly.
"Nothing worth mentioning. I was just thinking that it reminded me a little up here of the first time you and I ever talked together."
He glanced down at the panorama below, with its odd jumble of hideous buildings, softened here and there with wreaths of sunstained smoke, its great blots of ugliness irredeemable, insistent.
"It's different, of course," she went on. "I remember, even now, the view from the house-top that night. In a sense, it was finer than this; everything was more lurid and yet more chaotic; one simply felt that underneath all those mysterious places was some great being, toiling and struggling--Life itself, groaning through space with human cogwheels. Up here one sees too much. Oh, my dear Leonard," she continued, "to think that you, too, should be one of the devastators!"
He fitted his instrument into its case and replaced it in his pocket.
"Come," he said, "you mustn't call me hard names. I shall remind you of the man whose works you are making me read. You know what he says--'The aesthete is, after all, only a dallier. The world lives and progresses by reason of its utilitarians.' This hill represents to me most of the things that are worth having in life."
She laughed shortly.
"You will cut down those hedges and drive away the birds to find a fresh home; you will plough up the green grass, cut out a street and lay down granite stones. Then I see your ugly little houses coming up like mushrooms all over the place. You are a vandal, my dear Leonard."
"I am simply obeying the law," he answered. "After all, even from your own point of view, I do not think that it is so bad. Look closer, and you will find that the hedges are blackened here and there with smuts. The birds will find a better dwelling place further away. See how the smoke from those factory chimneys is sending its smuts across these fields. They are no longer country; they are better gathered in."
"There is something about life," she said, sadly, "which terrifies me. Every force that counts seems to be destructive."
Up the steep hill behind them came the puffing and groaning of a small motor-car. They both turned their heads to watch it come into view. It was an insignificant affair of an almost extinct pattern, a single cylinder machine with a round tonneau back. The engine was knocking badly as the driver brought it to a standstill a few yards away from them. Involuntarily Tavernake stiffened as he saw the two men who descended from it, and who were already passing through the gate close to where they were. One was Mr. Dowling, the other the manager of the bank where they kept their account. Mr. Dowling recognized his manager with surprise but much cordiality.
"Dear me!" he exclaimed. "Dear me, this is most fortunate! You know Mr. Tavernake, of course, Belton? My manager, Mr. Tavernake --Mr. Belton, of the London & Westminster Bank. I have brought Mr. Belton up here, Tavernake, to have a look round, so that he may know what we mean to do with all the money we shall have to come and borrow, eh?"
The bank manager smiled.
"It is a very fine situation," he remarked.
The eyes of the two men fell upon Beatrice, who had drawn a little to one side.
"May we have the pleasure, Tavernake? "Mr. Dowling said, graciously. "You are not married, I believe?"
"No, this is my sister," Tavernake answered, slowly,--"Mr. Belton and Mr. Dowling."
The two men acknowledged the salute with some slight surprise. Beatrice, although her clothes were simple, had always the air of belonging to a different world.
"Your brother, my dear Miss Tavernake," Mr. Dowling declared, "is a perfect genius at discovering these desirable sites. This one I honestly consider to be the find of our lifetime. We have now," he proceeded, turning to Mr. Belton, "certain information that the cars will run to whatever point we desire in this vicinity, and the Metropolitan Railway has also arranged for an extension of its system. To-morrow I propose," Mr. Dowling continued, holding the sides of his coat and assuming a somewhat pompous manner, "to make an offer for the whole of this site. It will involve a very large sum of money indeed, but I am convinced that it will be a remunerative speculation."
Tavernake remained grimly silent. This was scarcely the time or the place which he would have selected for an explanation with his employer. There were signs, however, that the thing was to be forced upon him.
"I am very pleased indeed to meet you here, Tavernake," Mr. Dowling went on, "pleased both for personal reasons and because it shows, if I may be allowed to say so, the interest which you take in the firm's business, that you should devote your holiday to coming and--er--surveying the scene of our exploits, so to speak. Perhaps now that you are here you would be able to explain to Mr. Belton better than I should, just what it is that we propose."
Tavernake hesitated for a moment. Finally, however, he proceeded to make clear a very elaborate and carefully thought out building scheme, to which both men listened with much attention. When he had finished, however, he turned round to Mr. Dowling, facing him squarely.
"You will understand, sir," he concluded, "that a scheme such as I have pointed out could only be carried through if the whole of the property were in one person's hands. I may say that the information to which you referred a few days ago was perfectly correct. A considerable portion of the south side of the hill has already been purchased, besides certain other plots which would interfere considerably with any comprehensive scheme of building."
Mr. Dowling's face fell at once; his tone was one of annoyance mingled with irritation.
"Come, come," he declared, "this sounds very bad, Mr. Tavernake, very neglectful, very careless as to the interests of the firm. Why did we not keep our eye upon it? Why did we not forestall this other purchaser, eh? It appears to me that we have been slack, very slack indeed."
Tavernake took a small book from his pocket.
"You will remember, sir," he said, "that it was on the eleventh of May last year when I first spoke to you of this site."
"Well, well," Mr. Dowling exclaimed, sharply, "what of it?"
"You were starting out for a fortnight's golf somewhere," Tavernake continued, "and you promised to look into the affair when you returned. I spoke to you again but you declared that you were far too busy to go into the matter at all for the present, you didn't care about this side of London, you considered that we had enough on hand--in fact, you threw cold water upon the idea."
"I may not have been very enthusiastic at first," Mr. Dowling admitted, grudgingly. "Latterly, however, I have come round to your views."
"There have been several articles in various newspapers, and a good deal of talk," Tavernake remarked, "which have been more effectual, I think, in bringing you round, than my advice. However, what I wish to say to you is this, sir, that when I found myself unable to interest you in this scheme, I went into it myself to some extent."
"Went into it yourself?" Mr. Dowling repeated, incredulously. "What do you mean, Tavernake? What do you mean, sir?"
"I mean that I have invested my savings in the purchase of several plots of land upon this hillside," Tavernake explained.
"On your own account?" Mr. Dowling demanded. "Your savings, indeed!"
"Certainly," Tavernake answered. "Why not?"
"But it's the firm's business, sir--the firm's, not yours!"
"The firm had the opportunity," Tavernake pointed out, "and were not inclined to avail themselves of it. If I had not bought the land when I did, some one else would have bought the whole of it long ago."
Mr. Dowling was obviously in a furious temper.
"Do you mean to tell me, sir," he exclaimed, "that you dared to enter into private speculations while still an employee of the firm? It is a most unheard-of thing, unwarranted, ridiculous. I shall require you, sir, to at once make over the plots of land to us--to the firm, you understand. We shall give you your price, of course, although I expect you paid much more for it than we should have done. Still, we must give you what you paid, and four per cent interest for your money."
"I am sorry," Tavernake replied, "but I am afraid that I should require better terms than that. In fact," he continued, "I do not wish to sell. I have given a great deal of thought and time to this matter, and I intend to carry it out as a personal speculation."
"Then you will carry it out, sir, from some other place than from within the walls of my office," Mr. Dowling declared, furiously. "You understand that, Tavernake?"
"Perfectly," Tavernake answered. "You wish me to leave you. It is very unwise of you to suggest it, but I am quite prepared to go."
"You will either resell me those plots at cost price, or you shall not set foot within the office again," Mr. Dowling insisted. "It is a gross breach of faith, this. I never heard of such a thing in all my life. Most unprofessional, impossible behavior!"
Tavernake showed no signs of anger--he simply turned a little away.
"I shall not sell you my land, Mr. Dowling," he said, "and it will suit me very well to leave your employ. You appear," he continued, "to expect some one else to do the whole of the work for you while you reap the entire profits. Those days have gone by. My business in the world is to make a fortune for myself, and not for you!"
"How dare you, sir!" Mr. Dowling cried. "I never heard such impertinence in my life."
"You haven't done a stroke of work for five years," Tavernake went on, unmoved, "and my efforts have supplied you with a fairly good income. In future, those efforts will be directed towards my own advancement."
Mr. Dowling turned back toward the car.
"Young man," he said, "you can brazen it out as much as you like, but you have been guilty of a gross breach of faith. I shall take care that the exact situation is made known in all responsible quarters. You'll get no situation with any firm with whom I am acquainted--I can promise you that. If you have anything more to say to Dowling, Spence & Company, let it be in writing."
They parted company there and then. Tavernake and Beatrice went down the hill in silence.
"Does this bother you at all?" she inquired presently.
"Nothing to speak of," Tavernake answered. "It had to come. I wasn't quite ready but that doesn't matter."
"What shall you do now?" she asked.
"Borrow enough to buy the whole of the hill," he replied.
She looked back.
"Won't that mean a great deal of money?"
"It will be a big thing, of course," he admitted. "Never mind, I dare say I shall be able to interest some one in it. In any case, I never meant Mr. Dowling to make a fortune out of this."
They walked on in silence a little further. Then she spoke again, with some hesitation.
"I suppose that what you have done is quite fair, Leonard?"
He answered her promptly, without any sign of offence at her question.
"As a matter of fact," he confessed, "it is an unusual thing for any one in the employ of a firm of estate agents to make speculations on their own account in land. In this case, however, I consider that I was justified. I have opened up three building speculations for the firm, on each one of which they have made a great deal of money, and I have not even had my salary increased, or any recognition whatever offered me. There is a debt, of course, which an employee owes to his employer. There is also a debt, however, which the employer owes to his employee. In my case I have never been treated with the slightest consideration of any sort. What I have done I shall stick to. After all, I am more interested in making money for myself than for other people."
They had reached the corner of the field now, and turning into the lane commenced the steep descent. It was Sunday evening, and from all the little conventicles and tin churches below, the bells began their unmusical summons. From further away in the distance came the more melodious chiming from the Cathedral and the city churches. The shriller and nearer note, however, prevailed. The whole medley of sound was a discord. As they descended, they could see the black-coated throngs slowly moving towards the different places of worship. There was something uninspiring about it all. She shuddered.
"Leonard," she said, "I wonder why you are so anxious to get on in the world. Why do you want to be rich?"
He was glancing back toward the hill, the light of calculations in his eyes. Once more he was measuring out those plots of land, calculating rent, deducting interest.
"We all seek different things," he replied tolerantly,--"some fame, some pleasure. Mr. Dowling, for instance, has no other ambition than to muddle round the golf links a few strokes better than his partner."
"And you?" she asked.
"It is success I seek," he answered. "Women, as a rule, do not understand. You, for instance, Beatrice, are too sentimental. I am very practical. It is money that I want. I want money because money means success."
"And afterwards?" she whispered.
He was attending to her no longer. They were turning now into the broad thoroughfare at the bottom of the lane, at the end of which a tram-car was waiting. He scribbled a few, final notes into his pocket-book.
"To-morrow," he exclaimed, with the joy of battle in his tone, "to-morrow the fight begins in earnest!"
Beatrice passed her hand through his arm.
"Not only for you, dear friend, but for me," she said. "For you? What do you mean?" he asked quickly.
"I have been trying to tell you all day," she continued, "but you have been too engrossed. Yesterday afternoon I went to see Mr. Grier at the Atlas Theatre. I had my voice tried, and to-morrow night I am going to take a small part in the new musical comedy."
Tavernake stared at her in something like consternation. His ideas as to the stage and all that belonged to it were of a primitive order. Mrs. Fitzgerald was perhaps as near as possible to his idea of the type. He glanced incredulously at Beatrice -- slim, quietly dressed, yet with the unmistakable, to him mysterious, distinction of breeding.
"You an actress!" he exclaimed.
She laughed softly.
"Dear Leonard," she said, "this is going to be a part of your education. To-morrow night you shall come to the theatre and wait for me at the stage-door."