Michael's Crag by Grant Allen
Chapter XII. A Hard Bargain.
Tyrrel took a hansom, and tore round in hot haste to Erasmus Walker's house. He sent in his card. The famous engineer was happily at home. Tyrrel, all on fire, found himself ushered into the great man's study. Mr. Walker sat writing at a luxurious desk in a most luxurious room-- writing, as if for dear life, in breathless haste and eagerness. He simply paused for a second in the midst of a sentence, and looked up impatiently at the intruder on his desperate hurry. Then he motioned Tyrrel into a chair with an imperious wave of his ivory penholder. After that, he went on writing for some moments in solemn silence. Only the sound of his steel nib, traveling fast as it could go over the foolscap sheet, broke for several seconds the embarrassing stillness.
Walter Tyrrel, therefore, had ample time meanwhile to consider his host and to take in his peculiarities before Walker had come to the end of his paragraph. The great engineer was a big-built, bull-necked, bullet-headed sort of person, with the self-satisfied air of monetary success, but with that ominous hardness about the corners of the mouth which constantly betrays the lucky man of business. His abundant long hair was iron-gray and wiry--Erasmus Walker had seldom time to waste in getting it cut--his eyes were small and shrewd; his hand was firm, and gripped the pen in its grasp like a ponderous crowbar. His writing, Tyrrel could see, was thick, black, and decisive. Altogether the kind of man on whose brow it was written in legible characters that it's dogged as does it. The delicately organized Cornishman felt an instinctive dislike at once for this great coarse mountain of a bullying Teuton. Yet for Cleer's sake he knew he mustn't rub him the wrong way. He must put up with Erasmus Walker and all his faults, and try to approach him by the most accessible side--if indeed any side were accessible at all, save the waistcoat pocket.
At last, however, the engineer paused a moment in his headlong course through sentence after sentence, held his pen half irresolute over a new blank sheet, and turning round to Tyrrel, without one word of apology, said, in a quick, decisive voice, "This is business, I suppose, business? for if not, I've no time. I'm very pressed this morning. Very pressed, indeed. Very pressed and occupied."
"Yes, it is business," Tyrrel answered, promptly, taking his cue with Celtic quickness. "Business that may be worth a good deal of money." Erasmus Walker pricked up his ears at that welcome sound, and let the pen drop quietly into the rack by his side. "Only I'm afraid I must ask for a quarter of an hour or so of your valuable time. You will not find it thrown away. You can name your own price for it."
"My dear sir," the engineer replied, taking up his visitor's card again and gazing at it hard with a certain inquiring scrutiny, "if it's business, and business of an important character, of course I need hardly say I'm very glad to attend to you. There are so many people who come bothering me for nothing, don't you know--charitable appeals or what not--that I'm obliged to make a hard and fast rule about interviews. But if it's business you mean, I'm your man at once. I live for public works. Go ahead. I'm all attention."
He wheeled round in his revolving chair, and faced Tyrrel in an attitude of sharp practical eagerness. His eye was all alert. It was clear, the man was keen on every passing chance of a stray hundred or two extra. His keenness disconcerted the conscientious and idealistic Cornishman. For a second or two Tyrrel debated how to open fire upon so unwonted an enemy. At last he began, stammering, "I've a friend who has made a design for the Wharfedale Viaduct."
"Exactly," Erasmus Walker answered, pouncing down upon him like a hawk. "And I've made one too. And as mine's in the field, why, your friend's is waste paper."
His sharpness half silenced Tyrrel. But with an effort the younger man went on, in spite of interruption. "That's precisely what I've come about," he said; "I know that already. If only you'll have patience and hear me out while I unfold my plan, you'll find what I have to propose is all to your own interest. I'm prepared to pay well for the arrangement I ask. Will you name your own price for half an hour's conversation, and then listen to me straight on and without further interruption?"
Erasmus Walker glanced back at him with those keen ferret-like eyes of his. "Why, certainly," he answered; "I'll listen if you wish. We'll treat it as a consultation. My fees for consultation depend, of course, upon the nature of the subject on which advice is asked. But you'll pay well, you say, for the scheme you propose. Now, this is business. Therefore, we must be business-like. So first, what guarantee have I of your means and solvency? I don't deal with men of straw. Are you known in the City?" He jerked out his sentences as if words were extorted from him at so much per thousand.
"I am not," Tyrrel answered, quietly; "but I gave you my card, and you can see from it who I am--Walter Tyrrel of Penmorgan Manor. I'm a landed proprietor, with a good estate in Cornwall. And I'm prepared to risk--well, a large part of my property in the business I propose to you, without any corresponding risk on your part. In plain words, I'm prepared to pay you money down, if you will accede to my wish, on a pure matter of sentiment."
"Sentiment?" Mr. Walker replied, bringing his jaw down like a rat- trap, and gazing across at him, dubiously. "I don't deal in sentiment."
"No; probably not," Tyrrel answered. "But I said sentiment, Mr. Walker, and I'm willing to pay for it. I know very well it's an article at a discount in the City. Still, to me, it means money's worth, and I'm prepared to give money down to a good tune to humor it. Let me explain the situation. I'll do so as briefly and as simply as I can, if only you'll listen to me. A friend of mine, as I said, one Eustace Le Neve, who has been constructing engineer of the Rosario and Santa Fe, in the Argentine Confederacy, has made a design for the Wharfedale Viaduct. It's a very good design, and a practical design; and Sir Edward Jones, who has seen it, entirely approves of it."
"Jones is a good man," Mr. Walker murmured, nodding his head in acquiescence. "No dashed nonsense about Jones. Head screwed on the right way. Jones is a good man and knows what he's talking about." "Well, Jones says it's a good design," Tyrrel went on, breathing freer as he gauged his man more completely. "And the facts are just these: My friend's engaged to a young lady up in town here, in whom I take a deep interest--" Mr. Walker whistled low to himself, but didn't interrupt him--"a deep friendly interest," Tyrrel corrected, growing hot in the face at the man's evident insolent misconstruction of his motives; "and the long and the short of it is, his chance of marrying her depends very much upon whether or not he can get this design of his accepted by the directors."
"He can't," Mr. Walker said, promptly, "unless he buys me out. That's pat and flat. He can't, for mine's in; and mine's sure to be taken."
"So I understand," Tyrrel went on. "Your name, I'm told, carries everything before it. But what I want to suggest now is simply this-- How much will you take, money down on the nail, this minute, to withdraw your own design from the informal competition?"
Erasmus Walker gasped hard, drew a long breath, and stared at him. "How much will I take," he repeated, slowly; "how--much--will--I-- take--to withdraw my design? Well, that is remarkable!"
"I mean it," Tyrrel repeated, with a very serious face. "This is to me, I will confess, a matter of life and death. I want to see my friend Le Neve in a good position in the world, such as his talents entitle him to. I don't care how much I spend in order to insure it. So what I want to know is just this and nothing else--how much will you take to withdraw from the competition?"
Erasmus Walker laid his two hands on his fat knees, with his legs wide open, and stared long and hard at his incomprehensible visitor. So strange a request stunned for a moment even that sound business head. A minute or two he paused. Then, with a violent effort, he pulled himself together. "Come, come," he said, "Mr. Tyrrel; let's be practical and above-board. I don't want to rob you. I don't want to plunder you. I see you mean business. But how do you know, suppose even you buy me out, this young fellow's design has any chance of being accepted? What reason have you to think the Great North Midland people are likely to give such a job to an unknown beginner?"
"Sir Edward Jones says it's admirable," Tyrrel ventured, dubiously.
"Sir Edward Jones says it's admirable! Well, that's good, as far as it goes. Jones knows what he's talking about. Head's screwed on the right way. But has your friend any interest with the directors--that's the question? Have you reason to think, if he sends it in, and I hold back mine, his is the plan they'd be likely to pitch upon?"
"I go upon its merits," Walter Tyrrel said, quietly.
"The very worst thing on earth any man can ever possibly go upon," the man of business retorted, with cynical confidence. "If that's all you've got to say, my dear sir, it wouldn't be fair of me to make money terms with you. I won't discuss my price in the matter till I've some reason to believe this idea of yours is workable."
"I have the designs here all ready," Walter Tyrrel replied, holding them out. "Plans, elevations, specifications, estimates, sections, figures, everything. Will you do me the favor to look at them? Then, perhaps, you'll be able to see whether or not the offer's genuine."
The great engineer took the roll with a smile. He opened it hastily, in a most skeptical humor. Walter Tyrrel leant over him, and tried just at first to put in a word or two of explanation, such as Le Neve had made to himself; but an occasionally testy "Yes, yes; I see," was all the thanks he got for his pains and trouble. After a minute or two he found out it was better to let the engineer alone. That practiced eye picked out in a moment the strong and weak points of the whole conception. Gradually, however, as Walker went on, Walter Tyrrel could see he paid more and more attention to every tiny detail. His whole manner altered. The skeptical smile faded away, little by little, from those thick, sensuous lips, and a look of keen interest took its place by degrees on the man's eager features. "That's good!" he murmured more than once, as he examined more closely some section or enlargement. "That's good! very good! knows what he's about, this Eustace Le Neve man!" Now and again he turned back, to re-examine some special point. "Clever dodge!" he murmured, half to himself. "Clever dodge, undoubtedly. Make an engineer in time--no doubt at all about that--if only they'll give him his head, and not try to thwart him."
Tyrrel waited till he'd finished. Then he leant forward once more. "Well, what do you think of it now?" he asked, flushing hot. "Is this business--or otherwise?"
"Oh, business, business," the great engineer murmured, musically, regarding the papers before him with a certain professional affection. "It's a devilish clever plan--I won't deny that--and it's devilish well carried out in every detail."
Tyrrel seized his opportunity. "And if you were to withdraw your own design," he asked, somewhat nervously, hardly knowing how best to frame his delicate question, "do you think ... the directors ... would be likely to accept this one?"
Erasmus Walker hummed and hawed. He twirled his fat thumbs round one another in doubt. Then he answered oracularly, "They might, of course; and yet, again, they mightn't."
"Upon whom would the decision rest?" Tyrrel inquired, looking hard at him.
"Upon me, almost entirely," the great engineer responded at once, with cheerful frankness. "To say the plain truth, they've no minds of their own, these men. They'd ask my advice, and accept it implicitly."
"So Jones told me," Tyrrel answered.
"So Jones told you--quite right," the engineer echoed, with a complacent nod. "They've no minds of their own, you see. They'll do just as I tell them."
"And you think this design of Le Neve's a good one, both mechanically and financially, and also exceptionally safe as regards the lives and limbs of passengers and employees?" Tyrrel inquired once more, with anxious particularity. His tender conscience made him afraid to do anything in the matter unless he was quite sure in his own mind he was doing no wrong in any way either to shareholders, competitors, or the public generally.
"My dear sir," Mr. Walker replied, fingering the papers lovingly, "it's an admirable design--sound, cheap, and practical. It's as good as it can be. To tell you the truth, I admire it immensely."
"Well, then," Tyrrel said at last, all his scruples removed--"let's come to business. I put it plainly. How much will you take to withdraw your own design, and to throw your weight into the scale in favor of my friend's here?"
Erasmus Walker closed one eye, and rewarded his visitor fixedly out of the other for a minute or two in silence, as if taking his bearings. It was a trick he had acquired from frequent use of a theodolite. Then he answered at last, after a long, deep pause, "It's your deal, Mr. Tyrrel. Make me an offer, won't you?"
"Five thousand pounds?" tremblingly suggested Walter Tyrrel.
Erasmus Walker opened his eye slowly, and never allowed his surprise to be visible on his face. Why, to him, a job like that, entailing loss of time in personal supervision, was hardly worth three. The plans were perfunctory, and as far as there was anything in them, could be used again elsewhere. He could employ his precious days meanwhile to better purpose in some more showy and profitable work than this half-hatched viaduct. But this was an upset price. "Not enough," he murmured, slowly, shaking his bullet head. "It's a fortune to the young man. You must make a better offer."
Walter Tyrrel's lip quivered. "Six thousand," he said, promptly.
The engineer judged from the promptitude of the reply that the Cornish landlord must still be well squeezable. He shook his head gain. "No, no; not enough," he answered short. "Not enough--by a long way."
"Eight," Tyrrel suggested, drawing a deep breath of suspense. It was a big sum, indeed, for a modest estate like Penmorgan.
The engineer shook his head once more. That rush up two thousand at once was a very good feature. The man who could mount by two thousand at a time might surely be squeezed to the even figure.
"I'm afraid," Walter said, quivering, after a brief mental calculation--mortgage at four per cent--and agricultural depression running down the current value of land in the market--"I couldn't by any possibility go beyond ten thousand. But to save my friend--and to get the young lady married--I wouldn't mind going as far as that to meet you."
The engineer saw at once, with true business instinct, his man had reached the end of his tether. He struck while the iron was hot and clinched the bargain. "Well,--as there's a lady in the case"--he said, gallantly,--"and to serve a young man of undoubted talent, who'll do honor to the profession, I don't mind closing with you. I'll take ten thousand, money down, to back out of it myself, and I'll say what I can--honestly--to the Midland Board in your friend's favor."
"Very good," Tyrrel answered, drawing a deep breath of relief. "I ask no more than that. Say what you can honestly. The money shall be paid you before the end of a fortnight."
"Only, mind," Mr. Walker added in an impressive afterthought, "I can't, of course, engage that the Great North Midland people will take my advice. You mustn't come down upon me for restitution and all that if your friend don't succeed and they take some other fellow. All I guarantee for certain is to withdraw my own plans--not to send in anything myself for the competition."
"I fully understand," Tyrrel answered. "And I'm content to risk it. But, mind, if any other design is submitted of superior excellence to Le Neve's, I wouldn't wish you on any account to--to do or say anything that goes against your conscience."
Erasmus Walker stared at him. "What--after paying ten thousand pounds?" he said, "to secure the job?"
Tyrrel nodded a solemn nod. "Especially," he added, "if you think it safer to life and limb. I should never forgive myself if an accident were to occur on Eustace Le Neve's viaduct."