The Talleyrand Maxim

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THE TALLEYRAND MAXIM

BY J. S. FLETCHER

1920

CONTENTS

CHAPTER

I DEATH BRINGS OPPORTUNITY
II IN TRUST
III THE SHOP-BOY
IV THE FORTUNATE POSSESSORS
V POINT-BLANK
VI THE UNEXPECTED
VII THE SUPREME INDUCEMENT
VIII TERMS
IX UNTIL NEXT SPRING
X THE FOOT-BRIDGE
XI THE PREVALENT ATMOSPHERE
XII THE POWER OF ATTORNEY
XIII THE FIRST TRICK
XIV CARDS ON THE TABLE
XV PRATT OFFERS A HAND
XVI A HEADQUARTERS CONFERENCE
XVII ADVERTISEMENT
XVIII THE CONFIDING LANDLORD
XIX THE EYE-WITNESS

XX THE Green Man

XXI THE DIRECT CHARGE
XXII THE CAT’SPAW
XXIII SMOOTH FACE AND ANXIOUS BRAIN
XXIV THE BETTER HALF
XXV DRY SHERRY
XXVI THE TELEPHONE MESSAGE
XXVII RESTORED TO ENERGY
XXVIII THE WOMAN IN BLACK

THE TALLEYRAND MAXIM

CHAPTER I

DEATH BRINGS OPPORTUNITY

Linford Pratt, senior clerk to Eldrick & Pascoe, solicitors, of Barford,
a young man who earnestly desired to get on in life, by hook or by
crook, with no objection whatever to crookedness, so long as it could be
performed in safety and secrecy, had once during one of his periodical
visits to the town Reference Library, lighted on a maxim of that other
unscrupulous person, Prince Talleyrand, which had pleased him greatly.
“With time and patience,” said Talleyrand, “the mulberry leaf is turned
into satin.” This seemed to Linford Pratt one of the finest and soundest
pieces of wisdom which he had ever known put into words.

A mulberry leaf is a very insignificant thing, but a piece of satin is a
highly marketable commodity, with money in it. Henceforth, he regarded
himself as a mulberry leaf which his own wit and skill must transform
into satin: at the same time he knew that there is another thing, in
addition to time and patience, which is valuable to young men of his
peculiar qualities, a thing also much beloved by Talleyrand—opportunity.
He could find the patience, and he had the time—but it would give him
great happiness if opportunity came along to help in the work. In
everyday language, Linford Pratt wanted a chance—he waited the arrival
of the tide in his affairs which would lead him on to fortune.

Leave him alone—he said to himself—to be sure to take it at the flood.
If Pratt had only known it, as he stood in the outer office of Eldrick &
Pascoe at the end of a certain winter afternoon, opportunity was slowly
climbing the staircase outside—not only opportunity, but temptation,
both assisted by the Devil. They came at the right moment, for Pratt was
alone; the partners had gone: the other clerks had gone: the office-boy
had gone: in another minute Pratt would have gone, too: he was only
looking round before locking up for the night. Then these things
came—combined in the person of an old man, Antony Bartle, who opened
the door, pushed in a queer, wrinkled face, and asked in a quavering
voice if anybody was in.

“I’m in, Mr. Bartle,” answered Pratt, turning up a gas jet which he had
just lowered. “Come in, sir. What can I do for you?”

Antony Bartle came in, wheezing and coughing. He was a very, very old
man, feeble and bent, with little that looked alive about him but his
light, alert eyes. Everybody knew him—he was one of the institutions of
Barford—as well known as the Town Hall or the Parish Church. For fifty
years he had kept a second-hand bookshop in Quagg Alley, the narrow
passage-way which connected Market Street with Beck Street. It was not
by any means a common or ordinary second-hand bookshop: its proprietor
styled himself an “antiquarian bookseller”; and he had a reputation in
two Continents, and dealt with millionaire buyers and virtuosos in both.

Barford people sometimes marvelled at the news that Mr. Antony Bartle
had given two thousand guineas for a Book of Hours, and had sold a
Missal for twice that amount to some American collector; and they got a
hazy notion that the old man must be well-to-do—despite his snuffiness
and shabbiness, and that his queer old shop, in the window of which
there was rarely anything to be seen but a few ancient tomes, and two or
three rare engravings, contained much that he could turn at an hour’s
notice into gold. All that was surmise—but Eldrick & Pascoe—which term
included Linford Pratt—knew all about Antony Bartle, being his
solicitors: his will was safely deposited in their keeping, and Pratt
had been one of the attesting witnesses.

The old man, having slowly walked into the outer office, leaned against
a table, panting a little. Pratt hastened to open an inner door.

“Come into Mr. Eldrick’s room, Mr. Bartle,” he said. “There’s a nice
easy chair there—come and sit down in it. Those stairs are a bit
trying, aren’t they? I often wish we were on the ground floor.”

He lighted the gas in the senior partner’s room, and turning back, took
hold of the visitor’s arm, and helped him to the easy chair. Then,
having closed the doors, he sat down at Eldrick’s desk, put his fingers
together and waited. Pratt knew from experience that old Antony Bartle
would not have come there except on business: he knew also, having been
at Eldrick & Pascoe’s for many years, that the old man would confide in
him as readily as in either of his principals.

“There’s a nasty fog coming on outside,” said Bartle, after a fit of
coughing. “It gets on my lungs, and then it makes my heart bad. Mr.
Eldrick in?”

“Gone,” replied Pratt. “All gone, Mr. Bartle—only me here.”

“You’ll do,” answered the old bookseller. “You’re as good as they are.”
He leaned forward from the easy chair, and tapped the clerk’s arm with a
long, claw-like finger. “I say,” he continued, with a smile that was
something between a wink and a leer, and suggestive of a pleased
satisfaction. “I’ve had a find!”

“Oh!” responded Pratt. “One of your rare books, Mr. Bartle? Got
something for twopence that you’ll sell for ten guineas? You’re one of
the lucky ones, you know, you are!”

“Nothing of the sort!” chuckled Bartle. “And I had to pay for my
knowledge, young man, before I got it—we all have. No—but I’ve found
something: not half an hour ago. Came straight here with it. Matters for
lawyers, of course.”

“Yes?” said Pratt inquiringly. “And—what may it be?” He was expecting
the visitor to produce something, but the old man again leaned forward,
and dug his finger once more into the clerk’s sleeve.

“I say!” he whispered. “You remember John Mallathorpe and the affair
of—how long is it since?”

“Two years,” answered Pratt promptly. “Of course I do. Couldn’t very
well forget it, or him.”

He let his mind go back for the moment to an affair which had provided
Barford and the neighbourhood with a nine days’ sensation. One winter
morning, just two years previously, Mr. John Mallathorpe, one of the
best-known manufacturers and richest men of the town, had been killed by
the falling of his own mill-chimney. The condition of the chimney had
been doubtful for some little time; experts had been examining it for
several days: at the moment of the catastrophe, Mallathorpe himself,
some of his principal managers, and a couple of professional
steeple-jacks, were gathered at its base, consulting on a report. The
great hundred-foot structure above them had collapsed without the
slightest warning: Mallathorpe, his principal manager, and his cashier,
had been killed on the spot: two other bystanders had subsequently died
from injuries received. No such accident had occurred in Barford, nor in
the surrounding manufacturing district, for many years, and there had
been much interest in it, for according to the expert’s conclusions the
chimney was in no immediate danger.

Other mill-owners then began to examine their chimneys, and for many
weeks Barford folk had talked of little else than the danger of living
in the shadows of these great masses of masonry.

But there had soon been something else to talk of. It sprang out of the
accident—and it was of particular interest to persons who, like Linford
Pratt, were of the legal profession. John Mallathorpe, so far as anybody
knew or could ascertain, had died intestate. No solicitor in the town
had ever made a will for him. No solicitor elsewhere had ever made a
will for him. No one had ever heard that he had made a will for himself.
There was no will. Drastic search of his safes, his desks, his drawers
revealed nothing—not even a memorandum. No friend of his had ever heard
him mention a will. He had always been something of a queer man. He was
a confirmed bachelor. The only relation he had in the world was his
sister-in-law, the widow of his deceased younger brother, and her two
children—a son and a daughter. And as soon as he was dead, and it was
plain that he had died intestate, they put in their claim to his
property.

John Mallathorpe had left a handsome property. He had been making money
all his life. His business was a considerable one—he employed two
thousand workpeople. His average annual profit from his mills was
reckoned in thousands—four or five thousands at least. And some years
before his death, he had bought one of the finest estates in the
neighbourhood, Normandale Grange, a beautiful old house, set amidst
charming and romantic scenery in a valley, which, though within twelve
miles of Barford, might have been in the heart of the Highlands.
Therefore, it was no small thing that Mrs. Richard Mallathorpe and her
two children laid claim to. Up to the time of John Mallathorpe’s death,
they had lived in very humble fashion—lived, indeed, on an allowance
from their well-to-do kinsman—for Richard Mallathorpe had been as much
of a waster as his brother had been of a money-getter. And there was no
withstanding their claim when it was finally decided that John
Mallathorpe had died intestate—no withstanding that, at any rate, of
the nephew and niece. The nephew had taken all the real estate: he and
his sister had shared the personal property. And for some months they
and their mother had been safely installed at Normandale Grange, and in
full possession of the dead man’s wealth and business.

All this flashed through Linford Pratt’s mind in a few seconds—he knew
all the story: he had often thought of the extraordinary good fortune of
those young people. To be living on charity one week—and the next to be
legal possessors of thousands a year!—oh, if only such luck would come
his way!

“Of course!” he repeated, looking thoughtfully at the old bookseller.
“Not the sort of thing one does forget in a hurry, Mr. Bartle. What of
it?”

Antony Bartle leaned back in his easy chair and chuckled—something,
some idea, seemed to be affording him amusement.

“I’m eighty years old,” he remarked. “No, I’m more, to be exact. I shall
be eighty-two come February. When you’ve lived as long as that, young
Mr. Pratt, you’ll know that this life is a game of topsy-turvy—to some
folks, at any rate. Just so!”

“You didn’t come here to tell me that, Mr. Bartle,” said Pratt. He was
an essentially practical young man who dined at half-past six every
evening, having lunched on no more than bread-and-cheese and a glass of
ale, and he also had his evenings well mapped out. “I know that already,
sir.”

“Aye, aye, but you’ll know more of it later on,” replied Bartle.

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