THE KING’S BRAHM
THERE is a certain type of man, common to both hemispheres, and possibly to all races, though he is more sharply outlined when he is English or American, who thrives on disaster.
You meet him to-day, seedy and unshaven, and slip him the trifling loan he asks; you turn aside to-morrow to avoid him, but beware how you cross the street the next day, lest his lacquered limousine strike you into an unconsciousness, from whence even the fragrance of his considerable cigar shall not recall you.
For weeks, months even, such men occupy suites furnished like the model offices that look so well in catalogues. They have clerks and managers, and their names are painted on glass doors. Elevator boys respect them, and even policemen smile at them as they pass.
Then of a sudden they vanish. New names appear on the office indicator, new staffs occupy their suites, and enquiry as to their whereabouts elicits brusque and negative reply. Months afterwards you meet them unexpectedly in country towns, a little shabby, a little furtive, but immensely enthusiastic about the new patent cinder-sifter that they are selling on commission. Then they seem to vanish out of life, and their acquaintances, when, they think of them at all, wonder whether they are
in the poor house or only in jail----and we continue in
our speculation until one night the flash of a diamond shirt stud in a box at the Opera betrays their presence in the role of the newest millionaire.
They live in a world of their own; in some myster ous way they carry their own population. Neither the men they meet nor the businesses they operate touch, even remotely, the everyday life of ordinary, everyday people.
As a rule they are wistful, relentless men, with a gift for telling circumstantial lies in an easy, absent-minded way, which is the only way lies can be told convincingly.
Mr. Benjamin Thanet was such a phenomenon.
He was a commercial magician at the wave of whose slim hands mining corporations grew in a night, and substantial boards of directors were created in the wink of an eye. He himself never accepted a directorship. His name was absent from the innumerable prospectuses he had composed, nor did it appear as the holder of any important blocks of shares.
In such companies as he promoted, there were only two classes, and only one that mattered. These were the shareholders and the moneyholders. He seldom held shares. He appeared usually, as the “vendor” of the property to be incorporated. He invariably had a property to sell—even in his day of dire necessity he could produce an oil field from his pocket book with the surprising celerity of the conjurer who extracts a rabbit from a top hat.
Sometimes, so alluring were these properties that the mere announcement of
their possession filled the letter box of his office with the appeals of would-be sharers of fortune. Thereafter came a period of prosperity which invited the envy of the honest poor. A period of luncheon parties, at which the principal stockholders of the new company received their first and only dividend in the shape of a full meal and faultless cigars.
Mr. Thanet’s path through life was littered with the crippled remains of little optimists who had reached greedily toward him for easy wealth and had been shrivelled at a touch.
There were probably widows amongst the debris; very likely there were orphans too, though this is doubtful, for the widow and the orphan with money have trustees and guardians to protect them. More pathetic were the fat and comfortable little men of business whose accumulations had vanished into the magician’s pocket. There was a suicide or two, but such things are inevitable.
Mr. Thanet grew prosperous after many vicissitudes which involved occasional disappearances from the haunts of men, and he might have reached the summit of his ambition (there was an unreachable woman upon it) but for the fact that, in the course of certain operations, he came into conflict with the imponderable factor of tradition.
In the year 1920, Mr. Thanet, returning from a tour of Europe, the possessor of five square miles of forest land whereon was sited an oil well of dubious value, was
seized of a brilliant idea. Fkom this, and the five square miles of Bulgarian territory, purchased from a drunken farmer for a song, grew “The Balkan Oil and Timber Corporation.”
The originator of this great idea had a confederate whom he described variously as “my partner” and “our General Manager,” one Steelson, a man as stout in build as himself, but less presentable—for Thanet prided himself upon his gentlemanly appearance.
On the day after his return to Paris, which for the time being was his headquarters, he sat with Mr. Steelson in his room at the Grand Hotel, a large scale map of northern Bulgaria spread on the bed, and outlined the possibilities of the new venture.
Steelson’s puckered face creased discouragingly.
“You can’t do much with eight square kilometres, Ben,” he said shaking his head, “not in Europe anyway. Why not go to New York—it’ll look bigger from there?”
Ben Thanet pulled at his cigar thoughtfully. He was a tall, full-blooded man with faded eyes and a moustache of startling blackness.
“I think not,” he said carefully. “There are a lot of reasons why I don’t want to go to America just now.”
Mr. Steelson wrinkled his nose.
“They’ve forgot that Cobalt Silver proposition of yours by now,” he said contemptuously. “A sucker is bom every minute, but one dies every thirty seconds.”
“Maybe they do, but there are enough left alive to tell the tale,” said the other decisively. “No, it’s London or nothing. They don't feel very bad about Bulgaria in England, and besides nobody knows anything about the country. I met a man on the Orient Express—he was English—who raved about Bulgaria; said it was the finest country in Europe, full of minerals and timber and oil. That got me thinking. At Milan I got into conversation with two or three other men who were coming through and passed on all this oil and mineral talk. They lapped it up, Steel—like puppies round a dipper of cream. It appears that Bulgaria is one of the nine promised lands—like Mesopotamia used to be and Central Africa until they found ’em out.”
“UTVE square miles “ -F murmured Steelson shaking his head. “Now if" it was five hundred....!”' Benjamin had taken off' his coat for greater comfort and was pacing the floor,, stopping now and again to. survey the roofs and chimneys of Paris. He stopped and started to smile.
“There’s a million hectares of land to be got,” he • said deliberately, “a million good hectares worth 20 leva a hectare before the war—”
‘What’s a leva?” asked the other. “I don’t know these Balkan monies.”
“A lev is a franc, roughly,” explained Benjamin patiently.
“Tw'enty million francs! Where are we going to get. twenty million francs I
should like to know?” demanded Mr. Steelson disgustedly.
"There may be oil on it. A lot of people think there is,” Benjamin went on. sitting on the edge of the bed, his hamis n his trousers’ pockets. "You can’t buy land in that part of the country just now, under two pounds sterling a hectare.”
"Then what in hell are you talking about?” asked the exasperated Steelson. "We've got under eighty thousand francs at the Foncier.”
Mr. Benjamin Thanet resumed his pacing.
"1 have no sympathy with Germans,” he said with seeming inconsequence, "it will be one regret of my life, Steelson, that I was deta tied in the Argentine by that cattle syndicate of mine during the war.
I’d have given anything to have been in the Hindenburg line, or in the Argonne,
"Oh shut up," snarled his partner.
"What’s Germany got to do with it?”
"And I’m a democrat at heart, Steelson —you know that! I hate these hereditär;.' institutions. They’re tyrannies,
Steelson—they crush the masses into— into pulp, and batten—that’s the word, batten on the likes of me and you. Do you agree?"
But Mr. Steelson was speechless. He could only stare and Benjamin, who had drama in his system, beamed delightedly at the sensation he had created. Now he produced his climax.
LTNLOG KING the bag that had ac• eompanied him on his travels, he opened it and after a search, brought out a small red box, not unlike a jewel case.
Inside, reposing on a plush bed. was a big irregular chunk of amber.
The fascinated Mr. Steelson rose and examined the trophy.
"Amber,” he said wonderingly. “What is that inside?"
"That,” replied Benjamin, in his most impressive tone, "is a small butterfly. It’s rare. There are only about ten pieces of amber in the world that contain a butterfly. It cost me five thousand francs,
And then Steelson exploded, speaking, it would seem, in his capacity as partner rather than General Manager.
■ . we’ll be down to our last cent at the
end of this week,” he said violently, “and you fool away money ...”
Benjamin allowed his friend to exhaust himself before he explained.
"You're a fool, and you always have been a fool,” he said calmly. "Finding that was the biggest luck I have had in years. I saw it by accident in Milan as I was strolling through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. It came from heaven, that bit of amber, when I was puzzling my brains sick as to how I could get an introduction to King Gustavus ...”
"All right," said Steelson helplessly, “let’s all go mad together.”
THE light faded in the sky and the streets of Paris were aglitter with light before Mr. Benjamin Thanet had concluded the narrative of his scheme. When they went down to dinner together, the Balkan Oil and Timber Corporation was bom.
The chief asset of the Company, in happy ignorance of the part for which he had been cast, was at that moment listening to an excellent municipal orchestra some seven hundred miles from Paris.
The good people of Interlaken, who gathered on warm evenings to drink beer or sip at sugary ices in the big open Kursaal, knew the grey man very well, for unlike his fellows in misfortune, he was a permanent resident. Guides escorting gaping tourists, lowered their voices, and with a sidelong jerk of their head indicated the thin figure which sat near the orchestra and eked out one china mug of beer so that it lasted the whole evening. He was always shabbily dressed, generally in a faded grey suit that was worn at the elbows. His wristbands were frayed, his collar was usually in the same condition. Generally he came alone, but occasionally a pretty girl came with him, a delightful lady who upset all local traditions by the invariable luxury of her dress. For her very expensiveness confounded that section of public opinion which would have it that King Gustavus XXV of Hardenberg was reduced to starvation, that he slept miserably in the cheapest room at the Victoria, and that only by the charity of the proprietor.
The other section having taken the trouble to make enquiries, refuted thi3 statement.
His Majesty had a suite of ten rooms. His bill was paid with punctilious regularity and there was no need to ex-
plain away either the extensive wardrobe of the Princess Stephanie, his daughter, or the poverty of his own attire.
It was notorious that in the palmiest days of his prosperity the King had, amongst others, a weakness for old clothing, nor was his air of abstraction and melancholy peculiar to his present situation.
“No doubt the poor man is thinking of his magnificent
castles and palaces,” said the burgess of Interlaken pityingly. “Such is the penalty of defeat and revolution.’
BUT Gustavus, sitting with his chin in the palm of his thin hand, his gloomy eyes staring into vacancy, regretted nothing except the loss of his wonderful collection of butterflies. The King’s passion for collecting was commonly paragraphed through the press of Europe—the folks of Interlaken should at least have known as much as Mr. Benjamin Thanet discovered when he began to read up the character and history of the owner of the Hardenberg Concession. Kingship of a small German state had meant little to Gustavus. It had been something of an embarrassment. Chief of the advantages was that as the head of the state, he was not amenable to cerfain rigid conventions and might dispense with the interminable business of wearing stiff uniforms. Only on state occassions, at great Potsdam reviews, or Council meetings, did he groaningly dress himself in the skin-tight uniform of the Hardenberg Fusiliers of the Guard (of which he was colonel) and for the rest of the time, wearing an old knickerbocker suit, with a butterfly net in his hand and a specimen box slung at his side, he prowled the Steinhart Forest in search of notable additions to his museum.
More kingly in the power he wielded was the tall, stout man who sat, a month or so after the Paris meeting, at the king’s little table, smoking a cigar of great size and quality. The habituées of the Kursaal, who were growing accustomed to the stranger, decided that he must be an ex-minister of the deposed monarch, and probably one of the highest birth, for his manner was free and his laughter at times loud and unrestrained. And every time he laughed, the King winced a little and his hand went nervously to his white moustache with an embarrassed gesture.
MR. BENJAMIN THANET was neither well born nor well mannered. He was very sensitive to his own conceptions of humor, and his laughter meant no more than that he said something or thought something, which was amusing to himself.
“I don’t know why I take so much trouble,” he said
with a gesture of indifference, “your forest land is not really worth a great deal to me. None of these Bulgarian concessions can be worked for years—why there isn’t a railway for two hundred kilometres, and you can buy land at a lev a hectare and leva works out at two hundred to a dollar!”
The king shifted uncomfortably.
“Yes, yes,” he said nervously. “I am greatly obliged to you, Mr. Thanet, for so much trouble.”
“It is a pleasure,” said Benjamin with truth. He had ceased saying “Your Majesty” three weeks before, and had now dispensed with the “Sir.”
The measure of this gentle exile had been taken. Mr. Thanet’s personality was dominant, and instinct told him that he was near to an achievement.
“I’ve bought a lot of land lately,” he went on, flicking the ash of his cigar upon the polished floor. “I acquired a tract in the Ukraine the other day for a million. I don’t suppose I shall ever see the money again,” he added carelessly. “At the same time I don’t want you to be a loser. Given the time I can get big money for your land. . That is why it interests me. Money to people like me means nothing. It is the thrill of the battle, pitting my genius against my business rivals—that’s the thing that keeps me going.”
NATURALLY, naturally,” said the king hastily, in terror of hurting the feelings of his guest. “I appreciate all you have done, Mr. Thanet. In fact, I am delighted that I have had the opportunity of meeting you—I am rather conscioüs-stricken about having taken your beautiful gift. By-the-way, I have verified the genus of that insect—it is the Lycaena Icirus. ’ ’
“That was nothing,” said Mr. Benjamin Thanet airily. “Absolutely nothing. I heard of your interest in Lepidopthera, and as I happened to have an amber in my collection I thought, as a fellow collector, it would be an act of courtesy to pass it on to you.”
The king murmured his thanks.
“Now, what I should suggest,” said Mr. Benjamin Thanet, suddenly the practical business man, “is for you to sell your land at a nominal figure to the company I have formed for the purpose. We would market that property in England, and I feel that we should get a better price if your name was not associated with the sale. You quite understand there is still a great deal of prejudice in Europe against Germany.”
“That is quite understandable,” he said, and then with a note of anxiety, “would not your method mean a protracted negotiation? Of course, there is no need to hurry, but—I have been considering the sale of this land for some time. It was given to my grandfather by his cousin, the Emperor of Austria, and although it has not been a profitable possession, the land has always been highly spoken of. I’m sure you realise, Mr. Thanet,” he went on, with some evidence of reluctance, “that my position here in Switzerland is a very anxious one. I left my country at short notice and my funds are not inexhaustible.”
Benjamin nodded slowly.
“I can promise you,” he said impressively, “that the sale will be completed within a few weeks. I will credit your estate with half a million sterling, and that amount, less a trifling fee for conveyance, will be in your hands within a month.”
The king studied the interior of his beer mug, as though it contained a solution to all his problems.
“Very good, Mr. Thanet,” he said. “I will arrange the transfer to your company to-morrow. May I ask you,” he said, as they descended the broad stairs leading to the garden, “not to mention this to Her Serene Highness. She has—” he hesitated, “other views.”
He was too polite to tell Mr. Benjamin Thanet that Her Serene Highness disliked the company promoter instinctively; indeed, it was unnecessary, for Benjamin was sensitive to atmosphere.
AS THEY walked along the dark avenue a man came from the shadows of the trees and fell in behind them. Thanet looked round quickly.
“It is my Stirrup Man,” said the king. “He always accompanies me; you must have noticed him before, Mr. Thanet.”
Thanet breathed a sigh of relief.
“No, I haven’t noticed him before,” he said more respectfully. “Why do you call him a Stirrup Man, sir?”
The king laughed softly.
“In Hardepberg they call him the King’s Brahm. The Brahms have been in the service of our family as personal attendants for eight hundred years, Mr. Thanet, and one of the family has always stood at the king’s stirrup for all those years. They have followed them into exile, for I am not the first of my race to be driven from Hardenberg, and they have stood with them in their prosperity. This is John Brahm, the eldest of six brothers, and he has a son who will serve my daughter and my daughter’s son when I am gone. They are the common people in Hardenberg who have a coat of arms and a motto—‘To do all things, to risk all things and suffer all things for the King’s comfort.’ ”
“Very interesting,” said Mr. Thanet.
He accompanied the king to the hotel and took his leave in the lobby.
A girl who was sitting curled up in a chair reading a French magazine arose as the king entered and dropped a little curtsey.
“Your millionaire kept you late to-night, father,” she said with a smile.
“You don’t like my millionaire,” said the king grimly. “My dear, we cannot afford to have likes or dislikes. He is an extremely useful man.”
She came and put her arm round his shoulder and gently shook him.
“He gave you a beautiful butterfly in a beautiful piece of amber,” she said with gentle mockery, “and he probably bought it out of a curiosity shop in order to get an introduction to you.”
“My dear, it came from his private collection,” he said a little testily. “Why are you so prejudiced, Stephanie? I suppose because he is an Englishman?”
“Is he?” she asked carelessly. “No, it would make no difference to me if he were a Turk, and heaven knows I dislike the Turks intensely. But I feel that he is an adventurer.”
“You mustn’t say these things,” said her father seriously. “I tell you he is a very useful man. We need money very badly, dear. Besides—”
“l~\OES John Brahm like him?” asked the girl ^ quietly.
The king looked at the stolid figure standing stiffly in the doorway.
John Brahm was a tall man of tawny complexion and dull yellow hair. He wore the gaily embroidered waistcoat, the spotless linen shirt open at the neck, and the knee-breeches and heavy shoes which formed the peasant garb of Hardenberg.
“Well, John Brahm?” asked the king a little impatiently. “You saw the excellency who was with me to-night. Is he a good man or a bad man?”
“Majesty, he is. a bad man,” said John Brahm.
“You’re a fool, John Brahm,” said the old man, but the girl’s eyes were dancing with laughter.
“Listen to the words of theKing’sBrahms,” she sàid. “Really, father, aren’t you just a little too trusting?”
King Gustavus frowned, and then a twinkle came into his eyes also.
“In a month you will be very sorry that you have maligned my poor friend,” he said, and the girl suddenly became serious.
“In a month?” she repeated. “Why, what is going to happen, father?”
But he would not satisfy her curiosity, and went off to his room with his stolid retainer walking in his rear.
' I 'HE Princess Stephanie stayed up very late that night. She was uneasy to a point of panic. Her father had never discussed business affairs with her, but she had some idea of the state of his finances.
Her dislike of Benjamin Thanet was instinctive. It was not his vulgarity, his blatant assertiveness, or the apparent meanness of his birth which made her curl up in his presence—it was not that queer sixth sense which warns women of personal peril; his presence brought a vague unease and feeling of resentment which she could not analyse. He had come to dinner soon after his presentation of the ntroductory butterfly, and she had felt repelled, sickened, almost frightened by him. He seemed to embody a terror to her future and the future of her house.
She rose early in the morning after a restless night, and going to the telegraph óffice, despatched a wire to a lawyer in Geneva who had acted for her father. He arrived at Interlaken in time for dinner,
a meal which King Gustavus did not grace by his presence.
“I am sorry my father is out,” said the troubled girl. “He went to the Kursaal soon after fve and told me not to wait dinner for him.”
The old lawyer laughed.
“You’re not worried about His Majesty,” he said. “I presume he is accompanied by that gigantic guard of his.” “John Brahm,” she smiled. “Oh, yes, John will be with him. No, I’m not worried about father’s bodily comfort,” and she proceeded to relate something of her fears.
THANET,” repeated the lawyer thoughtfully. “I seem to know that name. Yes, of course, he is the company promoter.' We had some trouble with him in Geneva three years ago. He bought a clock factory for promotion purposes. I don’t think the factory proprietors ever received their money. We had several enquiries about him. Yes, yes, I remember now very well indeed. The man is a swindler, but one of those swindlers who keep on the right side of the law. I had no idea he was in Switzerland. But His Majesty has nothing to sell?”
The girl had gone suddenly white.
“We have land in Bulgaria,” she said slowly. “I never thought of that! It is the only property we have. We left Hardenberg with a few thousand marks, and His Majesty had some property in Switzerland which he sold after we arrived. Oh, Dr. Vallois, if we have lost the Hardenberg concession we are ruined!”
And then King Gustavus arrived, unusually cheerful, a smile on his grey face, and a certain jauntiness in his air, which made the girl’s heart sink still further. Without any preliminary she demanded:
“Have you sold the Hardenberg land, father?”
He looked astonished.
“Yes, my dear,” he said with a little chuckle. “I have been worrying about the value, and I am happy to tell you that I have received a magnificent price. Hullo, doctor!”
He greeted the lawyer almost jovially.
“What brings you to Interlaken?”
“I sent for the doctor,” said the girl quietly. “I had a
feeling that something like this would happen. Father, did Mr. Thanet pay you much money?”
“To be exact, he paid me a thousand francs,” said the king humourously.
“A thousand francs!” she said horrified. “Surely you are joking!”
“No, I’m teasing you,” said the king. “I certainly received only a thousand francs, but that was the nominal sum we agreed upon.”
He explained the situation more fully and the lawyer listened open-mouthed.
“But surely your Majesty has not sold this property? You retain some line on it?”
“I have shares in the company,” said the king impatiently. “Shares which I think will most probably produce more than I anticipate.”
There was a dead silence.
“Have you a copy of your agreement or contract?” asked the lawyer.
THE king passed the paper across the_ table, and watched the lawyer a little uneasily as he read line by line and clause by clause. Presently he finished.
“You have no claim whatever upon Mr. Thanet nor upon his company,” he said. “He has the power without consultation of so increasing the capital that your shares will be valueless. It is an old trick of his.”
“Do you mean—” cried the old man, half starting up.
“I mean that Your Majesty has been swindled,” said the lawyer, “and this paper is not wTorth the stamps that are on it. Thanet undertakes to do nothing except to sell the property to the best advantage. To whose advantage it will be I can guess.”
“I will notify the police,” gasped the king.
The lawyer shook his head.
“This document is legal. The man has acted legally. He is within the law, and Your Majesty cannot touch him,” he said. “The agreement has been drawn up by one who is skilful in such matters, as I can testify.”
“You mean I shall get nothing more than the thousand francs I have received?” asked the old man huskily.
“I mean,” said the lawyer, “that the document to which you have signed your name, and which is in Mr. Thanet’s possession, deprives you of every right you have to your Bulgarian property, without conferring any advantage or rights whatever upon yourself.”
The girl looked from her father to the lawyer, and then her eyes strayed to the tall, broad figure of the King’s Brahm standing stiffly behind his master’s chair. She rose.
“John Brahm,” she commanded, “you will attend me.”
She turned and walked from the dining room, and John Brahm followed heavily.
MR. BENJAMIN THANET had left Interlaken by the evening train. He stopped at Spiez to snatch a hasty meal, then boarded the electric ‘train that connects with the Oberland railway. He came to Montreux at eleven o’clock that night and Mr. Steelson greeted him on the platform.
“You’re late,” said Mr. Steelson fretfully. “Did you get it?”
“Did I get it?” repeated the other scornfully^ “Of course I got it, These dam’ Swiss railway officials kept the train back an hour at Zweisimmen to pick up an areoplane passenger who had lost the train at Spiez. I’d like to have the re-organization of these railways, Steel.”
“I daresay you would,” said the unimpressed Steelson. “Come over and have a bite. There’s time before the Simplon comes in. She’s late too.” They went down the stairs to the Suisse Hotel and over their coffee Mr. Thanet told his story.
“There ought to be a society for the protection of kings,” he said humourously. “It wras the easiest thing. Do you think he’ll kick? That daughter of his won’t take it without a fight.”
“What can she do?” asked the other, examining the contract with an expert’s eye. “We can sell in Paris on this. There are three men on the Bourse who’ll take this contract, and make as much out of it as we shall. Bulgarian land is booming just now.” “It makes you think, Steel,” ruminated Mr. Thanet. “Here’s a fellow who was a king, had all the power that a man could have. A real king, Steel! And here am I—a nothing, so to speak, and I bested him—it was like taking money away from a child. And I’ve got the law behind me.” He laughed till he shook at the thought. “It’s a wonderful thing, the law,” he added piously.
“Give you three brandies and you’ll preach a sermon,” said the practical Mr. Steelson. “No, you needn’t worry about this contract—it meets ninety-nine contingencies out of a hundred and I can’t think what the hundredth could be. Come along if you want to catch that train.”
Continued on page 51
Continued from page 11
THEY boarded the northern express and took their places in the two sleeping compartments which Steelson had reserved.
“It’s brains that win,” was Benjamin’s last remark as he turned in to his cabin. “I daresay,” said the other.
Mr. Benjamin Thanet stretehed_ himself luxuriously upon the bed. He did not want to undress until the frontier station was passed, and the Custom House officials had made their inspection, but the gentle jogging of the train made him doze. He woke suddenly. A man was in his compartment—he must have come in and closed the door behind him. Benjamin had a momentary glimpse of a tall, uncouth figure, in ready-made clothes which did not quite fit, and then the lamp was switched out.
“What are you—” he began, but a hand, large and heavy, closed on his throat.
When the Custom House officials came to search the carriage they found it in darkness. Switching on a light they saw a man lying on his side. Mr. Benjamin Thanet was quite dead when they found him, for his neck had been broken, and Steelson, searching the clothes in frantic haste, failed to discover the contract over which they had gloated an hour before. That was in the pocket of John Brahm’s coat. John Brahm at that moment was tramping back to the Swiss frontier station.
Mr. Benjamin Thanet had provided for all contingencies except the tradition of the House of Brahm, which was to do all things, and risk all things, and suffer all things for the King’s Comfort.
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