An Absorbing Story of the Machinations of a Belgian Baron on the Congo and in London, and of the Retributive Justice which Coverley Gutch Metes Out to Him
MARY Grindley had once smiled at Coverley Gutch, and her brother, Frank, had taken it
into his head to try his luck in the Congo—a step largely accounted for by his want of luck at home, and the general feeling that prevailed among his family and his friends that the Congo was as good a burial-place for a man as any other in the world, seeing that there not only the register of his decease, but anything in the shape of an obituary notice, might be dispensed with—and these two facts, woven together into the web of fate, were responsible for the extraordinary interest that Gutch suddenly showed in the shares of the Rubber Development Company.
Fiad not the smile from that lovely, English face made a deep impression on his susceptible heart, it is quite possible that the fate of Frank Grindley would have left him more or less unmoved, for Mary’s brother was not exactly the kind of man to imbue anybody, least of all Coverley Gutch, with any particular interest. A feeble course of drinking, betting, and borrowing, accompanied by certain dubious commercial transactions had made his departure from England a matter of considerable satisfaction to everybody who knew him. His subsequent fate was known only to a distinguished Bel-
gian nobleman, Baron Laroche, who had, as a matter of fact, shot him out of hand for his maudlin objection to the Baron’s evangelising and civilising methods.
What those methods were, Frank had informed his sister ; and their success, as examplified by the prosperity of the Rubber Development Company, and the honor conferred upon Laroche—previously an undesirable who had been given thirty days in which to clear out of his native country with the alternative of a cell in the State prison—was beyond question. The natives who, prior to the concession of their land to the company, had been lazy and indolent, had been electrified into hard working, careful living, and industrious beings, and, though the population had shown an extraordinary decrease, and the number of the halt and maimed a surprising increase, the prosperity of the Rubber Development Company was a byword in all the exchanges in Europe.
The news was conveyed to Gutch in a letter from Mary, which reached him at his office, and as he read it, with his long legs stretched out on his desk, he whistled solemnly the opening bars of Chopin’s Funeral March.
George Walker, who was engaged in what he called “teasing” a few blades of wheat into justifying his
master's whole-hearted faith in his skill as an intensive culturist, carefully readjusted the glass top of one of the boxes which tilled the window sills of the office, and turned a questioning face in the direction of Coverley Gutch.
“Bad news?" lie queried.
Gutch read the letter to the end before he answered.
“Know anything about the Congo. George?" he said, inconsequentie.
Walker shook his head. Geography was not his strong point.
“It’s of no consequence in the world,” continued Gutch, fingering his flaming, spotted tie. “It’s a country in Africa—nice sort of place somewhere about the equator. Niggers and rubber and things, you know. Strange kind of hole, where the blacks, I'm given to understand, decrease in proportion to the consumption of the natural products of the country. But that’s not the point—ab-so-lute-ly not.”
Walker preserved an appearance so stolid as to suggest that he was training for a living statuary performance at the music-halls. Gutch looked round at him over his shoulder.
“Oh, you are listening: you’re not asleep. Just see if you can find the name of his Most Eminent Excellency the Baron Laroche in the Directors’ Guide.”
While Walker turned over the pages of the volume in seach of the particulars he had been asked for, Coverley Gutch gave his attention once again to the letter from Mary Grindley and the enclosure which had accompanied it.
Briefly, that letter narrated certain facts concerning Frank Grindlev’s three years’ experience in the Congo. He had obtained, after knocking about in various positions, a junior District Commissionership in the south central portion of the Congo, in a corner between Portuguese West Africa and Rhodesia. There he had struck a virgin rubber
forest, and, backed by ten thousand pounds of his father’s money, had secured a concession embracing this forest. The formal authority, a portentous document decorated with the royal coat of arms, he had forwarded to England , and it now lay upon the desk in front of Coverley (lutch.
It had been Frank’s idea to float» a company in London for the proper development of the concession. For weeks his letters had been full of the scheme, full also of the arrival of a great official from Brussels, the Baron Laroche, who was supposed to be touring the country in the interests of the natives. The sequence of letters from Frank Grindley related how a rupture had taken place between himself and the Baron on the subject of the latter’s treatment of the blacks. The very last letter described a violent scene, in which the two men had almost come to blows. Then the correspondence had abruptly ceased, and not a word more had been heard from Frank Grindley. For eighteen months a lingering hope had remained in the minds of his family that news would be heard of him ; but all their inquiries proved futile, and now they had given him up as dead.
After relating these facts, Mary Grindley went on to implore Coverley Gutch’s assistance. He was the only man of her acquaintance, she said, to whom she could turn; her father, fearful lest Frank might have disgraced himself again, had refused to pursue his investigations, and it ivas left to Mary, his only surviving child, to avenge the wrong, if wrong had been done to her brother. Would Mr. Gutch, she wrote, try and ascertain the value of the property mentioned in the enclosed document, and further, find out some particulars for her regarding the Baron Laroche?
“Here you are, Mr. Gutch,” said Walker, interrupting his meditations, and pointing with a big, broad thumb to a paragraph in the volume
he had in his hands, “yon’s chap you mentioned.”
Gutch read through the list of companies with which Laroche was concerned. His enterprises in the field of commerce were of a variegated sort, from beet-sugar to Hungarian timber. There was only one of the companies of which he was director whose operations were connected with the Congo, and that was the Rubber Development Company. Taking his legs off the desk, Gutch rose lazily from his chair, and, crossing the room to a file cabinet, took out from one of the drawers the prospectus, of the Rubber Development Company. He read it through carefully, and then, with a puzzled look on his face, took up the document Mary Grindley had sent him. Leaning over his desk, he looked from the document to the prospectus and back again. Suddenly he stood erect, and, plunging his hands deep into his trousers pockets, began whistling the March from “Athaíie.” He pulled up in front of Walker and eyed him gravely for a moment, as if his continued existence was a matter for surprise.
“George,” he said at last, “have you ever known a Belgian baron ?”
“Nay,” retorted Walker, gruffly, “I don’t hold with them foreigners.”
“Well, I’m going to make the acquaintance of one before many days are out — that’s certain, ab-so-lute-
He looked at his watch. It was half-past eleven. Without troubling about his hat, he passed out of his office and made his way across the street into the “House.” There he calmly sold fifty thousand “devils,” as the Rubber Development shares were called, at a premium of il/2, and then went leisurely, with a goodnatured smile upon his face, to his lunch.
As Baron Laroche sat opposite his wife the following morning, combin-
ing the business of eating-his petit dejeuner and reading his favorite financial paper, he suddenly gave an exclamation of surprise, and his face assumed so angry and so ferocious an appearance that his wife committed the unusual indiscretion of asking what was the matter.
“It is nothing,” said the Baron, with an assumption of indifference. “It is a lie of these papers, but it is nothing, nothing.”
He repeated the phrase twice. It was one which had won him a certain amount of celebrity. With a cigarette between his lips, and the air of a grand seigneur, he dismissed lightly all sorts of reflections on his conduct as an official with those same words, “It is nothing.” Somehow or other, on this occasion they did not seem to carry the same conviction, even to himself He grew angrier and angrier, and at last, in an explosive fury, jumped from his seat and rushed to the telephone. In a few moments his fiat in Kensington had been placed in connection with the office of the Financial Chronicle.
“Yes, yes. I’m Baron Laroche. This report in your paper that the Rubber Development Company has no title to the property in the Congo —it is scandalous. It is a most serious business. If it is not contradicted I must place the matter in the hands of my solicitors. What is that you sav^—you had it on good authority? Who is the authority, I should like to know? Your representative had it from Mr.—who?— Mr. Coverley Gutch, of the Stock Exchange, eh ? I will see this Mr. Gutch, and I will consider what steps are necessary to protect the interests of the company. And his address ?”
He made a note of the address on his shirt-cuff, and then banged down the receiver, tempestuously.
“It is nothing,” he muttered to himself, ignoring the existence of his wife, and striding up and down
TO.MU, stroking his imperial and ing ferociously at the carpet, “it blague, but all the same I will this Coverlev Gutch—yes, I will him at once.”
le rang the bell for his valet, and, ssing himself with particular e. sallied out to the motoruigham. which had been got rcadv his hasty summons. When he ornately knocked at the door of werley Gutch’s office, lie was a lm. dignified, almost distinguishi-looking foreigner, with the autliritativc air of a field-marshal. “What dost tha want?” was \ alker’s greeting, as he opened the loor.
“I am Baron Laroche. There is nv card. I wish to see Mr. Coverley Gutch—at once.”
lie waited for Walker to hurry away at his command. To his surprise. the Yorkshireman examined the card with a care and deliberation which seemed to suggest that he thought the piece of paste-board a forgery and his visitor a suspicious character.
“Tha mon bide a bit; Mr. Gutch is in't ‘House.’ ”
Though the Baron spoke English perfectly, he had some difficulty in following Walker’s dialect.
“If Mr. Gutch is in the ‘House,’ kindly send for him. My business is u rgent.”
“Happen!” retorted Walker with non-committal lethargy.
How much longer the exasperated Baron might have had to bear Walker’s stolid indifference to the imvicrtance of his busines, it is difficult to say, but a further trial of his temper was obviated by the arrival of Coverlev Gutch himself, whistling Schubert’s Serenade.
“Ah ! Baron Laroche,” he said, looking at the card he took from Walker. “I was expecting you.” “Take any interest in intensified culture. Baron?” he asked as he closed the door of his office, “Some in-
tcresting examples here. Growing more wheat in a square foot than you can get in a square yard under the ordinary system—ab-so-lute-ly.
Baron Laroche interrupted angrily*
“Your wheat is nothing to me. I have come here about the report in the Financial Chronicle, for which, I understand, you are responsible, concerning the Rubber Development Company.”
Gutch suppressed with difficulty a craving to whistle.
"I told the Chronicle people to tell you I had given them the information,” he said, blandly smiling, “it has had a tremendous effect on the market. ‘Devils’ have fallen a whole point this morning.”
Fie thrust his long arms deep into his trousers pockets and looked good-naturedly at the Baron, as if lie were convinced the news must have an inspiriting effect on his temper. The Baron glowered back at him with ferocious indignation.
“You put in this false report, and then you have the impudence to tell me that.”
“Ab-so-lute-ly, Baron,” retorted Gutch serenely. “I am ‘bearing’ ‘Devils,” you see.”
With a supreme effort the Baron recovered that air of authoritative dignity for which he was famous. He calmly took a seat at the desk facing Gutch.
“Very well,” he said, tapping off. the points with his gloved fingers. “You are ‘bearing’ these shares, and you secure the insertion of this false and scandalous report in the Financial Chronicle to insure depreciation of the shares. You make this gross charge without a shadow of proof. I shall report the matter to the committee of the ‘House.’ ”
“My boy,” retorted Gutch, with the grin of a schoolboy, “you could n’t do anything I should like better. They shall have the authority for mv statement whenever they wish it.”
“And who is your authority?”
“Mr. Frank Grindley, to whom the concession was made in the first instance.”
“That is a lie.” retorted the Baron, slowly, “for your Mr. Grindley has been dead, now, over eighteen months.”
“Ah. you know that?” questioned Gutch eagerly, leaning across the desk.
The Baron stroked his grey imperial.
“Certainly, I saw him die—of a stroke. So your pretty little story tumbles to the ground, Mr. Cuberley Gutch.”
“Coverley—not Cuberley—Baron. As for the proof of my statement, I have the original document granting Mr. Frank Grindley the concession in consideration of ten thousand oounds and the usual royalty. Also I have a collection of charming anecdotes—ab-so-lute-ly charming— about your Excellency, which I shall publish from time to time, unless we can come to terms, Baron.”
The Baron’s brows contracted, and his eyes narrowed.
“Your silly threats, they are nothing, but if you have any such forged document, you will give it me, please —now.”
He spoke emphatically, as one with authority, his eyes fixed on Gutch. Gutch leant back in his chair and roared with laughter.
“Don’t, Baron, you’re too funny —ab-so-lute-ly too funny.”
He closed his eyes in the exquisiteness of his enjoyment. When he opened them again, he found himself looking down the glittering barrel of a revolver.
“You will give me those papers, please,” said the Baron, watching Gutch closely, the hand which held the revolver as steady as a rock.
“I his is not the Congo, Baron,” Gutch said calmly, not a sign of
nervousness escaping him. “You arc qualifying yourself for a stretch on the gallows.”
“That is nothing. You are trying to ruin me. You will give me the document or I fire.”
With his right foot Gutch rang the bell that was hidden in the carpet beneath his desk.
“The document is the property of Mr. Frank Grindley’s sister, and so I certainly shall not give it to you. I should put that toy away, Baron ; it might go off.”
The glass door behind the unconscious Baron opened softly.
“I will count ten, Mr. Cuberley Gutch, and if you do not give me the papers before then, I will fire. One —two-”
Suddenly a huge hand closed upon the Baron’s right wrist. The revolver was wrenched from his grasp as if he had been an infant, and, before he could utter a word, he was lifted out of the chair and flung on the ground.
“That’ll do. George,” said Gutch, still calmly sitting at his desk, “let him get up. I wish you good-day, Baron. Our interview has been most interesting. The little dispute between us I’ll settle in my own way without calling in the police. George, show His Excellency out.”
On the evening of the same day, Coverley Gutch, having concluded his business in the city, by buying twice the number of “Devils” he had sold, motored out from his house at Hendon to the old manor which belonged to the Grindleys, some five miles from Rickmansworth. It was nine o’clock as he passed the lodge gates. Half-way up the long drive, he saw a familiar figure, walking rapidly towards him.
“Mr. Grindley,” he called out, stopping his car, “I was just coming up to see you,”
Dazzled by the glare of the acetylene lamps, Mr. Grindley was unable to ditinguish his visitor.
“Who is that?” he asked in a shaky voice.
“Coverley Gutch. Ought to know me after all these years, Mr. Grindley,” said Gutch, getting out of the car and going up to the side of the old gentleman, with whom he had been intimate ever since he had received his first tip from him at school.
Mr. Grindley was in evening dress, and without a hat, and his face showed signs of great agitation. “Thank God it is you, my boy,” he said warmly, taking Gutch’s hand. “I can speak to you and perhaps you can help me.”
“Rather! But what on earth’s the matter?”
“It’s about Frank, my poor boy. He’s come back. God knows what disgrace there is this time.”
“Frank come back! Why-”
Gutch stopped himself abruptly. “I found it out by chance. We had some friends up to dinner and bridge. About a quarter of an hour ago I missed Mary. It was awkward, because, since my dear wife’s death, she has had to act the part of hostess. I made inquiries among the servants, and one of them brought me this letter, picked up in Mary’s room.”
With a shaking hand he held out a crumpled piece of paper. Taking it, Gutch bent over the lamp and read what was written there.
“Dear Mary.—I’ve come back, but I’m in a deuce of a hole and don’t like to face the old man. Will you meet me without fail, in Lark’s Avenue, at 9.30 tonight? Don’t fail me.—Frank.”
“I don’t know what to do,” exclaimed Mr. Grindley. “I thought I would just go to the lodge to see if I could see Mary, but I can’t leave my guests without an explanation. Will you go, Coverley, and see my poor boy? I can trust you;
find out what is the matter, and do whatever is necessary. Save me from any further disgrace, if yuu can.”
Coverley Gutch swung himself into the car.
“You go home, Mr. Grindley,” he said. “I’ll see everything’s all right.”
He turned the car and sped quickly back down the drive. As he passed the lodge gates again, he turned to Walker.
“George, you heard what Mr. Grindley said. There’s something wrong here, ab-so-lute-ly. Frank Grindley can’t have come back.”
“Why?” retorted Walker, with his usual monosyllabic brevity.
“Because he’s dead!”
Lark’s Avenue is a pathway about half a mile long, cut through a magnificent beech wood. Leaving the car at the little inn hard by, Gutch and Walker picked their way in the moonlight across the grass. As they entered the Avenue they were enveloped in darkness. Not a thing could be seen beneath the thick leafy arch of the trees. Behind them the light of the inn seemed to shine almost with the glare of Regent St. They moved forward a few paces into the impenetrable blackness and then stopped. From what seemed a long distance off, they heard a faint cry. Both men broke into a run at the sound, stumbling about among the trees and tripping over the bared roots. After a minute of this sort of progress they came to a halt, hopelessly lost and thoroughly confused as to their whereabouts. Suddenly out of the darkness they heard voices, speaking in whispers, quite near to them.
“Hist, monsieur, somebody is coming.”
For a few seconds dead silence reigned in the wood ; then a voice, familiar to Gutch, spoke.
“The devil take her obstinancy! We must carry her to the car.”
There was a rustle of dried leaves and the cracking of twigs, and then the sound of hard breathing coming nearer. Indistinctly, through the blackness, two ligures appeared.
There was a sound of something dropped, and the light scuttering of feet as Gutch clutched out into the darkness. llis hands closed viselike, on the arm of a man.
"Strike a light, George. Never mind the other man.”
A little spurt of líame cast a yellow circle on the screen of darkness, illuminating the grey silver trunk of a gigantic beech tree, at the foot of which lay the figure of a woman, with a handkerchief tightly bound round her mouth. Gutch pushed forward the man he held so that he could see his face.
"Baron Laroche! I thought so— ab-so-lute-ly. George, hold his Excellency a moment, while I attend to Miss Grindley.”
Handing over his captive, he went down on his knees and gently loosened the handkerchief which was bound round the girl’s face.
"It’s all right, AI i ss Grindley, it’s I—Coverley Gutch. Try and tell us what’s happened.”
A perplexed look passed over the girl’s face. She smiled faintly at Gutch and then knit her brows as if to collect her thoughts.
"I thought it was Frank, but it was Baron Laroche. He told me Frank was dead, and he wanted to force me to get back that concession paper from you. When I refused, he seized hold of my arm and threatened me, and I think I must have fainted.”
"Right you are, Miss Grindley, I’ll settle with the Baron. Now, you try and walk. Your father’s fearfully anxious about you. George, bring along his Serene Eminence.” He helped Miss Grindley to her feet, and slowly conducted her down the Avenue again, through the field, to his car. Leaving George to stand
sentry over the Baron, he drove her back to the house. What exactly passed between them on the way, Gutch never breathed to anyone, but wdien he returned once more to the place w here he had left \\ alkei and his prisoner, he was in the wildest spirits.
"You are going to give me to the police?” stuttered the Baron, as Walker forced him into a seat.
"No. Baron. That’s not my way. I'm going to have a little talk and do a little business when we get back to my place.”
Glitch’s little talk, which took place between midnight and two in the morning, was a rather one-sided affair. He did most of the talking, and the Baron answered in muttered monosyllables. In the end his Excellency signed a cheque payable to Mr. Grindley for fifteen thousand pounds, being the ten thousand pounds, plus interest, paid by Frank Grindley for his concession, and appended his signature to a transfer by which he made over all his shares in the Rubber Development Company to Mary Grindley.
"This is highly illegal, Baron—abso-lute-ly,” said Gutch, at the conclusion of these transactions. It’s compounding a felony and all that kind of thing, but it’s a more satisfactory way for all parties concerned than draining bogs at Princetown.”
Two days later, an announcement in the Financial Chronicle, stating that the difficulty which had arisen over the title of the Rubber Development Company to their concession had been settled, had an inspiriting effect on the market. "Devils” rose again to a premium of il/2, at which figure Gutch sold his hundred thousand shares.
Four days later Baron Laroche hastened to take his departure from London for his native country—a poorer, and, perhaps, a wiser man. As for Mary Grindley, that is another story.