The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter IX

The Great Railway to Vera Cruz

‘You have been a guest in his house. Then, I guess, the thing’s about as good as done.’ These words were spoken with a fine, sharp, nasal twang by a brilliantly-dressed American gentleman in one of the smartest private rooms of the great railway hotel at Liverpool, and they were addressed to a young Englishman who was sitting opposite to him. Between them there was a table covered with maps, schedules, and printed programmes. The American was smoking a very large cigar, which he kept constantly turning in his mouth, and half of which was inside his teeth. The Englishman had a short pipe. Mr Hamilton K. Fisker, of the firm of Fisker, Montague, and Montague, was the American, and the Englishman was our friend Paul, the junior member of that firm.

‘But I didn’t even speak to him,’ said Paul.

‘In commercial affairs that matters nothing. It quite justifies you in introducing me. We are not going to ask your friend to do us a favour. We don’t want to borrow money.’

‘I thought you did.’

‘If he’ll go in for the thing he’d be one of us, and there would be no borrowing then. He’ll join us if he’s as clever as they say, because he’ll see his way to making a couple of million of dollars out of it. If he’d take the trouble to run over and show himself in San Francisco, he’d make double that. The moneyed men would go in with him at once, because they know that he understands the game and has got the pluck. A man who has done what he has by financing in Europe — by George! there’s no limit to what he might do with us. We’re a bigger people than any of you and have more room. We go after bigger things, and don’t stand shilly-shally on the brink as you do. But Melmotte pretty nigh beats the best among us. Anyway he should come and try his luck, and he couldn’t have a bigger thing or a safer thing than this. He’d see it immediately if I could talk to him for half an hour.’

‘Mr Fisker,’ said Paul mysteriously, ‘as we are partners, I think I ought to let you know that many people speak very badly of Mr Melmotte’s honesty.’

Mr Fisker smiled gently, turned his cigar twice round in his mouth, and then closed one eye. ‘There is always a want of charity,’ he said, ‘when a man is successful.’

The scheme in question was the grand proposal for a South Central Pacific and Mexican railway, which was to run from the Salt Lake City, thus branching off from the San Francisco and Chicago line — and pass down through the fertile lands of New Mexico and Arizona into the territory of the Mexican Republic, run by the city of Mexico, and come out on the gulf at the port of Vera Cruz. Mr Fisker admitted at once that it was a great undertaking, acknowledged that the distance might be perhaps something over 2000 miles, acknowledged that no computation had or perhaps could be made as to the probable cost of the railway; but seemed to think that questions such as these were beside the mark and childish. Melmotte, if he would go into the matter at all, would ask no such questions.

But we must go back a little. Paul Montague had received a telegram from his partner, Hamilton K. Fisker, sent on shore at Queenstown from one of the New York liners, requesting him to meet Fisker at Liverpool immediately. With this request he had felt himself bound to comply. Personally he had disliked Fisker — and perhaps not the less so because when in California he had never found himself able to resist the man’s good humour, audacity, and cleverness combined. He had found himself talked into agreeing with any project which Mr Fisker might have in hand. It was altogether against the grain with him, and yet by his own consent, that the flour-mill had been opened at Fiskerville. He trembled for his money and never wished to see Fisker again; but still, when Fisker came to England, he was proud to remember that Fisker was his partner, and he obeyed the order and went down to Liverpool.

If the flour-mill had frightened him, what must the present project have done! Fisker explained that he had come with two objects — first to ask the consent of the English partner to the proposed change in their business, and secondly to obtain the cooperation of English capitalists. The proposed change in the business meant simply the entire sale of the establishment at Fiskerville, and the absorption of the whole capital in the work of getting up the railway. ‘If you could realise all the money it wouldn’t make a mile of the railway,’ said Paul. Mr Fisker laughed at him. The object of Fisker, Montague, and Montague was not to make a railway to Vera Cruz, but to float a company. Paul thought that Mr Fisker seemed to be indifferent whether the railway should ever be constructed or not. It was clearly his idea that fortunes were to be made out of the concern before a spadeful of earth had been moved. If brilliantly printed programmes might avail anything, with gorgeous maps, and beautiful little pictures of trains running into tunnels beneath snowy mountains and coming out of them on the margin of sunlit lakes, Mr Fisker had certainly done much. But Paul, when he saw all these pretty things, could not keep his mind from thinking whence had come the money to pay for them. Mr Fisker had declared that he had come over to obtain his partner’s consent, but it seemed to that partner that a great deal had been done without any consent. And Paul’s fears on this hand were not allayed by finding that on all these beautiful papers he himself was described as one of the agents and general managers of the company. Each document was signed Fisker, Montague, and Montague. References on all matters were to be made to Fisker, Montague, and Montague — and in one of the documents it was stated that a member of the firm had proceeded to London with the view of attending to British interests in the matter. Fisker had seemed to think that his young partner would express unbounded satisfaction at the greatness which was thus falling upon him. A certain feeling of importance, not altogether unpleasant, was produced, but at the same time there was another conviction forced upon Montague’s mind, not altogether pleasant, that his, money was being made to disappear without any consent given by him, and that it behoved him to be cautious lest such consent should be extracted from him unawares.

‘What has become of the mill?’ he asked

‘We have put an agent into it.’

‘Is not that dangerous? What check have you on him?’

‘He pays us a fixed sum sir. But, my word! when there is such a thing as this on hand a trumpery mill like that is not worth speaking of.’

‘You haven’t sold it?’

‘Well; — no. But we’ve arranged a price for a sale.’

‘You haven’t taken the money for it?’

‘Well; — yes; we have. We’ve raised money on it, you know. You see you weren’t there, and so the two resident partners acted for the firm. But Mr Montague, you’d better go with us. You had indeed.’

‘And about my own income?’

‘That’s a flea-bite. When we’ve got a little ahead with this it won’t matter, sir, whether you spend twenty thousand or forty thousand dollars a year. We’ve got the concession from the United States Government through the territories, and we’re in correspondence with the President of the Mexican Republic. I’ve no doubt we’ve an office open already in Mexico and another at Vera Cruz.’

‘Where’s the money to come from?’

‘Money to come from, sir? Where do you suppose the money comes from in all these undertakings? If we can float the shares, the money’ll come in quick enough. We hold three million dollars of the stock ourselves.’

‘Six hundred thousand pounds!’ said Montague.

‘We take them at par, of course — and as we sell we shall pay for them. But of course we shall only sell at a premium. If we can run them up even to 110, there would be three hundred thousand dollars. But we’ll do better than that. I must try and see Melmotte at once. You had better write a letter now.’

‘I don’t know the man.’

‘Never mind. Look here I’ll write it, and you can sign it.’ Whereupon Mr Fisker did write the following letter:—

Langham Hotel, London. March 4, 18 —.

DEAR SIR

I have the pleasure of informing you that my partner Mr Fisker — of Fisker, Montague, and Montague, of San Francisco — is now in London with the view of allowing British capitalists to assist in carrying out perhaps the greatest work of the age — namely, the South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway, which is to give direct communication between San Francisco and the Gulf of Mexico. He is very anxious to see you upon his arrival, as he is aware that your co-operation would be desirable. We feel assured that with your matured judgment in such matters, you would see, at once, the magnificence of the enterprise. If you will name a day and an hour, Mr Fisker will call upon you.

I have to thank you and Madame Melmotte for a very pleasant evening spent at your house last week.

Mr Fisker proposes returning to New York. I shall remain here, superintending the British interests which may be involved.

I have the honour to be,

Dear Sir,

Most faithfully yours.

‘But I have never said that I would superintend the interests,’ said Montague.

‘You can say so now. It binds you to nothing. You regular John Bull Englishmen are so full of scruples that you lose as much of life as should serve to make an additional fortune.’

After some further conversation Paul Montague recopied the letter and signed it. He did it with doubt — almost with dismay. But he told himself that he could do no good by refusing. If this wretched American, with his hat on one side and rings on his fingers, had so far got the upper hand of Paul’s uncle as to have been allowed to do what he liked with the funds of the partnership, Paul could not stop it. On the following morning they went up to London together, and in the course of the afternoon Mr Fisker presented himself in Abchurch Lane. The letter written at Liverpool, but dated from the Langham Hotel, had been posted at the Euston Square Railway Station at the moment of Fisker’s arrival. Fisker sent in his card, and was asked to wait. In the course of twenty minutes he was ushered into the great man’s presence by no less a person than Miles Grendall.

It has been already said that Mr Melmotte was a big man with large whiskers, rough hair, and with an expression of mental power on a harsh vulgar face. He was certainly a man to repel you by his presence unless attracted to him by some internal consideration. He was magnificent in his expenditure, powerful in his doings, successful in his business, and the world around him therefore was not repelled. Fisker, on the other hand, was a shining little man — perhaps about forty years of age, with a well-twisted moustache, greasy brown hair, which was becoming bald at the top, good-looking if his features were analysed, but insignificant in appearance. He was gorgeously dressed, with a silk waistcoat, and chains, and he carried a little stick. One would at first be inclined to say that Fisker was not much of a man; but after a little conversation most men would own that there was something in Fisker. He was troubled by no shyness, by no scruples, and by no fears. His mind was not capacious, but such as it was it was his own, and he knew how to use it.

Abchurch Lane is not a grand site for the offices of a merchant prince. Here, at a small corner house, there was a small brass plate on a swing door, bearing the words ‘Melmotte & Co.’ Of whom the Co was composed no one knew. In one sense Mr Melmotte might be said to be in company with all the commercial world, for there was no business to which he would refuse his co-operation on certain terms. But he had never burdened himself with a partner in the usual sense of the term. Here Fisker found three or four clerks seated at desks, and was desired to walk upstairs. The steps were narrow and crooked, and the rooms were small and irregular. Here he stayed for a while in a small dark apartment in which ‘The Daily Telegraph’ was left for the amusement of its occupant till Miles Grendall announced to him that Mr Melmotte would see him. The millionaire looked at him for a moment or two, just condescending to touch with his fingers the hand which Fisker had projected.

‘I don’t seem to remember,’ he said, ‘the gentleman who has done me the honour of writing to me about you.’

‘I dare say not, Mr Melmotte. When I’m at home in San Francisco, I make acquaintance with a great many gents whom I don’t remember afterwards. My partner I think told me that he went to your house with his friend, Sir Felix Carbury.’

‘I know a young man called Sir Felix Carbury.’

‘That’s it. I could have got any amount of introductions to you if I had thought this would not have sufficed.’ Mr Melmotte bowed. ‘Our account here in London is kept with the City and West End Joint Stock. But I have only just arrived, and as my chief object in coming to London is to see you, and as I met my partner, Mr Montague, in Liverpool, I took a note from him and came on straight.’

‘And what can I do for you, Mr Fisker?’

Then Mr Fisker began his account of the Great South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway, and exhibited considerable skill by telling it all in comparatively few words. And yet he was gorgeous and florid. In two minutes he had displayed his programme, his maps, and his pictures before Mr Melmotte’s eyes, taking care that Mr Melmotte should see how often the names of Fisker, Montague, and Montague, reappeared upon them. As Mr Melmotte read the documents, Fisker from time to time put in a word. But the words had no reference at all to the future profits of the railway, or to the benefit which such means of communication would confer upon the world at large; but applied solely to the appetite for such stock as theirs, which might certainly be produced in the speculating world by a proper manipulation of the affairs.

‘You seem to think you couldn’t get it taken up in your own country,’ said Melmotte.

‘There’s not a doubt about getting it all taken up there. Our folk, sir, are quick enough at the game; but you don’t want them to teach you, Mr Melmotte, that nothing encourages this kind of thing like competition. When they hear at St. Louis and Chicago that the thing is alive in London, they’ll be alive there. And it’s the same here, sir. When they know that the stock is running like wildfire in America, they’ll make it run here too.’

‘How far have you got?’

‘What we’ve gone to work upon is a concession for making the line from the United States Congress. We’re to have the land for nothing, of course, and a grant of one thousand acres round every station, the stations to be twenty-five miles apart.’

‘And the land is to be made over to you — when?’

‘When we have made the line up to the station.’ Fisker understood perfectly that Mr Melmotte did not ask the question in reference to any value that he might attach to the possession of such lands, but to the attractiveness of such a prospectus in the eyes of the outside world of speculators.

‘And what do you want me to do, Mr Fisker?’

‘I want to have your name there,’ he said. And he placed his finger down on a spot on which it was indicated that there was, or was to be, a chairman of an English Board of Directors, but with a space for the name hitherto blank.

‘Who are to be your directors here, Mr Fisker?’

‘We should ask you to choose them, sir. Mr Paul Montague should be one, and perhaps his friend Sir Felix Carbury might be another. We could get probably one of the Directors of the City and West End. But we would leave it all to you — as also the amount of stock you would like to take yourself. If you gave yourself to it, heart and soul, Mr Melmotte, it would be the finest thing that there has been out for a long time. There would be such a mass of stock!’

‘You have to back that with a certain amount of paid-up capital?’

‘We take care, sir, in the West not to cripple commerce too closely by old-fashioned bandages. Look at what we’ve done already, sir, by having our limbs pretty free. Look at our line, sir, right across the continent, from San Francisco to New York. Look at —’

‘Never mind that, Mr Fisker. People wanted to go from New York to San Francisco, and I don’t know that they do want to go to Vera Cruz. But I will look at it, and you shall hear from me.’ The interview was over, and Mr Fisker was contented with it. Had Mr Melmotte not intended at least to think of it, he would not have given ten minutes to the subject. After all, what was wanted from Mr Melmotte was little more than his name, for the use of which Mr Fisker proposed that he should receive from the speculative public two or three hundred thousand pounds.

At the end of a fortnight from the date of Mr Fisker’s arrival in London, the company was fully launched in England, with a body of London directors, of whom Mr Melmotte was the chairman. Among the directors were Lord Alfred Grendall, Sir Felix Carbury, Samuel Cohenlupe, Esq., Member of Parliament for Staines, a gentleman of the Jewish persuasion, Lord Nidderdale, who was also in Parliament, and Mr Paul Montague. It may be thought that the directory was not strong, and that but little help could be given to any commercial enterprise by the assistance of Lord Alfred or Sir Felix — but it was felt that Mr Melmotte was himself so great a tower of strength that the fortune of the Company — as a company — was made.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43