You can't be too careful, by H. G. Wells

Chapter 8

Snares for Mr Myame

THE letter composed by Edward Albert was coloured in its phraseology by the beginnings of instruction in commercial correspondence and perhaps also by the Home Letter with which the school sessions terminated. It ran as follows:

“DEAR SIR,

In reply to your esteemed inquiries we (corrected to ‘I’) beg to submit to you where I am at present. I am situated at present in a Commercial Academy for Young Gentlemen in the care of my esteemed guardian and principal Mr Abner Myame, A.G.P., Member by Examination of the University of London, etc., who is my trustee and guardian.

It is my pleasure to express to you my gratitude for your kindness in sending her (corrected to ‘my mother’) that very beautiful wreath. I am sure she would have enjoyed it very much could she have known of it, which unhappily was not the case. I would like to see you and talk to you very much, but Mr Myame does not think so. I want your advice, Sir. Please reply to the above address and not directly to the school. With the sincerest thanks for your past valued favours and an assurance of my continued efforts to merit your esteemed patronage,

I beg to submit myself, Sir,

Your most obedient servant,

E.A. TEWLER.

“Don’t write to the school.”

Mr Jim Whittaker reread this letter for the sixth time and then handed it to his friend Sir Rumbold Hooper, the well — known patent specialist, the omniscient solicitor, Old Artful, the friend of man and woman, gallant but discreet. They were sitting together in a warm corner of the Reform Club Smoking Room after lunch. They were consuming excellent but deleterious white port — and they realised themselves in a glow of tawny gold. They knew almost too certainly that they were wise and worthy men.

“Document One,” said Mr James Whittaker. . . . ” And now for Document Two. . . . It’s illuminating, isn’t it? And here is what Keyhole and Sludge report. It seems to me that the worthy Myame is a frightened, bad-tempered man. What’s upset him? But read it. . . . ”

Document Two ran as follows:

DEAR SIR,

Some days ago I was disagreeably surprised by a visit from a private inquiry agent, one of those instruments of blackmail and intimidation who are becoming such a serious menace nowadays. He mentioned your name and I did not at first realise the nature of his errand. He pressed me with a number of questions some of which I realised later he had no right whatever to ask. If you wanted to communicate with me I should have thought it would have been possible to employ some more acceptable intermediary. I gathered from this agent of yours that you wish to trace your young friend my ward Edward Albert Tewler. Letters sent to his former address had it seems gone astray and been returned. He is in excellent health and making satisfactory progress with his studies, more particularly in Elementary French, commercial correspondence and Scripture. His cricket also has greatly improved. He has asked me to tell you on his behalf how much he appreciated the beautiful wreath you sent when his mother passed over to her peace among God’s chosen. He felt her loss very keenly, but I hope and pray it may prove a blessing in disguise for him, turning his mind to those deeper things in life, to which he has hitherto been somewhat inattentive. I do not know whether you are aware that like his parents he is a Peculiar Baptist and that under the guidance of our dear wise pastor, Mr Burlap, he is now preparing to become a full member of our little church. He is greatly preoccupied with these matters and I think it is very undesirable that he should be distracted. I shall prefer it if you will deal directly with me henceforth and not through a hired investigator.

Sincerely yours,

ABNER MYAME,

A.C.P. Member by Examination of London University.

“That hired investigator seems to have put him through a bit of a grilling, and he seems to have answered a lot of questions he needn’t have done, before he realised what he was doing. Ah! here’s the young sleuth’s report. Quite an intelligent report too. Keyhole and Sludge — I know a thing or two about Keyhole and Sludge. It must be quite a change for them to be fishing in clean water. So Chadband is guardian and trustee and practically everything. He seems to be in a pretty strong position,”

“Chadband? I should have thought it was Squeers we had to deal with.”

“What a fellow Dickens was!” said Mr Jim Whittaker.

“How he knew his English! Bleak House is as complete and deadly a picture of England as we shall ever get. The types, the temperaments, the Tite Barnacles and all the rest of them. Nobody can touch him! How he poured it out! Mixed with mud. With a lot of mud. Like Shakespeare. Like everything English.” (“Dostoyevsky, for example,” whispered Hooper unheeded, “or Balzac.”) “And the public he wrote for! He had to tell them when to laugh and when to cry. And he couldn’t bear not to have ’em all chuckling and sniffing with him. All the same he knew the English mixture. How completely he knew it! No wonder the highbrows hate him! Micawber, Chadband, Horace Skimpole, Mrs Jellaby, Squeers. There isn’t an Englishman alive who doesn’t correspond to some character or other of his — or some combination of them. Not one. How he laced it all together from Tulkinghorn to that poor little wretch ‘Jo’! Marvellous!”

Sir Rumbold reflected. “I never had your obsession with Dickens. Still — he got over a vast breadth of canvas, I admit. When did you read Bleak House last, Whittaker?”

“I read it and reread it when I was at Cambridge. No! — at Winchester.”

“Don’t read it again — ever. There’s a time in a young man’s life for reading Dickens — and a time to stop reading Dickens.”

“I could read Pickwick now with the same enjoyment —”

“You don’t.”

“I tell you —”

“Don’t. It won’t be true, Whittaker. You’ll think it is true and you’ll get irritated if I throw doubts. Why cannot you be moderate, Whittaker? What a gift you have for unqualified enthusiasms! You over-do everything, unless you forget to do anything about it. Shakespeare isn’t all good. You’d die rather than confess it. If you had to choose two books for a desert island, you’d choose the Bible — and Shakespeare. You say that at once. I wouldn’t. I know them too well. If there was a third book allowed, you’d say Dickens. . . . ”

“This literary talk is all very well,” said Whittaker. “But where does it get us?”

“Who began it?”

“Have it your own way. But what concerns me now is this problem of Squeers–Chadband. What are we to do about him?”

“It’s poor ‘Jo’ out of Tom’s All Alone we have to consider,” said Sir Rumbold. “Do you remember poor Jo? He died very beautifully but rather incredibly repeating the Lord’s Prayer.”

“I remember Jo all right. But what I can do for him, I don’t know. His letter is a shriek for help, but Squeers — Chadband seems to have got him tied up body and soul, all ready to devour.”

“You think?”

“Should I consult you if I didn’t?”

“Another little port won’t do us any harm. . . . ”

“Well now, what standing have we? Whatever little pile of savings Ma Tewler left is completely in his hands until the kid is twenty-one, and, as the report points out, there is nothing to prevent him paying not only interest but principal into his own account as school and tuition fees, and transferring investments and so forth and so on. He seems to be launching out and enlarging his school. What’s to prevent him buying our little misery a partnership in his own school? He can break him down to a junior partner, and make a sort of unpaid assistant of him. Something that dropped from him, the report says, seems to suggest that. What right has anyone to intervene?”

“We’ll see about that later. Why is Chadband in a funk about it at all? Why doesn’t he face us out?”

“That puzzles me.”

“Conscience makes cowards of us all, Whittaker. Our investigator makes a suggestion. That youngster ought to be at Scotland Yard, by the way, instead of defiling himself with Keyhole and Sludge. But you see he suggests here that Chadband began by keeping accounts for a month or so until he felt safe about something, and that since then he has just been swiping money out of the trust whenever he felt like it. The appetite grows with what it feeds on. What was it he had to feel safe about? Well — let us consider. You?”

“How me?”

“As the boy’s next of kin or father perhaps?”

“But —!”

“When you didn’t follow up that evidently much too impressive wreath, he dropped the idea, and now this inquiry of yours has revived it.”

“My dear Hooper! Damnation! You don’t imagine!”

“No. But Chadband may. You can’t imagine the ideas he has about — our sort of people. I see no reason why he shouldn’t go on imagining it for a bit. I don’t think it would give you any standing in the case, but he may think it might.”

“Preposterous!”

“A time will come when you’ll have to drop that double port after lunch. It makes you gouty and testy. I can stand it but you can’t. It’s your hormones or something. . . . Anyhow Chadband’s not a well-informed man. You must always in this sort of affair consider the limitations of the particular individual you are dealing with. He may imagine there is some sort of legal supervision of trustees. There isn’t but there ought to be. There ought to be a sort of Public Trustee for these things. There will be one of these days. Let that pass. But evidently he can’t stand up to any sort of examination of his accounts, and that is what scares him. He’s just been drawing cheques out of the trust account, selling securities, and going ahead, building a new classroom, throwing out a wing for a third dormitory. And what we have to consider is just how we can go through his passbooks.”

“We can’t,”

“We can.”

“How can we?”

“And without any slur on your high moral character.”

“Well, just consider! The wife of a trusted employee! Damn it! I wish you wouldn’t keep harping on that idea. It’s disagreeable. Things like this without a word of truth in them get about. And when once they get about. . . . ”

“Forgive me. We’ll drop all that. When I tried that suggestion I hadn’t thought of the real way to do the job. Now I have.”

“Well?”

“You see,” said Sir Rumbold, “you owe the boy a considerable sum of money.”

“The devil I do!”

“Yes. You owe him well over a hundred pounds.”

“First I’ve heard about it. You get wilder and wilder.”

“You see you have a system of crediting commissions to your staff as a sort of bonus to the retiring allowance.”

“It’s news to me.”

“All done very quietly. Yes. You don’t know everything about your Firm, you know. By a long chalk. Listen to what I am telling you. Don’t keep interrupting. I’m doing this job for you, aren’t I? This bonus may have its imaginative element, but the fact is it gets us right into Chadband’s pass — book and that’s where we want to get.”

“He’ll just swipe that extra hundred pounds. What’s to prevent him?”

“That’s easy.”

“I don’t see it.”

“No. But listen! You have to see that it is invested to the best advantage. That is in the instrument or deeds or whatever they are — leave that to me — and that is where we poke our inquiring little fingers into the guardianship of the worthy Myame. We go and see him. We look at him hard. We ask for insignificant details. Somehow, and quite improperly and unjustly, the word embezzlement creeps into the discussion. Does your slow but solid intelligence begin to grasp the situation now?”

“Suppose he fights when he realises he is cornered?”

“Chadband isn’t going to fight. Trust me. We’ll have him whining in no time.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30