Authors: Robert Goddard
Also by Robert Goddard
IN PALE BATTALIONS
PAINTING THE DARKNESS
INTO THE BLUE
TAKE NO FAREWELL
HAND IN GLOVE
OUT OF THE SUN
CAUGHT IN THE LIGHT
SET IN STONE
DYING TO TELL
© Robert and Vaunda Goddard 2000
ISBN: 0 552 14602 1
It has been very judiciously observed that a commercial country has more to dread from the golden baits of avarice, the airy hopes of projectors and the wild enthusiastic dreams of speculators than from any external dangers.
John Millar, An Authentic Account of the South Sea Scheme (1845)
'I have made a profit of a thousand per cent — and I am satisfied.'
Robert Walpole (1720)
It was dismal weather for a dismal time. The night was damp and clammy, clinging to London like a cold sweat. A fire burned in the grate, but Sir Theodore Janssen stood on the far side of the drawing-room from it, one arm propped on the sill of the open window, the other raised to his chest, his hand splayed across his brocaded waistcoat. He glanced out into Hanover Square and seemed to see in the drizzle-smeared gloom the deepening shadow of his future.
Until so very recently, he had been a man of high repute as well as substance. A baronet at the 'special request' of the Prince of Wales, a Member of Parliament, a director of the Bank of England, a landed gentleman, a financier of almost legendary acumen, he had been able to look forward to an old age of comfort and esteem. He had transformed himself from a friendless young Flemish émigré into a pioneer of a new era of commercial freedom. Yet now, here he stood, on the brink of ruin, a self-unmade man too close to the biblical term of life to delude himself with hopes of recouping what he was surely about to lose.
The South Sea Company was his mistake, of course, as it had been many men's. If he had resigned his directorship twelve months ago, or better still never accepted it in the first place, he would be free of this. Not of all financial loss, naturally. No doubt he would have gambled on the stock continuing to rise, like everyone else. But he could have borne that. His wealth was such that he would scarcely have noticed. This was different, however. This was a shameful and unavoidable acknowledgement of his own greed and stupidity. And it would come with a price, one even he might be unable to pay.
To make matters bleaker still, on the other side of the room, warming himself before the well-stacked fire, stood the man who had lured him onto the board two years before: Robert Knight, chief cashier of the company, keeper of its accounts and guardian of its secrets. Knight too faced ruin, but did so with a blithe smile and an unfurrowed brow. He still looked ten years younger than he had any right to and retained a twinkle in his eye that owed nothing to the candlelight.
'Why are you here, Mr Knight?' Sir Theodore asked, turning from the window and coughing to clear the gruffness from his throat.
'Because I am to appear before the committee the day after tomorrow, Sir Theodore.' The committee to which Knight referred was the House of Commons Secret Committee of Inquiry into the South Sea scandal. It had been sitting like an army of occupation in South Sea House all week, interrogating whomever it pleased, appropriating whatever documents it deemed likely to lead it to the truth. But the truth was in essence already known. The South Sea scheme had always been an impossible dream, sustained only by a universal determination to believe in it. Now was the winter of cruel disillusionment, of frozen credit and frost-shattered fortunes. The search was on, not so much for truth as for culprits. Everyone was a victim. But not everyone could be a villain. 'I will be hard pressed, I think,' Knight continued. 'Do you not agree?'
'Very hard,' said Sir Theodore with a nod. 'I have no doubt of it.'
'What should I tell them?'
'You have come here for my advice?'
'Your advice — and your assistance.'
Sir Theodore frowned. 'Assistance with what?'
'The disposal — if I may so phrase it — of the contents of my valise.' Knight stooped to pick up the bag he had brought with him and advanced to a table halfway across the room. 'May I?'
With the faintest inclination of his head, Sir Theodore consented. Knight opened the valise and slid a thick leather-spined book out onto the table. The edges of its pages were marbled and well turned. Its cover was green.
'You look surprised, Sir Theodore.'
'You know what it is?'
'How should I?'
'How should you not? Unless —' Knight moved round the table and leaned back against it, trailing one hand behind him that came to rest on the cover of the book. 'Perhaps it is your intention to plead ignorance. And perhaps this is a rehearsal for such a plea. If so, let me spare you the effort. You know what this is. And I know that you know. You may fool others. I wish you luck in the endeavour. But you cannot fool me.'
'No.' Sir Theodore scowled. 'Of course not. It is quite the other way about, when all's said and done.'
'You were aware of the risks attendant upon our enterprise, Sir Theodore. Do not pretend otherwise.'
'Was I? I wonder now that I thought it could ever have succeeded.'
Sir Theodore was unlikely to be alone in that. All over England, the great and the good, the newly poor and the no longer rich, were asking the same question, if not of others then of themselves. How could they have supposed it would work? To snap one's fingers and convert thirty million pounds of the National Debt into the booming stock of a company whose hard commercial assets amounted to vastly less, but whose potential profits from the South Sea trade were surely limitless, had seemed magically appealing. And the smooth-tongued Mr Knight had swayed every doubter, if not with words then with... more tangible methods of persuasion. Now, however, the magician was exposed as a trickster. And those associated with him were left with the stark choice of proclaiming themselves either his dupes or his accomplices.
'I had hopes of more than my personal enrichment, Mr Knight,' Sir Theodore continued. 'I saw this as the beginning of a glorious new world for all. I believed we were engaged in the practice of philanthropy.'
'I should not recommend you to present that argument to the committee.'
'It is not an argument. It is the truth.'
'But will it keep you from prison? I think not.'
'Perhaps.' Knight's fingers drummed on the cover of the book. 'A harder kind of truth may save us.'
'You and me, Sir Theodore. You and me and your fellow directors and all their friends in high places. So many friends. So very high. Too high to be allowed to fall, I think. But the fear of falling will work wonders. And it is wonders we need.'
'I thought what you needed was assistance.'
'Precisely. A small thing to a great end.' His fingers stopped drumming. 'This book represents our salvation. But only so long as it remains safe, both from our friends, who would destroy it, and from our enemies, who would shout its secrets from the rooftops.'
'Then I suggest you keep it safe, Mr Knight.'
'How can I? There is no safe place left at South Sea House. Mr Brodrick has sent his ferrets down every hole.' Thomas Brodrick was chairman of the Committee of Inquiry, a sworn opponent of the South Sea Company and all its works. Sir Theodore did not need to be told that he had set about his task with relish as well as dedication. It went without saying. 'If I stay, they will find it.'
'If you stay?'
'Or if I flee, like as not.'
'Do you propose to flee?'
'I did not say so.' Knight smiled. 'Now did I?'
Sir Theodore's eyes narrowed. He pulled the window shut behind him with sudden and excessive force. Then he said, as if tiring of their mutual prevarication, 'What do you want of me?'
'I want you to take charge of the book.'
'Because you are the most eminent member of the board. Also the most reliable. And, I would judge, the least inclined to panic. Caswall and Master fell to blows in the street today outside South Sea House. It was not an edifying spectacle.'
'You flatter me, Mr Knight.'
'Not at all. I present you with the simple facts. You are the things I have said you are.'
'Supposing that to be so, why should my hands be safer than yours?'
'Because they are not the hands into which I might be expected to surrender such a document. And because you have acquaintances of long standing in your native land to whom it could be entrusted. In that event, I would not know where it was. The information could not be wrung out of me. And no-one would think to try to wring it out of you. While the book remains abroad, so to speak, there would be limits to the action that could be taken against us. It would be an insurance policy for both of us. And for our colleagues.'
'You are thinking of them?'
'No.' Knight grinned. 'I mention them in case you are.'
'If it became known that you had handed it to me, it might be supposed that I was familiar with its contents.'
'Which you are not, of course.' Knight's grin broadened, then abruptly vanished. 'But it would not become known. Why should it? I have confidence in your choice both of recipient and of courier. I have confidence in you altogether.'
'I think you have as little of that in me as I have in you, Mr Knight.'
Knight looked genuinely hurt. 'How can you say so?'
'But confidence is no longer the issue, is it? If it were, we would all still be riding high.'
'What then is the issue?'
'Desperation.' Sir Theodore gave a heavy sigh and walked slowly to the table, where he halted and stared down at the green-covered book. 'Sheer desperation.'
'Perhaps so. I'll not argue the point. The question is a simple one. Will you do it?'
'I would be mad to.'
'And madder still not to. There is a great deal at stake. More than just our personal circumstances. Far more. But it so happens' — Knight's voice took on the syrupy tone he had used to persuade so many in days gone by that the South Sea project could not, would not, fail —'that our interests and those of the nation coincide. Our salvation is the salvation of all.'
'Will you do it?' Knight repeated.
Sir Theodore looked at him long and hard, then said, 'Let me not detain you, Mr Knight.'
'May I leave what I brought?'
'You brought nothing.' Sir Theodore cocked one eyebrow. 'I trust that is understood.'
Knight nodded. 'Very clearly.'
'Then there is no more to be said.' Sir Theodore picked up the book and carried it to a bureau in a corner of the room. He slid it into one of the drawers, turned a key in the lock and dropped the key into his waistcoat pocket. 'Is there?'
An hour later, with Knight long gone, Sir Theodore rose from his seat at the bureau in which the green-covered book was still locked. He drained his glass of port and looked down at the letter it had taken him the better part of that hour to write. Yes, on balance, it seemed to him, he had disclosed as much and as little as he needed to. And the precaution he had urged on his oldest and most trusted friend, though extreme, was undoubtedly necessary. He sealed the letter, crossed to the bell-pull and tugged at it.
A few minutes passed, during which Sir Theodore gazed into the dying fire. With the thumb and index finger of his right hand, he slowly revolved the gold and diamond ring that sat fatly on the little finger of his other hand. It had been a gift from the Prince of Wales, presented at the King's birthday party at St James's eight months before, when riches seemed to rain from the clear spring sky and no-one doubted, for no-one dared to, that a pound of South Sea stock would be worth ten tomorrow and a hundred the day after. His own holding must have amounted to a million then. A million pounds and a billion delusions. They were nothing now, nothing but ashes in his mouth.
There was a tap at the door. Nicodemus Jupe, Sir Theodore's valet and loyal factotum, entered the room. A lean, grave-faced, hawk-nosed fellow of forty or so, Jupe had about him the air of one who never overestimated his importance in the world and yet never underestimated it either. He was humble without being obsequious, perceptive without being presumptuous. He had always been utterly reliable, yet the cold edge of efficiency in his soul that was the essence of his reliability was also the key to the understanding that subsisted between him and his master. He expected Sir Theodore to extricate himself from the difficulties that had overtaken them both. Indeed, he required it of him. And he himself would do anything he could to bring that about. That was the measure of his loyalty. It ran far. But it did not run to the ends of the Earth.
'There is a letter on the bureau,' said Sir Theodore. 'It must be on its way tonight.'
Jupe fetched it and glanced at the address. His face betrayed no reaction.
'I am sorry to ask you to turn out at such an hour. But it is a matter of the utmost urgency.'
'I understand, sir. I'll leave at once.'
'Before you do, there is one other thing.'
'The indigent mapmaker. Spandrel. We still have our eye on him?'
'Indeed, sir. I don't doubt he'll stray eventually. Then we'll have him. But for the present—'
'He adheres to the rules.'
'I wish to see him.'
Jupe's eyes widened faintly in surprise. 'And is that also... a matter of the utmost urgency?'
'It is, Jupe. Yes.'