Messrs. Fleece, Pack, and Co., the London agents of several Australian squatters, had large but rather dingy offices in Austin Friars. At the back of the old Dutch church their clerks toiled from morning to evening over huge ledgers—fearful mysteries to the uninitiated, terrible books to the correspondents in arrears. Charles Fleece, Esq., head of the firm, had been in the business for years, and, from long correspondence, was nearly as well up in Australian affairs as if he had been there. He could tell you to a fraction how much the millionaires, Sumner Brothers, had given for the Bigguoroo Station, on the Lachlan, and how many bills and promissory notes poor Reckless, the original owner, had signed before an extra bad season sent him through the Insolvent Court, and his station to the auction mart. He knew nearly as well as the local manager when the Bank of Victoria was going to stop the overdraft and put the screw on to Percy Robinson, and how little chance that gentleman had of holding out another season. He was not given much to talking of these matters in his country house; but after dinner in his snug villa at Twickenham, he could tell a secondhand cattle-muster yarn nearly as well as the junior partner, Pack, who had been on the Murrumbidgee for years before he went into the counting-house of the Melbourne branch, and finally came home as junior partner. A tall, sturdy-looking fellow, was John Pack, formerly of Eribunderee, broad-chested and sunburnt, with hands of which three years of London glove-wearing had scarcely lightened the hue. A sharp, keen man of business, moreover, but withal a good-natured, well-meaning, and strictly honourable man. Mr. Robert Calverly’s affairs were by no means in bad hands, but of the two partners, the junior was certainly the most liberal; and if ever the screw had to be put on, it was generally Mr. Fleece who turned the handle.
“Mr. Robert Calverly,” announced one of the clerks; and Bob was shown into the office of the junior partner.
“Ah, good morning, Mr. Calverly!” said Pack, offering his hand. “How are you? Not looking so well as usual. London life not so wholesome as the bush, eh?”
Bob certainly didn’t either feel or look very well, but, like most men, he didn’t like being told of it, so he said, shortly,
“Oh, thanks, I am quite well; but I have a little business to settle with you. Can you spare me a few minutes?”
“Half-an-hour, if you like. What is it? Any news from the old place? Any more wool to get rid of?—any golden fleeces?”
“Well, no,” said Bob, colouring slightly, “My last letter told me absolutely nothing. I want to know how my account stands. On the wrong side, I suppose?”
“Well, I fancy a little that way,” was the answer, with a quiet smile. “Here, Wilson, bring in Mr. Calverly’s account.”
The account was brought, in, after a delay of about ten minutes, during which Mr. Pack chatted about all sorts of subjects, from the money market to the “Two Thousand,” and Mr. Bob Calverly paid unusual attention to his finger nails.
“Hum!” said the junior partner, running his eyes down the paper. “On the 1st, £350; on the 12th, £750; on the 20th, £600; on the —. Here you are, Mr. Calverly, somewhere about £2000 to the debit.”
Bob took the paper, and as he held it in his hand, the eyebrows slightly contracted over the eyes that read it.
Two thousand to the debit! He had no idea he had spent so much, even with all the kid gloves from Houbigant’s, the pleasant little dinners at Richmond, the flirtations in the coulisses, the bouquets from Garcia, and the coats from Poole. Two thousand to the debit, and no letter of credit from home! Well, it was no good poring over it. The account was evidently right. The money had been spent, and he wanted more, for even of “ready” to carry on with he was denuded. There was no remedy for it—he must be a little more to the debit.
“Mr. Pack,” he said at last, putting down the paper on the writing-table, before which the agent was seated.
“Well, Mr. Calverly, is it all right?”
“Oh yes, it’s all right; but the thing is, I want some more money at once. I’m pretty well cleaned out.”
“Hum!” said Mr. Pack, rather drily. “How much do you want?” “About fifteen hundred,” answered Bob, struck with a bright idea that he must have some ready cash to go on with after the thousand had been cleared off.
“Fifteen hundred!” Mr. Pack’s eyebrows went up a little as he took up the account, and again ran his eye over it. “Wait a minute, Mr. Calverly. I will talk to Mr. Fleece about it.”
And he left the room.
As the swing-door closed behind the agent, Bob came to the conclusion that the look-out was not very promising. Pack had hitherto honoured all his demands without the slightest reference to his partner. This time he had gone to consult him, and Bob felt very uncomfortable. He had never been refused money before, and he didn’t like the novelty. A few minutes, and back came Mr. Pack.
“Come into Mr. Fleece’s room a minute, Mr. Calverly; he wishes to see you.”
In marched Bob accordingly, his head thrown back a little more than usual, and a slight additional flush on the cheek, from which London life was fast wearing the bronze.
Mr. Fleece was standing before the fire, and looked stout, rosy, and good tempered, but at the same time excessively ’cute. The look-out was less promising than before.
“Good day, Mr. Calverly,” he said, with the kindest possible smile, holding out a ready hand for Bob’s grasp. “Pack tells me you want to see me. What can I do for you?”
“Confound him,” thought Bob. “I didn’t want to see him. I wanted to see the money.”
“I won’t keep you very long, Mr. Fleece. Mr. Pack knows what I want—an advance of fifteen hundred pounds.”
Mr. Fleece looked as good-tempered as ever, but said nothing.
“You see,” went on Bob, wishing in his heart that Mr. Fleece was a three-railer, that he might ride over him and settle the matter at once, “I’ve been spending a little more money than usual lately, and, till next mail, am decidedly short.”
“Ah! yes,” said Mr. Fleece, still good-tempered, but still ’cute, “it’s astonishing how money does go in a London season, Mr. Calverly. Have you heard from your father this mail, Mr. Calverly?”
“Only a few lines.”
“Ah! not much of a correspondent, I suppose; and how was Melbourne looking when he wrote. Not very promising times for squatters with that 42nd clause of the Land Act. I expect they must find those free selectors rather a nuisance.”
“Confounded nuisance!” replied Bob, whose “down” on a free selector was equal to his dislike of a “swagman on the wallaby.”
“So they must be,” went on Mr. Fleece, giving his right hand an additional warm at the fire, while Pack, with a queer smile, took up the Argus. “Capital article that about those fellows in ‘All the Year Round.’ Did you read it?”
Bob hadn’t read it; hadn’t read much of anything lately, and said so. The look-out was more unpromising than ever. Why the deuce couldn’t Mr. Fleece come to the point? Another warm; a few more inquiries about sheep generally; and, still good-tempered, but still distressingly ’cute, Mr. Fleece did come to the point.
“Well, Mr. Calverly, I enjoy these little pleasant chats, but business, you know, business. What can I do for you?”
“What can you do?” said Bob. “Why, I’ve told you. Let me have fifteen hundred pounds.”
“Fifteen hundred pounds!” said Mr. Fleece. His eyebrows did not go up, but the left hand came in for a warming this time, and he looked a little more ’cute than good tempered. “Fifteen hundred! Well, really, Mr. Calverly, I shouldn’t like to refuse you, but, you see——. Pack, let me look at that account. Two thousand to the debit already, and wool falling. Lots of scab about too. Did you hear of that affair at Swan Hill? Twenty thousand sheep not allowed to cross the Murray, although passed by the New South Wales inspector.”
“D—n the scab!” muttered Bob. “No, I didn’t.”
“Ah! curious affair, Mr. Calverly. Doesn’t look very encouraging, that sort of thing. Nothing from your father, eh?”
“I told you no,” said Bob, wishing this time that Mr. Fleece was a “beast,” and he had hold of a branding iron.
“That’s just what I told you, Pack,” said Mr. Fleece, positively glowing with good temper, “Mr. Calverly, senior, is very cautious indeed; never hazards an opinion unless he is sure of it; I expect he can see through these nasty little political squabbles as well as anyone, though he does not go in much for meddling with them, eh, Mr. Calverly?”
Bob was a patient fellow enough, but he couldn’t stand it any longer. Mr. Fleece evidently would not come to the point, and so he did it himself with—
“Mr. Fleece, excuse my asking you for a straightforward answer to my question. Will you advance me fifteen hundred pounds or not?”
“Well, my dear Mr. Calverly, you know, and your father knows, how matters are in Australia just now, and really I think—let me see. You said your father had not sent you any further authority?”
The flush rose deeper than ever to Bob Calverly’s cheek. Mr. Fleece might be very good-tempered, but he was getting rude.
“I must interrupt you again, Mr. Fleece,” trying very hard to keep his temper; “I simply want to know whether you will let me have an advance of fifteen hundred pounds or not. I told you before I had heard nothing from my father, but I shall be very happy to give you an order on him for the money.”
“Now, really, Mr. Calverly,” replied the senior partner, with a smile even more beaming than before, as his ’cuteness discovered a loophole through which his good temper might pass unscathed. “Now, really, you’ll excuse me telling you that our house never meddles with that sort of business. It’s a practice our standing in the city would never permit. I firmly believe it would ruin our agency if such a thing were known. Now, do just write to your father, and see what he says on the subject. His opinion would be most valuable. Fifteen hundred pounds is a trifle, Mr. Calverly, both to you—I am sure of it—and to us, I believe, but, really, such a very singular proceeding. I’m surprised, Mr. Calverly. Pack, just let Mr. Calverly’s account be made out and forwarded, in duplicate, to Melbourne. And now, Mr. Calverly, I’m sure you’ll excuse me. I have a great deal to do. By-the-bye, you have never been out to Twickenham yet. Will you give us the pleasure of your company on Tuesday next? Mrs. Fleece will be delighted. Pack will meet you; and we can have a few ‘yarns’ about the old place,” concluded Mr. Fleece, in a perfect burst of good temper and imaginary old colonialism.
“Thank you,” said Bob, very haughtily, and taking up his hat; “I am engaged, unfortunately. I will write to my father by the next mail, and see what he thinks of it. Good morning, Mr. Fleece.” And, without offering to shake hands, he bowed to the partners and left the office, only noticing that Mr. Fleece was looking as good-tempered as ever, and only hearing a repeated expression of hope that “he would write to his father, whose opinion was so estimable on all these colonial subjects.”
“Hang it, Fleece,” said the junior partner, after Bob had left, “why didn’t you let him have the money? Old Calverly is as safe as a church.”
“Rather safer than some churches, Pack; but I know my road.”
“So you say,” was the answer; “but it strikes me you’ve hit on a short cut to lose the agency.”
“Don’t you believe it, my dear fellow,” replied the senior, more goodtemperedly than ever. “Remind me to write to Old Calverly this mail. He’s had rather a hard squeeze himself lately, warm as he is, and it would not do to let this young one get too deep into our books. He’s been gambling here, I know, and that the governor won’t believe in at all.”
Mr. Pack, however, didn’t think so, and went into his own room with the opinion that Bob was a fine young fellow, and that if he had been alone in the matter, the money should have been paid.
And while the partners talked, Mr. Bob Calverly was being driven rapidly to Rupert Dacre’s office.
“He’s not an over and above generous fellow,” muttered the Australian as the hansom rolled along, “but if any fellow can advise another out of a mess, he’s the man.”
The cab stopped. Lord Nantwich’s private secretary was in.
“All right,” said Bob, as he ran up the stairs, and with a wish that he were a “buckjumper,” with Mr. Fleece on his back, he knocked at the door of Rupert Dacre’s room.