ON the first floor of the London Royal Exchange is a large apartment studded with desks, around and between which surges a hurrying, shouting crowd of brokers, clerks, and messengers. Fringing this apartment are doors and hallways leading to adjacent rooms and offices, and scattered through it are bulletin-boards, on which are daily written in duplicate the marine casualties of the world. At one end is a raised platform, sacred to the presence of an important functionary. In the technical language of the “City,” the apartment is known as the “Room,” and the functionary, as the “Caller,” whose business it is to call out in a mighty sing-song voice the names of members wanted at the door, and the bare particulars of bulletin news prior to its being chalked out for reading.
It is the headquarters of Lloyds—the immense association of underwriters, brokers, and shipping-men, which, beginning with the customers at Edward Lloyd’s coffee-house in the latter part of the seventeenth century, has, retaining his name for a title, developed into a corporation so well equipped, so splendidly organized and powerful, that kings and ministers of state appeal to it at times for foreign news.
Not a master or mate sails under the English flag but whose record, even to forecastle fights, is tabulated at Lloyds for the inspection of prospective employers. Not a ship is cast away on any inhabitable coast of the world, during underwriters’ business hours, but what that mighty sing-song cry announces the event at Lloyds within thirty minutes.
One of the adjoining rooms is known as the Chart-room. Here can be found in perfect order and sequence, each on its roller, the newest charts of all nations, with a library of nautical literature describing to the last detail the harbors, lights, rocks, shoals, and sailing directions of every coast-line shown on the charts; the tracks of latest storms; the changes of ocean currents, and the whereabouts of derelicts and icebergs. A member at Lloyds acquires in time a theoretical knowledge of the sea seldom exceeded by the men who navigate it.
Another apartment—the Captain’s room—is given over to joy and refreshment, and still another, the antithesis of the last, is the Intelligence office, where anxious ones inquire for and are told the latest news of this or that overdue ship.
On the day when the assembled throng of underwriters and brokers had been thrown into an uproarious panic by the Crier’s announcement that the great Titan was destroyed, and the papers of Europe and America were issuing extras giving the meager details of the arrival at New York of one boat-load of her people, this office had been crowded with weeping women and worrying men, who would ask, and remain to ask again, for more news. And when it came—a later cablegram,—giving the story of the wreck and the names of the captain, first officer, boatswain, seven sailors, and one lady passenger as those of the saved, a feeble old gentleman had raised his voice in a quavering scream, high above the sobbing of women, and said:
“My daughter-in-law is safe; but where is my son,—where is my son, and my grandchild?” Then he had hurried away, but was back again the next day, and the next. And when, on the tenth day of waiting and watching, he learned of another boat-load of sailors and children arrived at Gibraltar, he shook his head, slowly, muttering: “George, George,” and left the room. That night, after telegraphing the consul at Gibraltar of his coming, he crossed the channel.
In the first tumultuous riot of inquiry, when underwriters had climbed over desks and each other to hear again of the wreck of the Titan, one—the noisiest of all, a corpulent, hook-nosed man with flashing black eyes—had broken away from the crowd and made his way to the Captain’s room, where, after a draught of brandy, he had seated himself heavily, with a groan that came from his soul.
“Father Abraham,” he muttered; “this will ruin me.”
Others came in, some to drink, some to condole—all, to talk.
“Hard hit, Meyer?” asked one.
“Ten thousand,” he answered, gloomily.
“Serve you right,” said another, unkindly; “have more baskets for your eggs. Knew you’d bring up.”
Though Mr. Meyer’s eyes sparkled at this, he said nothing, but drank himself stupid and was assisted home by one of his clerks. From this on, neglecting his business—excepting to occasionally visit the bulletins—he spent his time in the Captain’s room drinking heavily, and bemoaning his luck. On the tenth day he read with watery eyes, posted on the bulletin below the news of the arrival at Gibraltar of the second boat-load of people, the following:
“Life-buoy of Royal Age, London, picked up among wreckage in Lat. 45-20, N. Lon. 54-31, W. Ship Arctic, Boston, Capt. Brandt.”
“Oh, mine good God,” he howled, as he rushed toward the Captain’s room.
“Poor devil—poor damn fool of an Israelite,” said one observer to another. “He covered the whole of the Royal Age, and the biggest chunk of the Titan. It’ll take his wife’s diamonds to settle.”
Three weeks later, Mr. Meyer was aroused from a brooding lethargy, by a crowd of shouting underwriters, who rushed into the Captain’s room, seized him by the shoulders, and hurried him out and up to a bulletin.
“Read it, Meyer—read it. What d’you think of it?” With some difficulty he read aloud, while they watched his face:
“John Rowland, sailor of the Titan, with child passenger, name unknown, on board Peerless, Bath, at Christiansand, Norway. Both dangerously ill. Rowland speaks of ship cut in half night before loss of Titan.”
“What do you make of it, Meyer—Royal Age, isn’t it?” asked one.
“Yes,” vociferated another, “I’ve figured back. Only ship not reported lately. Overdue two months. Was spoken same day fifty miles east of that iceberg.”
“Sure thing,” said others. “Nothing said about it in the captain’s statement—looks queer.”
“Vell, vwhat of it,” said Mr. Meyer, painfully and stupidly: “dere is a collision clause in der Titan’s policy; I merely bay the money to der steamship company instead of to der Royal Age beeple.”
“But why did the captain conceal it?” they shouted at him. “What’s his object—assured against collision suits?”
“Der looks of it, berhaps—looks pad.”
“Nonsense, Meyer, what’s the matter with you? Which one of the lost tribes did you spring from—you’re like none of your race—drinking yourself stupid like a good Christian. I’ve got a thousand on the Titan, and if I’m to pay it I want to know why. You’ve got the heaviest risk and the brain to fight for it—you’ve got to do it. Go home, straighten up, and attend to this. We’ll watch Rowland till you take hold. We’re all caught.”
They put him into a cab, took him to a Turkish bath, and then home.
The next morning he was at his desk, clear-eyed and clear-headed, and for a few weeks was a busy, scheming man of business.