UP WEST - CHAPTER X
FLOSS AND FLOSS
The office in Lincoln's Inn—The partners—Their home.-life—Unfortunate clients—The confidential clerk—his methodical habits —Time brings changes — Appearances deceptive —The old circus proprietor — An amazing discovery—A desperate expedient—Ugly rumours—A terrible blow—Left alone—The alternative—The choice—F1ight—The arrest.
THE house of Floss and Floss had existed for generations. It was the oldest firm of solicitors in Lincoln's Inn; nay, it was, with one exception, the oldest in the metropolis. The name had always been "Floss and Floss." Sometimes the partners had been father and son, once uncle and nephew, and frequently—as at the time of which I am writing—two brothers.
The building in which the business was carried on was one of the most ornamental and conspicuous in Lincoln's Inn. Its windows were of the picturesque type in vogue two or three centuries ago.
The two partners were George and Henry Floss. They had succeeded their father some five-and-twenty years ago, and so far they had apparently maintained the high reputation of the firm.
George was considerably older than Henry, who had become a partner at the age of twenty-one. The brothers were unlike one another in character no less than in appearance. George was of a serious turn and of austere habits, while his brother was light-hearted and genial, fond of sport, an excellent shot, and as good a cross-country rider as you could wish to see. Again, whereas George dressed in black, Henry invariably wore smart clothes, made by one of the best tailors in London, and was rather fond of colour.
[-190-] The premises of the firm were divided into two departments, each of which was controlled by one of the partners. Their private rooms were on the first floor. A client reached either of them by passing up a staircase on the right-hand side of the building, and he quitted the apartment by an opposite door, and passed down a staircase on the left-hand side of the building.
Each partner had his own staff of clerks, many of whom had been in the firm's employment for a great many years. When once, indeed, a man had been fortunate enough to mount a stool in that office, there he usually remained for a very long time.
The practice itself was for the most part of a non-contentious kind, though occasionally the partners had to carry through heavy Chancery Suits. Floss and Floss had, in a word, a fine old family business, and it included the management of some large estates and properties.
People from all parts of the country brought large sums of money to these solicitors in order that it might be wisely invested. Such individuals were quite satisfied, after an interview with one of the partners, to leave their wealth in his hands on the understanding that he should place it in whatever securities he thought best, and arrange for the dividends to be forwarded as they fell due. The client was informed by letter of the name of the investment selected, and he afterwards received the proceeds thereof by the firm's cheque.
The home-life of the two brothers differed very considerably. George inhabited one of the large mansions at Lancaster Gate. He was a widower, and had one child, a girl of nineteen, to whom he was very much attached. For many years past she had been his sole companion. They kept several horses and carriages, and a large staff of domestics. George Floss was very religious. He was a constant churchgoer, and read family prayers every morning and evening. Anything but a cheerful man, I do not think he was a particularly happy one; but everybody with whom he came in contact unhesitatingly attributed his solemn and reserved manner to his anxiety for his clients' welfare. People pitied him as a man who carried his business cares into his domestic life. The young girl tried hard to dissipate the gloom in her father's life, and often of an evening she would put her arms coaxingly about his neck and entreat him to forget his musty old law, and give some thoughts to his darling Ada. Such [-191-] moments were the happiest, and yet the bitterest, in his life.
The younger brother, who was a single man, had a small house in Mayfair, where he lived during the greater part of the year, a country mansion in Surrey, and a hunting-box at Melton Mowbray. He was a director of several public companies, and as a rule transacted the business of the younger clients. Among these were many noblemen between twenty-one and thirty years of age, who desired to raise money on mortgage, to sell their properties. or to invest their capital in securities more remunerative, if less safe, than the Three Per Cents. Their investments were not always fortunate, and more than one noble client of Henry Floss became a ruined man. The circumstance did not greatly disturb the equanimity of the young lawyer.
"Your own fault entirely," he would observe to the unhappy individual. "You would speculate so rashly, on your broker's advice, that the result is no more than I expected."
Curiously enough, if these investments were closely enquired into, they would often prove to be some of those in which Mr. Henry Floss was himself interested, and of which, as often as not, he had been a large seller.
A most interesting figure at the establishment in Lincoln's Inn was the confidential clerk. He had been with the firm for fifty years, having started as the office-boy. Possessing considerable intelligence, great industry, and high integrity, he had gradually ascended the ladder of promotion, and was appointed to the position of confidential clerk by the late head of the firm, the father of the present partners. Old Clamp, indeed, had dandled George and Henry as infants, and,in later years, had held their ponies when, as was often the case, they rode down to the office to see their father.
Clamp's office was between the private rooms of the two partners, by whom he was held in the highest esteem. He seemed to pass the whole of his days poring over, and making entries in, the books of the firm, which were in his sole care and custody. He was wholly devoted to the interests of the firm, which he always referred to as "we" or as " my principals, you know, Floss and Floss."
Clamp was the oddest little fellow conceivable. He was so small and thin as to suggest the idea that, at some time or other, he must have passed through a process of shrivelling; he had little black sparkling eyes, a wee nose, and other [-192-] diminutive features to correspond, and he was quite bald. The little fellow never seemed to walk, he was always on the trot. He allowed himself just half an hour every day for dinner, and twenty minutes for tea.
For forty years Clamp had dined at a small chop-house in a thoroughfare leading out of Serle Street. Every day he entered the establishment at the same time, hung his hat on the same peg, and occupied the same seat, which was always kept for him. Having ordered his chop or steak, he would take the daily paper out of his coat-tail pocket and peruse it in silence until his repast was placed before him. His invariable beverage was half a pint of porter. Every one about the premises respected him, and wished him good day when he made his appearance.
Twenty minutes was the exact time this curious little individual took over his meal. The remaining ten minutes were devoted to what he termed "trotting about the Fields"; no matter what was the state of the weather, or the time of the year, he always took his digestive ramble round the square. This accomplished, he returned to his office, removed his tail-coat, put on a jacket and skull-cap, and once more buried himself in his books. At about five o'clock he brewed himself a pot of tea.
During the past ten or fifteen years Clamp had been the last to leave the offices at night. After inquiring of " Master George" and "Master Henry" whether they had any instructions for him before they left, he proceeded to put away the books, and, having satisfied himself that everything was shipshape, he waited to see the last of the clerks off the premises, and then locked up the offices and took his departure. At the bottom of Chancery Lane he got into an omnibus, which conveyed him within a stone's throw of his humble lodging on Islington Green. On arriving there he once more took the newspaper from his pocket, and read on until it was time for supper and bed.
It is safe to say that in days gone by no inhabitant of Islington Green slept so soundly as the confidential clerk of Floss and Floss. Time brings its changes, however, and it. came to pass that every night after retiring to rest the little form on the iron bedstead tossed and turned for many an hour, and when at last weariness was succeeded by sleep, fitful sighs and sobs came from beneath the blankets. Had any one crept to the door at dead of night and put his ear to [-193-] the key-hole, he might have heard, in a sleeper's guttural, such words as these "Ah, Master Hal, Master Hal—the old house, the old house—ruin and disgrace !"
The truth is, little as the world suspected such a thing, that the firm of Floss and Floss had become an imposture and a sham. Apparently prosperous, the partners were in reality hopelessly ruined. Almost at any moment a terrible exposure might come about, and they would then be branded by the world as a pair of arrant knaves. Clamp knew all. No wonder, therefore, that he could not get much sleep.
Shortly after the younger brother had joined the firm he had become connected with a firm of stockbrokers, by whom he had been persuaded to speculate. His first ventures had been small ones, but as time went on they became more extensive, as is usually the case in this, as in every other, kind of gambling. He was sucked deeper and deeper into the vortex, and he dragged his brother with him. Thousands of pounds were lost, and at last the entire resources of the brothers had disappeared. Then came the next step in the downward path. In the hope of retrieving his fortune, Henry Floss had employed the money of his clients to speculate with. This led to the forging of transfers and other fraudulent acts.
The younger brother obtained complete control over the elder, who gave him a free hand to do whatever he desired. The actual manipulation of the accounts, and the exchanging of one client's securities for another, was done by Henry, his brother's attitude being one of passive consent.
Besides the partners, the only person in the office who was aware of what was going on was Clamp. It required all his book-keeping experience, and unceasing industry, to prevent the awful secret from leaking out.
Among the numerous clients of the firm was an old man who had been for many years a circus proprietor. He was, indeed, if I am not mistaken, successor to the celebrated Ducrow. Though very ignorant, and unable to read or write, he was an excellent business man, and had amassed no less a sum than fifteen thousand pounds. Being anxious to invest it, he had, on the advice of a friend, paid a visit to the famous firm of solicitors in Lincoln's Inn. It so happened that he was shown into the presence of the junior partner, whose pleasant manners at once inspired him with boundless confidence. The upshot of the interview was that, on the following [-194-] day, he paid a second visit to the office and took with him his fifteen thousand pounds, in the form of bank-notes, tied up in a handkerchief. Addressing Henry Floss, he said:
"You see I am but a poor man in learning. The stocks you mentioned yesterday will do beautiful; and if you wouldn't mind, I'll get you to do all the business part of it, and just send me along the dividends every half-year. But perhaps this would be troubling you too much?"
"Not at all," was the reply. "I shall be only too delighted to serve you in any way. You can give me a power of attorney to receive the dividends, and I'll purchase the stock and deposit the certificates in my strong box. But business is business ; so as soon as I have effected the purchase I will send you the numbers of the share certificates."
In due course the stock was purchased and the numbers forwarded. This transaction occurred at the time when the firm was beginning to get into difficulties; and these bonds were among the first to be misappropriated. The transfers were forged, and the stock was sold.
Years went by, the dividends were punctually forwarded, and the fraud was not discovered. One day, however, the old man called at the office for the purpose of arranging for his property to be realised, he having resolved, on the advice of his son-in-law, who was a speculative builder, to "put his money in houses." On arriving at Lincoln's Inn, he learnt that Mr. Henry Floss was away from town, and was not expected to return until the following week. Having taken the precaution to put in his pocket before leaving home the memorandum stating the numbers of his stock, he walked from Lincoln's Inn to the office of the company concerned, with a view to at once setting in motion the necessary machinery for releasing his money. To his amazement he there learnt that the shares specified on the memorandum were standing in another name.
Hurrying back to the solicitors' office, the terrified client an interview with the senior partner, who assured him that there must be some mistake, and undertook to wire for his brother to return to town immediately. In response to the telegram, Henry Floss left Melton Mowbray the same day, and in the evening a long and somewhat stormy interview took place between the partners.
It was arranged that a letter should be sent to their client, informing him that, by a clerical error, incorrect particulars of [-195-] the stock had been originally supplied to him; that the mistake, though greatly to be regretted, was of no importance; and that, if he desired it, his property should be at once realised. This was all very well, but how was fifteen thousand pounds to be raised at a moment's notice?
Although the hour was late, a cab was sent to Islington Green to fetch Clamp. The little clerk had retired to rest when the messenger arrived, but, on hearing of the summons, he got up and hurriedly dressed.
Half an hour later, tortured with the most dismal forebodings, he entered the drawing-room of the mansion in Lancaster Gate. His principals asked him to state the exact financial position of the firm, and the poor fellow, with tears streaming down his face, explained that their defalcations amounted to over a quarter of a million sterling. There were still a number of securities left, and Henry Floss insisted that a portion of them must be sacrificed in order that the fifteen thousand pounds might be raised. George refused for a long time to consent to this proposal, but his opposition was eventually overborne by his brother's arguments. The matter having thus been settled, it was resolved that Clamp should work out a complete statement of the firm's accounts, and that the partners should decide at the end of the week what course should be adopted with reference to the future. Meanwhile, Henry Floss returned to his hunting-box at Melton Mowbray.
How suspicion was aroused it is difficult to say, but on the following day ugly rumours were afloat with regard to the old-established firm of Floss and Floss. The senior partner was at his post as usual, and saw a number of clients, none of whom, however, expressed or betrayed any uneasiness.
A close observer might have been struck by the repeated appearance in and about Lincoln's Inn that afternoon of two men who, though there seemed to be no connection between them, apparently had two things in common, namely, ample leisure, and a desire to spend it in that particular area. In appearance they were not unlike, both being rather stout and of florid complexion. One might have been a well-to-do publican, the other a gentleman farmer. But even the fascinations of Lincoln's Inn seemed at last to pall upon the latter, for at about six o'clock he quitted the neighbourhood, and spent the remainder of the evening strolling about Lancaster Gate.
[-196-] A terrible blow awaited George Floss on his arrival home at about half-past six. As he entered the hall, the butler handed him a telegram that ran as follows:
"Mr. Henry Floss met with a fatal accident on the hunting field this morning. He was thrown from his horse and killed on the spot."
The wretched man stood for a moment as though paralysed. His partner in crime was dead, and he was left to bear the burden of their sins alone. It would be impossible to describe the sufferings of the unfortunate and guilty man.
Of course all business was suspended at the office pending the funeral, which was fixed to take place on the following Saturday. What would come afterwards? Monday morning would reveal all.
To outward appearance George Floss passed the ‘Sunday much in his usual way, attending church both in the morning and evening. He was somewhat paler than usual, but his friend~ recognised in this circumstance only a natural outcome of the bereavement he had just sustained.
At two o'clock on the Monday morning the house at Lancaster Gate was wrapped in sleep. George Floss sat in his study alone. He had for some hours been busy writing, and before him lay the fruits of his labour—a packet securely sealed and addressed to his daughter. He had decided early in the day that he could not stand his ground and face his disgrace. There was the alternative before him—flight or death. Not being able to decide which he should choose, he had provided for both. Explaining that he had a long journey to take on the following day, he had instructed his valet to pack his portmanteau, and take it to the booking-office at Charing Cross Station. This had been done, and I may mention that as the luggage was being carried to the cab, the stout individual I have likened to a gentleman farmer stepped up to the driver, exchanged a few casual remarks with him, and then, wishing him good-day, passed on.
For some time George Floss remained seated in the study with his face buried in his hands. Rousing himself at last, he opened a drawer in the table, took out a little wooden case and lifted the lid. It contained a six-chambered revolver. Next he took a double locket from his pocket, and gazed long at the faces depicted therein ; one being that of his daughter, the other that of his brother Henry. There was no anger in his eyes as he looked at the latter, only an expression of [-197-] affection and sorrow. On the table stood a miniature of his dead wife. He took it up, and, after pressing it to his lips, placed it in his vest.
Passing out of the room, the wretched man went noiselessly upstairs to the apartment where his daughter slept. Drawing the curtains gently on one side he gazed upon her unconscious features, stooped and kissed her lightly upon the forehead and then hurried from the room.
When he regained the study, daylight was already breaking in through the chinks in the shutters. There lay the pistol on the table. He stood still with his eyes fixed upon the weapon; advancing a couple of steps he took it up and toyed with it irresolutely. This action lasted for some moments; then, on a sudden, he put the pistol back in the case, shut the lid, and replaced it in the drawer. He had made up his mind at last— it was to be flight.
Looking at his watch, George Floss was startled to find the hour so much later than he had supposed. In fifty minutes the early mail started for Dover. Having put on his hat and coat in the hall, he quietly let himself out at the front door. A night cab was passing, and he hailed it, stepped inside, and told the driver to take him to Charing Cross.
Ten minutes before the fugitive arrived at the railway station, the two men I have previously alluded to drove up and proceeded to the booking-office. It was a bitterly cold morning, and they were well wrapped up, their features being half concealed by their fur caps and comforters.
One of the men sat opposite George Floss on the journey to the coast; the other travelled in a neighbouring compartment.
When the train arrived at its destination the passengers at once began to stream down the gangway leading to the boat, the absconding solicitor being one of the foremost in the throng. Before he had gone a dozen steps some one touched him on the shoulder. He found a stout man on either side of him. The next moment were uttered the fatal words:
"George Floss, we hold a warrant for your apprehension!"
The wretched man's companions were Brett and Bull, two City police officers, of whom I formed a very high opinion while I was practising at the Bar.
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