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By Earl Derr Biggers
Hesperus Press LimitedCopyright © 2014 Earl Derr Biggers
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A Sporting Proposition
Outside a gilt-lettered door on the seventeenth floor of a New York office building, a tall young man in a fur-lined coat stood shivering.
Why did he shiver in that coat? He shivered because he was fussed, poor chap. Because he was rattled, from the soles of his custom-made boots to the apex of his Piccadilly hat. A painful, palpitating spectacle, he stood.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the door, the business of the American branch of that famous marine insurance firm, Lloyds, of London – usually termed in magazine articles 'The Greatest Gambling Institution in the World' – went on oblivious to the shiverer who approached.
The shiverer, with a nervous movement, shifted his walking stick to his left hand, and laid his right on the doorknob. Though he is not at his best, let us take a look at him. Tall, as has been noted, perfectly garbed after London's taste, mild and blue as to eye, blond as to hair. A handsome, if somewhat weak face. Very distinguished – even aristocratic – in appearance. Perhaps – the thrill for us democrats here! – of the nobility. And at this moment sadly in need of a generous dose of that courage that abounds – see any book of familiar quotations – on the playing fields of Eton.
Utterly destitute of the Eton or any other brand, he pushed open the door. The click of two dozen American typewriters smote upon his hearing. An office boy of the dominant New York race demanded in loud indiscreet tones his business there.
'My business,' said the tall young man weakly, 'is with Lloyds, of London.'
The boy wandered off down that stenographer-bordered lane. In a moment he was back.
'Mr Thacker'll see you,' he announced.
He followed the boy, did the tall young man. His courage began to return. Why not? One of his ancestors, graduate of those playing fields, had fought at Waterloo.
Mr Thacker sat in plump and genial prosperity before a polished flat-top desk. Opposite him, at a desk equally polished, sat an even more polished young American of capable bearing.
For an embarrassed moment the tall youth in fur stood looking from one to the other. Then Mr Thacker spoke: 'You have business with Lloyds?'
The tall young man blushed.
'I – I hope to have – yes.' There was in his speech that faint suggestion of a lisp that marks many of the well-born of his race. Perhaps it is the golden spoon in their mouths interfering a bit with their diction.
'What can we do for you?' Mr Thacker was cold and matter-of-fact, like a card index. Steadily through each week he grew more businesslike and this was Saturday morning.
The visitor performed a shaky but remarkable juggling feat with his walking stick.
'I – well – I –' he stammered.
Oh, come, come, thought Mr Thacker impatiently.
'Well,' said the tall young man desperately, 'perhaps it would be best for me to make myself known at once. I am Allan, Lord Harrowby, son and heir of James Nelson Harrowby, Earl of Raybrook. And I – I have come here –'
The younger of the Americans spoke, in more kindly fashion: 'You have a proposition to make to Lloyds?'
'Exactly,' said Lord Harrowby, and sank with a sigh of relief into a chair, as though that concluded his portion of the entertainment.
'Let's hear it,' boomed the relentless Thacker.
Lord Harrowby writhed in his chair.
'I am sure you will pardon me,' he said, 'if I preface my – er – proposition with the statement that it is utterly – fantastic. And if I add also that it should be known to the fewest possible number.'
Mr Thacker waved his hand across the gleaming surfaces of two desks.
'This is my assistant manager, Mr Richard Minot,' he announced. 'Mr Minot, you must know, is in on all the secrets of the firm. Now, let's have it.'
'I am right, am I not,' his lordship continued, 'in the assumption that Lloyds frequently takes rather unusual risks?'
'Lloyds,' answered Mr Thacker, 'is chiefly concerned with the fortunes of those who go down to – and sometimes down into – the sea in ships. However, there are a number of non-marine underwriters connected with Lloyds, and these men have been known to risk their money on pretty giddy chances. It's all done in the name of Lloyds, though the firm is not financially responsible.'
Lord Harrowby got quickly to his feet.
'Then it would be better,' he said, relieved, 'for me to take my proposition to one of these non-marine underwriters.'
Mr Thacker frowned. Curiosity agitated his bosom.
'You'd have to go to London to do that,' he remarked. 'Better give us an inkling of what's on your mind.'
His lordship tapped uneasily at the base of Mr Thacker's desk with his stick.
'If you will pardon me – I'd rather not,' he said.
'Oh, very well,' sighed Mr Thacker.
'How about Owen Jephson?' asked Mr Minot suddenly.
Overjoyed, Mr Thacker started up.
'By gad – I forgot about Jephson. Sails at one o'clock, doesn't he?' He turned to Lord Harrowby. 'The very man – and in New York, too. Jephson would insure T. Roosevelt against another cup of coffee.'
'Am I to understand,' asked Harrowby, 'that Jephson is the man for me to see?'
'Exactly,' beamed Mr Thacker. 'I'll have him here in fifteen minutes. Richard, will you please call up his hotel?' And as Mr Minot reached for the telephone, Mr Thacker added pleadingly: 'Of course, I don't know the nature of your proposition –'
'No,' agreed Lord Harrowby politely.
Discouraged, Mr Thacker gave up.
'However, Jephson seems to have a gambling streak in him that odd risks appeal to,' he went on. 'Of course, he's scientific. All Lloyds' risks are scientifically investigated. But – occasionally – well, Jephson insured Sir Christopher Conway, K.C.B., against the arrival of twins in his family. Perhaps you recall the litigation that resulted when triplets put in their appearance?'
'I'm sorry to say I do not,' said Lord Harrowby.
Mr Minot set down the telephone. 'Owen Jephson is on his way here in a taxi,' he announced.
'Good old Jephson,' mused Mr Thacker, reminiscent. 'Why, some of the man's risks are famous. Take that shopkeeper in the Strand – every day at noon the shadow of Nelson's Monument in Trafalgar Square falls across his door.
'Twenty years ago he got to worrying for fear the statue would fall some day and smash his shop. And every year since he has taken out a policy with Jephson, insuring him against that dreadful contingency.'
'I seem to have heard of that,' admitted Harrowby, with the ghost of a smile.
'You must have. Only recently Jephson wrote a policy for the Dowager Duchess of Tremayne, insuring her against the unhappy event of a rainstorm spoiling the garden party she is shortly to give at her Italian villa. I understand a small fortune is involved. Then there is Courtney Giles, leading man at the West End Road Theater. He fears obesity. Jephson has insured him. Should he become too plump for Romeo roles, Lloyds – or rather Jephson – will owe him a large sum of money.'
'I am encouraged to hope,' remarked Lord Harrowby, 'that Mr Jephson will listen to my proposition.'
'No doubt he will,' replied Mr Thacker. 'I can't say definitely. Now, if I knew the nature –'
But when Mr Jephson walked into the office fifteen minutes later Mr Thacker was still lamentably ignorant of the nature of his titled visitor's business. Mr Jephson was a small wiry man, crowned by a vast acreage of bald head, and with the immobile countenance sometimes lovingly known as a 'poker face'. One felt he could watch the rain pour in torrents on the dowager duchess, Courtney Giles' waist expand visibly before his eyes, the statue of Nelson totter and fall on his shopkeeper, and never move a muscle of that face.
'I am delighted to meet your lordship,' said he to Harrowby. 'Knew your father, the earl, very well at one time. Had business dealings with him – often. A man after my own heart. Always ready to take a risk. I trust you left him well?'
'Quite, thank you,' Lord Harrowby answered. 'Although he will insist on playing polo. At his age – eighty-two – it is a dangerous sport.'
Mr Jephson smiled.
'Still taking chances,' he said. 'A splendid old gentleman. I understand that you. Lord Harrowby, have a proposition to make to me as an underwriter in Lloyds.'
They sat down. Alas, if Mr Burke, who compiled the well-known Peerage, could have seen Lord Harrowby then, what distress would have been his! For a most unlordly flush again mantled that British cheek. A nobleman was supremely rattled.
'I will try and explain,' said his lordship, gulping a plebeian gulp. 'My affairs have been for some time in rather a chaotic state. Idleness – the life of the town – you gentlemen will understand. Naturally, it has been suggested to me that I exchange my name and title for the millions of some American heiress. I have always violently objected to any such plan. I – I couldn't quite bring myself to do any such low trick as that. And then – a – few months ago on the Continent – I met a girl –'
'I'm not a clever chap – really,' he went on. 'I'm afraid I can not describe her to you. Spirited – charming –' He looked toward the youngest of the trio. 'You, at least, understand,' he finished.
Mr Minot leaned back in his chair and smiled a most engaging smile.
'Perfectly,' he said.
'Thank you,' went on Lord Harrowby in all seriousness. 'It was only incidental – quite irrelevant – that this young woman happened to be very wealthy. I fell desperately in love. I am still in that – er – pleasing state. The young lady's name, gentlemen, is Cynthia Meyrick. She is the daughter of Spencer Meyrick, whose fortune has, I believe, been accumulated in oil.'
Mr Thacker's eyebrows rose respectfully.
'A week from next Tuesday,' said Lord Harrowby solemnly, 'at San Marco, on the east coast of Florida, this young woman and I are to be married.'
'And what,' asked Owen Jephson, 'is your proposition?'
Lord Harrowby shifted nervously in his chair.
'I say we are to be married,' he continued. 'But are we? That is the nightmare that haunts me. A slip. My – er – creditors coming down on me. And far more important, the dreadful agony of losing the dearest woman in the world.'
'What could happen?' Mr Jephson wanted to know.
'Did I say the young woman was vivacious?' inquired Lord Harrowby. 'She is. A thousand girls in one. Some untoward happening, and she might change her mind – in a flash.'
Silence within the room; outside the roar of New York and the clatter of the inevitable riveting machine making its points relentlessly.
'That,' said Lord Harrowby slowly, 'is what I wish you to insure me against, Mr Jephson.'
'You mean –'
'I mean the awful possibility of Miss Cynthia Meyrick's changing her mind.'
Again silence, save for the riveting machine outside. And three men looking unbelievingly at one another.
'Of course,' his lordship went on hastily, 'it is understood that I personally am very eager for this wedding to take place. It is understood that in the interval before the ceremony I shall do all in my power to keep Miss Meyrick to her present intention. Should the marriage be abandoned because of any act of mine, I would be ready to forfeit all claims on Lloyds.'
Mr Thacker recovered his breath and his voice at one and the same time.
'Preposterous,' he snorted. 'Begging your lordship's pardon, you can not expect hard-headed business men to listen seriously to any such proposition as that. Tushery, sir, tushery! Speaking as the American representative of Lloyds –'
'One moment,' interrupted Mr Jephson. In his eyes shone a queer light – a light such as one might expect to find in the eyes of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. 'One moment, please. What sum had you in mind, Lord Harrowby?'
'Well – say one hundred thousand pounds,' suggested his lordship. 'I realize that my proposition is fantastic. I really admitted as much. But –'
'One hundred thousand pounds.' Mr Jephson repeated it thoughtfully. 'I should have to charge your lordship a rather high rate. As high as ten per cent.'
Lord Harrowby seemed to be in the throes of mental arithmetic.
'I am afraid,' he said finally, 'I could not afford one hundred thousand at that rate. But I could afford – seventy-five thousand. Would that be satisfactory, Mr Jephson?'
'Jephson,' cried Mr Thacker wildly. 'Are you mad? Do you realize –'
'I realize everything, Thacker,' said Jephson calmly. 'I have your lordship's word that the young lady is at present determined on this alliance? And that you will do all in your power to keep her to her intention?'
'You have my word,' said Lord Harrowby. 'If you should care to telegraph –'
'Your word is sufficient,' said Jephson. 'Mr Minot, will you be kind enough to bring me a policy blank?'
'See here, Jephson,' foamed Thacker. 'What if this thing should get into the newspapers? We'd be the laughing-stock of the business world.'
'It mustn't,' said Jephson coolly.
'It might,' roared Thacker.
Mr Minot arrived with a blank policy, and Mr Jephson sat down at the young man's desk.
'One minute,' said Thacker. 'The faith of you two gentlemen in each other is touching, but I take it the millennium is still a few years off.' He drew toward him a blank sheet of paper, and wrote. 'I want this thing done in a businesslike way, if it's to be done in my office.' He handed the sheet of paper to Lord Harrowby. 'Will you read that, please?' he said.
'Certainly.' His lordship read: 'I hereby agree that in the interval until my wedding with Miss Cynthia Meyrick next Tuesday week I will do all in my power to put through the match, and that should the wedding be called off through any subsequent direct act of mine, I will forfeit all claims on Lloyds.'
'Will you sign that, please?' requested Mr Thacker.
'With pleasure.' His lordship reached for a pen.
'You and I, Richard,' said Mr Thacker, 'will sign as witnesses. Now, Jephson, go ahead with your fool policy.'
Mr Jephson looked up thoughtfully.
'Shall I say, your lordship,' he asked, 'that if, two weeks from today the wedding has not taken place, and has absolutely no prospect of taking place, I owe you seventy-five thousand pounds?'
'Yes.' His lordship nodded. 'Provided, of course, I have not forfeited by reason of this agreement. I shall write you a check, Mr Jephson.'
For a time there was no sound in the room save the scratching of two pens, while Mr Thacker gazed open-mouthed at Mr Minot, and Mr Minot light-heartedly smiled back. Then Mr Jephson reached for a blotter.
'I shall attend to the London end of this when I reach there five days hence,' he said. 'Perhaps I can find another underwriter to share the risk with me.'
The transaction was completed, and his lordship rose to go.
'I am at the Plaza,' he said, 'if any difficulty should arise. But I sail tonight for San Marco – on the yacht of a friend.' He crossed over and took Mr Jephson's hand. 'I can only hope, with all my heart,' he finished feelingly, 'that you never have to pay this policy.'
'We're with your lordship there,' said Mr Thacker sharply.
'Ah – you have been very kind,' replied Lord Harrowby. 'I wish you all – good day.'
And shivering no longer, he went away in his fine fur coat.
As the door closed upon the nobleman, Mr Thacker turned explosively on his friend from oversea.
'Jephson,' he thundered, 'you're an idiot! A rank unmitigated idiot!'
The Peter Pan light was bright in Jephson's eyes.
'So new,' he half-whispered. 'So original! Bless the boy's heart. I've been waiting forty years for a proposition like that.'
'Do you realize,' Thacker cried, 'that seventy-five thousand pounds of your good money depends on the honor of Lord Harrowby?'
'I do,' returned Jephson. 'And I would not be concerned if it were ten times that sum. I know the breed. Why, once – and you, Thacker, would have called me an idiot on that occasion, too – I insured his father against the loss of a polo game by a team on which the earl was playing. And he played like the devil – the earl did – won the game himself. Ah, I know the breed.'
'Oh, well,' sighed Thacker, 'I won't argue. But one thing is certain, Jephson. You can't go back to England now. Your place is in San Marco with one hand on the rope that rings the wedding bells.'
Jephson shook his great bald head.
'No,' he said. 'I must return today. It is absolutely necessary. My interests in San Marco are in the hands of Providence.'
Mr Thacker walked the floor wildly.
'Providence needs help in handling a woman,' he protested. 'Miss Meyrick must not change her mind. Someone must see that she doesn't. If you can't go yourself –' He paused, reflecting. 'Some young man, active, capable –'
Mr Richard Minot had risen from his chair, and was moving softly toward his overcoat. Looking over his shoulder, he beheld Mr Thacker's keen eyes upon him.
Excerpted from Love Insurance by Earl Derr Biggers. Copyright © 2014 Earl Derr Biggers. Excerpted by permission of Hesperus Press Limited.
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