The Financier by A. A. Milne

I

This is how I became a West African mining magnate with a stake in the Empire.

During February I grew suddenly tired of waiting for the summer to begin. London in the summer is a pleasant place, and chiefly so because you can keep on buying evening papers to see what Kent is doing. In February life has no such excitements to offer. So I wrote to my solicitor about it.

“I want you” (I wrote) “to buy me fifty rubber shares, so that I can watch them go up and down.” And I added “Brokerage 1/8” to show that I knew what I was talking about.

He replied tersely as follows:–

“Don’t be a fool. If you have any money to invest I can get you a safe mortgage at five per cent. Let me know.”

It’s a funny thing how the minds of solicitors run upon mortgages. If they would only stop to think for a moment they would see that you couldn’t possibly watch a safe mortgage go up and down. I left my solicitor alone and consulted Henry on the subject. In the intervals between golf and golf Henry dabbles in finance.

“You don’t want anything gilt-edged, I gather?” he said. It’s wonderful how they talk.

“I want it to go up and down,” I explained patiently, and I indicated the required movement with my umbrella.

“What about a little flutter in oil?” he went on, just like a financier in a novel.

“I’ll have a little flutter in raspberry jam if you like. Anything as long as I can rush every night for the last edition of the evening papers and say now and then, ‘Good heavens, I’m ruined.’”

“Then you’d better try a gold-mine,” said Henry bitterly, in the voice of one who had tried. “Take your choice,” and he threw the paper over to me.

“I don’t want a whole mine–only a vein or two. Yes, this is very interesting,” I went on, as I got among the West Africans. “The scoring seems to be pretty low; I suppose it must have been a wet wicket. ‘H.E. Reef, 1-3/4, 2’–he did a little better in the second innings. ‘1/2, Boffin River, 5/16, 7/16’–they followed on, you see, but they saved the innings defeat. By the way, which figure do I really keep my eye on when I want to watch them go up and down?”

“Both. One eye on each. And don’t talk about Boffin River to me.”

“Is it like that, Henry? I am sorry. I suppose it’s too late now to offer you a safe mortgage at five per cent? I know a man who has some. Well, perhaps you’re right.”

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On the next day I became a magnate. The Jaguar Mine was the one I fixed upon–for two reasons. First, the figure immediately after it was 1, which struck me as a good point from which to watch it go up and down. Secondly, I met a man at lunch who knew somebody who had actually seen the Jaguar Mine.

“He says that there’s no doubt about there being lots there.”

“Lots of what? Jaguars or gold?”

“Ah, he didn’t say. Perhaps he meant jaguars.”

Anyhow, it was an even chance, and I decided to risk it. In a week’s time I was the owner of what we call in the City a “block” of Jaguars–bought from one Herbert Bellingham, who, I suppose, had been got at by his solicitor and compelled to return to something safe. I was a West African magnate.

My first two months as a magnate were a great success. With my heart in my mouth I would tear open the financial editions of the evening papers, to find one day that Jaguars had soared like a rocket to 1-1/16, the next that they had dropped like a stone to 1-1/32. There was one terrible afternoon when for some reason which will never be properly explained we sank to 15/16. I think the European situation had something to do with it, though this naturally is not admitted. Lord Rothschild, I fancy, suddenly threw all his Jaguars on the market; he sold and sold and sold, and only held his hand when, in desperation, the Tsar granted the concession for his new Southend to Siberia railway. Something like that. But he never recked how the private investor would suffer; and there was I, sitting at home and sending out madly for all the papers, until my rooms were littered with copies of The Times, The Financial News, Answers, The Feathered World, and Home Chat. Next day we were up to 31/32, and I was able to breathe again.

But I had other pleasures than these. Previously I had regarded the City with awe, but now I felt a glow of possession come over me whenever I approached it. Often in those first two months I used to lean against the Mansion House in a familiar sort of way; once I struck a match against the Royal Exchange. And what an impression of financial acumen I could make in a drawing-room by a careless reference to my “block of Jaguars”! Even those who misunderstood me and thought I spoke of my “flock of jaguars” were startled. Indeed life was very good just then.

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But lately things have not been going well. At the beginning of April Jaguars settled down at 1-1/16. Though I stood for hours at the club tape, my hair standing up on end and my eyeballs starting from their sockets, Jaguars still came through steadily at 1-1/16. To give them a chance of doing something, I left them alone for a whole week–with what agony you can imagine. Then I looked again; a whole week and anything might have happened. Pauper or millionaire?–No, still 1-1/16.

Worse was to follow. Editors actually took to leaving out Jaguars altogether. I suppose they were sick of putting 1-1/16 in every edition. But how ridiculous it made my idea seem of watching them go up and down! How blank life became again!

And now what I dreaded most of all has happened. I have received a “Progress Report” from the mine. It gives the “total footage” for the month, special reference being made to “cross-cutting, winzing, and sinking.” The amount of “tons crushed” is announced. There is serious talk of “ore” being “extracted”; indeed there has already been a most alarming “yield in fine gold.” In short, it can no longer be hushed up that the property may at any moment be “placed on a dividend-paying basis.”

Probably I shall be getting a safe five per cent!

“Dash it all,” as I said to my solicitor this morning, “I might just as well have bought a rotten mortgage.”

II

(Eighteen months later)

It is nearly two years ago that I began speculating in West African mines. You may remember what a stir my entry into the financial world created; how Sir Isaac Isaacstein went mad and shot himself; how Sir Samuel Samuelstein went mad and shot his typist; and how Sir Moses Mosestein went mad and shot his typewriter, permanently damaging the letter “s.” There was panic in the City on that February day in 1912 when I bought Jaguars and set the market rocking.

I bought Jaguars partly for the rise and partly for the thrill. In describing my speculation to you eighteen months ago I dwelt chiefly on the thrill part; I alleged that I wanted to see them go up and down. It would have been more accurate to have said that I wanted to see them go up. It was because I was sure they were going up that, with the united support of my solicitor, my stockbroker, my land agent, my doctor, my architect and my vicar (most of them hired for the occasion), I bought fifty shares in the Jaguar mine of West Africa.

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When I bought Jaguars they were at 1–1-1/16. This means that—- No, on second thoughts I won’t. There was a time when, in the pride of my new knowledge, I should have insisted on explaining to you what it meant, but I am getting blase now; besides, you probably know. It is enough that I bought them, and bought them on the distinct understanding from my financial adviser that by the end of the month they would be up to 2. In that case I should have made rather more than forty pounds in a few days, simply by assembling together my solicitor, stockbroker, land-agent, etc., etc., in London, and without going to West Africa at all. A wonderful thought.

At the end of a month Jaguars were steady at 1-1/16; and I had received a report from the mine to the effect that down below they were simply hacking gold out as fast as they could hack, and up at the top were very busy rinsing and washing and sponging and drying it. The next month the situation was the same: Jaguars in London very steady at 1-1/16, Jaguar diggers in West Africa very steady at gold-digging. And at the end of the third month I realized not only that I was not going to have any thrills at all, but (even worse) that I was not going to make any money at all. I had been deceived.

. . . . .

That was where, eighteen months ago, I left the story of my City life. A good deal has happened since then; as a result of which I am once more eagerly watching the price of Jaguars.

A month or two after I had written about them, Jaguars began to go down. They did it (as they have done everything since I have known them) stupidly. If they had dropped in a single night to 3/4, I should at least have had my thrill. I should have suffered in a single night the loss of some pounds, and I could have borne it dramatically; either with the sternness of the silent Saxon, or else with the volubility of the volatile–I can’t think of anybody beginning with a “V.” But, alas! Jaguars never dropped at all. They subsided. They subsided slowly back to 1–so slowly that you could hardly observe them going. A week later they were 63/64, which, of course, is practically the same as 1. A month afterwards they were 31/32, and it is a debatable point whether that is less or more than 63/64. Anyhow, by the time I had worked it out and decided that it was slightly less, they were at 61/64, and one had the same trouble all over again. At 61/64 I left them for a time; and when I next read the financial column they were at 15/16, which still seemed to be fairly near to 1. And even when at last, after many months, I found them down to 7/8 I was not seriously alarmed, but felt that it was due to some little local trouble (as that the manager had fallen down the main shaft and was preventing the gold being shot out properly), and that, when the obstruction had been removed, Jaguars would go up to 1 again.

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But they didn’t. They continued to subside. When they had subsided to 1/2 I woke up. My dream of financial glory was over. I had lost my money and my faith in the City; well, let them go. With an effort I washed Jaguars out of my mind. Henceforward they were nothing to me.

And then, months after, Andrew came on the scene. At lunch one day he happened to mention that he had been talking to his broker.

“Do you often talk to your broker?” I asked in admiration. It sounded so magnificent.

“Often.”

“I haven’t got a broker to talk to. When you next chat to yours, I wish you’d lead the conversation round to Jaguars and see what he says.”

“Why, have you got some?”

“Yes, but they’re no good. Have a cigarette, won’t you?”

Next morning to my amazement I got a telegram from Andrew. “Can get you ten shillings for Jaguars. Wire if you will sell, and how many.”

It was really a shock to me. When I had asked Andrew to mention Jaguars to his broker it was solely in the hope of hearing some humorous City comment on their futility–one of those crisp jests for which the Stock Exchange is famous. I had no idea that his broker might like to buy them from me.

I wired back: “Sell fifty, quick.”

Next day he told me he had sold them.

“That’s all right,” I said cheerfully; “they’re his. He can watch them go up and down. When do I get my twenty-five pounds?” To save twenty-five pounds from the wreck was wonderful.

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“Not for a month; and, of course, you don’t deliver the shares till then.”

“What do you mean, ‘deliver the shares’?” I asked in alarm. “I haven’t got the gold-mine here; it’s in Africa or somewhere. Must I go out and—-“

“But you’ve got a certificate for them.”

My heart sank.

“Have I?” I whispered. “Good Lord, I wonder where it is.”

I went home and looked. I looked for two days; I searched drawers and desks and letter-books and safes and ice-tanks and trouser-presses–every place in which a certificate might hide. It was no good. I went back to Andrew. I was calm.

“About these Jaguars,” I said casually. “I don’t quite understand my position. What have I promised to do? And can they put me in prison if I don’t do it?”

“You’ve promised to sell fifty Jaguars to a man called Stevens by the middle of next month. That’s all.”

“I see,” I said, and I went home again.

And I suppose you see too. I’ve got to sell fifty Jaguars to a man called Stevens by the middle of next month. Although I really have fifty fully matured ones of my own, there’s nothing to prove it, and they are so suspicious in the City that they will never take my bare word. So I shall have to buy fifty new Jaguars for this man called Stevens–and buy them by the middle of next month.

And this is why I am still eagerly watching the price of Jaguars. Yesterday they were 5/8. I am hoping that by the middle of next month they will be down to 1/2 again. But I find it difficult to remember sometimes which way I want them to go. This afternoon, for instance, when I saw they had risen to 11/16 I was quite excited for a moment; I went out and bought some cigars on the strength of it. Then I remembered; and I came home and almost decided to sell the pianola. It is very confusing. You must see how very confusing it is.

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