8.—The Ground Floor
I hadn’t seen Ellesworth since our college days, twenty years before, at the time when he used to borrow two dollars and a half from the professor of Public Finance to tide him over the week end.
Then quite suddenly he turned up at the club one day and had afternoon tea with me.
His big clean shaven face had lost nothing of its impressiveness, and his spectacles had the same glittering magnetism as in the days when he used to get the college bursar to accept his note of hand for his fees.
And he was still talking European politics just as he used to in the days of our earlier acquaintance.
“Mark my words,” he said across the little tea-table, with one of the most piercing glances I have ever seen, “the whole Balkan situation was only a beginning. We are on the eve of a great pan-Slavonic upheaval.” And then he added, in a very quiet, casual tone: “By the way, could you let me have twenty-five dollars till to-morrow?”
“A pan-Slavonic movement!” I ejaculated. “Do you really think it possible? No, I couldn’t.”
“You must remember,” Ellesworth went on, “Russia means to reach out and take all she can get;” and he added, “how about fifteen till Friday?”
“She may reach for it,” I said, “but I doubt if she’ll get anything. I’m sorry. I haven’t got it.”
“You’re forgetting the Bulgarian element,” he continued, his animation just as eager as before. “The Slavs never forget what they owe to one another.”
Here Ellesworth drank a sip of tea and then said quietly, “Could you make it ten till Saturday at twelve?”
I looked at him more closely. I noticed now his frayed cuffs and the dinginess of his over-brushed clothes. Not even the magnetism of his spectacles could conceal it. Perhaps I had been forgetting something, whether the Bulgarian element or not.
I compromised at ten dollars till Saturday.
“The Slav,” said Ellesworth, as he pocketed the money, “is peculiar. He never forgets.”
“What are you doing now?” I asked him. “Are you still in insurance?” I had a vague recollection of him as employed in that business.
“No,” he answered. “I gave it up. I didn’t like the outlook. It was too narrow. The atmosphere cramped me. I want,” he said, “a bigger horizon.”
“Quite so,” I answered quietly. I had known men before who had lost their jobs. It is generally the cramping of the atmosphere that does it. Some of them can use up a tremendous lot of horizon.
“At present,” Ellesworth went on, “I am in finance. I’m promoting companies.”
“Oh, yes,” I said. I had seen companies promoted before.
“Just now,” continued Ellesworth, “I’m working on a thing that I think will be rather a big thing. I shouldn’t want it talked about outside, but it’s a matter of taking hold of the cod fisheries of the Grand Banks,—practically amalgamating them—and perhaps combining with them the entire herring output, and the whole of the sardine catch of the Mediterranean. If it goes through,” he added, “I shall be in a position to let you in on the ground floor.”
I knew the ground floor of old. I have already many friends sitting on it; and others who have fallen through it into the basement.
I said, “thank you,” and he left me.
“That was Ellesworth, wasn’t it?” said a friend of mine who was near me. “Poor devil. I knew him slightly,—always full of some new and wild idea of making money. He was talking to me the other day of the possibility of cornering all the huckleberry crop and making refined sugar. Isn’t it amazing what fool ideas fellows like him are always putting up to business men?”
We both laughed.
After that I didn’t see Ellesworth for some weeks.
Then I met him in the club again. How he paid his fees there I do not know.
This time he was seated among a litter of foreign newspapers with a cup of tea and a ten-cent package of cigarettes beside him.
“Have one of these cigarettes,” he said. “I get them specially. They are milder than what we have in the club here.”
They certainly were.
“Note what I say,” Ellesworth went on. “The French Republic is going to gain from now on a stability that it never had.” He seemed greatly excited about it. But his voice changed to a quiet tone as he added, “Could you, without inconvenience, let me have five dollars?”
So I knew that the cod-fish and the sardines were still unamalgamated.
“What about the fisheries thing?” I asked. “Did it go through?”
“The fisheries? No, I gave it up. I refused to go forward with it. The New York people concerned were too shy, too timid to tackle it. I finally had to put it to them very straight that they must either stop shilly-shallying and declare themselves, or the whole business was off.”
“Did they declare themselves?” I questioned.
“They did,” said Ellesworth, “but I don’t regret it. I’m working now on a much bigger thing,—something with greater possibilities in it. When the right moment comes I’ll let you in on the ground floor.”
I thanked him and we parted.
The next time I saw Ellesworth he told me at once that he regarded Albania as unable to stand by itself. So I gave him five dollars on the spot and left him.
A few days after that he called me up on the telephone to tell me that the whole of Asia Minor would have to be redistributed. The redistribution cost me five dollars more.
Then I met him on the street, and he said that Persia was disintegrating, and took from me a dollar and a half.
When I passed him next in the street he was very busy amalgamating Chinese tramways. It appeared that there was a ground floor in China, but I kept off it.
Each time I saw Ellesworth he looked a little shabbier than the last. Then one day he called me up on the telephone, and made an appointment.
His manner when I joined him was full of importance.
“I want you at once,” he said in a commanding tone, “to write me your cheque for a hundred dollars.”
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“I am now able,” said Ellesworth, “to put you in on the ground floor of one of the biggest things in years.”
“Thanks,” I said, “the ground floor is no place for me.”
“Don’t misunderstand me,” said Ellesworth. “This is a big thing. It’s an idea I’ve been working on for some time,—making refined sugar from the huckleberry crop. It’s a certainty. I can get you shares now at five dollars. They’ll go to five hundred when we put them on the market,—and I can run you in for a block of stock for promotion services as well. All you have to do is to give me right now a hundred dollars,—cash or your cheque,—and I can arrange the whole thing for you.”
“My dear Ellesworth,” I said, “I hope you won’t mind if I give you a little bit of good advice. Why not drop all this idea of quick money? There’s nothing in it. The business world has grown too shrewd for it. Take an ordinary decent job and stick to it. Let me use my influence,” I added, “to try and get you into something with a steady salary, and with your brains you’re bound to get on in time.”
Ellesworth looked pained. A “steady job” sounded to him like a “ground floor” to me.
After that I saw nothing of him for weeks. But I didn’t forget him. I looked about and secured for him a job as a canvassing agent for a book firm at a salary of five dollars a week, and a commission of one-tenth of one per cent.
I was waiting to tell him of his good luck, when I chanced to see him at the club again.
But he looked transformed.
He had on a long frock coat that reached nearly to his knees. He was leading a little procession of very heavy men in morning coats, upstairs towards the private luncheon rooms. They moved like a funeral, puffing as they went. I had seen company directors before and I knew what they were at sight.
“It’s a small club and rather inconvenient,” Ellesworth was saying, “and the horizon of some of its members rather narrow,” here he nodded to me as he passed,—“but I can give you a fairly decent lunch.”
I watched them as they disappeared upstairs.
“That’s Ellesworth, isn’t it?” said a man near me. It was the same man who had asked about him before.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Giving a lunch to his directors, I suppose,” said my friend; “lucky dog.”
“His directors?” I asked.
“Yes, hadn’t you heard? He’s just cleaned up half a million or more,—some new scheme for making refined sugar out of huckleberries. Isn’t it amazing what shrewd ideas these big business men get hold of? They say they’re unloading the stock at five hundred dollars. It only cost them about five to organize. If only one could get on to one of these things early enough, eh?”
I assented sadly.
And the next time I am offered a chance on the ground floor I am going to take it, even if it’s only the barley floor of a brewery.
It appears that there is such a place after all.