The Watch Thief, Chapter 13

January 1911, York.

Lamps hung from York Railway Station below its great spiralling ribcage roof. Trebitsch could not avoid looking up. The roof stretched out over the platform, always ahead of him. Two arches separated by running girders, like an appendix. He was not far outside when he heard a roar, something so dark it covered the sun whole, for a moment. Across the road was the Station Hotel, a monster of a gothic industrial complex. She spawned stone nodes, pillars, gates and smaller tributary buildings. The path to the hotel enclosed him against turrets, vertical mouldings and pointed archways. Above, a line of every nation’s flags flapped shaking off the January frost. He felt dampness in him from the courtyard fountain.

He was the first, facing down an empty room. It was empty no matter how much he moved about: until James Blumer came. Trebitsch tried to ease the mood with good charm. A stranger arrived, clean shaven and combed.

“May I help you?”

“Trebitsch Lincoln? I represent the interests of Reverend Burt of Montreal.”

Within minutes other creditors were arriving: Seebohm and Arnold Rowntree; Herbert Samuel and a few other MPs; Darlington residents; a banker from Appledore; William Robson and Henry Dalziel. Trebitsch was over-come. He had no plan of action. The men talked and smoked among themselves, moving around so he could not keep track. Their eyes were fixed on him yet they spoke about him rather than to him.

“Doesn’t he have any assets?”

“We could take this through the courts.”

“No gentlemen, I implore you!”

“As the biggest creditor here I propose we try to avoid the extra time and energy that would require,” Rowntree said.

“And the costs,” said Robson.

“If the man has nothing, how can he settle?” asked Samuel.

They took his bank balance, weighed his pocket and were paid five shillings in the pound. Rowntree said they could do nothing else. The rest they were to wait for. Trebitsch made a hasty retreat.

“He doesn’t strike me as a committed sort,” said the man from Montreal. “I don’t expect to hear anything from him again.”

A Glaswegian firm, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, were gearing up towards production in Iran. They were eager to capitalise on the Royal Navy’s decision to switch from coal. The Germans were not ready to compete, but hoped to exploit the fields in Meopotamia with the building of the Berlin-Baghdad railway. The oil race was in Trebitsch’s mind as he signed them in to the Liberal Club. Nicolas Hotermans had boyish features, a blond quiff, and Krausz, a few years younger black curls and swarthy skin. They carried the satchels to the second floor meeting room. John Goldstein the Piccadilly solicitor rose as they entered. Trebitsch said he was glad he’d made it and that he’d already met the banker, Lloyd Norfolk. He introduced his assistants, who Norfolk already knew, but not that Hotermans was also an engineer. Then Alfred Farmer the publisher arrived, along with Trebitsch’s friend Charles Weingart, and they were all introduced over again. Word had gotten around Margarethe had given birth to another boy, Clifford, and they all congratulated the father. Then Trebitsch called to order the May 1911 meeting of Galician Amalgamated Oil Incorporated.

“Our chairman Mr. Gardener Sinclair apologises for he can’t attend due to business in Edinburgh. Mr. August Lobkowitz also apologises due to matters regarding the noble families of Czechoslovakia.”

The men laughed. Trebitsch paused til they were done. “His Serene Highness Prince Hieronim Radziwill of Poland also regrets not being in attendance.”

Farmer, a robust country-man with walrus moustache was acting as director. Trebitsch had passed out cigars for all of them but Farmer chose his pipe, filled with coarse shag. “Of the 440,000 shares at a pound each, Laupenmuhlen and Co. have underwritten 312,000. Regrettably in our first month we’ve sold only 76,000.”

“We have a large cross-section of investors,” said Trebitsch. “Solicitors, grocers, schoolmasters and I sold a few to the fellow in charge of the Savoy.”

“The problem is many of them are not buying sizeable lots,” said Norfolk.

“It annoys me that we set out to avoid speculation,” said Trebitsch. “But Seagal made clear this is part of the business: if we want storage units we need storage certificates. There is no getting around it. In 1909 the fields produced over two million tons. There was a lower figure last year because of flooding in the region.”

Two of the waiters familiar to Trebitsch came in with clinking glass while he talked.

“Our projections are based on the expectation that we will soon be operating eight companies in Galicia. Yes, mine is the pinot grigot, thank you. Our estimates should be regarded as highly conservative, since it is well-known that these districts give a much higher yield.”

“After our advert in The Times,” asked Goldstein, “there was that letter to the editor from Someone McGarvey about Karpath? Karpath is the ninth company?” asked Goldstein.

“Yes. Our advert did not mention Karpath. McGarvey’s simply trying to grab publicity. When we have Braganza we have 95% of the market.” Trebitsch fondled the base of the glass, swirling the wine around. “Mr. McGarvey does not like that!”

Before the waiters left the room Trebitsch made sure they heard all about the ten percent dividend.

Over the next year he made visits between Galicia and Laupenmuhlens, the Vienesse banking firm which loaned them the capital for Braganza. Laupenmuhlens were awarded extra board seats to give them a controlling interest. This sullied Trebitsch’s dreams and stirred his emotions. The oil supply slumped a second year and he blamed it on McGarvey of Karpath. When Hotermans pointed out that wouldn’t make any sense, he screamed at the lad. He had envisioned a company all of his very own, one he could show off to his family and leave to his sons after he was gone. He and Weingart set up Lincoln & Co. Incorporated in rented London offices.

It was only weeks after the Titanic tragedy when Hotermans and Krausz carried the satchels to the meeting room at Finsbury Court. The company solicitor, Gilbert Samuel, rose as they entered. Trebitsch said he knew his brother from the Commons and that he was glad he’d already met the Admiral, Compton Domville. Then Alfred Farmer the publisher arrived and they heard briefly about Domville’s trips to West Africa and North America and his time as naval aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria. Then Trebitsch called to order the May 1912 meeting of The Oil & Drilling Trust of Roumania Incorporated.

“One of our board members, Count Michel Callimachi, apologises. He can’t attend due to business with other members of the nobility of Roumania.”

They laughed at this. Trebitsch drank from his black coffee.

“As director of the Trust, and Lincoln and Co. we are underwriting 25,000 of the 100,000 shares at a pound each. We have a wide variety of investors.”

“Our problem is buyers are typically purchasing a small number of shares,” said Gilbert Samuel.

Trebitsch passed around copies of the day’s paper. “Gentlemen, if you turn to page eight in The Times, our announcement that we have the two Tosca oil wells in Bustenarit. Nicolas, would you care to read?”

“‘The well-known character of the districts served by the pipe-lines ought to provide a steady, continuous business, and consequent profit.'”

Trebitsch interjected. “You will see I have had printed our estimated profits in the first year at £20,000 and in the second at £65,000, from over twenty tons of oil a day.”

There had not been enough gusto in Hotermans’ voice so he took up reading. “‘This is based on the expectation that the company will soon be operating no fewer than sixteen wells in Roumania. This estimate should be regarded as highly conservative since it is well-known the Busternari district generally gives a much higher yield than this.'”

The men flapped their paper and soaked up the newsprint. They leafed through the dark orange document holders, the prospectus; they smoked their cigars and drank their coffee until satisfied.

After Samuel and Domville departed, Farmer asked, “What’s the word about the extra forty thousand we need for Galicia? Any word back from Laupenmuhlen?”

“They have supplied it already! I am going out there this week to provide them with reassurances.”

Krausz had gotten a call to join his uncle on a visit to Vienna. He decided to pack his bags for Budapest instead. Trebitsch took the train alone to the city that was a melting pot that never quite melted. The river ran through all of it: the university fortresses and open plan roads as well as the tall and narrow streets that smelled of beef and potatoes. Trebitsch walked in straight line by box hedges, outside formal fountains and statues. He waited in the lobby of the bank of Laupenmuhlen and Co. until the manager, David Barr, was ready to see him. His office was wide, at the centre a marble table, the rocks white and grey within it.

“Mr. Lincoln. You reached out to us here at Laupenmuhlen to purchase the Galician Braganza well from Premier Oil. Now we’re considering selling it back to them. Ladenburgs have purchased…” he drew his eyes into the ledger and sniffed. “To date: £236,000 in unsold shares and we have advanced £79,000 for purchase of land and supplies.”

There was a spiral pock mark on the banker’s cheek and Trebitsch tried not to look at it, but put his head down towards the yellow tissues of the invoice book.

“The City of London is very grateful, Mr. Barr. May I call you David? You know, we have an engineer on our board. A diplomat too, but also an engineer: Mr. Hotermans. I had a very interesting discussion with him and a man from the American Parker company about their new rotary drill. Have you heard of it? It is cutting edge technology.”

“Mr. Lincoln…”

“I am in discussion for exclusive rights to sell the drill in Roumania. Perhaps it can be employed in Galicia too.”

“Mr. Lincoln, having had a look through your books we see mostly liabilities and creditors. Unless the situation drastically improves, we are very soon going to have to pull the plug.”

“That would be a mistake, David. We are just on the verge of a new boom, sir! It might be wiser to look at what the company does have. For instance, why not show our operation off to other oil men? As Laupmuhlens owns the controlling stake we should work together on a promotional venture. We could bring them in on a special train and rent out one of the local hotels. Think of the increase in brand awareness over a special banquet!”

“Mr. Lincoln, a greater uptake of shares will not help.” said Barr. “The wells are dry.”

“The other shareholders will not like that, David. As their chairman it is my duty to speak for them.”

“If liquidation is the only way to get this company to produce then that is what we will do.”

Trebitsch raised his hand and slapped his knee. “Fine! If you are determined to control Galician Amalgamated well, I have tried, and I may as well sell you my remaining shares because I will have no part of it.”

Weingart threw himself in front of the man before he could grab Trebitsch.

“They’re worthless! The shares are worthless!”

The musty London hall was packed with a hundred shareholders, hot and virtually on top of one another. Henderson, the receiver, called for order. He was a Scottish Liberal and all bone and bristles.

“Please, please be seated! We all want what is best for the Trust. You may put questions to Mr. Lincoln shortly. Now, Ladenburgs Bank own the controlling interest in Roumanian Oil and Drilling. They commissioned me to prepare a report as to my findings. My investigation at the parent company, Lincoln & Co., yielded a disturbing lack of receipts, invoices or other information.”

Hotermans looked to Trebitsch, his hand in the air, his brow coming to boiling point.

“I found a similar situation in the Bucharest office,” said Henderson. “No account for the monies remitted to, or spent for them. We are therefore unable to state that the above balance sheet is properly drawn up so as to exhibit a true and correct view of the company’s affairs.”

There were gasps, groans, curses: a black cloud of disapproval.

“We have not the information or explanations required and so,” he put his hand over his mouth and coughed and took it away again. “I’d like to invite Mr. Lincoln to have a word.”

Someone said, “The company has been run into the ground the same way the Galician one was.”

“Let’s hear his explanation,” said another.

Trebitsch took the stage. His dark hair was swept back around his head but for the lip of moustache. He was dressed formally: white shirt, navy tie and grey suit with a chain watch draped across his front like a medal.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please allow me a chance to speak. We were forced to turn to Ladenburgs to get the company a mortgage of £25,000. Now they have foreclosed. The Bustenari well, which they sold, is producing greater quantities than before. It was not my decision to sell it. That was Ladenburg’s decision.”

“Mr. Lincoln, I gleaned from your accounts total obligations of £150,000.”

“Please, Mr. Henderson, I held my tongue while you spoke. Grant me the same courtesy. You know I uprooted and travelled around the world so I could keep close eyes on those wells. We were given special dispensation by the Roumanian government yet they wanted bribe after bribe: for machines held up at customs. There were vehicles blocked in the road because we had not greased the proper palms.”

The audience, sour and despairing, had found a new target. The man who wanted to murder Trebitsch minutes ago looked past Henderson and met Trebitsch with empathy.

“We did everything we could, staked all we had. We brought inspectors in, and fellow oil men. I gave them tours, personally. I earned us endorsements from industry heads and advertised heavily in the European press. If King Carol had chosen not to join in the war against Bulgaria I would still be there. As director, am I to be blamed for the Second Balkan war also?”

There was laughter around the room, calls of “No!”

Trebitsch said, “there were a number of misunderstadings that arose between various persons. These resulted in the company being without working capital just when it was on the verge of success. The great thing is to find fresh capital, and I believe a scheme is afoot with that as its object.”

The first question went straight to Henderson. Could the Trust be rescued? He was unwilling to answer yes or no. After some waffling, Trebitsch interrupted.

“It is not as bad as all that. There is plenty of equipment lying around which are valuable assets.”

“Could the operation be salvaged through our deal with Parker-Rotary?” someone asked.

“Mr. Lincoln, Would you be willing to go out and provide a fresh assessment now the danger has passed?”

“In the interests of the company I am quite willing to go out and see for myself in the next few days,” said Trebitsch. “However, Ladenburgs appointed Mr. Henderson chairman, so such an action would be dependent on him. Please do not be too harsh with him. He is doing his best. I know what it is like.”

Henderson took a deep breath and walked back to the podium.

“I accept Mr. Lincoln’s offer. Perhaps we might adjourn the meeting for three weeks? Would that be sufficient?”

Elsewhere in London, Nicolas Hotermans was boarding a train to the port, then a ship home to Brussels.

#

c. Andy Luke, 2017

The Watch Thief runs one chapter a week. You can find more here.
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