It was in 1908 that Joseph Peterson Conroy burst upon London in the full magnificence of his astounding wealth. English society was, and had been for many years, accustomed to the irruption of millionaires, American or South African. Our aristocracy has learnt to pay these potentates the respect which is their due. Well-born men and women trot along Park Lane in obedience to the hooting calls of motor horns. No one considers himself degraded by grovelling before a plutocrat.
It has been for some time difficult to startle London by a display of mere wealth. Men respect more than ever fortunes which are reckoned in millions, though they have become too common to amaze. But Joseph Peterson Conroy, when he came, excited a great deal of interest. In the first place his income was enormous, larger, it was said, than the income of any other living man. In the next place he spent it very splendidly. There were no entertainments given in London during the years 1909, 1910, and 1911, equal in extravagance to those which Conroy gave. He outdid the “freak dinners” of New York. He invented freak dinners of his own. His horses—animals which he bought at enormous prices—won the great races. His yachts [Pg 2]flew the white ensign of the Royal Yacht Squadron. His gifts to fashionable charities were princely. English society fell at his feet and worshipped him. The most exclusive clubs were honoured by his desire of membership. Women whose fathers and husbands bore famous names were proud to boast of his friendship.
It cannot be said that Conroy abused either his position or his opportunities. He had won his great wealth honestly—that is to say without robbing any one except other robbers, and only robbing them in ways permitted by American law. He used what he had won honourably enough. He neither bought the favours of the women who thronged his entertainments; nor degraded, more than was necessary, the men who sought benefits from him. For a time, for nearly four years, he thoroughly enjoyed himself, exulting with boyish delight in his own splendour. Then he began to get restless. The things he did, the people he knew, ceased to interest him. It was early in 1911 that the crisis came; and before the season of that year was over Conroy had disappeared from London. His name still appeared occasionally in the columns which the newspapers devote to fashionable intelligence. But the house in Park Lane—the scene of many magnificent entertainments—was sold. The dinner parties, balls and card parties ceased; and Conroy entered upon what must have been the most exciting period of his life.
Bob Power—no one ever called him Robert—belonged to an old and respected Irish family, being a younger son of General Power of Kilfenora. He was [Pg 3]educated at Harrow and afterwards at Trinity College. He was called to the Irish bar and might have achieved in time the comfortable mediocrity of a County Court judgeship if he had not become Conroy’s private secretary. The post was secured for him by an uncle who had known Conroy in New York in the days before he became a millionaire, while it was still possible for an ordinary man to do him a favour. Bob accepted the post because everybody said he would be a fool to refuse it. He did not much like writing letters. The making out of schemes for the arrangements of Conroy’s guests at the more formal dinner parties worried him. The general supervision of the upper servants was no delight to him. But he did all these things fairly well, and his unfailing good spirits carried him safely through periods of very tiresome duty. He became, in spite of the twenty-five years’ difference of age between him and his patron, the intimate friend of Joseph Peterson Conroy.
It was to Bob that Conroy confided the fact that he was tired of the life of a leader of English society. The two men were sitting together in the smoking room at one o’clock in the morning after one of Conroy’s most magnificent entertainments.
“I’m damned well sick of all this,” said Conroy suddenly.
“So am I,” said Bob.
Bob Power was a man of adventurous disposition. He had a reputation in Connacht as a singularly bold rider to hounds. The story of his singlehanded cruise round Ireland in a ten tonner will be told among yachtsmen until his son does something more extravagantly [Pg 4]idiotic. The London season always bored him. The atmosphere of Conroy’s house in Park Lane stifled him.
“Is there any one thing left in this rotten old world,” said Conroy, “that’s worth doing?”
In Bob’s opinion there were several things very well worth doing. He suggested one of them at once.
“Let’s get out the Finola,” he said, “and go for a cruise. We’ve never done the South Sea Islands.”
The Finola was the largest of Conroy’s yachts, a handsome vessel of something over a thousand tons.
“Cruising in the Finola,” said Conroy, “is no earthly good to me. What I want is something that will put me into a nervous sweat, the same as I was when I was up against Ikenstein and the railway bosses. My nerves were like damned fiddle strings for a fortnight when I didn’t know whether I was going to come out a pauper or the owner of the biggest pile mortal man ever handled.”
Bob knew nothing of Ikenstein or the methods by which the pile had been wrested from him and his companions, but he did know the sensations which Conroy described. He, himself, arrived at them by hanging on to a sea anchor in a gale of wind off the Galway coast, or pushing a vicious horse at a nasty jump. Nervous sweat, stretched nerves and complete uncertainty about the immediate future afford the same delight however you get at them. He sympathized with Conroy.
“You might fit out a ship or two and try exploring round the South Pole,” Bob said. “They’ve got the thing itself of course, but there must be lots of places still undiscovered in the neighbourhood. I should [Pg 5]think that hummocking along over the ice floes in a dog sledge must be pretty thrilling.”
“I’m too fat,” he said, “and I’m too darned soft. The kind of life I’ve led for the last four years isn’t good training for camping out on icebergs and feeding on whale’s blubber.”
Bob smiled. Conroy was a very fat man. A camping party on an iceberg would be likely to end in some whale eating his blubber.
“I didn’t mean you to go yourself,” said Bob.
“Oh! I see. I’m to fit out the expedition and you are to go in command. I don’t quite see where the fun would come in for me. It wouldn’t excite me any to hear of your shooting Esquimaux and penguins. I shouldn’t care enough whether you lived or were froze to get any excitement out of a show of that kind.”
“We’d call it ‘The Joseph P. Conroy Expedition,’” said Bob; “and the newspapers—”
“Thanks. But I’m pretty well fed up with newspaper tosh. The press has boosted me ever since I landed in this country, and I’d just as soon they stopped now as started fresh.”
Bob relinquished the idea of a Polar expedition with a sigh.
It was Conroy himself who made the next suggestion.
“If politics weren’t such a rotten game—”
Bob did not feel attracted to political life; but he was loyal to his patron.
“Clithering,” he said, “was talking to me to-night. You know the man I mean, Sir Samuel Clithering. [Pg 6]He’s not in the Cabinet, but he’s what I’d call a pretty intimate hanger on; does odd jobs for the Prime Minister. He said the interest of political life was absorbing.”
“I shouldn’t care for it,” said Conroy. “After all, what would it be worth to me? There’s nothing for me to gain, and I don’t see how I could lose anything. It would be like playing bridge for counters. They might make me a lord, of course. A title is about the only thing I haven’t got, but then I don’t want it.”
“I quite agree with you,” said Bob. “I merely mentioned politics because Clithering said—”
“Besides,” said Conroy, “it wouldn’t be my politics. England isn’t my country.”
“It would be rather exciting,” said Bob, “to run a revolution somewhere. There are lots of small states, in the Balkans, you know, which could be turned inside out and upside down by a man with the amount of money you have.”
“There’s something in that notion,” said Conroy. “Get a map, will you?”
Bob Power did not want to go wandering round the house at half-past one o’clock in the morning looking for a map of the Balkan States. It seemed to him that the idea—the financing of a revolution was of course a joke—might be worked out with reference to some country nearer at hand, the geographical conditions of which would be sufficiently well known without the aid of a map.
“Why not try Ireland?” he said.
Then a very curious thing happened. Conroy’s appearance, not merely his expression but his actual features seemed to change. Instead of the shrewd face [Pg 7]of a successful American financier Bob Power saw the face of an Irish peasant. He was perfectly familiar with the type. It was one which he had known all his life. He knew it at its best, expressive of lofty idealisms and fantastic dreams of things beyond this world’s experience. He knew it at its worst too, when narrow cunning and unquenchable bitterness transform it. The change passed over Conroy’s face and then quickly passed away again.
“By God!” said Conroy, “it’s a great notion. To buck against the British Lion!”
Bob remembered the things which he had heard and half heeded about Conroy’s ancestry. In 1850 another Conroy, a broken peasant, the victim of evil fate and gross injustice, had left Ireland in an emigrant ship with a ragged wife and four half starved children clinging to him, with an unquenchable hatred of England in his heart. The hate, it appeared, had lived on in his son, had broken out again in a grandson, dominating the cynical cosmopolitanism of the financial magnate. Bob was vaguely uneasy. He did not like the expression he had seen on Conroy’s face. He did not like the tone in which he spoke. But it was obviously absurd to suppose that any one could take seriously the idea of financing an Irish revolution.
Then Conroy began to talk about Ireland. He knew, it appeared, a great deal about the history of the country up to a certain point. He had a traditional knowledge of the horrors of the famine period. He was intimately acquainted with the details of the Fenian movement. Either he or his father had been a member of the Clan na Gael. He understood the Parnell struggle for Home Rule. But with the fall [Pg 8]of Parnell his knowledge stopped abruptly. Of all that happened after that he knew nothing. He supposed that the later Irish leaders had inherited the traditions of Mitchel, O’Leary, Davitt and the others. Bob laughed at him.
“If you’re thinking of buying guns for the Nationalists,” he said, “you may save your money. They wouldn’t use them if they had arsenals full. They’re quite the most loyal men there are nowadays. Why wouldn’t they? They’ve got most of what they want and Clithering told me the Home Rule Bill was going to knit their hearts to the Empire. Awful rot, of course, but his very words.”
“What do you mean?” said Conroy.
Bob laughed again. He had all the contempt common in his class for those of his fellow-countrymen who professed to be Nationalists. But he had rather more intelligence than most Irish gentlemen. He quite realized the absurdity of supposing that the Irish Parliamentary party consisted of men who had in them the makings of rebels.
“Read their speeches,” he said. “Since this talk of Home Rule began they’ve been cracking up the glories of the British Empire like—like the Primrose League.”
“To-morrow morning,” said Conroy, “you’ll fetch me along all the books and pamphlets you can lay hands on dealing with the present state of the Irish question.”
“I want a small cart,” said Bob.
“Get a four-horse waggon, if you like,” said Conroy.
Categories: English Literature