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— The Lombard Street Deposit
MR. WILLIAM SPEDDING, of the firm of Spedding, Mortimer and Larach, Solicitors, bought the site in Lombard Street in the conventional way. The property came into the market on the death of an old lady who lived at Market Harborough, who has nothing to do with this story, and it was put up to auction in the orthodox fashion.
Mr. William Spedding secured the site at £106,000, a sum sufficiently large to excite the interest of all the evening papers and a great number of the morning journals as well.
As a matter of exact detail, I may add that plans were produced and approved by the city surveyor for the erection of a building of a peculiar type. The city surveyor was a little puzzled by the interior arrangement of the new edifice, but as it fulfilled all the requirements of the regulations governing buildings in the City of London, and no fault could be found either with the external appearance — its facade had been so artfully designed that you might pass a dozen times a day without the thought occurring that this new building was anything out of the common ruck — and as the systems of ventilation and light were beyond reproach, he passed the plans with a shrug of his shoulders.
"I cannot understand, Mr. Spedding," he said, laying his forefinger on the blue print, "how your client intends securing privacy. There is a lobby and one big hall. Where are the private offices, and what is the idea of this huge safe in the middle of the hall, and where are the clerks to sit? I suppose he will have clerks? Why, man, he won't have a minute's peace!"
Mr. Spedding smiled grimly.
"He will have all the peace he wants," he said.
"And the vaults — I should have thought that vaults would be the very thing you wanted for this." He tapped the corner of the sheet where was inscribed decorously: "Plan for the erection of a New Safe Deposit."
"There is the safe," said Mr. Spedding, and smiled again.
This William Spedding, now unhappily no longer with us — he died suddenly, as I will relate — was a large, smooth man with a suave manner. He smoked good cigars, the ends of which he snipped off with a gold cigar-cutter, and his smile came readily, as from a man who had no fault to find with life.
To continue the possibly unnecessary details, I may add further that whilst tenders were requested for the erection of the New Safe Deposit, the provision of the advertisement that the lowest tender would not necessarily be accepted was justified by the fact that the offer of Potham and Holloway was approved, and it is an open secret that their tender was the highest of all.
"My client requires the very best work; he desires a building that will stand shocks." Mr. Spedding shot a swift glance at the contractor, who sat at the other side of the desk. "Something that a footling little dynamite explosion would not scatter to the four winds."
The contractor nodded.
"You have read the specification," the solicitor went on — he was cutting a new cigar, "and in regard to the pedestal — ah — the pedestal, you know — ?"
He stopped and looked at the contractor.
"It seems all very clear," said the great builder. He took a bundle of papers from an open bag by his side and read, "The foundation to be of concrete to the depth of twenty feet... The pedestal to be alternate layers of dressed granite and steel... in the centre a steel-lined compartment, ten inches by five, and half the depth of the pedestal itself."
The solicitor inclined his head.
"That pedestal is to be the most important thing in the whole structure. The steel-lined recess — I don't know the technical phrase — which one of these days your men will have to fill in, is the second most important; but the safe that is to stand fifty feet above the floor of the building is to be — but the safe is arranged for."
An army of workmen, if the hackneyed phrase be permitted, descended upon Lombard Street and pulled down the old buildings. They pulled them down, and broke them down, and levered them down, and Lombard Street grew gray with dust. The interiors of quaint old rooms with grimy oak panelling were indecently exposed to a passing public. Clumsy, earthy carts blocked Lombard Street, and by night flaring Wells' lights roared amidst the chaos.
And bare-armed men sweated and delved by night and by day; and one morning Mr. Spedding stood in a drizzle of rain, with a silk umbrella over his head, and expressed, on behalf of his client, his intense satisfaction at the progress made. He stood on a slippery plank that formed a barrow road, and workmen, roused to unusual activity by the presence of "The Firm" — Mr. Spedding's cicerone — moved to and fro at a feverish rate of speed.
"They don't mind the rain," said the lawyer, sticking out his chin in the direction of the toiling gangs.
"The Firm" shook his head.
"Extra pay," he said laconically, "we provided for that in the tender," he hastened to add in justification of his munificence.
So in rain and sunshine, by day and by night, the New Safe Deposit came into existence.
Once — it was during a night shift — a brougham drove up the deserted city street, and a footman helped from the dark interior of the carriage a shivering old man with a white, drawn face. He showed a written order to the foreman, and was allowed inside the unpainted gate of the "works."
He walked gingerly amidst the debris of construction, asked no questions, made no replies to the explanations of the bewildered foreman, who wondered what fascination there was in a building job to bring an old man from his bed at three o'clock on a chill spring morning.
Only once the old man spoke.
"Where will that there pedestal be?" he asked in a harsh, cracked cockney voice; and when the foreman pointed out the spot, and the men even then busily filling in the foundation, the old man's lips curled back in an ugly smile that showed teeth too white and regular for a man of his age. He said no more, but pulled the collar of his fur coat the tighter about his lean neck and walked wearily back to his carriage.
The building saw Mr. Spedding's client no more — if, indeed, it was Mr. Spedding's client. So far as is known, he did not again visit Lombard Street before its completion — even when the last pane of glass had been fixed in the high gilded dome, when the last slab of marble had been placed in the ornate walls of the great hall, even when the solicitor came and stood in silent contemplation before the great granite pedestal that rose amidst a scaffolding of slim steel girders supporting a staircase that wound upward to the gigantic mid-air safe.
Not quite alone, for with him was the contractor, awed to silence by the immensity of his creation.
"Finished!" said the contractor, and his voice came echoing back from the dim spaces of the building.
The solicitor did not answer.
"Your client may commence business tomorrow if he wishes."
The solicitor turned from the pedestal.
"He is not ready yet," he said softly, as though afraid of the echoes.
He walked to where the big steel doors of the hall stood ajar, the contractor following.
In the vestibule he took two keys from his pocket. The heavy doors swung noiselessly across the entrance, and Mr. Spedding locked them. Through the vestibule and out into the busy street the two men walked, and the solicitor fastened behind him the outer doors.
"My client asks me to convey his thanks to you for your expedition," the lawyer said.
The builder rubbed his hands with some satisfaction.
"You have taken two days less than we expected," Mr. Spedding went on.
The builder was a man of few ideas outside his trade.
He said again —
"Yes, your client may start business tomorrow."
The solicitor smiled.
"My client, Mr. Potham, may not — er — start business — for ten years," he said. "In fact, until — well, until he dies, Mr. Potham."