Hale sat, looked up at the portrait, nostalgia pursing his lips. "Leadership skips a generation, that's what I've come to believe, Owen."
The sound of his Christian name seemed oddly misplaced, as if a coin had dropped from Hale's pocket onto the hardwood floor.
"Jethro, my son, is back from college in New England and I suppose I should be finding a place for him at the firm. But, to be frank, I have elevator boys who show more shrift. At Harvard he studied natural science and art and dickered about for four years. I hope to have my portrait on that wall someday and for Jethro to be sipping single malt in this very seat. The problem is one of - what? - character and preparation I suppose." Hale crossed his legs and removed a speck of something from his pant leg. "Tell me about your Pacific trading voyage from a few years back. I'm partial to sailing myself."
"Let's see... A stint in the South Sea Islands. A circuit of trade, mostly."
"What did you bring back?"
"All sorts of things. We also dropped off a cargo of trepang in Shanghai."
"I'm not familiar."
"Sea cucumber. They cure it and sell it for epicures in the Orient."
"The ship ran aground and had to be rehulled in Queensland. A seaman ran off and married an Australian girl."
"Too much sun. A tropical fever, perhaps."
"Being at sea for months can turn a man."
"And did you sell your items to the Field Museum when you returned? Not long after they opened their doors after the fair I noticed one lunchtime they had a whole batch of new tribal weapons from the Pacific."
Owen touched the rim of his glass. "I've heard that there's some old rivalry between you and Marshall Field. That you're trying to outdo the museum."
Hale persisted: "Did they pay you well? I heard not. Then again, those were hard times. We're just now rounding the bend."
"I'm sure they thought it was a fair price."
"They say the Pacific is fast running out of artifacts. That you can more easily find good curios at Jamrach's in the East End of London than on Thursday Island. That first cargo load in the Christy Museum was all because of the sandalwooders, God bless them, and now that's done it's slim pickings. Time is of the essence before someone drains the whole bathtub." Hale took out an envelope from his breast pocket and placed it on the low table between them.
Owen noticed there was a bloom of moisture - probably Hale's sweat - trailing one edge.
"I like to make proposals in writing. Consider it an underwriter's old habit. You'll find a list of categories I'm interested in and a sum specified for delivery. A percentage up front plus funding for the voyage, the remainder upon return. There are also a few special conditions, should you decide to enter into the contract. Taking the railway to San Francisco and contracting a ship and crew out west would be the most cost-effective, I believe. The ship should be arranged before you leave, of course. Naturally, have your lawyer look the contract over if you like."
Owen had never spoken to a lawyer, let alone retained one. "I look forward to reading it." He picked up the envelope and placed it inside his jacket.
Hale got to his feet and Owen did likewise. They walked out through the double doors, a paternal hand now on Owen's shoulder. Hale stopped and pressed a brass button on the wall of the landing. "Elevator's on its way up."
"Congratulations again on the magnificent new building. It seemed to go up overnight."
"The glaziers' combine didn't finish my sheet glass on time. Half of it had to come from Canada, some from Mexico. I'm no friend to price fixing and union organizing, let me tell you. A man needs to count on certain things. Are you married, Owen?"
"No, sir. Being in trade makes it hard to settle." In fact, he'd been on the verge of asking Adelaide Cummings to marry him for four years. But he'd been waiting for a more solid livelihood, a chance to make his way before asking for her hand. Adelaide, he knew, was fast losing patience with his delays. And now another voyage.
Excerpted from Bright and Distant Shores by Dominic Smith. Copyright © 2011 by Dominic Smith. Excerpted by permission of Washington Square Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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