Chapter 1: A Meeting With Mr. James
"Please, sit down." They had arrived at my Highgate consulting rooms on a damp afternoon in April. The weather had been dismal for the two weeks since Easter. It was showing no signs of improving. The chimneys of London were still pressing black, coal smoke into the air. The streets and slates of the roofs were still silver with the sheen of recent rain. Gas light from the posts in the street and in my own hall had leant a warming glow as I opened the door to the arrival of my visitors. I shook the rain from their coats as I took them.
I am always happy to see new clients, especially when they come, as Mr and Mrs Meriel James had, on the recommendation of those that I have helped before. "You found me without too much trouble I trust?" I said as I ushered them in to my consulting room. I invited them to sit. They took their place on my thickly padded, leather covered couch. I folded my thin, tall, frame into the chair opposite them. Unkind friends have said I resemble Lytton Strachey, but on a good day. I suppose I do share his somewhat aesthetic demeanour and untidy beard.
Mr James nodded. He was a dark haired man, slightly smaller than his wife, neatly dressed in a three piece suit and wearing shoes with a high polish. He had the air of a man of determination and of one who's determination had often proved successful. "Yes, it was not too difficult at all. We missed a turn beside the heath but then saw a sign that put us right." Mrs James said nothing. She sat there just smiling quietly as her husband explained how they had finally found the right road. I took that as a good sign.
"You know the Darrows, I believe? Julian and Clare."
"Yes," said Mr James. "It was they that suggested that you might be able to help us. You've been of service to them I believe? They spoke highly of you."
"That was very kind. Yes, I believe I was able to help them." Mrs James still said nothing. She sat in her neat suit with its high buttoned jacket and plain straight skirt, her knees and ankles pressed modestly together; her hands clasped in her lap, resting lightly on the pale tan leather gloves that she had removed as she sat down. She bore the neat self assured look of a woman whose life revolved around her career and the workplace. Her hair was short and neatly cut; her makeup simple, her expression at once open, attentive and thoughtful. I was not encouraged. "There is some tea, if you would like," I said.
Mr James looked at his wife. She nodded. He said, "That would be very agreeable." She didn't say anything.
I poured for them. Milk for him, lemon for her. I passed them their cups. Mrs James shook her head when I offered her sugar. She took a napkin, placed her gloves at her side and spread the napkin across her lap. Mr James took sugar. Two lumps, dropped into the cup with a sound that seemed to act as the starting pistol for our discussions.
"I wonder if you know," Mr James began, "the problems that a man faces in making his way in the world these days."
"I can appreciate them," I said. "I set up my own business some ten years ago but even then it was difficult to make a mark. Nowadays, I know that the difficulties are, if anything, greater. If one is well connected, with property and finances, the challenge is significant. If one is unfortunate enough to be merely blessed with talent, then it may appear insuperable. The would-be entrepreneur has to face the question of amassing capital, finding a connection to the right business,..."
"Establishing the right social framework." Mr James interrupted me. It seemed that the two of us had established a clear rapport. Mrs James though looked tense, her napkin torn unconsciously into many pieces, lay in her lap.
"Indeed," I said.
Mr James continued. "You will forgive me if I say so but I observe many parallels between our own times and those of the first Victorian era. I see from your appearance that you subscribe to the values of that period."
I nodded in response. "I know that many consider me eccentric," I said, "at least for the way I favour frock coat, breeches, waistcoat and cravat. For me, the apparel of that era betokens the strength and energy of those times. I should stress, though, that I have never given much thought to those that judge solely by the superficial attributes of appearance."
"True," says Mr James, "but I believe you are right about our Victorian forebears. That era set the foundations of today's prosperity and we would be wise to continue to consider its qualities today. In matters of business now – as then - it is not so much what you know as who you know and how you develop your position with them."
I nodded in agreement. "A man's contacts are, I am afraid, as important as his abilities."
"Exactly," said Mr James agreeing enthusiastically. "It is no longer sufficient to be an expert in your field." Mrs James looked affectionately at her husband as if to acknowledge his talent.
"If indeed it ever was," I interjected. The conversation was agreeable but I was not sure yet where it was leading. Mr James's next comment, however began to take us forward.
"Indeed. Now one needs to command the social spheres as much as those of the factory floor or the sale room."
"And a wife must be able to support her husband in doing so." Mrs James spoke for the first time. Her quiet, determined, voice communicated at one and the same time her conviction and the problem that her husband was facing. I could see why he had felt that my services could be of value. Mr James looked at his wife with an expression that was more of sorrow than anger. She realised at once that she had spoken and ventured an opinion without invitation. She looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry," she said and sank back into silence.
I turned back to Mr James. "Can I ask how you know the Darrows?"
"Our Chamber of Commerce," he replied. "He and I are both in the same line of business. We both work on ways to help businesses improve their financial records and management techniques. New ways of applying the International Babbage Machine; the difference engine?"
I nodded, feigning understanding and interest. It was, I supposed, a legitimate application of technology but one which had never enthused me. For gears and springs, levers and cams, to replace the elegance of the quill pen and bound ledger appeared to me a retrograde step. It also saddened me that Babbage had thought it necessary to seek capital from colonial entrepreneurs but that was hardly mundane to our discussion.
"We were invited to dinner. I fear there was an incident," Mr James went on. He glanced quickly at his wife. She looked down at her hands in her lap. "Mr Darrow was very understanding. He saw my difficulty at once. He said he had once had similar problems himself. His wife and Mrs James are of a similar age; a similar background. I was surprised. He had recently been proposed as chair of our industry association. A powerful position."
"Well, you are wise to cultivate him."
"Precisely my thought," James replied. "But I had not considered it was possible for a man to gain such a position with problems such as those I face. It was then that he told me of the help that you had given. I must say Clare Darrow is an excellent advertisement for your services; the perfect hostess; an enviable social asset."
"Thank you. She was an attentive and eager pupil. I can claim only a little credit. So you have discussed this with your wife?"
"Yes. We are both agreed." Mrs James looked up and nodded in agreement with her husband's words. "She understands and accepts the importance of her place as my wife. She realises that her upbringing has not prepared her for life in the world as it is today but she wishes to be at my side; to support me as a wife should. Isn't that so dear?"
Mrs James gathered herself. She looked down at the remnants of the napkin in her lap, seeming surprised at the way that it had become torn. She looked up again, staring squarely at me, having regained some of her calm and inner strength. "Yes," she said. "I wish for nothing more than for my husband to be proud of me; for me to help him build his business and his social circle."
I was convinced that her answer was entirely sincere although, without doubt, she would find it harder to achieve her ambition than she imagined. "I have to ask both of you if you understand the commercial terms upon which these services are provided? My time is an investment in your future, Mr James. You realise that my fees will be taken as a percentage of your future earnings?"
"Indeed," said Mr James. His wife nodded. "But without your services my future earnings would be far less."
"And you both understand that Mrs James will need to undergo a wide range of experiences as part of this. I doubt that her married life to date has prepared her for them." Mrs James sat staring impassively.
"Of course. She realises what is involved. She and Mrs Darrow spent some considerable time discussing it."
"I need your acquiescence in this as well, Mrs James," I said, looking across squarely at her.
"You have it, unconditionally," she said.
"Very well." I walked to my desk and turned to face the couple. I have to select my clients carefully; only by engaging with those that offer the opportunity of success. Experience allows me to make my decisions quickly on these matters and it seemed that there were good prospects for attaining the outcomes expected from the commission. "I can undertake this project if that is what you wish." The look of relief on the face of Mr James told me all I needed to know of his commitment to the project. Mrs James appeared less enthusiastic but that was only to be expected. I took a copy of my standard agreement from the leather folder that sat beside the blotter. "Please take this," I said. "Read it thoroughly and when you are both ready sign it and return it to me. Once that has been done we can make further arrangements. If you have any questions in the mean time Mr James, please call me."
Mr James took the documents, got to his feet and shook my hand. "Thank you," he said. "I'm very grateful. This means a great deal to me," he looked at his wife with an air of tenderness, "to both of us." Mrs James got to her feet, pulled on her gloves and nodded to me. I walked with the two of them to my door. Outside was parked Mr James's vehicle. A new German coupé, I noticed. It was regrettable that so much of England's engineering heritage had been squandered so that the successful sought out foreign products but I could not fault his choice. Whatever else, Mr James was evidently enjoying some considerable measure of success even without my involvement.
As they were about to leave, I realised that I did not know the name of his wife. I asked Mr James.
"Of course," he said. "It's Nicola."
"Nicky," she said brightly, interrupting without thought. "I much prefer Nicky."
I looked straight at her. Her interruption only served to underline the extent of the problem that Mr James faced. For myself, it was merely an indication of the need for my services; for others in a world where deference and self effacement are valued as attributes for a wife, it would be seen as an unforgivable social gaffe. "And I prefer the use of names as they were given." I said bluntly. "It will be Nicola while you are here." I turned back to her husband whose fretful look told me that he recognised the challenge that I knew I faced. "Do not worry, Mr James," I said. "I know it seems difficult but I am sure I can help."