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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72

Chapter VII. — The Directors of the New River Company

page 30

Chapter VII.

The Directors of the New River Company.

Things happen strangely and oddly in dreams, and [unclear: ye] everything seems perfectly natural. The Directors of the [unclear: Ra] way Company had not left my presence, nor do I remember anyone having entered the room while they were there. But notwithstanding this, I had before me another deputation. The men were the same, but not the interest—or concern, rather which they represented. This time it was on behalf of the New River Company that one of their number addressed me. Faring his eyes upon me, he said:

"I hear that you are very fond of facts, and that you will not believe anything that cannot be demonstrated to you. Here then, are some hard facts for you to digest." And he held up to me two copies of Stock Exchange quotations. "Look of this picture, and on that."

I did so, and read in one "New River Company, £138,000. And in the other u New River Company, £"13 10s.; no business done." I also noticed great reductions in other stock, though not to the same extent; and opposite many of the companies there were either no quotations at all or the legend, "In Liquidation."

"Are you convinced now that we are putting facts before you?" he asked.

"I am; and most surprising facts they are," I replied.

"Most surprising!" echoed the Socialist.

"Within the last few months," continued the spokesman "over five hundred thousand million pounds' worth of capital has been destroyed."

The allusion to the last few months astonished me more than the amount of capital destroyed. "Dear me!" I exclaimed "have I been in office so long? How the time does fly?"

"Over half a million millions of pounds, if a penny," he continued. "I am prepared to make good my statement."

"Oh, I take your word for the amount," I said smilingly. But would you be good enough to tell me what kind of 'capital has been destroyed, and in what manner?"

"If you will come with me to my office I will show you a page 31 whole strong-room full of what was once most valuable 'stock,' but which is now so much waste paper—or very nearly so."

"Dear me! have the moths got into them, or mice, or rats?"

"Neither of these, but the blight and canker of your cursed government," he said, with ill-suppressed anger.

"I fail to see how I could have done anything to spoil goods locked up in your strong-room."

He gazed at me with angry amazement. "I verily believe," he said, after a while, "that you are utterly ignorant of what 'stock' means."

"Not at all," I said. "I myself keep oxen, horses, pigs, poultry. But these should be safe, one would think, locked up in strong-rooms."

"I am not speaking of live stock," he exclaimed indignantly, "but of Shares. Have I not shown you that the shares of the New River Company alone have come down from over a hundred thousand pounds to a paltry £13 10s., and no buyers at that?"

"Perhaps they are not worth more," I suggested.

"No; not while you are at the helm of State, and allow us to be plundered in this shameful and outrageous fashion. For that, sir, is the cause of this tremendous fall, that we are being plundered, and that by your authority."

"Plundered!" I said. "No; that I will not allow. I will stop that at once." And I rang the bell sharply, and ordered the Commissioner of Police to be sent. No sooner had I said so than that functionary stood before me.

"Have I not given strict orders," I thundered, "that the liberty and property of every citizen should be protected, and that without any distinction whatever? How is it that these gentlemen here complain of having been plundered of several millions?"

But the Commissioner of Police neither quaked nor trembled at my thundering; and as I looked at him more closely he turned out to be no other than my friend Verinder, who, with the familiar twinkle in his eye, said:

"Your instructions have been carried out to the letter, and that is just the complaint of these gentlemen. What they have been 'plundered' of is the right to plunder others. I believe the figures to be right, for I always thought theirs was a lucrative business."

"But they also speak of destruction of capital."

"Nothing of the kind, I assure you. They are still in possession of all they had—their works, pumps, pipes, and taps. Their 'shares' or 'stock' are as fresh and crisp as ever, and I doubt not that with proper care and in strong-rooms they will keep so for many years."

"But you have made waste-paper of them," exclaimed the page 32 spokesman of the deputation. Whereupon Police Commissions Verinder explained as follows:

"These gentlemen were lords of the clouds; that is, the water that was showered down by our Heavenly Father upon the just and unjust alike was claimed by them as their exclusive property. They erected large filters and pumps, laid down pipes in all directions, and supplied the water to the inhabitants at so much per gallon. The inhabitants complained, demanded a reduction in price, and threatened to take possession of their works."

"And have they done so?" I asked.

"No, but they have done worse; that is, as far as these gentlemen are concerned. They have left them their works and pipes, and have erected a new plant, belonging to the community; and now, of course, the people will no longer buy their water at a higher rate than that at which they can be supplied by the parish pumps."

"You do not give all the facts," interrupted the complainant "Nor do you mention that you acted as an agitator against our interests."

"Oh, if you wish me to go into details I will do so with pleasure," replied the acute Police Commissioner. "There was as I said, a perfect revolution. The people wanted to take possession of the waterworks, and pay the present owners at valuation. I drew a cordon of police around the works to protect the property of the company. I then explained to the people that they had no right to force people to surrender aught against their will, nor fix the price of their service, any more than the company could force people to work for them at their price But I advised them, certainly, that if they were dissatisfied with the company's prices they could erect a plant of their own They decided to do so, and were about to tap the river, when the directors of the company came to me with a parchment claiming the sole right to the whole river. Now, sir, your proclamation was that no one should be disturbed in his present possessions, and I again promised the company full protection, but pointed out that, inasmuch as the river itself is a natural opportunity, if they wished to have exclusive possession of it, they would have to pay for the privilege."

"And we made a liberal offer."

"You did; but it did not come up to the liberality of the Constitution, which demands twenty shillings in the pound on the full value of all natural advantages. I said to them that so long as everybody can have free access, and there is water enough for all, the rent or tax would be nil, since in that case there would be no monopoly. But if there should be competition for the water, the tax would be the full value which this competition would give it. They refused to pay the tax, and so page 33 the local authority tapped the river. Under these circumstances—there being no monopoly—of course there is no rent for either party. Nor need I say that the company is not paying now any other taxes, since they have all been abolished, excepting only, of course, the ground rent for land occupied by their buildings, reservoirs, etc."

"And no capital has been destroyed

"None whatever. What these people call 'capital' was a certificate which gave them the right to levy a tribute from the citizens of the district, before they allowed them to quench their thirst or have a bath. The enormous value of their "shares' or 'scrip' only shows the extent to which this blackmailing has been carried on. Now that the people have access to the natural opportunities, they no longer pay for what they can get for nothing. The company are still supplying a large area, and that because they have lowered their rales to those charged by the corporation, whereupon the latter desisted from extending the new pipes. These rates are just sufficient to pay for the filtration and distribution, and the expenses connected therewith."

"That is to say," I remarked, "that, whereas they were formerly water-lords, they now are water-carriers."

"Precisely. And instead of having taken any capital from them, we have actually removed all former taxes—much to their regret. They volunteered to treble their income tax, and to have their machinery rated to any extent the people liked, provided they were left in possession of the river. This was the 'liberal' offer referred to. But by this time the people saw the cat, and—"

"Enough, sir," I said. And, turning toward the deputation, I added:

"Your petiton is dismissed. You are free to pump water from the river, and sell it at whatever price you can get for it. But I cannot prevent other people from doing the same thing, since I cannot deny them access to the opportunities of Nature, nor can I force them to pay you more for your services than they think these are worth. But if you don't care to carry on the business of water-carriers under these new conditions, I offer to buy your plant on behalf of the inhabitants of the district at present valuations. Shall we say it is a bargain?"

And a bargain it was, for after a brief consultation among themselves I received the following answer

"We have no other option but to accept."