“Is the charge set, George?” shouted Horace.
George ran from the oil derrick, down a slight slope, and toward his friend and business partner, Horace Meeks, a sparkling gleam of hope in his eyes. The sun of that warm spring morning in southwestern Oklahoma was just clearing the distant treetops. The year was 1911. In their late twenties, the two men had been wildcatting for oil for several years. Many of the townspeople had gathered around in anticipation. The men’s dream of striking oil and making it rich was about to come true.
“That man can run, I’ll give him that,” his partner thought aloud. Standing mostly behind Horace, townspeople and hired hands alike nodded in agreement with the assessment of his friend’s athletic ability.
George’s head was low. His body was compact, and his arms and legs pumped in quick rhythm as he made his way to his friend and the device that would ignite a nitroglycerin charge deep in the well, which the men had worked so hard to drill.
“Yeah, it’s all set, Horry. Time to do our magic, man,” said George as he finished his last few strides. George was a young man, like his friend and partner, Horace, the one he called Horry. But he still gasped for air as he made his statement and settled in beside his partner in a small depression in the earth that they had dug by hand for this very occasion.
“This is going to be big, George, big, I tell you!” Horace exclaimed just as he looked his friend directly in the face.
They both smiled at each other with hope—the hope that this was the day their lives and the lives of their distant heirs would change forever. They knew from their geologic surveys that they had found a great location for oil, and their drilling samples had shown excellent results for high-grade petroleum at the current depth of their wellbore.
“All right, everyone, get back!” shouted Horace in his Pennsylvania Dutch–tinged Yankee English.
The townspeople eased back to a safe distance, some hiding behind nearby buggies and a few automobiles. A newspaperman from Tulsa was reluctant to move back until Horace looked him directly in the eyes with a sense of foreboding. The man quickly turned and made his way to the front of the crowd, not to be fully cowed by the brazen young industrialist.
* * *
Horace and George had been friends since their childhood in Franklin, Pennsylvania, where Horace’s father made his living selling oilfield equipment to oil companies and wildcatters. George’s father was an amateur inventor who focused on solving problems for the oil industry, improving upon drill bits and mud pumps used by drillers in the Oil City and Titusville oil fields. Both of the older men had moved to Oil City (and later to Franklin) during the area’s oil rush, which began in the 1850s and lasted into the 1890s. Horace and George grew up alongside the oil industry of northwestern Pennsylvania and were destined to make their livings in the trade.
But both boys wanted to leave home and make it big on their own. As they matured and became more indifferent to the rigors of the classroom, they talked on and on about finding their own oil (or gas or coal) and making huge money. They would invite themselves to join their fathers on sales calls and meetings throughout the region solely so they could visit oil drilling sites and talk with engineers and geologists. These efforts fueled their dreams of striking out on their own as soon as they finished their schooling. Though their fathers and mothers had talked about college, the young men had no interest in higher education. The two young men believed any time spent in such a pursuit would have only slowed them down.
The boys’ fathers had done well financially at the height of oil production in the region and were willing, after much prodding by the boys, to provide a grubstake—with one caveat. Horace’s father had told his son, “There is money in oil, big money, but it’s a gambler’s game. And a good gambler always leaves the table when he’s up, not after putting it all back.” If the boys (their parents finally conceding they were young men by then) would promise to take the money and run if they hit it big or to come home if they went bust, their fathers would finance the hopes and dreams of their sons.
* * *
Both men pushed down on the plunger of the detonator box, just as they had done on other exploratory wells, but they knew in their hearts that this was the one. Evidence of high-grade oil was far more favorable here than in the previous wells they had drilled. Horace understood how the detonation box functioned; George did not much care, as long as it did what the salesman had said it would do. But Horace liked to know, to dig into the inner workings of anything required in his work. The act of pushing the plunger would generate a small electric charge that would travel to a blasting cap connected by wires deep in the well. The plunger shaft would activate a rack and pinion gear set connected to a small generator in the box. The generator would have to come to full speed before the plunger hit the bottom of its stroke and closed a switch that would send the necessary current to the blasting cap. The detonation of the blasting cap would trigger an explosion of the nitroglycerin charge near the bottom of the well at just over two thousand feet in depth. The resulting explosion would fracture the nearby rock, allowing oil to flow into and up the wellbore.
As the plunger was pushed down and the tiny generator inside spun up, Horace could sense the crowd draw in a collective breath. He knew, as the plunger came to full stroke, that the hopes of the townspeople were high, as well. Then, slowly at first but rising in force, the ground beneath them began to vibrate, and a rumble came from the depths of the well. At least they got that part right, thought George.
With the first phase of the process complete, anticipation was high for everyone witnessing the unique event. The crowd slowly eased back in toward the men, toward the well. Seconds went by before a new rumble, one at a very different tone, began to sound below them. Looking toward the oil derrick, their hands still together on the plunger handle, the two wildcatters glanced at the top of the wooden structure that they and the men in their employ had built by hand months before. It was shaking. The shaking worsened, and boards at the top of the derrick came free and fell to the ground. The rumbling grew in intensity, becoming louder and louder while the earth around them continued to vibrate at a different, but constant, frequency.
With a hint of things to come, a thin black muddy fluid began to flow from the well and over the area where the men had performed much of their work during the drilling phase. In a few more seconds, the fluid’s force and viscosity rapidly increased. Suddenly, with a greater roar from the depths, pitch-black oil began to shoot out of the well and over the top of the oil derrick. George and Horace had dreamed of this moment many times before, but they finally accomplished their goal. Their success was big, and they could imagine what their futures would hold, or at least they thought they could.
* * *
“Horace, my good man, you seem a million miles away,” said Commander Devano, a tall, strapping man who just entered the parlor. He and Horace were assigned desks hastily placed in opposite corners of the large room adjacent to the main hall of Gergich Manor, Suffolk County.
“No, far less than that, Commander, less than five thousand miles, I would imagine,” Horace responded. “I was recalling my days in Oklahoma,” he added, still daydreaming about that moment when his life and the life of his partner, George, went exactly as they had imagined. Horace and George had spent hours by their favorite swimming hole on summer breaks, chatting about making their fortunes. They had accompanied their fathers on visits to oil companies to pick the brains of oil men for more information about the industry. By the end of their schooling, the two young men had developed quite the entrepreneurial reputation in the oil towns near Franklin. Many of the men they had hounded with their questions started to take Horace and George seriously and even offered guidance that fostered the young men’s plans for the future.
What Horace and George could not foresee, however, was a world in chaos, a world that would be plagued by the Great War. And now Horace Meeks was in England, having been assigned to the Gergich Manor, a supply logistics headquarters of the First Army. He was sent to England from the United States after volunteering to join the army following the US declaration of war on Germany. Horace, serving as a junior officer and having experience with oil, oil reserves, and transportation of petroleum products, was ordered to be an advisor to the First Army. The British military, following the start of the war, moved to modernize its armies and navies with the advent of airplanes, tanks, and trucks. The conversion of coal to oil for ships and the rapid increase in the number of airplanes to aid the war effort added to Britain’s already staggering requirements for oil. These demands meant securing oil reserves throughout the British Empire and managing the transportation of oil to British refineries and shipyards.
“If my memory serves, our liaison officer said you were from California, did he not?” asked Commander Devano in his usual haughty tone.
“Yes, he was correct in that,” replied Horace. “After my time in Oklahoma, I visited San Francisco and met a woman I fell in love with. A gorgeous Italian American woman. She and her family live there and in the Napa region north of what they call the Bay Area. The woman and her family split their time between the city and their vineyard lands in the valley. She and I have plans after the war to get married and to build a home there, in the Napa region, and to grow wine grapes, too.”
“Yes, indeed, they do say you are new American wealth. Quite wealthy, I hear,” said Commander Devano, still pressing his new-found friend. “They say you are worth millions in US dollars.”
“I suppose” was Horace’s simple reply. He had been through all of this questioning before with these aristocratic types. And he knew Commander Devano was certainly from that ilk, an English lord no less. That meant a certain nobility of which Horace had little frame of reference, but he knew it meant everything to the English. Horace liked many of them very well, and he loved their lifestyle and the Edwardian manor houses. He also admired the Victorian architecture and adored the Gothic and Tudor styles. He studied the old estate where he was stationed and the estates of other wealthy landowners whom he had visited in Suffolk and in neighboring counties. He could sense an obsession building in himself about the vast English estates and their huge manors. He liked the Old World style of their interiors, the dark wood paneling, and ornate lighting. He was starting to make plans of his own to build a new English-style manor in the Napa Valley. His only worry, though, was, would Marguerite go along with his nascent plans? He would have to write to her but choose his words carefully. He loved the woman desperately, but he knew surprisingly little about her own desires. He knew she was from a very conservative Catholic family, one that grudgingly accepted him because of his wealth. Horace had been to the homes of Marguerite’s family members in San Francisco and north of the small town of Napa, and he had a sense of their tastes, but would his desire to build a huge manor of old English elegance please his new wife?
Commander Devano continued with his inquiries. “Your experiences in Oklahoma then, those are what brought you to this office, I suppose. The First Army isn’t well known for—how shall we say it?— accepting advice from others. How are you finding your time here?”
“As I have experience in the petroleum business, and because I had never served in the military before, I joined the US Army with the full understanding that I would come here and do what I could. You ‘chaps,’ as you say, have been quite kind to me and the other Americans here,” Horace replied to the man.
“Will you be joining us this evening at the Chevelan Estate, Horace?” Commander Devano asked. “Lord and Lady Eddingwell have the most spectacular dinner parties.”
* * *
Horace Meeks could see that Lord Eddingwell was holding court. He was the owner of the considerable Chevelan Estate and host to the evening’s grand dinner party. Lord Eddingwell’s cohorts were, as usual, circled around the man as he regaled them with stories of his days with the East India Company. Having been invited to dine at the Chevelan Estate with his peers, Horace wanted to use the opportunity to discuss US stocks with Lord Eddingwell and to learn what he could from the man.
Horace had heard from Leslie Beekham, proprietor of the vast Gergich Estate, where Horace had been billeted, that Lord Eddingwell had been quite successful with investing in US stocks over the previous decade. Well into his seventies but still physically fit, Lord Eddingwell, known as Philbert to his friends, had inherited his title and lands. He had actually gone to India in the 1880s to manage a large portion of East India Company holdings in the country’s northwest region of Kashmir. With such expertise in investing and financial oversight, Lord Eddingwell would be the perfect individual to offer Horace advice about his own investment undertakings. Much of Horace’s wealth was invested in languid stocks in US markets and various bank accounts in San Francisco, where his primary investment advisor directed those investments for Horace while he was abroad. Even with the transatlantic telegraph, communicating with his bankers and directing his investments from England were painfully slow undertakings. Horace knew he should be managing his money more effectively. Though still a young man, he wanted to leave a legacy to his eventual heirs—something special and of huge value.
George, his friend and partner in his wildcatting endeavors, had been moderately successful with railway stocks and gold mines. But Horace wondered about new companies, new technologies. As his father once taught him, “When gambling, leave the table before you put all your winnings back.” And Horace knew full well that investing in stocks was gambling by another name.
Dinner would be served in the great hall of the colossal manor house, and to Horace’s surprise, he had been seated next to Lord Eddingwell and across the table from the lady of the house, Georginia Eddingwell.
“I understand from Leslie that you are a very wealthy American in need of investment advice,” said Lord Eddingwell to begin the evening’s table topic.
Horace was still reeling from his fortunate seating assignment and was caught off guard with this latest unintentional coup. “Yes, Lord Eddingwell. I have discussed the subject with Mr. Beekham. He informed me that you have been very successful, even in US markets.”
“Oh, indeed, but please do call me Philbert, will you, Horace?” Lord Eddingwell requested.
“Of course, sir. And thank you. But please call me Horry. All my friends do,” Horace replied, a butterfly figuratively soaring about in his stomach.
“Horry? A diminution. How very American,” said Lord Eddingwell. “But then some of my countrymen abbreviate proper names, as well. My wife here is known as Ginny, of all things. A childhood nickname, her family says. Apparently, her youngest sister could not properly pronounce Georginia.”
“I don’t recollect how I ended up with my nickname, Lady Eddingwell,” said Horace to the lavishly dressed woman seated across from him. He could see her obvious beauty through her age. Lord Eddingwell had done well in marrying her, he thought, even if she had a nickname.
“Oh please, call me Ginny. Everyone does,” responded Lady Eddingwell before she politely returned to a conversation with the gentleman on her left.
Quick to return to his own conversation with his new investment advisor, Horace began, “Sir… sorry, Philbert, I don’t often talk about my… my advantages, but I would like to hear your thoughts on investing in the US markets. My good friend and business partner has had much luck with investments—better than mine, anyway. I am seeking to protect my personal assets and to create a legacy account of some sort for my eventual heirs. I plan to marry when I return to San Francisco and to make a permanent life there with my fiancée, Marguerite.”
“Well, I am envious, young man. I remember those days of youth and the many plans I was making at your age. Though I did inherit this wonderful estate from my uncle, I had my own ideas for its future and also wanted to make my own adventures and a legacy, as you say. We, my friends and I, have indeed been successful with stock investments in the US. Since the transatlantic telegraph went into service, and with the advent of the Dow Jones indices, I have invested a good portion of my holdings in the US,” Lord Eddingwell stated, enlightening Horace while they patiently waited for their salads to be served.
“If I may be so bold, Philbert, what sort of companies have you found of interest?” asked Horace, a moistness present in his palms. He took a sip of the wonderful claret they were enjoying and gave his partner in conversation a moment to respond. Horace’s hands were damp enough that he worried about dropping the beautiful crystal glass and its flavorsome contents.
“Luck favors the bold, sir. My associates—well, to be honest, my close friends and I—have had considerable success over the last ten years with US and Canadian rail and steel companies. I see no reason at this time why they will not continue those winning ways. There are upstart companies in the US, but in reality, we are a risk-averse lot,” said Lord Eddingwell. “My banker in New York has mentioned names to me of these newer companies or companies with growing successes, one of the names being American Telephone and Telegraph Company. We will keep an eye on those, but for now, we are holding our long-term winners.”
“I recently read that American Telephone completed what they refer to as long-distance phone calls, all the way to San Francisco. Such a reality seems like a bright future to me,” Horace remarked to Lord Eddingwell.
Lord Eddingwell scoffed at Horace’s prediction. “Hardly a bright future, my good man. Telegraph still holds dominion over all things in terms of communication.”
As dinner came to an end, the men made their way to the billiard room for cognac and cigars, the part of British evenings that Horace least enjoyed. Lord Eddingwell went back to holding court with his friends, and Horace sipped on a dark French cognac while he sat quietly in a corner, half listening to the conversations of his officemate, Commander Devano, and the other military men nearby. Horace was abuzz with thoughts of new and future investments in stock markets back home. He felt—contrary to the intentions of his new advisor, Lord Eddingwell—that he had discovered an avenue he must investigate with alacrity. Lord Eddingwell and his associates were old conservatives. The men planned to leave their winnings on the table, perhaps for too long. Mr. Horace “Horry” Meeks, though, had other plans, grand plans.
To purchase this cozy mystery for your Kindle, click this link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07HQY23TR
Or to purchase a paperback version, click this link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1724103164