The Tsar’s Banker

London 12 June 1912

Philip Cummings hated change. He was content with the life he’d created for himself. His work as a Director for foreign accounts at the Bank of England provided all the excitement and variety he required from life. His passions for bridge, opera and regular evenings dining out in London’s best restaurants were shared with a few good friends.

He was a bachelor and intended to remain so, not because he thought women unattractive, quite the opposite, but because he viewed marriage as something hostile.

A wife would want to change him. He’d observed that too many of his friends had been changed after marriage and, in his opinion, rarely for the better.

Little did he suspect that the next hour was going to change his life for ever.

This was the fifth day in succession a thick smog had wrapped itself around London and Philip shivered as the cold reached his bones. Every day this week he had arrived at work with clothes and face covered in a film of greasy water. It was like a damp blanket that polluted the roads, pavements and buildings and made them look dark and dirty. There was no escaping a burning throat after even the shortest walk. Philip covered his mouth with his scarf and bent forward into the mist.

Arriving at the Bank of England precisely at his usual time he acknowledged the cheery ‘Morning, Mr Cummings’ from the doorman at the entrance reserved for senior staff. ‘Morning,’ he muttered in reply. Passing the executive elevator he began to climb the stairs to his office. He had never ridden in the elevator since the unfortunate time he’d been trapped between floors as maintenance men ran around trying to rescue him and junior clerks and secretaries gawped at his helplessness. He could not have caused more interest had he been a caged beast at the zoo, an undignified experience he never intended to repeat.

Walking purposefully down the thickly carpeted corridor he was irritated to see Mark Johnson outside his office door pacing up and down in what Philip considered an overly excited manner. Staff at the Bank of England should pride themselves on never being flustered, on remaining calm even in the worst financial crisis, and it irritated Philip when junior staff panicked or displayed excitement.

‘Johnson, you look positively distracted. What’s the matter?’
‘Mr, Cummings, good morning, Sir,’ Johnson rasped breathlessly. ‘The Governor would like to see you, Sir.’
‘Now?’ said Philip, hiding his irritation at what was going to be a deflection to his routine.
‘Immediately you arrived was what I was told, Sir.’
‘Oh very well,’ said Philip, wondering what crisis had erupted overnight which demanded his immediate attention. Doubtless it would be something trivial, would eat up too much time and would disrupt a day he had meticulously planned with his secretary the previous afternoon.
‘Take my hat and coat and leave them in my office, please.’

Philip turned and walked back down the corridor to the Governor’s office. On his arrival in the ante-room, a secretary indicated he should go straight through. Walking into the Governor’s office he could see two other Directors, Edward Lascelles, a pale-skinned, slim man seven years Philip’s junior, and the best bridge partner Philip could hope for.

The other Director was Neville Porter. Philip felt Neville’s fast promotion at the Bank was due more to the fact that his father was the third son of a Viscount than to his actual ability. However being the third son of a Viscount brought neither money nor title and with no title Neville had had to find his own way in the world and this had made him resentful and greedy. Philip also disliked the rough manner he adopted when speaking to junior staff and the fact that he would always blame others for his own errors.

The Governor of the Bank stood at the far end of the room and was in hushed conversation with a stranger. The Governor waved Philip into the room and the door was closed by the secretary, leaving the five men alone.

‘Cummings,’ said the Governor, ‘Thank you for coming. Gentlemen, this meeting is highly confidential’

Philip, Neville and Edward nodded in agreement understanding the Governor’s statement was for the benefit of the visitor than for the three employees. Confidentiality is a byword at the bank and had been ever since it was established in 1694.

Philip looked hard at the stranger. A tall, good-looking man in his early fifties with brown hair parted down the middle, a soft pale complexion, a well groomed beard and moustache. His suit, starched white collar and shoes were all hand made from Saville Row and the navy blue silk tie was fastened with a diamond and ruby pin that Philip assumed contained genuine stones.

‘Sir’, said the Governor to the stranger, ‘You’ve met my other two colleagues but can I introduce to you Philip Cummings. Philip can I present His Highness Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich of Russia’

Philip bowed his head. The Royal guest smiled and without extending his hand said with a perfect English accent. ‘Delighted, Mr Cummings, thank you for giving up your valuable time to meet me, I know you are all busy.’

The Governor addressed the group ‘Time is pressing, we should begin. Please, gentlemen let’s be seated’. The Grand Duke moved to the highly polished board table at the side of the room and sat in a leather seat with his back to the window. The Governor sat at the head of the table, Philip, Edward and Neville took seats facing the Grand Duke.

Once they were all settled The Grand Duke pursed his lips as though he were thinking how to begin, then drummed his fingers on the polished table to indicate that he had made a decision, ‘Sirs, I have been commanded by his Imperial Majesty Tsar Nicholas to instruct the Bank of England on a matter of the most importance.’