Part 4 out of 8
Here there was a general shout from the crowd for O'Flaherty, and an
irascible-looking man, with a red bloated face and bristling hair came
to the office door.
"Now, what the divil d'ye want?" he roared, shaking a quill pen at the
crowd. "What are ye after at all? Have ye nothing betther to do than to
block up the door of a decent office?"
"What's the news?" cried a dozen voices.
"The news, is it?" roared O'Flaherty, more angrily than ever; "and can't
ye foind out that by paying your sixpences like men, and taking the
_Advertoiser_? It's a paper, though Oi says it as shouldn't, that would
cut out some o' these _Telegraphs_ and _Chronicles_ if it was only in
London. Begad, instead of encouraging local talent ye spind your toime
standing around in the strate, and trying to suck a man's news out of
him for nothing."
"Look here, boss," said a rough-looking fellow in the front of the
crowd, "you keep your hair on, and don't get slinging words about too
freely, or it may be the worse for you and for your office too.
We heard as there was big news, an' we come down to hear it, but as to
gettin' it without paying, that ain't our sort. I suppose we can call
it square if we each hands in sixpence, which is the price o' your
paper, and then you can tell us what's on."
O'Flaherty considered for a moment. "It's worth a shillin' each," he
said, "for it plays the divil with the circulation of a paper whin its
news gits out too soon."
"Well, we won't stick at that," said the miner. "What say you, boys?"
There was a murmur of assent, and a broad-brimmed straw hat was passed
rapidly from hand to band. It was half full of silver when it reached
O'Flaherty. The _Advertiser_ had never before had such a circulation,
for the crowd had rapidly increased during the preceding dialogue, and
now numbered some hundreds.
"Thank ye, gintlemen," said the editor.
"Well, what's the news?" cried the impatient crowd.
"Sure I haven't opened the bag yet, but I soon will. Whativer it is
it's bound to be there. Hey there, Billy, ye divil's brat, where's the
Thus apostrophized, a sharp little Kaffir came running out with the
brown bag, and Mr. O'Flaherty examined it in a leisurely manner, which
elicited many an oath from the eager crowd.
"Here's the _Standard_ and the _Times_," he said, handing the various
papers out to his subordinate. "Begad, there's not one of ye knows the
expinse of k'aping a great paper loike this going, forebye the brains
and no profit at the ind of it. Here's the _Post_ and the _News_. If
you were men you'd put in an advertisement ivery wake, whether ye needed
it or not, just to encourage literature. Here's the _Cape Argus_--it'll
be in here whativer it is."
With great deliberation Mr. Hector O'Flaherty put on a pair of
spectacles and folded the paper carefully round, so as to bring the
principal page to the front. Then he cleared his throat, with the
pomposity which is inseparable with most men from the act of reading
"Go it, boss!" cried his audience encouragingly.
"'Small-pox at Wellington'--that's not it, is it? 'Germany and the
Vatican'--'Custom House Duties at Port Elizabeth'--'Roosian Advances in
Cintral Asia' eh? Is that it--'Discovery of great Diamond Moines?'"
"That's it," roared the crowd; "let's hear about that." There was an
anxious ring in their voices, and their faces were grave and serious as
they looked up at the reader upon the steps of the office.
"'Diamond moines have been discovered in Roosia,'" read O'Flaherty,
"'which are confidently stated to exceed in riches anything which has
existed before. It is ginerally anticipated that this discovery, if
confirmed, will have a most prejudicial effect upon the African trade.'
That's an extract from the London news of the _Argus_."
A buzz of ejaculations and comments arose from the crowd. "Isn't there
any more about it?" they cried.
"Here's a later paper, boss," said the little Kaffir, who had been
diligently looking over the dates.
O'Flaherty opened it, and gave a whistle of astonishment.
"Here's enough to satisfy you," he said. "It's in big toipe and takes
up noigh the whole of the first page. I can only read ye the headings,
for we must get to work and have out a special edition. You'll git
details there, an' it'll be out in a few hours. Look here at the fuss
they've made about it." The editor turned the paper as he spoke, and
exhibited a series of large black headings in this style:--
RUSSIAN DIAMOND FIELDS.
EXTRAORDINARY DISCOVERY BY AN ENGLISHMAN.
THREATENED EXTINCTION OF THE CAPE INDUSTRY.
GREAT FALL IN PRICES.
OPINIONS OF THE LONDON PRESS.
"What d'ye think of that?" cried O'Flaherty, triumphantly, as if he had
had some hand in the matter. "Now I must git off to me work, and you'll
have it all before long in your hands. Ye should bliss your stars that
ye have some one among ye to offer ye the convanience of the latest
news. Good noight to ye all," and he trotted back into his office with
his hat and its silver contents in his hand.
The crowd broke up into a score of gesticulating chattering groups, and
wandered up or down the street. Ezra Girdlestone waited until they had
cleared away, and then stepped into the office of the _Advertiser_.
"What's the matter now?" asked O'Flaherty, angrily. He was a man who
lived in a state of chronic irritation.
"Have you a duplicate of that paper?"
"Suppose I have?"
"What will you sell it for?"
"What will you give?"
"Half a sovereign."
"Done!" and so Ezra Girdlestone walked out of the office with full
details in his hand, and departed to his hotel, where he read the
account through very slowly and deliberately. It appeared to be
satisfactory, for he chuckled to himself a good deal as he perused it.
Having finished it, he folded the paper up, placed it in his breast
pocket, and, having ordered his horse, set off to the neighbouring
township of Dutoitspan with the intention of carrying the news with him.
Ezra had two motives in galloping across the veldt that October night.
One was to judge with his own ears and eyes what effect the news would
have upon practical men. The other was a desire to gratify that
sinister pleasure which an ill-natured man has in being the bearer of
evil tidings. They had probably heard the report by this time, but it
was unlikely that any details had reached them. No one knew better than
young Girdlestone that this message from Europe would bring utter ruin
and extinction to many a small capitalist, that it would mean the
shattering of a thousand hopes, and the advent of poverty and misery to
the men with whom he had been associating. In spite of this knowledge,
his heart beat high, as his father's had done in London, and as he
spurred his horse onwards through the darkness, he was hardly able to
refrain from shouting and whooping in his exultation.
The track from Kimberley to Dutoitspan was a rough one, but the moon was
up, and the young merchant found no difficulty in following it. When he
reached the summit of the low hill over which the road ran, he saw the
lights of the little town sparkling in the valley beneath him. It was
ten o'clock before he galloped into the main street, and he saw at a
glance that the news had, as he expected, arrived before him. In front
of the Griqualand Saloon a great crowd of miners had assembled, who were
talking excitedly among themselves. The light of the torches shone down
upon herculean figures, glaring shirts, and earnest bearded faces.
The whole camp appeared to have assembled there to discuss the
situation, and it was evident from their anxious countenances and
subdued voices, that they took no light view of it.
The instant the young man alighted from his horse he was surrounded by a
knot of eager questioners. "You've just come from Kimberley," they
cried. "What is the truth of it, Mr. Girdlestone? Let us know the
truth of it."
"It's a bad business, my friends," he answered, looking around at the
ring of inquiring faces. "I have been reading a full account of it in
the _Cape Argus_. They have made a great find in Russia. There seems
to be no doubt at all about the matter."
"D'ye think it will send prices down here as much as they say?"
"I'm afraid it will send them very low. I hold a lot of stones myself,
and I should be very glad to get rid of them at any price. I fear it
will hardly pay you to work your claims now."
"And the price of claims will go down?"
"Of course it will."
"Eh, mister, what's that?" cried a haggard, unkempt little man, pushing
his way to the front and catching hold of Ezra's sleeve to ensure his
attention. "Did ye say it would send the price o' claims down?
You didn't say that, did you? Why, in course, it stands to reason that
what happened in Roosia couldn't make no difference over here.
That's sense, mates, ain't it?" He looked round him appealingly, and
laughed a little nervous laugh.
"You try," said Ezra coldly. "If you get one-third of what you gave for
your claim you'll be lucky. Why, man, you don't suppose we produce
diamonds for local consumption. They are for exporting to Europe, and
if Europe is already supplied by Russia, where are you to get your
"That's it?" cried several voices.
"If you take my advice," Ezra continued, "you'll get rid of what you
have at any loss, for the time may be coming when you'll get nothing at
"Now, look at that!" cried the little man, throwing out his hands.
"They call me Unlucky Jim, and Unlucky Jim I'll be to the end of the
chapter. Why, boss, me and Sammy Walker has sunk every damned cent
we've got in that claim, the fruit o' nine years' hard work, and here
you comes ridin' up as cool as may be, and tells me that it's all gone
"Well, there are others who will suffer as well as you," said one of the
"I reckon we're all hit pretty hard if this is true," remarked another.
"I'm fair sick of it," said the little man, passing his grimy hand
across his eyes and leaving a black smear as he did so. "This ain't the
first time--no, nor the second--that my luck has played me this trick.
I've a mighty good mind to throw up my hand altogether."
"Come in and have some whisky," said a rough sympathizer, and the
unlucky one was hustled in through the rude door of the Griqualand
Saloon, there to find such comfort as he might from the multitudinous
bottles which adorned the interior of that building. Liquor had lost
its efficacy that evening, however, and a dead depression rested over
the little town. Nor was it confined to Dutoitspan. All along the
diggings the dismal tidings spread with a rapidity which was
astonishing. At eleven o'clock there was consternation at Klipdrift.
At quarter-past one Hebron was up and aghast at the news. At three in
the morning a mounted messenger galloped into Bluejacket, and before
daybreak a digger committee was sitting at Delporte's Hope discussing
the situation. So during that eventful night down the whole long line
of the Vaal River there was ruin and heartburning and dismay, while five
thousand miles away an old gentleman was sleeping calmly and dreamlessly
in his comfortable bed, from whose busy brain had emanated all this
misery and misfortune.
Perhaps the said old gentleman might have slumbered a little less
profoundly could he have seen the sight which met his son's eyes on the
following morning. Ezra had passed the night at Dutoitspan, in the hut
of a hospitable miner. Having risen in the morning, he was dressing
himself in a leisurely, methodical fashion, when his host, who had been
inhaling the morning breeze, thrust his head through the window.
"Come out here, Mr. Girdlestone," he cried. "There's some fun on.
One of the boys is dead drunk, and they are carrying him in."
Ezra pulled on his coat and ran out. A little group of miners were
walking slowly up the main street. He and his host were waiting for the
procession to pass them with several jocose remarks appropriate to the
occasion ready upon their lips, when their eyes fell upon a horrible
splotchy red track which marked the road the party had taken. They both
ran forward with exclamations and inquiries.
"It's Jim Stewart," said one of the bearers. "Him that they used to
call Unlucky Jim."
"What's up with him?"
"He has shot himself through the head. Where d'ye think we found him?
Slap in the middle o' his own claim, with his fingers dug into the
gravel, as dead as a herring."
"He's a bad plucked 'un to knock under like that," Ezra's companion
"Yes," said the croupier of the saloon gambling table. "If he'd waited
for another deal he might have held every trump. He was always a soft
chap, was Jim, and he was saying last night as how this spoiled the last
chance he was ever like to have of seeing his wife and childer in
England. He's blowed a fine clean hole in himself. Would you like to
see it, Mr. Girdlestone?" The fellow was about to remove the
blood-stained handkerchief which covered the dead man's face, but Ezra
recoiled in horror.
"Mr. Girdlestone looks faint like," some one observed.
"Yes," said Ezra, who was white to his very lips. "This has upset me
rather. I'll have a drop of brandy." As he walked back to the hut, he
wondered inwardly whether the incident would have discomposed his
"I suppose he would call it part of our commercial finesse," he said
bitterly to himself. "However, we have put our hands to the plough, and
we must not let homicide stop us." So saying, he steadied his nerves
with a draught of brandy, and prepared for the labours of the day.
AN UNEXPECTED BLOW.
The crisis at the African fields was even more acute than had been
anticipated by the conspirators. Nothing approaching to it had ever
been known in South Africa before. Diamonds went steadily down in value
until they were selling at a price which no dealer would have believed
possible, and the sale of claims reached such a climax that men were
glad to get rid of them for the mere price of the plant and machinery
erected at them. The offices of the various dealers at Kimberley were
besieged night and day by an importunate crowd of miners, who were
willing to sell at any price in order to save something from the general
ruin which they imagined was about to come upon the industry. Some,
more long-headed or more desperate than their neighbours, continued to
work their claims and to keep the stones which they found until prices
might be better. As fresh mails came from the Cape, however, each
confirming and amplifying the ominous news, these independent workers
grew fewer and more faint-hearted, for their boys had to be paid each
week, and where was the money to come from with which to pay them?
The dealers, too, began to take the alarm, and the most tempting offers
would hardly induce them to give hard cash in exchange for stones which
might prove to be a drug in the market. Everywhere there was misery and
Ezra Girdlestone was not slow to take advantage of this state of things,
but he was too cunning to do so in a manner which might call attention
to himself or his movements. In his wanderings he had come across an
outcast named Farintosh, a man who had once been a clergyman and a
master of arts of Trinity College, Dublin, but who was now a broken-down
gambler with a slender purse and a still more slender conscience.
He still retained a plausible manner and an engaging address, and these
qualities first recommended him to the notice of the young merchant.
A couple of days after the receipt of the news from Europe, Ezra sent
for this fellow and sat with him for some time on the verandah of the
hotel, talking over the situation.
"You see, Farintosh," he remarked, "it might be a false alarm, might it
The ex-clergyman nodded. He was a man of few words.
"If it should be, it would be an excellent thing for those who buy now."
Farintosh nodded once again.
"Of course," Ezra continued, "it looks as if the thing was beyond all
doubt. My experience has taught me, however, that there is nothing so
uncertain as a certainty. That's what makes me think of speculating
over this. If I lose it won't hurt me much, and I might win. I came
out here more for the sake of seeing a little of the world than anything
else, but now that this has turned up I'll have a shy at it."
"Quite so," said Farintosh, rubbing his hands.
"You see," Ezra continued, lighting a cheroot, "I have the name here of
having a long purse and of knowing which way the wind blows. If I were
to be seen buying others would follow my lead, and prices would soon be
as high as ever. Now, what I purpose is to work through you, d'ye see?
You can take out a licence and buy in stones on the quiet without
attracting much attention. Beat them down as low as you can, and give
this hotel as your address. When they call here they shall be paid,
which is better than having you carrying the money round with you."
The clergyman scowled as though he thought it was anything but better.
He did not make any remark, however.
"You can get one or two fellows to help you," said Ezra. "I'll pay for
their licences. I can't expect you to work all the camps yourself.
Of course, if you offer more for a stone than I care to give, that's
your look out, but if you do your work well you shall not be the loser.
You shall have a percentage on business done and a weekly salary as
"How much money do you care to invest?" asked Farintosh.
"I'm not particular," Ezra answered. "If I do a thing I like to do it
well. I'll go the length of thirty thousand pounds."
Farintosh was so astonished at the magnitude of the sum that he sank
back in his chair in bewilderment. "Why, sir," he said, "I think just
at present you could buy the country for that."
Ezra laughed. "We'll make it go as far as we can," he said. "Of course
you may buy claims as well as stones."
"And I have carte blanche to that amount?"
"All right, I'll begin this evening," said the ex-parson; and picking
up his slouched hat, which he still wore somewhat broader in the brim
than his comrades, in deference to old associations, he departed upon
Farintosh was a clever man and soon chose two active subordinates.
These were a navvy, named Burt, and Williams, a young Welshman, who had
disappeared from home behind a cloud of forged cheques, and having
changed his name had made a fresh start in life to the south of the
equator. These three worked day and night buying in stones from the
more needy and impecunious miners, to whom ready money was a matter of
absolute necessity. Farintosh bought in the stock, too, of several
small dealers whose nerves had been shaken by the panic. In this way
bag after bag was filled with diamonds by Ezra, while he himself was to
all appearances doing nothing but smoking cigars and sipping
brandy-and-water in front of the _Central Hotel_.
He was becoming somewhat uneasy in his mind as to how long the delusion
would be kept up, or how soon news might come from the Cape that the
Ural find had been examined into and had proved to be a myth. In any
case, he thought that he would be free from suspicion. Still, it might
be as well for him by that time to be upon his homeward journey, for he
knew that if by any chance the true facts leaked out there would be no
hope of mercy from the furious diggers. Hence he incited Farintosh to
greater speed, and that worthy divine with his two agents worked so
energetically that in less than a week there was little left of five and
thirty thousand pounds.
Ezra Girdlestone had shown his power of reading character when he chose
the ex-clergyman as his subordinate. It is possible, however, that the
young man's judgment had been inferior to his powers of observation.
A clever man as a trusty ally is a valuable article, but when the said
cleverness may be turned against his employer the advantage becomes a
It was perfectly evident to Farintosh that though a stray capitalist
might risk a thousand pounds or so on a speculation of this sort,
Rothschild himself would hardly care to invest such a sum as had passed
through his hands without having some ground on which to go. Having
formed this conclusion, and having also turned over in his mind the
remarkable coincidence that the news of this discovery in Russia should
follow so very rapidly upon the visit of the junior partner of the House
of Girdlestone, the astute clergyman began to have some dim perception
of the truth. Hence he brooded a good deal as he went about his work,
and cogitated deeply in a manner which was once again distinctly
undesirable in so very intelligent a subordinate.
These broodings and cogitations culminated in a meeting, which was held
by him with his two sub-agents in the private parlour of the Digger's
Retreat. It was a low-roofed, smoke-stained room, with a profusion of
spittoons scattered over it, which, to judge by the condition of the
floor, the patrons of the establishment had taken some pains to avoid.
Round a solid, old-fashioned table in the centre of this apartment sat
Ezra's staff of assistants, the parson thoughtful but self-satisfied,
the others sullen and inquisitive. Farintosh had convened the meeting,
and his comrades had an idea that there was something in the wind.
They applied themselves steadily, therefore, to the bottle of Hollands
upon the table, and waited for him to speak.
"Well," the ex-clergyman said at last, "the game is nearly over, and
we'll not be wanted any more. Girdlestone's off to England in a day or
Burt and Williams groaned sympathetically. Work was scarce in the
diggings during the crisis, and their agencies had been paying them
"Yes, he's off," Farintosh went on, glancing keenly at his companions,
"and he takes with him five and thirty thousand pounds worth of diamonds
that we bought for him. Poor devils like us, Burt, have to do the work,
and then are thrown aside as you would throw your pick aside when you
are done with it. When he sells out in London and makes his pile, it
won't much matter to him that the three men who helped him are starving
"Won't he give us somethin' at partin'?" asked Burt, the navvy. He was
a savage-looking, hairy man, with a brick-coloured face and over-hanging
eyebrows. "Won't he give us nothing to remembrance him by?"
"Give you something!" Farintosh said with a sneer. "Why, man, he says
you are too well paid already."
"Does he, though?" cried the navvy, flushing even redder than nature had
made him. "Is that the way he speaks after we makes him? It ain't on
the square. I likes to see things honest an' above board betwixt man
an' man, and this pitchin' of them as has helped ye over ain't that."
Farintosh lowered his voice and bent further over the table.
His companions involuntarily imitated his movement, until the three
cunning, cruel faces were looking closely into one another's eyes.
"Nobody knows that he holds those stones," said Farintosh. "He's too
smart to let it out to any one but ourselves."
"Where does he keep 'em?" asked the Welshman.
"In a safe in his room."
"Where is the key?"
"On his watch-chain."
"Could we get an impression?"
"I have one."
"Then I can make one," cried Williams triumphantly.
"It's done," said Farintosh, taking a small key from his pocket.
"This is a duplicate, and will open the safe. I took the moulding from
his key while I was speaking to him."
The navvy laughed hoarsely. "If that don't lick creation for
smartness!" he cried. "And how are we to get to this safe? It would
serve him right if we collar the lot. It'll teach him that if he ain't
honest by nature he's got to be when he deals with the like of us.
I like straightness, and by the Lord I'll have it!" He brought his
great fist down upon the table to emphasize this commendable sentiment.
"It's not an easy matter," Farintosh said thoughtfully. "When he goes
out he locks his door, and there's no getting in at the window. There's
only one chance for us that I can see. His room is a bit cut off from
the rest of the hotel. There's a gallery of twenty feet or more that
leads to it. Now, I was thinking that if the three of us were to visit
him some evening, just to wish him luck on his journey, as it were, and
if, while we were in the room something sudden was to happen which would
knock him silly for a minute or two, we might walk off with the stones
and be clean gone before he could raise an alarm."
"And what would knock him silly?" asked Williams. He was an unhealthy,
scorbutic-looking youth, and his pallid complexion had assumed a
greenish tinge of fear as he listened to the clergyman's words.
He had the makings in him of a mean and dangerous criminal, but not of a
violent one--belonging to the jackal tribe rather than to the tiger.
"What would knock him senseless?" Farintosh asked Burt, with a knowing
Burt laughed again in his bushy, red beard. "You can leave that to me,
mate," he said.
Williams glanced from one to the other and he became even more
cadaverous. "I'm not in it," he stammered. "It will be a hanging job.
You will kill him as like as not."
"Not in it, ain't ye?" growled the navvy. "Why, you white-livered
hound, you're too deep in it ever to get out again. D'ye think we'll
let you spoil a lay of this sort as we might never get a chance of
"You can do it without me," said the Welshman, trembling in every limb.
"And have you turnin' on us the moment a reward was offered. No, no,
chummy, you don't get out of it that way. If you won't stand by us,
I'll take care you don't split."
"Think of the diamonds," Farintosh put in.
"Think of your own skin," said the navvy.
"You could go back to England a rich man if you do it."
"You'll never go back at all if you don't." Thus worked upon
alternately by his hopes and by his fears, Williams showed some signs of
yielding. He took a long draught from his glass and filled it up again.
"I ain't afraid," he said. "Don't imagine that I am afraid. You won't
hit him very hard, Mr. Burt?"
"Just enough to curl him up," the navvy answered. "Lord love ye, it
ain't the first man by many a one that I've laid on his back, though I
never had the chance before of fingering five and thirty thousand pounds
worth of diamonds for my pains."
"But the hotel-keeper and the servants?"
"That's all right," said Farintosh. "You leave it to me. If we go up
quietly and openly, and come down quietly and openly, who is to suspect
anything? Our horses will be outside, in Woodley Street, and we'll be
out of their reach in no time. Shall we say to-morrow evening for the
"That's very early," Williams cried tremulously.
"The sooner the better," Burt said, with an oath. "And look here, young
man," fixing Williams with his bloodshot eyes, "one sign of drawing
back, and by the living jingo I'll let you have more than I'm keeping
for him. You hear me, eh?" He grasped the youth's white wrist and
squeezed it in his iron grip until he writhed with the pain.
"Oh, I'm with you, heart and soul," he cried. "I'm sure what you and
Mr. Farintosh advise must be for the best."
"Meet here at eight o'clock to-morrow night then," said the leader.
"We can get it over by nine, and we will have the night for our escape.
I'll have the horses ready, and it will be strange if we don't get such
a start as will puzzle them."
So, having arranged all the details of their little plan, these three
gentlemen departed in different directions--Farintosh to the _Central
Hotel_, to give Ezra his evening report, and the others to the
mining-camps, which were the scene of their labours.
The meeting just described took place upon a Tuesday, early in November.
On the Saturday Ezra Girdlestone had fully made up his mind to turn his
back upon the diggings and begin his homeward journey. He was pining
for the pleasures of his old London life, and was weary of the
monotonous expanse of the South African veldt. His task was done, too,
and it would be well for him to be at a distance before the diggers
discovered the manner in which they had been hoaxed. He began to pack
his boxes, therefore, and to make every preparation for his departure.
He was busily engaged in this employment upon the Wednesday evening when
there was a tap at the door and Farintosh walked in, accompanied by Burt
and Williams. Girdlestone glanced up at them, and greeted them briefly.
He was not surprised at their visit, for they had come together several
times before to report progress or make arrangements. Farintosh bowed
as he entered the room, Burt nodded, and Williams rubbed his hands
together and looked amiably bilious.
"We looked in, Mr. Girdlestone," Farintosh began, "to learn if you had
any commands for us."
"I told you before that I had not," Ezra said curtly. "I am going on
Saturday. I have made a mistake in speculating on those diamonds.
Prices are sinking lower and lower."
"I am sorry to hear that," said Farintosh sympathetically. "Maybe the
market will take a turn."
"Let us hope so," the merchant answered. "It doesn't look like it."
"But you are satisfied with us, guv'nor," Burt struck in, pushing his
bulky form in front of Farintosh. "We have done our work all right,
"I have nothing to complain of," Ezra said coldly.
"Well then, guv'nor, you surely ain't going away without leaving us
nothing to remembrance you with, seeing that we've stood by you and
never gone back on you."
"You have been paid every week for what you have done," the young man
said. "You won't get another penny out of me, so you set your mind at
rest about that."
"You won't give us nothing?" cried the navvy angrily.
"No, I won't; and I'll tell you what it is, Burt, big as you are, if you
dare to raise your voice in my presence I'll give you the soundest
hiding that ever you had in your life."
Ezra had stood up and showed every indication of being as good as his
"Don't let us quarrel the last time we may meet," Farintosh cried,
intervening between the two. "It is not money we expect from you.
All we want is a drain of rum to drink success to you with."
"Oh, if that's all," said the young merchant--and turned round to pick
up the bottle which stood on a table behind him. Quick as a flash Burt
sprang upon him and struck him down with a life-preserver. With a
gasping cry and a heavy thud Ezra fell face downwards upon the floor,
the bottle still clutched in his senseless hand, and the escaping rum
forming a horrible mixture with the blood which streamed from a great
gash in his head.
"Very neat--very pretty indeed!" cried the ex-parson, in a quiet tone of
critical satisfaction, as a connoisseur might speak of a specimen which
interested him. He was already busy at the door of the safe.
"Well done, Mr. Burt, well done!" cried Williams, in a quivering voice;
and going up to the body he kicked it in the side. "You see I am not
afraid, Mr. Burt, am I?"
"Stow your gab!" snarled the navvy. "Here's the rum all gettin' loose."
Picking up the bottle he took a pull of what was left in it.
"Here's the bag, parson," he whispered, pulling a black linen bag from
his pocket. "We haven't made much noise over the job."
"Here are the stones," said Farintosh, in the same quiet voice.
"Hold the mouth open." He emptied an avalanche of diamonds into the
receptacle. "Here are some notes and gold. We may as well have them
too. Now, tie it up carefully. That's the way! If we meet any one on
the stairs, take it coolly. Turn that lamp out, Williams, so that if
any one looks in he'll see nothing. Come along!"
The guilty trio stole out of the room, bearing their plunder with them,
and walked down the passage of the hotel unmolested and unharmed.
The moon, as it rose over the veldt that night, shone on three horsemen
spurring it along the Capetown road as though their very lives depended
upon their speed. Its calm, clear rays streamed over the silent roofs
of Kimberley and in through a particular window of the _Central Hotel_,
throwing silvery patches upon the carpet, and casting strange shadows
from the figure which lay as it had fallen, huddled in an ungainly heap
upon the floor.
ROBBERS AND ROBBED.
It might perhaps have been as well for the curtailing of this narrative,
and for the interests of the world at large if the blow dealt by the
sturdy right arm of the navvy had cut short once for all the career of
the junior African merchant. Ezra, however, was endowed with a rare
vitality, which enabled him not only to shake off the effects of his
mishap, but to do so in an extraordinarily short space of time.
There was a groan from the prostrate figure, then a feeble movement,
then another and a louder groan, and then an oath. Gradually raising
himself upon his elbow, he looked around him in a bewildered way, with
his other hand pressed to the wound at the back of his head, from which
a few narrow little rivulets of blood were still meandering. His glance
wandered vaguely over the table and the chairs and the walls, until it
rested upon the safe. He could see in the moonlight that it was open,
and empty. In a moment the whole circumstances of the case came back to
him, and he staggered to the door with a hoarse cry of rage and of
Whatever Ezra's faults may have been, irresolution or want of courage
were not among them. In a moment he grasped the situation, and realized
that it was absolutely essential that he should act, and at once.
The stones must be recovered, or utter and irretrievable ruin stared him
in the face. At his cries the landlord and several attendants, white
and black, came rushing into the room.
"I've been robbed and assaulted," Ezra said, steadying himself against
the mantelpiece, for he was still weak and giddy. "Don't all start
cackling, but do what I ask you. Light the lamp!"
The lamp was lit, and there was a murmur from the little knot of
employees, reinforced by some late loungers at the bar, as they saw the
disordered room and the great crimson patch upon the carpet.
"The thieves called at nine," said Ezra, talking rapidly, but
collectedly. "Their names were Farintosh, Burt, and Williams.
We talked for, some little time, so they probably did not leave the
house before a quarter past at the soonest. It is now half-past ten, so
they have no very great start. You, Jamieson, and you, Van Muller, run
out and find if three men have been seen getting away. Perhaps they
took a buggy. Go up and down, and ask all you see. You, Jones, go as
hard as you can to Inspector Ainslie. Tell him there has been robbery
and attempted murder, and say that I want half a dozen of his best
mounted men--not his best men, you understand, but his best horses.
I shall see that he is no loser if he is smart. Where's my servant
Pete? Pete, you dog, get my horse saddled and bring her round.
She ought to be able to catch anything in Griqualand."
As Ezra gave his orders the men hurried off in different directions to
carry them out. He himself commenced to arrange his dress, and tied a
handkerchief tightly round his head.
"Surely you are not going, sir?" the landlord said, "You are not fit."
"Fit or not, I am going," Ezra said resolutely. "If I have to be
strapped to my horse I'll go. Send me up some brandy. Put some in a
flask, too. I may feel faint before I get back."
A great concourse of people had assembled by this time, attracted by the
report of the robbery. The whole square in front of the hotel was
crowded with diggers and store-keepers and innumerable Kaffirs, all
pressing up to the portico in the hope of hearing some fresh details.
Mr. Hector O'Flaherty, over the way, was already busy setting up his
type in preparation for a special edition, in which the _Vaal River
Advertiser_ should give its version of the affair. In the office the
great man himself, who was just convalescing from an attack of ardent
spirits, was busily engaged, with a wet towel round his head, writing a
leader upon the event. This production, which was very sonorous and
effective, was peppered all over with such phrases as "protection of
property," "outraged majesty of the law," and "scum of civilization"--
expressions which had been used so continuously by Mr. O'Flaherty, that
he had come to think that he had a copyright in them, and loudly accused
the London papers of plagiarism if he happened to see them in their
There was a buzz of excitement among the crowd when Ezra appeared on the
steps of the hotel, looking as white as a sheet, with a handkerchief
bound round his head and his collar all crusted with blood. As he
mounted his horse one of his emissaries rushed to him.
"If you please, sir," he said, "they have taken the Capetown road.
A dozen people saw them. Their horses were not up to much, for I know
the man they got them from. You are sure to catch them."
A smile played over Ezra's pale face, which boded little good for the
fugitives. "Curse those police!" he cried; "are they never going to
"Here they are!" said the landlord; and sure enough, with a jingling of
arms and a clatter of hoofs, half a dozen of the Griqualand Mounted
Constabulary trotted through the crowd and drew up in front of the
steps. They were smart, active young fellows, armed with revolver and
sabre, and their horses were tough brutes, uncomely to look at, but with
wonderful staying power. Ezra noted the fact with satisfaction as he
rode up to the grizzled sergeant in command.
"There's not a moment to be lost, sergeant," he said. "They have an
hour and a half's start, but their cattle are not up to much. Come on!
It's the Capetown road. A hundred pounds if we catch them!"
"Threes!" roared the sergeant. "Right half turn--trot!" The crowd split
asunder, and the little troop, with Ezra at their head, clove a path
through them. "Gallop!" shouted the sergeant, and away they clattered
down the High Street of Kimberley, striking fire out of the stone and
splashing up the gravel, until the sound of their hoofs died away into a
dull, subdued rattle, and finally faded altogether from the ears of the
For the first few miles the party galloped in silence. The moon was
still shining brilliantly, and they could see the white line of the road
stretching out in front of them and winding away over the undulating
veldt. To right and left spread a broad expanse of wiry grass
stretching to the horizon, with low bushes and scrub scattered over it
in patches. Here and there were groups of long-legged,
unhealthy-looking sheep, who crashed through the bushes in wild terror
as the riders swept by them. Their plaintive calls were the only sounds
which broke the silence of the night, save the occasional dismal hooting
of the veldt owl.
Ezra, on his powerful grey, had been riding somewhat ahead of the
troopers, but the sergeant managed to get abreast of him. "Beg pardon,
sir," he said, raising his hand to his kepi, "but don't you think this
pace is too good to last? The horses will be blown."
"As long as we catch them," Ezra answered, "I don't care what becomes of
the horses. I would sooner stand you a dozen horses apiece than let
them get away."
The young merchant's words were firm and his seat steady, in spite of
the throbbing at his head. The fury in his heart supplied him with
strength, and he gnawed his moustache in his impatience and dug his
spurs into his horse's flanks until the blood trickled down its glossy
coat. Fortune, reputation, above all, revenge, all depended upon the
issue of this headlong chase through the darkness.
The sergeant and Ezra galloped along, leather to leather, and rein to
rein, while the troop clattered in their rear. "There's Combrink about
two miles further on," said the sergeant; "we will hear news of them
"They can't get off the high road, can they?"
"Not likely, sir. They couldn't get along as fast anywhere else.
Indeed, it's hardly safe riding across the veldt. They might be down a
pit before they knew of it."
"As long as they are on the road, we must catch them," quoth Ezra;
"for if it ran straight from here to hell I would follow them there."
"And we'd stand by you, sir," said the sergeant, catching something of
his companion's enthusiasm. "At this pace, if the horses hold out, we
might catch them before morning. There are the lights of the shanty."
As he spoke they were galloping round a long curve in the road, at the
further end of which there was a feeble yellow glimmer. As they came
abreast of it they saw that the light came through an open door, in the
centre of which a burly Afrikaner was standing with his hands in his
breeches pockets and his pipe in his mouth.
"Good evening," said the sergeant, as his men pulled up their reeking
horses. "Has any one passed this way before us?"
"Many a tausand has passed this way before you," said the Dutchman,
taking his pipe out of his mouth to laugh.
"To-night, man, to-night!" the sergeant cried angrily.
"Oh yes; down the Port Elizabeth Road there, not one hour ago. Three
men riding fit to kill their horses."
"That'll do," Ezra shouted; and away they went once more down the broad
white road. They passed Bluewater's Drift at two in the morning, and
were at Van Hayden's farm at half-past. At three they left the Modder
River far behind them, and at a quarter past four they swept down the
main street of the little township of Jacobsdal, their horses weak and
weary and all mottled with foam. There was a police patrol in the
"Has any one passed?" cried the sergeant.
"Three men, a quarter of an hour ago."
"Have they gone on?"
"Straight on. Their horses were nearly dead beat, though."
"Come on!" cried Ezra eagerly. "Come on!"
"Four of the horses are exhausted, sir," said the sergeant.
"They can't move another step."
"Come on without them then."
"The patrol could come," the sergeant suggested.
"I should have to report myself at the office, sir," said the trooper.
"Jump on to his horse, sergeant," cried Ezra. "He can take yours to
report himself on. Now then you and I at least are bound to come up
with them. Forward! gallop!" And they started off once more on their
wild career, rousing the quiet burghers of Jacobsdal by the wild turmoil
of their hoofs.
Out once more upon the Port Elizabeth Road it was a clear race between
the pursuers and the pursued. The former knew that the fugitives, were
it daytime, would possibly be within sight of them, and the thought gave
them additional ardour. The sergeant having a fresh horse rode in
front, his head down and his body forward, getting every possible inch
of pace out of the animal. At his heels came Ezra, on his gallant grey,
the blood-stained handkerchief fluttering from his head. He was sitting
very straight in his saddle with a set stern smile upon his lips.
In his right hand he held a cocked revolver. A hundred yards or so
behind them the two remaining troopers came toiling along upon their
weary nags, working hard with whip and spur to stimulate them to further
exertions. Away in the east a long rosy streak lay low upon the
horizon, which showed that dawn was approaching, and a grey light stole
over the landscape. Suddenly the sergeant pulled his horse up.
"There's some one coming towards us," he cried.
Ezra and the troopers halted their panting steeds. Through the
uncertain light they saw a solitary horseman riding down the road.
At first they had thought that it might possibly be one of the fugitives
who had turned, but as he came nearer they perceived that it was a
stranger. His clothes were so dusty and his horse so foam-flecked and
weary that it was evident that he also had left many a long mile of road
"Have you seen three men on horseback?" cried Ezra as he approached.
"I spoke to them," the traveller answered. "They are about half a mile
"Come on! Come on!" Ezra shouted.
"I am bringing news from Jagersfontein--" the man said.
"Come on!" Ezra interrupted furiously; and the horses stretched their
stiff limbs into a feeble lumbering gallop. Ezra and the sergeant shot
to the front, and the others followed as best they might. Suddenly in
the stillness they heard far away a dull rattling sound like the clatter
of distant castanets. "It's their horses' hoofs!" cried Ezra; and the
troopers behind raised a cheer to show that they too understood the
significance of the sound.
It was a wild, lonely spot, where the plain was bare even of the scanty
foliage which usually covered it. Here and there great granite rocks
protruded from the brown soil, as though Nature's covering had in bygone
days been rent until her gaunt bones protruded through the wound.
As Ezra and the sergeant swept round a sharp turn in the road they saw,
some little way ahead of them, the three fugitives, enveloped in a cloud
of dust. Almost at the same moment they heard a shout and crash behind
them, and, looking round, saw a confused heap upon the ground.
The horse of the leading trooper had fallen from pure fatigue, and had
rolled over upon its rider. The other trooper had dismounted, and was
endeavouring to extricate his companion.
"Let us see if he is hurt," the sergeant cried.
"On! on!" shouted Ezra, whose passion was increased by the sight of the
thieves. "Not a foot back."
"He may have broken his neck," grumbled the sergeant, drawing his
revolver. "Have your pistol ready, sir. We shall be up with them in a
few minutes, and they may show fight."
They were up with them rather sooner than the policeman expected.
Farintosh, finding that speed was of no avail, and that the numbers of
his pursuers was now reduced to two, had recourse to strategy. There
was a sharp turn in the road a hundred yards ahead, and on reaching it
the three flung themselves off their horses and lay down behind cover.
As Ezra and the sergeant, the grey horse and the bay, came thundering
round the curve, there was a fierce splutter of pistol shots from
amongst the bushes, and the grey sank down upon its knees with a sobbing
moan, struck mortally in the head. Ezra sprang to his feet and rushed
at the ambuscade, while the sergeant, who had been grazed on the cheek
by the first volley, jumped from his horse and followed him. Burt and
Farintosh met them foot to foot with all the Saxon gallantry which
underlies the Saxon brutality. Burt stabbed at the sergeant and struck
him through the muscle of the neck. Farintosh fired at the policeman,
and was himself shot down by Ezra. Burt, seeing his companion fall,
sprang past his two assailants with a vicious side blow at the merchant,
and throwing himself upon the sergeant's horse, regardless of a bullet
from the latter's revolver, he galloped away, and was speedily out of
range. As to Williams, from the beginning of the skirmish he had lain
face downwards upon the ground, twisting his thin limbs about in an
agony of fear, and howling for mercy.
"He's gone!" Ezra said ruefully, gazing after the fugitive. "We have
nothing to go after him with."
"I'm well-nigh gone myself," said the policeman, mopping up the blood
from his stab, which was more painful than dangerous. "He has given me
a nasty prod."
"Never mind, my friend, you shall not be the loser. Get up, you little
viper!"--this to Williams, who was still writhing himself into the most
"Oh, please, Mr. Girdlestone," he cried, clutching at Ezra's boots with
his long thin fingers, "it wasn't me that hit you. It was Mr. Burt.
I had nothing to do with robbing you either. That was Mr. Farintosh.
I wouldn't have gone with him, only I knew that he was a clergyman, so I
expected no harm. I am surprised at you, Mr. Farintosh, I really am.
I'm very glad that Mr. Girdlestone has shot you."
The ex-parson was sitting with his back against a gnarled stump, which
gave him some support. He had his hand to his chest, and as he breathed
a ghastly whistling sound came from the wound, and spirts of blood
rushed from his mouth. His glazed eyes were fixed upon the man who had
shot him, and a curious smile played about his thin lips.
"Come here, Mr. Girdlestone," he croaked; "come here."
Ezra strode over to him with a face as inexorable as fate.
"You've done for me," said Farintosh faintly. "It's a queer end for the
best man of his year at Trinity--master of arts, sir, and Jacksonian
prizeman. Not much worth now, is it? Who'd have thought then that I
should have died like a dog in this wilderness? What's the odds how a
man dies though. If I'd kept myself straight I should have gone off a
few years later in a feather bed as the Dean of St. Patrick's may be.
What will that matter? I've enjoyed myself"--the dying man's eyes
glistened at the thought of past dissipations. "If I had my time to do
over again," he continued, "I'd enjoy myself the same way. I'm not
penitent, sir. No death-bed snivelling about me, or short cuts into
heaven. That's not what I wanted to say though. I have a choking in
the throat, but I dare say you can hear what I am driving at. You met a
man riding towards Jacobsdal, did you not?"
Ezra nodded sullenly.
"You didn't speak to him? Too busy trying to catch yours truly, eh?
Will you have your stones back, for they are in the bag by my side, but
they'll not be very much good to you. The little spec won't come off
this time. You don't know what the news was that the man was bringing?"
A vague feeling of impending misfortune stole over Ezra. He shook his
"His news was," said Farintosh, leaning up upon his hand, "that fresh
diamond fields _have_ been discovered at Jagersfontein, in the Orange
Free State. So Russia, or no Russia, stones will not rise. Ha! ha!
will not rise. Look at his face! It's whiter than mine. Ha! ha! ha!"
With the laugh upon his lips, a great flow of blood stopped the
clergyman's utterance, and he rolled slowly over upon his side, a dead
A MOMENTOUS RESOLUTION.
During the months which Ezra Girdlestone had spent in Africa the affairs
of the firm in Fenchurch Street had been exceedingly prosperous.
Trade upon the coast had been brisker than usual, and three of the
company's ships had come in at short intervals with excellent cargoes.
Among these was the _Black Eagle_ which, to the astonishment of Captain
Hamilton Miggs and the disgust of his employer, had weathered a severe
gale in the Channel, and had arrived safe and sound once more. This run
of luck, supplemented by the business capacity of the old merchant and
the indomitable energy of young Dimsdale, made the concern look so
flourishing that the former felt more than ever convinced that if he
could but stave off the immediate danger things would soon right
themselves. Hence he read with delight the letters from Africa, in
which his son narrated the success of the conspiracy and the manner in
which the miners had been hoodwinked. The old man's figure grew
straighter and his step more firm as the conviction grew upon him that
the company would soon return once again to its former condition of
It may be imagined, therefore, that when the rumours of a bona fide
diamond find in the Orange Free State came to his ears John Girdlestone
was much agitated and distressed. On the same day that he saw the
announcement in the papers he received a letter from his son announcing
the failure of their enterprise. After narrating the robbery, the
pursuit, the death of Farintosh, and the announcement of the new
discovery, it gave an account of his subsequent movements.
"There was no doubt about the truth of the scoundrel's words," he said,
"for when we went to the nearest farm to get some food and have the
sergeant's wound dressed we found that every one was talking about it.
There was a chap there who had just come from the State and knew all
about it. After hearing the details from him I saw that there was no
doubt of the genuineness of the thing.
"The police rode back to Jacobsdal with Williams, and I promised to come
after them; but when I came to think it over it didn't seem good enough.
The fact of my having so many diamonds would set every tongue wagging,
and, again, the sergeant had heard what Farintosh said to me, so it was
very possible that I might have the whole district about my ears. As it
was, I had the stones and all my money in the bag. I wrote back to the
hotel, therefore, telling the landlord to send on my traps to Cape Town
by mail, and promising to settle my bill with him when I received them.
I then bought a horse and came straight south. I shall take the first
steamer and be with you within a few days of your receiving this.
"As to our speculation, it is, of course, all up. Even when the Russian
business proves to be a hoax, the price of stones will remain very low
on account of these new fields. It is possible that we may sell our lot
at some small profit but it won't be the royal road to a fortune that
you prophesied, nor will it help the firm out of the rut into which you
have shoved it. My only regret in leaving Africa like this is that that
vermin Williams will have no one to prosecute him. My head is almost
This letter was a rude shock to the African merchant. Within a week of
the receipt of it his son Ezra, gloomy and travel-stained, walked into
the sanctum at Fenchurch Street and confirmed all the evil tidings by
word of mouth. The old man was of too tough a fibre to break down
completely, but his bony hands closed convulsively upon the arms of the
chair, and a cold perspiration broke out upon his wrinkled forehead as
he listened to such details as his son vouchsafed to afford him.
"You have your stones all safe, though?" he stammered out at last.
"They are in my box, at home," said Ezra, gloomy and morose, leaning
against the white marble mantelpiece. "The Lord knows what they are
worth! We'll be lucky if we clear as much as they cost and a margin for
my expenses and Langworthy's. A broken head is all that I have got from
your fine scheme."
"Who could foresee such a thing?" the old man said plaintively.
He might have added Major Clutterbuck's thousand pounds as another item
to be cleared, but he thought it as well to keep silent upon the point.
"Any fool could foresee the possibility of it," quoth Ezra brusquely.
"The fall in prices is sure to be permanent, then?" the old man asked.
"It will last for some years, any way," Ezra answered.
"The Jagersfontein gravel is very rich, and there seems to be plenty of
"And within a few months we must repay both capital and interest.
We are ruined!" The old merchant spoke in a broken voice, and his head
sank upon his breast. "When that day comes," he continued, "the firm
which has been for thirty years above reproach, and a model to the whole
City, will be proclaimed as a bankrupt concern. Worse still, it will be
shown to have been kept afloat for years by means which will be deemed
fraudulent. I tell you, my dear son, that if any means could be devised
which would avert this--_any_ means--I should not hesitate to adopt
them. I am a frail old man, and I feel that the short balance of my
life would be a small thing for me to give in return for the assurance
that the work which I have built up should not be altogether thrown
"Your life cannot affect the matter one way or the other unless it were
more heavily insured than it is," Ezra said callously, though somewhat
moved by his father's intensity of manner. "Perhaps there is some way
out of the wood yet," he added, in a more cheerful tone.
"It's so paying, so prosperous--that's what goes to my heart. If it had
ruined itself it would be easier to bear it, but it is sacrificed to
outside speculations--my wretched, wretched speculations. That is what
makes it so hard." He touched the bell, and Gilray answered the summons.
"Listen to this, Ezra. What was our turn over last month, Gilray?"
"Fifteen thousand pounds, sir," said the little clerk, bobbing up and
down like a buoy in a gale in his delight at seeing the junior partner
"And the expenses?"
"Nine thousand three hundred. Uncommon brown you look, Mr. Ezra, to be
sure, uncommon brown and well. I hopes as you enjoyed yourself in
Africa, sir, and was too much for them Hottenpots and Boars." With this
profound ethnological remark Mr. Gilray bobbed himself out of the room
and went back radiantly to his ink-stained desk.
"Look at that," the old man said, when the click of the outer door
showed that the clerk was out of ear-shot. "Over five thousand profit
in a month. Is it not terrible that such a business should go to ruin?
What a fortune it would have been for you!"
"By heavens, it must be saved!" cried Ezra, with meditative brows and
hands plunged deep in his trouser pockets. "There is that girl's money.
Could we not get the temporary use of it."
"Impossible!" his father answered with a sigh. "It is so tied up in the
will that she cannot sign it away herself until she comes of age.
There is no way of touching it except by her marriage--or by her death."
"Then we must have it by the only means open to us."
"And that is?"
"I must marry her."
"I shall. Here is my hand on it."
"Then we are saved," cried the old man, throwing up his tremulous hands.
"Girdlestone & Son will weather the storm yet."
"But Girdlestone becomes a sleeping partner," said Ezra. "It's for my
own sake I do it and not for yours," with which frank remark he drew his
hat down over his brows and set off for Eccleston Square.
A DANGEROUS PROMISE.
During Ezra Girdlestone's absence in Africa our heroine's life had been
even less eventful than of old. There was a consistency about the
merchant's establishment which was characteristic of the man. The house
itself was austere and gloomy, and every separate room, in spite of
profuse expenditure and gorgeous furniture, had the same air of
discomfort. The servants too, were, with one single exception, from the
hard-visaged housekeeper to the Calvinistic footman, a depressing and
melancholy race. The only departure from this general rule was Kate's
own maid, Rebecca Taylforth, a loudly-dressed, dark-eyed, coarse-voiced
young woman, who raised up her voice and wept when Ezra departed for
Africa. This damsel's presence was most disagreeable to Kate, and,
indeed, to John Girdlestone also, who only retained her on account of
his son's strong views upon the subject, and out of fear of an explosion
which might wreck all his plans.
The old merchant was Kate's only companion during this period, and their
conversation was usually limited to a conventional inquiry at breakfast
time as to each other's health. On his return from the City in the
evening Girdlestone was always in a moody humour, and would eat his
dinner hastily and in silence. After dinner he was in the habit of
reading methodically the various financial articles in the day's papers,
which would occupy him until bedtime. Occasionally his companion would
read these aloud to him, and such was the monotony of her uneventful
life that she found herself becoming insensibly interested in the
fluctuations of Grand Trunk scrip or Ohio and Delaware shares.
The papers once exhausted, a bell was rung to summon the domestics, and
when all were assembled the merchant, in a hard metallic voice, read
through the lesson for the day and the evening prayers. On grand
occasions he supplemented this by a short address, in the course of
which he would pelt his frightened audience with hard jagged texts until
he had reduced them to a fitting state of spiritual misery. No wonder
that, under the influence of such an existence, the roses began to fade
from his ward's cheeks, and her youthful heart to grow sad and heavy.
One daily tonic there was, however, which never deserted her.
Strictly as Girdlestone guarded her, and jealously as he fenced her off
from the outer world, he was unable to prevent this one little ray of
light penetrating her prison. With an eye to the future he had so
placed her that it seemed to him to be impossible that any sympathy
could reach her from the outside world. Visits and visitors were alike
forbidden to her. On no consideration was she to venture out alone.
In spite of all his precautions, however, love has many arts and wiles
which defy all opposition, and which can outplot the deepest of
Eccleston Square was by no means in a direct line between Kensington and
the City, yet morning and evening, as sure as the clock pointed to
half-past nine and to quarter to six, Tom would stride through the
old-fashioned square and past the grim house, whose grimness was
softened to his eyes through its association with the bright dream of
his life. It was but the momentary glance of a sweet face at the upper
window and a single wave of a white hand, but it sent him on with a
fresh heart and courage, and it broke the dull monotony of her dreary
Occasionally, as we have seen, he even managed to find his way into the
interior of this ogre's castle, in which his fair princess was immured.
John Girdlestone put an end to this by ordering that business messages
should never under any circumstances be conveyed to his private
residence. Nothing daunted, however, the lovers soon devised another
means of surmounting the barrier which divided them.
The centre of the square was taken up by a garden, rectangular and
uninviting, fenced round with high forbidding walls which shut out all
intruders and gave the place a resemblance to the exercise ground of a
prison. Within the rails were clumps of bushes, and here and there a
few despondent trees drooped their heads as though mourning over the
uncongenial site in which they had been planted. Among these trees and
bushes there were scattered seats, and the whole estate was at the
disposal of the inhabitants of Eccleston Square, and was dignified by
the name of the Eccleston Gardens. This was the only spot in which Kate
was trusted without the surveillance of a footman, and it was therefore
a favourite haunt of hers, where she would read or work for hours under
the shelter of the scanty foliage.
Hence it came about that one day, as Thomas Dimsdale was making his way
Cityward at a rather earlier hour than was customary with him, he missed
the usual apparition at the window. Looking round blankly in search of
some explanation of this absence, he perceived in the garden a pretty
white bonnet which glinted among the leaves, and on closer inspection a
pair of bright eyes, which surveyed him merrily from underneath it.
The gate was open, and in less time than it takes to tell it the
sacrilegious feet of the young man had invaded the sacred domains
devoted to the sole use and behoof of the Ecclestonians. It may be
imagined that he was somewhat late at the office that morning and on
many subsequent mornings, until the clerks began to think that their new
employer was losing the enthusiasm for business which had possessed him.
Tom frequently begged permission to inform Mr. Girdlestone of his
engagement, but Kate was inflexible upon that point. The fact is, that
she knew her guardian's character very much better than her lover did,
and remembering his frequent exhortations upon the subject of the vanity
and wickedness of such things, she feared the effects of his anger when
he learned the truth. In a year or so she would be of age and her own
mistress, but at present she was entirely in his power. Why should she
subject herself to the certainty of constant harshness and unkindness
which would await her? Had her guardian really fulfilled the functions
of a father towards her he would have a right to be informed, but as it
was she felt that she owed him no such duty. She therefore made up her
mind that he should know nothing of the matter; but the fates
unfortunately willed otherwise.
It chanced that one morning the interview between the lovers had lasted
rather longer than usual, and had been concluded by Kate's returning to
the house, while Tom remained sitting upon the garden seat lost in such
a reverie as affects men in his position. While thus pleasantly
employed, his thoughts were suddenly recalled to earth by the appearance
of a dark shadow on the gravel in front of him, and looking up he saw
the senior partner standing a short distance away and regarding him with
anything but an amiable expression upon his face. He had himself been
having a morning stroll in the garden, and had overseen the whole of the
recent interview without the preoccupied lovers being aware of his
"Are you coming to the office?" he asked sternly. "If so, we can go
Tom rose and followed him out of the gardens without a word. He knew
from the other's expression that all was known to him, and in his heart
he was not sorry. His only fear was that the old man's anger might fall
upon his ward and this he determined to prevent. They walked side by
side as far as the station in complete silence, but on reaching
Fenchurch Street Girdlestone asked his young partner to step into his
"Now, sir," he said, as he closed the door behind him "I think that I
have a right to inquire what the meaning may be of the scene of which I
was an involuntary witness this morning?"
"It means," Tom answered firmly but gently, "that I am engaged to Miss
Harston, and have been for some time."
"Oh, indeed," Girdlestone answered coldly, sitting down at his desk and
turning over the pile of letters.
"At my request," said Tom, "our engagement was kept from your knowledge.
I had reason to believe that you objected to early engagements, and I
feared that ours might be disagreeable to you." I trust that the
recording angel will not register a very black mark against our friend
for this, the one and only falsehood that ever passed his lips.
During the long silent walk the merchant had been revolving in his mind
what course he should pursue, and he had come to the conclusion that it
was more easy to guide this impetuous stream of youth than to attempt to
stem it. He did not realize the strength of the tie that bound these
two young people together, and imagined that with judgment and patience
it might yet be snapped. It was, therefore, with as good an imitation
of geniality as his angular visage would permit of that he answered his
"You can hardly wonder at my being surprised," he said. "Such a thing
never entered my mind for a moment. You would have done better to have
confided in me before."
"I must ask your pardon for not having done so."
"As far as you are concerned," said John Girdlestone affably, "I
believe you to be hard-working and right-principled. Your conduct since
you have joined the firm has been everything which I could desire."
Tom bowed his acknowledgments, much pleased by this preamble.
"With regard to my ward," continued the senior partner, speaking very
slowly and evidently weighing his words, "I could not wish her to have a
better husband. In considering such a question I have, however, as you
may imagine, to consult above everything else the wishes of my dead
friend, Mr. John Harston, the father of the young lady to whom you say
that you are engaged. A trust has been reposed in me, and that trust
must, of course, be fulfilled to the letter."
"Certainly," said Tom, wondering in his own mind how he could ever have
brought himself for one moment to think evil of this kindly and
righteous old man.
"It was one of Mr. Harston's most clearly expressed wishes that no words
or even thoughts of such matters should be allowed to come in his
daughter's way until she had attained maturity, by which he meant the
age of one-and-twenty."
"But he could not foresee the circumstances," Tom pleaded. "I am sure
that a year or so will make no difference in her sentiments in this
"My duty is to carry out his instructions to the letter. I won't say,
however," continued Mr. Girdlestone, "that circumstances might not arise
which might induce me to shorten this probationary period. If my
further acquaintance with you confirms the high impression which I now
have of your commercial ability, that, of course, would have weight with
me; and, again, if I find Miss Harston's mind is made up upon the point,
that also would influence my judgment."
"And what are we to do in the mean time?" asked the junior partner
"In the mean time neither you nor your people must write to her, or
speak to her, or hold any communication with her whatever. If I find
you or them doing so, I shall be compelled in justice to Mr. Harston's
last request to send her to some establishment abroad where she shall be
entirely out of your way. My mind is irrevocably made up upon that
point. It is not a matter of personal inclination, but of conscience."
"And how long is this to last?" cried Tom.
"It will depend upon yourselves. If you prove yourself to be a man of
honour in this matter, I may be inclined to sanction your addresses.
In the mean time you must give me your word to let it rest, and neither
to attempt to speak to Miss Harston, nor to see her, nor to allow your
parents to communicate with her. The last condition may seem to you to
be hard, but, in my eyes, it is a very important one. Unless you can
bring yourself to promise all this, my duty will compel me to remove my
ward entirely out of your reach, a course which would be painful to her
and inconvenient to myself."
"But I must let her know of this arrangement. I must tell her that you
hold out hopes to us on condition that we keep apart for a time."
"It would be cruel not to allow you to do that," Girdlestone answered.
"You may send her _one_ letter, but remember there shall be no reply to
"Thank you, sir; thank you!" Tom cried fervently. "I have something to
live for now. This separation will but make our hearts grow fonder.
What change can time make in either of us?"
"Quite so," said John Girdlestone, with a smile. "Remember there must
be no more walking through the square. You must remain absolutely apart
if you wish to gain my consent."
"It is hard, very, very hard. But I will promise to do it. What would
I not promise which would lead to our earlier union?"
"That is settled then. In the mean time, I should be obliged if you
would go down to the docks and look after the loading of the
transferable corrugated iron houses for New Calabar."
"All right, sir, and thank you for your kindness," said Tom, bowing
himself out. He hardly knew whether to be pleased or grieved over the
result of his interview; but, on the whole, satisfaction prevailed,
since at the worst it was but to wait for a year or so, while there
seemed to be some hopes of gaining the guardian's consent before that.
On the other hand, he had pledged himself to separate from Kate; but
that would, he reflected, only make their re-union the sweeter.
All the morning he was engaged in superintending the stowing of great
slabs of iron in the capacious hold of the _Maid of Athens_. When the
hour of luncheon arrived no thought of food was in the lad's head, but,
burying himself in the back parlour of a little Blackwall public-house,
he called for pen, ink, and paper, and proceeded to indite a letter to
his sweetheart. Never was so much love and comfort and advice and hope
compressed into the limits of four sheets of paper or contained in the
narrow boundary of a single envelope. Tom read it over after he had
finished, and felt that it feebly expressed his thoughts; but, then,
what lover ever yet did succeed in getting his thoughts satisfactorily
represented upon paper. Having posted this effusion, in which he had
carefully explained the conditions imposed upon him, Tom felt
considerably more light-hearted, and returned with renewed vigour to the
loading of the corrugated iron. He would hardly have felt so satisfied
had he seen John Girdlestone receiving that same letter from the hands
of the footman, and reading it afterwards in the privacy of his bedroom
with a sardonic smile upon his face. Still less contented would he have
been had he beheld the merchant tearing it into small fragments and
making a bonfire of it in his capacious grate. Next morning Kate looked
in vain out of the accustomed window, and was sore at heart when no tall
figure appeared in sight and no friendly hand waved a morning
A CHANGE OF FRONT.
This episode had occurred about a fortnight before Ezra's return from
Africa, and was duly retailed to him by his father.
"You need not be discouraged by that," he said. "I can always keep them
apart, and if he is absent and you are present--especially as she has no
idea of the cause of his absence--she will end by feeling slighted and
"I cannot understand how you ever came to let the matter go so far," his
son answered sullenly. "What does the young puppy want to come poaching
upon our preserves for? The girl belongs to us. She was given to you
to look after, and a nice job you seem to have made of it!"
"Never mind, my boy," replied the merchant. "I'll answer for keeping
them apart if you will only push the matter on your own account."
"I've said that I would do so, and I will," Ezra returned; and events
soon showed that he was as good as his word.
Before his African excursion the relations between young Girdlestone and
his father's ward had never been cordial. Kate's nature, however, was
so sweet and forgiving, that it was impossible for her to harbour any
animosity, and she greeted Ezra kindly on his return from his travels.
Within a few days she became conscious that a remarkable change had come
over him--a change, as it seemed to her, very much for the better.
In the past, weeks had frequently elapsed without his addressing her,
but now he went out of his way to make himself agreeable. Sometimes he
would sit for a whole evening describing to her all that he had seen in
Africa, and really interesting her by his account of men and things.
She, poor lass, hailed this new departure with delight, and did all in
her power to encourage his better nature and to show that she
appreciated the alteration in his bearing. At the same time, she was
rather puzzled in her mind, for an occasional flash of coarseness or
ferocity showed her that the real nature of the man was unaltered, and
that he was putting an unnatural restraint upon himself.
As the days went on, and no word or sign came from Tom, a great fear and
perplexity arose within the girl's mind. She had heard nothing of the
interview at Fenchurch Street, nor had she any clue at all which could
explain the mystery. Could it be that Tom had informed her guardian of
their engagement, and had received such a rebuff that he had abandoned
her in despair? That was surely impossible; yet why was it that he had
ceased to walk through the square? She knew that he was not ill,
because she heard her two companions talking of him in connection with
business. What could be the matter, then? Her little heart was torn by
a thousand conflicting doubts and fears.
In the mean time Ezra gave fresh manifestations of the improvement which
travel had wrought upon him. She had remarked one day that she was fond
of moss roses. On coming down to breakfast next morning she found a
beautiful moss rose upon her plate, and every morning afterwards a fresh
flower appeared in the same place. This pretty little piece of
courtesy, which she knew could only come from Ezra, surprised and
pleased her, for delicacy was the last quality for which she would have
given him credit.
On another occasion she had expressed a desire to read Thackeray's
works, the books in the library being for the most part of last century.
On entering her room that same evening she found, to her astonishment, a
handsomely bound edition of the novels in question standing on the
centre of her table. For a moment a wild, unreasoning hope awoke in her
that perhaps this was Tom's doing--that he had taken this means of
showing that she was still dear to him. She soon saw, however, that the
books could only have come from the same source as the flowers, and she
marvelled more than ever at this fresh proof of the good will of her
One day her guardian took the girl aside. "Your life must be rather
dull," he said. "I have taken a box for you to-night at the opera.
I do not care about such spectacles myself, but I have made arrangements
for your escort. A change will do you good."
Poor Kate was too sad at heart to be inclined for amusement.
She endeavoured, however, to look pleased and grateful.
"My good friend, Mrs. Wilkinson, is coming for you," the merchant said,
"and Ezra is going too. He has a great liking for music."
Kate could not help smiling at this last remark, as she thought how
very successfully the young man had concealed his taste during the years
that she had known him.
She was ready, however, at the appointed hour, and Mrs. Wilkinson, a
prim old gentlewoman, who had chaperoned Kate on the rare occasions when
she went out, having arrived, the three drove off together.
The opera happened to be "Faust," and the magnificent scenery and
dresses astonished Kate, who had hardly ever before been within the
walls of a theatre. She sat as if entranced, with a bright tinge of
colour upon her cheeks, which, with her sparkling eyes, made her look
surpassingly beautiful. So thought Ezra Girdlestone as he sat in the
recesses of the box and watched the varied expressions which flitted
across her mobile features. "She is well worth having, money or no," he
muttered to himself, and redoubled his attentions to her during the
An incident occurred between the acts that night which would have
pleased the old merchant had he witnessed it. Kate had been looking
down from the box, which was upon the third tier, at the sea of heads
beneath them. Suddenly she gave a start, and her face grew a trifle
"Isn't that Mr. Dimsdale down there?" she said to her companion.
"Where?" asked Ezra, craning his neck. "Oh yes, there he is, in the
second row of the stalls."
"Do you know who the young lady is that he is talking to?" Kate asked.
"I don't know," said Ezra. "I have seen him about with her a good deal
lately." The latter was a deliberate falsehood, but Ezra saw his chance
of prejudicing his rival, and took prompt advantage of it. "She is very
good-looking," he added presently, keeping his eyes upon his companion.
"Oh, indeed," said Kate, and turned with some common-place remark to
Mrs. Wilkinson. Her heart was sore nevertheless, and she derived little
pleasure from the remainder of the performance. As to Ezra, in spite of
his great love for music, he dozed peacefully in a corner of the box
during the whole of the last act. None of them were sorry when Faust
was duly consigned to the nether regions and Marguerite was apotheosed
upon a couple of wooden clouds. Ezra narrated the incident of the
recognition in the stalls to his father on his return, and the old
gentleman rubbed his hands over it.
"Most fortunate!" he exclaimed gleefully. "By working on that idea we
might produce great effects. Who was the girl, do you know?"
"Some poor relation, I believe, whom he trots out at times."
"We will find out her name and all about her. Capital, capital!" cried
John Girdlestone; and the two worthies departed to their rooms much
pleased at this new card which chance had put into their hands.
During the weary weeks while Tom Dimsdale, in accordance with his
promise, avoided Eccleston Square and everything which could remind Kate
of his existence, Ezra continued to leave no stone unturned in his
endeavours to steal his way into her affections. Poor Tom's sole
comfort was the recollection of that last passionate letter which he had
written in the Blackwall public-house, and which had, as he imagined,
enlightened her as to the reasons of his absence, and had prevented her
from feeling any uneasiness or surprise. Had he known the fate that had
befallen that epistle, he would hardly have been able to continue his
office duties so patiently or to wait with so much resignation for Mr.
Girdlestone's sanction to his engagement.
As the days passed and still brought no news, Kate's face grew paler and
her heart more weary and desponding. That the young man was well was
beyond dispute, since she had seen him with her own eyes at the opera.
What explanation could there be, then, for his conduct? Was it possible
that he had told Mr. Girdlestone of their engagement, and that her
guardian had found some means of dissuading him from continuing his
suit--found some appeal to his interest, perhaps, which was too strong
for his love. All that she knew of Tom's nature contradicted such a
supposition. Again, if Girdlestone had learned anything of their
engagement, surely he would have reproached her with it. His manner of
late had been kinder rather than harsher. On the other hand, could it
have chanced that Tom had met this lady of the opera, and that her
charms had proved too much for his constancy? When she thought of the
honest grey eyes which had looked down into hers at that last meeting in
the garden, she found it hard to imagine the possibility of such things,
and yet there was a fact which had to be explained. The more she
thought of it the more incomprehensible it grew, but still the pale face
grew paler and the sad heart more heavy.
Soon, however, her doubts and fears began to resolve themselves into
something more substantial than vague conjecture. The conversation of
the Girdlestones used to turn upon their business colleague, and always
in the same strain. There were stray remarks about his doings; hints
from the father and laughter from the son. "Not much work to be got out
of him now," the old man would say. "When a man's in love he's not over
fond of a ledger."
"A nice-looking girl, too," said Ezra, in answer to some such remark.
"I thought something would come of it. We saw them together at the
opera, didn't we, Kate?"
So they would gossip together, and every word a stab to the poor girl.
She strove to conceal her feelings, and, indeed, her anger and her pride
were stronger even than her grief, for she felt that she had been
cruelly used. One day she found Girdlestone alone and unbosomed herself
"Is it really true," she asked, with a quick pant and a catch of her
breath, "that Mr. Dimsdale is engaged to be married?"
"I believe so, my dear," her guardian answered. "It is commonly
reported so. When a young lady and gentleman correspond it is usually a
sign of something of the sort."
"Oh, they correspond?"
"Yes, they certainly correspond. Her letters are sent to him at the
office. I don't know that I altogether like that arrangement. It looks
as if he were deceiving his parents." All this was an unmitigated lie,
but Girdlestone had gone too far now to stick at trifles.
"Who is the lady?" asked Kate, with a calm set face but a quivering lip.
"A cousin of his. Miss Ossary is her name, I believe. I am not sorry,
for it may be a sign that he has sown all his wild oats. Do you know at
one time, Kate, I feared that he might take a fancy to you. He has a
specious way with him, and I felt my responsibility in the matter."
"You need not be afraid on that score," Kate said bitterly. "I think I
can gauge Mr. Dimsdale's specious manner at its proper value." With
this valiant speech she marched off, head in air, to her room, and there
wept as though her very heart would break.
John Girdlestone told his son of this scene as they walked home from
Fenchurch Street that same day. "We must look sharp over it," he said,
"or that young fool may get impatient and upset our plans."
"It's not such an easy matter," said his son gloomily. "I get along so
far, but no further. It's a more uphill job than I expected."
"Why, you had a bad enough name among women," the merchant said, with
something approaching to a sneer. "I have been grieved times out of
number by your looseness in that respect. I should have thought that
you might have made your experience of some use now."
"There are women and women," his son remarked. "A girl like this takes
as much managing as a skittish horse."
"Once get her into harness, and I warrant you'll keep her there quiet
"You bet," said Ezra, with a loud laugh. "But at present she has the
pull. Her mind is still running on that fellow."
"She spoke bitterly enough of him this morning."
"So she might, but she thinks of him none the less. If I could once
make her thoroughly realize that he had thrown her over I might catch
her on the hop. She'd marry for spite if she wouldn't for love."
"Just so; just so. Wait a bit. That can be managed, I think, if you
will leave it to me."
The old man brooded over the problem all day, for from week to week the
necessity for the money was becoming more pressing, and that money could
only be hoped for through the success of Ezra's wooing. No wonder that
every little detail which might sway the balance one way or the other
was anxiously pondered over by the head of the firm, and that even the
fluctuations in oil and ivory became secondary to this great object.
Next day, immediately after they had sat down to dinner, some letters
were handed in by the footman. "Forwarded on from the office, sir,"
said the flunkey. "The clerk says that Mr. Gilray was away and that he
did not like to open them."
"Just like him!" said Girdlestone, peevishly pushing back his plate of
soup. "I hate doing business out of hours." He tore the envelopes off
the various letters as he spoke. "What's this? Casks returned as per
invoice; that's all right. Note from Rudder & Saxe--that can be
answered to-morrow. Memorandum on the Custom duties at Sierra Leone.
Hallo! what have we here? 'My darling Tom'--who is this from--Yours
ever, Mary Ossary.' Why, it's one of young Dimsdale's love-letters which
has got mixed up with my business papers. Ha! ha! I must really
apologize to him for having opened it, but he must take his chance of
that, if he has his correspondence sent to the office. I take it for
granted that everything there is a business communication."
Kate's face grew very white as she listened. She ate little dinner that
day, poor child, and took the earliest opportunity of retiring to her
"You did that uncommonly well, dad," said Ezra approvingly, after she
was gone. "It hit her hard, I could see that."
"I think it touched her pride. People should not have pride. We are
warned against it. Now, that same pride of hers will forbid her ever
thinking of that young man again."
"And you had the letter written?"
"I wrote it myself. I think, in such a case, any stratagem is
justifiable. Such large interests are at stake that we must adopt
strong measures. I quite agree with the old Churchmen that the end
occasionally justifies the means."
"Capital, dad; very good!" cried Ezra, chewing his toothpick. "I like
to hear you argue. It's quite refreshing."
"I act according to the lights which are vouchsafed me," said John
Girdlestone gravely; on which Ezra leaned back in his chair and laughed
The very next morning the merchant spoke to Dimsdale on the matter, for
he had observed signs of impatience in the young man, and feared that
some sudden impulse might lead him to break his promise and so upset
"Take a seat. I should like to have a word with you," he said
graciously, when his junior partner appeared before him to consult with
him as to the duties of the day. Tom sat down with hope in his heart.
"It is only fair to you, Mr. Dimsdale," Girdlestone said, in a kindly
voice, "that I should express to you my appreciation of your honourable
conduct. You have kept your promise in regard to Miss Harston in the
"Of course I kept my promise," said Tom bluntly. "I trust, however,
that you will soon see your way to withdrawing your prohibition. It has
been a hard trial to me."
"I have insisted upon it because it seemed to me to be my duty.
Every one takes his own view upon such points, and it has always been my
custom throughout life to take what some might think a stringent one.
It appears to me that I owe it to my deceased friend to prevent his
daughter, whom he has confided to me, from making any mistake.
As I said before, if you continue to show that you are worthy of her, I
may think more favourably of it. Exemplary as your conduct has been
since you joined us, I believe that I am not wrong in stating that you
were a little wild when you were at Edinburgh."
"I never did anything that I am ashamed of," said Tom.
"Very likely not," Girdlestone answered, with an irrepressible sneer.
"The question is, did you do anything that your father was ashamed of?"
"Certainly not," cried Tom hotly. "I was no milksop or psalm singer,
but there is nothing that I ever did there of which I should be ashamed
of my father knowing."
"Don't speak lightly of psalm singing. It is a good practice in its
way, and you would have been none the worse had you indulged in it
perhaps. However, that is neither here nor there. What I want you
clearly to understand is that my ultimate consent to your union depends
entirely upon your own conduct. Above all, I insist that you refrain
from unsettling the girl's mind at present."
"I have already promised. Hard as the struggle may be, I shall not
break my word. I have the consolation of knowing that if we were
separated for twenty years we should still be true to one another."
"That's very satisfactory," said the merchant grimly.
"Nevertheless it is a weary, weary time. If I could only write a
"Not a word," Girdlestone interrupted. "It is only because I trust you
that I keep her in London at all. If I thought there was a possibility
of your doing such a thing I should remove her at once."
"I shall do nothing without your permission," Tom said, taking up his
hat to go. He paused with his hand upon the door. "If ever it seems
good to me," he said, "I consider that by giving you due notice I
absolve myself from my promise."
"You would not do anything so foolish."
"Still I reserve myself the right of doing so," said Tom, and went off
with a heavy heart to his day's work.
"Everything is clear for you now," the old man said to his son
triumphantly. "There's no chance of interference, and the girl is in
the very humour to be won. I flatter myself that it has been managed
with tact. Remember that all is at stake, and go in and win."
"I shall go in," said Ezra "and I think the chances are that I shall
At which reassuring speech the old man laughed, and slapped his son
approvingly upon the shoulder.
In spite of John Girdlestone's temporary satisfaction and the stoical
face which he presented to the world, it is probable that in the whole
of London there was no more unhappy and heart-weary man. The long fight
against impending misfortune had shattered his iron constitution and
weakened him both in body and in mind. It was remarked upon 'Change how
much he had aged of late, and moralists commented upon the vanity and
inefficacy of the wealth which could not smooth the wrinkles from the
great trader's haggard visage. He was surprised himself when he looked
in the glass at the change which had come over him. "Never mind," he
would say in his dogged heart a hundred times a day, "they can't beat
me. Do what they will, they can't beat me." This was the one thought
which sustained and consoled him. The preservation of his commercial
credit had become the aim and object of his life, to which there was
nothing that he was not prepared to sacrifice.
His cunningly devised speculation in diamonds had failed, but this
failure had been due to an accident which could neither have been
foreseen nor remedied. To carry out this scheme he had, as we have
seen, been obliged to borrow money, which had now to be repaid. This he
had managed to do, more or less completely, by the sale of the stones
which Ezra had brought home, supplemented by the recent profits of the
firm. There was still the original deficit to be faced, and John
Girdlestone knew that though a settlement might be postponed from month
to month, still the day must come, and come soon, when his debts must be
met, or his inability to meet them become apparent to the whole world.
Should Ezra be successful in his wooing and his ward's forty thousand
pounds be thrown into the scale, the firm would shake itself clear from
the load which oppressed it. Supposing, however, that Kate were to
refuse his son. What was to occur then? The will was so worded that
there appeared to be no other way of obtaining the money. A very
vulpine look would come over the old man's face as he brooded over that
The strangest of all the phenomena, however, presented by John
Girdlestone at this period of his life was his own entire conviction of
the righteousness of his actions. When every night and morning he sank
upon his knees with his household and prayed for the success of the
firm's undertakings, no qualms of conscience ever troubled him as to
their intrinsic morality. On Sundays the grey head of the merchant in
the first pew was as constant an object as was the pew itself, yet in
that head no thought ever rose of the inconsistency of his religion and
of his practice. For fifty years he had been persuading himself that he
was a righteous man, and the conviction was now so firmly impressed upon
his very soul that nothing could ever shake it. Ezra was wrong when he
set this down as deliberate hypocrisy. Blind strength of will and
self-conceit were at the bottom of his actions, but he would have been
astonished and indignant had he been accused of simulating piety or of
using it as a tool. To him the firm of Girdlestone was the very
representation of religion in the commercial world, and as such must be
upheld by every conceivable means.
To his son this state of mind was unintelligible, and he simply gave his
father credit for being a consummate and accomplished hypocrite, who
found a mantle of piety a very convenient one under which to conceal his
real character. He had himself inherited the old man's dogged
pertinacity and commercial instincts, and was by nature unscrupulous and
impatient of any obstacle placed in his way. He was now keenly alive to
the fact that the existence of the firm depended upon the success of his
suit, and he knew also how lucrative a concern the African business
would prove were it set upon its legs again. He had determined in case
he succeeded to put his father aside as a sleeping partner and to take
the reins of management entirely into his own hands. His practical mind
had already devised countless ways in which the profits might be
increased. The first step of all, then, was the gaining possession of
the forty thousand pounds, and to that he devoted himself heart and
soul. When two such men work together for one end, it is seldom that
they fail to achieve it.
It would be a mistake to suppose that Ezra felt himself in any degree in
love at this time. He recognized his companion's sweetness and
gentleness, but these were not qualities which appealed to his
admiration. Kate's amiable, quiet ways seemed insipid to a man who was
used to female society of a very different order.
"She has no go or snap about her," he would complain to his father.
"She's not like Polly Lucas at the Pavilion, or Minnie Walker."
"God forbid!" ejaculated the merchant. "That sort of thing is bad
enough out of doors, but worst of all in your own house."
"It makes courting a good deal easier," Ezra answered.
"If a girl will answer up and give you an opening now and then, it makes
all the difference."
"You can't write poetry, can you?"
"Not much," Ezra said with a grin.
"That's a pity. I believe it goes a long way with women. You might get
some one to write some, and let her think it is yours. Or you could
learn a little off and repeat it."
"Yes, I might do that. I'm going to buy a collar for that beast of a
dog of hers. All the time that I was talking to her yesterday she was
so taken up with it that I don't believe she heard half that I said.
My fingers itched to catch it up and chuck it through the window."
"Don't forget yourself, my boy, don't forget yourself!" cried the
merchant. "A single false step might ruin every thing."
"Never fear," Ezra said confidently, and went off upon the dog-collar
mission. While he was in the shop he bought a dog-whip as well, which
he locked up in his drawers to use as the occasion served.
During all this time Kate had been entirely unconscious of her
companion's intentions and designs. She had been associated with Ezra
for so many years, and had met such undeviated want of courtesy from
him, that the idea of his presenting himself as a suitor never came into
her head. She hailed his charge of demeanour, therefore, as being the
result of his larger experience of the world, and often wondered how it
was that he had profited so much by his short stay at the Cape. In the
cheerless house it was pleasant to have at least one companion who
seemed to have kindly feelings towards her. She was only too glad,
therefore, to encourage his advances, and to thank him with sweet smiles
and eloquent eyes for what appeared to her to be his disinterested
After a while, however, Ezra's attentions became so marked that it was
impossible for her to misunderstand them any longer. Not only did he
neglect his usual work in order to hang round her from morning to night,
but he paid her many clumsy compliments and gave other similar
indications of the state of his affections. As soon as this astounding
fact had been fairly realized by the girl, she at once changed her
manner and became formal and distant. Ezra, nothing daunted, redoubled
his tender words and glances, and once would have kissed her hand had
she not rapidly withdrawn it. On this Kate shut herself up in her room,
and rarely came out save when the other was away in the City. She was
determined that there should be no possibility of any misunderstanding
as to her feelings in the matter.
John Girdlestone had been watching these little skirmishes closely and
with keen interest. When Kate took to immuring herself in her room he
felt that it was time for him to interfere.
"You must go about a little more, and have more fresh air," he said to
her one day, when they were alone after breakfast. "You will lose your
roses if you don't."
"I am sure I don't care whether I lose them or not," answered his ward
"You may not, but there are others who do," remarked the merchant.
"I believe it would break Ezra's heart."
Kate flushed up at this sudden turn of the conversation. "I don't see
what reason your son has to care about it," she said.
"Care about it! Are you so blind that you don't see that he loves the
very ground you walk on. He has grown quite pale and ill these last few
days because he has not seen you, and he imagines that he may have
"For goodness' sake!" cried Kate earnestly, "persuade him to think of
some one else. It will only be painful both to him and to me if he
keeps on this way. It cannot possibly lead to anything."
"And why not? Why should--"
"Oh, don't let us argue about it," she cried passionately. "The very
idea is horrible. It won't bear talking about."