IT was a dull October morning in Fenchurch Street, some weeks after the events with which our story opened. The murky City air looked murkier still through the glazed office windows. Girdlestone, grim and grey, as though he were the very embodiment of the weather, stooped over his mahogany table. He had a long list in front of him, on which he was checking off, as a prelude to the day’s work, the position in the market of the various speculations in which the capital of the firm was embarked. His son Ezra lounged in an easy chair opposite him, looking dishevelled and dark under the eyes, for he had been up half the night, and the Nemesis of reaction was upon him.
“Faugh!” his father ejaculated, glancing round at him with disgust. “You have been drinking already this morning.”
“I took a brandy and seltzer on the way to the office,” he answered carelessly. “I needed one to steady me.”
“A young fellow of your age should not want steadying. You have a strong constitution, but you must not play tricks with it. You must have been very late last night. It was nearly one before I went to bed.”
“I was playing cards with Major Clutterbuck and one or two others. We kept it up rather late.”
“With Major Clutterbuck?”
“I don’t care about your consorting so much with that man. He drinks and gambles, and does you no good. What good has he ever done himself? Take care that he does not fleece you.” The merchant felt instinctively, as he glanced at the shrewd, dark face of his son, that the warning was a superfluous one.
“No fear, father,” Ezra answered sulkily; “I am old enough to choose my own friends.”
“Why such a friend as that?”
“I like to know men of that class. You are a successful man, father, but you—well, you can’t be much help to me socially. You need some one to show you the ropes, and the major is my man. When I can stand alone, I’ll soon let him know it.”
“Well, go your own way,” said Girdlestone shortly. Hard to all the world, he was soft only in this one direction. From childhood every discussion between father and son had ended with the same words.
“It is business time,” he resumed. “Let us confine ourselves to business. I see that Illinois were at 112 yesterday.”
“They are at 113 this morning.”
“What! have you been on ’Change already?”
“Yes, I dropped in there on my way to the office. I would hold on to those. They will go up for some days yet.”
The senior partner made a pencil note on the margin of the list.
“We’ll hold on to the cotton we have,” he said.
“No, sell out at once,” Ezra answered with decision, “I saw young Featherstone, of Liverpool, last night, or rather this morning. It was hard to make head or tail of what the fool said, but he let fall enough to show that there was likely to be a drop.”
Girdlestone made another mark upon the paper. He never questioned his son’s decisions now, for long experience had shown him that they were never formed without solid grounds. “Take this list, Ezra,” he said, handing him the paper, “and run your eye over it. If you see anything that wants changing, mark it.”
“I’ll do it in the counting-house,” his son answered. “I can keep my eye on those lazy scamps of clerks. Gilray has no idea of keeping them in order.”
As he went out he cannoned against an elderly gentleman in a white waistcoat, who was being shown in, and who ricochetted off him into the office, where he shook hands heartily with the elder Girdlestone. It was evident from the laboured cordiality of the latter’s greeting that the new-comer was a man of some importance. He was, indeed, none other than the well-known philanthropist, Mr. Jefferson Edwards, M.P. for Middlehurst, whose name upon a bill was hardly second to that of Rothschild.
“How do, Girdlestone, how do?” he exclaimed, mopping his face with his handkerchief. He was a fussy little man, with a brusque, nervous manner. “Hard at it as usual, eh? Always pegging away. Wonderful man. Ha, ha! Wonderful!”
“You look warm,” the merchant answered, rubbing his hands. “Let me offer you some claret. I have some in the cupboard.”
“No, thank you,” the visitor answered, staring across at the head of the firm as though he were some botanical curiosity. “Extraordinary fellow. ‘Iron’ Girdlestone, they call you in the City. A good name, too—ha! ha!—an excellent name. Iron-grey, you know, and hard to look at, but soft here, my dear sir, soft here.” The little man tapped him with his walking-stick over the cardiac region and laughed boisterously, while his grim companion smiled slightly and bowed to the compliment.
“I’ve come here begging,” said Mr. Jefferson Edwards, producing a portentous-looking roll of paper from an inner pocket. “Know I’ve come to the right place for charity. The Aboriginal Evolution Society, my dear boy. All it wants are a few hundreds to float it off. Noble aim, Girdlestone—glorious object.”
“What is the object?” the merchant asked.
“Well, the evolution of the aborigines,” Edwards answered in some confusion. “Sort of practical Darwinism. Evolve ’em into higher types, and turn ’em all white in time. Professor Wilder gave us a lecture about it. I’ll send you round a Times with the account. Spoke about their thumbs. They can’t cross them over their palms, and they have rudimentary tails, or had until they were educated off them. They wore all the hair off their backs by leaning against trees. Marvellous things! All they want is a little money.”
“It seems to be a praiseworthy object,” the merchant said gravely.
“I knew that you would think so!” cried the little philanthropist enthusiastically. “Of course, bartering as you do with aboriginal races, their development and evolution is a matter of the deepest importance to you. If a man came down to barter with you who had a rudimentary tail and couldn’t bend his thumb—well, it wouldn’t be pleasant, you know. Our idea is to elevate them in the scale of humanity and to refine their tastes. Hewett, of the Royal Society, went to report on the matter a year or so back, and some rather painful incident occurred. I believe Hewett met with some mishap—in fact, they go the length of saying that he was eaten. So you see we’ve had our martyrs, my dear friend, and the least that we can do who stay at home at ease is to support a good cause to the best of our ability.”
“Whose names have you got?” asked the merchant.
“Let’s see,” Jefferson Edwards said, unfolding his list. “Spriggs, ten; Morton, ten; Wigglesworth, five; Hawkins, ten; Indermann, fifteen; Jones, five; and a good many smaller amounts.”
“What is the highest as yet?”
“Indermann, the tobacco importer, has given fifteen.”
“It is a good cause,” Mr. Girdlestone said, dipping his pen into the ink-bottle. “‘He that giveth’—you know what the good old Book says. Of course a list of the donations will be printed and circulated?”
“Here is my cheque for twenty-five pounds. I am proud to have had this opportunity of contributing towards the regeneration of those poor souls whom Providence has placed in a lower sphere than myself.”
“Girdlestone,” said the member of Parliament with emotion, as he pocketed the cheque, “you are a good man. I shall not forget this, my friend; I shall never forget it.”
“Wealth has its duties, and charity is among them,” Girdlestone answered with unction, shaking the philanthropist’s extended hand. “Good-bye, my dear sir. Pray let me know if our efforts are attended with any success. Should more money be needed, you know one who may be relied on.”
There was a sardonic smile upon the hard face of the senior partner as he closed the door behind his visitor. “It’s a legitimate investment,” he muttered to himself as he resumed his seat. “What with his Parliamentary interest and his financial power, it’s a very legitimate investment. It looks well on the list, too, and inspires confidence. I think the money is well spent.”
Ezra had bowed politely as the great man passed through the office, and Gilray, the wizened senior clerk, opened the outer door. Jefferson Edwards turned as he passed him and clapped him on the shoulder.
“Lucky fellow,” he said in his jerky way. “Good employer—model to follow—great man. Watch him, mark him, imitate him—that’s the way to get on. Can’t go wrong,” and he trotted down the street in search of fresh contributions towards his latest fad.