ALTHOUGH not a whisper had been heard of it in ordinary commercial circles, there was some foundation for the forecast which Von Baumser had made as to the fate of the great house of Girdlestone. For some time back matters had been going badly with the African traders. If the shrewd eyes of Major Tobias Clutterbuck were unable to detect any indications of this state of affairs in the manner or conversation of the junior partner, the reason simply was that that gentleman was entirely ignorant of the imminent danger which hung over his head. As far as he knew, the concern was as prosperous and as flourishing as it had been at the time of the death of John Harston. The momentous secret was locked in the breast of his grim old father, who bore it about with him as the Spartan lad did the fox—without a quiver or groan to indicate the care which was gnawing at his heart. Placed face to face with ruin, Girdlestone fought against it desperately, and, withal, coolly and warily, throwing away no chance and leaving no stone unturned. Above all, he exerted himself—and exerted himself successfully—to prevent any rumour of the critical position of the firm from leaking out in the city. He knew well that should that once occur nothing could save him. As the wounded buffalo is gored to death by the herd, so the crippled man of business may give up all hope when once his position is known by his fellows. At present, although Von Baumser and a few other such Ishmaelites might have an inkling from sources of their own as to how matters stood, the name of Girdlestone was still regarded by business men as the very synonym for commercial integrity and stability. If anything, there seemed to be more business in Fenchurch Street and more luxury at the residence at Eccleston Square than in former days. Only the stern-faced and silent senior partner knew how thin the veneer was which shone so deceptively upon the surface.
Many things had contributed towards this state of affairs. The firm had been involved in a succession of misfortunes, some known to the world, and others known to no one save the elder Girdlestone. The former had been accepted with such perfect stoicism and cheerfulness that they rather increased than diminished the reputation of the concern; the latter were the more crushing, and also the more difficult to bear.
Lines of fine vessels from Liverpool and from Hamburg were running to the West Coast of Africa, and competition had cut down freightage to the lowest possible point. Where the Girdlestones had once held almost a monopoly there were now many in the field. Again, the negroes of the coast were becoming educated and had a keen eye to business, so that the old profits were no longer obtainable. The days had gone by when flint-lock guns and Manchester prints could be weighed in the balance against ivory and gold dust.
While these general causes were at work a special misfortune had befallen the house of Girdlestone. Finding that their fleet of old sailing vessels was too slow and clumsy to compete with more modern ships, they had bought in two first-rate steamers. One was the Providence, a fine screw vessel of twelve hundred tons, and the other was the Evening Star, somewhat smaller in size, but both classed A1 at Lloyd’s. The former cost twenty-two thousand pounds, and the latter seventeen thousand. Now, Mr. Girdlestone had always had a weakness for petty savings, and in this instance he determined not to insure his new vessels. If the crazy old tubs, for which he had paid fancy premiums for so many years with an eye to an ultimate profit, met with no disaster, surely those new powerful clippers were safe. With their tonnage and horse-power they appeared to him to be superior to all the dangers of the deep. It chanced, however, by that strange luck which would almost make one believe that matters nautical were at the mercy of some particularly malignant demon, that as the Evening Star was steaming up Channel in a dense fog on her return from her second voyage, she ran right into the Providence, which had started that very morning from Liverpool upon her third outward trip. The Providence was almost cut in two, and sank within five minutes, taking down the captain and six of the crew, while the Evening Star was so much damaged about the bows that she put into Falmouth in a sinking condition. That day’s work cost the African firm more than five and thirty thousand pounds.
Other mishaps had occurred to weaken the firm, apart from their trade with the coast. The senior partner had engaged in speculation without the knowledge of his son, and the result had been disastrous. One of the Cornish tin mines in which he had sunk a large amount of money, and which had hitherto yielded him a handsome return, became suddenly exhausted, and the shares went down to zero. No firm could stand against such a run of bad luck, and the African trading company reeled before it. John Girdlestone had not said a word yet of all this to his son. As claims arose he settled them in the best manner he could, and postponed the inevitable day when he should have to give a true account of their financial position. He hoped against hope that the chapter of accidents or the arrival of some brilliant cargoes from the coast might set the concern on its legs again.
From day to day he had been expecting news of one of his vessels. At last one morning he found a telegram awaiting him at the office. He tore it eagerly open, for it bore the Madeira mark. It was from his agent, Jose Alveciras, and announced that the voyage from which he had hoped so much had been a total failure. The cargo was hardly sufficient to defray the working expenses. As the merchant read it, his head dropped over the table and he groaned aloud. Another of the props which upheld him from ruin had snapped beneath him.
There were three letters lying beside the telegram. He glanced through them, but there was no consolation in any of them. One was from a bank manager, informing him that his account was somewhat overdrawn. Another from Lloyd’s Insurance Agency, pointing out that the policies on two of his vessels would lapse unless paid within a certain date. The clouds were gathering very darkly over the African firm, yet the old man bore up against misfortune with dauntless courage. He sat alone in his little room, with his head sunk upon his breast, and his thatched eye-brows drawn down over his keen grey eyes. It was clear to him that the time had come when he must enlighten his son as to the true state of their affairs. With his co-operation he might carry out a plan which had been maturing some months in his brain.
It was a hard task for the proud and austere merchant to be compelled to confess to his son that he had speculated without his knowledge in the capital of the company, and that a large part of that capital had disappeared. These speculations in many instances had promised large returns, and John Girdlestone had withdrawn money from safer concerns, and reinvested it in the hope of getting a higher rate of interest. He had done this with his eyes open to the risk, and knowing that his son was of too practical and cautious a nature to embark in such commercial gambling, he had never consulted him upon the point, nor had he made any entry of the money so invested in the accounts of the firm. Hence Ezra was entirely ignorant of the danger which hung over them, and his father saw that, in order to secure his energetic assistance in the stroke which he was contemplating, it was absolutely necessary that he should know how critical their position was.
The old man had hardly come to this conclusion when he heard the sharp footfall of his son in the outer office and the harsh tones of his voice as he addressed the clerks. A moment or two later the green baize door flew open, and the young man came in, throwing his hat and coat down on one of the chairs. It was evident that something had ruffled his temper.
“Good-morning,” he said brusquely, nodding his head to his father.
“Good-morning, Ezra,” the merchant answered meekly.
“What’s the matter with you, father?” his son asked, looking at him keenly. “You don’t look yourself, and haven’t for some time back.”
“Business worries, my boy, business worries,” John Girdlestone answered wearily.
“It’s the infernal atmosphere of this place,” Ezra said impatiently. “I feel it myself sometimes. I wonder you don’t start a little country seat with some grounds. Just enough to ask a fellow to shoot over, and with a good billiard board, and every convenience of that sort. It would do for us to spend the time from Saturday to Monday, and allow us to get some fresh air into our lungs. There are plenty of men who can’t afford it half as well, and yet have something of the sort. What’s the use of having a good balance at your banker’s, if you don’t live better than your neighbours?”
“There is only one objection to it,” the merchant said huskily, and with a forced laugh; “I have not got a good balance at the banker’s.”
“Pretty fair, pretty fair,” his son said knowingly, picking up the long thin volume in which the finance of the firm was recorded and tapping it against the table.
“But the figures there are not quite correct, Ezra,” his father said, still more huskily. “We have not got nearly so much as that.”
“What!” roared the junior partner.
“Hush! For God’s sake don’t let the clerks hear you. We have not so much as that. We have very little. In fact, Ezra, we have next to nothing in the bank. It is all gone.”
For a moment the young man stood motionless, glaring at his father. The expression of incredulity which had appeared on his features faded away before the earnestness of the other, and was replaced by a look of such malignant passion that it contorted his whole face.
“You fool!” he shrieked, springing forward with the book upraised as though he would have struck the old merchant. “I see it now. You have been speculating on your own hook, you cursed ass! What have you done with it?” He seized his father by the collar and shook him furiously in his wrath.
“Keep your hands off me!” the senior partner cried, wrenching himself free from his son’s grasp. “I did my best with the money. How dare you address me so?”
“Did your best!” hissed Ezra, hurling the ledger down on the table with a crash. “What did you mean by speculating without my knowledge, and telling me at the same time that I knew all that was done? Hadn’t I warned you a thousand times of the danger of it? You are not to be trusted with money.”
“Remember, Ezra,” his father said with dignity, re-seating himself in the chair from which he had risen, in order to free himself from his son’s clutches, “if I lost the money, I also made it. This was a flourishing concern before you were born. If the worst comes to the worst you are only where I started. But we are far from being absolutely ruined as yet.”
“To think of it!” Ezra cried, flinging himself upon the office sofa, and burying his face in his hands. “To think of all I have said of our money and our resources! What will Clutterbuck and the fellows at the club say? How can I alter the ways of life that I have learned?” Then, suddenly clenching his hands, and turning upon his father he broke out, “We must have it back, father; we must, by fair means or foul. You must do it, for it was you who lost it. What can we do? How long have we to do it in? Is this known in the City? Oh, I shall be ashamed to show my face on ’Change.” So he rambled on, half-maddened by the pictures of the future which rose up in his mind.
“Be calm, Ezra, be calm!” his father said imploringly. “We have many chances yet if we only make the best of them. There is no use lamenting the past. I freely confess that I was wrong in using this money without your knowledge, but I did it from the best of motives. We must put our heads together now to retrieve our losses, and there are many ways in which that may be done. I want your clear common sense to help me in the matter.”
“Pity you didn’t apply to that before,” Ezra said sulkily.
“I have suffered for not doing so,” the older man answered meekly. “In considering how to rally under this grievous affliction which has come upon us, we must remember that our credit is a great resource, and one upon which we have never drawn. That gives us a broad margin to help us while we are carrying out our plans for the future.”
“What will our credit be worth when this matter leaks out?”
“But it can’t leak out. No one suspects it for a moment. They might imagine that we are suffering from some temporary depression of trade, but no one could possibly know the sad truth. For Heaven’s sake don’t you let it out!”
His son broke into an impatient oath.
A flush came into Girdlestone’s sallow cheeks, and his eyes sparkled angrily.
“Be careful how you speak, Ezra. There are limits to what I will endure from you, though I make every allowance for your feelings at this sudden catastrophe, for which I acknowledge myself responsible.”
The young man shrugged his shoulders, and drummed his heel against the ground impatiently.
“I have more than one plan in my head,” the merchant said, “by which our affairs may be re-established on their old footing. If we can once get sufficient money to satisfy our present creditors, and so tide over this run of bad luck, the current will set in the other way, and all will go well. And, first of all, there is one question, my boy, which I should like to ask you. What do you think of John Harston’s daughter?”
“She’s right enough,” the young man answered brusquely.
“She’s a good girl, Ezra—a thoroughly good girl, and a rich girl too, though her money is a small thing in my eyes compared to her virtue.”
Young Girdlestone sneered. “Of course,” he said impatiently. “Well, go on—what about her?”
“Just this, Ezra, that there is no girl in the world whom I should like better to receive as my daughter-in-law. Ah, you rogue! you could come round her; you know you could.” The old man poked his long bony finger In the direction of his son’s ribs with grim playfulness.
“Oh, that’s the idea, is it?” remarked the junior partner, with a very unpleasant smile.
“Yes, that is one way out of our difficulties. She has forty thousand pounds, which would be more than enough to save the firm. At the same time you would gain a charming wife.”
“Yes, there are a good many girls about who might make charming wives,” his son remarked dubiously. “No matrimony for me yet awhile.”
“But it is absolutely necessary,” his father urged.
“A very fine necessity,” Ezra broke in savagely. “I am to tie myself up for life and you are to use all the money in rectifying your blunders. It’s a very pretty division of labour, is that.”
“The business is yours as well as mine. It is your interest to invest the money in it, for if it fails you are as completely ruined as I should be. You think you could win her if you tried?”
Ezra stroked his dark moustache complacently, and took a momentary glance at his own bold handsome features in the mirror above the fire-place. “If we are reduced to such an expedient, I think I can answer for the result,” he said. “The girl’s not a bad-looking one. But you said you had several plans. Let us hear some of the other ones. If the worst comes to the worst I might consent to that—on condition, of course, that I should have the whole management of the money.”
“Quite so—quite so,” his father said hurriedly. “That’s a dear, good lad. As you say, when all other things fail we can always fall back upon that. At present I intend to raise as much money as I can upon our credit, and invest it in such a manner as to bring in a large and immediate profit.”
“And how do you intend to do this?” his son asked doubtfully.
“I intend,” said John Girdlestone, solemnly rising up and leaning his elbow against the mantelpiece—“I intend to make a corner in diamonds.”