The Firm of Girdlestone

Chapter XIV.

A Slight Misunderstanding.

Arthur Conan Doyle

THE revelation of the real state of the firm’s finances was a terrible blow to Ezra Girdlestone. To a man of his overbearing, tempestuous disposition failure and poverty were bitter things to face. He had been wont to tread down before him all such little difficulties and obstacles as came across him in his former life. Now he encountered a great barrier which could not be passed so easily, and he raged and chafed before it. It made him still more wroth to think that the fault was none of his. All his life he had reckoned, as a matter of course, that when his father passed away he would be left almost a millionaire. A single half-hour’s conversation had shattered this delusion and left him face to face with ruin. He lost his sleep and became restless and hollow-eyed. Once or twice he was seen the worse for drink in the daytime.

He was a man of strong character, however, and though somewhat demoralized by the sudden shock, he threw away no point in the game which he and his father were playing. He saw clearly that only a bold stroke could save them. He therefore threw himself heart and soul into the diamond scheme, and worked out the details in a masterly manner. The more he looked into it the more convinced he became, not only of its feasibility, but of its absolute safety. It seemed as though it were hardly possible that it should fail.

Among other things he proceeded to qualify himself as a dealer in diamonds. It happened that he was acquainted with one of the partners of the firm of Fugger & Stoltz, who did the largest import trade in precious stones. Through his kindness he received practical instructions in the variety and value of diamonds, and learned to detect all those little flaws and peculiarities which are only visible to the eye of an expert, and yet are of the highest importance in determinating the price of a stone. With such opportunities Ezra made rapid progress, and within a few weeks there were not many dealers in the trade who had a better grasp of the subject.

Both the Girdlestones recognized that the success of their plan depended very largely upon their choice of an agent, and both were of the opinion that in Major Tobias Clutterbuck they had just the man that they were in want of. The younger merchant had long felt vaguely that the major’s social position, combined with his impecuniosity and the looseness of his morality, as inferred from his mode of life, might some day make him a valuable agent under delicate circumstances. As to the old soldier’s own inclinations, Ezra flattered himself that he knew the man’s nature to a nicety. It was simply a question of the price to be paid. No doubt the figure would be substantial, but he recognized with a trader’s instinct that the article was a superior one, and he was content to allow for the quality in estimating the value.

Early one April afternoon the major was strutting down St. James’s Street, frock-coated and kid-gloved, with protuberant chest and glittering shoes which peeped out from beneath the daintiest of gaiters. Young Girdlestone, who had been on the look-out from a club window, ran across and intercepted him.

“How are you, my dear major?” he cried, advancing upon him with outstretched hand and as much show of geniality as his nature permitted.

“How d’ye do? How d’ye do?” said the other somewhat pompously. He had made up his mind that nothing was to be done with the young man, and yet he was reluctant to break entirely with one whose purse was well lined and who had sporting proclivities.

“I’ve been wishing to speak with you for some days, major,” said Ezra. “When could I see you?”

“You’ll niver see me any plainer than you do at this very moment,” the old soldier answered, taking a sidelong glance of suspicion at his companion.

“Ah, but I wish to speak to you quietly on a matter of business,” the young merchant persisted. “It’s a delicate matter which may need some talking over, and, above all, it is a private matter.”

“Ged!” said the major, with a wheezy laugh, “you’d have thought I wanted to borrow money if I had said as much. Look here now, we’ll go into White’s private billiard-room, and I’ll let you have two hunthred out of five for a tinner—though it’s as good as handing you the money to offer you such odds. You can talk this over while we play.”

“No, no, major,” urged the junior partner. “I tell you it is a matter of the greatest importance to both of us. Can you meet me at Nelson’s Cafe at four o’clock? I know the manager, and he’ll let us have a private room.”

“I’d ask you round to me own little place,” the major said, “but it’s rather too far. Nelson’s at four. Right you are! ‘Punctuality is next to godliness,’ as ould Willoughby of the Buffs used to say. You didn’t know Willoughby, eh? Gad, he was second to a man at Gib in ’47. He brought his man on the ground, but the opponents didn’t turn up. Two minutes after time Willoughby wanted his man to leave. ‘Teach ’em punctuality,’ he said. ‘Can’t be done,’ said his man. ‘Must be done,’ said Willoughby. ‘Out of the question,’ said the man, and wouldn’t budge. Willoughby persisted; there were high words and a quarrel. The docther put ’em up at fifteen paces, and the man shot Willoughby through the calf of the leg. He was a martyr to punctuality. Four o’clock-bye, bye!” The major nodded pleasantly and swaggered away, flourishing his little cane jauntily in the air.

In spite of his admiration of punctuality, as exemplified in the person of Willoughby of the Buffs, the major took good care to arrive at the trysting-place somewhat behind the appointed time. It was clear to him that some service or other was expected of him, and it was obviously his game therefore to hang back and not appear to be too eager to enter into young Girdlestone’s views. When he presented himself at the entrance of Nelson’s Cafe the young merchant had been fuming and chafing in the sitting-room for five and twenty minutes.

It was a dingy apartment, with a single large horse-hair chair and half a dozen small wooden dittoes, placed with mathematical precision along the walls. A square table in the centre and a shabby mirror over the mantelpiece completed the furniture. With the instinct of an old campaigner the major immediately dropped into the arm-chair, and, leaning luxuriously back, took a cigar from his case and proceeded to light it. Ezra Girdlestone seated himself near the table and twisted his dark moustache, as was his habit when collecting himself.

“What will you drink?” he asked,

“Anything that’s going.”

“Fetch in a decanter of brandy and some seltzer water,” said Ezra to the waiter; “then shut the door and leave us entirely to ourselves.”

When the liquor was placed upon the table he drank off his first glass at a gulp, and then refilled it. The major placed his upon the mantelpiece beside him without tasting it. Both were endeavouring to be at their best and clearest in the coming interview, and each set about it in his own manner.

“I’ll tell you why I wanted to have a chat with you, major,” Ezra said, having first opened the door suddenly and glanced out as a precaution against eavesdroppers. “I have to be cautious, because what I have to say affects the interest of the firm. I wouldn’t for the world have any one know about it except yourself.”

“What is it, me boy?” the major asked, with languid curiosity, puffing at his weed and staring up at the smoke-blackened ceiling.

“You understand that in commercial speculations the least breath of information beforehand may mean a loss of thousands on thousands.”

The major nodded his head as a sign that he appreciated this fact.

“We have a difficult enterprise on which we are about to embark,” Ezra said, leaning forward and sinking his voice almost to a whisper. “It is one which will need great skill and tact, though it may be made to pay well if properly managed. You follow me?”

His companion nodded once more.

“For this enterprise we require an agent to perform one of the principal parts. This agent must possess great ability, and, at the same time, be a man on whom we can thoroughly rely. Of course we do not expect to find such qualities without paying for them.”

The major grunted a hearty acquiescence.

“My father,” continued Ezra, “wanted to employ one of our own men. We have numbers who are capable in every way of managing the business. I interfered, however. I said that I had a good friend, named Major Tobias Clutterbuck, who was well qualified for the position. I mentioned that you were of the blood of the old Silesian kings. Was I not right?”

“Begad you were not. Milesian, sir; Milesian!”

“Ah, Milesian. It’s all the same.”

“It’s nothing of the sort,” said the major indignantly.

“I mean it was all the same to my father. He wouldn’t know the difference. Well, I told him of your high descent, and that you were a traveller, a soldier, and a man of steady and trustworthy habits.”

“Eh?” ejaculated the major involuntarily. “Well, all right. Go on!”

“I told him all this,” said Ezra slowly, “and I pointed out to him that the sum of money which he was prepared to lay out would be better expended on such a man than on one who had no virtues beyond those of business.”

“I didn’t give you credit for so much sinse!” his companion exclaimed with enthusiasm.

“I said to him that if the matter were left entirely in your hands we could rely upon its being done thoroughly. At the same time, we should have the satisfaction of knowing that the substantial sum which we are prepared to pay our agent had come into worthy hands.”

“You hit it there again,” murmured the veteran.

“You are prepared, then,” said Ezra, glancing keenly at him, “to put yourself at our orders on condition that you are well paid for it?”

“Not so fast, me young friend, not so fast!” said the major, taking his cigar from between his lips and letting the blue smoke curl round his head. “Let’s hear what it is that you want me to do, and then I’m riddy to say what I’ll agree to and what I won’t. I remimber Jimmy Baxter in Texas—”

“Hang Jimmy Baxter!” Ezra cried impatiently.

“That’s been done already,” observed the major calmly. “Lynched for horse-stealing in ’66. However, go on, and I’ll promise not to stop you until you have finished.”

Thus encouraged, Ezra proceeded to unfold the plan upon which the fortunes of the House of Girdlestone depended. Not a word did he say of ruin or danger, or the reasons which had induced this speculation. On the contrary, he depicted the affairs of the firm as being in a most nourishing condition, and this venture as simply a small insignificant offshoot from their business, undertaken as much for amusement as for any serious purpose. Still, he laid stress upon the fact that though the sum in question was a small one to the firm, yet it was a very large one in other men’s eyes. As to the morality of the scheme, that was a point which Ezra omitted entirely to touch upon. Any comment upon that would, he felt, be superfluous when dealing with such a man as his companion.

“And now, major,” he concluded, “provided you lend us your name and your talents to help us in our speculation, the firm are prepared to meet you in a most liberal spirit in the matter of remuneration. Of course your voyage and your expenses will be handsomely paid. You will have to travel by steamer to St. Petersburg, provided that we choose the Ural Mountains as the scene of our imaginary find. I hear that there is high play going on aboard these boats, and with your well-known skill you will no doubt be able to make the voyage a remunerative one. We calculate that at the most you will be in Russia about three months. Now, the firm thought that it would be very fair if they were to guarantee you two hundred and fifty pounds, which they would increase to five hundred in case of success; of course by that we mean complete success, such as would be likely to attend your exertions.”

Now, had there been any third person in the room during this long statement of the young merchant’s, and had that third person been a man of observation, he might have remarked several peculiarities in the major’s demeanour. At the commencement of the address he might have posed as the very model and type of respectable composure. As the plan was gradually unfolded, however, the old soldier began to puff harder at his cigar until a continuous thick grey cloud rose up from him, through which the lurid tip of the havannah shone like a murky meteor. From time to time he passed his hand down his puffy cheeks, as was his custom when excited. Then he moved uneasily in his chair, cleared his throat huskily, and showed other signs of restlessness, all of which were hailed by Ezra Girdlestone as unmistakable proofs of the correctness of his judgment and of the not unnatural eagerness of the veteran on hearing of the windfall which chance had placed in his way.

When the young man had finished, the major stood up with his face to the empty fire-place, his legs apart, his chest inflated, and his body rocking ponderously backwards and forwards.

“Let me be quite sure that I understand you,” he said. “You wish me to go to Russia?”

“Quite so,” Ezra remarked, rubbing his hands pleasantly.

“You have the goodness to suggist that on me way I should rook me fellow-passengers in the boat?”

“That is to say, if you think it worth your while.”

“Quite so, if I think it worth me while. I am then to procade across the counthry to some mountains—”

“The Urals.”

“And there I am to pretind to discover certain diamond mines, and am to give weight to me story by the fact that I am known to be a man of good birth, and also by exhibiting some rough stones which you wish me to take out with me from England?”

“Quite right, major,” Ezra said encouragingly.

“I am then to tilegraph or write this lie to England and git it inserted in the papers?”

“That’s an ugly word,” Ezra remonstrated. “This ‘report’ we will say. A report may be either true or false, you know.”

“And by this report, thin,” the major continued, “you reckon that the market will be so affected that your father and you will be able to buy and sell in a manner that will be profitable to you, but by which you will do other people out of their money?”

“You have an unpleasant way of putting it,” said Ezra, with a forced laugh; “but you have the idea right.”

“I have another idea as well,” roared the old soldier, flushing purple with passion. “I’ve an idea that if I was twinty years younger I’d see whether you’d fit through that window, Master Girdlestone. Ged! I’d have taught you to propose such a schame to a man with blue blood in his veins, you scounthrel!”

Ezra fell back in his chair. He was outwardly composed, but there was a dangerous glitter in his eye, and his face had turned from a healthy olive to a dull yellow tint.

“You won’t do it?” he gasped.

“Do it! D’ye think that a man who’s worn Her Majesty’s scarlet jacket for twinty years would dirty his hands with such a trick? I tell ye, I wouldn’t do it for all the money that iver was coined. Look here, Girdlestone, I know you, but, by the Lord, you don’t know me!”

The young merchant sat silently in his chair, with the same livid colour upon his face and savage expression in his eyes. Major Tobias Clutterbuck stood at the end of the table, stooping forward so as to lean his hands upon it, with his eyes protuberant and his scanty grey fringe in a bristle with indignation.

“What right had you to come to me with such a proposal? I don’t set up for being a saint, Lord knows, but, be George! I’ve some morals, such as they are, and I mean to stick to them. One of me rules of life has been niver to know a blackgaird, and so, me young friend, from this day forth you and I go on our own roads. Ged! I’m not particular, but ‘you must draw the line somewhere,’ as me frind, Charlie Monteith, of the Indian Horse, used to say I when he cut his father-in-law. I draw it at you.”

While the major was solemnly delivering himself of these sentiments, Ezra continued to sit watching him in a particularly venomous manner. His straight, cruel lips were blanched with passion, and the veins stood out upon his forehead. The young man was a famous amateur bruiser, and could fight a round with any professional in London. The old soldier would be a child in his hands. As the latter picked up his hat preparatory to leaving the room, Ezra rose and bolted the door upon the inside. “It’s worth five pounds in a police court,” he muttered to himself, and knotting up his great hands, which glittered with rings, he approached his companion with his head sunk upon his breast, his eyes flashing from under his dark brows, and the slow, stealthy step of a beast of prey. There was a characteristic refinement of cruelty about his attack, as though he wished to gloat over the helplessness of his victim, and give him time to realize his position before he set upon him.

If such were his intention he failed signally in producing the desired effect. The instant the major perceived his manoeuvre he pulled himself up to his full height, as he might have done on parade, and slipping his hand beneath the tails of his frock-coat, produced a small glittering implement, which he levelled straight at the young merchant’s head.

“A revolver!” Ezra gasped, staggering back.

“No, a derringer,” said the veteran blandly. “I got into the thrick of carrying one when I was in Colorado, and I have stuck to it ever since. You niver know when it may be useful.” As he spoke he continued to hold the black muzzle of his pistol in a dead line with the centre of the young man’s forehead, and to follow the latter’s movements with a hand which was as steady as a rock. Ezra was no coward, but he ceased his advance and stood irresolute.

“Now, thin,” cried the major, in sharp military accents, “undo that door.”

The young merchant took one look at the threatening apoplectic face of his antagonist, and another at the ugly black spot which covered him. He stooped, and pushed back the bolt.

“Now, open it! Ged, if you don’t look alive I’ll have to blow a hole in you afther all. You wouldn’t be the first man I’ve killed, nor the last maybe.”

Ezra opened the door precipitately.

“Now walk before me into the strate.”

It struck the waiters at Nelson’s well-known restaurant as a somewhat curious thing that their two customers should walk out with such very grave faces and in so unsociable a manner. “C’est la froideur Anglaise!” remarked little Alphonse Lefanue to a fellow exile as they paused in the laying of tables to observe the phenomenon. Neither of them noticed that the stout gentleman behind with his hand placed jauntily in the breast of his coat, was still clutching the brown handle of a pistol.

There was a hansom standing at the door and Major Clutterbuck stepped into it.

“Look ye here, Girdlestone,” he said, as the latter stood looking sulkily up and down the street. “You should learn a lesson from this. Never attack a man unless you’re sure that he’s unarmed. You may git shot, if you do.”

Ezra continued to stare gloomily into vacancy and took no notice of his late companion’s remark.

“Another thing,” said the major. “You must niver take it for granted that every man you mate is as great a blackgaird as yourself.”

The young merchant gave him a malignant glance from his dark eyes and was turning to go, but the gentleman in the cab stretched out his hand to detain him.

“One more lesson,” he said. “Never funk a pistol unless you are sure there’s a carthridge inside. Mine hadn’t. Drive on, cabby!” With which parting shot the gallant major rattled away down Piccadilly with a fixed determination never again to leave his rooms without a few of Eley’s No 4 central fires in his pocket.

The Firm of Girdlestone - Contents    |     Chapter XV

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