The Firm of Girdlestone

Chapter XVII.

The Land of Diamonds.

Arthur Conan Doyle

THE anxious father had not very long to wait before he heard tidings of his son. Upon the first of June the great vessel weighed her anchor in the Southampton Water, and steamed past the Needles into the Channel. On the 5th she was reported from Madeira, and the merchant received telegrams both from the agent of the firm and from his son. Then there was a long interval of silence, for the telegraph did not extend to the Cape at that time, but, at last on the 8th of August, a letter announced Ezra’s safe arrival. He wrote again from Wellington, which was the railway terminus, and finally there came a long epistle from Kimberley, the capital of the mining district, in which the young man described his eight hundred miles drive up country and all the adventures which overtook him on the way.

“This place, Kimberley,” he said in his letter, “has grown into a fair-sized town, though a few years ago it was just a camp. Now there are churches, banks, and a club in it. There are a sprinkling of well-dressed people in the streets, but the majority are grimy-looking chaps from the diggings, with slouched hats and coloured shirts, rough fellows to look at, though quiet enough as a rule. Of course, there are blacks everywhere, of all shades, from pure jet up to the lightest yellow. Some of these niggers have money, and are quite independent. You would be surprised at their impertinence. I kicked one of them in the hotel yesterday, and he asked me what the devil I was doing, so I knocked the insolent scoundrel down. He says that he will sue me, but I cannot believe that the law is so servile as to bolster up a black man against a white one.

“Though Kimberley is the capital of the dry diggings, it is not there that all the actual mining is done. It goes on briskly in a lot of little camps, which are dotted along the Vaal River for fifty or sixty miles. The stones are generally bought by licensed agents immediately after they have been found, and are paid for by cheques on banks in Kimberley. I have, therefore, transferred our money to the Standard Bank here, and have taken my licence. I start to-morrow for Hebron, Klipdrift, and other of the mining centres to see for myself how business is done and to make friends with the miners, so as to get myself known. As soon as the news comes I shall buy in all that offers. Keep your eyes on that fellow Dimsdale, and let him know nothing of what is going on.”

He wrote again about a fortnight afterwards, and his letter, as it crossed the Atlantic, passed the outward mail, which bore the news of the wonderful diamond find made by an English geologist among the Ural Mountains.

“I am now on a tour among the camps,” he said. “I have worked right through from Hebron to Klipdrift, Pniel, Cawood’s Hope, Waldeck’s Plant, Neukirk’s Hope, Winterrush, and Bluejacket. To-morrow I push on to Delparte’s Hope and Larkin’s Flat. I am well received wherever I go, except by the dealers, who are mostly German Jews. They hear that I am a London capitalist, and fear that I may send up the prices. They little know! I bought stones all the way along, but not very valuable ones, for we must husband our resources.

“The process of mining is very simple. The men dig pits in loose gravel lying along the banks of the river, and it is in these pits that the diamonds are found. The black men, or ‘boys,’ as they call them, do all the work, and the ‘baas,’ or master, superintends. Everything that turns up belongs to the ‘baas,’ but the boys have a fixed rate of wages, which never varies, whether the work is paying or not. I was standing at Hebron watching one of the gangs working when the white chap gave a shout, and dived his hand into a heap of stuff he had just turned over, pulling out a dirty looking little lump about the size of a marble. At his shout all the other fellows from every claim within hearing gathered round, until there was quite a crowd.

“‘It’s a fine stone,’ said the man that turned it up.

“‘Fifty carats if it’s one,’ cried another, weighing it in the palm of his hand.

“I had my scales with me, so I offered to weigh it. It was sixty-four and a half carats. Then they washed it and examined it. There was a lot of whispering among them and then the one who had found it came forward.

“‘You deal, don’t you, Mr. Girdlestone?’ he said.

“‘Now and then,’ I answered, ‘but I’m not very keen about it. I came out here more for pleasure than business.

“‘Well,’ he said, ‘you may go far before you see a finer stone than this. What will you bid for it?’

“I looked at it. ‘It’s off-coloured,’ I said.

“‘It’s white,’ said he and one or two of his chums.

“‘Gentlemen,’ I said, ‘it is not white. There are two shades of yellow in it. It is worth little or nothing.’

“‘Why, if it is yellow it makes it all the more valuable,’ said a big fellow with a black beard and corduroy trousers. ‘A yellow stone’s as good as a white.’

“‘Yes,’ I answered, ‘a pure yellow stone is. But this is neither one nor the other. It’s off-colour, and you know that as well as I.’

“‘Won’t you bid for it, then?’ said one of them.

“‘I’ll bid seventy pounds,’ I said, ‘but not a penny more.’

“You should have heard the howl they all set up. ‘It’s worth five hundred,’ the fellow cried.

“‘All right,’ I said, ‘keep it and sell it for that; good day,’ and I went off. The stone was sent after me that evening with a request for my cheque, and I sold it for a hundred two days afterwards.1 You see old Van Harmer’s training has come in very handy. I just tell you this little anecdote to let you see that though I’m new in the work I’m not to be done. Nothing in the papers here from Russia. I am ready, come when it may. What would you do if there should be any hitch and the affair did not come off? Would you cut and run, or would you stand by your colours and pay a shilling or so in the pound? The more I think of it the more I curse your insanity in getting us into such a mess. Good-bye.”

“He is right. It was insanity,” said the old merchant leaning his head upon his hands. “It seems unkind of the lad to say so when he is so far away, but he was always plain and blunt. ‘If the affair did not come off’—he must have some doubts about the matter, else he would not even suppose such a thing. God knows what I should do then. There are other ways—other ways.” He passed his hand over his eyes as he spoke, as though to shut out some ugly vision. Such a wan, strange expression played over his grim features that he was hardly to be recognized as the revered elder of the Trinitarian Chapel or the esteemed man of business of Fenchurch Street.

He was lost in thought for some little time, and then, rising, he touched the bell upon the table. Gilray trotted in upon the signal so rapidly and noiselessly, that he might have been one of those convenient genii in the Eastern fables, only that the little clerk’s appearance, from the tips of his ink-stained fingers to the toes of his seedy boots, was so hopelessly prosaic that it was impossible to picture him as anything but what he was.

“Ah, Gilray!” the merchant began, “is Mr. Dimsdale in the office?”

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s all right. He seems to be very regular in his attendance.”

“Very, sir.”

“And seems to take to the business very well.”

“Uncommonly quick, sir, to be sure,” said the head clerk. “What with work among the ships, and work in the office, he’s at it late and early.”

“That is very right,” said the old man, playing with the letter weights. “Application in youth, Gilray, leads to leisure in old age. Is the Maid of Athens unloading?”

“Mr. Dimsdale has been down to her this morning, sir. They’re getting the things out fast. He wants to call attention to the state of the vessel, Mr. Girdlestone. He says that it’s making water even in dock, and that some of the hands say that they won’t go back in her.”

“Tut! tut!” John Girdlestone said peevishly. “What are the Government inspectors for? There is no use paying them if we are to inspect ourselves. If they insist upon any alterations they shall be made.”

“They were there, sir, at the same time as Mr. Dimsdale,” said Gilray, diffidently.

“Well, what then?” asked his employer.

“He says, sir, that the inspectors went down to the cabin and had some champagne with Captain Spender. They then professed themselves to be very well satisfied with the state of the vessel and came away.”

“There you are!” the senior partner cried triumphantly. “Of course these men can see at a glance how things stand, and if things had really been wrong they would have called attention to it. Let us have no more of these false alarms. You must say a few words on the point to Mr. Dimsdale, as coming from yourself, not from me. Tell him to be more careful before he jumps to conclusions.”

“I will, sir.”

“And bring me ledger No. 33.”

Gilray stretched up his arm and took down a fat little ledger from a high shelf, which he laid respectfully before his employer. Then, seeing that he was no longer wanted, he withdrew.

Ledger No. 33 was secured by a clasp and lock—the latter a patent one which defied all tamperers. John Girdlestone took a small key from his pocket and opened it with a quick snap. A precious volume this, for it was the merchant’s private book, which alone contained a true record of the financial state of the firm, all others being made merely for show. Without it he would have been unable to keep his son in the dark for so many months until bitter necessity at last compelled him to show his hand.

He turned the pages over slowly and sadly. Here was a record of the sums sunk in the Lake Tanganyika Gold Company, which was to have paid 33 per cent., and which fell to pieces in the second month of its existence. Here was the money advanced to Durer, Hallett, & Co., on the strength of securities which proved to be the flimsiest of insecurities when tested. Further on was the account of the dealings of the firm with the Levant Petroleum Company, the treasurer of which had levanted with the greater part of the capital. Here, too, was a memorandum of the sums sunk upon the Evening Star and the Providence, whose unfortunate collision had well-nigh proved the death blow of the firm. It was melancholy reading, and perhaps the last page was the most melancholy of all. On it the old man had drawn up in a condensed form an exact account of the present condition of the firm’s finances. Here it is exactly word for word as he had written it down himself.

October 1876

  Debit.  Credit.
Debts incurred previous to disclosure to Ezra £34,000   Ezra, in Africa, holds this money with which to speculate. £35,000
£15,000 raised at six months, and £20,000 at nine months £35,000   Balance in bank, including what remains of Dimsdale’s premium. £8,400
Interest on said money at 5 per cent. £1,125   Profit on the cargo of Maid of Athens, now in port. £2,000
Working expenses of the firm during the next six months, including cost of ships, at £150 per week £3,900   Profit on the cargoes of Black Eagle, Swan and Panther, calculated at the same rate. £6,000
Private expenses at Ecclestone Square, say £1,000   Deficit£26,425
Expenses of Langworthy in Russia, and of my dear son in Africa, say £600  
Insurances £1,200  
_______  _______
                Total £76,825                   Total £76,825
All this money must be found within nine months at the outside. The possibility of the sinking of a ship must not be |overlooked—that would bring in from £12,000 to £20,000.

“Come, it’s not so very bad after all,” the merchant muttered, after he had gone over these figures very slowly and carefully. He leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling with a much more cheerful expression upon his face. “At the worst it is less than thirty thousand pounds. Why, many firms would think little of it. The fact is, that I have so long been accustomed to big balances on the right side that it seems to be a very dreadful thing now that it lies the other way. A dozen things may happen to set all right. I must not forget, however,” he continued, with a darker look, “that I have dipped into my credit so freely that I could not borrow any more without exciting suspicion and having the whole swarm down on us. After all, our hopes lie in the diamonds. Ezra cannot fail. He must succeed. Who can prevent him?”

“Major Tobias Clutterbuck,” cried the sharp, creaky voice of Gilray as if in answer to the question, and the little clerk, who had knocked once or twice unnoticed, opened the door and ushered in the old Campaigner.

1.    It may be well to remark, that this and succeeding incidents occurred in the old Crown Colony days, before the diamond legislation was as strict as it has since become.    [back]

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