The Firm of Girdlestone
Major Tobias Clutterbuck Comes in for a Thousand Pounds.
Arthur Conan Doyle
JOHN GIRDLESTONE had frequently heard his son speak of the major in the days when they had been intimate, and had always attributed some of the young man’s more obvious vices to the effects of this ungodly companionship. He had also heard from Ezra a mangled version of the interview and quarrel in the private room of Nelson’s Restaurant. Hence, as may be imagined, his feelings towards his visitor were far from friendly, and he greeted him as he entered with the coldest of possible bows. The major, however, was by no means abashed by this chilling reception, but stumped forward with beaming face and his pudgy hand outstretched, so that the other had no alternative but to shake it, which he did very gingerly and reluctantly.
“And how are ye?” said the major, stepping back a pace or two, and inspecting the merchant as though he were examining his points with the intention of purchasing him. “Many’s the time I’ve heard talk of ye. It’s a real treat to see ye. How are ye?” Pouncing upon the other’s unresponsive hand, he wrung it again with effusion.
“I am indebted to Providence for fairly good health, sir,” John Girdlestone answered coldly. “May I request you to take a seat?”
“That was what me friend Fagan was trying to do for twelve years, and ruined himself over it in the ind. He put up at Murphytown in the Conservative interest, and the divil a vote did he get, except one, and that was a blind man who signed the wrong paper be mistake, Ha! ha!” The major laughed boisterously at his own anecdote, and mopped his forehead with his handkerchief.
The two men, as they stood opposite each other, were a strange contrast, the one tall, grave, white, and emotionless, the other noisy and pompous, with protuberant military chest and rubicund features. They had one common characteristic, however. From under the shaggy eyebrows of the merchant and the sparse light-coloured lashes of the major there came the same keen, restless, shifting glance. Both were crafty, and each was keenly on his guard against the other.
“I have heard of you from my son,” the merchant said, motioning his visitor to a chair. “You were, I believe, in the habit of meeting together for the purpose of playing cards, billiards, and other such games, which I by no means countenance myself, but to which my son is unhappily somewhat addicted.”
“You don’t play yourself,” said the major, in a sympathetic voice. “Ged, sir, it’s never too late to begin, and many a man has put in a very comfortable old age on billiards and whist. Now, if ye feel inclined to make a start, I’ll give ye seventy-five points in a hundred for a commincement.”
“Thank you,” said the merchant drily. “It is not one of my ambitions. Was this challenge the business upon which you came?”
The old soldier laughed until his merriment startled the clerks in the counting-house. “Be jabers!” he said, In a wheezy voice, “d’ye think I came five miles to do that? No, sir, I wanted to talk to you about your son.”
“Yes, your son. He’s a smart lad—very smart indeed—about as quick as they make ’em. He may be a trifle coarse at times, but that’s the spirit of the age, me dear sir. Me friend Tuffleton, of the Blues, says that delicacy went out of fashion with hair powder and beauty patches. He’s a demned satirical fellow is Tuffleton. Don’t know him, eh?”
“No, sir, I don’t,” Girdlestone said angrily; “nor have I any desire to make his acquaintance. Let us proceed to business for my time is valuable.”
The major looked at him with an amiable smile. “That quick temper runs in the family,” he said. “I’ve noticed it in your son Ezra. As I said before, he’s a smart lad; but me friend, he’s shockingly rash and extremely indiscrate. Ye musk speak to him about it.”
“What do you mean sir?” asked the merchant, white with anger. “Have you come to insult him in his absence?”
“Absence?” said the soldier, still smiling blandly over his stock. “That’s the very point I wanted to get at. He is away in Africa—at the diamond fields. A wonderful interprise, conducted with remarkable energy, but also with remarkable rashness, sir—yes, bedad, inexcusable rashness.”
Old Girdlestone took up his heavy ebony ruler and played with it nervously. He had an overpowering desire to hurl it at the head of his companion.
“What would ye say, now,” the veteran continued, crossing one leg over the other and arguing the matter out in a confidential undertone—“what would you say if a young man came to you, and, on the assumption that you were a dishonest blackgaird, appealed to you to help him in a very shady sort of a scheme? It would argue indiscretion on his part, would it not?”
The merchant sat still, but grew whiter and whiter.
“And if on the top of that he gave you all the details of his schame, without even waiting to see if you favoured it or not, he would be more than indiscrate, wouldn’t he? Your own good sinse, me dear sir, will tell you that he would be culpably foolish—culpably so, bedad!”
“Well, sir?” said the old man, in a hoarse voice.
“Well,” continued the major, “I have no doubt that your son told you of the interesting little conversation that we had together. He was good enough to promise that if I went to Russia and pretinded to discover a fictitious mine, I should be liberally rewarded by the firm. I was under the necessity of pointing out to him that certain principles on which me family”—here the major inflated his chest—“on which me family are accustomed to act would prevint me from taking advantage of his offer. He then, I am sorry to say, lost his temper, and some words passed between us, the result of which was that we parted so rapidly that, be jabers! I had hardly time to make him realize how great an indiscretion he had committed.”
The merchant still sat perfectly still, tapping the table with his black ebony ruler.
“Of course, afther hearing a skitch of the plan,” continued the major, “me curiosity was so aroused that I could not help following the details with intherest. I saw the gintleman who departed for Russia—Langworthy, I believe, was his name. Ged! I knew a chap of that name in the Marines who used to drink raw brandy and cayenne pepper before breakfast every morning. Did ye? Of course you couldn’t. What was I talking of at all at all?”
Girdlestone stared gloomily at his visitor. The latter took a pinch of snuff from a tortoise-shell box, and flicked away a few wandering grains which settled upon the front of his coat.
“Yes,” he went on, “I saw Langworthy off to Russia. Then I saw your son start for Africa. He’s an interprising lad, and sure to do well there. Clum non animam mutant, as we used to say at Clongowes. He’ll always come to the front, wherever he is, as long as he avoids little slips like this one we’re spaking of. About the same time I heard that Girdlestone & Co, had raised riddy money to the extint of five and thirty thousand pounds. That’s gone to Africa, too, I presume. It’s a lot o’ money to invist in such a game, and it might be safe if you were the only people that knew about it, but whin there are others——”
“Why, me, of course,” said the major. “I know about it, and more be token I am not in the swim with you. Sure, I could go this very evening to the diamond merchants about town and give them a tip about the coming fall in prices that would rather astonish ’em.”
“Look here, Major Clutterbuck,” cried the merchant, in a voice which quivered with suppressed passion, “you have come into possession of an important commercial secret. Why beat about the bush any longer? What is the object of your visit to-day? What is it that you want?”
“There now!” the major said, addressing himself and smiling more amicably than ever. “That’s business. Bedad, there’s where you commercial men have the pull. You go straight to the point and stick there. Ah, when I look at ye, I can’t help thinking of your son. The same intelligent eye, the same cheery expression, the same devil-may-care manner and dry humour——”
“Answer my question, will you?” the merchant interrupted savagely.
“And the same hasty timper,” continued the major imperturbably. “I’ve forgotten, me dear sir, what it was you asked me.”
“What is it you want?”
“Ah, yes, of course. What is it I want?” the old soldier said meditatively. “Some would say more, some less. Some would want half, but that is overdoing it. How does a thousand pound stroike you? Yes, I think we may put it at a thousand pounds.”
“You want a thousand pounds?”
“Ged, I’ve been wanting it all me life. The difference is that I’m going to git it now.”
“And for what?”
“Sure, for silence—for neutrality. We’re all in it now, and there’s a fair division of labour. You plan, your son works, I hold me tongue. You make your tens of thousands, I make my modest little thousand. We all git paid for our throuble.”
“And suppose I refuse?”
“Ah! but you wouldn’t—you couldn’t,” the major said suavely. “Ged, sir, I haven’t known ye long, but I have far too high an opinion of ye to suppose ye could do anything so foolish. If you refuse, your speculation is thrown away. There’s no help for it. Bedad, it would be painful for me to have to blow the gaff; but you know the old saying, that ‘charity begins at home.’ You must sell your knowledge at the best market.”
Girdlestone thought intently for a minute or two, with his great eyebrows drawn down over his little restless eyes.
“You said to my son,” he remarked at last, “that you were too honourable to embark in our undertaking. Do you consider it honourable to make use of knowledge gained in confidence for the purpose of extorting money?”
“Me dear sir,” answered the major, holding up his hand deprecatingly, “you put me in the painful position of having to explain meself in plain words. If I saw a man about to do a murther, I should think nothing of murthering him. If I saw a pickpocket at work, I’d pick his pocket, and think it good fun to do it. Now, this little business of yours is—well, we’ll say unusual, and if what I do seems a little unusual too, it’s to be excused. Ye can’t throw stones at every one, me boy, and then be surprised when some one throws one at you. You bite the diamond holders, d’ye see, and I take a little nibble at you. It’s all fair enough.”
The merchant reflected again for some moments. “Suppose we agree to purchasing your silence at this price,” he said, “what guarantee have we that you will not come and extort more money, or that you may not betray our secret after all?”
“The honour of a soldier and a gintleman,” answered the major, rising and tapping his chest with two fingers of his right hand.
A slight sneer played over Girdlestone’s pale face, but he made no remark. “We are in your power,” he said, “and have no resource but to submit to your terms. You said five hundred pounds?”
“A thousand,” the major answered cheerfully.
“It’s a great sum of money.”
“Deuce of a lot!” said the veteran cordially.
“Well, you shall have it. I will communicate with you.” Girdlestone rose as if to terminate the interview.
The major made no remark, but he showed his white teeth again, and tapped Mr. Girdlestone’s cheque-book with the silver head of his walking-stick.
The two looked at each other for a moment and the merchant sat down again and scribbled out a cheque, which he tossed to his companion. The latter looked it over carefully, took a fat little pocket-book from the depths of his breast pocket, and having placed the precious slip of paper in it, laboriously pushed it back into its receptacle. Then he very slowly and methodically picked up his jaunty curly-brimmed hat and shining kid gloves, and with a cheery nod to his companion, who answered it with a scowl, he swaggered off into the counting-house. There he shook hands with Tom, whom he had known for some months, and having made three successive offers—one to stand immediately an unlimited quantity of champagne, a second to play him five hundred up for anything he would name, and a third to lay a tenner for him at 7 to 4 on Amelia for the Oaks—all of which offers were declined with thanks—he bowed himself out, leaving a vague memory of smiles, shirt collars, and gaiters in the minds of the awe-struck Clerks.
Whatever an impartial judge might think of the means whereby Major Tobias Clutterbuck had successfully screwed a thousand pounds out of the firm of Girdlestone, it is quite certain that that gentleman’s seasoned conscience did not reproach him in the least degree. On the contrary, his whole being seemed saturated and impregnated with the wildest hilarity and delight. Twice in less than a hundred yards, he was compelled to stop and lean upon his cane owing to the breathlessness which supervened upon his attempts to smother the delighted chuckles which came surging up from the inmost recesses of his capacious frame. At the second halt he wriggled his hand inside his tight-breasted coat, and after as many contortions as though he were about to shed that garment as a snake does its skin, he produced once more the little fat pocket-book. From it he extracted the cheque and looked it over lovingly. Then he hailed a passing hansom. “Drive to the Capital and Counties Bank,” he said. It had struck him that since the firm was in a shaky state he had better draw the money as soon as possible.
In the bank a gloomy-looking cashier took the cheque and stared at it somewhat longer than the occasion seemed to demand. It was but a few minutes, yet it appeared a very long time to the major.
“How will you have it?” he asked at last, in a mournful voice. It tends to make a man cynical when he spends his days in handling untold riches while his wife and six children are struggling to make both ends meet at home.
“A hunthred in gold and the rest in notes,” said the major, with a sigh of relief.
The cashier counted and handed over a thick packet of crisp rustling paper and a little pile of shining sovereigns. The major stowed away the first in the pocket-book and the latter in his trouser pockets. Then he swaggered out with a great increase of pomposity and importance, and ordered his cabman to drive to Kennedy Place.
Von Baumser was sitting in the major’s campaigning chair, smoking his china-bowled pipe and gazing dreamily at the long blue wreaths. Times had been bad with the comrades of late, as the German’s seedy appearance sufficiently testified. His friends in Germany had ceased to forward his small remittance, and Endermann’s office, in which he had been employed, had given him notice that for a time they could dispense with his services. He had been spending the whole afternoon in perusing the long list of “wanteds” in the Daily Telegraph, and his ink-stained forefinger showed the perseverance with which he had been answering every advertisement that could possibly apply to him. A pile of addressed envelopes lay upon the table, and it was only the uncertainty of his finances and the fact that the humble penny stamp mounts into shillings when frequently employed, that prevented him from increasing the number of his applications. He looked up and uttered a word of guttural greeting as his companion came striding in.
“Get out of this,” the major said abruptly. “Get away into the bedroom.”
“Potztausand! Vot is it then?” cried the astonished Teuton.
“Out with you! I want this room to meself.”
Von Baumser shrugged his shoulders and lumbered off like a good-natured plantigrade, closing the door behind him.
When his companion had disappeared the major proceeded to lay out all his notes upon the table, overlapping each other, but still so arranged that every separate one was visible. He then built in the centre ten little golden columns in a circle, each consisting of ten sovereigns, until the whole presented the appearance of a metallic Stonehenge upon a plain of bank notes. This done, he cocked his head on one side, like a fat and very ruddy turkey, and contemplated his little arrangement with much pride and satisfaction.
Solitary delight soon becomes wearisome, however, so the veteran summoned his companion. The Teuton was so dumbfounded by this display of wealth, that he was bereft for a time of all faculty of speech, and could only stare open-mouthed at the table. At last he extended a fore-finger and thumb and rubbed a five pound note between them, as though to convince himself of its reality, after which he began to gyrate round the table in a sort of war dance, never taking his eyes from the heap of influence in front of him. “Mein Gott!” he exclaimed, “Gnädiger Vater! Ach Himmel! Was für eine Schatze! Donnerwetter!” and a thousand other cacophonous expressions of satisfaction and amazement.
When the old soldier had sufficiently enjoyed the lively emotion which showed itself on every feature of the German’s countenance, he picked up the notes and locked them in his desk together with half the gold. The other fifty pounds he returned into his pocket.
“Come on!” he said to his companion abruptly.
“Come vere? Vat is it?”
“Come on!” roared the major irascibly. “What d’ye want to stand asking questions for? Put on your hat and come.”
The major had retained the cab at the door, and the two jumped into it. “Drive to Verdi’s Restaurant,” he said to the driver.
When they arrived at that aristocratic and expensive establishment, the soldier ordered the best dinner for two that money could procure. “Have it riddy in two hours sharp,” he said to the manager. “None of your half-and-half wines, mind! We want the rale thing, and, be ged! we can tell the difference!”
Having left the manager much impressed, the two friends set out for a ready-made clothing establishment. “I won’t come in,” the major said, slipping ten sovereigns into Von Baumser’s hand. “Just you go in and till them ye want the best suit o’ clothes they can give you. They’ve a good seliction there, I know.”
“Gott in Himmel!” cried the amazed German. “But, my dear vriend, you cannot vait in the street. Come in mit me.”
“No, I’ll wait,” the old soldier answered. “They might think I was paying for the clothes if I came in.”
“Well, but so you——”
“Eh, would ye?” roared the major, raising his cane, and Von Baumser disappeared precipitately into the shop.
When he emerged once more at the end of twenty minutes, he was attired in an elegant and close-fitting suit of heather tweed. The pair then made successive visits to a shoe-maker, a hatter, and a draper, with the result that Von Baumser developed patent leather boots, a jaunty brown hat, and a pair of light yellow gloves. By the end of their walk there seemed nothing left of the original Von Baumser except a tawny beard, and an expression of hopeless and overpowering astonishment.
Having effected this transformation, the friends retraced their steps to Verdi’s and did full justice to the spread awaiting them, after which the old soldier won the heart of the establishment by bestowing largess upon every one who came in his way. As to the further adventures of these two Bohemians, it would be as well perhaps to draw a veil over them. Suffice it that, about two in the morning, the worthy Mrs. Robins was awakened by a stentorian voice in the street below demanding to know “Was ist das Deutsche Vaterland?”—a somewhat vexed question which the owner of the said voice was propounding to the solitary lamp-post of Kennedy Place. On descending the landlady discovered that the author of this disturbance was a fashionably dressed gentleman, who, upon closer inspection, proved to her great surprise to be none other than the usually demure part proprietor of her fourth floor. As to the major, he walked in quietly the next day about twelve o’clock, looking as trim and neat as ever, but minus the balance of the fifty pounds, nor did he think fit ever to make any allusion to this some what heavy deficit.