The Firm of Girdlestone
Mr. Hector O’Flaherty Finds Something in the Paper.
Arthur Conan Doyle
EZRA GIRDLESTONE had taken up his quarters in two private rooms at the Central Hotel, Kimberley, and had already gained a considerable reputation in the town by the engaging “abandon” of his manners, and by the munificent style in which he entertained the more prominent citizens of the little capital. His personal qualities of strength and beauty had also won him the respect which physical gifts usually command in primitive communities, and the smart young Londoner attracted custom to himself among the diggers in a way which excited the jealousy of the whole tribe of elderly Hebrews who had hitherto enjoyed a monopoly of the trade. Thus, he had already gained his object in making himself known, and his name was a familiar one in every camp from Waldeck’s Plant to Cawood’s Hope. Keeping his headquarters at Kimberley, he travelled perpetually along the line of the diggings. All the time he was chafing secretly and marvelling within himself how it was that no whisper of the expected news had arrived yet from England.
One sunny day he had returned from a long ride, and, having dined, strolled out into the streets, Panama hat upon head and cigar in mouth. It was the 23rd of October, and he had been nearly ten weeks in the colony. Since his arrival he had taken to growing a beard. Otherwise, he was much as we have seen him in London, save that a ruddier glow of health shone upon his sunburned face. The life of the diggings appeared to agree with him.
As he turned down Stockdale Street, a man passed him leading a pair of horses tired and dusty, with many a strap and buckle hanging down behind them. After him came another leading a second pair, and after him another with a third. They were taking them round to the stables. “Hullo!” cried Ezra, with sudden interest; “what’s up?”
“The mail’s just in.”
“Mail from Capetown?”
Ezra quickened his pace and strode down Stockdale Street into the Main Street, which, as the name implies, is the chief thoroughfare of Kimberley. He came out close to the office of the Vaal River Advertiser and Diamond Field Gazette. There was a crowd in front of the door. This Vaal River Advertiser was a badly conducted newspaper, badly printed upon bad paper, but selling at sixpence a copy, and charging from seven shillings and sixpence to a pound for the insertion of an advertisement. It was edited at present by a certain P. Hector O’Flaherty, who having been successively a dentist, a clerk, a provision merchant, an engineer, and a sign painter, and having failed at each and every one of these employments, had taken to running a newspaper as an easy and profitable occupation. Indeed, as managed by Mr. O’Flaherty, the process was simplicity itself. Having secured by the Monday’s mail copies of the London papers of two months before, he spent Tuesday in cutting extracts from them with the greatest impartiality, chopping away everything which might be of value to him. The Wednesday was occupied in cursing at three black boys who helped to put up the type, and on the Thursday a fresh number of the Vaal River Advertiser and Diamond Field Gazette was given to the world. The remaining three days were devoted by Mr. O’Flaherty to intoxication, but the Monday brought him back once more to soda water and literature.
It was seldom, indeed, that the Advertiser aroused interest enough to cause any one to assemble round the Office. Ezra’s heart gave a quick flutter at the sight, and he gathered himself together like a runner who sees his goal in view. Throwing away his cigar, he hurried on and joined the little crowd.
“What’s the row?” he asked.
“There’s news come by the mail,” said one or two bystanders. “Big news.”
“What sort of news?”
“Don’t know yet.”
“Who said there was news?”
“Where is he?”
“Who will know about it?”
Here there was a general shout from the crowd for O’Flaherty, and an irascible-looking man, with a red bloated face and bristling hair came to the office door.
“Now, what the divil d’ye want?” he roared, shaking a quill pen at the crowd. “What are ye after at all? Have ye nothing betther to do than to block up the door of a decent office?”
“What’s the news?” cried a dozen voices.
“The news, is it?” roared O’Flaherty, more angrily than ever; “and can’t ye foind out that by paying your sixpences like men, and taking the Advertoiser? It’s a paper, though Oi says it as shouldn’t, that would cut out some o’ these Telegraphs and Chronicles if it was only in London. Begad, instead of encouraging local talent ye spind your toime standing around in the strate, and trying to suck a man’s news out of him for nothing.”
“Look here, boss,” said a rough-looking fellow in the front of the crowd, “you keep your hair on, and don’t get slinging words about too freely, or it may be the worse for you and for your office too. We heard as there was big news, an’ we come down to hear it, but as to gettin’ it without paying, that ain’t our sort. I suppose we can call it square if we each hands in sixpence, which is the price o’ your paper, and then you can tell us what’s on.”
O’Flaherty considered for a moment. “It’s worth a shillin’ each,” he said, “for it plays the divil with the circulation of a paper whin its news gits out too soon.”
“Well, we won’t stick at that,” said the miner. “What say you, boys?”
There was a murmur of assent, and a broad-brimmed straw hat was passed rapidly from hand to band. It was half full of silver when it reached O’Flaherty. The Advertiser had never before had such a circulation, for the crowd had rapidly increased during the preceding dialogue, and now numbered some hundreds.
“Thank ye, gintlemen,” said the editor.
“Well, what’s the news?” cried the impatient crowd.
“Sure I haven’t opened the bag yet, but I soon will. Whativer it is it’s bound to be there. Hey there, Billy, ye divil’s brat, where’s the mail bag?”
Thus apostrophized, a sharp little Kaffir came running out with the brown bag, and Mr. O’Flaherty examined it in a leisurely manner, which elicited many an oath from the eager crowd.
“Here’s the Standard and the Times,” he said, handing the various papers out to his subordinate. “Begad, there’s not one of ye knows the expinse of k’aping a great paper loike this going, forebye the brains and no profit at the ind of it. Here’s the Post and the News. If you were men you’d put in an advertisement ivery wake, whether ye needed it or not, just to encourage literature. Here’s the Cape Argus—it’ll be in here whativer it is.”
With great deliberation Mr. Hector O’Flaherty put on a pair of spectacles and folded the paper carefully round, so as to bring the principal page to the front. Then he cleared his throat, with the pomposity which is inseparable with most men from the act of reading aloud.
“Go it, boss!” cried his audience encouragingly.
“‘Small-pox at Wellington’—that’s not it, is it? ‘Germany and the Vatican’—‘Custom House Duties at Port Elizabeth’—‘Roosian Advances in Cintral Asia’ eh? Is that it—‘Discovery of great Diamond Moines?’”
“That’s it,” roared the crowd; “let’s hear about that.” There was an anxious ring in their voices, and their faces were grave and serious as they looked up at the reader upon the steps of the office.
“‘Diamond moines have been discovered in Roosia,’” read O’Flaherty, “’which are confidently stated to exceed in riches anything which has existed before. It is ginerally anticipated that this discovery, if confirmed, will have a most prejudicial effect upon the African trade.’ That’s an extract from the London news of the Argus.”
A buzz of ejaculations and comments arose from the crowd. “Isn’t there any more about it?” they cried.
“Here’s a later paper, boss,” said the little Kaffir, who had been diligently looking over the dates.
O’Flaherty opened it, and gave a whistle of astonishment. “Here’s enough to satisfy you,” he said. “It’s in big toipe and takes up noigh the whole of the first page. I can only read ye the headings, for we must get to work and have out a special edition. You’ll git details there, an’ it’ll be out in a few hours. Look here at the fuss they’ve made about it.” The editor turned the paper as he spoke, and exhibited a series of large black headings in this style:—
RUSSIAN DIAMOND FIELDS.
“What d’ye think of that?” cried O’Flaherty, triumphantly, as if he had had some hand in the matter. “Now I must git off to me work, and you’ll have it all before long in your hands. Ye should bliss your stars that ye have some one among ye to offer ye the convanience of the latest news. Good noight to ye all,” and he trotted back into his office with his hat and its silver contents in his hand.
The crowd broke up into a score of gesticulating chattering groups, and wandered up or down the street. Ezra Girdlestone waited until they had cleared away, and then stepped into the office of the Advertiser.
“What’s the matter now?” asked O’Flaherty, angrily. He was a man who lived in a state of chronic irritation.
“Have you a duplicate of that paper?”
“Suppose I have?”
“What will you sell it for?”
“What will you give?”
“Half a sovereign.”
“Done!” and so Ezra Girdlestone walked out of the office with full details in his hand, and departed to his hotel, where he read the account through very slowly and deliberately. It appeared to be satisfactory, for he chuckled to himself a good deal as he perused it. Having finished it, he folded the paper up, placed it in his breast pocket, and, having ordered his horse, set off to the neighbouring township of Dutoitspan with the intention of carrying the news with him.
Ezra had two motives in galloping across the veldt that October night. One was to judge with his own ears and eyes what effect the news would have upon practical men. The other was a desire to gratify that sinister pleasure which an ill-natured man has in being the bearer of evil tidings. They had probably heard the report by this time, but it was unlikely that any details had reached them. No one knew better than young Girdlestone that this message from Europe would bring utter ruin and extinction to many a small capitalist, that it would mean the shattering of a thousand hopes, and the advent of poverty and misery to the men with whom he had been associating. In spite of this knowledge, his heart beat high, as his father’s had done in London, and as he spurred his horse onwards through the darkness, he was hardly able to refrain from shouting and whooping in his exultation.
The track from Kimberley to Dutoitspan was a rough one, but the moon was up, and the young merchant found no difficulty in following it. When he reached the summit of the low hill over which the road ran, he saw the lights of the little town sparkling in the valley beneath him. It was ten o’clock before he galloped into the main street, and he saw at a glance that the news had, as he expected, arrived before him. In front of the Griqualand Saloon a great crowd of miners had assembled, who were talking excitedly among themselves. The light of the torches shone down upon herculean figures, glaring shirts, and earnest bearded faces. The whole camp appeared to have assembled there to discuss the situation, and it was evident from their anxious countenances and subdued voices, that they took no light view of it.
The instant the young man alighted from his horse he was surrounded by a knot of eager questioners. “You’ve just come from Kimberley,” they cried. “What is the truth of it, Mr. Girdlestone? Let us know the truth of it.”
“It’s a bad business, my friends,” he answered, looking around at the ring of inquiring faces. “I have been reading a full account of it in the Cape Argus. They have made a great find in Russia. There seems to be no doubt at all about the matter.”
“D’ye think it will send prices down here as much as they say?”
“I’m afraid it will send them very low. I hold a lot of stones myself, and I should be very glad to get rid of them at any price. I fear it will hardly pay you to work your claims now.”
“And the price of claims will go down?”
“Of course it will.”
“Eh, mister, what’s that?” cried a haggard, unkempt little man, pushing his way to the front and catching hold of Ezra’s sleeve to ensure his attention. “Did ye say it would send the price o’ claims down? You didn’t say that, did you? Why, in course, it stands to reason that what happened in Roosia couldn’t make no difference over here. That’s sense, mates, ain’t it?” He looked round him appealingly, and laughed a little nervous laugh.
“You try,” said Ezra coldly. “If you get one-third of what you gave for your claim you’ll be lucky. Why, man, you don’t suppose we produce diamonds for local consumption. They are for exporting to Europe, and if Europe is already supplied by Russia, where are you to get your market?”
“That’s it?” cried several voices.
“If you take my advice,” Ezra continued, “you’ll get rid of what you have at any loss, for the time may be coming when you’ll get nothing at all.”
“Now, look at that!” cried the little man, throwing out his hands. “They call me Unlucky Jim, and Unlucky Jim I’ll be to the end of the chapter. Why, boss, me and Sammy Walker has sunk every damned cent we’ve got in that claim, the fruit o’ nine years’ hard work, and here you comes ridin’ up as cool as may be, and tells me that it’s all gone for nothing.”
“Well, there are others who will suffer as well as you,” said one of the crowd.
“I reckon we’re all hit pretty hard if this is true,” remarked another.
“I’m fair sick of it,” said the little man, passing his grimy hand across his eyes and leaving a black smear as he did so. “This ain’t the first time—no, nor the second—that my luck has played me this trick. I’ve a mighty good mind to throw up my hand altogether.”
“Come in and have some whisky,” said a rough sympathizer, and the unlucky one was hustled in through the rude door of the Griqualand Saloon, there to find such comfort as he might from the multitudinous bottles which adorned the interior of that building. Liquor had lost its efficacy that evening, however, and a dead depression rested over the little town. Nor was it confined to Dutoitspan. All along the diggings the dismal tidings spread with a rapidity which was astonishing. At eleven o’clock there was consternation at Klipdrift. At quarter-past one Hebron was up and aghast at the news. At three in the morning a mounted messenger galloped into Bluejacket, and before daybreak a digger committee was sitting at Delporte’s Hope discussing the situation. So during that eventful night down the whole long line of the Vaal River there was ruin and heartburning and dismay, while five thousand miles away an old gentleman was sleeping calmly and dreamlessly in his comfortable bed, from whose busy brain had emanated all this misery and misfortune.
Perhaps the said old gentleman might have slumbered a little less profoundly could he have seen the sight which met his son’s eyes on the following morning. Ezra had passed the night at Dutoitspan, in the hut of a hospitable miner. Having risen in the morning, he was dressing himself in a leisurely, methodical fashion, when his host, who had been inhaling the morning breeze, thrust his head through the window.
“Come out here, Mr. Girdlestone,” he cried. “There’s some fun on. One of the boys is dead drunk, and they are carrying him in.”
Ezra pulled on his coat and ran out. A little group of miners were walking slowly up the main street. He and his host were waiting for the procession to pass them with several jocose remarks appropriate to the occasion ready upon their lips, when their eyes fell upon a horrible splotchy red track which marked the road the party had taken. They both ran forward with exclamations and inquiries.
“It’s Jim Stewart,” said one of the bearers. “Him that they used to call Unlucky Jim.”
“What’s up with him?”
“He has shot himself through the head. Where d’ye think we found him? Slap in the middle o’ his own claim, with his fingers dug into the gravel, as dead as a herring.”
“He’s a bad plucked ’un to knock under like that,” Ezra’s companion remarked.
“Yes,” said the croupier of the saloon gambling table. “If he’d waited for another deal he might have held every trump. He was always a soft chap, was Jim, and he was saying last night as how this spoiled the last chance he was ever like to have of seeing his wife and childer in England. He’s blowed a fine clean hole in himself. Would you like to see it, Mr. Girdlestone?” The fellow was about to remove the blood-stained handkerchief which covered the dead man’s face, but Ezra recoiled in horror.
“Mr. Girdlestone looks faint like,” some one observed.
“Yes,” said Ezra, who was white to his very lips. “This has upset me rather. I’ll have a drop of brandy.” As he walked back to the hut, he wondered inwardly whether the incident would have discomposed his father.
“I suppose he would call it part of our commercial finesse,” he said bitterly to himself. “However, we have put our hands to the plough, and we must not let homicide stop us.” So saying, he steadied his nerves with a draught of brandy, and prepared for the labours of the day.