The Firm of Girdlestone

Chapter XXI.

An Unexpected Blow.

Arthur Conan Doyle

THE crisis at the African fields was even more acute than had been anticipated by the conspirators. Nothing approaching to it had ever been known in South Africa before. Diamonds went steadily down in value until they were selling at a price which no dealer would have believed possible, and the sale of claims reached such a climax that men were glad to get rid of them for the mere price of the plant and machinery erected at them. The offices of the various dealers at Kimberley were besieged night and day by an importunate crowd of miners, who were willing to sell at any price in order to save something from the general ruin which they imagined was about to come upon the industry. Some, more long-headed or more desperate than their neighbours, continued to work their claims and to keep the stones which they found until prices might be better. As fresh mails came from the Cape, however, each confirming and amplifying the ominous news, these independent workers grew fewer and more faint-hearted, for their boys had to be paid each week, and where was the money to come from with which to pay them? The dealers, too, began to take the alarm, and the most tempting offers would hardly induce them to give hard cash in exchange for stones which might prove to be a drug in the market. Everywhere there was misery and stagnation.

Ezra Girdlestone was not slow to take advantage of this state of things, but he was too cunning to do so in a manner which might call attention to himself or his movements. In his wanderings he had come across an outcast named Farintosh, a man who had once been a clergyman and a master of arts of Trinity College, Dublin, but who was now a broken-down gambler with a slender purse and a still more slender conscience. He still retained a plausible manner and an engaging address, and these qualities first recommended him to the notice of the young merchant. A couple of days after the receipt of the news from Europe, Ezra sent for this fellow and sat with him for some time on the verandah of the hotel, talking over the situation.

“You see, Farintosh,” he remarked, “it might be a false alarm, might it not?”

The ex-clergyman nodded. He was a man of few words.

“If it should be, it would be an excellent thing for those who buy now.”

Farintosh nodded once again.

“Of course,” Ezra continued, “it looks as if the thing was beyond all doubt. My experience has taught me, however, that there is nothing so uncertain as a certainty. That’s what makes me think of speculating over this. If I lose it won’t hurt me much, and I might win. I came out here more for the sake of seeing a little of the world than anything else, but now that this has turned up I’ll have a shy at it.”

“Quite so,” said Farintosh, rubbing his hands.

“You see,” Ezra continued, lighting a cheroot, “I have the name here of having a long purse and of knowing which way the wind blows. If I were to be seen buying others would follow my lead, and prices would soon be as high as ever. Now, what I purpose is to work through you, d’ye see? You can take out a licence and buy in stones on the quiet without attracting much attention. Beat them down as low as you can, and give this hotel as your address. When they call here they shall be paid, which is better than having you carrying the money round with you.”

The clergyman scowled as though he thought it was anything but better. He did not make any remark, however.

“You can get one or two fellows to help you,” said Ezra. “I’ll pay for their licences. I can’t expect you to work all the camps yourself. Of course, if you offer more for a stone than I care to give, that’s your look out, but if you do your work well you shall not be the loser. You shall have a percentage on business done and a weekly salary as well.”

“How much money do you care to invest?” asked Farintosh.

“I’m not particular,” Ezra answered. “If I do a thing I like to do it well. I’ll go the length of thirty thousand pounds.”

Farintosh was so astonished at the magnitude of the sum that he sank back in his chair in bewilderment. “Why, sir,” he said, “I think just at present you could buy the country for that.”

Ezra laughed. “We’ll make it go as far as we can,” he said. “Of course you may buy claims as well as stones.”

“And I have carte blanche to that amount?”


“All right, I’ll begin this evening,” said the ex-parson; and picking up his slouched hat, which he still wore somewhat broader in the brim than his comrades, in deference to old associations, he departed upon his mission.

Farintosh was a clever man and soon chose two active subordinates. These were a navvy, named Burt, and Williams, a young Welshman, who had disappeared from home behind a cloud of forged cheques, and having changed his name had made a fresh start in life to the south of the equator. These three worked day and night buying in stones from the more needy and impecunious miners, to whom ready money was a matter of absolute necessity. Farintosh bought in the stock, too, of several small dealers whose nerves had been shaken by the panic. In this way bag after bag was filled with diamonds by Ezra, while he himself was to all appearances doing nothing but smoking cigars and sipping brandy-and-water in front of the Central Hotel.

He was becoming somewhat uneasy in his mind as to how long the delusion would be kept up, or how soon news might come from the Cape that the Ural find had been examined into and had proved to be a myth. In any case, he thought that he would be free from suspicion. Still, it might be as well for him by that time to be upon his homeward journey, for he knew that if by any chance the true facts leaked out there would be no hope of mercy from the furious diggers. Hence he incited Farintosh to greater speed, and that worthy divine with his two agents worked so energetically that in less than a week there was little left of five and thirty thousand pounds.

Ezra Girdlestone had shown his power of reading character when he chose the ex-clergyman as his subordinate. It is possible, however, that the young man’s judgment had been inferior to his powers of observation. A clever man as a trusty ally is a valuable article, but when the said cleverness may be turned against his employer the advantage becomes a questionable one.

It was perfectly evident to Farintosh that though a stray capitalist might risk a thousand pounds or so on a speculation of this sort, Rothschild himself would hardly care to invest such a sum as had passed through his hands without having some ground on which to go. Having formed this conclusion, and having also turned over in his mind the remarkable coincidence that the news of this discovery in Russia should follow so very rapidly upon the visit of the junior partner of the House of Girdlestone, the astute clergyman began to have some dim perception of the truth. Hence he brooded a good deal as he went about his work, and cogitated deeply in a manner which was once again distinctly undesirable in so very intelligent a subordinate.

These broodings and cogitations culminated in a meeting, which was held by him with his two sub-agents in the private parlour of the Digger’s Retreat. It was a low-roofed, smoke-stained room, with a profusion of spittoons scattered over it, which, to judge by the condition of the floor, the patrons of the establishment had taken some pains to avoid. Round a solid, old-fashioned table in the centre of this apartment sat Ezra’s staff of assistants, the parson thoughtful but self-satisfied, the others sullen and inquisitive. Farintosh had convened the meeting, and his comrades had an idea that there was something in the wind. They applied themselves steadily, therefore, to the bottle of Hollands upon the table, and waited for him to speak.

“Well,” the ex-clergyman said at last, “the game is nearly over, and we’ll not be wanted any more. Girdlestone’s off to England in a day or two.”

Burt and Williams groaned sympathetically. Work was scarce in the diggings during the crisis, and their agencies had been paying them well.

“Yes, he’s off,” Farintosh went on, glancing keenly at his companions, “and he takes with him five and thirty thousand pounds worth of diamonds that we bought for him. Poor devils like us, Burt, have to do the work, and then are thrown aside as you would throw your pick aside when you are done with it. When he sells out in London and makes his pile, it won’t much matter to him that the three men who helped him are starving in Griqualand.”

“Won’t he give us somethin’ at partin’?” asked Burt, the navvy. He was a savage-looking, hairy man, with a brick-coloured face and over-hanging eyebrows. “Won’t he give us nothing to remembrance him by?”

“Give you something!” Farintosh said with a sneer. “Why, man, he says you are too well paid already.”

“Does he, though?” cried the navvy, flushing even redder than nature had made him. “Is that the way he speaks after we makes him? It ain’t on the square. I likes to see things honest an’ above board betwixt man an’ man, and this pitchin’ of them as has helped ye over ain’t that.”

Farintosh lowered his voice and bent further over the table. His companions involuntarily imitated his movement, until the three cunning, cruel faces were looking closely into one another’s eyes.

“Nobody knows that he holds those stones,” said Farintosh. “He’s too smart to let it out to any one but ourselves.”

“Where does he keep ‘em?” asked the Welshman.

“In a safe in his room.”

“Where is the key?”

“On his watch-chain.”

“Could we get an impression?”

“I have one.”

“Then I can make one,” cried Williams triumphantly.

“It’s done,” said Farintosh, taking a small key from his pocket. “This is a duplicate, and will open the safe. I took the moulding from his key while I was speaking to him.”

The navvy laughed hoarsely. “If that don’t lick creation for smartness!” he cried. “And how are we to get to this safe? It would serve him right if we collar the lot. It’ll teach him that if he ain’t honest by nature he’s got to be when he deals with the like of us. I like straightness, and by the Lord I’ll have it!” He brought his great fist down upon the table to emphasize this commendable sentiment.

“It’s not an easy matter,” Farintosh said thoughtfully. “When he goes out he locks his door, and there’s no getting in at the window. There’s only one chance for us that I can see. His room is a bit cut off from the rest of the hotel. There’s a gallery of twenty feet or more that leads to it. Now, I was thinking that if the three of us were to visit him some evening, just to wish him luck on his journey, as it were, and if, while we were in the room something sudden was to happen which would knock him silly for a minute or two, we might walk off with the stones and be clean gone before he could raise an alarm.”

“And what would knock him silly?” asked Williams. He was an unhealthy, scorbutic-looking youth, and his pallid complexion had assumed a greenish tinge of fear as he listened to the clergyman’s words. He had the makings in him of a mean and dangerous criminal, but not of a violent one—belonging to the jackal tribe rather than to the tiger.

“What would knock him senseless?” Farintosh asked Burt, with a knowing look.

Burt laughed again in his bushy, red beard. “You can leave that to me, mate,” he said.

Williams glanced from one to the other and he became even more cadaverous. “I’m not in it,” he stammered. “It will be a hanging job. You will kill him as like as not.”

“Not in it, ain’t ye?” growled the navvy. “Why, you white-livered hound, you’re too deep in it ever to get out again. D’ye think we’ll let you spoil a lay of this sort as we might never get a chance of again?”

“You can do it without me,” said the Welshman, trembling in every limb.

“And have you turnin’ on us the moment a reward was offered. No, no, chummy, you don’t get out of it that way. If you won’t stand by us, I’ll take care you don’t split.”

“Think of the diamonds,” Farintosh put in.

“Think of your own skin,” said the navvy.

“You could go back to England a rich man if you do it.”

“You’ll never go back at all if you don’t.” Thus worked upon alternately by his hopes and by his fears, Williams showed some signs of yielding. He took a long draught from his glass and filled it up again.

“I ain’t afraid,” he said. “Don’t imagine that I am afraid. You won’t hit him very hard, Mr. Burt?”

“Just enough to curl him up,” the navvy answered. “Lord love ye, it ain’t the first man by many a one that I’ve laid on his back, though I never had the chance before of fingering five and thirty thousand pounds worth of diamonds for my pains.”

“But the hotel-keeper and the servants?”

“That’s all right,” said Farintosh. “You leave it to me. If we go up quietly and openly, and come down quietly and openly, who is to suspect anything? Our horses will be outside, in Woodley Street, and we’ll be out of their reach in no time. Shall we say to-morrow evening for the job?”

“That’s very early,” Williams cried tremulously.

“The sooner the better,” Burt said, with an oath. “And look here, young man,” fixing Williams with his bloodshot eyes, “one sign of drawing back, and by the living jingo I’ll let you have more than I’m keeping for him. You hear me, eh?” He grasped the youth’s white wrist and squeezed it in his iron grip until he writhed with the pain.

“Oh, I’m with you, heart and soul,” he cried. “I’m sure what you and Mr. Farintosh advise must be for the best.”

“Meet here at eight o’clock to-morrow night then,” said the leader. “We can get it over by nine, and we will have the night for our escape. I’ll have the horses ready, and it will be strange if we don’t get such a start as will puzzle them.”

So, having arranged all the details of their little plan, these three gentlemen departed in different directions—Farintosh to the Central Hotel, to give Ezra his evening report, and the others to the mining-camps, which were the scene of their labours.

The meeting just described took place upon a Tuesday, early in November. On the Saturday Ezra Girdlestone had fully made up his mind to turn his back upon the diggings and begin his homeward journey. He was pining for the pleasures of his old London life, and was weary of the monotonous expanse of the South African veldt. His task was done, too, and it would be well for him to be at a distance before the diggers discovered the manner in which they had been hoaxed. He began to pack his boxes, therefore, and to make every preparation for his departure.

He was busily engaged in this employment upon the Wednesday evening when there was a tap at the door and Farintosh walked in, accompanied by Burt and Williams. Girdlestone glanced up at them, and greeted them briefly. He was not surprised at their visit, for they had come together several times before to report progress or make arrangements. Farintosh bowed as he entered the room, Burt nodded, and Williams rubbed his hands together and looked amiably bilious.

“We looked in, Mr. Girdlestone,” Farintosh began, “to learn if you had any commands for us.”

“I told you before that I had not,” Ezra said curtly. “I am going on Saturday. I have made a mistake in speculating on those diamonds. Prices are sinking lower and lower.”

“I am sorry to hear that,” said Farintosh sympathetically. “Maybe the market will take a turn.”

“Let us hope so,” the merchant answered. “It doesn’t look like it.”

“But you are satisfied with us, guv’nor,” Burt struck in, pushing his bulky form in front of Farintosh. “We have done our work all right, haven’t we?”

“I have nothing to complain of,” Ezra said coldly.

“Well then, guv’nor, you surely ain’t going away without leaving us nothing to remembrance you with, seeing that we’ve stood by you and never gone back on you.”

“You have been paid every week for what you have done,” the young man said. “You won’t get another penny out of me, so you set your mind at rest about that.”

“You won’t give us nothing?” cried the navvy angrily.

“No, I won’t; and I’ll tell you what it is, Burt, big as you are, if you dare to raise your voice in my presence I’ll give you the soundest hiding that ever you had in your life.”

Ezra had stood up and showed every indication of being as good as his word.

“Don’t let us quarrel the last time we may meet,” Farintosh cried, intervening between the two. “It is not money we expect from you. All we want is a drain of rum to drink success to you with.”

“Oh, if that’s all,” said the young merchant—and turned round to pick up the bottle which stood on a table behind him. Quick as a flash Burt sprang upon him and struck him down with a life-preserver. With a gasping cry and a heavy thud Ezra fell face downwards upon the floor, the bottle still clutched in his senseless hand, and the escaping rum forming a horrible mixture with the blood which streamed from a great gash in his head.

“Very neat—very pretty indeed!” cried the ex-parson, in a quiet tone of critical satisfaction, as a connoisseur might speak of a specimen which interested him. He was already busy at the door of the safe.

“Well done, Mr. Burt, well done!” cried Williams, in a quivering voice; and going up to the body he kicked it in the side. “You see I am not afraid, Mr. Burt, am I?”

“Stow your gab!” snarled the navvy. “Here’s the rum all gettin’ loose.” Picking up the bottle he took a pull of what was left in it. “Here’s the bag, parson,” he whispered, pulling a black linen bag from his pocket. “We haven’t made much noise over the job.”

“Here are the stones,” said Farintosh, in the same quiet voice. “Hold the mouth open.” He emptied an avalanche of diamonds into the receptacle. “Here are some notes and gold. We may as well have them too. Now, tie it up carefully. That’s the way! If we meet any one on the stairs, take it coolly. Turn that lamp out, Williams, so that if any one looks in he’ll see nothing. Come along!”

The guilty trio stole out of the room, bearing their plunder with them, and walked down the passage of the hotel unmolested and unharmed.

The moon, as it rose over the veldt that night, shone on three horsemen spurring it along the Capetown road as though their very lives depended upon their speed. Its calm, clear rays streamed over the silent roofs of Kimberley and in through a particular window of the Central Hotel, throwing silvery patches upon the carpet, and casting strange shadows from the figure which lay as it had fallen, huddled in an ungainly heap upon the floor.

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