DURING the months which Ezra Girdlestone had spent in Africa the affairs of the firm in Fenchurch Street had been exceedingly prosperous. Trade upon the coast had been brisker than usual, and three of the company’s ships had come in at short intervals with excellent cargoes. Among these was the Black Eagle which, to the astonishment of Captain Hamilton Miggs and the disgust of his employer, had weathered a severe gale in the Channel, and had arrived safe and sound once more. This run of luck, supplemented by the business capacity of the old merchant and the indomitable energy of young Dimsdale, made the concern look so flourishing that the former felt more than ever convinced that if he could but stave off the immediate danger things would soon right themselves. Hence he read with delight the letters from Africa, in which his son narrated the success of the conspiracy and the manner in which the miners had been hoodwinked. The old man’s figure grew straighter and his step more firm as the conviction grew upon him that the company would soon return once again to its former condition of affluence.
It may be imagined, therefore, that when the rumours of a bonâ fide diamond find in the Orange Free State came to his ears John Girdlestone was much agitated and distressed. On the same day that he saw the announcement in the papers he received a letter from his son announcing the failure of their enterprise. After narrating the robbery, the pursuit, the death of Farintosh, and the announcement of the new discovery, it gave an account of his subsequent movements.
“There was no doubt about the truth of the scoundrel’s words,” he said, “for when we went to the nearest farm to get some food and have the sergeant’s wound dressed we found that every one was talking about it. There was a chap there who had just come from the State and knew all about it. After hearing the details from him I saw that there was no doubt of the genuineness of the thing.
“The police rode back to Jacobsdal with Williams, and I promised to come after them; but when I came to think it over it didn’t seem good enough. The fact of my having so many diamonds would set every tongue wagging, and, again, the sergeant had heard what Farintosh said to me, so it was very possible that I might have the whole district about my ears. As it was, I had the stones and all my money in the bag. I wrote back to the hotel, therefore, telling the landlord to send on my traps to Cape Town by mail, and promising to settle my bill with him when I received them. I then bought a horse and came straight south. I shall take the first steamer and be with you within a few days of your receiving this.
“As to our speculation, it is, of course, all up. Even when the Russian business proves to be a hoax, the price of stones will remain very low on account of these new fields. It is possible that we may sell our lot at some small profit but it won’t be the royal road to a fortune that you prophesied, nor will it help the firm out of the rut into which you have shoved it. My only regret in leaving Africa like this is that that vermin Williams will have no one to prosecute him. My head is almost well now.”
This letter was a rude shock to the African merchant. Within a week of the receipt of it his son Ezra, gloomy and travel-stained, walked into the sanctum at Fenchurch Street and confirmed all the evil tidings by word of mouth. The old man was of too tough a fibre to break down completely, but his bony hands closed convulsively upon the arms of the chair, and a cold perspiration broke out upon his wrinkled forehead as he listened to such details as his son vouchsafed to afford him.
“You have your stones all safe, though?” he stammered out at last.
“They are in my box, at home,” said Ezra, gloomy and morose, leaning against the white marble mantelpiece. “The Lord knows what they are worth! We’ll be lucky if we clear as much as they cost and a margin for my expenses and Langworthy’s. A broken head is all that I have got from your fine scheme.”
“Who could foresee such a thing?” the old man said plaintively. He might have added Major Clutterbuck’s thousand pounds as another item to be cleared, but he thought it as well to keep silent upon the point.
“Any fool could foresee the possibility of it,” quoth Ezra brusquely.
“The fall in prices is sure to be permanent, then?” the old man asked.
“It will last for some years, any way,” Ezra answered. “The Jagersfontein gravel is very rich, and there seems to be plenty of it.”
“And within a few months we must repay both capital and interest. We are ruined!” The old merchant spoke in a broken voice, and his head sank upon his breast. “When that day comes,” he continued, “the firm which has been for thirty years above reproach, and a model to the whole City, will be proclaimed as a bankrupt concern. Worse still, it will be shown to have been kept afloat for years by means which will be deemed fraudulent. I tell you, my dear son, that if any means could be devised which would avert this—any means—I should not hesitate to adopt them. I am a frail old man, and I feel that the short balance of my life would be a small thing for me to give in return for the assurance that the work which I have built up should not be altogether thrown away.”
“Your life cannot affect the matter one way or the other unless it were more heavily insured than it is,” Ezra said callously, though somewhat moved by his father’s intensity of manner. “Perhaps there is some way out of the wood yet,” he added, in a more cheerful tone.
“It’s so paying, so prosperous—that’s what goes to my heart. If it had ruined itself it would be easier to bear it, but it is sacrificed to outside speculations—my wretched, wretched speculations. That is what makes it so hard.” He touched the bell, and Gilray answered the summons. “Listen to this, Ezra. What was our turn over last month, Gilray?”
“Fifteen thousand pounds, sir,” said the little clerk, bobbing up and down like a buoy in a gale in his delight at seeing the junior partner once again.
“And the expenses?”
“Nine thousand three hundred. Uncommon brown you look, Mr. Ezra, to be sure, uncommon brown and well. I hopes as you enjoyed yourself in Africa, sir, and was too much for them Hottenpots and Boars.” With this profound ethnological remark Mr. Gilray bobbed himself out of the room and went back radiantly to his ink-stained desk.
“Look at that,” the old man said, when the click of the outer door showed that the clerk was out of ear-shot. “Over five thousand profit in a month. Is it not terrible that such a business should go to ruin? What a fortune it would have been for you!”
“By heavens, it must be saved!” cried Ezra, with meditative brows and hands plunged deep in his trouser pockets. “There is that girl’s money. Could we not get the temporary use of it.”
“Impossible!” his father answered with a sigh. “It is so tied up in the will that she cannot sign it away herself until she comes of age. There is no way of touching it except by her marriage—or by her death.”
“Then we must have it by the only means open to us.”
“And that is?”
“I must marry her.”
“I shall. Here is my hand on it.”
“Then we are saved,” cried the old man, throwing up his tremulous hands. “Girdlestone & Son will weather the storm yet.”
“But Girdlestone becomes a sleeping partner,” said Ezra. “It’s for my own sake I do it and not for yours,” with which frank remark he drew his hat down over his brows and set off for Eccleston Square.