The Firm of Girdlestone

Chapter XXIV.

A Dangerous Promise.

Arthur Conan Doyle

DURING Ezra Girdlestone’s absence in Africa our heroine’s life had been even less eventful than of old. There was a consistency about the merchant’s establishment which was characteristic of the man. The house itself was austere and gloomy, and every separate room, in spite of profuse expenditure and gorgeous furniture, had the same air of discomfort. The servants too, were, with one single exception, from the hard-visaged housekeeper to the Calvinistic footman, a depressing and melancholy race. The only departure from this general rule was Kate’s own maid, Rebecca Taylforth, a loudly-dressed, dark-eyed, coarse-voiced young woman, who raised up her voice and wept when Ezra departed for Africa. This damsel’s presence was most disagreeable to Kate, and, indeed, to John Girdlestone also, who only retained her on account of his son’s strong views upon the subject, and out of fear of an explosion which might wreck all his plans.

The old merchant was Kate’s only companion during this period, and their conversation was usually limited to a conventional inquiry at breakfast time as to each other’s health. On his return from the City in the evening Girdlestone was always in a moody humour, and would eat his dinner hastily and in silence. After dinner he was in the habit of reading methodically the various financial articles in the day’s papers, which would occupy him until bedtime. Occasionally his companion would read these aloud to him, and such was the monotony of her uneventful life that she found herself becoming insensibly interested in the fluctuations of Grand Trunk scrip or Ohio and Delaware shares. The papers once exhausted, a bell was rung to summon the domestics, and when all were assembled the merchant, in a hard metallic voice, read through the lesson for the day and the evening prayers. On grand occasions he supplemented this by a short address, in the course of which he would pelt his frightened audience with hard jagged texts until he had reduced them to a fitting state of spiritual misery. No wonder that, under the influence of such an existence, the roses began to fade from his ward’s cheeks, and her youthful heart to grow sad and heavy.

One daily tonic there was, however, which never deserted her. Strictly as Girdlestone guarded her, and jealously as he fenced her off from the outer world, he was unable to prevent this one little ray of light penetrating her prison. With an eye to the future he had so placed her that it seemed to him to be impossible that any sympathy could reach her from the outside world. Visits and visitors were alike forbidden to her. On no consideration was she to venture out alone. In spite of all his precautions, however, love has many arts and wiles which defy all opposition, and which can outplot the deepest of plotters.

Eccleston Square was by no means in a direct line between Kensington and the City, yet morning and evening, as sure as the clock pointed to half-past nine and to quarter to six, Tom would stride through the old-fashioned square and past the grim house, whose grimness was softened to his eyes through its association with the bright dream of his life. It was but the momentary glance of a sweet face at the upper window and a single wave of a white hand, but it sent him on with a fresh heart and courage, and it broke the dull monotony of her dreary life.

Occasionally, as we have seen, he even managed to find his way into the interior of this ogre’s castle, in which his fair princess was immured. John Girdlestone put an end to this by ordering that business messages should never under any circumstances be conveyed to his private residence. Nothing daunted, however, the lovers soon devised another means of surmounting the barrier which divided them.

The centre of the square was taken up by a garden, rectangular and uninviting, fenced round with high forbidding walls which shut out all intruders and gave the place a resemblance to the exercise ground of a prison. Within the rails were clumps of bushes, and here and there a few despondent trees drooped their heads as though mourning over the uncongenial site in which they had been planted. Among these trees and bushes there were scattered seats, and the whole estate was at the disposal of the inhabitants of Eccleston Square, and was dignified by the name of the Eccleston Gardens. This was the only spot in which Kate was trusted without the surveillance of a footman, and it was therefore a favourite haunt of hers, where she would read or work for hours under the shelter of the scanty foliage.

Hence it came about that one day, as Thomas Dimsdale was making his way Cityward at a rather earlier hour than was customary with him, he missed the usual apparition at the window. Looking round blankly in search of some explanation of this absence, he perceived in the garden a pretty white bonnet which glinted among the leaves, and on closer inspection a pair of bright eyes, which surveyed him merrily from underneath it. The gate was open, and in less time than it takes to tell it the sacrilegious feet of the young man had invaded the sacred domains devoted to the sole use and behoof of the Ecclestonians. It may be imagined that he was somewhat late at the office that morning and on many subsequent mornings, until the clerks began to think that their new employer was losing the enthusiasm for business which had possessed him.

Tom frequently begged permission to inform Mr. Girdlestone of his engagement, but Kate was inflexible upon that point. The fact is, that she knew her guardian’s character very much better than her lover did, and remembering his frequent exhortations upon the subject of the vanity and wickedness of such things, she feared the effects of his anger when he learned the truth. In a year or so she would be of age and her own mistress, but at present she was entirely in his power. Why should she subject herself to the certainty of constant harshness and unkindness which would await her? Had her guardian really fulfilled the functions of a father towards her he would have a right to be informed, but as it was she felt that she owed him no such duty. She therefore made up her mind that he should know nothing of the matter; but the fates unfortunately willed otherwise.

It chanced that one morning the interview between the lovers had lasted rather longer than usual, and had been concluded by Kate’s returning to the house, while Tom remained sitting upon the garden seat lost in such a reverie as affects men in his position. While thus pleasantly employed, his thoughts were suddenly recalled to earth by the appearance of a dark shadow on the gravel in front of him, and looking up he saw the senior partner standing a short distance away and regarding him with anything but an amiable expression upon his face. He had himself been having a morning stroll in the garden, and had overseen the whole of the recent interview without the preoccupied lovers being aware of his presence.

“Are you coming to the office?” he asked sternly. “If so, we can go together.”

Tom rose and followed him out of the gardens without a word. He knew from the other’s expression that all was known to him, and in his heart he was not sorry. His only fear was that the old man’s anger might fall upon his ward and this he determined to prevent. They walked side by side as far as the station in complete silence, but on reaching Fenchurch Street Girdlestone asked his young partner to step into his private sanctum.

“Now, sir,” he said, as he closed the door behind him “I think that I have a right to inquire what the meaning may be of the scene of which I was an involuntary witness this morning?”

“It means,” Tom answered firmly but gently, “that I am engaged to Miss Harston, and have been for some time.”

“Oh, indeed,” Girdlestone answered coldly, sitting down at his desk and turning over the pile of letters.

“At my request,” said Tom, “our engagement was kept from your knowledge. I had reason to believe that you objected to early engagements, and I feared that ours might be disagreeable to you.” I trust that the recording angel will not register a very black mark against our friend for this, the one and only falsehood that ever passed his lips.

During the long silent walk the merchant had been revolving in his mind what course he should pursue, and he had come to the conclusion that it was more easy to guide this impetuous stream of youth than to attempt to stem it. He did not realize the strength of the tie that bound these two young people together, and imagined that with judgment and patience it might yet be snapped. It was, therefore, with as good an imitation of geniality as his angular visage would permit of that he answered his companion’s confession.

“You can hardly wonder at my being surprised,” he said. “Such a thing never entered my mind for a moment. You would have done better to have confided in me before.”

“I must ask your pardon for not having done so.”

“As far as you are concerned,” said John Girdlestone affably, “I believe you to be hard-working and right-principled. Your conduct since you have joined the firm has been everything which I could desire.”

Tom bowed his acknowledgments, much pleased by this preamble.

“With regard to my ward,” continued the senior partner, speaking very slowly and evidently weighing his words, “I could not wish her to have a better husband. In considering such a question I have, however, as you may imagine, to consult above everything else the wishes of my dead friend, Mr. John Harston, the father of the young lady to whom you say that you are engaged. A trust has been reposed in me, and that trust must, of course, be fulfilled to the letter.”

“Certainly,” said Tom, wondering in his own mind how he could ever have brought himself for one moment to think evil of this kindly and righteous old man.

“It was one of Mr. Harston’s most clearly expressed wishes that no words or even thoughts of such matters should be allowed to come in his daughter’s way until she had attained maturity, by which he meant the age of one-and-twenty.”

“But he could not foresee the circumstances,” Tom pleaded. “I am sure that a year or so will make no difference in her sentiments in this matter.”

“My duty is to carry out his instructions to the letter. I won’t say, however,” continued Mr. Girdlestone, “that circumstances might not arise which might induce me to shorten this probationary period. If my further acquaintance with you confirms the high impression which I now have of your commercial ability, that, of course, would have weight with me; and, again, if I find Miss Harston’s mind is made up upon the point, that also would influence my judgment.”

“And what are we to do in the mean time?” asked the junior partner anxiously.

“In the mean time neither you nor your people must write to her, or speak to her, or hold any communication with her whatever. If I find you or them doing so, I shall be compelled in justice to Mr. Harston’s last request to send her to some establishment abroad where she shall be entirely out of your way. My mind is irrevocably made up upon that point. It is not a matter of personal inclination, but of conscience.”

“And how long is this to last?” cried Tom.

“It will depend upon yourselves. If you prove yourself to be a man of honour in this matter, I may be inclined to sanction your addresses. In the mean time you must give me your word to let it rest, and neither to attempt to speak to Miss Harston, nor to see her, nor to allow your parents to communicate with her. The last condition may seem to you to be hard, but, in my eyes, it is a very important one. Unless you can bring yourself to promise all this, my duty will compel me to remove my ward entirely out of your reach, a course which would be painful to her and inconvenient to myself.”

“But I must let her know of this arrangement. I must tell her that you hold out hopes to us on condition that we keep apart for a time.”

“It would be cruel not to allow you to do that,” Girdlestone answered. “You may send her one letter, but remember there shall be no reply to it.”

“Thank you, sir; thank you!” Tom cried fervently. “I have something to live for now. This separation will but make our hearts grow fonder. What change can time make in either of us?”

“Quite so,” said John Girdlestone, with a smile. “Remember there must be no more walking through the square. You must remain absolutely apart if you wish to gain my consent.”

“It is hard, very, very hard. But I will promise to do it. What would I not promise which would lead to our earlier union?”

“That is settled then. In the mean time, I should be obliged if you would go down to the docks and look after the loading of the transferable corrugated iron houses for New Calabar.”

“All right, sir, and thank you for your kindness,” said Tom, bowing himself out. He hardly knew whether to be pleased or grieved over the result of his interview; but, on the whole, satisfaction prevailed, since at the worst it was but to wait for a year or so, while there seemed to be some hopes of gaining the guardian’s consent before that. On the other hand, he had pledged himself to separate from Kate; but that would, he reflected, only make their re-union the sweeter.

All the morning he was engaged in superintending the stowing of great slabs of iron in the capacious hold of the Maid of Athens. When the hour of luncheon arrived no thought of food was in the lad’s head, but, burying himself in the back parlour of a little Blackwall public-house, he called for pen, ink, and paper, and proceeded to indite a letter to his sweetheart. Never was so much love and comfort and advice and hope compressed into the limits of four sheets of paper or contained in the narrow boundary of a single envelope. Tom read it over after he had finished, and felt that it feebly expressed his thoughts; but, then, what lover ever yet did succeed in getting his thoughts satisfactorily represented upon paper. Having posted this effusion, in which he had carefully explained the conditions imposed upon him, Tom felt considerably more light-hearted, and returned with renewed vigour to the loading of the corrugated iron. He would hardly have felt so satisfied had he seen John Girdlestone receiving that same letter from the hands of the footman, and reading it afterwards in the privacy of his bedroom with a sardonic smile upon his face. Still less contented would he have been had he beheld the merchant tearing it into small fragments and making a bonfire of it in his capacious grate. Next morning Kate looked in vain out of the accustomed window, and was sore at heart when no tall figure appeared in sight and no friendly hand waved a morning salutation.

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