THIS episode had occurred about a fortnight before Ezra’s return from Africa, and was duly retailed to him by his father.
“You need not be discouraged by that,” he said. “I can always keep them apart, and if he is absent and you are present—especially as she has no idea of the cause of his absence—she will end by feeling slighted and preferring you.”
“I cannot understand how you ever came to let the matter go so far,” his son answered sullenly. “What does the young puppy want to come poaching upon our preserves for? The girl belongs to us. She was given to you to look after, and a nice job you seem to have made of it!”
“Never mind, my boy,” replied the merchant. “I’ll answer for keeping them apart if you will only push the matter on your own account.”
“I’ve said that I would do so, and I will,” Ezra returned; and events soon showed that he was as good as his word.
Before his African excursion the relations between young Girdlestone and his father’s ward had never been cordial. Kate’s nature, however, was so sweet and forgiving, that it was impossible for her to harbour any animosity, and she greeted Ezra kindly on his return from his travels. Within a few days she became conscious that a remarkable change had come over him—a change, as it seemed to her, very much for the better. In the past, weeks had frequently elapsed without his addressing her, but now he went out of his way to make himself agreeable. Sometimes he would sit for a whole evening describing to her all that he had seen in Africa, and really interesting her by his account of men and things. She, poor lass, hailed this new departure with delight, and did all in her power to encourage his better nature and to show that she appreciated the alteration in his bearing. At the same time, she was rather puzzled in her mind, for an occasional flash of coarseness or ferocity showed her that the real nature of the man was unaltered, and that he was putting an unnatural restraint upon himself.
As the days went on, and no word or sign came from Tom, a great fear and perplexity arose within the girl’s mind. She had heard nothing of the interview at Fenchurch Street, nor had she any clue at all which could explain the mystery. Could it be that Tom had informed her guardian of their engagement, and had received such a rebuff that he had abandoned her in despair? That was surely impossible; yet why was it that he had ceased to walk through the square? She knew that he was not ill, because she heard her two companions talking of him in connection with business. What could be the matter, then? Her little heart was torn by a thousand conflicting doubts and fears.
In the mean time Ezra gave fresh manifestations of the improvement which travel had wrought upon him. She had remarked one day that she was fond of moss roses. On coming down to breakfast next morning she found a beautiful moss rose upon her plate, and every morning afterwards a fresh flower appeared in the same place. This pretty little piece of courtesy, which she knew could only come from Ezra, surprised and pleased her, for delicacy was the last quality for which she would have given him credit.
On another occasion she had expressed a desire to read Thackeray’s works, the books in the library being for the most part of last century. On entering her room that same evening she found, to her astonishment, a handsomely bound edition of the novels in question standing on the centre of her table. For a moment a wild, unreasoning hope awoke in her that perhaps this was Tom’s doing—that he had taken this means of showing that she was still dear to him. She soon saw, however, that the books could only have come from the same source as the flowers, and she marvelled more than ever at this fresh proof of the good will of her companion.
One day her guardian took the girl aside. “Your life must be rather dull,” he said. “I have taken a box for you to-night at the opera. I do not care about such spectacles myself, but I have made arrangements for your escort. A change will do you good.”
Poor Kate was too sad at heart to be inclined for amusement. She endeavoured, however, to look pleased and grateful.
“My good friend, Mrs. Wilkinson, is coming for you,” the merchant said, “and Ezra is going too. He has a great liking for music.”
Kate could not help smiling at this last remark, as she thought how very successfully the young man had concealed his taste during the years that she had known him.
She was ready, however, at the appointed hour, and Mrs. Wilkinson, a prim old gentlewoman, who had chaperoned Kate on the rare occasions when she went out, having arrived, the three drove off together.
The opera happened to be “Faust,” and the magnificent scenery and dresses astonished Kate, who had hardly ever before been within the walls of a theatre. She sat as if entranced, with a bright tinge of colour upon her cheeks, which, with her sparkling eyes, made her look surpassingly beautiful. So thought Ezra Girdlestone as he sat in the recesses of the box and watched the varied expressions which flitted across her mobile features. “She is well worth having, money or no,” he muttered to himself, and redoubled his attentions to her during the evening.
An incident occurred between the acts that night which would have pleased the old merchant had he witnessed it. Kate had been looking down from the box, which was upon the third tier, at the sea of heads beneath them. Suddenly she gave a start, and her face grew a trifle paler.
“Isn’t that Mr. Dimsdale down there?” she said to her companion.
“Where?” asked Ezra, craning his neck. “Oh yes, there he is, in the second row of the stalls.”
“Do you know who the young lady is that he is talking to?” Kate asked.
“I don’t know,” said Ezra. “I have seen him about with her a good deal lately.” The latter was a deliberate falsehood, but Ezra saw his chance of prejudicing his rival, and took prompt advantage of it. “She is very good-looking,” he added presently, keeping his eyes upon his companion.
“Oh, indeed,” said Kate, and turned with some common-place remark to Mrs. Wilkinson. Her heart was sore nevertheless, and she derived little pleasure from the remainder of the performance. As to Ezra, in spite of his great love for music, he dozed peacefully in a corner of the box during the whole of the last act. None of them were sorry when Faust was duly consigned to the nether regions and Marguerite was apotheosed upon a couple of wooden clouds. Ezra narrated the incident of the recognition in the stalls to his father on his return, and the old gentleman rubbed his hands over it.
“Most fortunate!” he exclaimed gleefully. “By working on that idea we might produce great effects. Who was the girl, do you know?”
“Some poor relation, I believe, whom he trots out at times.”
“We will find out her name and all about her. Capital, capital!” cried John Girdlestone; and the two worthies departed to their rooms much pleased at this new card which chance had put into their hands.
During the weary weeks while Tom Dimsdale, in accordance with his promise, avoided Eccleston Square and everything which could remind Kate of his existence, Ezra continued to leave no stone unturned in his endeavours to steal his way into her affections. Poor Tom’s sole comfort was the recollection of that last passionate letter which he had written in the Blackwall public-house, and which had, as he imagined, enlightened her as to the reasons of his absence, and had prevented her from feeling any uneasiness or surprise. Had he known the fate that had befallen that epistle, he would hardly have been able to continue his office duties so patiently or to wait with so much resignation for Mr. Girdlestone’s sanction to his engagement.
As the days passed and still brought no news, Kate’s face grew paler and her heart more weary and desponding. That the young man was well was beyond dispute, since she had seen him with her own eyes at the opera. What explanation could there be, then, for his conduct? Was it possible that he had told Mr. Girdlestone of their engagement, and that her guardian had found some means of dissuading him from continuing his suit—found some appeal to his interest, perhaps, which was too strong for his love. All that she knew of Tom’s nature contradicted such a supposition. Again, if Girdlestone had learned anything of their engagement, surely he would have reproached her with it. His manner of late had been kinder rather than harsher. On the other hand, could it have chanced that Tom had met this lady of the opera, and that her charms had proved too much for his constancy? When she thought of the honest grey eyes which had looked down into hers at that last meeting in the garden, she found it hard to imagine the possibility of such things, and yet there was a fact which had to be explained. The more she thought of it the more incomprehensible it grew, but still the pale face grew paler and the sad heart more heavy.
Soon, however, her doubts and fears began to resolve themselves into something more substantial than vague conjecture. The conversation of the Girdlestones used to turn upon their business colleague, and always in the same strain. There were stray remarks about his doings; hints from the father and laughter from the son. “Not much work to be got out of him now,” the old man would say. “When a man’s in love he’s not over fond of a ledger.”
“A nice-looking girl, too,” said Ezra, in answer to some such remark. “I thought something would come of it. We saw them together at the opera, didn’t we, Kate?”
So they would gossip together, and every word a stab to the poor girl. She strove to conceal her feelings, and, indeed, her anger and her pride were stronger even than her grief, for she felt that she had been cruelly used. One day she found Girdlestone alone and unbosomed herself to him.
“Is it really true,” she asked, with a quick pant and a catch of her breath, “that Mr. Dimsdale is engaged to be married?”
“I believe so, my dear,” her guardian answered. “It is commonly reported so. When a young lady and gentleman correspond it is usually a sign of something of the sort.”
“Oh, they correspond?”
“Yes, they certainly correspond. Her letters are sent to him at the office. I don’t know that I altogether like that arrangement. It looks as if he were deceiving his parents.” All this was an unmitigated lie, but Girdlestone had gone too far now to stick at trifles.
“Who is the lady?” asked Kate, with a calm set face but a quivering lip.
“A cousin of his. Miss Ossary is her name, I believe. I am not sorry, for it may be a sign that he has sown all his wild oats. Do you know at one time, Kate, I feared that he might take a fancy to you. He has a specious way with him, and I felt my responsibility in the matter.”
“You need not be afraid on that score,” Kate said bitterly. “I think I can gauge Mr. Dimsdale’s specious manner at its proper value.” With this valiant speech she marched off, head in air, to her room, and there wept as though her very heart would break.
John Girdlestone told his son of this scene as they walked home from Fenchurch Street that same day. “We must look sharp over it,” he said, “or that young fool may get impatient and upset our plans.”
“It’s not such an easy matter,” said his son gloomily. “I get along so far, but no further. It’s a more uphill job than I expected.”
“Why, you had a bad enough name among women,” the merchant said, with something approaching to a sneer. “I have been grieved times out of number by your looseness in that respect. I should have thought that you might have made your experience of some use now.”
“There are women and women,” his son remarked. “A girl like this takes as much managing as a skittish horse.”
“Once get her into harness, and I warrant you’ll keep her there quiet enough.”
“You bet,” said Ezra, with a loud laugh. “But at present she has the pull. Her mind is still running on that fellow.”
“She spoke bitterly enough of him this morning.”
“So she might, but she thinks of him none the less. If I could once make her thoroughly realize that he had thrown her over I might catch her on the hop. She’d marry for spite if she wouldn’t for love.”
“Just so; just so. Wait a bit. That can be managed, I think, if you will leave it to me.”
The old man brooded over the problem all day, for from week to week the necessity for the money was becoming more pressing, and that money could only be hoped for through the success of Ezra’s wooing. No wonder that every little detail which might sway the balance one way or the other was anxiously pondered over by the head of the firm, and that even the fluctuations in oil and ivory became secondary to this great object.
Next day, immediately after they had sat down to dinner, some letters were handed in by the footman. “Forwarded on from the office, sir,” said the flunkey. “The clerk says that Mr. Gilray was away and that he did not like to open them.”
“Just like him!” said Girdlestone, peevishly pushing back his plate of soup. “I hate doing business out of hours.” He tore the envelopes off the various letters as he spoke. “What’s this? Casks returned as per invoice; that’s all right. Note from Rudder & Saxe—that can be answered to-morrow. Memorandum on the Custom duties at Sierra Leone. Hallo! what have we here? ‘My darling Tom’—who is this from—Yours ever, Mary Ossary.’ Why, it’s one of young Dimsdale’s love-letters which has got mixed up with my business papers. Ha! ha! I must really apologize to him for having opened it, but he must take his chance of that, if he has his correspondence sent to the office. I take it for granted that everything there is a business communication.”
Kate’s face grew very white as she listened. She ate little dinner that day, poor child, and took the earliest opportunity of retiring to her room.
“You did that uncommonly well, dad,” said Ezra approvingly, after she was gone. “It hit her hard, I could see that.”
“I think it touched her pride. People should not have pride. We are warned against it. Now, that same pride of hers will forbid her ever thinking of that young man again.”
“And you had the letter written?”
“I wrote it myself. I think, in such a case, any stratagem is justifiable. Such large interests are at stake that we must adopt strong measures. I quite agree with the old Churchmen that the end occasionally justifies the means.”
“Capital, dad; very good!” cried Ezra, chewing his toothpick. “I like to hear you argue. It’s quite refreshing.”
“I act according to the lights which are vouchsafed me,” said John Girdlestone gravely; on which Ezra leaned back in his chair and laughed heartily.
The very next morning the merchant spoke to Dimsdale on the matter, for he had observed signs of impatience in the young man, and feared that some sudden impulse might lead him to break his promise and so upset everything.
“Take a seat. I should like to have a word with you,” he said graciously, when his junior partner appeared before him to consult with him as to the duties of the day. Tom sat down with hope in his heart.
“It is only fair to you, Mr. Dimsdale,” Girdlestone said, in a kindly voice, “that I should express to you my appreciation of your honourable conduct. You have kept your promise in regard to Miss Harston in the fullest manner.”
“Of course I kept my promise,” said Tom bluntly. “I trust, however, that you will soon see your way to withdrawing your prohibition. It has been a hard trial to me.”
“I have insisted upon it because it seemed to me to be my duty. Every one takes his own view upon such points, and it has always been my custom throughout life to take what some might think a stringent one. It appears to me that I owe it to my deceased friend to prevent his daughter, whom he has confided to me, from making any mistake. As I said before, if you continue to show that you are worthy of her, I may think more favourably of it. Exemplary as your conduct has been since you joined us, I believe that I am not wrong in stating that you were a little wild when you were at Edinburgh.”
“I never did anything that I am ashamed of,” said Tom.
“Very likely not,” Girdlestone answered, with an irrepressible sneer. “The question is, did you do anything that your father was ashamed of?”
“Certainly not,” cried Tom hotly. “I was no milksop or psalm singer, but there is nothing that I ever did there of which I should be ashamed of my father knowing.”
“Don’t speak lightly of psalm singing. It is a good practice in its way, and you would have been none the worse had you indulged in it perhaps. However, that is neither here nor there. What I want you clearly to understand is that my ultimate consent to your union depends entirely upon your own conduct. Above all, I insist that you refrain from unsettling the girl’s mind at present.”
“I have already promised. Hard as the struggle may be, I shall not break my word. I have the consolation of knowing that if we were separated for twenty years we should still be true to one another.”
“That’s very satisfactory,” said the merchant grimly.
“Nevertheless it is a weary, weary time. If I could only write a line——”
“Not a word,” Girdlestone interrupted. “It is only because I trust you that I keep her in London at all. If I thought there was a possibility of your doing such a thing I should remove her at once.”
“I shall do nothing without your permission,” Tom said, taking up his hat to go. He paused with his hand upon the door. “If ever it seems good to me,” he said, “I consider that by giving you due notice I absolve myself from my promise.”
“You would not do anything so foolish.”
“Still I reserve myself the right of doing so,” said Tom, and went off with a heavy heart to his day’s work.
“Everything is clear for you now,” the old man said to his son triumphantly. “There’s no chance of interference, and the girl is in the very humour to be won. I flatter myself that it has been managed with tact. Remember that all is at stake, and go in and win.”
“I shall go in,” said Ezra “and I think the chances are that I shall win too.”
At which reassuring speech the old man laughed, and slapped his son approvingly upon the shoulder.