IN spite of John Girdlestone’s temporary satisfaction and the stoical face which he presented to the world, it is probable that in the whole of London there was no more unhappy and heart-weary man. The long fight against impending misfortune had shattered his iron constitution and weakened him both in body and in mind. It was remarked upon ’Change how much he had aged of late, and moralists commented upon the vanity and inefficacy of the wealth which could not smooth the wrinkles from the great trader’s haggard visage. He was surprised himself when he looked in the glass at the change which had come over him. “Never mind,” he would say in his dogged heart a hundred times a day, “they can’t beat me. Do what they will, they can’t beat me.” This was the one thought which sustained and consoled him. The preservation of his commercial credit had become the aim and object of his life, to which there was nothing that he was not prepared to sacrifice.
His cunningly devised speculation in diamonds had failed, but this failure had been due to an accident which could neither have been foreseen nor remedied. To carry out this scheme he had, as we have seen, been obliged to borrow money, which had now to be repaid. This he had managed to do, more or less completely, by the sale of the stones which Ezra had brought home, supplemented by the recent profits of the firm. There was still the original deficit to be faced, and John Girdlestone knew that though a settlement might be postponed from month to month, still the day must come, and come soon, when his debts must be met, or his inability to meet them become apparent to the whole world. Should Ezra be successful in his wooing and his ward’s forty thousand pounds be thrown into the scale, the firm would shake itself clear from the load which oppressed it. Supposing, however, that Kate were to refuse his son. What was to occur then? The will was so worded that there appeared to be no other way of obtaining the money. A very vulpine look would come over the old man’s face as he brooded over that problem.
The strangest of all the phenomena, however, presented by John Girdlestone at this period of his life was his own entire conviction of the righteousness of his actions. When every night and morning he sank upon his knees with his household and prayed for the success of the firm’s undertakings, no qualms of conscience ever troubled him as to their intrinsic morality. On Sundays the grey head of the merchant in the first pew was as constant an object as was the pew itself, yet in that head no thought ever rose of the inconsistency of his religion and of his practice. For fifty years he had been persuading himself that he was a righteous man, and the conviction was now so firmly impressed upon his very soul that nothing could ever shake it. Ezra was wrong when he set this down as deliberate hypocrisy. Blind strength of will and self-conceit were at the bottom of his actions, but he would have been astonished and indignant had he been accused of simulating piety or of using it as a tool. To him the firm of Girdlestone was the very representation of religion in the commercial world, and as such must be upheld by every conceivable means.
To his son this state of mind was unintelligible, and he simply gave his father credit for being a consummate and accomplished hypocrite, who found a mantle of piety a very convenient one under which to conceal his real character. He had himself inherited the old man’s dogged pertinacity and commercial instincts, and was by nature unscrupulous and impatient of any obstacle placed in his way. He was now keenly alive to the fact that the existence of the firm depended upon the success of his suit, and he knew also how lucrative a concern the African business would prove were it set upon its legs again. He had determined in case he succeeded to put his father aside as a sleeping partner and to take the reins of management entirely into his own hands. His practical mind had already devised countless ways in which the profits might be increased. The first step of all, then, was the gaining possession of the forty thousand pounds, and to that he devoted himself heart and soul. When two such men work together for one end, it is seldom that they fail to achieve it.
It would be a mistake to suppose that Ezra felt himself in any degree in love at this time. He recognized his companion’s sweetness and gentleness, but these were not qualities which appealed to his admiration. Kate’s amiable, quiet ways seemed insipid to a man who was used to female society of a very different order.
“She has no go or snap about her,” he would complain to his father. “She’s not like Polly Lucas at the Pavilion, or Minnie Walker.”
“God forbid!” ejaculated the merchant. “That sort of thing is bad enough out of doors, but worst of all in your own house.”
“It makes courting a good deal easier,” Ezra answered. “If a girl will answer up and give you an opening now and then, it makes all the difference.”
“You can’t write poetry, can you?”
“Not much,” Ezra said with a grin.
“That’s a pity. I believe it goes a long way with women. You might get some one to write some, and let her think it is yours. Or you could learn a little off and repeat it.”
“Yes, I might do that. I’m going to buy a collar for that beast of a dog of hers. All the time that I was talking to her yesterday she was so taken up with it that I don’t believe she heard half that I said. My fingers itched to catch it up and chuck it through the window.”
“Don’t forget yourself, my boy, don’t forget yourself!” cried the merchant. “A single false step might ruin every thing.”
“Never fear,” Ezra said confidently, and went off upon the dog-collar mission. While he was in the shop he bought a dog-whip as well, which he locked up in his drawers to use as the occasion served.
During all this time Kate had been entirely unconscious of her companion’s intentions and designs. She had been associated with Ezra for so many years, and had met such undeviated want of courtesy from him, that the idea of his presenting himself as a suitor never came into her head. She hailed his charge of demeanour, therefore, as being the result of his larger experience of the world, and often wondered how it was that he had profited so much by his short stay at the Cape. In the cheerless house it was pleasant to have at least one companion who seemed to have kindly feelings towards her. She was only too glad, therefore, to encourage his advances, and to thank him with sweet smiles and eloquent eyes for what appeared to her to be his disinterested kindness.
After a while, however, Ezra’s attentions became so marked that it was impossible for her to misunderstand them any longer. Not only did he neglect his usual work in order to hang round her from morning to night, but he paid her many clumsy compliments and gave other similar indications of the state of his affections. As soon as this astounding fact had been fairly realized by the girl, she at once changed her manner and became formal and distant. Ezra, nothing daunted, redoubled his tender words and glances, and once would have kissed her hand had she not rapidly withdrawn it. On this Kate shut herself up in her room, and rarely came out save when the other was away in the City. She was determined that there should be no possibility of any misunderstanding as to her feelings in the matter.
John Girdlestone had been watching these little skirmishes closely and with keen interest. When Kate took to immuring herself in her room he felt that it was time for him to interfere.
“You must go about a little more, and have more fresh air,” he said to her one day, when they were alone after breakfast. “You will lose your roses if you don’t.”
“I am sure I don’t care whether I lose them or not,” answered his ward listlessly.
“You may not, but there are others who do,” remarked the merchant. “I believe it would break Ezra’s heart.”
Kate flushed up at this sudden turn of the conversation. “I don’t see what reason your son has to care about it,” she said.
“Care about it! Are you so blind that you don’t see that he loves the very ground you walk on. He has grown quite pale and ill these last few days because he has not seen you, and he imagines that he may have offended you.”
“For goodness’ sake!” cried Kate earnestly, “persuade him to think of some one else. It will only be painful both to him and to me if he keeps on this way. It cannot possibly lead to anything.”
“And why not? Why should——”
“Oh, don’t let us argue about it,” she cried passionately. “The very idea is horrible. It won’t bear talking about.”
“But why, my dear, why? You are really too impulsive. Ezra has his faults, but what man has not? He has been a little wild in his youth, but he is settling down now into an excellent man of business. I assure you that, young as he is, there are few names more respected on ’Change. The way in which he managed the business of the firm in Africa was wonderful. He is already a rich man, and will be richer before he dies. I cannot see any cause for this deep-rooted objection of yours. As to looks he is, you must confess, as fine a young fellow as there is in London.”
“I wish you not to speak of it or think of it again,” said Kate. “My mind is entirely made up when I say that I shall never marry any one—him least of all.”
“You will think better of it, I am sure,” her guardian said, patting her chestnut hair kindly as he stood over her. “Since your poor father handed you over to me I have guarded you and cared for you to the best of my ability. Many a sleepless night I have spent thinking of your future and endeavouring to plan it out so as to secure your happiness. I should not be likely to give you bad advice now, or urge you to take a step which would make you unhappy. Have you anything to complain of in my treatment of you?”
“You have been always very just,” Kate said with a sob.
“And this is how you repay me! You are going to break my son’s heart, and through his mine. He is my only boy, and if anything went wrong with him I tell you that it would bring my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave. You have it in your power to do this, or, on the other hand, you may make my old age a happy one by the knowledge that the lad is mated with a good woman, and has attained the object on which his whole mind and heart are set.”
“Oh, I can’t, I can’t. Do let the matter drop.”
“Think it over,” the old man said. “Look at it from every point of view. Remember that the love of an honest man is not to be lightly spurned. I am naturally anxious about it, for my future happiness, as well as his, depends upon your decision.”
John Girdlestone was fairly satisfied with this interview. It seemed to him that his ward was rather less decided in her refusal at the end of it, and that his words had had some effect upon her, which might possibly increase with reflection.
“Give her a little time now,” was his advice to his son. “I think she will come round, but she needs managing.”
“If I could get the money without taking her it would be better for me,” Ezra said with an oath.
“And better for her too,” remarked John Girdlestone grimly.