The Firm of Girdlestone/Chapter 16
THE FIRST STEP.
It was a proud day for the ex-medical student when he first entered the counting-house of the African firm and realized that he was one of the governing powers in that busy establishment. Tom Dimsdale's mind was an intensely practical one, and although he had found the study of science an irksome matter, he was able to throw himself into business with uncommon energy and devotion. The clerks soon found that the sunburnt, athletic-looking young man intended to be anything but a sleeping partner, and both they and old Gilray respected him accordingly.
The latter had at first been inclined to resent the new arrangement as far as his gentle down-trodden nature could resent anything. Hitherto he had been the monarch of the counting-house in the absence of the Girdlestones, but now a higher desk had been erected in a more central portion of the room, and this was for the accommodation of the new comer. Gilray, after his thirty years of service, felt this usurpation of his rights very keenly; but there was such a simple kindness about the invader, and he was so grateful for any assistance in his new duties, that the old clerk's resentment soon melted away.
A little incident occurred which strengthened this kindly feeling. It chanced that some few days after Tom's first appearance in the office several of the clerks, who had not yet quitewhat manner of man this young gentleman might be, took advantage of the absence of the Girdlestones to take a rise out of the manager. One of them, a great rawboned Scotchman, named McCalister, after one or two minor exhibitions of wit concluded by dropping a heavy ruler over the partition of the old man's desk in such a way that it crashed down upon his head as he sat stooping over his writing. Tom, who had been watching the proceedings with a baleful eye, sprang off his stool and made across the office at the offender. McCalister seemed inclined for a moment to brazen it out, but there was a dangerous sling about Tom's shoulders and a flush of honest indignation upon his face. "I didn't mean to hurt him," said the Scotchman. "Don't hit him, sir!" cried the little manager. "Beg his pardon," said Tom between his teeth. McCalister stammered out some lame apology, and the matter was ended. It revealed the new partner, however, in an entirely novel light to the inmates of the counting-house. That under such circumstances a complaint should be carried to the senior was only natural, but that the junior should actually take the matter into his own hands and execute lynch law then and there was altogether a new phenomenon. From that day Tom acquired a great ascendancy in the office, and Gilray became his devoted slave. This friendship with the old clerk proved to be very useful, for by means of his shrewd hints and patient teaching the new comer gained a grasp of the business which he could not have attained by any other method.
Girdlestone called him into the office one day and congratulated him upon the progress which he was making. "My dear young man," he said to him in his patriarchal way, "I am delighted to hear of the way in which you identify yourself with the interests of the firm. If at first you find work allotted to you which may appear to you to be rather menial, you must understand that that is simply due to our desire that you should master the whole business from its very foundations."
"There is nothing I desire better," said Tom.
"In addition to the routine of office work, and the superintendence of the clerks, I should wish you to have a thorough grasp of all the details of the shipping, and of the loading and unloading of our vessels, as well as of the storage of goods when landed. When any of our ships are in, I should wish you to go down to the docks and to overlook everything which is done."
Tom bowed and congratulated himself inwardly upon these new duties, which promised to be interesting.
"As you grow older," said the senior partner, "you will find it of inestimable value that you have had practical experience of what your subordinates have to do. My whole life has taught me that. When you are in doubt upon any subject you can ask Ezra for assistance and advice. He is a young man whom you might well take as an example, for he has great business capacity. When he has gone to Africa you can come to me if there is anything which you do not understand." John Girdlestone appeared to be so kindly and benevolent during this and other interviews, that Tom's heart warmed towards him, and he came to the conclusion that his father had judged the old merchant harshly. More than once, so impressed was he by his kindness, that he was on the point of disclosing to him his engagement to his ward, but on each occasion there arose within him a lively recollection of Kate's frightened face when he had suggested such a course, and he felt that without her consent he had no right to divulge the secret.
If the elder Girdlestone improved upon acquaintance it was exactly the reverse with his son Ezra. The dislike with which Tom had originally regarded him deepened as he came in closer contact, and appeared to be reciprocated by the other, so that they held but little intercourse together. Ezra had taken into his own charge all the financial part of the concern, and guarded it the more jealously when he realized that the new partner was so much less simple than he had expected. Thus Tom had no opportunity of ascertaining for himself how the affairs of the firm stood, but believed implicitly, as did Gilray, that every outlay was bringing in a large and remunerative return. Very much astonished would both of them have been had they realized that the working expenses were at present being paid entirely from their own capital until such time as the plot should ripen which was to restore the fortunes of the African company.
In one respect Tom Dimsdale was immeasurably the gainer by his connection with the firm, for without that it is difficult to say how he could have found opportunities for breaking through the barrier which separated him from Kate. The surveillance of the merchant had become stricter of late, and all invitations from Mrs. Dimsdale or other friends who pitied the loneliness of the girl were repulsed by Girdlestone with the curt intimation that his ward's health was not such as to justify him in allowing her to incur any risk of catching a chill. She was practically a prisoner in the great stone cage in Eccleston Square, and even on her walks a warder in the shape of a footman was, as we have seen, told off to guard her. Whatever John Girdlestone's reasons may have been, he had evidently come to the conclusion that it was of the highest importance that she should be kept secluded.
As it was, Tom, thanks to his position as one of the firm, was able occasionally, in spite of every precaution, to penetrate through the old man's defensive works. If a question of importance arose at Fenchurch Street during the absence of the senior partner, what more natural than that Mr. Dimsdale should volunteer to walk round to Eccleston Square in order to acquaint him with the fact. And if it happened that the gentleman was not to be found there, how very natural that the young man should wait half an hour for him, and that Miss Harston should take the opportunity of a chat with an old friend? Precious, precious interviews those, the more so for their rarity. They brightened the dull routine of Kate's weary life and sent Tom back to the office full of spirit and hope. The days were at hand when the memory of them was to shine out like little rifts of light in the dark cloud of existence.
And now the time was coming when it was to be decided whether, by a last bold stroke, the credit of the House of Girdlestone was to be saved, or whether the attempt was to plunge them into deeper and more hopeless ruin. An unscrupulous agent named Langworthy had, as already indicated, been despatched to Russia well primed with instructions as to what to do and how to do it. He had been in the employ of an English corn merchant at Odessa, and had some knowledge of the Russian language which would be invaluable to him in his undertaking. In the character of an English gentleman of scientific tastes he was to establish himself in some convenient village among the Ural Mountains. There he was to remain some little time, so as to arouse confidence in the people before making his pretended discovery. He was then to carry his rough diamonds to Tobolsk, as the nearest large town, and to exhibit them there, backing up his assertion by the evidence of villagers who had seen him dig them up. The Girdlestones knew that that alone would be sufficient when telegraphed to England to produce a panic in the sensitive diamond market. Before any systematic inquiry could be made, Langworthy would have disappeared, and their little speculation would have come off. After that the sooner the people realized that it was a hoax the better for the conspirators. In any case, there seemed to be no possibility that the origin of the rumour could be traced. Meanwhile, Ezra Girdlestone had secured his passage in the Cape mail steamer Cyprian. On the night that he left he sat up late in the library at Eccleston Square talking over the matter for the last time with his father.
The old man was pale and nervous. The one weak point in his character was his affection for his son, an affection which he strove to hide under an austere manner, but which was none the less genuine. He had never before parted with him for any length of time, and he felt the wrench keenly. As to Ezra, he was flushed and excited at the thought of the new scenes which lay before him and the daring speculation in which he was about to embark. He flung himself into a chair and stretched his thick, muscular limbs out in front of him.
"I know as much about stones," he said exultantly, "as any man in London. I was pricing a bag of rough ones at Van Helmer's to-day, and he is reckoned a good judge. He said that no expert could have done it better. Lord bless you! pure or splints, or cracked, or off colour, or spotted, or twin stones, I'm up to them all. I wasn't a pound out in the market value of any one of them."
"You deserve great credit for your quickness and perseverance," replied his father. "Your knowledge will be invaluable to you when you are at the fields. Be careful of yourself when you are there, my son, if only for my sake. There are rough fellows at such places, and you must give them soft words. I know that your temper is quick, but remember those wise words, 'He that ruleth his spirit is better than he that taketh a city.'"
"Never fear for me, dad," said Ezra, with a sinister smile, pointing to a small leather case which lay among his things. "That's the best six-shooter I could get for money. I've taken a tip, you see, from our good friend, the major, and have six answers for any one that wants to argue with me. If I had had that the other day he wouldn't have bounced me so easily."
"Nay, but Ezra, Ezra," his father said, in great agitation, "you will promise to be careful and to avoid quarrels and bloodshed. It is against the great law, the new commandment."
"I won't get into any rows if I can help it," his son answered. "That's not my game."
"But if you think that there is no mistake, if your opponent is undoubtedly about to proceed to extremities, shoot him down at once, my dear lad, before he has time to draw. I have heard those who have been out there say that in such cases everything depends upon getting the first shot. I am anxious about you, and shall not be easy until I see you again."
"Blessed if he hasn't tears in his eyes!" Ezra exclaimed to himself, much astonished at this unprecedented occurrence.
"When do you go?" his father asked.
"My train leaves in an hour or so. I reach the steamer at Southampton about three in the morning, and she starts with the full tide at six."
"Look after your health," the old man continued. "Don't get your feet wet, and wear flannel next your skin. Don't forget your religious duties either. It has a good effect upon those among whom you do business."
Ezra sprang from his chair with an exclamation of disgust and began to pace up and down. "I wish to Heaven you would drop that sort of gammon when we are alone," he said irritably.
"My dear boy," said the father, with a mild look of surprise upon his face, "you seem to be under a misapprehension in this matter. You appear to consider that we are embarking upon some unjustifiable undertaking. This is not so. What we are doing is simply a small commercial ruse—a finesse. It is a recognized maxim of trade to endeavour to depreciate the price of whatever you want to buy, and to raise it again when the time comes for selling."
"It's steering very close to the law," his son retorted. "No speculating, now, while I am away; whatever comes in must go towards getting us out of this scrape, not to plunging us deeper in the mire."
"I shall not expend an unnecessary penny."
"Well, then, good-bye." said the young man, rising up and holding out his hand. "Keep your eye on Dimsdale and don't trust him."
"Good-bye, my son, good-bye—God bless you!"
The old merchant was honestly moved, and his voice quivered as he spoke. He stood motionless for a minute or so until the heavy door slammed, and then he threw open the window and gazed sorrowfully down the street at the disappearing cab. His whole attitude expressed such dejection that his ward, who had just entered the room, felt more drawn towards him than she had ever done before. Slipping up to him she placed her warm tender hand upon his sympathetically.
"He will soon be back, dear Mr. Girdlestone," she said. "You must not be uneasy about him."
As she stood beside him in her white dress, with a single red ribbon round her neck and a band of the same colour round her waist, she was as fair a specimen of English girlhood as could have been found in all London. The merchant's features softened as he looked down at her fresh young face, and he put out his hand as though to caress her, but some unpleasant thought must have crossed his mind, for he assumed suddenly a darker look and turned away from her without a word. More than once that night she recalled that strange spasmodic expression of something akin to horror which had passed over her guardian's features as he gazed at her.