THE FIRM OF GIRDLESTONE.
A. CONAN DOYLE
TO MY OLD FRIEND
PROFESSOR WILLIAM K. BURTON,
OF THE IMPERIAL UNIVERSITY, TOKYO,
WHO FIRST ENCOURAGED ME, YEARS AGO, TO PROCEED WITH
THIS LITTLE STORY,
I DESIRE AFFECTIONATELY TO
I cannot let this small romance go to press without prefacing it with a word of cordial thanks to Mr. P. G. Houlgrave, of 28, Millman Street, Bedford Row. To this gentleman I owe the accuracy of my African chapters, and I am much indebted to him for the copious details with which he furnished me.
A. CONAN DOYLE.
I. MR. JOHN HARSTON KEEPS AN APPOINTMENT.
II. CHARITY A LA MODE.
III. THOMAS GILRAY MAKES AN INVESTMENT.
IV. CAPTAIN HAMILTON MIGGS OF THE "BLACK EAGLE".
V. MODERN ATHENIANS.
VI. A RECTORIAL ELECTION.
VII. ENGLAND VERSUS SCOTLAND.
VIII. A FIRST PROFESSIONAL.
IX. A NASTY CROPPER.
X. DWELLERS IN BOHEMIA.
XI. SENIOR AND JUNIOR.
XII. A CORNER IN DIAMONDS.
XIII. SHADOW AND LIGHT.
XIV. A SLIGHT MISUNDERSTANDING
XV. AN ADDITION TO THE HOUSE.
XVI. THE FIRST STEP.
XVII. THE LAND OF DIAMONDS.
XVIII. MAJOR TOBIAS CLUTTERBUCK COMES IN FOR A THOUSAND POUNDS.
XIX. NEWS FROM THE URALS.
XX. MR. HECTOR O'FLAHERTY FINDS SOMETHING IN THE PAPER.
XXI. AN UNEXPECTED BLOW.
XXII. ROBBERS AND ROBBED.
XXIII. A MOMENTOUS RESOLUTION.
XXIV. A DANGEROUS PROMISE.
XXV. A CHANGE OF FRONT.
XXVI. BREAKING GROUND.
XXVII. MRS. SCULLY OF MORRISON'S.
XXVIII. BACK IN BOHEMIA.
XXIX. THE GREAT DANCE AT MORRISON'S.
XXX. AT THE "COCK AND COWSLIP".
XXXI. A CRISIS AT ECCLESTON SQUARE.
XXXII. A CONVERSATION IN THE ECCLESTON SQUARE LIBRARY.
XXXIII. THE JOURNEY TO THE PRIORY.
XXXIV. THE MAN WITH THE CAMP-STOOL.
XXXV. A TALK ON THE LAWN.
XXXVI. THE INCIDENT OF THE CORRIDOR.
XXXVII. A CHASE AND A BRAWL.
XXXVIII. GIRDLESTONE SENDS FOR THE DOCTOR.
XXXIX. A GLEAM OF LIGHT.
XL. THE MAJOR HAS A LETTER.
XLI. THE CLOUDS GROW DARKER.
XLII. THE THREE FACES AT THE WINDOW.
XLIII. THE BAIT ON THE HOOK.
XLIV. THE SHADOW OF DEATH.
XLV THE INVASION OF HAMPSHIRE.
XLVI. A MIDNIGHT CRUISE.
XLVII LAW AND ORDER.
XLVIII. CAPTAIN HAMILTON MIGGS SEES A VISION.
XLIX. A VOYAGE IN A COFFIN SHIP.
L. WINDS UP THE THREAD AND TIES TWO KNOTS AT THE END.
THE FIRM OF GIRDLESTONE.
MR. JOHN HARSTON KEEPS AN APPOINTMENT.
The approach to the offices of Girdlestone and Co. was not a very dignified one, nor would the uninitiated who traversed it form any conception of the commercial prosperity of the firm in question. Close to the corner of a broad and busy street, within a couple of hundred yards of Fenchurch Street Station, a narrow doorway opens into a long whitewashed passage. On one side of this is a brass plate with the inscription "Girdlestone and Co., African Merchants," and above it a curious hieroglyphic supposed to represent a human hand in the act of pointing. Following the guidance of this somewhat ghostly emblem, the wayfarer finds himself in a small square yard surrounded by doors, upon one of which the name of the firm reappears in large white letters, with the word "Push" printed beneath it. If he follows this laconic invitation he will make his way into a long, low apartment, which is the counting-house of the African traders.
On the afternoon of which we speak things were quiet at the offices. The line of pigeon-holes in the wire curtain was deserted by the public, though the linoleum-covered floor bore abundant traces of a busy morning. Misty London light shone hazily through the glazed windows and cast dark shadows in the corners. On a high perch in the background a weary-faced, elderly man, with muttering lips and tapping fingers, cast up endless lines of figures. Beneath him, in front of two long shining mahogany desks, half a score of young men, with bent heads and stooping shoulders, appeared to be riding furiously, neck and neck, in the race of life. Any habitue of a London office might have deduced from their relentless energy and incorruptible diligence that they were under the eyes of some member of the firm.
The member in question was a broad-shouldered, bull-necked young man, who leaned against the marble mantel-piece, turning over the pages of an almanac, and taking from time to time a stealthy peep over the top of it at the toilers around him. Command was imprinted in every line of his strong, square-set face and erect, powerful frame. Above the medium size, with a vast spread of shoulder, a broad aggressive jaw, and bright bold glance, his whole pose and expression spoke of resolution pushed to the verge of obstinacy. There was something classical in the regular olive-tinted features and black, crisp, curling hair fitting tightly to the well-rounded head. Yet, though classical, there was an absence of spirituality. It was rather the profile of one of those Roman emperors, splendid in its animal strength, but lacking those subtle softnesses of eye and mouth which speak of an inner life. The heavy gold chain across the waistcoat and the bright stone which blazed upon the finger were the natural complement of the sensuous lip and curving chin. Such was Ezra, only child of John Girdlestone, and heir to the whole of his vast business. Little wonder that those who had an eye to the future bent over their ledgers and worked with a vigour calculated to attract the attention of the junior partner, and to impress him with a due sense of their enthusiastic regard for the interests of the firm.
It was speedily apparent, however, that the young gentleman's estimate of their services was not entirely based upon their present performance. With his eyes still fixed upon the almanac and a sardonic smile upon his dark face, he uttered a single word—
A flaxen-haired clerk, perched at the further end of the high glistening desk, gave a violent start, and looked up with a scared face.
"Well, Parker, who won?" asked the junior partner.
"Won, sir!" the youth stammered.
"Yes, who won?" repeated his employer.
"I hardly understand you, sir," the clerk said, growing very red and confused.
"Oh yes, you do, Parker," young Girdlestone remarked, tapping his almanac sharply with the paper-knife. "You were playing odd man out with Robson and Perkins when I came in from lunch. As I presume you were at it all the time I was away, I have a natural curiosity to know who won."
The three unhappy clerks fixed their eyes upon their ledgers to avoid the sarcastic gaze of their employer. He went on in the same quiet tones—
"You gentlemen draw about thirty shillings a week from the firm. I believe I am right in my figures, Mr. Gilray?" addressing the senior clerk seated at the high solitary desk apart from the others. "Yes, I thought so. Now, odd man out is, no doubt, a very harmless and fascinating game, but you can hardly expect us to encourage it so far as to pay so much an hour for the privilege of having it played in our counting-house. I shall therefore recommend my father to deduct five shillings from the sum which each of you will receive upon Saturday. That will cover the time which you have devoted to your own amusements during the week."
He paused, and the three culprits were beginning to cool down and congratulate themselves, when he began again.
"You will see, Mr. Gilray, that this deduction is made," he said, "and at the same time I beg that you will deduct ten shillings from your own salary, since, as senior clerk, the responsibility of keeping order in this room in the absence of your employers rests with you, and you appear to have neglected it. I trust you will look to this, Mr. Gilray."
"Yes, sir," the senior clerk answered meekly. He was an elderly man with a large family, and the lost ten shillings would make a difference to the Sunday dinner. There was nothing for it but to bow to the inevitable, and his little pinched face assumed an expression of gentle resignation. How to keep his ten young subordinates in order, however, was a problem which vexed him sorely.
The junior partner was silent, and the remaining clerks were working uneasily, not exactly knowing whether they might not presently be included in the indictment. Their fears were terminated, however, by the sharp sound of a table-gong and the appearance of a boy with the announcement that Mr. Girdlestone would like a moment's conversation with Mr. Ezra. The latter gave a keen glance at his subjects and withdrew into the back office, a disappearance which was hailed by ten pens being thrown into the air and deftly caught again, while as many derisive and triumphant young men mocked at the imploring efforts of old Gilray in the interests of law and order.
The sanctum of Mr. John Girdlestone was approached by two doors, one of oak with ground-glass panels, and the other covered with green baize. The room itself was small, but lofty, and the walls were ornamented by numerous sections of ships stuck upon long flat boards, very much as the remains of fossil fish are exhibited in museums, together with maps, charts, photographs, and lists of sailings innumerable. Above the fire-place was a large water-colour painting of the barque Belinda as she appeared when on a reef to the north of Cape Palmas. An inscription beneath this work of art announced that it had been painted by the second officer and presented by him to the head of the firm. It was generally rumoured that the merchants had lost heavily over this disaster, and there were some who quoted it as an instance of Girdlestone's habitual strength of mind that he should decorate his wall with so melancholy a souvenir. This view of the matter did not appear to commend itself to a flippant member of Lloyd's agency, who contrived to intimate, by a dexterous use of his left eyelid and right forefinger, that the vessel may not have been so much under-insured, nor the loss to the firm so enormous as was commonly reported.
John Girdlestone, as he sat at his square office-table waiting for his son, was undeniably a remarkable-looking man. For good or for evil no weak character lay beneath that hard angular face, with the strongly marked features and deep-set eyes. He was clean shaven, save for an iron-grey fringe of ragged whisker under each ear, which blended with the grizzled hair above. So self-contained, hard-set, and immutable was his expression that it was impossible to read anything from it except sternness and resolution, qualities which are as likely to be associated with the highest natures as with the most dangerous. It may have been on account of this ambiguity of expression that the world's estimate of the old merchant was a very varying one. He was known to be a fanatic in religion, a purist in morals, and a man of the strictest commercial integrity. Yet there were some few who looked askance at him, and none, save one, who could apply the word "friend" to him.
He rose and stood with his back to the fire-place as his son entered. He was so tall that he towered above the younger man, but the latter's square and compact frame made him, apart from the difference of age, the stronger man.
The young man had dropped the air of sarcasm which he found was most effective with the clerks, and had resumed his natural manner, which was harsh and brusque.
"What's up!" he asked, dropping back into a chair, and jingling the loose coins in his trouser pockets.
"I have had news of the Black Eagle," his father answered. "She is reported from Madeira."
"Ah!" cried the junior partner eagerly. "What luck?"
"She is full, or nearly so, according to Captain Hamilton Miggs' report."
"I wonder Miggs was able to send a report at all, and I wonder still more that you should put any faith in it," his son said impatiently. "The fellow is never sober."
"Miggs is a good seaman, and popular on the coast. He may indulge at times, but we all have our failings. Here is the list as vouched for by our agent. 'Six hundred barrels of palm oil'—"
"Oil is down to-day," the other interrupted.
"It will rise before the Black Eagle arrives," the merchant rejoined confidently. "Then he has palm nuts in bulk, gum, ebony, skins, cochineal, and ivory."
The young man gave a whistle of satisfaction. "Not bad for old Miggs!" he said. "Ivory is at a fancy figure."
"We are sorely in need of a few good voyages," Girdlestone remarked, "for things have been very slack of late. There is one very sad piece of intelligence here which takes away the satisfaction which we might otherwise feel. Three of the crew have died of fever. He does not mention the names."
"The devil!" said Ezra. "We know very well what that means. Three women, each with an armful of brats, besieging the office and clamouring for a pension. Why are seamen such improvident dogs?"
His father held up his white hand deprecatingly. "I wish," he said, "that you would treat these subjects with more reverence. What could be sadder than that the bread-winner of a family should be cut off? It has grieved me more than I can tell."
"Then you intend to pension the wives?" Ezra said, with a sly smile.
"By no means," his father returned with decision. "Girdlestone and Co. are not an insurance office. The labourer is worthy of his hire, but when his work in this world is over, his family must fall back upon what has been saved by his industry and thrift. It would be a dangerous precedent for us to allow pensions to the wives of these sailors, for it would deprive the others of all motive for laying their money by, and would indirectly encourage vice and dissipation."
Ezra laughed, and continued to rattle his silver and keys.
"It is not upon this matter that I desired to speak to you," Girdlestone continued. "It has, however, always been my practice to prefer matters of business to private affairs, however pressing. John Harston is said to be dying, and he has sent a message to me saying that he wishes to see me. It is inconvenient for me to leave the office, but I feel that it is my Christian duty to obey such a summons. I wish you, therefore, to look after things until I return."
"I can hardly believe that the news is true," Ezra said, in astonishment. "There must be some mistake. Why, I spoke to him on 'Change last Monday."
"It is very sudden," his father answered, taking his broad-brimmed hat from a peg. "There is no doubt about the fact, however. The doctor says that there is very little hope that he will survive until evening. It is a case of malignant typhoid."
"You are very old friends?" Ezra remarked, looking thoughtfully at his father.
"I have known him since we were boys together," the other replied, with a slight dry cough, which was the highest note of his limited emotional gamut. "Your mother, Ezra, died upon the very day that Harston's wife gave birth to this daughter of his, seventeen years ago. Mrs. Harston only survived a few days. I have heard him say that, perhaps, we should also go together. We are in the hands of a higher Power, however, and it seems that one shall be taken and another left."
"How will the money go if the doctors are right?" Ezra asked keenly.
"Every penny to the girl. She will be an heiress. There are no other relations that I know of, except the Dimsdales, and they have a fair fortune of their own. But I must go."
"By the way, malignant typhoid is very catching, is it not?"
"So they say," the merchant said quietly, and strode off through the counting-house.
Ezra Girdlestone remained behind, stretching his legs In front of the empty grate. "The governor is a hard nail," he soliloquized, as he stared down at the shining steel bars. "Depend upon it, though, he feels this more than he shows. Why, it's the only friend he ever had in the world—or ever will have, in all probability. However, it's no business of mine," with which comforting reflection he began to whistle as he turned over the pages of the private day-book of the firm.
It is possible that his son's surmise was right, and that the gaunt, unemotional African merchant felt an unwonted heartache as he hailed a hansom and drove out to his friend's house at Fulham. He and Harston had been charity schoolboys together, had roughed it together, risen together, and prospered together. When John Girdlestone was a raw-boned lad and Harston a chubby-faced urchin, the latter had come to look upon the other as his champion and guide. There are some minds which are parasitic in their nature. Alone they have little vitality, but they love to settle upon some stronger intellect, from which they may borrow their emotions and conclusions at second-hand. A strong, vigorous brain collects around it in time many others, whose mental processes are a feeble imitation of its own. Thus it came to pass that, as the years rolled on, Harston learned to lean more and more upon his old school-fellow, grafting many of his stern peculiarities upon his own simple vacuous nature, until he became a strange parody of the original. To him Girdlestone was the ideal man, Girdlestone's ways the correct ways, and Girdlestone's opinions the weightiest of all opinions. Forty years of this undeviating fidelity must, however he might conceal it, have made an impression upon the feelings of the elder man.
Harston, by incessant attention to business and extreme parsimony, had succeeded in founding an export trading concern. In this he had followed the example of his friend. There was no fear of their interests ever coming into collision, as his operations were confined to the Mediterranean. The firm grew and prospered, until Harston began to be looked upon as a warm man in the City circles. His only child was Kate, a girl of seventeen. There were no other near relatives, save Dr. Dimsdale, a prosperous West-end physician. No wonder that Ezra Girdlestone's active business mind, and perhaps that of his father too, should speculate as to the disposal of the fortune of the dying man.
Girdlestone pushed open the iron gate and strode down the gravel walk which led to his friend's house. A bright autumn sun shining out of a cloudless heaven bathed the green lawn and the many-coloured flower-beds in its golden light. The air, the leaves, the birds, all spoke of life. It was hard to think that death was closing its grip upon him who owned them all. A plump little gentleman in black was just descending the steps.
"Well, doctor," the merchant asked, "how is your patient?"
"You've not come with the intention of seeing him, have you?" the doctor asked, glancing up with some curiosity at the grey face and overhanging eyebrows of the merchant.
"Yes, I am going up to him now."
"It is a most virulent case of typhoid. He may die in an hour or he may live until nightfall, but nothing can save him. He will hardly recognize you, I fear, and you can do him no good. It is most infectious, and you are incurring a needless danger. I should strongly recommend you not to go."
"Why, you've only just come down from him yourself, doctor."
"Ah, I'm there in the way of duty."
"So am I," said the visitor decisively, and passing up the stone steps of the entrance strode into the hall. There was a large sitting-room upon the ground floor, through the open door of which the visitor saw a sight which arrested him for a moment. A young girl was sitting in a recess near the window, with her lithe, supple figure bent forward, and her hands clasped at the back of her head, while her elbows rested upon a small table in front of her. Her superb brown hair fell in a thick wave on either side over her white round arms, and the graceful curve of her beautiful neck might have furnished a sculptor with a study for a mourning Madonna. The doctor had just broken his sad tidings to her, and she was still in the first paroxysm of her grief—a grief too acute, as was evident even to the unsentimental mind of the merchant, to allow of any attempt at consolation. A greyhound appeared to think differently, for he had placed his fore-paws upon his young mistress's lap, and was attempting to thrust his lean muzzle between her arms and to lick her face in token of canine sympathy. The merchant paused irresolutely for a moment, and then ascending the broad staircase he pushed open the door of Harston's room and entered.
The blinds were drawn down and the chamber was very dark. A pungent whiff of disinfectants issued from it, mingled with the dank, heavy smell of disease. The bed was in a far corner. Without seeing him, Girdlestone could hear the fast laboured breathing of the invalid. A trimly dressed nurse who had been sitting by the bedside rose, and, recognizing the visitor, whispered a few words to him and left the room. He pulled the cord of the Venetian blind so as to admit a few rays of daylight. The great chamber looked dreary and bare, as carpet and hangings had been removed to lessen the chance of future infection. John Girdlestone stepped softly across to the bedside and sat down by his dying friend.
The sufferer was lying on his back, apparently unconscious of all around him. His glazed eyes were turned upwards towards the ceiling, and his parched lips were parted, while the breath came in quick, spasmodic gasps. Even the unskilled eye of the merchant could tell that the angel of death was hovering very near him. With an ungainly attempt at tenderness, which had something pathetic in it, he moistened a sponge and passed it over the sick man's feverish brow. The latter turned his restless head round, and a gleam of recognition and gratitude came into his eyes.
"I knew that you would come," he said.
"Yes. I came the moment that I got your message."
"I am glad that you are here," the sufferer continued with a sigh of relief. From the brightened expression upon his pinched face, it seemed as if, even now in the jaws of death, he leaned upon his old schoolfellow and looked to him for assistance. He put a wasted hand above the counterpane and laid it upon Girdlestone's.
"I wish to speak to you, John," he said. "I am very weak. Can you hear what I say?"
"Yes, I hear you."
"Give me a spoonful from that bottle. It clears my mind for a time. I have been making my will, John."
"Yes," said the merchant, replacing the medicine bottle.
"The lawyer made it this morning. Stoop your head and you will hear me better. I have less than fifty thousand. I should have done better had I retired years ago."
"I told you so," the other broke in gruffly.
"You did—you did. But I acted for the best. Forty thousand I leave to my dear daughter Kate."
A look of interest came over Girdlestone's face. "And the balance?" he asked.
"I leave that to be equally divided among the various London institutions for educating the poor. We were both poor boys ourselves, John, and we know the value of such schools."
Girdlestone looked perhaps a trifle disappointed. The sick man went on very slowly and painfully—
"My daughter will have forty thousand pounds. But it is so tied up that she can neither touch it herself nor enable any one else to do so until she is of age. She has no friends, John, and no relations, save only my cousin, Dr. George Dimsdale. Never was a girl left more lonely and unprotected. Take her, I beg of you, and bring her up under your own eye. Treat her as though she were your child. Guard her above all from those who would wreck her young life in order to share her fortune. Do this, old friend, and make me happy on my deathbed."
The merchant made no answer. His heavy eyebrows were drawn down, and his forehead all puckered with thought.
"You are the one man," continued the sufferer, "whom I know to be just and upright. Give me the water, for my mouth is dry. Should, which God forbid, my dear girl perish before she marries, then—" His breath failed him for a moment, and he paused to recover it.
"Well, what then?"
"Then, old friend, her fortune reverts to you, for there is none who will use it so well. Those are the terms of the will. But you will guard her and care for her, as I would myself. She is a tender plant, John, too weak to grow alone. Promise me that you will do right by her—promise it?"
"I do promise it," John Girdlestone answered in a deep voice. He was standing up now, and leaning over to catch the words of the dying man.
Harston was sinking rapidly. With a feeble motion he pointed to a brown-backed volume upon the table.
"Take up the book," he said.
The merchant picked it up.
"Now, repeat after me, I swear and solemnly pledge myself—"
"I swear and solemnly pledge myself—
"To treasure and guard as if she were my own—" came the tremulous voice from the bed.
"To treasure and guard as if she were my own—" in the deep bass of the merchant.
"Kate Harston, the daughter of my deceased friend—"
"Kate Harston, the daughter of my deceased friend—"
"And as I treat her, so may my own flesh and blood treat me!"
"And as I treat her, so may my own flesh and blood treat me!"
The sick man's head fell back exhausted upon his pillow. "Thank God!" he muttered, "now I can die in peace."
"Turn your mind away from the vanities and dross of this world," John Girdlestone said sternly, "and fix it upon that which is eternal, and can never die."
"Are you going?" the invalid asked sadly, for he had taken up his hat and stick.
"Yes, I must go; I have an appointment in the City at six, which I must not miss."
"And I have an appointment which I must not miss," the dying man said with a feeble smile.
"I shall send up the nurse as I go down," Girdlestone said. "Good-bye!"
"Good-bye! God bless you, John!"
The firm, strong hand of the hale man enclosed for a moment the feeble, burning one of the sufferer. Then John Girdlestone plodded heavily down the stair, and these friends of forty years' standing had said their last adieu.
The African merchant kept his appointment in the City, but long before he reached it John Harston had gone also to keep that last terrible appointment of which the messenger is death.
CHARITY A LA MODE.
It was a dull October morning in Fenchurch Street, some weeks after the events with which our story opened. The murky City air looked murkier still through the glazed office windows. Girdlestone, grim and grey, as though he were the very embodiment of the weather, stooped over his mahogany table. He had a long list in front of him, on which he was checking off, as a prelude to the day's work, the position in the market of the various speculations in which the capital of the firm was embarked. His son Ezra lounged in an easy chair opposite him, looking dishevelled and dark under the eyes, for he had been up half the night, and the Nemesis of reaction was upon him.
"Faugh!" his father ejaculated, glancing round at him with disgust. "You have been drinking already this morning."
"I took a brandy and seltzer on the way to the office," he answered carelessly. "I needed one to steady me."
"A young fellow of your age should not want steadying. You have a strong constitution, but you must not play tricks with it. You must have been very late last night. It was nearly one before I went to bed."
"I was playing cards with Major Clutterbuck and one or two others. We kept it up rather late."
"With Major Clutterbuck?"
"I don't care about your consorting so much with that man. He drinks and gambles, and does you no good. What good has he ever done himself? Take care that he does not fleece you." The merchant felt instinctively, as he glanced at the shrewd, dark face of his son, that the warning was a superfluous one.
"No fear, father," Ezra answered sulkily; "I am old enough to choose my own friends."
"Why such a friend as that?"
"I like to know men of that class. You are a successful man, father, but you—well, you can't be much help to me socially. You need some one to show you the ropes, and the major is my man. When I can stand alone, I'll soon let him know it."
"Well, go your own way," said Girdlestone shortly. Hard to all the world, he was soft only in this one direction. From childhood every discussion between father and son had ended with the same words.
"It is business time," he resumed. "Let us confine ourselves to business. I see that Illinois were at 112 yesterday."
"They are at 113 this morning."
"What! have you been on 'Change already?"
"Yes, I dropped in there on my way to the office. I would hold on to those. They will go up for some days yet."
The senior partner made a pencil note on the margin of the list.
"We'll hold on to the cotton we have," he said.
"No, sell out at once," Ezra answered with decision, "I saw young Featherstone, of Liverpool, last night, or rather this morning. It was hard to make head or tail of what the fool said, but he let fall enough to show that there was likely to be a drop."
Girdlestone made another mark upon the paper. He never questioned his son's decisions now, for long experience had shown him that they were never formed without solid grounds. "Take this list, Ezra," he said, handing him the paper, "and run your eye over it. If you see anything that wants changing, mark it."
"I'll do it in the counting-house," his son answered. "I can keep my eye on those lazy scamps of clerks. Gilray has no idea of keeping them in order."
As he went out he cannoned against an elderly gentleman in a white waistcoat, who was being shown in, and who ricochetted off him into the office, where he shook hands heartily with the elder Girdlestone. It was evident from the laboured cordiality of the latter's greeting that the new-comer was a man of some importance. He was, indeed, none other than the well-known philanthropist, Mr. Jefferson Edwards, M.P. for Middlehurst, whose name upon a bill was hardly second to that of Rothschild.
"How do, Girdlestone, how do?" he exclaimed, mopping his face with his handkerchief. He was a fussy little man, with a brusque, nervous manner. "Hard at it as usual, eh? Always pegging away. Wonderful man. Ha, ha! Wonderful!"
"You look warm," the merchant answered, rubbing his hands. "Let me offer you some claret. I have some in the cupboard."
"No, thank you," the visitor answered, staring across at the head of the firm as though he were some botanical curiosity. "Extraordinary fellow. 'Iron' Girdlestone, they call you in the City. A good name, too— ha! ha!—an excellent name. Iron-grey, you know, and hard to look at, but soft here, my dear sir, soft here." The little man tapped him with his walking-stick over the cardiac region and laughed boisterously, while his grim companion smiled slightly and bowed to the compliment.
"I've come here begging," said Mr. Jefferson Edwards, producing a portentous-looking roll of paper from an inner pocket. "Know I've come to the right place for charity. The Aboriginal Evolution Society, my dear boy. All it wants are a few hundreds to float it off. Noble aim, Girdlestone—glorious object."
"What is the object?" the merchant asked.
"Well, the evolution of the aborigines," Edwards answered in some confusion. "Sort of practical Darwinism. Evolve 'em into higher types, and turn 'em all white in time. Professor Wilder gave us a lecture about it. I'll send you round a Times with the account. Spoke about their thumbs. They can't cross them over their palms, and they have rudimentary tails, or had until they were educated off them. They wore all the hair off their backs by leaning against trees. Marvellous things! All they want is a little money."
"It seems to be a praiseworthy object," the merchant said gravely.
"I knew that you would think so!" cried the little philanthropist enthusiastically. "Of course, bartering as you do with aboriginal races, their development and evolution is a matter of the deepest importance to you. If a man came down to barter with you who had a rudimentary tail and couldn't bend his thumb—well, it wouldn't be pleasant, you know. Our idea is to elevate them in the scale of humanity and to refine their tastes. Hewett, of the Royal Society, went to report on the matter a year or so back, and some rather painful incident occurred. I believe Hewett met with some mishap—in fact, they go the length of saying that he was eaten. So you see we've had our martyrs, my dear friend, and the least that we can do who stay at home at ease is to support a good cause to the best of our ability."
"Whose names have you got?" asked the merchant.
"Let's see," Jefferson Edwards said, unfolding his list. "Spriggs, ten; Morton, ten; Wigglesworth, five; Hawkins, ten; Indermann, fifteen; Jones, five; and a good many smaller amounts."
"What is the highest as yet?"
"Indermann, the tobacco importer, has given fifteen."
"It is a good cause," Mr. Girdlestone said, dipping his pen into the ink-bottle. "'He that giveth'—you know what the good old Book says. Of course a list of the donations will be printed and circulated?"
"Here is my cheque for twenty-five pounds. I am proud to have had this opportunity of contributing towards the regeneration of those poor souls whom Providence has placed in a lower sphere than myself."
"Girdlestone," said the member of Parliament with emotion, as he pocketed the cheque, "you are a good man. I shall not forget this, my friend; I shall never forget it."
"Wealth has its duties, and charity is among them," Girdlestone answered with unction, shaking the philanthropist's extended hand. "Good-bye, my dear sir. Pray let me know if our efforts are attended with any success. Should more money be needed, you know one who may be relied on."
There was a sardonic smile upon the hard face of the senior partner as he closed the door behind his visitor. "It's a legitimate investment," he muttered to himself as he resumed his seat. "What with his Parliamentary interest and his financial power, it's a very legitimate investment. It looks well on the list, too, and inspires confidence. I think the money is well spent."
Ezra had bowed politely as the great man passed through the office, and Gilray, the wizened senior clerk, opened the outer door. Jefferson Edwards turned as he passed him and clapped him on the shoulder.
"Lucky fellow," he said in his jerky way. "Good employer—model to follow—great man. Watch him, mark him, imitate him—that's the way to get on. Can't go wrong," and he trotted down the street in search of fresh contributions towards his latest fad.
THOMAS GILRAY MAKES AN INVESTMENT.
The shambling little clerk was still standing at the door watching the retreating figure of the millionaire, and mentally splicing together his fragmentary remarks into a symmetrical piece of advice which might be carried home and digested at leisure, when his attention was attracted to a pale-faced woman, with a child in her arms, who was hanging about the entrance. She looked up at the clerk in a wistful way, as if anxious to address him and yet afraid to do so. Then noting, perhaps, some gleam of kindness in his yellow wrinkled face, she came across to him.
"D'ye think I could see Muster Girdlestone, sir," she asked, with a curtsey; "or, maybe, you're Mr. Girdlestone yourself?" The woman was wretchedly dressed, and her eyelids were swollen and red as from long crying.
"Mr. Girdlestone is in his room," said the head clerk kindly. "I have no doubt that he will see you if you will wait for a moment." Had he been speaking to the grandest of the be-silked and be-feathered dames who occasionally frequented the office; he could not have spoken with greater courtesy. Verily in these days the spirit of true chivalry has filtered down from the surface and has found a lodgment in strange places.
The merchant looked with a surprised and suspicious eye at his visitor when she was ushered in. "Take a seat, my good woman," he said. "What can I do for you?"
"Please, Mr. Girdlestone, I'm Mrs. Hudson," she answered, seating herself in a timid way upon the extreme edge of a chair. She was weary and footsore, for she had carried the baby up from Stepney that morning.
"Hudson—Hudson—can't remember the name," said Girdlestone, shaking his head reflectively.
"Jim Hudson as was, sir, he was my husband, the bo'sun for many a year o' your ship the Black Eagle. He went out to try and earn a bit for me and the child, sir, but he's dead o' fever, poor dear, and lying in Bonny river, wi' a cannon ball at his feet, as the carpenter himself told me who sewed him up, and I wish I was dead and with him, so I do." She began sobbing in her shawl and moaning, while the child, suddenly awakened by the sound, rubbed its eyes with its wrinkled mottled hands, and then proceeded to take stock of Mr. Girdlestone and his office with the critical philosophy of infancy.
"Calm yourself, my good woman, calm yourself," said the senior partner. He perceived that the evil prophesied by his son had come upon him, and he made a mental note of this fresh instance of Ezra's powers of foresight.
"It was hard, so it was," said Mrs. Hudson, drying her eyes, but still giving vent to an occasional tempestuous sob. "I heard as the Black Eagle was comin' up the river, so I spent all I had in my pocket in makin' Jim a nice little supper—ham an' eggs, which was always his favourite, an' a pint o' bitter, an' a quartern o' whiskey that he could take hot after, bein' naturally o' a cold turn, and him comin' from a warm country, too. Then out I goes, and down the river, until I sees the Black Eagle a-comin' up wi' a tug in front of her. Well I knowed the two streaks o' white paint, let alone the screechin' o' the parrots which I could hear from the bank. I could see the heads o' some of the men peepin' over the side, so I waves my handkercher, and one o' them he waves back. 'Trust Jim for knowin' his little wife,' says I, proud like to myself, and I runs round to where I knew as they'd dock her. What with me being that excited that I couldn't rightly see where I was going, and what with the crowd, for the men was comin' from work, I didn't get there till the ship was alongside. Then I jumps aboard, and the first man I seed was Sandy McPherson, who I knowed when we lived in Binnacle Lane. 'Where's Jim?' I cried, running forward, eager like, to the forecastle, but he caught me by the arm as I passed him. 'Steady, lass, steady!' Then I looked up at him, and his face was very grave, and my knees got kind o' weak. 'Where's Jim?' says I. 'Don't ask,' says he. 'Where is he, Sandy?' I screeches; and then, 'Don't say the word, Sandy, don't you say it.' But, Lor' bless ye, sir, it didn't much matter what he said nor what he didn't, for I knowed all, an' down I flops on the deck in a dead faint. The mate, he took me home in a cab, and when I come to there was the supper lying, sir, and the beer, and the things a-shinin', and all so cosy, an' the child askin' where her father was, for I told her he'd bring her some things from Africa. Then, to think of him a-lyin' dead in Bonny river, why, sir, it nigh broke my heart."
"A sore affliction," the merchant said, shaking his grizzled head. "A sad visitation. But these things are sent to try us, Mrs. Hudson. They are warnings to us not to fix our thoughts too much upon the dross of this world, but to have higher aims and more durable aspirations. We are poor short-sighted creatures, the best of us, and often mistake evil for good. What seems so sad to-day may, if taken in a proper spirit, be looked back upon as a starting-point from which all the good of your life has come."
"Bless you, sir!" said the widow, still furtively rubbing her eyes with the corner of her little shawl. "You're a real kind gentleman. It does me good to hear you talk."
"We have all our burdens and misfortunes," continued the senior partner. "Some have more, some have less. To-day is your turn, to-morrow it may be mine. But let us struggle on to the great goal, and the weight of our burden need never cause us to sink by the wayside. And now I must wish you a very good morning, Mrs. Hudson. Believe me, you have my hearty sympathy."
The woman rose and then stood irresolute for a moment, as though there was something which she still wished to mention.
"When will I be able to draw Jim's back pay, sir?" she asked nervously. "I have pawned nigh everything in the house, and the child and me is weak from want of food."
"Your husband's back pay," the merchant said, taking down a ledger from the shelf and turning rapidly over the leaves. "I think that you are under a delusion, Mrs. Hudson. Let me see—Dawson, Duffield, Everard, Francis, Gregory, Gunter, Hardy. Ah, here it is—Hudson, boatswain of the Black Eagle. The wages which he received amounted, I see, to five pounds a month. The voyage lasted eight months, but the ship had only been out two months and a half when your husband died."
"That's true, sir," the widow said, with an anxious look at the long line of figures in the ledger.
"Of course, the contract ended at his death, so the firm owed him twelve pounds ten at that date. But I perceive from my books that you have been drawing half-pay during the whole eight months. You have accordingly had twenty pounds from the firm, and are therefore in its debt to the amount of seven pounds ten shillings. We'll say nothing of that at present," the senior partner concluded with a magnificent air. "When you are a little better off you can make good the balance, but really you can hardly expect us to assist you any further at present."
"But, sir, we have nothing," Mrs. Hudson sobbed.
"It is deplorable, most deplorable. But we are not the people to apply to. Your own good sense will tell you that, now that I have explained it to you. Good morning. I wish you good fortune, and hope you will let us know from time to time how you go on. We always take a keen interest in the families of those who serve us." Mr. Girdlestone opened the door, and the heart-sick little woman staggered away across the office, still bearing her heavy child.
When she got into the open air she stared around her like one dazed. The senior clerk looked anxiously at her as he stood at the open door. Then he glanced back into the office. Ezra Girdlestone was deep in some accounts, and his brother clerks were all absorbed in their work. He stole up to the woman, with an apologetic smile, slipped something into her hand, and then hurried back into the office with an austere look upon his face, as if his whole mind were absorbed in the affairs of the firm. There are speculations above the ken of business men. Perhaps, Thomas Gilray, that ill-spared half-crown of yours may bring in better interest than the five-and-twenty pounds of your employer.
CAPTAIN HAMILTON MIGGS OF THE "BLACK EAGLE."
The head of the firm had hardly recovered his mental serenity after the painful duty of explaining her financial position to the Widow Hudson, when his quick ear caught the sound of a heavy footstep in the counting-house. A gruff voice was audible at the same time, which demanded in rather more energetic language than was usually employed in that orderly establishment, whether the principal was to be seen or not. The answer was evidently in the affirmative, for the lumbering tread came rapidly nearer, and a powerful double knock announced that the visitor was at the other side of the door.
"Come in," cried Mr. Girdlestone, laying down his pen.
This invitation was so far complied with that the handle turned, and the door revolved slowly upon its hinges. Nothing more substantial than a strong smell of spirituous liquors, however, entered the apartment.
"Come in," the merchant repeated impatiently.
At this second mandate a great tangled mass of black hair was slowly protruded round the angle of the door. Then a copper-coloured forehead appeared, with a couple of very shaggy eyebrows and eventually a pair of eyes, which protruded from their sockets and looked yellow and unhealthy. These took a long look, first at the senior partner and then at his surroundings, after which, as if reassured by the inspection, the remainder of the face appeared—a flat nose, a large mouth with a lower lip which hung down and exposed a line of tobacco-stained teeth, and finally a thick black beard which bristled straight out from the chin, and bore abundant traces of an egg having formed part of its owner's morning meal. The head having appeared, the body soon followed it, though all in the same anaconda-like style of progression, until the individual stood revealed. He was a stoutly-built sea-faring man, dressed in a pea jacket and blue trousers and holding his tarpaulin hat in his hand. With a rough scrape and a most unpleasant leer he advanced towards the merchant, a tattoed and hairy hand outstretched in sign of greeting.
"Why, captain," said the head of the firm, rising and grasping the other's hand with effusion, "I am glad to see you back safe and well."
"Glad to see ye, sir—glad to see ye."
His voice was thick and husky, and there was an indecision about his gait as though he had been drinking heavily. "I came in sort o' cautious," he continued, "'cause I didn't know who might be about. When you and me speaks together we likes to speak alone, you bet."
The merchant raised his bushy eyebrows a little, as though he did not relish the idea of mutual confidences suggested by his companion's remark. "Hadn't you better take a seat?" he said.
The other took a cane-bottomed chair and carried it into the extreme corner of the office. Then having looked steadily at the wall behind him, and rapped it with his knuckles, he sat down, still throwing an occasional apprehensive glance over his shoulder. "I've got a touch of the jumps," he remarked apologetically to his employer. "I likes to know as there ain't no one behind me."
"You should give up this shocking habit of drinking," Mr. Girdlestone said seriously. "It is a waste of the best gifts with which Providence has endowed us. You are the worse for it both in this world and in the next."
Captain Hamilton Miggs did not seem to be at all impressed by this very sensible piece of advice. On the contrary, he chuckled boisterously to himself, and, slapping his thigh, expressed his opinion that his employer was a "rum 'un"—a conviction which he repeated to himself several times with various symptoms of admiration.
"Well, well," Girdlestone said, after a short pause, "boys will be boys, and sailors, I suppose, will be sailors. After eight months of anxiety and toil, ending in success, captain—I am proud to be able to say the words—some little licence must be allowed. I do not judge others by the same hard and fast lines by which I regulate my own conduct."
This admirable sentiment also failed to elicit any response from the obdurate Miggs, except the same manifestations of mirth and the same audible aside as to the peculiarities of his master's character.
"I must congratulate you on your cargo, and wish you the same luck for your next voyage," the merchant continued.
"Ivory, an' gold dust, an' skins, an' resin, an' cochineal, an' gums, an' ebony, an' rice, an' tobacco, an' fruits, an' nuts in bulk. If there's a better cargo about, I'd like to see it," the sailor said defiantly.
"An excellent cargo, captain; very good indeed. Three of your men died, I believe?"
"Ay, three of the lubbers went under. Two o' fever and one o' snake-bite. It licks me what sailors are comin' to in these days. When I was afore the mast we'd ha' been ashamed to die o' a trifle like that. Look at me. I've been down wi' coast fever sixteen times, and I've had yellow jack an' dysentery, an' I've been bit by the black cobra in the Andamans. I've had cholera, too. It broke out in a brig when I was in the Sandwich Island trade, and I was shipmates wi' seven dead out o' a crew o' ten. But I ain't none the worse for it—no, nor never will be. But I say, gov'nor, hain't you got a drop of something about the office?"
The senior partner rose, and taking a bottle from the cupboard filled out a stiff glass of rum. The sailor drank it off eagerly, and laid down the empty tumbler with a sigh of satisfaction.
"Say, now," he said, with an unpleasant confidential leer, "weren't you surprised to see us come back—eh? Straight now, between man and man?"
"The old ship hangs together well, and has lots of work in her yet," the merchant answered.
"Lots of work! God's truth, I thought she was gone in the bay! We'd a dirty night with a gale from the west-sou'-west, an' had been goin' by dead reckonin' for three days, so we weren't over and above sure o' ourselves. She wasn't much of a sea-going craft when we left England, but the sun had fried all the pitch out o' her seams, and you might ha' put your finger through some of them. Two days an' a night we were at the pumps, for she leaked like a sieve. We lost the fore topsail, blown clean out o' the ringbolts. I never thought to see Lunnon again."
"If she could weather a gale like that she could make another voyage."
"She could start on another," the sailor said gloomily, "but as like as not she'd never see the end o't."
"Come, come, you're not quite yourself this morning, Miggs. We value you as a dashing, fearless fellow—let me fill your glass again—who doesn't fear a little risk where there's something to be gained. You'll lose your good name if you go on like that."
"She's in a terrible bad way," the captain insisted. "You'll have to do something before she can go."
"What shall we have to do?"
"Dry dock her and give her a thorough overhaul. She might sink before she got out o' the Channel if she went as she is just now."
"Very well," the merchant said coldly. "If you insist on it, it must be done. But, of course, it would make a great difference in your salary."
"You are at present getting fifteen pounds a month, and five per cent. commission. These are exceptional terms in consideration of any risk that you may run. We shall dry dock the Black Eagle, and your salary is now ten pounds a month and two and a half commission."
"Belay, there, belay!" the sailor shouted. His coppery face was a shade darker than usual, and his bilious eyes had a venomous gleam in them. "Don't you beat me down, curse you!" he hissed, advancing to the table and leaning his hands upon it while he pushed his angry face forward until it was within a foot of that of the merchant. "Don't you try that game on, mate, for I am a free-born British seaman, and I am under the thumb of no man."
"You're drunk," said the senior partner. "Sit down!"
"You'd reduce my screw, would ye?" roared Captain Hamilton Miggs, working himself into a fury. "Me that has worked for ye, and slaved for ye, and risked my life for ye. You try it on, guv'nor; just you try it on! Suppose I let out that little story o' the painting out o' the marks—where would the firm of Girdlestone be then! I guess you'd rather double my wage than have that yarn goin' about."
"What do you mean?"
"What do I mean? You don't know what I mean, do you? Of course not. It wasn't you as set us on to go at night and paint out the Government Plimsoll marks and then paint 'em in again higher up, so as to be able to overload. That wasn't you, was it?"
"Do you mean to assert that it was?"
"In course I do," thundered the angry seaman.
The senior partner struck the gong which stood upon the table. "Gilray," he said quietly, "go out and bring in a policeman."
Captain Hamilton Miggs seemed to be somewhat startled by this sudden move of his antagonist. "Steady your helm, governor," he said. "What are ye up to now?"
"I'm going to give you in charge."
"For intimidation and using threatening language, and endeavouring to extort money under false pretences."
"There's no witnesses," the sailor said in a half-cringing, half-defiant manner.
"Oh yes, there are," Ezra Girdlestone remarked, coming into the room. He had been standing between the two doors which led to the counting-house, and had overheard the latter portion of the conversation. "Don't let me interrupt you. You were saying that you would blacken my father's character unless he increased your salary."
"I didn't mean no harm," said Captain Hamilton Miggs, glancing nervously from the one to the other. He had been fairly well known to the law in his younger days, and had no desire to renew the acquaintance.
"Who painted out those Plimsoll marks?" asked the merchant.
"It was me."
"Did any one suggest it to you?"
"Shall I send in the policeman, sir?" asked Gilray, opening the door.
"Ask him to wait for a moment," Girdlestone answered.
"And now, captain, to return to the original point, shall we dry dock the Black Eagle and reduce the salary, or do you see your way to going back in her on the same terms?"
"I'll go back and be damned to it!" said the captain recklessly, plunging his hands into the pockets of his pea jacket and plumping back into his chair.
"That's right," his grim employer remarked approvingly.
"But swearing is a most sinful practice. Send the policeman away, Ezra."
The young man went out with an amused smile, and the two were left together again.
"You'll not be able to pass the Government inspector unless you do something to her," the seaman said after a long pause, during which he brooded over his wrongs.
"Of course we shall do something. The firm is not mean, though it avoids unnecessary expense. We'll put a coat of paint on her, and some pitch, and do up the rigging. She's a stout old craft, and with one of the smartest sailors afloat in command of her—for we always give you credit for being that—she'll run many a voyage yet."
"I'm paid for the risk, guv'nor, as you said just now," the sailor remarked. "But don't it seem kind o' hard on them as isn't—on the mates an' the hands?"
"There is always a risk, my dear captain. There is nothing in the world without risk. You remember what is said about those who go down to the sea in ships. They see the wonders of the deep, and in return they incur some little danger. My house in Eccleston Square might be shaken down by an earthquake, or a gale might blow in the walls, but I'm not always brooding over the chance of it. There's no use your taking it for granted that some misfortune will happen to the Black Eagle."
The sailor was silenced, but not convinced by his employer's logic. "Well, well," he said sulkily, "I am going, so there's an end of it, and there's no good in having any more palaver about it. You have your object in running rotten ships, and you make it worth my while to take my chances in them. I'm suited, and you're suited, so there's no more to be said."
"That's right. Have some more rum?"
"No, not a spot."
"Because I likes to keep my head pretty clear when I'm a-talkin' to you, Muster Girdlestone. Out o' your office I'll drink to further orders, but I won't do business and muddle myself at the same time. When d'ye want me to start?"
"When she's unloaded and loaded up again. Three weeks or a month yet. I expect that Spender will have come in with the Maid of Athens by that time."
"Unless some accident happens on the way," said Captain Hamilton Miggs, with his old leer. "He was at Sierra Leone when we came up the coast. I couldn't put in there, for the swabs have got a warrant out ag'in me for putting a charge o' shot into a nigger."
"That was a wicked action—very wrong, indeed," the merchant said gravely. "You must consider the interests of the firm, Miggs. We can't afford to have a good port blocked against our ships in this fashion. Did they serve this writ on you?"
"Another nigger brought it aboard."
"Did you read it?"
"No; I threw it overboard."
"And what became of the negro?"
"Well," said Miggs with a grin, "when I threw the writ overboard he happened to be a-holdin' on to it. So, ye see, he went over, too. Then I up anchor and scooted."
"There are sharks about there?"
"Really, Miggs," the merchant said, "you must restrain your sinful passions. You have broken the fifth commandment, and closed the trade of Freetown to the Black Eagle."
"It never was worth a rap," the sailor answered. "I wouldn't give a cuss for any of the British settlements. Give me real niggers, chaps as knows nothing of law or civilizing, or any rot of the sort. I can pull along with them.
"I have often wondered how you managed it," Girdlestone said curiously. "You succeed in picking up a cargo where the steadiest and best men can't get as much as a bag of nuts. How do you work it?"
"There's many would like to know that," Miggs answered, with an expressive wink.
"It is a secret, then?"
"Well, it ain't a secret to you, 'cause you ain't a skipper, and it don't matter if you knows it or not. I don't want to have 'em all at the same game."
"How is it, then?"
"I'll tell ye," said Miggs. He seemed to have recovered his serenity by this time, and his eyes twinkled as he spoke of his own exploits. "I gets drunk with them. That's how I does it."
"Yes, that's how it's worked. Lord love ye, when these fust-class certificated, second-cousin-to-an-earl merchant skippers comes out they move about among the chiefs and talks down to them as if they was tin Methuselahs on wheels. The Almighty's great coat wouldn't make a waistcoat for some o' these blokes. Now when I gets among 'em I has 'em all into the cabin, though they're black an' naked, an' the smell ain't over an' above pleasant. Then I out with the rum and it's 'help yourself an' pass the bottle.' Pretty soon, d'ye see, their tongues get loosened, and as I lie low an' keep dark I gets a pretty good idea o' what's in the market. Then when I knows what's to be got, it's queer if I don't manage to get it. Besides, they like a little notice, just as Christians does, and they remembers me because I treat them well."
"An excellent plan, Miggs—a capital plan!" said the senior partner. "You are an invaluable servant."
"Well," the captain said, rising from his chair, "I'm getting a great deal too dry with all this palaver. I don't mind gettin' drunk with nigger chiefs, but I'm darned if I'll—" He paused, but the grim smile on his companion's face showed that he appreciated the compliment.
"I say," he continued, giving his employer a confidential nudge with his elbow, "suppose we'd gone down in the bay this last time, you'd ha' been a bit out in your reckoning—eh, what?"
"Well, we were over-insured on our outward passage. An accident then might ha' put thousands in your pocket, I know. Coming back, though, the cargo was worth more than the insurance, I reckon. You'd ha' been out o' pocket if we'd foundered. It would ha' been a case o' the engineer hoisted on his own Peter, as Shakspere says."
"We take our chance of these things," the merchant said with dignity.
"Well, good morning, guv'nor," Captain Hamilton Miggs said brusquely. "When you wants me you can lay your hands on me at the old crib, the Cock and Cowslip, Rotherhithe."
As he passed out through the office, Ezra rejoined his father.
"He's a curious chap," he remarked, jerking his head in the direction which Miggs had taken. "I heard him bellowing like a bull, so I thought I had best listen to what he had to say. He's a useful servant, though."
"The fellow's half a savage himself," his father said. "He's in his element among them. That's why he gets on so well with them."
"He doesn't seem much the worse for the climate, either."
"His body does not, but his soul, Ezra, his soul? However, to return to business. I wish you to see the underwriters and pay the premium of the Black Eagle. If you see your way to it, increase the policy; but do it carefully, Ezra, and with tact. She will start about the time of the equinoctial gales. If anything should happen to her, it would be as well that the firm should have a margin on the right side."
Edinburgh University may call herself with grim jocoseness the "alma mater" of her students, but if she be a mother at all she is one of a very heroic and Spartan cast, who conceals her maternal affection with remarkable success. The only signs of interest which she ever designs to evince towards her alumni are upon those not infrequent occasions when guineas are to be demanded from them. Then one is surprised to find how carefully the old hen has counted her chickens, and how promptly the demand is conveyed to each one of the thousands throughout the empire who, in spite of neglect, cherish a sneaking kindness for their old college. There is symbolism in the very look of her, square and massive, grim and grey, with never a pillar or carving to break the dead monotony of the great stone walls. She is learned, she is practical, and she is useful. There is little sentiment or romance in her composition, however, and in this she does but conform to the instincts of the nation of which she is the youngest but the most flourishing teacher.
A lad coming up to an English University finds himself In an enlarged and enlightened public school. If he has passed through Harrow and Eton there is no very abrupt transition between the life which he has led in the sixth form and that which he finds awaiting him on the banks of the Cam and the Isis. Certain rooms are found for him which have been inhabited by generations of students in the past, and will be by as many in the future. His religion is cared for, and he is expected to put in an appearance at hall and at chapel. He must be within bounds at a fixed time. If he behave indecorously he is liable to be pounced upon and reported by special officials, and a code of punishments is hung perpetually over his head. In return for all this his University takes a keen interest in him. She pats him on the back if he succeeds. Prizes and scholarships, and fine fat fellowships are thrown plentifully in his way if he will gird up his loins and aspire to them.
There is nothing of this in a Scotch University. The young aspirant pays his pound, and finds himself a student. After that he may do absolutely what he will. There are certain classes going on at certain hours, which he may attend if he choose. If not, he may stay away without the slightest remonstrance from the college. As to religion, he may worship the sun, or have a private fetish of his own upon the mantelpiece of his lodgings for all that the University cares. He may live where he likes, he may keep what hours he chooses, and he is at liberty to break every commandment in the decalogue as long as he behaves himself with some approach to decency within the academical precincts. In every way he is absolutely his own master. Examinations are periodically held, at which he may appear or not, as he chooses. The University is a great unsympathetic machine, taking in a stream of raw-boned cartilaginous youths at one end, and turning them out at the other as learned divines, astute lawyers, and skilful medical men. Of every thousand of the raw material about six hundred emerge at the other side. The remainder are broken in the process.
The merits and faults of this Scotch system are alike evident. Left entirely to his own devices in a far from moral city, many a lad falls at the very starting-point of his life's race, never to rise again. Many become idlers or take to drink, while others, after wasting time and money which they could ill afford, leave the college with nothing learned save vice. On the other hand, those whose manliness and good sense keep them straight have gone through a training which lasts them for life. They have been tried, and have not been found wanting. They have learned self-reliance, confidence, and, in a word, have become men of the world while their confreres in England are still magnified schoolboys.
High up in a third flat in Howe Street one, Thomas Dimsdale, was going through his period of probation in a little bedroom and a large sitting-room, which latter, "more studentium," served the purpose of dining-room, parlour, and study. A dingy sideboard, with four still more dingy chairs and an archaeological sofa, made up the whole of the furniture, with the exception of a circular mahogany centre-table, littered with note-books and papers. Above the mantelpiece was a fly-blown mirror with innumerable cards and notices projecting in a fringe all around, and a pair of pipe racks flanking it on either side. Along the centre of the side-board, arranged with suspicious neatness, as though seldom disturbed, stood a line of solemn books, Holden's Osteology, Quain's Anatomy, Kirkes' Physiology, and Huxley's Invertebrata, together with a disarticulated human skull. On one side of the fireplace two thigh bones were stacked; on the other a pair of foils, two basket-hilted single-sticks, and a set of boxing-gloves. On a shelf in a convenient niche was a small stock of general literature, which appeared to have been considerably more thumbed than the works upon medicine. Thackeray's Esmond and Meredith's Richard Feveret rubbed covers with Irving's Conquest of Granada and a tattered line of paper-covered novels. Over the sideboard was a framed photograph of the Edinburgh University Football Fifteen, and opposite it a smaller one of Dimsdale himself, clad in the scantiest of garb, as he appeared after winning the half-mile at the Inter-University Handicap. A large silver goblet, the trophy of that occasion, stood underneath upon a bracket. Such was the student's chamber upon the morning in question, save that in a roomy arm-chair in the corner the young gentleman himself was languidly reclining, with a short wooden pipe in his mouth, and his feet perched up upon the side of the table.
Grey-eyed, yellow-haired, broad in the chest and narrow in the loins, with the strength of a bullock and the graceful activity of a stag, it would be hard to find a finer specimen of young British manhood. The long, fine curves of the limbs, and the easy pose of the round, strong head upon the thick, muscular neck, might have served as a model to an Athenian sculptor. There was nothing in the face, however, to recall the regular beauty of the East. It was Anglo-Saxon to the last feature, with its honest breadth between the eyes and its nascent moustache, a shade lighter in colour than the sun-burned skin. Shy, and yet strong; plain, and yet pleasing; it was the face of a type of man who has little to say for himself in this world, and says that little badly, but who has done more than all the talkers and the writers to ring this planet round with a crimson girdle of British possessions.
"Wonder whether Jack Garraway is ready!" he murmured, throwing down the Scotsman, and staring up at the roof. "It's nearly eleven o'clock."
He rose with a yawn, picked up the poker, stood upon the chair, and banged three times upon the ceiling. Three muffled taps responded from the room above. Dimsdale stepped down and began slowly to discard his coat and his waistcoat. As he did so there was a quick, active step upon the stair, and a lean, wiry-looking, middle-sized young fellow stepped into the room. With a nod of greeting he pushed the table over to one side, threw off his two upper garments, and pulled on a pair of the boxing-gloves from the corner. Dimsdale had already done the same, and was standing, a model of manly grace and strength, in the centre of the room.
"Practice your lead, Jack. About here." He tapped the centre of his forehead with his swollen gauntlet.
His companion poised himself for a moment, and then, lashing out with his left hand, came home with a heavy thud on the place indicated. Dimsdale smiled gently and shook his head.
"It won't do," he said.
"I hit my hardest," the other answered apologetically.
"It won't do. Try again."
The visitor repeated the blow with all the force that he could command.
Dimsdale shook his head again despondently. "You don't seem to catch it," he said. "It's like this." He leaned forward, there was the sound of a sharp clip, and the novice shot across the room with a force that nearly sent his skull through the panel of the door.
"That's it," said Dimsdale mildly.
"Oh, it is, is it?" the other responded, rubbing his head. "It's deucedly interesting, but I think I would understand it better if I saw you do it to some one else. It is something between the explosion of a powder magazine and a natural convulsion."
His instructor smiled grimly. "That's the only way to learn," he said. "Now we shall have three minutes of give-and-take, and so ends the morning lesson."
While this little scene was being enacted in the lodgings of the student, a very stout little elderly man was walking slowly down Howe Street, glancing up at the numbers upon the doors. He was square and deep and broad, like a bottle of Geneva, with a large ruddy face and a pair of bright black eyes, which were shrewd and critical, and yet had a merry twinkle of eternal boyishness in their depths. Bushy side whiskers, shot with grey, flanked his rubicund visage, and he threw out his feet as he walked with the air of a man who is on good terms with himself and with every one around him.
At No.13 he stopped and rapped loudly upon the door with the head of his metal-headed stick. "Mrs. McTavish?" he asked, as a hard-lined, angular woman responded to his summons.
"That's me, sir."
"Mr. Dimsdale lives with you, I believe?"
"Third floor front, sir."
"Is he in?"
Suspicion shone in the woman's eyes. "Was it aboot a bill?" she asked.
"A bill, my good woman! No, no, nothing of the kind. Dr. Dimsdale is my name. I am the lad's father—just come up from London to see him. I hope he has not been overworking himself?"
A ghost of a smile played about the woman's face. "I think not, sir," she answered.
"I almost wish I had come round in the afternoon," said the visitor, standing with his thick legs astride upon the door-mat. "It seems a pity to break his chain of thought. The morning is his time for study."
"Houts! I wouldna' fash aboot that."
"Well! well! The third floor, you say. He did not expect me so early, I shall surprise the dear boy at his work."
The landlady stood listening expectantly in the passage. The sturdy little man plodded heavily up the first flight of stairs. He paused on the landing.
"Dear me!" he murmured. "Some one is beating carpets. How can they expect poor Tom to read?"
At the second landing the noise was much louder. "It must be a dancing school," conjectured the doctor.
When he reached his son's door, however, there could no longer be any doubt as to whence the sounds proceeded. There was the stamp and shuffle of feet, the hissing of in-drawn breath, and an occasional soft thud, as if some one were butting his head against a bale of wool. "It's epilepsy," gasped the doctor, and turning the handle he rushed into the room.
One hurried glance showed him the struggle which was going on. There was no time to note details. Some maniac was assaulting his Tom. He sprang at the man, seized him round the waist, dragged him to the ground, and seated himself upon him. "Now tie his hands," he said complacently, as he balanced himself upon the writhing figure.
A RECTORIAL ELECTION.
It took some little time before his son, who was half-choked with laughter, could explain to the energetic doctor that the gentleman upon whom he was perched was not a dangerous lunatic, but, on the contrary, a very harmless and innocent member of society. When at last it was made clear to him, the doctor released his prisoner and was profuse in his apologies.
"This is my father, Garraway," said Dimsdale. "I hardly expected him so early."
"I must offer you a thousand apologies, sir. The fact is that I am rather short-sighted, and had no time to put my glasses on. It seemed to me to be a most dangerous scuffle."
"Don't mention it, sir," said Garraway, with great good humour.
"And you, Tom, you rogue, is this the way you spend your mornings? I expected to find you deep in your books. I told your landlady that I hardly liked to come up for fear of disturbing you at your work. You go up for your first professional in a few weeks, I understand?"
"That will be all right, dad," said his son demurely. "Garraway and I usually take a little exercise of this sort as a preliminary to the labours of the day. Try this armchair and have a cigarette."
The doctor's eye fell upon the medical works and the disarticulated skull, and his ill-humour departed.
"You have your tools close at hand, I see," he remarked.
"Yes, dad, all ready."
"Those bones bring back old memories to me. I am rusty in my anatomy, but I dare say I could stump you yet. Let me see now. What are the different foramina of the sphenoid bone, and what structures pass through them? Eh?"
"Coming!" yelled his son. "Coming!" and dashed out of the room.
"I didn't hear any one call," observed the doctor.
"Didn't you, sir?" said Garraway, pulling on his coat. "I thought I heard a noise."
"You read with my son, I believe?"
"Then perhaps you can tell me what the structures are which pass through the foramina of the sphenoid?"
"Oh yes, sir. There is the—All right, Tom, all right! Excuse me, sir! He is calling me;" and Garraway vanished as precipitately as his friend had done. The doctor sat alone, puffing at his cigarette, and brooding over his own dullness of hearing.
Presently the two students returned, looking just a little shame-faced, and plunged instantly into wild talk about the weather, the town, and the University—anything and everything except the sphenoid bone.
"You have come in good time to see something of University life," said young Dimsdale. "To-day we elect our new Lord Rector. Garraway and I will take you down and show you the sights."
"I have often wished to see something of it," his father answered. "I was apprenticed to my profession, Mr. Garraway, in the old-fashioned way, and had few opportunities of attending college."
"But I can imagine it all. What can be more charming than the sight of a community of young men all striving after knowledge, and emulating each other in the ardour of their studies? Not that I would grudge them recreation. I can fancy them strolling in bands round the classic precincts of their venerable University, and amusing themselves by discussing the rival theories of physiologists or the latest additions to the pharmacopoeia."
Garraway had listened with becoming gravity to the commencement of this speech, but at the last sentence he choked and vanished for the second time out of the room.
"Your friend seems amused," remarked Dr. Dimsdale mildly.
"Yes. He gets taken like that sometimes," said his son. "His brothers are just the same. I have hardly had a chance yet to say how glad I am to see you, dad."
"And I to see you, my dear boy. Your mother and Kate come up by the night train. I have private rooms at the hotel."
"Kate Harston! I can only remember her as a little quiet girl with long brown hair. That was six years ago. She promised to be pretty."
"Then she has fulfilled her promise. But you shall judge that for yourself. She is the ward of John Girdlestone, the African merchant, but we are the only relations she has upon earth. Her father was my second cousin. She spends a good deal of her time now with us at Phillimore Gardens—as much as her guardian will allow. He prefers to have her under his own roof, and I don't blame him, for she is like a ray of sunshine in the house. It was like drawing his teeth to get him to consent to this little holiday, but I stuck at it until I wearied him out—fairly wearied him out." The little doctor chuckled at the thought of his victory, and stretched out his thick legs towards the fire.
"This examination will prevent me from being with you as much as I wish."
"That's right, my boy; let nothing interfere with your work."
"Still, I think I am pretty safe. I am glad they have come now, for next Wednesday is the international football match. Garraway and I are the two Scotch half-backs. You must all come down and see it."
"I'll tell you what, Dimsdale," said Garraway, reappearing in the doorway, "if we don't hurry up we shall see nothing of the election. It is close on twelve."
"I am all ready," cried Dr. Dimsdale, jumping to his feet and buttoning his coat.
"Let us be off, then," said his son; and picking up hats and sticks they clattered off down the lodging-house stairs.
A rectorial election is a peculiarly Scotch institution, and, however it may strike the impartial observer, it is regarded by the students themselves as a rite of extreme solemnity and importance from which grave issues may depend. To hear the speeches and addresses of rival orators one would suppose that the integrity of the constitution and the very existence of the empire hung upon the return of their special nominee. Two candidates are chosen from the most eminent of either party and a day is fixed for the polling. Every undergraduate has a vote, but the professors have no voice in the matter. As the duties are nominal and the position honourable, there is never any lack of distinguished aspirants for a vacancy. Occasionally some well-known literary or scientific man is invited to become a candidate, but as a rule the election is fought upon strictly political lines, with all the old-fashioned accompaniments of a Parliamentary contest.
For months before the great day there is bustle and stir. Secret committees meet, rules are formulated, and insidious agents prowl about with an eye to the political training of those who have not yet nailed their colours to any particular mast. Then comes a grand meeting of the Liberal Students' Association, which is trumped by a dinner of the Undergraduates' Conservative Society. The campaign is then in full swing. Great boards appear at the University gates, on which pithy satires against one or other candidate, parodies on songs, quotations from their speeches, and gaudily painted cartoons are posted. Those who are supposed to be able to feel the pulse of the University move about with the weight of much knowledge upon their brows, throwing out hints as to the probable majority one way or the other. Some profess to know it to a nicety. Others shake their heads and remark vaguely that there is not much to choose either way. So week after week goes by, until the excitement reaches a climax when the date of the election comes round.
There was no need upon that day for Dr. Dimsdale or any other stranger in the town to ask his way to the University, for the whooping and yelling which proceeded from that usually decorous building might have been heard from Prince's Street to Newington. In front of the gates was a dense crowd of townspeople peering through into the quadrangle, and deriving much entertainment from the movements of the lively young gentlemen within. Large numbers of the more peaceable undergraduates stood about under the arches, and these quickly made a way for the newcomers, for both Garraway and Dimsdale as noted athletes commanded a respect among their fellow-students which medallists and honours men might look for in vain.
The broad open quadrangle, and all the numerous balconies and terraces which surround it, were crowded with an excited mob of students. The whole three thousand odd electors who stand upon the college rolls appeared to be present, and the noise which they were making would have reflected credit on treble their number. The dense crowd surged and seethed without pause or rest. Now and again some orator would be hoisted up on the shoulders of his fellows, when an oscillation of the crowd would remove his supporters and down he would come, only to be succeeded by another at some other part of the assembly. The name of either candidate would produce roars of applause and equally vigorous howls of execration. Those who were lucky enough to be in the balconies above hurled down missiles on the crowd beneath—peas, eggs, potatoes, and bags of flour or of sulphur; while those below, wherever they found room to swing an arm, returned the fusillade with interest. The doctor's views of academical serenity and the high converse of pallid students vanished into thin air as he gazed upon the mad tumultuous scene. Yet, in spite of his fifty years, he laughed as heartily as any boy at the wild pranks of the young politicians, and the ruin which was wrought upon broad-cloth coat and shooting jacket by the hail of unsavoury projectiles.
The crowd was most dense and most noisy in front of the class-room in which the counting of the votes was going forward. At one the result was to be announced, and as the long hand of the great clock crept towards the hour, a hush of expectation fell upon the assembly. The brazen clang broke harshly out, and at the same moment the folding doors were flung open, and a knot of men rushed out into the crowd, who swirled and eddied round them. The centre of the throng was violently agitated, and the whole mass of people swayed outwards and inwards. For a minute or two the excited combatants seethed and struggled without a clue as to the cause of the commotion. Then the corner of a large placard was elevated above the heads of the rioters, on which was visible the word "Liberal" in great letters, but before it could be raised further it was torn down, and the struggle became fiercer than ever. Up came the placard again—the other corner this time—with the word "Majority" upon it, and then immediately vanished as before. Enough had been seen, however, to show which way the victory had gone, and shouts of triumph arose everywhere, with waving of hats and clatter of sticks. Meanwhile, in the centre the two parties fought round the placard, and the commotion began to cover a wider area, as either side was reinforced by fresh supporters. One gigantic Liberal seized the board, and held it aloft for a moment, so that it could be seen in its entirety by the whole multitude:
But his triumph was short-lived. A stick descended upon his head, his heels were tripped up, and he and his placard rolled upon the ground together. The victors succeeded, however, in forcing their way to the extreme end of the quadrangle, where, as every Edinburgh man knows, the full-length statue of Sir David Brewster looks down upon the classic ground which he loved so well. An audacious Radical swarmed up upon the pedestal and balanced the obnoxious notice on the marble arms of the professor. Thus converted into a political partisan, the revered inventor of the kaleidoscope became the centre of a furious struggle, the vanquished politicians making the most desperate efforts to destroy the symbol of their opponents' victory, while the others offered an equally vigorous resistance to their attacks. The struggle was still proceeding when Dimsdale removed his father, for it was impossible to say what form the riot might assume.
"What Goths! what barbarians!" cried the little doctor, as they walked down the Bridges. "And this is my dream of refined quiet and studious repose!"
"They are not always like that, sir," said his son apologetically. "They were certainly a little jolly to-day."
"A little jolly!" cried the doctor. "You rogue, Tom. I believe if I had not been there you would have been their ringleader."
He glanced from one to the other, and it was so evident from the expression of their faces that he had just hit the mark, that he burst into a great guffaw of laughter, in which, after a moment's hesitation, his two young companions heartily joined.