"Answer my question, will you?" the merchant interrupted savagely.
"And the same hasty timper," continued the major imperturbably. "I've forgotten, me dear sir, what it was you asked me."
"What is it you want?"
"Ah, yes, of course. What is it I want?" the old soldier said meditatively. "Some would say more, some less. Some would want half, but that is overdoing it. How does a thousand pound stroike you? Yes, I think we may put it at a thousand pounds."
"You want a thousand pounds?"
"Ged, I've been wanting it all me life. The difference is that I'm going to git it now."
"And for what?"
"Sure, for silence—for neutrality. We're all in it now, and there's a fair division of labour. You plan, your son works, I hold me tongue. You make your tens of thousands, I make my modest little thousand. We all git paid for our throuble."
"And suppose I refuse?"
"Ah! but you wouldn't—you couldn't," the major said suavely. "Ged, sir, I haven't known ye long, but I have far too high an opinion of ye to suppose ye could do anything so foolish. If you refuse, your speculation is thrown away. There's no help for it. Bedad, it would be painful for me to have to blow the gaff; but you know the old saying, that 'charity begins at home.' You must sell your knowledge at the best market."
Girdlestone thought intently for a minute or two, with his great eyebrows drawn down over his little restless eyes.
"You said to my son," he remarked at last, "that you were too honourable to embark in our undertaking. Do you consider it honourable to make use of knowledge gained in confidence for the purpose of extorting money?"
"Me dear sir," answered the major, holding up his hand deprecatingly, "you put me in the painful position of having to explain meself in plain words. If I saw a man about to do a murther, I should think nothing of murthering him. If I saw a pickpocket at work, I'd pick his pocket, and think it good fun to do it. Now, this little business of yours is— well, we'll say unusual, and if what I do seems a little unusual too, it's to be excused. Ye can't throw stones at every one, me boy, and then be surprised when some one throws one at you. You bite the diamond holders, d'ye see, and I take a little nibble at you. It's all fair enough."
The merchant reflected again for some moments. "Suppose we agree to purchasing your silence at this price," he said, "what guarantee have we that you will not come and extort more money, or that you may not betray our secret after all?"
"The honour of a soldier and a gintleman," answered the major, rising and tapping his chest with two fingers of his right hand.
A slight sneer played over Girdlestone's pale face, but he made no remark. "We are in your power," he said, and have no resource but to submit to your terms. You said five hundred pounds?"
"A thousand," the major answered cheerfully.
"It's a great sum of money."
"Deuce of a lot!" said the veteran cordially.
"Well, you shall have it. I will communicate with you." Girdlestone rose as if to terminate the interview.
The major made no remark, but he showed his white teeth again, and tapped Mr. Girdlestone's cheque-book with the silver head of his walking-stick.
The two looked at each other for a moment and the merchant sat down again and scribbled out a cheque, which he tossed to his companion. The latter looked it over carefully, took a fat little pocket-book from the depths of his breast pocket, and having placed the precious slip of paper in it, laboriously pushed it back into its receptacle. Then he very slowly and methodically picked up his jaunty curly-brimmed hat and shining kid gloves, and with a cheery nod to his companion, who answered it with a scowl, he swaggered off into the counting-house. There he shook hands with Tom, whom he had known for some months, and having made three successive offers—one to stand immediately an unlimited quantity of champagne, a second to play him five hundred up for anything he would name, and a third to lay a tenner for him at 7 to 4 on Amelia for the Oaks—all of which offers were declined with thanks—he bowed himself out, leaving a vague memory of smiles, shirt collars, and gaiters in the minds of the awe-struck Clerks.
Whatever an impartial judge might think of the means whereby Major Tobias Clutterbuck had successfully screwed a thousand pounds out of the firm of Girdlestone, it is quite certain that that gentleman's seasoned conscience did not reproach him in the least degree. On the contrary, his whole being seemed saturated and impregnated with the wildest hilarity and delight. Twice in less than a hundred yards, he was compelled to stop and lean upon his cane owing to the breathlessness which supervened upon his attempts to smother the delighted chuckles which came surging up from the inmost recesses of his capacious frame. At the second halt he wriggled his hand inside his tight-breasted coat, and after as many contortions as though he were about to shed that garment as a snake does its skin, he produced once more the little fat pocket-book. From it he extracted the cheque and looked it over lovingly. Then he hailed a passing hansom. "Drive to the Capital and Counties Bank," he said. It had struck him that since the firm was in a shaky state he had better draw the money as soon as possible.
In the bank a gloomy-looking cashier took the cheque and stared at it somewhat longer than the occasion seemed to demand. It was but a few minutes, yet it appeared a very long time to the major.
"How will you have it?" he asked at last, in a mournful voice. It tends to make a man cynical when he spends his days in handling untold riches while his wife and six children are struggling to make both ends meet at home.
"A hunthred in gold and the rest in notes," said the major, with a sigh of relief.
The cashier counted and handed over a thick packet of crisp rustling paper and a little pile of shining sovereigns. The major stowed away the first in the pocket-book and the latter in his trouser pockets. Then he swaggered out with a great increase of pomposity and importance, and ordered his cabman to drive to Kennedy Place.
Von Baumser was sitting in the major's campaigning chair, smoking his china-bowled pipe and gazing dreamily at the long blue wreaths. Times had been bad with the comrades of late, as the German's seedy appearance sufficiently testified. His friends in Germany had ceased to forward his small remittance, and Endermann's office, in which he had been employed, had given him notice that for a time they could dispense with his services. He had been spending the whole afternoon in perusing the long list of "wanteds" in the Daily Telegraph, and his ink-stained forefinger showed the perseverance with which he had been answering every advertisement that could possibly apply to him. A pile of addressed envelopes lay upon the table, and it was only the uncertainty of his finances and the fact that the humble penny stamp mounts into shillings when frequently employed, that prevented him from increasing the number of his applications. He looked up and uttered a word of guttural greeting as his companion came striding in.
"Get out of this," the major said abruptly. "Get away into the bedroom."
"Potztausand! Vot is it then?" cried the astonished Teuton.
"Out with you! I want this room to meself."
Von Baumser shrugged his shoulders and lumbered off like a good-natured plantigrade, closing the door behind him.
When his companion had disappeared the major proceeded to lay out all his notes upon the table, overlapping each other, but still so arranged that every separate one was visible. He then built in the centre ten little golden columns in a circle, each consisting of ten sovereigns, until the whole presented the appearance of a metallic Stonehenge upon a plain of bank notes. This done, he cocked his head on one side, like a fat and very ruddy turkey, and contemplated his little arrangement with much pride and satisfaction.
Solitary delight soon becomes wearisome, however, so the veteran summoned his companion. The Teuton was so dumbfounded by this display of wealth, that he was bereft for a time of all faculty of speech, and could only stare open-mouthed at the table. At last he extended a fore-finger and thumb and rubbed a five pound note between them, as though to convince himself of its reality, after which he began to gyrate round the table in a sort of war dance, never taking his eyes from the heap of influence in front of him. "Mein Gott!" he exclaimed, "Gnadiger Vater! Ach Himmel! Was fur eine Schatze! Donnerwetter!" und a thousand other cacophonous expressions of satisfaction and amazement.
When the old soldier had sufficiently enjoyed the lively emotion which showed itself on every feature of the German's countenance, he picked up the notes and locked them in his desk together with half the gold. The other fifty pounds he returned into his pocket.
"Come on!" he said to his companion abruptly.
"Come vere? Vat is it?"
"Come on!" roared the major irascibly. "What d'ye want to stand asking questions for? Put on your hat and come."
The major had retained the cab at the door, and the two jumped into it. "Drive to Verdi's Restaurant," he said to the driver.
When they arrived at that aristocratic and expensive establishment, the soldier ordered the best dinner for two that money could procure. "Have it riddy in two hours sharp," he said to the manager. "None of your half-and-half wines, mind! We want the rale thing, and, be ged! we can tell the difference!"
Having left the manager much impressed, the two friends set out for a ready-made clothing establishment. "I won't come in," the major said, slipping ten sovereigns into Von Baumser's hand. "Just you go in and till them ye want the best suit o' clothes they can give you. They've a good seliction there, I know."
"Gott in Himmel!" cried the amazed German. "But, my dear vriend, you cannot vait in the street. Come in mit me."
"No, I'll wait," the old soldier answered. "They might think I was paying for the clothes if I came in."
"Well, but so you—"
"Eh, would ye?" roared the major, raising his cane, and Von Baumser disappeared precipitately into the shop.
When he emerged once more at the end of twenty minutes, he was attired in an elegant and close-fitting suit of heather tweed. The pair then made successive visits to a shoe-maker, a hatter, and a draper, with the result that Von Baumser developed patent leather boots, a jaunty brown hat, and a pair of light yellow gloves. By the end of their walk there seemed nothing left of the original Von Baumser except a tawny beard, and an expression of hopeless and overpowering astonishment.
Having effected this transformation, the friends retraced their steps to Verdi's and did full justice to the spread awaiting them, after which the old soldier won the heart of the establishment by bestowing largess upon every one who came in his way. As to the further adventures of these two Bohemians, it would be as well perhaps to draw a veil over them. Suffice it that, about two in the morning, the worthy Mrs. Robins was awakened by a stentorian voice in the street below demanding to know "Was ist das Deutsche Vaterland?"—a somewhat vexed question which the owner of the said voice was propounding to the solitary lamp-post of Kennedy Place. On descending the landlady discovered that the author of this disturbance was a fashionably dressed gentleman, who, upon closer inspection, proved to her great surprise to be none other than the usually demure part proprietor of her fourth floor. As to the major, he walked in quietly the next day about twelve o'clock, looking as trim and neat as ever, but minus the balance of the fifty pounds, nor did he think fit ever to make any allusion to this some what heavy deficit.
NEWS FROM THE URALS.
Major Tobias Clutterbuck had naturally reckoned that the longer he withheld this trump card of his the greater would be its effect when played. An obstacle appearing at the last moment produces more consternation than when a scheme is still in its infancy. It proved, however, that he had only just levied his blackmail in time, for within a couple of days of his interview with the head of the firm news arrived of the great discovery of diamonds among the Ural Mountains. The first intimation was received through the Central News Agency in the form of the following telegram:—
"Moscow, August 22.—It is reported from Tobolsk that an important discovery of diamond fields has been made amongst the spurs of the Ural Mountains, at a point not very far from that city. They are said to have been found by an English geologist, who has exhibited many magnificent gems in proof of his assertion. These stones have been examined at Tobolsk, and are pronounced to be equal, if not superior, in quality to any found elsewhere. A company has been already formed for the purpose of purchasing the land and working the mines."
Some days afterwards there came a Reuter's telegram giving fuller details. "With regard to the diamond fields near Tobolsk," it said, "there is every reason to believe that they are of great, and possibly unsurpassed, wealth. There is no question now as to their authenticity, since their discoverer proves to be an English gentleman of high character, and his story is corroborated by villagers from this district who have dug up stones for themselves. The Government contemplate buying out the company and taking over the mines, which might be profitably worked by the forced labour of political prisoners on a system similar to that adopted in the salt mines of Siberia. The discovery is universally regarded as one which has materially increased the internal resources of the country, and there is some talk of the presentation of a substantial testimonial to the energetic and scientific traveller to whom it is due."
Within a week or ten days of the receipt of these telegrams in London there came letters from the Russian correspondents of the various journals giving fuller details upon a subject of so much general interest. The Times directed attention to the matter in a leader.
"It appears," remarked the great paper, "that a most important addition has been made to the mineral wealth of the Russian Empire. The silver mines of Siberia and the petroleum wells of the Caucasus are to be outrivalled by the new diamond fields of the Ural Mountains. For untold thousands of years these precious fragments of crystallized carbon have been lying unheeded among the gloomy gorges waiting for the hand of man to pick them out. It has fallen to the lot of one of our countrymen to point out to the Russian nation the great wealth which lay untouched and unsuspected in the heart of their realm. The story is a romantic one. It appears that a Mr. Langworthy, a wealthy English gentleman of good extraction, had, in the course of his travels in Russia, continued his journey as far as the great mountain barrier which separates Europe from Asia. Being fond of sport, he was wandering in search of game down one of the Ural valleys, when his attention was attracted by the thick gravel, which was piled up along the track of a dried-up water-course. The appearance and situation of this gravel reminded him forcibly of the South African diamond fields, and so strong was the impression that he at once laid down his gun and proceeded to rake the gravel over and to examine it. His search was rewarded by the discovery of several stones, which he conveyed home with him, and which proved, after being cleaned, to be gems of the first water. Elated at this success, he returned to the spot next day with a spade, and succeeded in obtaining many other specimens, and in convincing himself that the deposit stretched up and down for a long distance on both sides of the torrent. Having satisfied himself upon this point, our compatriot made his way to Tobolsk, where he exhibited his prizes to several of the richest merchants, and proceeded to form a company for the working of the new fields. He was so successful in this that the shares are already far above par, and our correspondent writes that there has been a rush of capitalists, all eager to invest their money in so promising a venture. It is expected that within a few months the necessary plant will have been erected and the concern be in working order."
The Daily Telegraph treated the matter from a jocose and historical point of view.
"It has long been a puzzle to antiquaries and geologists," it remarked, "as to where those jewels which Solomon brought from the East were originally obtained. There has been much speculation, too, regarding the source of those less apocryphal gems which sparkled in the regalia of the Indian monarchs and adorned the palaces of Delhi and Benares. As a nation we have a personal interest in the question, since the largest and most magnificent of these stones is now in the possession of our most gracious Queen. Mr. Langworthy has thrown a light upon this obscure subject. According to this gentleman's researches these treasures were unearthed amidst that dark and gloomy range of mountains which Providence has interposed between a nascent civilization and a continent of barbarians. Nor is Mr. Langworthy's opinion founded upon theory alone. He lends point to his arguments by presenting to the greedy eyes of the merchants of Tobolsk a bag filled with valuable diamonds, each and every one of which he professes to have discovered in these barren inhospitable valleys. This tweed-suited English tourist, descending like some good spirit among these dreamy Muscovites, points out to them the untold wealth which has lain for so many centuries at their feet, and with the characteristic energy of his race shows them at the same time how to turn the discovery to commercial advantage. If the deposit prove to be as extensive as is supposed, it is possible that our descendants may wear cut diamonds in their eye-glasses, should such accessories be necessary, and marvel at the ignorance of those primitive days when a metamorphosed piece of coal was regarded as the most valuable product of nature."
The ordinary British paterfamilias, glancing over his morning paper, bestowed probably but few passing thoughts on the incident, but among business men and in the City its significance was at once understood. Not only did it create the deepest consternation amongst all who were connected with the diamond industry, but it reacted upon every other branch of South African commerce. It was the chief subject of conversation upon the Stock Exchange, and many were the surmises as to what the effect of the news would be at the fields. Fugger, the father of the diamond industry, was standing discussing the question, when a little rosy-faced Jew, named Goldschmidt, came bustling up to him. He was much excited, for he speculated in stones, and had just been buying in for a rise.
"Misther Fugger," he cried, "you're shust the man I want to see. My Gott, vot is to become of us all? Vot is to become of de diamond trade ven one can pick them up like cockles on the sea shore?"
"We must wait for details," the great financier said phlegmatically. His fortune was so enormous that it mattered little to him whether the report was true or false.
"Details! It is nothing but details," cried the little Jew. "The papers is full of them. I vish to the Lord that that Langworthy had proke his neck in the Ural Mountains before he got up to any such games. Vat business had he to go examining gravel and peeping about in such places as them. Nobody that's any good would ever go to the Ural Mountains at all."
"It won't hurt you," Fugger said; "you'll simply have to pay less for your stones and sell them cheaper after they are cut. It won't make much difference in the long run."
"Von't it, by Joves! Why, man, I've got over a hundred shtones on my hands now. Vat am I going to do vid 'em."
"Ah, that's a bad job. You must make up your mind to lose on them."
"Von't you buy them yourself, Mr. Fugger?" asked the Hebrew, in an insinuating voice. "Maybe this here story will all turn out wrong. S'elp me bob I gave three thousand for the lot, and you shall have them for two. Let's have a deal, my tear Mr. Fugger, do?"
"No more for me, thank you," Fugger said with decision. "As to the story being wrong, I have telegraphed to Rotterdam, and they have sent on a trusty man. He'll be weeks, however, before we hear from him."
"Here's Mr. Girdlestone, the great Mr. Girdlestone," cried Goldschmidt, perceiving our worthy merchant of Fenchurch Street among the crowd. "Oh, Misther Girdlestone, I've got diamonds here what is worth three thousand pounds, and you shall have them for two—you shall, by chingo, and we'll go together now and get them?"
"Don't pester me!" said Girdlestone, brushing the little Jew aside with his long, bony arm. "Can I have a word with you, Fugger?"
"Certainly," replied the diamond dealer. Girdlestone was a very well-known man upon 'Change, and one who was universally respected and looked up to.
"What do you think about this report?" he asked, in a confidential voice. "Do you imagine that it will affect prices in Africa?"
"Affect prices! My dear sir, if it proves true it will ruin the African fields. The mere report coming in a circumstantial fashion will send prices down fifty per cent."
"As much as that!" said the merchant, with an excellent affectation of surprise. "I am anxious about it, for my boy is out there. It was a hobby of his, and I let him go. I trust he will not be bitten."
"He is much more likely to do the biting," remarked Fugger bluntly. He had met Ezra Girdlestone in business more than once, and had been disagreeably impressed by the young gentleman's sharpness.
"Poor lad!" said his father. "He is young, and has had little experience as yet. I hope all is well with him!" He shook his head despondently, and walked slowly homewards, but his heart beat triumphantly within him, for he was assured now that the report would influence prices as he had foreseen, and the African firm reap the benefit of their daring speculation.
MR. HECTOR O'FLAHERTY FINDS SOMETHING IN THE PAPER.
Ezra Girdlestone had taken up his quarters in two private rooms at the Central Hotel, Kimberley, and had already gained a considerable reputation in the town by the engaging "abandon" of his manners, and by the munificent style in which he entertained the more prominent citizens of the little capital. His personal qualities of strength and beauty had also won him the respect which physical gifts usually command in primitive communities, and the smart young Londoner attracted custom to himself among the diggers in a way which excited the jealousy of the whole tribe of elderly Hebrews who had hitherto enjoyed a monopoly of the trade. Thus, he had already gained his object in making himself known, and his name was a familiar one in every camp from Waldeck's Plant to Cawood's Hope. Keeping his headquarters at Kimberley, he travelled perpetually along the line of the diggings. All the time he was chafing secretly and marvelling within himself how it was that no whisper of the expected news had arrived yet from England.
One sunny day he had returned from a long ride, and, having dined, strolled out into the streets, Panama hat upon head and cigar in mouth. It was the 23rd of October, and he had been nearly ten weeks in the colony. Since his arrival he had taken to growing a beard. Otherwise, he was much as we have seen him in London, save that a ruddier glow of health shone upon his sunburned face. The life of the diggings appeared to agree with him.
As he turned down Stockdale Street, a man passed him leading a pair of horses tired and dusty, with many a strap and buckle hanging down behind them. After him came another leading a second pair, and after him another with a third. They were taking them round to the stables. "Hullo!" cried Ezra, with sudden interest; "what's up?"
"The mail's just in."
"Mail from Capetown?"
Ezra quickened his pace and strode down Stockdale Street into the Main Street, which, as the name implies, is the chief thoroughfare of Kimberley. He came out close to the office of the Vaal River Advertiser and Diamond Field Gazette. There was a crowd in front of the door. This Vaal River Advertiser was a badly conducted newspaper, badly printed upon bad paper, but selling at sixpence a copy, and charging from seven shillings and sixpence to a pound for the insertion of an advertisement. It was edited at present by a certain P. Hector O'Flaherty, who having been successively a dentist, a clerk, a provision merchant, an engineer, and a sign painter, and having failed at each and every one of these employments, had taken to running a newspaper as an easy and profitable occupation. Indeed, as managed by Mr. O'Flaherty, the process was simplicity itself. Having secured by the Monday's mail copies of the London papers of two months before, he spent Tuesday in cutting extracts from them with the greatest impartiality, chopping away everything which might be of value to him. The Wednesday was occupied in cursing at three black boys who helped to put up the type, and on the Thursday a fresh number of the Vaal River Advertiser and Diamond Field Gazette was given to the world. The remaining three days were devoted by Mr. O'Flaherty to intoxication, but the Monday brought him back once more to soda water and literature.
It was seldom, indeed, that the Advertiser aroused interest enough to cause any one to assemble round the Office. Ezra's heart gave a quick flutter at the sight, and he gathered himself together like a runner who sees his goal in view. Throwing away his cigar, he hurried on ad joined the little crowd.
"What's the row?" he asked.
"There's news come by the mail," said one or two bystanders. "Big news."
"What sort of news?"
"Don't know yet."
"Who said there was news?"
"Where is he?"
"Who will know about it?"
Here there was a general shout from the crowd for O'Flaherty, and an irascible-looking man, with a red bloated face and bristling hair came to the office door.
"Now, what the divil d'ye want?" he roared, shaking a quill pen at the crowd. "What are ye after at all? Have ye nothing betther to do than to block up the door of a decent office?"
"What's the news?" cried a dozen voices.
"The news, is it?" roared O'Flaherty, more angrily than ever; "and can't ye foind out that by paying your sixpences like men, and taking the Advertoiser? It's a paper, though Oi says it as shouldn't, that would cut out some o' these Telegraphs and Chronicles if it was only in London. Begad, instead of encouraging local talent ye spind your toime standing around in the strate, and trying to suck a man's news out of him for nothing."
"Look here, boss," said a rough-looking fellow in the front of the crowd, "you keep your hair on, and don't get slinging words about too freely, or it may be the worse for you and for your office too. We heard as there was big news, an' we come down to hear it, but as to gettin' it without paying, that ain't our sort. I suppose we can call it square if we each hands in sixpence, which is the price o' your paper, and then you can tell us what's on."
O'Flaherty considered for a moment. "It's worth a shillin' each," he said, "for it plays the divil with the circulation of a paper whin its news gits out too soon."
"Well, we won't stick at that," said the miner. "What say you, boys?"
There was a murmur of assent, and a broad-brimmed straw hat was passed rapidly from hand to band. It was half full of silver when it reached O'Flaherty. The Advertiser had never before had such a circulation, for the crowd had rapidly increased during the preceding dialogue, and now numbered some hundreds.
"Thank ye, gintlemen," said the editor.
"Well, what's the news?" cried the impatient crowd.
"Sure I haven't opened the bag yet, but I soon will. Whativer it is it's bound to be there. Hey there, Billy, ye divil's brat, where's the mail bag?"
Thus apostrophized, a sharp little Kaffir came running out with the brown bag, and Mr. O'Flaherty examined it in a leisurely manner, which elicited many an oath from the eager crowd.
"Here's the Standard and the Times," he said, handing the various papers out to his subordinate. "Begad, there's not one of ye knows the expinse of k'aping a great paper loike this going, forebye the brains and no profit at the ind of it. Here's the Post and the News. If you were men you'd put in an advertisement ivery wake, whether ye needed it or not, just to encourage literature. Here's the Cape Argus—it'll be in here whativer it is."
With great deliberation Mr. Hector O'Flaherty put on a pair of spectacles and folded the paper carefully round, so as to bring the principal page to the front. Then he cleared his throat, with the pomposity which is inseparable with most men from the act of reading aloud.
"Go it, boss!" cried his audience encouragingly.
"'Small-pox at Wellington'—that's not it, is it? 'Germany and the Vatican'—'Custom House Duties at Port Elizabeth'—'Roosian Advances in Cintral Asia' eh? Is that it—'Discovery of great Diamond Moines?'"
"That's it," roared the crowd; "let's hear about that." There was an anxious ring in their voices, and their faces were grave and serious as they looked up at the reader upon the steps of the office.
"'Diamond moines have been discovered in Roosia,'" read O'Flaherty, "'which are confidently stated to exceed in riches anything which has existed before. It is ginerally anticipated that this discovery, if confirmed, will have a most prejudicial effect upon the African trade.' That's an extract from the London news of the Argus."
A buzz of ejaculations and comments arose from the crowd. "Isn't there any more about it?" they cried.
"Here's a later paper, boss," said the little Kaffir, who had been diligently looking over the dates.
O'Flaherty opened it, and gave a whistle of astonishment. "Here's enough to satisfy you," he said. "It's in big toipe and takes up noigh the whole of the first page. I can only read ye the headings, for we must get to work and have out a special edition. You'll git details there, an' it'll be out in a few hours. Look here at the fuss they've made about it." The editor turned the paper as he spoke, and exhibited a series of large black headings in this style:—
RUSSIAN DIAMOND FIELDS.
EXTRAORDINARY DISCOVERY BY AN ENGLISHMAN. THREATENED EXTINCTION OF THE CAPE INDUSTRY. GREAT FALL IN PRICES. OPINIONS OF THE LONDON PRESS. FULL DETAILS.
"What d'ye think of that?" cried O'Flaherty, triumphantly, as if he had had some hand in the matter. "Now I must git off to me work, and you'll have it all before long in your hands. Ye should bliss your stars that ye have some one among ye to offer ye the convanience of the latest news. Good noight to ye all," and he trotted back into his office with his hat and its silver contents in his hand.
The crowd broke up into a score of gesticulating chattering groups, and wandered up or down the street. Ezra Girdlestone waited until they had cleared away, and then stepped into the office of the Advertiser.
"What's the matter now?" asked O'Flaherty, angrily. He was a man who lived in a state of chronic irritation.
"Have you a duplicate of that paper?"
"Suppose I have?"
"What will you sell it for?"
"What will you give?"
"Half a sovereign."
"Done!" and so Ezra Girdlestone walked out of the office with full details in his hand, and departed to his hotel, where he read the account through very slowly and deliberately. It appeared to be satisfactory, for he chuckled to himself a good deal as he perused it. Having finished it, he folded the paper up, placed it in his breast pocket, and, having ordered his horse, set off to the neighbouring township of Dutoitspan with the intention of carrying the news with him.
Ezra had two motives in galloping across the veldt that October night. One was to judge with his own ears and eyes what effect the news would have upon practical men. The other was a desire to gratify that sinister pleasure which an ill-natured man has in being the bearer of evil tidings. They had probably heard the report by this time, but it was unlikely that any details had reached them. No one knew better than young Girdlestone that this message from Europe would bring utter ruin and extinction to many a small capitalist, that it would mean the shattering of a thousand hopes, and the advent of poverty and misery to the men with whom he had been associating. In spite of this knowledge, his heart beat high, as his father's had done in London, and as he spurred his horse onwards through the darkness, he was hardly able to refrain from shouting and whooping in his exultation.
The track from Kimberley to Dutoitspan was a rough one, but the moon was up, and the young merchant found no difficulty in following it. When he reached the summit of the low hill over which the road ran, he saw the lights of the little town sparkling in the valley beneath him. It was ten o'clock before he galloped into the main street, and he saw at a glance that the news had, as he expected, arrived before him. In front of the Griqualand Saloon a great crowd of miners had assembled, who were talking excitedly among themselves. The light of the torches shone down upon herculean figures, glaring shirts, and earnest bearded faces. The whole camp appeared to have assembled there to discuss the situation, and it was evident from their anxious countenances and subdued voices, that they took no light view of it.
The instant the young man alighted from his horse he was surrounded by a knot of eager questioners. "You've just come from Kimberley," they cried. "What is the truth of it, Mr. Girdlestone? Let us know the truth of it."
"It's a bad business, my friends," he answered, looking around at the ring of inquiring faces. "I have been reading a full account of it in the Cape Argus. They have made a great find in Russia. There seems to be no doubt at all about the matter."
"D'ye think it will send prices down here as much as they say?"
"I'm afraid it will send them very low. I hold a lot of stones myself, and I should be very glad to get rid of them at any price. I fear it will hardly pay you to work your claims now."
"And the price of claims will go down?"
"Of course it will."
"Eh, mister, what's that?" cried a haggard, unkempt little man, pushing his way to the front and catching hold of Ezra's sleeve to ensure his attention. "Did ye say it would send the price o' claims down? You didn't say that, did you? Why, in course, it stands to reason that what happened in Roosia couldn't make no difference over here. That's sense, mates, ain't it?" He looked round him appealingly, and laughed a little nervous laugh.
"You try," said Ezra coldly. "If you get one-third of what you gave for your claim you'll be lucky. Why, man, you don't suppose we produce diamonds for local consumption. They are for exporting to Europe, and if Europe is already supplied by Russia, where are you to get your market?"
"That's it?" cried several voices.
"If you take my advice," Ezra continued, "you'll get rid of what you have at any loss, for the time may be coming when you'll get nothing at all."
"Now, look at that!" cried the little man, throwing out his hands. "They call me Unlucky Jim, and Unlucky Jim I'll be to the end of the chapter. Why, boss, me and Sammy Walker has sunk every damned cent we've got in that claim, the fruit o' nine years' hard work, and here you comes ridin' up as cool as may be, and tells me that it's all gone for nothing."
"Well, there are others who will suffer as well as you," said one of the crowd.
"I reckon we're all hit pretty hard if this is true," remarked another.
"I'm fair sick of it," said the little man, passing his grimy hand across his eyes and leaving a black smear as he did so. "This ain't the first time—no, nor the second—that my luck has played me this trick. I've a mighty good mind to throw up my hand altogether."
"Come in and have some whisky," said a rough sympathizer, and the unlucky one was hustled in through the rude door of the Griqualand Saloon, there to find such comfort as he might from the multitudinous bottles which adorned the interior of that building. Liquor had lost its efficacy that evening, however, and a dead depression rested over the little town. Nor was it confined to Dutoitspan. All along the diggings the dismal tidings spread with a rapidity which was astonishing. At eleven o'clock there was consternation at Klipdrift. At quarter-past one Hebron was up and aghast at the news. At three in the morning a mounted messenger galloped into Bluejacket, and before daybreak a digger committee was sitting at Delporte's Hope discussing the situation. So during that eventful night down the whole long line of the Vaal River there was ruin and heartburning and dismay, while five thousand miles away an old gentleman was sleeping calmly and dreamlessly in his comfortable bed, from whose busy brain had emanated all this misery and misfortune.
Perhaps the said old gentleman might have slumbered a little less profoundly could he have seen the sight which met his son's eyes on the following morning. Ezra had passed the night at Dutoitspan, in the hut of a hospitable miner. Having risen in the morning, he was dressing himself in a leisurely, methodical fashion, when his host, who had been inhaling the morning breeze, thrust his head through the window.
"Come out here, Mr. Girdlestone," he cried. "There's some fun on. One of the boys is dead drunk, and they are carrying him in."
Ezra pulled on his coat and ran out. A little group of miners were walking slowly up the main street. He and his host were waiting for the procession to pass them with several jocose remarks appropriate to the occasion ready upon their lips, when their eyes fell upon a horrible splotchy red track which marked the road the party had taken. They both ran forward with exclamations and inquiries.
"It's Jim Stewart," said one of the bearers. "Him that they used to call Unlucky Jim."
"What's up with him?"
"He has shot himself through the head. Where d'ye think we found him? Slap in the middle o' his own claim, with his fingers dug into the gravel, as dead as a herring."
"He's a bad plucked 'un to knock under like that," Ezra's companion remarked.
"Yes," said the croupier of the saloon gambling table. "If he'd waited for another deal he might have held every trump. He was always a soft chap, was Jim, and he was saying last night as how this spoiled the last chance he was ever like to have of seeing his wife and childer in England. He's blowed a fine clean hole in himself. Would you like to see it, Mr. Girdlestone?" The fellow was about to remove the blood-stained handkerchief which covered the dead man's face, but Ezra recoiled in horror.
"Mr. Girdlestone looks faint like," some one observed.
"Yes," said Ezra, who was white to his very lips. "This has upset me rather. I'll have a drop of brandy." As he walked back to the hut, he wondered inwardly whether the incident would have discomposed his father.
"I suppose he would call it part of our commercial finesse," he said bitterly to himself. "However, we have put our hands to the plough, and we must not let homicide stop us." So saying, he steadied his nerves with a draught of brandy, and prepared for the labours of the day.
AN UNEXPECTED BLOW.
The crisis at the African fields was even more acute than had been anticipated by the conspirators. Nothing approaching to it had ever been known in South Africa before. Diamonds went steadily down in value until they were selling at a price which no dealer would have believed possible, and the sale of claims reached such a climax that men were glad to get rid of them for the mere price of the plant and machinery erected at them. The offices of the various dealers at Kimberley were besieged night and day by an importunate crowd of miners, who were willing to sell at any price in order to save something from the general ruin which they imagined was about to come upon the industry. Some, more long-headed or more desperate than their neighbours, continued to work their claims and to keep the stones which they found until prices might be better. As fresh mails came from the Cape, however, each confirming and amplifying the ominous news, these independent workers grew fewer and more faint-hearted, for their boys had to be paid each week, and where was the money to come from with which to pay them? The dealers, too, began to take the alarm, and the most tempting offers would hardly induce them to give hard cash in exchange for stones which might prove to be a drug in the market. Everywhere there was misery and stagnation.
Ezra Girdlestone was not slow to take advantage of this state of things, but he was too cunning to do so in a manner which might call attention to himself or his movements. In his wanderings he had come across an outcast named Farintosh, a man who had once been a clergyman and a master of arts of Trinity College, Dublin, but who was now a broken-down gambler with a slender purse and a still more slender conscience. He still retained a plausible manner and an engaging address, and these qualities first recommended him to the notice of the young merchant. A couple of days after the receipt of the news from Europe, Ezra sent for this fellow and sat with him for some time on the verandah of the hotel, talking over the situation.
"You see, Farintosh," he remarked, "it might be a false alarm, might it not?"
The ex-clergyman nodded. He was a man of few words.
"If it should be, it would be an excellent thing for those who buy now."
Farintosh nodded once again.
"Of course," Ezra continued, "it looks as if the thing was beyond all doubt. My experience has taught me, however, that there is nothing so uncertain as a certainty. That's what makes me think of speculating over this. If I lose it won't hurt me much, and I might win. I came out here more for the sake of seeing a little of the world than anything else, but now that this has turned up I'll have a shy at it."
"Quite so," said Farintosh, rubbing his hands.
"You see," Ezra continued, lighting a cheroot, "I have the name here of having a long purse and of knowing which way the wind blows. If I were to be seen buying others would follow my lead, and prices would soon be as high as ever. Now, what I purpose is to work through you, d'ye see? You can take out a licence and buy in stones on the quiet without attracting much attention. Beat them down as low as you can, and give this hotel as your address. When they call here they shall be paid, which is better than having you carrying the money round with you."
The clergyman scowled as though he thought it was anything but better. He did not make any remark, however.
"You can get one or two fellows to help you," said Ezra. "I'll pay for their licences. I can't expect you to work all the camps yourself. Of course, if you offer more for a stone than I care to give, that's your look out, but if you do your work well you shall not be the loser. You shall have a percentage on business done and a weekly salary as well."
"How much money do you care to invest?" asked Farintosh.
"I'm not particular," Ezra answered. "If I do a thing I like to do it well. I'll go the length of thirty thousand pounds."
Farintosh was so astonished at the magnitude of the sum that he sank back in his chair in bewilderment. "Why, sir," he said, "I think just at present you could buy the country for that."
Ezra laughed. "We'll make it go as far as we can," he said. "Of course you may buy claims as well as stones."
"And I have carte blanche to that amount?"
"All right, I'll begin this evening," said the ex-parson; and picking up his slouched hat, which he still wore somewhat broader in the brim than his comrades, in deference to old associations, he departed upon his mission.
Farintosh was a clever man and soon chose two active subordinates. These were a navvy, named Burt, and Williams, a young Welshman, who had disappeared from home behind a cloud of forged cheques, and having changed his name had made a fresh start in life to the south of the equator. These three worked day and night buying in stones from the more needy and impecunious miners, to whom ready money was a matter of absolute necessity. Farintosh bought in the stock, too, of several small dealers whose nerves had been shaken by the panic. In this way bag after bag was filled with diamonds by Ezra, while he himself was to all appearances doing nothing but smoking cigars and sipping brandy-and-water in front of the Central Hotel.
He was becoming somewhat uneasy in his mind as to how long the delusion would be kept up, or how soon news might come from the Cape that the Ural find had been examined into and had proved to be a myth. In any case, he thought that he would be free from suspicion. Still, it might be as well for him by that time to be upon his homeward journey, for he knew that if by any chance the true facts leaked out there would be no hope of mercy from the furious diggers. Hence he incited Farintosh to greater speed, and that worthy divine with his two agents worked so energetically that in less than a week there was little left of five and thirty thousand pounds.
Ezra Girdlestone had shown his power of reading character when he chose the ex-clergyman as his subordinate. It is possible, however, that the young man's judgment had been inferior to his powers of observation. A clever man as a trusty ally is a valuable article, but when the said cleverness may be turned against his employer the advantage becomes a questionable one.
It was perfectly evident to Farintosh that though a stray capitalist might risk a thousand pounds or so on a speculation of this sort, Rothschild himself would hardly care to invest such a sum as had passed through his hands without having some ground on which to go. Having formed this conclusion, and having also turned over in his mind the remarkable coincidence that the news of this discovery in Russia should follow so very rapidly upon the visit of the junior partner of the House of Girdlestone, the astute clergyman began to have some dim perception of the truth. Hence he brooded a good deal as he went about his work, and cogitated deeply in a manner which was once again distinctly undesirable in so very intelligent a subordinate.
These broodings and cogitations culminated in a meeting, which was held by him with his two sub-agents in the private parlour of the Digger's Retreat. It was a low-roofed, smoke-stained room, with a profusion of spittoons scattered over it, which, to judge by the condition of the floor, the patrons of the establishment had taken some pains to avoid. Round a solid, old-fashioned table in the centre of this apartment sat Ezra's staff of assistants, the parson thoughtful but self-satisfied, the others sullen and inquisitive. Farintosh had convened the meeting, and his comrades had an idea that there was something in the wind. They applied themselves steadily, therefore, to the bottle of Hollands upon the table, and waited for him to speak.
"Well," the ex-clergyman said at last, "the game is nearly over, and we'll not be wanted any more. Girdlestone's off to England in a day or two."
Burt and Williams groaned sympathetically. Work was scarce in the diggings during the crisis, and their agencies had been paying them well.
"Yes, he's off," Farintosh went on, glancing keenly at his companions, "and he takes with him five and thirty thousand pounds worth of diamonds that we bought for him. Poor devils like us, Burt, have to do the work, and then are thrown aside as you would throw your pick aside when you are done with it. When he sells out in London and makes his pile, it won't much matter to him that the three men who helped him are starving in Griqualand."
"Won't he give us somethin' at partin'?" asked Burt, the navvy. He was a savage-looking, hairy man, with a brick-coloured face and over-hanging eyebrows. "Won't he give us nothing to remembrance him by?"
"Give you something!" Farintosh said with a sneer. "Why, man, he says you are too well paid already."
"Does he, though?" cried the navvy, flushing even redder than nature had made him. "Is that the way he speaks after we makes him? It ain't on the square. I likes to see things honest an' above board betwixt man an' man, and this pitchin' of them as has helped ye over ain't that."
Farintosh lowered his voice and bent further over the table. His companions involuntarily imitated his movement, until the three cunning, cruel faces were looking closely into one another's eyes.
"Nobody knows that he holds those stones," said Farintosh. "He's too smart to let it out to any one but ourselves."
"Where does he keep 'em?" asked the Welshman.
"In a safe in his room."
"Where is the key?"
"On his watch-chain."
"Could we get an impression?"
"I have one."
"Then I can make one," cried Williams triumphantly.
"It's done," said Farintosh, taking a small key from his pocket. "This is a duplicate, and will open the safe. I took the moulding from his key while I was speaking to him."
The navvy laughed hoarsely. "If that don't lick creation for smartness!" he cried. "And how are we to get to this safe? It would serve him right if we collar the lot. It'll teach him that if he ain't honest by nature he's got to be when he deals with the like of us. I like straightness, and by the Lord I'll have it!" He brought his great fist down upon the table to emphasize this commendable sentiment.
"It's not an easy matter," Farintosh said thoughtfully. "When he goes out he locks his door, and there's no getting in at the window. There's only one chance for us that I can see. His room is a bit cut off from the rest of the hotel. There's a gallery of twenty feet or more that leads to it. Now, I was thinking that if the three of us were to visit him some evening, just to wish him luck on his journey, as it were, and if, while we were in the room something sudden was to happen which would knock him silly for a minute or two, we might walk off with the stones and be clean gone before he could raise an alarm."
"And what would knock him silly?" asked Williams. He was an unhealthy, scorbutic-looking youth, and his pallid complexion had assumed a greenish tinge of fear as he listened to the clergyman's words. He had the makings in him of a mean and dangerous criminal, but not of a violent one—belonging to the jackal tribe rather than to the tiger.
"What would knock him senseless?" Farintosh asked Burt, with a knowing look.
Burt laughed again in his bushy, red beard. "You can leave that to me, mate," he said.
Williams glanced from one to the other and he became even more cadaverous. "I'm not in it," he stammered. "It will be a hanging job. You will kill him as like as not."
"Not in it, ain't ye?" growled the navvy. "Why, you white-livered hound, you're too deep in it ever to get out again. D'ye think we'll let you spoil a lay of this sort as we might never get a chance of again?"
"You can do it without me," said the Welshman, trembling in every limb.
"And have you turnin' on us the moment a reward was offered. No, no, chummy, you don't get out of it that way. If you won't stand by us, I'll take care you don't split."
"Think of the diamonds," Farintosh put in.
"Think of your own skin," said the navvy.
"You could go back to England a rich man if you do it."
"You'll never go back at all if you don't." Thus worked upon alternately by his hopes and by his fears, Williams showed some signs of yielding. He took a long draught from his glass and filled it up again.
"I ain't afraid," he said. "Don't imagine that I am afraid. You won't hit him very hard, Mr. Burt?"
"Just enough to curl him up," the navvy answered. "Lord love ye, it ain't the first man by many a one that I've laid on his back, though I never had the chance before of fingering five and thirty thousand pounds worth of diamonds for my pains."
"But the hotel-keeper and the servants?"
"That's all right," said Farintosh. "You leave it to me. If we go up quietly and openly, and come down quietly and openly, who is to suspect anything? Our horses will be outside, in Woodley Street, and we'll be out of their reach in no time. Shall we say to-morrow evening for the job?"
"That's very early," Williams cried tremulously.
"The sooner the better," Burt said, with an oath. "And look here, young man," fixing Williams with his bloodshot eyes, "one sign of drawing back, and by the living jingo I'll let you have more than I'm keeping for him. You hear me, eh?" He grasped the youth's white wrist and squeezed it in his iron grip until he writhed with the pain.
"Oh, I'm with you, heart and soul," he cried. "I'm sure what you and Mr. Farintosh advise must be for the best."
"Meet here at eight o'clock to-morrow night then," said the leader. "We can get it over by nine, and we will have the night for our escape. I'll have the horses ready, and it will be strange if we don't get such a start as will puzzle them."
So, having arranged all the details of their little plan, these three gentlemen departed in different directions—Farintosh to the Central Hotel, to give Ezra his evening report, and the others to the mining-camps, which were the scene of their labours.
The meeting just described took place upon a Tuesday, early in November. On the Saturday Ezra Girdlestone had fully made up his mind to turn his back upon the diggings and begin his homeward journey. He was pining for the pleasures of his old London life, and was weary of the monotonous expanse of the South African veldt. His task was done, too, and it would be well for him to be at a distance before the diggers discovered the manner in which they had been hoaxed. He began to pack his boxes, therefore, and to make every preparation for his departure.
He was busily engaged in this employment upon the Wednesday evening when there was a tap at the door and Farintosh walked in, accompanied by Burt and Williams. Girdlestone glanced up at them, and greeted them briefly. He was not surprised at their visit, for they had come together several times before to report progress or make arrangements. Farintosh bowed as he entered the room, Burt nodded, and Williams rubbed his hands together and looked amiably bilious.
"We looked in, Mr. Girdlestone," Farintosh began, "to learn if you had any commands for us."
"I told you before that I had not," Ezra said curtly. "I am going on Saturday. I have made a mistake in speculating on those diamonds. Prices are sinking lower and lower."
"I am sorry to hear that," said Farintosh sympathetically. "Maybe the market will take a turn."
"Let us hope so," the merchant answered. "It doesn't look like it."
"But you are satisfied with us, guv'nor," Burt struck in, pushing his bulky form in front of Farintosh. "We have done our work all right, haven't we?"
"I have nothing to complain of," Ezra said coldly.
"Well then, guv'nor, you surely ain't going away without leaving us nothing to remembrance you with, seeing that we've stood by you and never gone back on you."
"You have been paid every week for what you have done," the young man said. "You won't get another penny out of me, so you set your mind at rest about that."
"You won't give us nothing?" cried the navvy angrily.
"No, I won't; and I'll tell you what it is, Burt, big as you are, if you dare to raise your voice in my presence I'll give you the soundest hiding that ever you had in your life."
Ezra had stood up and showed every indication of being as good as his word.
"Don't let us quarrel the last time we may meet," Farintosh cried, intervening between the two. "It is not money we expect from you. All we want is a drain of rum to drink success to you with."
"Oh, if that's all," said the young merchant—and turned round to pick up the bottle which stood on a table behind him. Quick as a flash Burt sprang upon him and struck him down with a life-preserver. With a gasping cry and a heavy thud Ezra fell face downwards upon the floor, the bottle still clutched in his senseless hand, and the escaping rum forming a horrible mixture with the blood which streamed from a great gash in his head.
"Very neat—very pretty indeed!" cried the ex-parson, in a quiet tone of critical satisfaction, as a connoisseur might speak of a specimen which interested him. He was already busy at the door of the safe.
"Well done, Mr. Burt, well done!" cried Williams, in a quivering voice; and going up to the body he kicked it in the side. "You see I am not afraid, Mr. Burt, am I?"
"Stow your gab!" snarled the navvy. "Here's the rum all gettin' loose." Picking up the bottle he took a pull of what was left in it. "Here's the bag, parson," he whispered, pulling a black linen bag from his pocket. "We haven't made much noise over the job."
"Here are the stones," said Farintosh, in the same quiet voice. "Hold the mouth open." He emptied an avalanche of diamonds into the receptacle. "Here are some notes and gold. We may as well have them too. Now, tie it up carefully. That's the way! If we meet any one on the stairs, take it coolly. Turn that lamp out, Williams, so that if any one looks in he'll see nothing. Come along!"
The guilty trio stole out of the room, bearing their plunder with them, and walked down the passage of the hotel unmolested and unharmed.
The moon, as it rose over the veldt that night, shone on three horsemen spurring it along the Capetown road as though their very lives depended upon their speed. Its calm, clear rays streamed over the silent roofs of Kimberley and in through a particular window of the Central Hotel, throwing silvery patches upon the carpet, and casting strange shadows from the figure which lay as it had fallen, huddled in an ungainly heap upon the floor.
ROBBERS AND ROBBED.
It might perhaps have been as well for the curtailing of this narrative, and for the interests of the world at large if the blow dealt by the sturdy right arm of the navvy had cut short once for all the career of the junior African merchant. Ezra, however, was endowed with a rare vitality, which enabled him not only to shake off the effects of his mishap, but to do so in an extraordinarily short space of time. There was a groan from the prostrate figure, then a feeble movement, then another and a louder groan, and then an oath. Gradually raising himself upon his elbow, he looked around him in a bewildered way, with his other hand pressed to the wound at the back of his head, from which a few narrow little rivulets of blood were still meandering. His glance wandered vaguely over the table and the chairs and the walls, until it rested upon the safe. He could see in the moonlight that it was open, and empty. In a moment the whole circumstances of the case came back to him, and he staggered to the door with a hoarse cry of rage and of despair.
Whatever Ezra's faults may have been, irresolution or want of courage were not among them. In a moment he grasped the situation, and realized that it was absolutely essential that he should act, and at once. The stones must be recovered, or utter and irretrievable ruin stared him in the face. At his cries the landlord and several attendants, white and black, came rushing into the room.
"I've been robbed and assaulted," Ezra said, steadying himself against the mantelpiece, for he was still weak and giddy. "Don't all start cackling, but do what I ask you. Light the lamp!"
The lamp was lit, and there was a murmur from the little knot of employees, reinforced by some late loungers at the bar, as they saw the disordered room and the great crimson patch upon the carpet.
"The thieves called at nine," said Ezra, talking rapidly, but collectedly. "Their names were Farintosh, Burt, and Williams. We talked for, some little time, so they probably did not leave the house before a quarter past at the soonest. It is now half-past ten, so they have no very great start. You, Jamieson, and you, Van Muller, run out and find if three men have been seen getting away. Perhaps they took a buggy. Go up and down, and ask all you see. You, Jones, go as hard as you can to Inspector Ainslie. Tell him there has been robbery and attempted murder, and say that I want half a dozen of his best mounted men—not his best men, you understand, but his best horses. I shall see that he is no loser if he is smart. Where's my servant Pete? Pete, you dog, get my horse saddled and bring her round. She ought to be able to catch anything in Griqualand."
As Ezra gave his orders the men hurried off in different directions to carry them out. He himself commenced to arrange his dress, and tied a handkerchief tightly round his head.
"Surely you are not going, sir?" the landlord said, "You are not fit."
"Fit or not, I am going," Ezra said resolutely. "If I have to be strapped to my horse I'll go. Send me up some brandy. Put some in a flask, too. I may feel faint before I get back."
A great concourse of people had assembled by this time, attracted by the report of the robbery. The whole square in front of the hotel was crowded with diggers and store-keepers and innumerable Kaffirs, all pressing up to the portico in the hope of hearing some fresh details. Mr. Hector O'Flaherty, over the way, was already busy setting up his type in preparation for a special edition, in which the Vaal River Advertiser should give its version of the affair. In the office the great man himself, who was just convalescing from an attack of ardent spirits, was busily engaged, with a wet towel round his head, writing a leader upon the event. This production, which was very sonorous and effective, was peppered all over with such phrases as "protection of property," "outraged majesty of the law," and "scum of civilization"— expressions which had been used so continuously by Mr. O'Flaherty, that he had come to think that he had a copyright in them, and loudly accused the London papers of plagiarism if he happened to see them in their columns.
There was a buzz of excitement among the crowd when Ezra appeared on the steps of the hotel, looking as white as a sheet, with a handkerchief bound round his head and his collar all crusted with blood. As he mounted his horse one of his emissaries rushed to him.
"If you please, sir," he said, "they have taken the Capetown road. A dozen people saw them. Their horses were not up to much, for I know the man they got them from. You are sure to catch them."
A smile played over Ezra's pale face, which boded little good for the fugitives. "Curse those police!" he cried; "are they never going to come?"
"Here they are!" said the landlord; and sure enough, with a jingling of arms and a clatter of hoofs, half a dozen of the Griqualand Mounted Constabulary trotted through the crowd and drew up in front of the steps. They were smart, active young fellows, armed with revolver and sabre, and their horses were tough brutes, uncomely to look at, but with wonderful staying power. Ezra noted the fact with satisfaction as he rode up to the grizzled sergeant in command.
"There's not a moment to be lost, sergeant," he said. "They have an hour and a half's start, but their cattle are not up to much. Come on! It's the Capetown road. A hundred pounds if we catch them!"
"Threes!" roared the sergeant. "Right half turn—trot!" The crowd split asunder, and the little troop, with Ezra at their head, clove a path through them. "Gallop!" shouted the sergeant, and away they clattered down the High Street of Kimberley, striking fire out of the stone and splashing up the gravel, until the sound of their hoofs died away into a dull, subdued rattle, and finally faded altogether from the ears of the listening crowd.
For the first few miles the party galloped in silence. The moon was still shining brilliantly, and they could see the white line of the road stretching out in front of them and winding away over the undulating veldt. To right and left spread a broad expanse of wiry grass stretching to the horizon, with low bushes and scrub scattered over it in patches. Here and there were groups of long-legged, unhealthy-looking sheep, who crashed through the bushes in wild terror as the riders swept by them. Their plaintive calls were the only sounds which broke the silence of the night, save the occasional dismal hooting of the veldt owl.
Ezra, on his powerful grey, had been riding somewhat ahead of the troopers, but the sergeant managed to get abreast of him. "Beg pardon, sir," he said, raising his hand to his kepi, "but don't you think this pace is too good to last? The horses will be blown."
"As long as we catch them," Ezra answered, "I don't care what becomes of the horses. I would sooner stand you a dozen horses apiece than let them get away."
The young merchant's words were firm and his seat steady, in spite of the throbbing at his head. The fury in his heart supplied him with strength, and he gnawed his moustache in his impatience and dug his spurs into his horse's flanks until the blood trickled down its glossy coat. Fortune, reputation, above all, revenge, all depended upon the issue of this headlong chase through the darkness.
The sergeant and Ezra galloped along, leather to leather, and rein to rein, while the troop clattered in their rear. "There's Combrink about two miles further on," said the sergeant; "we will hear news of them there."
"They can't get off the high road, can they?"
"Not likely, sir. They couldn't get along as fast anywhere else. Indeed, it's hardly safe riding across the veldt. They might be down a pit before they knew of it."
"As long as they are on the road, we must catch them," quoth Ezra; "for if it ran straight from here to hell I would follow them there."
"And we'd stand by you, sir," said the sergeant, catching something of his companion's enthusiasm. "At this pace, if the horses hold out, we might catch them before morning. There are the lights of the shanty."
As he spoke they were galloping round a long curve in the road, at the further end of which there was a feeble yellow glimmer. As they came abreast of it they saw that the light came through an open door, in the centre of which a burly Afrikaner was standing with his hands in his breeches pockets and his pipe in his mouth.
"Good evening," said the sergeant, as his men pulled up their reeking horses. "Has any one passed this way before us?"
"Many a tausand has passed this way before you," said the Dutchman, taking his pipe out of his mouth to laugh.
"To-night, man, to-night!" the sergeant cried angrily.
"Oh yes; down the Port Elizabeth Road there, not one hour ago. Three men riding fit to kill their horses."
"That'll do," Ezra shouted; and away they went once more down the broad white road. They passed Bluewater's Drift at two in the morning, and were at Van Hayden's farm at half-past. At three they left the Modder River far behind them, and at a quarter past four they swept down the main street of the little township of Jacobsdal, their horses weak and weary and all mottled with foam. There was a police patrol in the street.
"Has any one passed?" cried the sergeant.
"Three men, a quarter of an hour ago."
"Have they gone on?"
"Straight on. Their horses were nearly dead beat, though."
"Come on!" cried Ezra eagerly. "Come on!"
"Four of the horses are exhausted, sir," said the sergeant. "They can't move another step."
"Come on without them then."
"The patrol could come," the sergeant suggested.
"I should have to report myself at the office, sir," said the trooper.
"Jump on to his horse, sergeant," cried Ezra. "He can take yours to report himself on. Now then you and I at least are bound to come up with them. Forward! gallop!" And they started off once more on their wild career, rousing the quiet burghers of Jacobsdal by the wild turmoil of their hoofs.
Out once more upon the Port Elizabeth Road it was a clear race between the pursuers and the pursued. The former knew that the fugitives, were it daytime, would possibly be within sight of them, and the thought gave them additional ardour. The sergeant having a fresh horse rode in front, his head down and his body forward, getting every possible inch of pace out of the animal. At his heels came Ezra, on his gallant grey, the blood-stained handkerchief fluttering from his head. He was sitting very straight in his saddle with a set stern smile upon his lips. In his right hand he held a cocked revolver. A hundred yards or so behind them the two remaining troopers came toiling along upon their weary nags, working hard with whip and spur to stimulate them to further exertions. Away in the east a long rosy streak lay low upon the horizon, which showed that dawn was approaching, and a grey light stole over the landscape. Suddenly the sergeant pulled his horse up.
"There's some one coming towards us," he cried.
Ezra and the troopers halted their panting steeds. Through the uncertain light they saw a solitary horseman riding down the road. At first they had thought that it might possibly be one of the fugitives who had turned, but as he came nearer they perceived that it was a stranger. His clothes were so dusty and his horse so foam-flecked and weary that it was evident that he also had left many a long mile of road behind him.
"Have you seen three men on horseback?" cried Ezra as he approached.
"I spoke to them," the traveller answered. "They are about half a mile ahead."
"Come on! Come on!" Ezra shouted.
"I am bringing news from Jagersfontein—" the man said.
"Come on!" Ezra interrupted furiously; and the horses stretched their stiff limbs into a feeble lumbering gallop. Ezra and the sergeant shot to the front, and the others followed as best they might. Suddenly in the stillness they heard far away a dull rattling sound like the clatter of distant castanets. "It's their horses' hoofs!" cried Ezra; and the troopers behind raised a cheer to show that they too understood the significance of the sound.
It was a wild, lonely spot, where the plain was bare even of the scanty foliage which usually covered it. Here and there great granite rocks protruded from the brown soil, as though Nature's covering had in bygone days been rent until her gaunt bones protruded through the wound. As Ezra and the sergeant swept round a sharp turn in the road they saw, some little way ahead of them, the three fugitives, enveloped in a cloud of dust. Almost at the same moment they heard a shout and crash behind them, and, looking round, saw a confused heap upon the ground. The horse of the leading trooper had fallen from pure fatigue, and had rolled over upon its rider. The other trooper had dismounted, and was endeavouring to extricate his companion.
"Let us see if he is hurt," the sergeant cried.
"On! on!" shouted Ezra, whose passion was increased by the sight of the thieves. "Not a foot back."
"He may have broken his neck," grumbled the sergeant, drawing his revolver. "Have your pistol ready, sir. We shall be up with them in a few minutes, and they may show fight."
They were up with them rather sooner than the policeman expected. Farintosh, finding that speed was of no avail, and that the numbers of his pursuers was now reduced to two, had recourse to strategy. There was a sharp turn in the road a hundred yards ahead, and on reaching it the three flung themselves off their horses and lay down behind cover. As Ezra and the sergeant, the grey horse and the bay, came thundering round the curve, there was a fierce splutter of pistol shots from amongst the bushes, and the grey sank down upon its knees with a sobbing moan, struck mortally in the head. Ezra sprang to his feet and rushed at the ambuscade, while the sergeant, who had been grazed on the cheek by the first volley, jumped from his horse and followed him. Burt and Farintosh met them foot to foot with all the Saxon gallantry which underlies the Saxon brutality. Burt stabbed at the sergeant and struck him through the muscle of the neck. Farintosh fired at the policeman, and was himself shot down by Ezra. Burt, seeing his companion fall, sprang past his two assailants with a vicious side blow at the merchant, and throwing himself upon the sergeant's horse, regardless of a bullet from the latter's revolver, he galloped away, and was speedily out of range. As to Williams, from the beginning of the skirmish he had lain face downwards upon the ground, twisting his thin limbs about in an agony of fear, and howling for mercy.
"He's gone!" Ezra said ruefully, gazing after the fugitive. "We have nothing to go after him with."
"I'm well-nigh gone myself," said the policeman, mopping up the blood from his stab, which was more painful than dangerous. "He has given me a nasty prod."
"Never mind, my friend, you shall not be the loser. Get up, you little viper!"—this to Williams, who was still writhing himself into the most extraordinary attitudes.
"Oh, please, Mr. Girdlestone," he cried, clutching at Ezra's boots with his long thin fingers, "it wasn't me that hit you. It was Mr. Burt. I had nothing to do with robbing you either. That was Mr. Farintosh. I wouldn't have gone with him, only I knew that he was a clergyman, so I expected no harm. I am surprised at you, Mr. Farintosh, I really am. I'm very glad that Mr. Girdlestone has shot you."
The ex-parson was sitting with his back against a gnarled stump, which gave him some support. He had his hand to his chest, and as he breathed a ghastly whistling sound came from the wound, and spirts of blood rushed from his mouth. His glazed eyes were fixed upon the man who had shot him, and a curious smile played about his thin lips.
"Come here, Mr. Girdlestone," he croaked; "come here."
Ezra strode over to him with a face as inexorable as fate.
"You've done for me," said Farintosh faintly. "It's a queer end for the best man of his year at Trinity—master of arts, sir, and Jacksonian prizeman. Not much worth now, is it? Who'd have thought then that I should have died like a dog in this wilderness? What's the odds how a man dies though. If I'd kept myself straight I should have gone off a few years later in a feather bed as the Dean of St. Patrick's may be. What will that matter? I've enjoyed myself"—the dying man's eyes glistened at the thought of past dissipations. "If I had my time to do over again," he continued, "I'd enjoy myself the same way. I'm not penitent, sir. No death-bed snivelling about me, or short cuts into heaven. That's not what I wanted to say though. I have a choking in the throat, but I dare say you can hear what I am driving at. You met a man riding towards Jacobsdal, did you not?"
Ezra nodded sullenly.
"You didn't speak to him? Too busy trying to catch yours truly, eh? Will you have your stones back, for they are in the bag by my side, but they'll not be very much good to you. The little spec won't come off this time. You don't know what the news was that the man was bringing?"
A vague feeling of impending misfortune stole over Ezra. He shook his head.
"His news was," said Farintosh, leaning up upon his hand, "that fresh diamond fields have been discovered at Jagersfontein, in the Orange Free State. So Russia, or no Russia, stones will not rise. Ha! ha! will not rise. Look at his face! It's whiter than mine. Ha! ha! ha!" With the laugh upon his lips, a great flow of blood stopped the clergyman's utterance, and he rolled slowly over upon his side, a dead man.
A MOMENTOUS RESOLUTION.
During the months which Ezra Girdlestone had spent in Africa the affairs of the firm in Fenchurch Street had been exceedingly prosperous. Trade upon the coast had been brisker than usual, and three of the company's ships had come in at short intervals with excellent cargoes. Among these was the Black Eagle which, to the astonishment of Captain Hamilton Miggs and the disgust of his employer, had weathered a severe gale in the Channel, and had arrived safe and sound once more. This run of luck, supplemented by the business capacity of the old merchant and the indomitable energy of young Dimsdale, made the concern look so flourishing that the former felt more than ever convinced that if he could but stave off the immediate danger things would soon right themselves. Hence he read with delight the letters from Africa, in which his son narrated the success of the conspiracy and the manner in which the miners had been hoodwinked. The old man's figure grew straighter and his step more firm as the conviction grew upon him that the company would soon return once again to its former condition of affluence.
It may be imagined, therefore, that when the rumours of a bona fide diamond find in the Orange Free State came to his ears John Girdlestone was much agitated and distressed. On the same day that he saw the announcement in the papers he received a letter from his son announcing the failure of their enterprise. After narrating the robbery, the pursuit, the death of Farintosh, and the announcement of the new discovery, it gave an account of his subsequent movements.
"There was no doubt about the truth of the scoundrel's words," he said, "for when we went to the nearest farm to get some food and have the sergeant's wound dressed we found that every one was talking about it. There was a chap there who had just come from the State and knew all about it. After hearing the details from him I saw that there was no doubt of the genuineness of the thing.
"The police rode back to Jacobsdal with Williams, and I promised to come after them; but when I came to think it over it didn't seem good enough. The fact of my having so many diamonds would set every tongue wagging, and, again, the sergeant had heard what Farintosh said to me, so it was very possible that I might have the whole district about my ears. As it was, I had the stones and all my money in the bag. I wrote back to the hotel, therefore, telling the landlord to send on my traps to Cape Town by mail, and promising to settle my bill with him when I received them. I then bought a horse and came straight south. I shall take the first steamer and be with you within a few days of your receiving this.
"As to our speculation, it is, of course, all up. Even when the Russian business proves to be a hoax, the price of stones will remain very low on account of these new fields. It is possible that we may sell our lot at some small profit but it won't be the royal road to a fortune that you prophesied, nor will it help the firm out of the rut into which you have shoved it. My only regret in leaving Africa like this is that that vermin Williams will have no one to prosecute him. My head is almost well now."
This letter was a rude shock to the African merchant. Within a week of the receipt of it his son Ezra, gloomy and travel-stained, walked into the sanctum at Fenchurch Street and confirmed all the evil tidings by word of mouth. The old man was of too tough a fibre to break down completely, but his bony hands closed convulsively upon the arms of the chair, and a cold perspiration broke out upon his wrinkled forehead as he listened to such details as his son vouchsafed to afford him.
"You have your stones all safe, though?" he stammered out at last.
"They are in my box, at home," said Ezra, gloomy and morose, leaning against the white marble mantelpiece. "The Lord knows what they are worth! We'll be lucky if we clear as much as they cost and a margin for my expenses and Langworthy's. A broken head is all that I have got from your fine scheme."
"Who could foresee such a thing?" the old man said plaintively. He might have added Major Clutterbuck's thousand pounds as another item to be cleared, but he thought it as well to keep silent upon the point.
"Any fool could foresee the possibility of it," quoth Ezra brusquely.
"The fall in prices is sure to be permanent, then?" the old man asked.
"It will last for some years, any way," Ezra answered. "The Jagersfontein gravel is very rich, and there seems to be plenty of it."
"And within a few months we must repay both capital and interest. We are ruined!" The old merchant spoke in a broken voice, and his head sank upon his breast. "When that day comes," he continued, "the firm which has been for thirty years above reproach, and a model to the whole City, will be proclaimed as a bankrupt concern. Worse still, it will be shown to have been kept afloat for years by means which will be deemed fraudulent. I tell you, my dear son, that if any means could be devised which would avert this—any means—I should not hesitate to adopt them. I am a frail old man, and I feel that the short balance of my life would be a small thing for me to give in return for the assurance that the work which I have built up should not be altogether thrown away."
"Your life cannot affect the matter one way or the other unless it were more heavily insured than it is," Ezra said callously, though somewhat moved by his father's intensity of manner. "Perhaps there is some way out of the wood yet," he added, in a more cheerful tone.
"It's so paying, so prosperous—that's what goes to my heart. If it had ruined itself it would be easier to bear it, but it is sacrificed to outside speculations—my wretched, wretched speculations. That is what makes it so hard." He touched the bell, and Gilray answered the summons. "Listen to this, Ezra. What was our turn over last month, Gilray?"
"Fifteen thousand pounds, sir," said the little clerk, bobbing up and down like a buoy in a gale in his delight at seeing the junior partner once again.
"And the expenses?"
"Nine thousand three hundred. Uncommon brown you look, Mr. Ezra, to be sure, uncommon brown and well. I hopes as you enjoyed yourself in Africa, sir, and was too much for them Hottenpots and Boars." With this profound ethnological remark Mr. Gilray bobbed himself out of the room and went back radiantly to his ink-stained desk.
"Look at that," the old man said, when the click of the outer door showed that the clerk was out of ear-shot. "Over five thousand profit in a month. Is it not terrible that such a business should go to ruin? What a fortune it would have been for you!"
"By heavens, it must be saved!" cried Ezra, with meditative brows and hands plunged deep in his trouser pockets. "There is that girl's money. Could we not get the temporary use of it."
"Impossible!" his father answered with a sigh. "It is so tied up in the will that she cannot sign it away herself until she comes of age. There is no way of touching it except by her marriage—or by her death."
"Then we must have it by the only means open to us."
"And that is?"
"I must marry her."
"I shall. Here is my hand on it."
"Then we are saved," cried the old man, throwing up his tremulous hands. "Girdlestone & Son will weather the storm yet."
"But Girdlestone becomes a sleeping partner," said Ezra. "It's for my own sake I do it and not for yours," with which frank remark he drew his hat down over his brows and set off for Eccleston Square.
A DANGEROUS PROMISE.
During Ezra Girdlestone's absence in Africa our heroine's life had been even less eventful than of old. There was a consistency about the merchant's establishment which was characteristic of the man. The house itself was austere and gloomy, and every separate room, in spite of profuse expenditure and gorgeous furniture, had the same air of discomfort. The servants too, were, with one single exception, from the hard-visaged housekeeper to the Calvinistic footman, a depressing and melancholy race. The only departure from this general rule was Kate's own maid, Rebecca Taylforth, a loudly-dressed, dark-eyed, coarse-voiced young woman, who raised up her voice and wept when Ezra departed for Africa. This damsel's presence was most disagreeable to Kate, and, indeed, to John Girdlestone also, who only retained her on account of his son's strong views upon the subject, and out of fear of an explosion which might wreck all his plans.
The old merchant was Kate's only companion during this period, and their conversation was usually limited to a conventional inquiry at breakfast time as to each other's health. On his return from the City in the evening Girdlestone was always in a moody humour, and would eat his dinner hastily and in silence. After dinner he was in the habit of reading methodically the various financial articles in the day's papers, which would occupy him until bedtime. Occasionally his companion would read these aloud to him, and such was the monotony of her uneventful life that she found herself becoming insensibly interested in the fluctuations of Grand Trunk scrip or Ohio and Delaware shares. The papers once exhausted, a bell was rung to summon the domestics, and when all were assembled the merchant, in a hard metallic voice, read through the lesson for the day and the evening prayers. On grand occasions he supplemented this by a short address, in the course of which he would pelt his frightened audience with hard jagged texts until he had reduced them to a fitting state of spiritual misery. No wonder that, under the influence of such an existence, the roses began to fade from his ward's cheeks, and her youthful heart to grow sad and heavy.
One daily tonic there was, however, which never deserted her. Strictly as Girdlestone guarded her, and jealously as he fenced her off from the outer world, he was unable to prevent this one little ray of light penetrating her prison. With an eye to the future he had so placed her that it seemed to him to be impossible that any sympathy could reach her from the outside world. Visits and visitors were alike forbidden to her. On no consideration was she to venture out alone. In spite of all his precautions, however, love has many arts and wiles which defy all opposition, and which can outplot the deepest of plotters.
Eccleston Square was by no means in a direct line between Kensington and the City, yet morning and evening, as sure as the clock pointed to half-past nine and to quarter to six, Tom would stride through the old-fashioned square and past the grim house, whose grimness was softened to his eyes through its association with the bright dream of his life. It was but the momentary glance of a sweet face at the upper window and a single wave of a white hand, but it sent him on with a fresh heart and courage, and it broke the dull monotony of her dreary life.
Occasionally, as we have seen, he even managed to find his way into the interior of this ogre's castle, in which his fair princess was immured. John Girdlestone put an end to this by ordering that business messages should never under any circumstances be conveyed to his private residence. Nothing daunted, however, the lovers soon devised another means of surmounting the barrier which divided them.
The centre of the square was taken up by a garden, rectangular and uninviting, fenced round with high forbidding walls which shut out all intruders and gave the place a resemblance to the exercise ground of a prison. Within the rails were clumps of bushes, and here and there a few despondent trees drooped their heads as though mourning over the uncongenial site in which they had been planted. Among these trees and bushes there were scattered seats, and the whole estate was at the disposal of the inhabitants of Eccleston Square, and was dignified by the name of the Eccleston Gardens. This was the only spot in which Kate was trusted without the surveillance of a footman, and it was therefore a favourite haunt of hers, where she would read or work for hours under the shelter of the scanty foliage.
Hence it came about that one day, as Thomas Dimsdale was making his way Cityward at a rather earlier hour than was customary with him, he missed the usual apparition at the window. Looking round blankly in search of some explanation of this absence, he perceived in the garden a pretty white bonnet which glinted among the leaves, and on closer inspection a pair of bright eyes, which surveyed him merrily from underneath it. The gate was open, and in less time than it takes to tell it the sacrilegious feet of the young man had invaded the sacred domains devoted to the sole use and behoof of the Ecclestonians. It may be imagined that he was somewhat late at the office that morning and on many subsequent mornings, until the clerks began to think that their new employer was losing the enthusiasm for business which had possessed him.
Tom frequently begged permission to inform Mr. Girdlestone of his engagement, but Kate was inflexible upon that point. The fact is, that she knew her guardian's character very much better than her lover did, and remembering his frequent exhortations upon the subject of the vanity and wickedness of such things, she feared the effects of his anger when he learned the truth. In a year or so she would be of age and her own mistress, but at present she was entirely in his power. Why should she subject herself to the certainty of constant harshness and unkindness which would await her? Had her guardian really fulfilled the functions of a father towards her he would have a right to be informed, but as it was she felt that she owed him no such duty. She therefore made up her mind that he should know nothing of the matter; but the fates unfortunately willed otherwise.