Chapter XXVI: Breaking Ground

The Firm of Girdlestone

In spite of John Girdlestone’s temporary satisfaction and the stoical face which he presented to the world, it is probable that in the whole of London there was no more unhappy and heart-weary man. The long fight against impending misfortune had shattered his iron constitution and weakened him both in body and in mind. It was remarked upon ‘Change how much he had aged of late, and moralists commented upon the vanity and inefficacy of the wealth which could not smooth the wrinkles from the great trader’s haggard visage. He was surprised himself when he looked in the glass at the change which had come over him. “Never mind,” he would say in his dogged heart a hundred times a day, “they can’t beat me. Do what they will, they can’t beat me.” This was the one thought which sustained and consoled him. The preservation of his commercial credit had become the aim and object of his life, to which there was nothing that he was not prepared to sacrifice.

His cunningly devised speculation in diamonds had failed, but this failure had been due to an accident which could neither have been foreseen nor remedied. To carry out this scheme he had, as we have seen, been obliged to borrow money, which had now to be repaid. This he had managed to do, more or less completely, by the sale of the stones which Ezra had brought home, supplemented by the recent profits of the firm. There was still the original deficit to be faced, and John Girdlestone knew that though a settlement might be postponed from month to month, still the day must come, and come soon, when his debts must be met, or his inability to meet them become apparent to the whole world. Should Ezra be successful in his wooing and his ward’s forty thousand pounds be thrown into the scale, the firm would shake itself clear from the load which oppressed it. Supposing, however, that Kate were to refuse his son. What was to occur then? The will was so worded that there appeared to be no other way of obtaining the money. A very vulpine look would come over the old man’s face as he brooded over that problem.

The strangest of all the phenomena, however, presented by John Girdlestone at this period of his life was his own entire conviction of the righteousness of his actions. When every night and morning he sank upon his knees with his household and prayed for the success of the firm’s undertakings, no qualms of conscience ever troubled him as to their intrinsic morality. On Sundays the grey head of the merchant in the first pew was as constant an object as was the pew itself, yet in that head no thought ever rose of the inconsistency of his religion and of his practice. For fifty years he had been persuading himself that he was a righteous man, and the conviction was now so firmly impressed upon his very soul that nothing could ever shake it. Ezra was wrong when he set this down as deliberate hypocrisy. Blind strength of will and self-conceit were at the bottom of his actions, but he would have been astonished and indignant had he been accused of simulating piety or of using it as a tool. To him the firm of Girdlestone was the very representation of religion in the commercial world, and as such must be upheld by every conceivable means.

To his son this state of mind was unintelligible, and he simply gave his father credit for being a consummate and accomplished hypocrite, who found a mantle of piety a very convenient one under which to conceal his real character. He had himself inherited the old man’s dogged pertinacity and commercial instincts, and was by nature unscrupulous and impatient of any obstacle placed in his way. He was now keenly alive to the fact that the existence of the firm depended upon the success of his suit, and he knew also how lucrative a concern the African business would prove were it set upon its legs again. He had determined in case he succeeded to put his father aside as a sleeping partner and to take the reins of management entirely into his own hands. His practical mind had already devised countless ways in which the profits might be increased. The first step of all, then, was the gaining possession of the forty thousand pounds, and to that he devoted himself heart and soul. When two such men work together for one end, it is seldom that they fail to achieve it.

It would be a mistake to suppose that Ezra felt himself in any degree in love at this time. He recognized his companion’s sweetness and gentleness, but these were not qualities which appealed to his admiration. Kate’s amiable, quiet ways seemed insipid to a man who was used to female society of a very different order.

“She has no go or snap about her,” he would complain to his father.
“She’s not like Polly Lucas at the Pavilion, or Minnie Walker.”

“God forbid!” ejaculated the merchant. “That sort of thing is bad enough out of doors, but worst of all in your own house.”

“It makes courting a good deal easier,” Ezra answered.

“If a girl will answer up and give you an opening now and then, it makes all the difference.”

“You can’t write poetry, can you?”

“Not much,” Ezra said with a grin.

“That’s a pity. I believe it goes a long way with women. You might get some one to write some, and let her think it is yours. Or you could learn a little off and repeat it.”

“Yes, I might do that. I’m going to buy a collar for that beast of a dog of hers. All the time that I was talking to her yesterday she was so taken up with it that I don’t believe she heard half that I said. My fingers itched to catch it up and chuck it through the window.”

“Don’t forget yourself, my boy, don’t forget yourself!” cried the merchant. “A single false step might ruin every thing.”

“Never fear,” Ezra said confidently, and went off upon the dog-collar mission. While he was in the shop he bought a dog-whip as well, which he locked up in his drawers to use as the occasion served.

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