Chapter XII: A Corner in Diamonds

The Firm of Girdlestone

John Girdlestone propounded his intention with such dignity and emphasis that he evidently expected the announcement to come as a surprise upon his son. If so, he was not disappointed, for the young man stared open-eyed.

“A corner in diamonds!” he repeated. “How will you do that?”

“You know what a corner is,” his father explained. “If you buy up all the cotton, say, or sugar in the market, so as to have the whole of it in your own hands, and to be able to put your own price on it in selling it again—that is called making a corner in sugar or cotton. I intend to make a corner in diamonds.”

“Of course, I know what a corner is,” Ezra said impatiently. “But how on earth are you going to buy all the diamonds in? You would want the capital of a Rothschild?”

“Not so much as you think, my boy, for there are not any great amount of diamonds in the market at any one time. The yield of the South African fields regulates the price. I have had this idea in my head for some time, and have studied the details. Of course, I should not attempt to buy in all the diamonds that are in the market. A small portion of them would yield profit enough to float the firm off again.”

“But if you have only a part of the supply in your hands, how are you to regulate the market value? You must come down to the prices at which other holders are selling.”

“Ha! Ha! Very good! very good!” the old merchant said, shaking his head good-humouredly. “But you don’t quite see my plan yet. You have not altogether grasped it. Allow me to explain it to you.”

His son lay back upon the sofa with a look of resignation upon his face. Girdlestone continued to stand upon the hearth-rug and spoke very slowly and deliberately, as though giving vent to thoughts which had been long and carefully considered.

“You see, Ezra,” he said, “diamonds, being a commodity of great value, of which there is never very much in the market at one time, are extremely sensitive to all sorts of influences. The value of them varies greatly from time to time. A very little thing serves to depreciate their price, and an equally small thing will send it up again.”

Ezra Girdlestone grunted to show that he followed his father’s remarks.

“I did some business in diamonds myself when I was a younger man, and so I had an opportunity of observing their fluctuations in the market. Now, there is one thing which invariably depreciates the price of diamonds. That is the rumour of fresh discoveries of mines in other parts of the world. The instant such a thing gets wind the value of the stones goes down wonderfully. The discovery of diamonds in Central India not long ago had that effect very markedly, and they have never recovered their value since. Do you follow me?”

An expression of interest had come over Ezra’s face, and he nodded to show that he was listening.

“Now, supposing,” continued the senior partner, with a smile on his thin lips, “that such a report got about. Suppose, too, that we were at this time, when the market was in a depressed condition, to invest a considerable capital in them. If these rumours of an alleged discovery turned out to be entirely unfounded, of course the value of the stones which we held would go up once more, and we might very well sell out for double or treble the sum that we invested. Don’t you see the sequence of events?”

“There seems to me to be rather too much of the ‘suppose’ in it,” remarked Ezra. “How do we know that such rumours will get about; and if they do, how do we know that they will prove to be unfounded?”

“How are we to know?” the merchant cried, wriggling his long lank body with amusement. “Why, my lad, if we spread the rumours ourselves we shall have pretty good reason to believe that they are unfounded. Eh, Ezra? Ha! ha! You see there are some brains in the old man yet.”

Ezra looked at his father in considerable surprise and some admiration. “Why, damn it!” he exclaimed, “it’s dishonest. I’m not sure that it’s not actionable.”

“Dishonest! Pooh!” The merchant snapped his fingers. “It’s finesse, my boy, commercial finesse. Who’s to trace it, I should like to know. I haven’t worked out all the details—I want your co-operation over that—but here’s a rough sketch of my plan. We send a man we can depend upon to some distant part of the world—Chimborazo, for example, or the Ural Mountains. It doesn’t matter where, as long as it is out of the way. On arriving at this place our agent starts a report that he has discovered a diamond mine. We should even go the length, if he considers it necessary, of hiding a few rough stones in the earth, which he can dig up to give colour to his story. Of course the local press would be full of this. He might present one of the diamonds to the editor of the nearest paper. In course of time a pretty coloured description of the new diamond fields would find its way to London and thence to the Cape. I’ll answer for it that the immediate effect is a great drop in the price of stones. We should have a second agent at the Cape diamond fields, and he would lay our money out by buying in all that he could while the panic lasted. Then, the original scare having proved to be all a mistake, the prices naturally go up once more, and we get a long figure for all that we hold. That’s what I mean by making ‘a corner in diamonds.’ There is no room in it for any miscalculation. It is as certain as a proposition of Euclid, and as easily worked out.”

“It sounds very nice,” his son remarked thoughtfully. “I’m not so sure about its working, though.”

“It must work well. As far as human calculation can go there is no possibility of failure. Besides, my boy, never lose sight of the fact that we shall be speculating with other people’s money. We ourselves have nothing to lose, absolutely nothing.”

“I am not likely to lose sight of it,” said Ezra angrily, his mind coming back to his grievance.

“I reckon that we can raise from forty to fifty thousand pounds without much difficulty. My name is, as you know, as good as that of any firm in the City. For nearly forty years it has been above stain or suspicion. If we carry on our plans at once, and lay this money out judiciously, all may come right.”

“It’s Hobson’s choice,” the young man remarked. “We must try some bold
stroke of the sort. Have you chosen the right sort of men for agents?
You should have men of some standing to set such reports going.
They would have more weight then.”

John Girdlestone shook his head despondingly. “How am I to get a man of any standing to do such a piece of business?” he said.

“Nothing easier,” answered Ezra, with a cynical laugh. “I could pick out a score of impecunious fellows from the clubs who would be only too glad to earn a hundred or two in any way you can mention. All their talk about honour and so forth is very pretty and edifying, but it’s not meant for every day use. Of course we should have to pay him.”

“Them, you mean?”

“No, we should only want one man.”

“How about our purchaser at the diamond fields?”

“You don’t mean to say,” Ezra said roughly, “that you would be so absurd as to trust any man with our money. Why, I wouldn’t let the Archbishop of Canterbury out of my sight with forty thousand pounds of mine. No, I shall go myself to the diamond fields—that is, if I can trust you here alone.”

“That is unkind, Ezra,” said his father. “Your idea is an excellent one. I should have proposed it myself but for the discomforts and hardships of such a journey.”

“There’s no use doing things by halves,” the young man remarked. “As to our other agent, I have the very man—Major Tobias Clutterbuck. He is a shrewd, clever fellow, and he’s always hard up. Last week he wanted to borrow a tenner from me. The job would be a godsend to him, and his social rank would be a great help to our plan. I’ll answer for his jumping at the idea.”

“Sound him on the subject, then.”

“I will.”

“I am glad,” said the old merchant, “that you and I have had this conversation, Ezra. The fact of my having speculated without your knowledge, and deceived you by a false ledger, has often weighed heavily upon my conscience, I assure you. It is a relief to me to have told you all.”

“Drop the subject, then,” Ezra said curtly. “I must put up with it, for I have no redress. The thing is done and nothing can undo it; but I consider that you have willfully wasted the money.”

“Believe me, I have tried to act for the best. The good name of our firm is everything to me. I have spent my whole life in building it up, and if the day should come when it must go, I trust that I may have gone myself. There is nothing which I would not do to preserve it.”

“I see they want our premiums,” Ezra said, glancing at the open letter upon the table. “How is it that none of those ships go down? That would give us help.”

“Hush! hush!” John Girdlestone cried imploringly. “Speak in a whisper when you talk of such things.”

“I can’t understand you,” said Ezra petulantly. “You persistently over-insure your ships, year after year. Look at the Leopard; it is put at more than twice what she was worth as new. And the Black Eagle, I dare say, is about the same. Yet you never have an accident with them, while your two new uninsured clippers run each other down.”

“Well, what more can I do?” replied the merchant “They are thoroughly rotten. I have done nothing for them for years. Sooner or later they must go. I cannot do any more.”

“I’d make ’em go down quick enough,” muttered Ezra, with an oath.
“Why don’t you make old Miggs bore a hole in them, or put a light to a
barrel of paraffin? Bless your soul! the thing’s done every day.
What’s the use of being milk-and-watery about it?”

“No, no, Ezra!” cried his father. “Not that—not that. It’s one thing letting matters take their course, and it is another thing giving positive orders to scuttle a ship. Besides, it would put us in Miggs’ power. It would be too dangerous.”

“Please yourself,” said Ezra, with a sneer. “You’ve got us into the mess and you must take us out again. If the worst comes to the worst I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll marry Kate Harston, wash my hands of the firm, leave you to settle matters with the creditors, and retire with the forty thousand pounds;” with which threat the junior partner took up his hat and swaggered out of the office.

After his departure, John Girdlestone spent an hour in anxious thought, arranging the details of the scheme which he had just submitted to his son. As he sat, his eye chanced to fall upon the two letters lying on his desk, and it struck him that they had better be attended to. It did not suit his plans to fall back upon his credit just yet. It has been already shown that he was a man of ready resource. He rang the bell and summoned his senior clerk.

“Good morning, John,” he said affably.

“Good morning, Mr. Girdlestone, good morning, sir,” said wizened little John Gilray, rubbing his thin yellow hands together, as a sign of his gratification.

“I hear, John, that you have come into a legacy lately,” Mr. Girdlestone said.

“Yes, sir. Fifteen hundred pounds, sir. Less legacy duty and incidental expenses, fourteen hundred and twenty-eight six and fourpence. My wife’s brother Andrew left it, sir, and a very handsome legacy too.”

John Girdlestone smiled with the indulgent smile of one to whom such a sum was absolutely nothing.

“What have you done with the money, then, John?” he asked carelessly.

“Banked it, sir, in the United Metropolitan.”

“In the United Metropolitan, John? Let me see. Their present rate of interest is three and a half?”

“Three, sir,” said John.

“Three! Dear me, John, that is poor interest, very poor indeed. It is most fortunate that I made these inquiries. I was on the point of drawing fourteen hundred pounds from one of my correspondents as a temporary convenience. For this I should pay him five per cent. I have no objection, John, as you are an old servant of the firm, to giving you the preference in this matter. I cannot take more than fourteen hundred—but I shall be happy to accommodate you up to that sum at the rate named.”

John Gilray was overwhelmed by this thoughtful and considerate act. “It is really too generous and kind, sir,” he said. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

“Don’t mention it, John,” the senior partner said grandly. “The firm is always glad to advance the interests of its employees in any reasonable manner. Have you your cheque-book with you? Fill it up for fourteen hundred. No more, John; I cannot oblige you by taking any more.”

The head clerk having made out his cheque for the amount, and having signed his name to it in a cramped little quaint handwriting, which reminded one of his person, was duly presented with a receipt and dismissed to his counting-house. There he entertained the other clerks by a glowing description of the magnanimity of his employer.

John Girdlestone took some sheets of blue official paper from a drawer, and his quill pen travelled furiously over them with many a screech and splutter.

“Sir,” he said to the bank manager, “I enclose fourteen hundred pounds, which represents the loose cash about the office. I shall make a heavy deposit presently. In the meantime, you will, of course, honour anything that may be presented.—Yours truly, JOHN GIRDLESTONE.”

To Lloyd’s Insurance Agency he wrote:—”Sir,—Enclosed you will find cheque for 241 pounds seven shillings and sixpence, being amount due as premium on the Leopard, Black Eagle, and Maid of Athens. Should have forwarded cheque before, but with so many things of importance to look after these trifles are liable to be overlooked.”

These two epistles having been sealed, addressed, and despatched, the elder Girdlestone began to feel somewhat more easy in his mind, and to devote himself once more to the innocent amusement of planning how a corner might best be created in diamonds.