“That is well. Now I should like, before we go further, to say a few words to Mr. Burt as to what has led up to this.”
“You haven’t got a drop to drink, boss?”
“Yes, yes, of course. What is that in the bottle over there?
Ginger wine. How will that do?”
“Here’s something better,” Ezra said, rummaging in the cupboard. “Here is a bottle of Hollands. It is Mrs. Jorrocks’ private store, I fancy.”
Burt poured himself out half a tumblerful, and filled it up with water.
“Drive along,” he said; “I am lisnin’.”
Girdlestone rose and stood with his back to the fire, and his hands under his coat-tails. “I wish you to understand,” he said, “that this is no sudden determination of ours, but that events have led up to it in such a way that it was impossible to avoid it. Our commercial honour and integrity are more precious to us than anything else, and we have both agreed that we are ready to sacrifice anything rather than lose it. Unfortunately, our affairs have become somewhat involved, and it was absolutely necessary that the firm should have a sum of money promptly in order to extricate itself from its difficulties. This sum we endeavoured to get through a daring speculation in diamonds, which was, though I say it, ingeniously planned and cleverly carried out, and which would have succeeded admirably had it not been for an unfortunate chance.”
“I remember,” said Burt.
“Of course. You were there at the time. We were able to struggle along for some time after this on money which we borrowed and on the profits of our African trade. The time came, however, when the borrowed money was to be repaid, and once again the firm was in danger. It was then that we first thought of the fortune of my ward. It was enough to turn the scale in our favour, could we lay our hands upon it. It was securely tied up, however, in such a way that there were only two means by which we could touch a penny of it. One was by marrying her to my son; the other was by the young lady’s death. Do you follow me?”
Burt nodded his shaggy head.
“This being so, we did all that we could to arrange a marriage. Without flattery I may say that no girl was ever approached in a more delicate and honourable way than she was by my son Ezra. I, for my part, brought all my influence to bear upon her in order to induce her to meet his advances in a proper spirit. In spite of our efforts, she rejected him in the most decided way, and gave us to understand that it was hopeless to attempt to make her change her mind.”
“Some one else, maybe,” suggested Burt.
“The man who put you on your back at the station,” said Ezra.
“Ha! I’ll pay him for that,” the navvy growled viciously.
“A human life, Mr. Burt,” continued Girdlestone, “is a sacred thing, but a human life, when weighed against the existence of a great firm from which hundreds derive their means of livelihood, is a small consideration indeed. When the fate of Miss Harston is put against the fate of the great commercial house of Girdlestone, it is evident which must go to the wall.”
Burt nodded, and poured some more Hollands from the square bottle.