Chapter XVI: The First Step

“Look after your health,” the old man continued. “Don’t get your feet wet, and wear flannel next your skin. Don’t forget your religious duties either. It has a good effect upon those among whom you do business.”

Ezra sprang from his chair with an exclamation of disgust and began to pace up and down. “I wish to Heaven you would drop that sort of gammon when we are alone,” he said irritably.

“My dear boy,” said the father, with a mild look of surprise upon his face, “you seem to be under a misapprehension in this matter. You appear to consider that we are embarking upon some unjustifiable undertaking. This is not so. What we are doing is simply a small commercial ruse—a finesse. It is a recognized maxim of trade to endeavour to depreciate the price of whatever you want to buy, and to raise it again when the time comes for selling.”

“It’s steering very close to the law,” his son retorted. “No speculating, now, while I am away; whatever comes in must go towards getting us out of this scrape, not to plunging us deeper in the mire.”

“I shall not expend an unnecessary penny.”

“Well, then, good-bye.” said the young man, rising up and holding out his hand. “Keep your eye on Dimsdale and don’t trust him.”

“Good-bye, my son, good-bye—God bless you!”

The old merchant was honestly moved, and his voice quivered as he spoke. He stood motionless for a minute or so until the heavy door slammed, and then he threw open the window and gazed sorrowfully down the street at the disappearing cab. His whole attitude expressed such dejection that his ward, who had just entered the room, felt more drawn towards him than she had ever done before. Slipping up to him she placed her warm tender hand upon his sympathetically.

“He will soon be back, dear Mr. Girdlestone,” she said. “You must not be uneasy about him.”

As she stood beside him in her white dress, with a single red ribbon round her neck and a band of the same colour round her waist, she was as fair a specimen of English girl-hood as could have been found in all London. The merchant’s features softened as he looked down at her fresh young face, and he put out his hand as though to caress her, but some unpleasant thought must have crossed his mind, for he assumed suddenly a darker look and turned away from her without a word. More than once that night she recalled that strange spasmodic expression of something akin to horror which had passed over her guardian’s features as he gazed at her.

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