John Girdlestone had frequently heard his son speak of the major in the days when they had been intimate, and had always attributed some of the young man’s more obvious vices to the effects of this ungodly companionship. He had also heard from Ezra a mangled version of the interview and quarrel in the private room of Nelson’s Restaurant. Hence, as may be imagined, his feelings towards his visitor were far from friendly, and he greeted him as he entered with the coldest of possible bows. The major, however, was by no means abashed by this chilling reception, but stumped forward with beaming face and his pudgy hand outstretched, so that the other had no alternative but to shake it, which he did very gingerly and reluctantly.
“And how are ye?” said the major, stepping back a pace or two, and inspecting the merchant as though he were examining his points with the intention of purchasing him. “Many’s the time I’ve heard talk of ye. It’s a real treat to see ye. How are ye?” Pouncing upon the other’s unresponsive hand, he wrung it again with effusion.
“I am indebted to Providence for fairly good health, sir,” John
Girdlestone answered coldly. “May I request you to take a seat?”
“That was what me friend Fagan was trying to do for twelve years, and ruined himself over it in the ind. He put up at Murphytown in the Conservative interest, and the divil a vote did he get, except one, and that was a blind man who signed the wrong paper be mistake, Ha! ha!” The major laughed boisterously at his own anecdote, and mopped his forehead with his handkerchief.
The two men, as they stood opposite each other, were a strange contrast, the one tall, grave, white, and emotionless, the other noisy and pompous, with protuberant military chest and rubicund features. They had one common characteristic, however. From under the shaggy eyebrows of the merchant and the sparse light-coloured lashes of the major there came the same keen, restless, shifting glance. Both were crafty, and each was keenly on his guard against the other.
“I have heard of you from my son,” the merchant said, motioning his visitor to a chair. “You were, I believe, in the habit of meeting together for the purpose of playing cards, billiards, and other such games, which I by no means countenance myself, but to which my son is unhappily somewhat addicted.”
“You don’t play yourself,” said the major, in a sympathetic voice. “Ged, sir, it’s never too late to begin, and many a man has put in a very comfortable old age On billiards and whist. Now, if ye feel inclined to make a start, I’ll give ye seventy-five points in a hundred for a commincement.”
“Thank you,” said the merchant drily. “It is not one of my ambitions.
Was this challenge the business upon which you came?”
The old soldier laughed until his merriment startled the clerks in the counting-house. “Be jabers!” he said, In a wheezy voice, “d’ye think I came five miles to do that? No, sir, I wanted to talk to you about your son.”
“Yes, your son. He’s a smart lad—very smart indeed—about as quick as they make ’em. He may be a trifle coarse at times, but that’s the spirit of the age, me dear sir. Me friend Tuffleton, of the Blues, says that delicacy went out of fashion with hair powder and beauty patches. he’s a demned satirical fellow is Tuffleton. Don’t know him, eh?”
“No, sir, I don’t,” Girdlestone said angrily; “nor have I any desire to make his acquaintance. Let us proceed to business for my time is valuable.”
The major looked at him with an amiable smile. “That quick temper runs in the family,” he said. “I’ve noticed It in your son Ezra. As I said before, he’s a smart lad; but me friend, he’s shockingly rash and extremely indiscrate. Ye musk speak to him about it.”
“What do you mean sir?” asked the merchant, white with anger.
“Have you come to insult him in his absence?”
“Absence?” said the soldier, still smiling blandly over his stock. “That’s the very point I wanted to get at. He is away in Africa—at the diamond fields. A wonderful interprise, conducted with remarkable energy, but also with remarkable rashness, sir—yes, bedad, inexcusable rashness.”
Old Girdlestone took up his heavy ebony ruler and played with it nervously. He had an overpowering desire to hurl it at the head of his companion.
“What would ye say, now,” the veteran continued, crossing one leg over the other and arguing the matter out in a confidential undertone— “what would you say if a young man came to you, and, on the assumption that you were a dishonest blackgaird, appealed to you to help him in a very shady sort of a scheme? It would argue indiscretion on his part, would it not?”