Chapter XXIII: A Momentous Resolution

The Firm of Girdlestone

During the months which Ezra Girdlestone had spent in Africa the affairs of the firm in Fenchurch Street had been exceedingly prosperous. Trade upon the coast had been brisker than usual, and three of the company’s ships had come in at short intervals with excellent cargoes. Among these was the Black Eagle which, to the astonishment of Captain Hamilton Miggs and the disgust of his employer, had weathered a severe gale in the Channel, and had arrived safe and sound once more. This run of luck, supplemented by the business capacity of the old merchant and the indomitable energy of young Dimsdale, made the concern look so flourishing that the former felt more than ever convinced that if he could but stave off the immediate danger things would soon right themselves. Hence he read with delight the letters from Africa, in which his son narrated the success of the conspiracy and the manner in which the miners had been hoodwinked. The old man’s figure grew straighter and his step more firm as the conviction grew upon him that the company would soon return once again to its former condition of affluence.

It may be imagined, therefore, that when the rumours of a bona fide diamond find in the Orange Free State came to his ears John Girdlestone was much agitated and distressed. On the same day that he saw the announcement in the papers he received a letter from his son announcing the failure of their enterprise. After narrating the robbery, the pursuit, the death of Farintosh, and the announcement of the new discovery, it gave an account of his subsequent movements.

“There was no doubt about the truth of the scoundrel’s words,” he said, “for when we went to the nearest farm to get some food and have the sergeant’s wound dressed we found that every one was talking about it. There was a chap there who had just come from the State and knew all about it. After hearing the details from him I saw that there was no doubt of the genuineness of the thing.

“The police rode back to Jacobsdal with Williams, and I promised to come after them; but when I came to think it over it didn’t seem good enough. The fact of my having so many diamonds would set every tongue wagging, and, again, the sergeant had heard what Farintosh said to me, so it was very possible that I might have the whole district about my ears. As it was, I had the stones and all my money in the bag. I wrote back to the hotel, therefore, telling the landlord to send on my traps to Cape Town by mail, and promising to settle my bill with him when I received them. I then bought a horse and came straight south. I shall take the first steamer and be with you within a few days of your receiving this.

“As to our speculation, it is, of course, all up. Even when the Russian business proves to be a hoax, the price of stones will remain very low on account of these new fields. It is possible that we may sell our lot at some small profit but it won’t be the royal road to a fortune that you prophesied, nor will it help the firm out of the rut into which you have shoved it. My only regret in leaving Africa like this is that that vermin Williams will have no one to prosecute him. My head is almost well now.”

This letter was a rude shock to the African merchant. Within a week of the receipt of it his son Ezra, gloomy and travel-stained, walked into the sanctum at Fenchurch Street and confirmed all the evil tidings by word of mouth. The old man was of too tough a fibre to break down completely, but his bony hands closed convulsively upon the arms of the chair, and a cold perspiration broke out upon his wrinkled forehead as he listened to such details as his son vouchsafed to afford him.

“You have your stones all safe, though?” he stammered out at last.

“They are in my box, at home,” said Ezra, gloomy and morose, leaning against the white marble mantelpiece. “The Lord knows what they are worth! We’ll be lucky if we clear as much as they cost and a margin for my expenses and Langworthy’s. A broken head is all that I have got from your fine scheme.”

“Who could foresee such a thing?” the old man said plaintively. He might have added Major Clutterbuck’s thousand pounds as another item to be cleared, but he thought it as well to keep silent upon the point.

“Any fool could foresee the possibility of it,” quoth Ezra brusquely.

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