Chapter I: Mr. John Harston Keeps an Appointment

“I leave that to be equally divided among the various London institutions for educating the poor. We were both poor boys ourselves, John, and we know the value of such schools.”

Girdlestone looked perhaps a trifle disappointed. The sick man went on very slowly and painfully—

“My daughter will have forty thousand pounds. But it is so tied up that she can neither touch it herself nor enable any one else to do so until she is of age. She has no friends, John, and no relations, save only my cousin, Dr. George Dimsdale. Never was a girl left more lonely and unprotected. Take her, I beg of you, and bring her up under your own eye. Treat her as though she were your child. Guard her above all from those who would wreck her young life in order to share her fortune. Do this, old friend, and make me happy on my deathbed.”

The merchant made no answer. His heavy eyebrows were drawn down, and his forehead all puckered with thought.

“You are the one man,” continued the sufferer, “whom I know to be just and upright. Give me the water, for my mouth is dry. Should, which God forbid, my dear girl perish before she marries, then—” His breath failed him for a moment, and he paused to recover it.

“Well, what then?”

“Then, old friend, her fortune reverts to you, for there is none who will use it so well. Those are the terms of the will. But you will guard her and care for her, as I would myself. She is a tender plant, John, too weak to grow alone. Promise me that you will do right by her—promise it?”

“I do promise it,” John Girdlestone answered in a deep voice. He was standing up now, and leaning over to catch the words of the dying man.

Harston was sinking rapidly. With a feeble motion he pointed to a brown-backed volume upon the table.

“Take up the book,” he said.

The merchant picked it up.

“Now, repeat after me, I swear and solemnly pledge myself—”

“I swear and solemnly pledge myself—

“To treasure and guard as if she were my own—” came the tremulous voice from the bed.

“To treasure and guard as if she were my own—” in the deep bass of the merchant.

“Kate Harston, the daughter of my deceased friend—”

“Kate Harston, the daughter of my deceased friend—”

“And as I treat her, so may my own flesh and blood treat me!”

“And as I treat her, so may my own flesh and blood treat me!”

The sick man’s head fell back exhausted upon his pillow. “Thank God!” he muttered, “now I can die in peace.”

“Turn your mind away from the vanities and dross of this world,” John Girdlestone said sternly, “and fix it upon that which is eternal, and can never die.”

“Are you going?” the invalid asked sadly, for he had taken up his hat and stick.

“Yes, I must go; I have an appointment in the City at six, which I must not miss.”

“And I have an appointment which I must not miss,” the dying man said with a feeble smile.

“I shall send up the nurse as I go down,” Girdlestone said.

“Good-bye! God bless you, John!”

The firm, strong hand of the hale man enclosed for a moment the feeble, burning one of the sufferer. Then John Girdlestone plodded heavily down the stair, and these friends of forty years’ standing had said their last adieu.

The African merchant kept his appointment in the City, but long before he reached it John Harston had gone also to keep that last terrible appointment of which the messenger is death.