Chapter XIV: A Slight Misunderstanding

In spite of his admiration of punctuality, as exemplified in the person of Willoughby of the Buffs, the major took good care to arrive at the trysting-place somewhat behind the appointed time. It was clear to him that some service or other was expected of him, and it was obviously his game therefore to hang back and not appear to be too eager to enter into young Girdlestone’s views. When he presented himself at the entrance of Nelson’s Cafe the young merchant had been fuming and chafing in the sitting-room for five and twenty minutes.

It was a dingy apartment, with a single large horse-hair chair and half a dozen small wooden dittoes, placed with mathematical precision along the walls. A square table in the centre and a shabby mirror over the mantelpiece completed the furniture. With the instinct of an old campaigner the major immediately dropped into the arm-chair, and, leaning luxuriously back, took a cigar from his case and proceeded to light it. Ezra Girdlestone seated himself near the table and twisted his dark moustache, as was his habit when collecting himself.

“What will you drink?” he asked,

“Anything that’s going.”

“Fetch in a decanter of brandy and some seltzer water,” said Ezra to the waiter; “then shut the door and leave us entirely to ourselves.”

When the liquor was placed upon the table he drank off his first glass at a gulp, and then refilled it. The major placed his upon the mantelpiece beside him without tasting it. Both were endeavouring to be at their best and clearest in the coming interview, and each set about it in his own manner.

“I’ll tell you why I wanted to have a chat with you, major,” Ezra said, having first opened the door suddenly and glanced out as a precaution against eavesdroppers. “I have to be cautious, because what I have to say affects the interest of the firm. I wouldn’t for the world have any one know about it except yourself.”

“What is it, me boy?” the major asked, with languid curiosity, puffing at his weed and staring up at the smoke-blackened ceiling.

“You understand that in commercial speculations the least breath of information beforehand may mean a loss of thousands on thousands.”

The major nodded his head as a sign that he appreciated this fact.

“We have a difficult enterprise on which we are about to embark,” Ezra said, leaning forward and sinking his voice almost to a whisper. “It is one which will need great skill and tact, though it may be made to pay well if properly managed. You follow me?”

His companion nodded once more.

“For this enterprise we require an agent to perform one of the principal parts. This agent must possess great ability, and, at the same time, be a man on whom we can thoroughly rely. Of course we do not expect to find such qualities without paying for them.”

The major grunted a hearty acquiescence.

“My father,” continued Ezra, “wanted to employ one of our own men.
We have numbers who are capable in every way of managing the business.
I interfered, however. I said that I had a good friend, named Major
Tobias Clutterbuck, who was well qualified for the position.
I mentioned that you were of the blood of the old Silesian kings. Was I
not right?”

“Begad you were not. Milesian, sir; Milesian!”

“Ah, Milesian. It’s all the same.”

“It’s nothing of the sort,” said the major indignantly.

“I mean it was all the same to my father. He wouldn’t know the difference. Well, I told him of your high descent, and that you were a traveller, a soldier, and a man of steady and trustworthy habits.”

“Eh?” ejaculated the major involuntarily. “Well, all right. Go on!”

“I told him all this,” said Ezra slowly, “and I pointed out to him that the sum of money which he was prepared to lay out would be better expended on such a man than on one who had no virtues beyond those of business.”

“I didn’t give you credit for so much sinse!” his companion exclaimed with enthusiasm.

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