Chapter XIV: A Slight Misunderstanding

“I said to him that if the matter were left entirely in your hands we could rely upon its being done thoroughly. At the same time, we should have the satisfaction of knowing that the substantial sum which we are prepared to pay our agent had come into worthy hands.”

“You hit it there again,” murmured the veteran.

“You are prepared, then,” said Ezra, glancing keenly at him, “to put yourself at our orders on condition that you are well paid for it?”

“Not so fast, me young friend, not so fast!” said the major, taking his cigar from between his lips and letting the blue smoke curl round his head. “Let’s hear what it is that you want me to do, and then I’m riddy to say what I’ll agree to and what I won’t. I remimber Jimmy Baxter in Texas—”

“Hang Jimmy Baxter!” Ezra cried impatiently.

“That’s been done already,” observed the major calmly. “Lynched for horse-stealing in ’66. However, go on, and I’ll promise not to stop you until you have finished.”

Thus encouraged, Ezra proceeded to unfold the plan upon which the fortunes of the House of Girdlestone depended. Not a word did he say of ruin or danger, or the reasons which had induced this speculation. On the contrary, he depicted the affairs of the firm as being in a most nourishing condition, and this venture as simply a small insignificant offshoot from their business, undertaken as much for amusement as for any serious purpose. Still, he laid stress upon the fact that though the sum in question was a small one to the firm, yet it was a very large one in other men’s eyes. As to the morality of the scheme, that was a point which Ezra omitted entirely to touch upon. Any comment upon that would, he felt, be superfluous when dealing with such a man as his companion.

“And now, major,” he concluded, “provided you lend us your name and your talents to help us in our speculation, the firm are prepared to meet you in a most liberal spirit in the matter of remuneration. Of course your voyage and your expenses will be handsomely paid. You will have to travel by steamer to St. Petersburg, provided that we choose the Ural Mountains as the scene of our imaginary find. I hear that there is high play going on aboard these boats, and with your well-known skill you will no doubt be able to make the voyage a remunerative one. We calculate that at the most you will be in Russia about three months. Now, the firm thought that it would be very fair if they were to guarantee you two hundred and fifty pounds, which they would increase to five hundred in case of success; of course by that we mean complete success, such as would be likely to attend your exertions.”

Now, had there been any third person in the room during this long statement of the young merchant’s, and had that third person been a man of observation, he might have remarked several peculiarities in the major’s demeanour. At the commencement of the address he might have posed as the very model and type of respectable composure. As the plan was gradually unfolded, however, the old soldier began to puff harder at his cigar until a continuous thick grey cloud rose up from him, through which the lurid tip of the havannah shone like a murky meteor. From time to time he passed his hand down his puffy cheeks, as was his custom when excited. Then he moved uneasily in his chair, cleared his throat huskily, and showed other signs of restlessness, all of which were hailed by Ezra Girdlestone as unmistakable proofs of the correctness of his judgment and of the not unnatural eagerness of the veteran on hearing of the windfall which chance had placed in his way.

When the young man had finished, the major stood up with his face to the empty fire-place, his legs apart, his chest inflated, and his body rocking ponderously backwards and forwards.

“Let me be quite sure that I understand you,” he said. “You wish me to go to Russia?”

“Quite so,” Ezra remarked, rubbing his hands pleasantly.

“You have the goodness to suggist that on me way I should rook me fellow-passengers in the boat?”

“That is to say, if you think it worth your while.”

“Quite so, if I think it worth me while. I am then to procade across the counthry to some mountains—”

“The Urals.”

“And there I am to pretind to discover certain diamond mines, and am to give weight to me story by the fact that I am known to be a man of good birth, and also by exhibiting some rough stones which you wish me to take out with me from England?”

“Quite right, major,” Ezra said encouragingly.

“I am then to tilegraph or write this lie to England and git it inserted in the papers?”

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