The Firm of Girdlestone





  Produced by Lionel G. Sear

  THE FIRM OF GIRDLESTONE.

  A. CONAN DOYLE

  TO MY OLD FRIEND

  PROFESSOR WILLIAM K. BURTON,

  OF THE IMPERIAL UNIVERSITY, TOKYO,

  WHO FIRST ENCOURAGED ME, YEARS AGO, TO PROCEED WITH

  THIS LITTLE STORY,

  I DESIRE AFFECTIONATELY TO

  DEDICATE IT.

  THE AUTHOR.

  PREFACE

  I cannot let this small romance go to press without prefacing it with aword of cordial thanks to Mr. P. G. Houlgrave, of 28, Millman Street,Bedford Row. To this gentleman I owe the accuracy of my Africanchapters, and I am much indebted to him for the copious details withwhich he furnished me.

  A. CONAN DOYLE.

  CONTENTS

  CHAPTER.

  I. MR. JOHN HARSTON KEEPS AN APPOINTMENT.

  II. CHARITY A LA MODE.

  III. THOMAS GILRAY MAKES AN INVESTMENT.

  IV. CAPTAIN HAMILTON MIGGS OF THE "BLACK EAGLE".

  V. MODERN ATHENIANS.

  VI. A RECTORIAL ELECTION.

  VII. ENGLAND VERSUS SCOTLAND.

  VIII. A FIRST PROFESSIONAL.

  IX. A NASTY CROPPER.

  X. DWELLERS IN BOHEMIA.

  XI. SENIOR AND JUNIOR.

  XII. A CORNER IN DIAMONDS.

  XIII. SHADOW AND LIGHT.

  XIV. A SLIGHT MISUNDERSTANDING

  XV. AN ADDITION TO THE HOUSE.

  XVI. THE FIRST STEP.

  XVII. THE LAND OF DIAMONDS.

  XVIII. MAJOR TOBIAS CLUTTERBUCK COMES IN FOR A THOUSAND POUNDS.

  XIX. NEWS FROM THE URALS.

  XX. MR. HECTOR O'FLAHERTY FINDS SOMETHING IN THE PAPER.

  XXI. AN UNEXPECTED BLOW.

  XXII. ROBBERS AND ROBBED.

  XXIII. A MOMENTOUS RESOLUTION.

  XXIV. A DANGEROUS PROMISE.

  XXV. A CHANGE OF FRONT.

  XXVI. BREAKING GROUND.

  XXVII. MRS. SCULLY OF MORRISON'S.

  XXVIII. BACK IN BOHEMIA.

  XXIX. THE GREAT DANCE AT MORRISON'S.

  XXX. AT THE "COCK AND COWSLIP".

  XXXI. A CRISIS AT ECCLESTON SQUARE.

  XXXII. A CONVERSATION IN THE ECCLESTON SQUARE LIBRARY.

  XXXIII. THE JOURNEY TO THE PRIORY.

  XXXIV. THE MAN WITH THE CAMP-STOOL.

  XXXV. A TALK ON THE LAWN.

  XXXVI. THE INCIDENT OF THE CORRIDOR.

  XXXVII. A CHASE AND A BRAWL.

  XXXVIII. GIRDLESTONE SENDS FOR THE DOCTOR.

  XXXIX. A GLEAM OF LIGHT.

  XL. THE MAJOR HAS A LETTER.

  XLI. THE CLOUDS GROW DARKER.

  XLII. THE THREE FACES AT THE WINDOW.

  XLIII. THE BAIT ON THE HOOK.

  XLIV. THE SHADOW OF DEATH.

  XLV THE INVASION OF HAMPSHIRE.

  XLVI. A MIDNIGHT CRUISE.

  XLVII LAW AND ORDER.

  XLVIII. CAPTAIN HAMILTON MIGGS SEES A VISION.

  XLIX. A VOYAGE IN A COFFIN SHIP.

  L. WINDS UP THE THREAD AND TIES TWO KNOTS AT THE END.

  THE FIRM OF GIRDLESTONE.

  CHAPTER I.

  MR. JOHN HARSTON KEEPS AN APPOINTMENT.

  The approach to the offices of Girdlestone and Co. was not a verydignified one, nor would the uninitiated who traversed it form anyconception of the commercial prosperity of the firm in question.Close to the corner of a broad and busy street, within a couple ofhundred yards of Fenchurch Street Station, a narrow doorway opens into along whitewashed passage. On one side of this is a brass plate with theinscription "Girdlestone and Co., African Merchants," and above it acurious hieroglyphic supposed to represent a human hand in the act ofpointing. Following the guidance of this somewhat ghostly emblem, thewayfarer finds himself in a small square yard surrounded by doors, uponone of which the name of the firm reappears in large white letters, withthe word "Push" printed beneath it. If he follows this laconicinvitation he will make his way into a long, low apartment, which is thecounting-house of the African traders.

  On the afternoon of which we speak things were quiet at the offices.The line of pigeon-holes in the wire curtain was deserted by the public,though the linoleum-covered floor bore abundant traces of a busymorning. Misty London light shone hazily through the glazed windows andcast dark shadows in the corners. On a high perch in the background aweary-faced, elderly man, with muttering lips and tapping fingers, castup endless lines of figures. Beneath him, in front of two long shiningmahogany desks, half a score of young men, with bent heads and stoopingshoulders, appeared to be riding furiously, neck and neck, in the raceof life. Any _habitue_ of a London office might have deduced from theirrelentless energy and incorruptible diligence that they were under theeyes of some member of the firm.

  The member in question was a broad-shouldered, bull-necked young man,who leaned against the marble mantel-piece, turning over the pages of analmanac, and taking from time to time a stealthy peep over the top of itat the toilers around him. Command was imprinted in every line of hisstrong, square-set face and erect, powerful frame. Above the mediumsize, with a vast spread of shoulder, a broad aggressive jaw, and brightbold glance, his whole pose and expression spoke of resolution pushed tothe verge of obstinacy. There was something classical in the regularolive-tinted features and black, crisp, curling hair fitting tightly tothe well-rounded head. Yet, though classical, there was an absence ofspirituality. It was rather the profile of one of those Roman emperors,splendid in its animal strength, but lacking those subtle softnesses ofeye and mouth which speak of an inner life. The heavy gold chain acrossthe waistcoat and the bright stone which blazed upon the finger were thenatural complement of the sensuous lip and curving chin. Such was Ezra,only child of John Girdlestone, and heir to the whole of his vastbusiness. Little wonder that those who had an eye to the future bentover their ledgers and worked with a vigour calculated to attract theattention of the junior partner, and to impress him with a due sense oftheir enthusiastic regard for the interests of the firm.

  It was speedily apparent, however, that the young gentleman's estimateof their services was not entirely based upon their present performance.With his eyes still fixed upon the almanac and a sardonic smile upon hisdark face, he uttered a single word--

  "Parker!"

  A flaxen-haired clerk, perched at the further end of the high glisteningdesk, gave a violent start, and looked up with a scared face.

  "Well, Parker, who won?" asked the junior partner.

  "Won, sir!" the youth stammered.

  "Yes, who won?" repeated his employer.

  "I hardly understand you, sir," the clerk said, growing very red andconfused.

  "Oh yes, you do, Parker," young Girdlestone remarked, tapping hisalmanac sharply with the paper-knife. "You were playing odd man outwith Robson and Perkins when I came in from lunch. As I presume youwere at it all the time I was away, I have a natural curiosity to knowwho won."

  The three unhappy clerks fixed their eyes upon their ledgers to avoidthe sarcastic gaze of their employer. He went on in the same quiettones--

  "You gentlemen draw about thirty shillings a week from the firm.I believe I am right in my figures, Mr. Gilray?" addressing the seniorclerk seated at the high solitary desk apart from the others. "Yes, Ithought so. Now, odd man out is, no doubt, a very harmless andfascinating game, but you can hardly expect
us to encourage it so far asto pay so much an hour for the privilege of having it played in ourcounting-house. I shall therefore recommend my father to deduct fiveshillings from the sum which each of you will receive upon Saturday.That will cover the time which you have devoted to your own amusementsduring the week."

  He paused, and the three culprits were beginning to cool down andcongratulate themselves, when he began again.

  "You will see, Mr. Gilray, that this deduction is made," he said,"and at the same time I beg that you will deduct ten shillings from yourown salary, since, as senior clerk, the responsibility of keeping orderin this room in the absence of your employers rests with you, and youappear to have neglected it. I trust you will look to this, Mr.Gilray."

  "Yes, sir," the senior clerk answered meekly. He was an elderly manwith a large family, and the lost ten shillings would make a differenceto the Sunday dinner. There was nothing for it but to bow to theinevitable, and his little pinched face assumed an expression of gentleresignation. How to keep his ten young subordinates in order, however,was a problem which vexed him sorely.

  The junior partner was silent, and the remaining clerks were workinguneasily, not exactly knowing whether they might not presently beincluded in the indictment. Their fears were terminated, however, bythe sharp sound of a table-gong and the appearance of a boy with theannouncement that Mr. Girdlestone would like a moment's conversationwith Mr. Ezra. The latter gave a keen glance at his subjects andwithdrew into the back office, a disappearance which was hailed by tenpens being thrown into the air and deftly caught again, while as manyderisive and triumphant young men mocked at the imploring efforts of oldGilray in the interests of law and order.

  The sanctum of Mr. John Girdlestone was approached by two doors, one ofoak with ground-glass panels, and the other covered with green baize.The room itself was small, but lofty, and the walls were ornamented bynumerous sections of ships stuck upon long flat boards, very much as theremains of fossil fish are exhibited in museums, together with maps,charts, photographs, and lists of sailings innumerable. Above thefire-place was a large water-colour painting of the barque _Belinda_ asshe appeared when on a reef to the north of Cape Palmas. An inscriptionbeneath this work of art announced that it had been painted by thesecond officer and presented by him to the head of the firm. It wasgenerally rumoured that the merchants had lost heavily over thisdisaster, and there were some who quoted it as an instance ofGirdlestone's habitual strength of mind that he should decorate his wallwith so melancholy a souvenir. This view of the matter did not appearto commend itself to a flippant member of Lloyd's agency, who contrivedto intimate, by a dexterous use of his left eyelid and right forefinger,that the vessel may not have been so much under-insured, nor the loss tothe firm so enormous as was commonly reported.

  John Girdlestone, as he sat at his square office-table waiting for hisson, was undeniably a remarkable-looking man. For good or for evil noweak character lay beneath that hard angular face, with the stronglymarked features and deep-set eyes. He was clean shaven, save for aniron-grey fringe of ragged whisker under each ear, which blended withthe grizzled hair above. So self-contained, hard-set, and immutable washis expression that it was impossible to read anything from it exceptsternness and resolution, qualities which are as likely to be associatedwith the highest natures as with the most dangerous. It may have beenon account of this ambiguity of expression that the world's estimate ofthe old merchant was a very varying one. He was known to be a fanaticin religion, a purist in morals, and a man of the strictest commercialintegrity. Yet there were some few who looked askance at him, and none,save one, who could apply the word "friend" to him.

  He rose and stood with his back to the fire-place as his son entered.He was so tall that he towered above the younger man, but the latter'ssquare and compact frame made him, apart from the difference of age, thestronger man.

  The young man had dropped the air of sarcasm which he found was mosteffective with the clerks, and had resumed his natural manner, which washarsh and brusque.

  "What's up!" he asked, dropping back into a chair, and jingling theloose coins in his trouser pockets.

  "I have had news of the _Black Eagle_," his father answered. "She isreported from Madeira."

  "Ah!" cried the junior partner eagerly. "What luck?"

  "She is full, or nearly so, according to Captain Hamilton Miggs'report."

  "I wonder Miggs was able to send a report at all, and I wonder stillmore that you should put any faith in it," his son said impatiently."The fellow is never sober."

  "Miggs is a good seaman, and popular on the coast. He may indulge attimes, but we all have our failings. Here is the list as vouched for byour agent. 'Six hundred barrels of palm oil'--"

  "Oil is down to-day," the other interrupted.

  "It will rise before the _Black Eagle_ arrives," the merchant rejoinedconfidently. "Then he has palm nuts in bulk, gum, ebony, skins,cochineal, and ivory."

  The young man gave a whistle of satisfaction. "Not bad for old Miggs!"he said. "Ivory is at a fancy figure."

  "We are sorely in need of a few good voyages," Girdlestone remarked,"for things have been very slack of late. There is one very sad pieceof intelligence here which takes away the satisfaction which we mightotherwise feel. Three of the crew have died of fever. He does notmention the names."

  "The devil!" said Ezra. "We know very well what that means.Three women, each with an armful of brats, besieging the office andclamouring for a pension. Why are seamen such improvident dogs?"

  His father held up his white hand deprecatingly. "I wish," he said,"that you would treat these subjects with more reverence. What could besadder than that the bread-winner of a family should be cut off? It hasgrieved me more than I can tell."

  "Then you intend to pension the wives?" Ezra said, with a sly smile.

  "By no means," his father returned with decision. "Girdlestone and Co.are not an insurance office. The labourer is worthy of his hire, butwhen his work in this world is over, his family must fall back upon whathas been saved by his industry and thrift. It would be a dangerousprecedent for us to allow pensions to the wives of these sailors, for itwould deprive the others of all motive for laying their money by, andwould indirectly encourage vice and dissipation."

  Ezra laughed, and continued to rattle his silver and keys.

  "It is not upon this matter that I desired to speak to you," Girdlestonecontinued. "It has, however, always been my practice to prefer mattersof business to private affairs, however pressing. John Harston is saidto be dying, and he has sent a message to me saying that he wishes tosee me. It is inconvenient for me to leave the office, but I feel thatit is my Christian duty to obey such a summons. I wish you, therefore,to look after things until I return."

  "I can hardly believe that the news is true," Ezra said, inastonishment. "There must be some mistake. Why, I spoke to him on'Change last Monday."

  "It is very sudden," his father answered, taking his broad-brimmed hatfrom a peg. "There is no doubt about the fact, however. The doctorsays that there is very little hope that he will survive until evening.It is a case of malignant typhoid."

  "You are very old friends?" Ezra remarked, looking thoughtfully at hisfather.

  "I have known him since we were boys together," the other replied, witha slight dry cough, which was the highest note of his limited emotionalgamut. "Your mother, Ezra, died upon the very day that Harston's wifegave birth to this daughter of his, seventeen years ago. Mrs. Harstononly survived a few days. I have heard him say that, perhaps, we shouldalso go together. We are in the hands of a higher Power, however, andit seems that one shall be taken and another left."

  "How will the money go if the doctors are right?" Ezra asked keenly.

  "Every penny to the girl. She will be an heiress. There are no otherrelations that I know of, except the Dimsdales, and they have a fairfortune of their own. But I must go."

  "By the way, malignant typhoid is very ca
tching, is it not?"

  "So they say," the merchant said quietly, and strode off through thecounting-house.

  Ezra Girdlestone remained behind, stretching his legs In front of theempty grate. "The governor is a hard nail," he soliloquized, as hestared down at the shining steel bars. "Depend upon it, though, hefeels this more than he shows. Why, it's the only friend he ever had inthe world--or ever will have, in all probability. However, it's nobusiness of mine," with which comforting reflection he began to whistleas he turned over the pages of the private day-book of the firm.

  It is possible that his son's surmise was right, and that the gaunt,unemotional African merchant felt an unwonted heartache as he hailed ahansom and drove out to his friend's house at Fulham. He and Harstonhad been charity schoolboys together, had roughed it together, risentogether, and prospered together. When John Girdlestone was a raw-bonedlad and Harston a chubby-faced urchin, the latter had come to look uponthe other as his champion and guide. There are some minds which areparasitic in their nature. Alone they have little vitality, but theylove to settle upon some stronger intellect, from which they may borrowtheir emotions and conclusions at second-hand. A strong, vigorous braincollects around it in time many others, whose mental processes are afeeble imitation of its own. Thus it came to pass that, as the yearsrolled on, Harston learned to lean more and more upon his oldschool-fellow, grafting many of his stern peculiarities upon his ownsimple vacuous nature, until he became a strange parody of the original.To him Girdlestone was the ideal man, Girdlestone's ways the correctways, and Girdlestone's opinions the weightiest of all opinions.Forty years of this undeviating fidelity must, however he might concealit, have made an impression upon the feelings of the elder man.

  Harston, by incessant attention to business and extreme parsimony, hadsucceeded in founding an export trading concern. In this he hadfollowed the example of his friend. There was no fear of theirinterests ever coming into collision, as his operations were confined tothe Mediterranean. The firm grew and prospered, until Harston began tobe looked upon as a warm man in the City circles. His only child wasKate, a girl of seventeen. There were no other near relatives, save Dr.Dimsdale, a prosperous West-end physician. No wonder that EzraGirdlestone's active business mind, and perhaps that of his father too,should speculate as to the disposal of the fortune of the dying man.

  Girdlestone pushed open the iron gate and strode down the gravel walkwhich led to his friend's house. A bright autumn sun shining out of acloudless heaven bathed the green lawn and the many-coloured flower-bedsin its golden light. The air, the leaves, the birds, all spoke of life.It was hard to think that death was closing its grip upon him who ownedthem all. A plump little gentleman in black was just descending thesteps.

  "Well, doctor," the merchant asked, "how is your patient?"

  "You've not come with the intention of seeing him, have you?" the doctorasked, glancing up with some curiosity at the grey face and overhangingeyebrows of the merchant.

  "Yes, I am going up to him now."

  "It is a most virulent case of typhoid. He may die in an hour or he maylive until nightfall, but nothing can save him. He will hardlyrecognize you, I fear, and you can do him no good. It is mostinfectious, and you are incurring a needless danger. I should stronglyrecommend you not to go."

  "Why, you've only just come down from him yourself, doctor."

  "Ah, I'm there in the way of duty."

  "So am I," said the visitor decisively, and passing up the stone stepsof the entrance strode into the hall. There was a large sitting-roomupon the ground floor, through the open door of which the visitor saw asight which arrested him for a moment. A young girl was sitting in arecess near the window, with her lithe, supple figure bent forward, andher hands clasped at the back of her head, while her elbows rested upona small table in front of her. Her superb brown hair fell in a thickwave on either side over her white round arms, and the graceful curve ofher beautiful neck might have furnished a sculptor with a study for amourning Madonna. The doctor had just broken his sad tidings to her,and she was still in the first paroxysm of her grief--a grief too acute,as was evident even to the unsentimental mind of the merchant, to allowof any attempt at consolation. A greyhound appeared to thinkdifferently, for he had placed his fore-paws upon his young mistress'slap, and was attempting to thrust his lean muzzle between her arms andto lick her face in token of canine sympathy. The merchant pausedirresolutely for a moment, and then ascending the broad staircase hepushed open the door of Harston's room and entered.

  The blinds were drawn down and the chamber was very dark. A pungentwhiff of disinfectants issued from it, mingled with the dank, heavysmell of disease. The bed was in a far corner. Without seeing him,Girdlestone could hear the fast laboured breathing of the invalid.A trimly dressed nurse who had been sitting by the bedside rose, and,recognizing the visitor, whispered a few words to him and left the room.He pulled the cord of the Venetian blind so as to admit a few rays ofdaylight. The great chamber looked dreary and bare, as carpet andhangings had been removed to lessen the chance of future infection.John Girdlestone stepped softly across to the bedside and sat down byhis dying friend.

  The sufferer was lying on his back, apparently unconscious of all aroundhim. His glazed eyes were turned upwards towards the ceiling, and hisparched lips were parted, while the breath came in quick, spasmodicgasps. Even the unskilled eye of the merchant could tell that the angelof death was hovering very near him. With an ungainly attempt attenderness, which had something pathetic in it, he moistened a spongeand passed it over the sick man's feverish brow. The latter turned hisrestless head round, and a gleam of recognition and gratitude came intohis eyes.

  "I knew that you would come," he said.

  "Yes. I came the moment that I got your message."

  "I am glad that you are here," the sufferer continued with a sigh ofrelief. From the brightened expression upon his pinched face, it seemedas if, even now in the jaws of death, he leaned upon his oldschoolfellow and looked to him for assistance. He put a wasted handabove the counterpane and laid it upon Girdlestone's.

  "I wish to speak to you, John," he said. "I am very weak. Can you hearwhat I say?"

  "Yes, I hear you."

  "Give me a spoonful from that bottle. It clears my mind for a time.I have been making my will, John."

  "Yes," said the merchant, replacing the medicine bottle.

  "The lawyer made it this morning. Stoop your head and you will hear mebetter. I have less than fifty thousand. I should have done better hadI retired years ago."

  "I told you so," the other broke in gruffly.

  "You did--you did. But I acted for the best. Forty thousand I leave tomy dear daughter Kate."

  A look of interest came over Girdlestone's face. "And the balance?" heasked.

  "I leave that to be equally divided among the various Londoninstitutions 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 onvery slowly and painfully--

  "My daughter will have forty thousand pounds. But it is so tied up thatshe can neither touch it herself nor enable any one else to do so untilshe is of age. She has no friends, John, and no relations, save only mycousin, Dr. George Dimsdale. Never was a girl left more lonely andunprotected. Take her, I beg of you, and bring her up under your owneye. Treat her as though she were your child. Guard her above all fromthose 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, andhis forehead all puckered with thought.

  "You are the one man," continued the sufferer, "whom I know to be justand upright. Give me the water, for my mouth is dry. Should, which Godforbid, my dear girl perish before she marries, then--" His breathfailed 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 whowill use it so well. Those are the terms of the will. But you willguard 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 byher--promise it?"

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

  Harston was sinking rapidly. With a feeble motion he pointed to abrown-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 voicefrom the bed.

  "To treasure and guard as if she were my own--" in the deep bass of themerchant.

  "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," JohnGirdlestone said sternly, "and fix it upon that which is eternal, andcan never die."

  "Are you going?" the invalid asked sadly, for he had taken up his hatand stick.

  "Yes, I must go; I have an appointment in the City at six, which I mustnot miss."

  "And I have an appointment which I must not miss," the dying man saidwith a feeble smile.

  "I shall send up the nurse as I go down," Girdlestone said."Good-bye!"

  "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 downthe stair, and these friends of forty years' standing had said theirlast adieu.

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