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.

"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.

The Firm of Girdlestone Page 54

Arthur Conan Doyle

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