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Grif: A Story of Colonial Life

Chapter XIV. The Moral Merchant Calls a Meeting of His Creditors

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Chapter XIV. The Moral Merchant Calls a Meeting of His Creditors.

The office of Mr. Zachariah Blemish was situated in one of the busiest and most respectable portions of the City. There was an air of business about it, which unmistakably stamped its character; its polished mahogany panels seemed to twinkle with riches. The swing-door of the office had a hard life of it—from morn till night, it creaked upon its hinges, complainingly. If ever door had occasion to growl, that door had. If ever door bemoaned its hard fate, or protested against being worked to death, that door did. Sometimes it sent forth a piteous wail; sometimes a long-sustained groan; sometimes an agonised little squeak, as much as to say, Now it's all over with me! But it wailed, and groaned, and squeaked in vain. There was no rest for it. For weeks, and months, and years, it had been flung open with ferocity, and slammed to with vindictiveness; for weeks, and months, and years, it had been pushed and banged with venomous cruelty. But it is a long lane that has no turning. A day came when it rested from its labors, and when its wails, and groans, and squeaks ceased to be heard.

It is surprising what consternation the simple closing of a door can produce. If the swing-door of the office of Mr. Zachariah Blemish had been aware of the dreadful tremor that thrilled through commercial circles on the page 184 day that it hung quiescent on its hinges, it would have squeaked of its own accord, with fiendish satisfaction. If it could have seen the long faces of those ruthless men who had so cruelly pushed, and slammed, and banged it, it would have laughed in its baized sleeve, vindictively. But it had no means of satisfying its vindictive feelings, for it was shut out from the busy world, and a gloomy shade encompassed it.

There was great dismay in the city. The office of Mr. Zachariah Blemish shut up! What could it mean? Was it a temporary suspension, or a total smash? Why, everybody thought he was rolling in wealth. Everybody asked questions of everybody else. Quite a crowd was congregated outside the office during the whole day; and the outer door was stared at with feelings somewhat akin to awe, as if, like the Sphinx, it contained within its breast the knowledge of an awful mystery. Then came whispers of disastrous speculations, losses in sugar, losses in flour, losses in saltpetre, losses by underwriting, and losses by guaranteeing. Ships had been wrecked, stations had fallen in value, large firms in India had failed, debtors had absconded. But still, these were trifles to a man of such immense wealth as Blemish was reputed to be. And such a moral man, too!

Later in the day, it was reported that a meeting of creditors had been called, and a dark rumour was circulated that the estate would not pay a shilling in the pound. What were his liabilities? Some said fifty thousand pounds, some said a hundred thousand, some said half a million. The smaller sums were soon indignantly rejected, and the liabilities were fixed, to the satisfaction page 185 of everybody, at half a million. Stay—not to the satisfaction of everybody; not at all to the satisfaction of his creditors, who were furious. They were a numerous class, but they were small in number compared to those who were not his creditors. With the majority, Mr. Zachariah Blemish had never been so popular as he was now. If he had made his appearance in the streets, he would have been stared at and adulated more than ever. For had he not failed for half a million of money? What a rich, unctuous sound the words had, as they were pronounced! They rolled deliciously round the tongue. Half a million of money! E-nor-mous!

Great was the marvel how Blemish had managed to keep his state unknown and unsuspected for so long a time. For these losses had not come upon him at once. People had heard him speak, upon various occasions, of losses upon shipments here, of losses upon consignments there, of debtors absconding heavily in his debt, et cetera, et cetera; but he had spoken upon those subjects so pleasantly, that it rather enhanced his credit than otherwise. The impression conveyed was, that those losses had been sustained, but that, large as they were, they were too trifling to affect the position of such a merchant as Blemish. How had he managed to sustain his credit through all those losses, which now, it was seen, must have been enormous? Why, at the time the great banquet was given to him, he must have been hopelessly insolvent! He was certainly a marvelously clever man. He was undoubtedly a very great genius: for he had failed for half a million of money!

And Mr. Blemish himself—how did he bear the publi- page 186 cation of his downfal? Was he pale, anxious, nervous, humbled, crestfallen? Was he crying and fretting inwardly at his displacement from the pedestal upon which, public opinion had placed him? Not at all. He was comfortably seated in one of the coziest rooms of his mansion, in handsome dressing-gown and slippers. He was smoking a fragrant Havanah cigar, and drinking iced claret, which he poured from a costly jug, a portion of one of the numerous testimonials presented to him in the course of his moral career. From where he was sitting, he could command a view of his garden, wherein were blossoming the choicest exotics. His face was as ruddy and as fat as ever—he looked like a man at peace with himself and with all the world. And yet to-morrow he was to meet a host of furious creditors, men whom he had deceived, robbed, swindled, perhaps ruined. He had given instructions that he was at home to nobody except a legal friend, and he was passing the afternoon luxuriously, and enjoying his leisure, as such a moral man as himself deserved to enjoy it.

In the evening, he had a long consultation with his lawyer, after which he retired to rest. When he rose in the morning, he indulged, as usual, in his shower bath, and, strengthened for the battle, he issued forth to meet his foes.

Such foes! Such fierce, malignant foes! They ground their teeth, they clenched their fists, they anathematised the name of Blemish. That is, when Blemish was not present; when he made his appearance amongst them, the storm, if it had not passed over, was lulled. The great merchant had, somehow or another, contrived to make page 187 himself look a shade paler than usual. When he entered the room, he bowed gravely to the assembled throng, and said that it would perhaps be as well that they should at once proceed to business. The common sense of the proposal striking every one present, they seated themselves immediately round the long table, and waited in anxious expectation; Mr. Zachariah Blemish being at the head, supported on his right by his legal adviser, who had before him a formidable pile of papers. After a short pause, the great merchant said, that no one regretted more than himself the occasion which had called them together. Before requesting his legal adviser to lay the state of affairs before the meeting, he prayed (and here he raised his eyes devoutly to the ceiling) that their proceedings might be conducted with Christian toleration, and that wisdom would descend upon and guide their deliberations. Having thus (like a clergyman bestowing a benediction upon his flock) invoked the blessing of Providence upon his creditors, he motioned to his lawyer, who, after shuffling his papers in a businesslike manner, opened the ball in a dry matter-of-fact voice.

It was not his business, he said, to make remarks which would not be considered pertinent to the subject. He believed that the position in which Mr. Zachariah Blemish found himself commanded the sympathy of every section of the community. (A few of the creditors looked dubious.) Mr. Blemish, a gentleman, a merchant, and a Christian, had, by his conduct, earned the esteem of all with whom he had come in contact, and he trusted to be always able to retain it. He had strug- page 188 gled for a long time against reverses—against falling markets, against losses by defaulting debtors, but he was unable to hold out any longer. It might be asked, why he had not placed himself in the hands of his creditors before his position had become so desperate as it now was. For it was desperate; there was no denying it. The answer was simple, and easily to be understood. There were in the room many creditors who were merchants. Those men knew how the slightest rumor affected credit. Mr. Blemish was always in hopes of being able to redeem his position. There was no chance of effecting this object if his credit was impaired; and so Mr. Blemish carried on business until he was compelled to succumb. He would not detain them any longer with remarks and explanations, but would at once proceed to figures.

Which he did; disclosing in the process a very disastrous state of affairs indeed. Mr. Blemish owed over a hundred thousand pounds, and his assets, in round numbers, showed a total of some thirty-odd thousands. But in those assets there were debts that were bad; some very doubtful; many which it would take considerable trouble and expense to collect. Having fully explained everything, the lawyer sat down with the concluding remark, that Mr. Blemish placed himself unreservedly in the hands of his creditors.

First, a long pause ensued. Then, as if set in motion by a suddenly-loosened spring, everybody spoke at once. One asked the meaning of this; another the meaning of that. Indeed, they asked so many questions all at once, that the unfortunate Mr. Blemish raised his hands de- page 189 precatingly. When the meeting, in obedience to this deprecating motion, became a little less noisy, Mr. Blemish suggested that, perhaps, it would be as well that he should retire. They would be able to discuss more freely in his absence. One of the creditors, a man with pimples covering his face, said it was a very sensible suggestion; and as many unpleasant things might possibly be said, which Mr. Blemish would not like to hear, that gentleman would act wisely by retiring. When he had closed the door behind him, Babel was let loose. The creditors stormed, and fumed, and threatened all manner of things. Some suggested that he should be arrested; others that he should be forced into the Insolvency Court, where vengeance could be wreaked upon him. There were many shades of opinion represented. All the creditors were not violent and unreasonable. There was the meek creditor, who put in mild suggestions, and who was quite ready to vote with the majority, and retire into private life afterwards—a sort of man who could be got to sign any document, one way or another, with less than half an ounce of persuasion. There was the creditor who swore frightful oaths, who banged the table, and who got red in the face; and who suggested that the insolvent should first have his nose pulled, and then be kicked down stairs. There was the foreign creditor, who fumed in imperfect English, declaring that the insolvent was “von dam rascal,” and vowing in incomprehensible lingo, that Blemish had swindled him, “picked my pocket, sare,” of fourteen hundred pounds, not more than a month ago. There was the silent page 190 creditor, who did not speak, but was ready to accept any cash composition, however small; he sat very still, did the silent creditor, for he intended to call a meeting of his creditors the very next week, and he was taking mental notes of the behaviour of those present to whom he was indebted. There was the turbulent creditor, who would not be quiet, but who was starting up every other minute with some red-hot impracticable suggestion. And there was the friendly creditor, who had been quietly assured by Blemish's lawyer that he should be paid in full, pouring oil upon the troubled waters, and using all his powers of persuasion to allay the storm of angry feeling.

When the stolen had somewhat subsided, the pimple-faced man was voted to the chair, and the conversation became more reasonable. A great many present, while regretting the state of affairs, thought it would be a pity to put the estate into the Insolvency Court, where it would be eaten up with expenses. It might serve the purpose of unpleasantly exposing Mr. Blemish; but the dividend would be much decreased. Half a loaf was better than no bread. The meek creditor agreed that it would be unwise to put the estate into the Insolvency Court. Mr. Blemish owed him two thousand pounds, and he would like to get as much as he could for it. The friendly creditor judiciously favored this current of opinion; and he said, that it would perhaps be as well to ask Mr. Blemish if he had any proposition to make. Of course; why had they not thought of that before? Mr. Blemish was at once called in, and in reply to their questions, he said that there page 191 were three courses open to the creditors. The first was that the estate should be wound up in the Insolvency Court; he knew, and they all knew, what would be the result of that proceeding—a long delay, and a loss of fifty per cent. on the realisation of the estate. But, if they resolved upon this, he would at once file his schedule; he was entirely in their hands. The second course was, that the creditors should accept an assignment in satisfaction of their claims; the estate, judiciously administered, might turn out better than he expected. The third course was, their acceptance of a proposal which he was happy to say he was in a position to make—for he was not without friends. He had not passed his long career in vain. There were many gentlemen who were ready to assist him in his hour of need; and it was their kindness and faith in his integrity which enabled him to offer to his creditors four shillings and ninepence in the pound, payable, half in cash, one-fourth at three months, and one-fourth at six months, by guaranteed bills. If this was accepted, he could still carry on business, and if prosperity crowned his efforts, he would make it his especial aim to pay all his creditors twenty shillings in the pound. Mr. Blemish having concluded, he was requested again to retire, and the debate was resumed. But most of the creditors, as prudent business men, felt that to accept the four and ninepence was the very best thing they could do; and it was ultimately proposed that Mr. Blemish should be asked if he would increase his offer to five shillings. No, Mr. Blemish said; he could not do it, threepence in the page 192 pound extra would amount to more than his friends were willing to advance. A great deal of discussion and temporising ensued; until at length Mr. Blemish, upon his own responsibility, increased the offer to four shillings and tenpence half-penny. The meeting was adjourned till the following day, when the composition was accepted. The deeds of release were drawn up in a singularly short space of time (in truth, they had been prepared before the meeting), the money was paid, the bills were accepted and endorsed; and Mr. Zachariah Blemish was a free man, purged of every worldly debt.

Purged of every worldly debt. Happy man! Mr. Zachariah Blemish held his head very high indeed, that afternoon, for he did not owe a shilling in the world. Positively, not a shilling, if we except his butcher and baker, and other domestic purveyors. There is not the slightest doubt that he did not even owe a single shilling to those worthy gentlemen to whom he had referred as being willing to assist him in his hour of need, and who had such faith in his integrity. Strange, inexplicable mystery!

It was, doubtless, the high exultation produced by his being free from the thraldom of debt that induced him to stroll into a jeweler's shop, and to purchase a diamond bracelet for a hundred guineas—purchase it, and pay for it, too! This he intended as a present to his wife, to mark the commencement of his new career. It was a white day for him, and he celebrated it accordingly. What a sacrifice for a beggared man to make! A diamond bracelet for his wife on the day of his ruin! A model of a husband!

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Sitting that evening in his arm chair, near the window-overlooking his garden of roses, Mr. Zachariah Blemish, said to his wife—-

“Mrs. Blemish, I think of building another wing to the house. The architect has told me that it will not cost above a couple of thousand pounds. It will include a billiard-room, and a new dining-room, which will be a great convenience. We are a little bit cramped in our old one.”

Marvel of marvels! What a man of faith was here! No sooner down than he was up again, challenging the world to come on!

The next day, his office was opened, and his clerks resumed their stools at their desks, and went on with their journalising and their posting. The swing-door recommenced its life of toil, and wailed, and groaned, and squeaked, as before. And Mr. Zachariah Blemish moved amongst his fellow men, with his usual affabibility. His linen was as spotless and as snowy as ever; his face was still smooth, and fat, and ruddy. And his reputation—let the truth be told—his reputation, in the eyes of the world, was as spotless as his linen. If there, was any difference in the behaviour of his fellow citizens towards him, it was that they cringed and bowed to him a shade more sycophantishly than before.

Great was Blemish, the Moral Merchant!