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Grif: A Story of Colonial Life

Chapter IV. The Great Merchant Entertains His Friends at Dinner

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Chapter IV. The Great Merchant Entertains His Friends at Dinner.

On the same evening, and at about the same hour, of the occurrence of the foregoing matrimonial dialogue, Mr. Zachariah Blemish entertained his friends at dinner. Mr. Zachariah Blemish was a merchant and a philanthropist; he was also a gentleman of an imposing mien, and of a portly appearance. Some of his detractors (and what man lives who has them not?) said that he padded, and that the manly bosom which throbbed to the beats of his patriotic heart was composed chiefly of cotton. If this was the worst that could be said against him, Zachariah Blemish could look the world in the face without blushing. True or untrue, he did look, unmoved, in the world's face, and if either felt abashed in the presence of the other, it was the world, and not Blemish. For was he not an ornament to the world, and did not the world feel and acknowledge it? As he walked along the streets, people fell aside and made way for him, deferentially. They looked after him, and pointed him out to strangers as the Great Mr. Blemish; and it was told of one family that, when the children were put to bed at night, they were taught to say, “God bless papa and mamma, and Good Mr. Blemish.” His snowy shirt front, viewed from a distance, was a sight to look upon, and, upon a nearer acquaintance, dazzled one with its pure whiteness. At church he was the most page 37 devout of men, and the congregation wondered how so much greatness and so much meekness could be found in the breast of any one human being. There was not a crease in his face; it was fat, and smooth, and ruddy; it looked like the blessed face of a large cherubim; and it said as plainly as face could say, “Here dwell content, and peace, and prosperity, and benevolence.” He was Chairman of the United Band of Temperance Aboriginals; President of the Moral Boot Blacking Boys Reformatory; Perpetual Grand Master of the Society for the Total Suppression of Vice; the highest dignitary in the Association of Universal Philanthropists; and a leading member of the Fellowship of Murray Cods. He sub-scribed to all the charities; with a condescending humility he allowed his name to appear regularly upon all committees for religious and benevolent purposes, and would himself go round with lists to collect subscriptions. Here his power was enormous. Such a thing as a refusal was not thought of. People wrote their names upon his list, in the firm belief that twenty shillings invested in benevolence with Zachariah Blemish returned a much larger rate of interest than if invested with any other collector. Once, and once only, was he known to be unsuccessful. He asked a mechanic for a subscription to the funds of the United Band of Temperance Aboriginals, and the man refused him, in somewhat rough terms, saying that the United Band of Temperance Aboriginals was a Band of Humbugs. Blemish gazed mildly at the man for a few moments, and turned away without a word. The following day he displayed an anonymous letter, in which the writer, signing himself page 38 “Repentant,” enclosed one pound three shillings and sixpence as the contribution of a working man towards the funds of the United Band of Temperance Aboriginals, and a fervent wish was expressed in the letter that the Band would meet with the success it deserved. There was no doubt that it was the mechanic who sent it. Such was the goodness of Blemish, and the moral power of his eye!

On this evening he was seated at the head of his table, pound which were ranged some dozen guests of undoubted respectability. He was supported on his right by a member of the Lower House; he was supported on his left by a member of the Lower House. One of the leading members of the Government was talking oracularly to one of the leading merchants of the city; and one of the leading lawyers was laying down the law to one of the leading physicians. And only three chair's off was Mr. David Dibbs, eating his dinner like a common mortal. Like a common mortal? Like the commonest of common mortals! He might have been a bricklayer for any difference observable between them. For he gobbled his food did Mr. David Dibbs, and he slobbered his soup did Mr. David Dibbs, and his chops were greasy, and his hands were not nice looking, and, altogether, he did not present an agreeable appearance. But was he not the possessor of half a dozen stations, each with scores of miles of water frontage, and was not his income thirty thousand pounds a-year? Oh, golden calf! nestle in my bosom, and throw your glittering veil over my ignorance. and meanness, and stupidity—give me thirty thousand pounds a-year, that people may fall down and worship me!

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The other guests were not a whit less respectable. Each of them, in his own particular person, represented Wealth or Position. Could it for one moment be imagined that the guests of Mr Zachariah Blemish were selected for the purpose of throwing a halo of respectability round the person of their host, and that they were one and all administering to, and serving, his interest? If so, the guests were unconscious of it; but it might not have been less a fact that he made them all return, in one shape or another, good interest for the hospitality he so freely lavished upon them. This evening he was giving a dinner party to his male friends; and later in the night Mrs Zachariah Blemish would receive her guests and entertain them.

The gentlemen are over their wine, and are conversing freely. Politics, scandal, the state of the colony, and many other subjects, are discussed with animation. Sometimes the conversation is general, then it breaks up into sections, and occasionally it grows personal.

“It is a curious story,” said the leading physician, addressing the leading limb of the law. “He was always reported to be very wealthy. No one knows more of his early career than that, when the diggings first broke out, he was a Cheap Jack, as they call them, trading at all the new rushes. He would buy tents, picks, shovels, tubs, anything, from the diggers, who were madly running from one place to another. He would buy them for a song, for the diggers could not carry these things about with them, and they were glad to get rid of them at any price. When he sold them he made enormous profits, and by these means he was supposed to page 40 have amassed a great fortune. Then he speculated largely in sheep and cattle, and got to be looked upon as a sort of banker. Many men deposited their savings with him, and as he did not pay any interest for the money, and traded with it, there is no doubt as to the profitable nature of his operations. The great peculiarity about him was that his face, from beneath his eyes, was completely hidden in bushy, brown, curly hair. He had been heard to say that he had never shaved. Well, one night, at past eleven o'clock, he knocked up a storekeeper at the diggings, and bought a razor and strop, a pair of scissors, a pair of moleskin trousers, a pair of watertight boots, and a blue serge shirt. In the course of conversation with the storekeeper, and while he was selecting the articles, he said that they were for a man whom he had engaged as a shepherd, and who was starting away at daybreak the following morning. That was the last indisputable occurrence that was known in connection with him. For the next day he disappeared, and was not heard of again. For a day or two no notice was taken of his absence, but after that, depositors and others began to get uneasy, and rumor invented a hundred different stories about him. A deteotive, who knew him intimately, said that he was standing at the pit entrance of the Theatre Royal when a man passed in, the glitter of whose eyes attracted the detective's attention strangely. He could not recal the man's face, which was clean shaven, and he thought no more about it at the time. The missing man was traced to Melbourne, but no further. Some three or four weeks after his disappearance, the body of a drowned man was found in a river in page 41 New South Wales, and from certain marks about it, it was supposed to be that of our missing friend. The inquest was adjourned to allow time for the production, of evidence from Victoria, and twelve medical men, all of whom knew the missing party, were subpœnaed, for the purpose of identifying him, or otherwise. The body was much decomposed, but some of the witnesses said that they would know if it was the missing man by the peculiar shape of one of his toes. The singularity of the affair lies in this. Six of the witnesses swore that it was the missing man, and six of them swore that it was not. Both sides were very positive. Six months after She inquest, a story was current that he had been seen at Texas, which story was shortly afterwards followed up by another, that he was shot in a tavern in some part of South America. Then came other reports that he was living in great magnificence in all sorts of out-of-the-way places. But to this day the mystery is not cleared up, and probably never will be.”

“And She depositor's money?” asked the lawyer.

“Was never heard of. Vanished. If he was drowned he did not like to part with it, perhaps, and he took it into the other world with him.”

Everybody at the table was much interested in the story, and, at its conclusion, there was a lull in the conversation.

“I have got,” said Mr. Blemish, addressing a gentleman of about sixty years of age, whose face was covered with iron-grey whiskers, beard, and moustache, “a great surprise for you to-night.”

From some unexplained cause, the gentleman addressed page 42 looked suddenly and excitedly into the face of his host, and exclaimed, in a quick, nervous voice——

“A surprise!”

“Yes, and I hope a pleasant one.”

“What surprise?” he asked, in the same agitated manner.

“Nay,” returned Mr. Blemish, gently, “it will not be a surprise if I tell you beforehand.”

The flush that had risen to that portion of the gentleman's face which the iron-grey whiskers, beard, and moustache, allowed to be seen, slowly died away, and was replaced by a whitish-grey tint, which almost made him look like the ghost of some antique warrior. Taking out his pocket-book, he wrote upon a leaf, “I shall take it as a particular favour if you will let me know what is the surprise you have in store for me; I have urgent reasons for asking; “then passed it, folded, to his host. Mr. Blemish read it, smiled, and wrote beneath, in reply, “Do you remember your brother?” and repassed the paper to his guest.

“Brother!” exclaimed that gentleman, in a voice betokening that, although he was considerably astonished, he was also considerably relieved.

All the guests turned their faces simultaneously towards the speaker, with the exception of one young gentleman, who wore Dundreary whiskers, and whose hair was scrupulously parted in the middle. This young gentleman, whose name was Tuffett, and who was Something in the Civil Service, languidly turned his head, as if the machinery within was weak, and required gentle treatment, and languidly ejaculated, “Ber-wer-other!” as if it was a word of four syllables.

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“Yes,” said Mr. Blemish, “your brother Nicholas.”

“Good heavens!” exclaimed Mr. Mathew Nuttall; whereat the Something in the Civil Service ejaculated, “Ger-wa-cious per-wow-ers!” and the rest of the guests stared harder than ever. Excepting Mr. David Dibbs, who was not disposed to be too long diverted from the serious occupation of eating and drinking. For Mr. David Dibbs lived to eat; he did not eat to live.

It is a shock to a man to be wrenched without forewarning from the groove in which his life has been gliding for the last twenty years. For fully that time Mr. Mathew Nuttall, engrossed in his own pursuits and his own cares, had never once thought of his brother; and now, at the very mention of his name, memories, long-buried and forgotten, floated upon his mind like the sudden rising of a ghostly tide.

“Yes,” said Mr. Zachariah Blemish, “I learned by accident that he has but lately arrived in the Colony. Singularly enough, he had a letter of introduction to me from some of my people at home, and Mrs. Blemish, out of respect to you, invited him this evening to meet you.”

“I shall be very glad to see Nicholas,” said Mr. Mathew Nuttall, slowly and thoughtfully; and then the conversation became more general.

“Haw—haw—I haw—had a ber-wer-other—haw- once,” remarked the Something in the Civil Service, “but—haw—haw—he died. Haw—haw—Ster-wer-ange coincidence! Very!” and the Something in the Civil Service played with his handsome moustache, reflectively. No one at the table thinking fit to comment upon this observation, the Something in the Civil Service relapsed into his chronic state of vacuity.

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“Sheep are rising in the market, are they not, Mr. Dibbs?” asked the Member of the Upper House.

“It's time they was,” replied the great squatter, his mouth full of pine-apple.

“The people are complaining loudly of the price of beef,” observed the Member of the Lower House, who was strongly suspected of democratic tendencies.

“They're always a-growling,” said Mr. David Dibbs, who, having swallowed his pine-apple, was enabled to speak with greater clearness. “They don't know what they want, don't the people. It ought to be double the price. My motto all'as has been, Live and Let Live. They lay the blame on us squatters; but it's the butchers as sticks it on.”

“Did you read in the papers that Mr. Froth said at the Eastern Market last night that the squatters were the ruin of the country?” asked the member of the Lower House.

“Mr. Froth wants his head punched,” said Mr. Dibbs, elegantly, “and I wouldn't mind a-doing of it for him.”

“The fact of it is, Sir,” said the member of the Upper House, “the people, as you call them, are a lazy, discontented set. Manhood suffrage has done it all. “No man ought to have a vote who has not a property qualification.”

“Quite right, sir,” said Mr. Dibbs; “a glass of wine?”

“With pleasure. For, Sir, what is the result?” (This oracularly, as if he was addressing the House.) “These men, who have no property, but have a vote, exercise a pressure upon property detrimental to the interests of gentlemen who have property. What has property to do page 45 with them, or what have they to do with property? When they have property, let them speak; until then, let them be silent, and not interfere with what does not concern them.”

“Them's my sentiments,” nodded Mr. Dibbs, approvingly.

“To what, Sir, is this state of things to be attributed?” continued the orator. “The answer is plain. It is to be attributed to the unfortunate state of independence in which the working man finds himself in these Colonies. The working classes all over the world, Sir, are democratic, often dangerously democratic. But in such a country as England, they are kept in their proper position by a sense of dependence. Sir, when the working man lands upon these shores, this spirit of dependence vanishes. Speaking vulgarly, Sir, he says within himself, Jack's as good as his master; and acting up to the spirit of that old adage (the author of it, Sir, ought to have been put into the pillory)—acting, I say again, Sir, up to the spirit of that adage, he aims a blow at the interests of all of us who have property in the Colony. This must be put a stop to, Sir. It is incumbent upon us, who are loyal subjects, to put a stop to it—as loyal subjects I say, Sir, for we all know what is the meaning of democracy. It behoves all of us who have settled interests in the colony to look sharply about us. We must, if necessary, band together for the protection of our own interests; and above all, we must stick to the Constitution.”

“Quite right again, sir,” assented Mr. Dibbs, whose only idea of the Constitution was thirty thousand pounds a-year for himself.

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“Haw—haw—I have—haw—observed,” said the Something in the Civil Service, “that the—haw—sper-wiwit—haw—of innovation is—haw—I may say going it. There—haw—haw—is a difficulty—haw—in telling the—haw—back of a—haw—gentleman from the—haw—back of a ter-wer-adesman.”

Although none of the guests replied to this observation, all, with the exception of one, appeared to think that something was very wrong somewhere, and that the country was in a most distressing condition. Mr Zachariah Blemish was the only person at the table who ventured to remark that we are young, gentlemen, we are young, and have plenty of time before us for improvement. In all new colonies evils would creep in. We have a fine estate in our hands, gentlemen; one of the finest estates in the world; and all it wants is proper management. Certainly the state of commercial morality is very bad——

Ah, here was a theme! Commercial morality! The guests grew eloquent upon it. The member of the Upper House said it was deplorable; the member of the Lower House said it was disgraceful; the leading physician said it was frightful; the leading lawyer said it was unparalleled; Mr. Dibbs said it was beastly; and they all raised their hands and their eyes, and shook their heads, as much as to say “Is it not dreadful that we who are immaculate, who are undefined, should live in. the midst of such a state of things, without being able to remedy the evil?” But the most impressive of all was Mr. Zachariah Blemish; and as a merchant of the highest standing, his words were listened to with deep attention.

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Yes (he said), commercial morality was at its lowest ebb. The spirit of over-speculation among traders was something frightful to contemplate, and disastrous results were sure to follow. It was all occasioned by the easiness with which men got credit—men who commenced with nothing, who had nothing, with the exception of self-assurance, and who speculated recklessly, with the knowledge that when the crash came—and come it must, sooner or later, with such-like speculators—their creditors would only be too glad to take five shillings in the pound; would feel delighted at seven shillings and sixpence; would congratulate themselves at ten shillings; and then, after giving a full release, would actually do business again, upon terms, with the very man who had robbed them. A check must be put to this spirit of reckless speculation, and he himself had some idea of initiating a movement in furtherance of the desired result. All that was required was that merchants should be true to themselves and to their own interests, and the country would soon recover from its present depressed condition.

And after the utterance of these platitudes, Mr. Zachariah Blemish stuck his thumbs in his waistcoat pockets and looked round upon his guests, who, one and all, bowed down to the spirit of honor and integrity shining in the face of their merchant host!