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The city of Birmingham was wrapped in a mantle of fog so dense that the inhabitants found it difficult to move about. The thick, soot-laden atmosphere covered everything, and only a few faintly glimmering lights showed that they really existed.
The clock in the church tower had just struck two, and yet the street lamps were ablaze.
The pedestrians moved with the utmost care. Trudging along the soppy pavements, their footsteps sounded hollow and unreal, and were heard long before they themselves put in an appearance.
One of the inhabitants, however, contrived to find his way with comparative ease, for he was such an old resident that his feet would not go astray, however absent-minded their owner happened to be. There was a certain air of authority about him; yet there was that about the stern, calm features that denoted a warm heart and a kindly disposition. But still, as if the fog was not in existence, he hurried on, turning from the main street to the lower part of the town.
Ordinarily he could never accomplish this walk without meeting many an acquaintance, for Mr. Thomas Marchant was a well-known man. He was one of the magnates of this busy town, a wealthy employer of labor, and it was to the work his foundries gave that many of the inhabitants owed their prosperity.
Mr. Marchant was troubled; for only a year ago he was one of the wealthiest men in the city. His foundries were working night and day, and even then could hardly keep pace with the orders.
“I’ve never known such a rush,” he said to his manager when discussing the matter. “It gives me great satisfaction, for our men will benefit by the increased orders as well as ourselves.”
That was a short year ago, and now there was a different tale to tell. True, the iron foundry was still in full swing, but cotton mills, which Mr. Marchant owned in addition, were losing money every day, and in those few months he had been ruined; and he knew that the world would know him and speak of him as a bankrupt, while his possessions would be seized upon by the creditors.
The Marchant iron-works were in full swing. As Mr. Marchant entered, a mass of sputtering iron was dragged by a powerful man, dressed in rough trousers and thin vest, and protected by an apron of leather. Another dark and perspiring figure came to his aid, and the weight was dropped onto a small trolley, on which it was run to the big steam hammer standing near at hand.
Mr. Marchant watched them a moment, and then walked to his office, in which a somewhat untidily dressed gentleman was sitting.
“Good-day, Mr.Tomkins,” he said.
“Good-afternoon, sir,” Mr. Tomkins, who was the manager of the foundry, responded. Then, in a doubtful manner, he said, “There have been some visitors to see you this morning, and I told them to come again. One was Steinkirk.”
“Does Hal know? Has he been told?” Mr. Marchant asked abruptly.
“No one has liked to break the news to him yet, sir. We weren’t certain, and we hoped that things would turn out all right. I suppose it’s hopeless now, sir?”
“Absolutely!” Mr. Marchant replied. “I am irretrievably ruined. The mills are gone, and to obtain money when the times were bad, I had to mortgage these works. I have nothing left. But I have seen to one matter; if trouble has come upon me, there is no reason why it should swamp all whom I employ. The creditor will carry on the work, and you and all the others will remain as at present. Poor Hal! He is the one who will suffer, more even than his father. He is a beggar!” He sank his face into his hands and groaned.
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