"I've been performing my ablutions," he said, rolling out the last word with great emphasis and pomposity, for, like many Scotchmen, he had the greatest possible reverence for a sonorous polysyllable. Indeed, in McPherson, this national foible was pushed to excess, for, however inappropriate the word, he never hesitated to drag it into his conversation if he thought it would aid in the general effect.
"The captain," he continued, "has been far from salubrious this voyage. He's aye complainin' o' his bodily infirmities."
"Hypochondriacal, perhaps," Tom remarked.
The Scotchman looked at his companion with a great accession of respect. "My certie!" he cried. "That's the best I've heard since a word that Jimmy M'Gee, of the Corisco, said the voyage afore last. Would you kindly arteeculate it again."
"Hypochondriacal," said Tom laughing heartily.
"Hypo-chon-driacal," the mate repeated slowly. "I shouldn't think Jimmy M'Gee kens that, or he'd ha' communicated it to me. I shall certainly utilize it, and am obleeged to you for namin' it."
"Don't mention it," said Tom. "I'll let you have as many long words as you like, if you are a collector of them. But what is the matter with the captain?"
"It's aye the drink," the mate said gravely. "I can tak' my modicum mysel' and enjoy it, but that's no the same as for a man to lock himself up in his cabin, and drink rum steady on from four bells in the mornin' watch to eight bells in the evenin'. And then the cussin', and prayin', and swearin' as he sets up is just awfu'. It's what might weel be described as pandemoniacal."
"Is he often like that, then?" Tom asked.
"Often! Why, he's never anything else, sir. And yet he's a good seaman too, and however fu' he may be, he keeps some form o' reckoning, and never vera far oot either. He's an ambeequosity to me, sir, for if I took a tithe o' the amount I'd be clean daft."
"He must be dangerous when he is like that?" Tom remarked.
"He is that. He emptied a sax-shooter down the deck last bout he had, and nigh perforated the carpenter. Another time he scoots after the cook—chased him with a handspike in his hand right up the rigging to the cross-trees. If the cook hadn't slid down the backstay of the mast, he'd ha' been obeetuarised."
Tom could not refrain from laughing at the last expression. "That's a new word," he said.
"Ha!" his companion cried with great satisfaction, "it is, is it? Then we are quits now on the hypochondriacal." He was so pleased that he chuckled to himself for some minutes in the depths of his tawny beard. "Yes," he continued at last, "he is dangerous to us at times, and he is dangerous to you. This is atween oorsels, as man to man, and is said withoot prejudice, but he do go on when he is in they fits aboot the firm, and aboot insurances, and rotten ships, and ither such things, which is all vera well when sequestrated amang gentlemen like oorsels, but sounds awfu' bad when it fa's on the ignorant tympanums of common seamen."
"It's scandalous," Tom said gravely, "that he should spread such reports about his employer. Our ships are old, and some of them, in my opinion, hardly safe, but that's a very different thing from implying, as you hint, that Mr. Girdlestone wishes them to go down."
"We'll no argue aboot that," said the canny Scot. "Muster Girdlestone kens on which side his bread is buttered. He may wish 'em to sink or he may wish 'em to swim. That's no for us to judge. You'll hear him speak o't to-night as like as not, for he's aye on it when he's half over. Here we are, sir. The corner edifice wi' the red blinds in the window."
During this conversation the two had been threading their way through the intricate and dirty lanes which lead up from the water side to the outskirts of Stepney. It was quite dark by the time that they reached a long thoroughfare, lined by numerous shops, with great gas flares outside them. Many of these belonged to dealers in marine stores, and the numerous suits of oil-skin, hung up for exhibition, swung to and fro in the uncertain light, like rows of attenuated pirates. At every corner was a great public-house with glittering windows, and a crowd of slatternly women and jersey-clad men elbowing each other at the door. At the largest and most imposing of these gin-palaces the mate and Dimsdale now pulled up.
"Come in this way," said McPherson, who had evidently paid many a visit there before. Pushing open a swinging door, he made his way into the crowded bar, where the reek of bad spirits and the smell of squalid humanity seemed to Tom to be even more horrible than the effluvium of the grease-laden hold.
"Captain Miggs in?" asked McPherson of a rubicund, white-aproned personage behind the bar.
"Yes, sir. He's in his room, sir, and expectin' you. There's a gent with him, sir, but he told me to send you up. This way, sir."
They were pushing their way through the crowd to reach the door which led behind the bar, when Tom's attention was arrested by the conversation of a very seedy-looking individual who was leaning with his elbows upon the zinc-covered counter.
"You take my tip," he said to an elderly man beside him. "You stick to the beer. The sperits in here is clean poison, and it's a sin and a shame as they should be let sell such stuff to Christian men. See here—see my sleeve!" He showed the threadbare cuff of his coat, which was corroded away in one part, as by a powerful acid. "I give ye my word I done that by wiping my lips wi' it two or three times after drinkin' at this bar. That was afore I found out that the whisky was solid vitriol. If thread and cotton can't stand it, how's the linin' of a poor cove's stomach, I'd like to know?"
"I wonder," thought Tom to himself, "if one of these poor devils goes home and murders his wife, who ought to be hung for it? Is it he, or that smug-faced villain behind the bar, who, for the sake of the gain of a few greasy coppers, gives him the poison that maddens him?" He was still pondering over this knotty point when they were ushered into the captain's room.
That worthy was leaning back in a rocking-chair with his feet perched upon the mantelpiece and a large glass of rum arid water within reach of his great leathery hand. Opposite him, in a similar chair and with a similar glass, was no less an individual than our old acquaintance, Von Baumser. As a mercantile clerk in the London office of a Hamburg firm the German was thrown into contact with the shippers of the African fleet, and had contracted a special alliance with the bibulous Miggs, who was a social soul in his hours of relaxation.
"Come in, my hearties, come in!" he cried huskily. "Take a seat, Mr. Dimsdale. And you, Sandy, can't you bring yourself to your berth without being asked? You should know your moorings by this time. This is my friend, Mr. Von Baumser from Eckermann's office."
"And dis, I think, is Mr. Dimsdale," said the German, shaking hands with Tom. "I have heard my very goot vriend, Major Clutterbuck, speak of your name, sir."
"Ah, the old major," Tom answered. "Of course, I remember him well."
"He is not so very old either," said Von Baumser, in a somewhat surly voice. "He has been took by a very charming and entirely pleasant woman, and they are about to be married before three months, the one to the other. Let me tell you, sir, I, who have lived with him so long, dat I have met no man for whom I have greater respect than for the major, however much they give him pills at a club or other such snobberies."
"Fill your glasses," Miggs broke in, pushing over the bottle of rum. "There are weeds in that box—never paid duty, either the one or the other. By the Lord, Sandy, a couple of days ago we hardly hoped ever to be yarning here."
"It was rather beyond our prognostication, sir," said the mate, taking a pull at his rum.
"It was that! A nasty sea on, Mr. Dimsdale, sir, and the old ship so full o' water that she could not rise to it. They were making a clean breach over us, and we lost nigh everything we could lose."
"I suppose you'll have her thoroughly repaired now?" Tom remarked.
Both the skipper and the mate laughed heartily at the observation. "That wouldn't do, Sandy, would it?" said Miggs, shaking his head. "We couldn't afford to have our screw cut down like that."
"Cut down! You don't mean to say you are paid in proportion to the rottenness of the ships?"
"There ain't no use makin' a secret of it among friends," said Miggs. "That's just how the land lies with us. A voyage or two back I spoke to Mr. Girdlestone, and I says to him, says I, 'Give the ship an overhauling,' says I. 'Well and good,' says he, 'but it will mean so much off your wage,' says he, 'and the mate's wage as well.' I put it to him straight and strong, but he stuck at that. So Sandy and me, we put our heads together, and we 'greed It was better to take fifteen pound and the risk, than come down to twelve pound and safety."
"It is scandalous!" cried Tom Dimsdale hotly. "I could not have believed it."
"God bless ye! it's done every day, and will be while there is insurance money to be gained," said Miggs, blowing a blue cloud up to the ceiling. "It's an easy thing to turn a few thousands a year while there are old ships to be bought, and offices which will insure them above their value. There was D'Arcy Campbell, of the Silvertown—what a trade that man did! He was smart—tarnation smart! Collisions was his line, and he worked 'em well. There warn't a skipper out of Liverpool as could get run down as nat'ral as he could."
"Get run down?"
"Aye. He'd go lolloping about in the Channel if there was any fog on, steering for the lights o' any steamers or headin' round for all the fog whistles if it was too thick to see. Sooner or later, as sure as fate, he'd get cut down to the water's edge. Lor', it was a fine game! Half a 'yard o' print about his noble conduc' in the newspapers, and maybe a leader about the British tar and unexpected emergencies. It once went the length o' a subscription. Ha! ha!" Miggs laughed until he choked.
"And what became of this British star?" asked the German.
"He's still about. He's in the passenger trade now."
"Potztausand!" Von Baumser ejaculated. "I would not go as a passenger with him for something."
"There's many a way that it's done, sir," the mate added, filling up his glass again, and passing the bottle to the captain. "There's loadin' a cranky vessel wi' grain in bulk without usin' partition boards. If you get a little water in, as you are bound to do with a ship o' that kind, the grain will swell and swell until it bursts the seams open, and down ye go. Then there's ignition o' coal gas aboard o' steamers. That's a safe game, for nobody can deny it. And there are accidents to propellers. If the shaft o' a propeller breaks in heavy weather it's a bad look-out. I've known ships leave the docks with their propellers half sawn through all round. Lor', there's no end o' the tricks o' the trade."
"I cannot believe, however," said Tom stoutly, "that Mr. Girdlestone connives at such things."
"He's on the waitin' lay," the seaman answered. "He doesn't send 'em down, but he just hangs on, and keeps his insurances up, and trusts in Providence. He's had some good hauls that way, though not o' late. There was the Belinda at Cape Palmas. That was five thousand, clear, if it was a penny. And the Sockatoo—that was a bad business! She was never heard of, nor her crew. Went down at sea, and left no trace."
"The crew too!" Tom cried with horror. "But how about yourselves, if what you say is true?"
"We are paid for the risk," said both the seamen, shrugging their shoulders.
"But there are Government inspectors?"
"Ha! ha! I dare say you've seen the way some o' them do their work!" said Miggs.
Tom's mind was filled with consternation at what he had heard. If the African merchant were capable of this, what might he not be capable of? Was his word to be depended on under any circumstances? And what sort of firm must this be, which turned so fair a side to the world and in which he had embarked his fortune? All these thoughts flashed through his mind as he listened to the gossip of the garrulous old sea dogs. A greater shock still, however, was in store for him.
Von Baumser had been listening to the conversation with an amused look upon his good-humoured face. "Ah!" said he, suddenly striking in, "I vill tell you something of your own firm which perhaps you do not know. Have you heard dat Mr. Ezra Girdlestone is about to be married?"
"To be married!"
"Oh yes; I have heard It dis morning at Eckermann's office. I think it is the talk of the City."
"Who's the gal?" Miggs asked, with languid interest.
"I disremember her name," Von Baumser answered. "It is a girl the major has met—the young lady who has lived in the same house, and is vat they call a warder."
"Not—not his ward?" cried Tom, springing to his feet and turning as white as a sheet. "Not Miss Harston? You don't tell me that he is going to marry Miss Harston?"
"Dat is the name. Miss Harston it is, sure enough."
"It is a lie—an infamous lie!" Tom cried hotly.
"So it may be," Von Baumser answered serenely. "I do but say vat I have heard, and heard more than once on good authority."
"If it is true there is villainy in it," cried Tom, with wild eyes, "the blackest villainy that ever was done upon earth. I'll go—I'll see him to-night. By heavens, I shall know the truth!" He rushed furiously downstairs and through the bar. There was a cab near the door. "Drive into London!" he cried; "69, Eccleston Square. I am on fire to be there!" The cabman sprang on the box, and they rattled away as fast as the horse would go.
This sudden exit caused, as may be imagined, considerable surprise in the parlour of the Cock and Cowslip.
"He's a vera tumultuous young man," the mate remarked. "He was off like a clipper in a hurricane."
"I perceive," said Von Baumser, "dat he has left his hat behind him. I do now remember dat I have heard his name spoken with dat of dis very young lady by my good vriend, the major."
"Then he's jealous belike," said Hamilton Miggs, with a knowing shake of the head. "I've felt that way myself before now. I rounded on Billy Barlow, o' the Flying Scud, over that very thing, twelve months ago come Christmas. But I don't think it was the thing for this young chap to cut away and never say 'With your leave,' or 'By your leave,' or as much as 'Good night, gentlemen all.' It ain't what you call straight up an' down."
"It's transcendental," said the mate severely; "that is what I call it."
"Ah, my vriends," the German put in, "when a man is in love you must make excuses for him. I am very sure dat he did mean no offence."
In spite of this assurance Captain Hamilton Miggs continued to be very sore upon the point. It was only by dint of many replenishings of his glass and many arguments that his companions could restore him to his pristine good humour. Meanwhile, the truant was speeding through the night with a fixed determination in his heart that he should have before morning such an understanding, one way or the other, as would never again leave room for a doubt.
A CRISIS AT ECCLESTON SQUARE.
His father's encouraging words had given Ezra Girdlestone fresh heart, and he had renewed his importunities with greater energy than ever. Never surely did any man devote every moment of his time more completely to the winning of a woman's heart. From morning until night the one idea was ever before his mind and every little want of Kate's was forestalled with a care and foresight which astonished her. The richest fruit and flowers found their way unexpectedly into her room; her table was littered with the latest books from Mudie's, and the newest pieces lay upon her music-stand. Nothing which attention and thoughtfulness could do was left undone either by the father or the son.
In spite of these attentions, however, and the frequent solicitations of her guardian, Kate stood firmly to her colours. If the Tom of the present were false, she at least would be true to the memory of the Tom of other days, the lad who had first whispered words of love into her ears. Her ideal should remain with her whatever might befall. No other man could ever take the place of that.
That Tom was from some unexplained and unaccountable reason false to her appeared to be beyond all question. Her trusting and innocent heart could not dream of the subtle network which was being wound round her. Her secluded life had left her very ignorant of the ways of the world, and the possibility of an elaborate deceit being practised upon her had never occurred to her. From the day that she heard the extract of the letter read by her guardian she never doubted but that such letters were received at the office by the man who professed to love her. How could she hesitate to believe it when it was confirmed by his avoidance of Eccleston Square and of herself? The cause of it all was a mystery which no amount of speculation could clear up. Sometimes the poor girl would blame herself, as is the way of women in such cases. "I have not seen enough of the world," she would say to herself. "I have none of the charms of these women whom I read of in the novels. No doubt I seemed dull and insipid in his eyes. And yet—and yet—" There always remained at the end of her cogitations the same vague sense of bewilderment and mystery.
She endeavoured as far as possible to avoid Ezra Girdlestone, and stay in her room for the most part on the days when he was at home. He had, however, on the advice of his father, ceased pressing his suit except in the silent manner aforementioned, so that she gradually took courage, and ended by resuming her old habits. In her heart she pitied the young merchant very sincerely, for he was looking haggard and pale. "Poor fellow," she thought as she watched him, "he certainly loves me. Ah, Tom, Tom! had you only been as constant, how happy we should be!" She was even prompted sometimes to cheer Ezra up by some kind word or look. This he naturally took to be an encouragement to renew his advances. Perhaps he was not far wrong, for if love be wanting pity is occasionally an excellent substitute.
One morning after breakfast the elder Girdlestone called his son aside into the library. "I've had a notice," he said, "as to paying up dividends. Our time is short, Ezra. You must bring matters to a head. If you don't it will be too late."
"You mustn't pick fruit before it is ripe," the other answered moodily.
"You can try if it is ripe, though. If not, you can try again. I think that your chance is a good one. She is alone in the breakfast-room, and the table has been cleared. You cannot have a better opening. Go, my son, and may Heaven prosper you!"
"Very well. Do you wait in here, and I shall let you know how things go."
The young man buttoned up his coat, pulled down his cuffs, and walked back into the breakfast-room with a sullen look of resolution upon his dark face.
Kate was sitting in a wicker chair by the window, arranging flowers in a vase. The morning sunlight streaming in upon her gave a colour to her pale face and glittered in her heavy coils of chestnut hair. She wore a light pink morning dress which added to the ethereal effect of her lithe beautiful figure. As Ezra entered she looked round and started at sight of his face. Instinctively she knew on what errand he had come.
"You will be late at Fenchurch Street," she said, with a constrained smile. "It is nearly eleven now."
"I am not going to the office to-day," he answered gravely. "I am come in here, Kate, to know my fate. You know very well, and must have known for some time back, that I love you. If you'll marry me you'll make me a happy man, and I'll make you a happy woman. I'm not very eloquent and that sort of thing, but what I say I mean. What have you to say in answer?" He leaned his broad hands on the back of a chair as he spoke, and drummed nervously with his fingers.
Kate had drooped her head over the flowers, but she looked up at him now with frank, pitying eyes.
"Put this idea out of your head, Ezra," she said, in a low but firm voice. "Believe me, I shall always be grateful to you for the kindness which you have shown me of late. I will be a sister to you, if you will let me, but I can never be more."
"And why not?" asked Ezra, still leaning over the chair, with an angry light beginning to sparkle in his dark eyes. "Why can you never be my wife?"
"It is so, Ezra. You must not think of it. I am so sorry to grieve you."
"You can't love me, then," cried the young merchant hoarsely. "Other women before now would have given their eyes to have had me. Do you know that?"
"For goodness' sake, then go back to the others," said Kate, half amused and half angry.
That suspicion of a smile upon her face was the one thing needed to set Ezra's temper in a blaze. "You won't have me," he cried savagely. "I haven't got the airs and graces of that fellow, I suppose. You haven't got him out of your head, though he is off with another girl."
"How dare you speak to me so?" Kate cried, springing to her feet in honest anger.
"It's the truth, and you know it," returned Ezra, with a sneer. "Aren't you too proud to be hanging on to a man who doesn't want you— a man that is a smooth-tongued sneak, with the heart of a rabbit?"
"If he were here you would not dare to say so!" Kate retorted hotly.
"Wouldn't I?" he snarled fiercely.
"No, you wouldn't. I don't believe that he has ever been untrue to me. I believe that you and your father have planned to make me believe it and to keep us apart."
Heaven knows what it was that suddenly brought this idea most clearly before Kate's mind. Perhaps it was that Ezra's face, distorted with passion, gave her some dim perception of the wickedness of which such a nature might be capable. The dark face turned so much darker at her words that she felt a great throb of joy at her heart, and knew that this strange new thought which had flashed upon her was the truth.
"You can't deny it," she cried, with shining eyes and clenched hands. "You know that it is true. I shall see him and hear from his own lips what he has to say. He loves me still, and I love him, and have never ceased to love him."
"Oh, you do, do you?" snarled Ezra, taking a step forward, with a devilish gleam in his eyes. "Your love may do him very little good. We shall see which of us gets the best of it in the long run. We'll—" His passion was so furious that he stopped, fairly unable to articulate another word.
With a threatening motion of his hands he turned upon his heel and rushed from the room. As he passed it chanced that Flo, Kate's little Skye terrier, ran across his path. All the brutality of the man's soul rose up in the instant. He raised his heavy boot, and sent the poor little creature howling and writhing under the sofa, whence it piteously emerged upon three legs, trailing the fourth one behind it.
"The brute!" Kate cried, as she fondled the injured animal and poured indignant tears over it. Her gentle soul was so stirred by the cowardly deed that she felt that she could have flown at her late suitor were he still in the room. "Poor little Flo! That kick was meant for me in reality, my little pet. Never mind, dear, there are bright days coming, and he has not forgotten me, Flo. I know it! I know it!" The little dog whined sympathetically, and licked its mistress's hand as though it were looking into its canine future, and could also discern better days ahead.
Ezra Girdlestone, fierce and lowering, tramped into the library, and told his father brusquely of the result of his wooing. What occurred in that interview was never known to any third person. The servants, who had some idea that something was afoot, have recorded that at the beginning of the conversation the bass voice of the son and the high raucous tones of the father were heard in loud recrimination and reproach. Then they suddenly sunk into tones so low that there might have been complete silence in the room for all that any one could tell from the passage outside. This whispered conversation may have lasted the greater part of an hour. At the end of it the young merchant departed for the City. It has been remarked that from that time there came a change over both the father and the son—a change so subtle that It could hardly be described, though it left its mark upon them both. It was not that the grey, wolfish face of the old man looked even greyer and fiercer, or that the hard, arrogant expression of Ezra deepened into something even more sinister. It was that a shadow hung over both their brows—a vague indefinable shadow—as of men who carry a thought in their minds on which it is not good to dwell.
During that long hour Kate had remained in the breakfast-room, still nursing her injured companion, and very busy with her own thoughts. She was as convinced now that Tom had been true to her as if she had had the assurance from his own lips. Still there was much that was unaccountable—much which she was unable to fathom. A vague sense of the wickedness around her depressed and weighed her down. What deep scheme could these men have invented to keep him away from her during these long weeks? Was he, too, under some delusion, or the victim of some conspiracy? Whatever had been done was certainly connived at by her guardian. For the first time a true estimate of the character of the elder Girdlestone broke upon her, and she dimly realized that the pious, soft-spoken merchant was more to be dreaded than his brutal son. A shudder ran through her whole frame as, looking up, she saw him standing before her.
His appearance was far from reassuring. His hands were clasped behind his back, his head bent forward, and he surveyed her with a most malignant expression upon his face.
"Well done!" he said, with a bitter smile. "Well done! This is a good morning's work, Miss Harston. You have repaid your father's friend for the care he has bestowed upon you."
"My only wish is to leave your house," cried Kate, with an angry flash in her deep blue eyes. "You are a cruel, wicked, hypocritical old man. You have deceived me about Mr. Dimsdale. I read it in your son's face, and now I read it in your own. How could you do it—oh, how could you have the heart?"
John Girdlestone was fairly staggered by this blaze of feminine anger in his demure and obedient ward. "God knows," he said, "whatever my faults may have been, neglect of you has not been among them. I am not immaculate. Even the just man falleth. If I have endeavoured to wean you from this foolish love affair of yours, it has been entirely because I saw that it was against your own interests."
"You have told lies in order to turn me away from the only man who ever loved me. You and your odious son have conspired to ruin my happiness and break my heart. What have you told him that keeps him away? I shall see him and learn the truth." Kate's face was unnaturally calm and rigid as she faced her guardian's angry gaze.
"Silence!" the old man cried hoarsely. "You forget your position in this house. You are presuming too much upon my kindness. As to this girl's fancy of yours, you may put all thought of it out of your head. I am still your guardian, and I should be culpably remiss if I ever allowed you to see this man again. This afternoon you shall come with me to Hampshire."
"Yes. I have taken a small country seat there, where we intend to spend some months of the winter. You shall leave it when you have reconciled yourself to forget these romantic ideas of yours—but not till then."
"Then I shall never leave it," said Kate, with a sigh.
"That will depend upon yourself. You shall at least be guarded there from the advances of designing persons. When you come of age you may follow your own fancies. Until then my conscience demands, and the law allows, that I should spare no pains to protect you from your own folly. We start from Waterloo at four." Girdlestone turned for the door, but looked round as he was leaving the room. "May God forgive you," he said solemnly, raising his lean hands towards the ceiling, "for what you have done this day!"
Poor Kate, left to herself, was much concerned by this fresh misfortune. She knew that her guardian had power to carry out his plan, and that there was no appeal from his decision. What could she do? She had not a friend in the wide world to whom she could turn for advice or assistance. It occurred to her to fly to the Dimsdales at Kensington, and throw herself upon their compassion. It was only the thought of Tom which prevented her. In her heart she had fully exonerated him, yet there was much to be explained before they could be to each other as of old. She might write to Mrs. Dimsdale, but then her guardian had not told her what part of Hampshire they were going to. She finally came to the conclusion that it would be better to wait, and to write when she had reached her destination. In the meantime, she went drearily to her room and began packing, aided by the ruddy-cheeked maid, Rebecca.
At half-past three a cab drove up to the door, and the old merchant stepped out of it. The boxes were thrown upon the top, and the young lady curtly ordered to get in. Girdlestone took his seat beside her, and gave a sign to the cabman to drive on. As they rattled out of the square, Kate looked back at the great gloomy mansion in which she had spent the last three years of her life. Had she known what the future was to bring, it is possible that she would have clung even to that sombre and melancholy old house as to an ark of safety.
Another cab passed through Eccleston Square that evening—a cab which bore a pale-faced and wild-eyed young man, who looked ever and anon impatiently out of the window to see if he were nearing his destination. Long before reaching No. 69 he had opened the door, and was standing upon the step. The instant that the cab pulled up he sprang off, and rang loudly at the great brass bell which flanked the heavy door.
"Is Mr. Girdlestone in?" he asked, as Rebecca appeared at the door.
"Miss Harston, is she at home?" he said excitedly.
"No, sir. They have both gone away."
"Yes. Gone into the country, sir. And Mr. Ezra, too, sir."
"And when are they coming back?" he asked, in bewilderment.
"They are not coming back."
"Impossible!" Tom cried in despair. "What is their address, then?"
"They have left no address. I am sorry I can't help you. Good night, sir." Rebecca closed the door, laughing maliciously at the visitor's bewildered looks. She knew the facts of the case well, and having long been jealous of her young mistress, she was not sorry to find things going wrong with her.
Tom Dimsdale stood upon the doorstep looking blankly into the night. He felt dazed and bewildered. What fresh villainy was this? Was it a confirmation of the German's report, or was it a contradiction of it? Cold beads stood upon his forehead as he thought of the possibility of such a thing. "I must find her," he cried, with clenched hands, and turned away heartsick into the turmoil and bustle of the London streets.
A CONVERSATION IN THE ECCLESTON SQUARE LIBRARY.
Rebecca, the fresh-complexioned waiting-maid, was still standing behind the ponderous hall door, listening, with a smile upon her face, to young Dimsdale's retreating footsteps, when another and a brisker tread caught her ear coming from the opposite direction. The smile died away as she heard it, and her features assumed a peculiar expression, in which it would be hard to say whether fear or pleasure predominated. She passed her hands up over her face and smoothed her hair with a quick nervous gesture, glancing down at the same time at her snowy apron and the bright ribbons which set it off. Whatever her intentions may have been, she had no time to improve upon her toilet before a key turned in the door and Ezra Girdlestone stepped into the hall. As he saw her shadowy figure, for the gas was low, he uttered a hoarse cry of surprise and fear, and staggered backwards against the door-post.
"Don't be afeared, Mister Ezra," she said in a whisper; "it's only me."
"The devil take you!" cried Ezra furiously. "What makes you stand about like that? You gave me quite a turn."
"I didn't mean for to do it. I've only just been answering of the door. Why, surely you've come in before now and found me in the hall without making much account of it."
"Ah, lass," answered Ezra, "my nerves have had a shake of late. I've felt queer all day. Look how my hand shakes."
"Well, I'm blessed!" said the girl, with a titter, turning up the gas. "I never thought to see you afeared of anything. Why, you looks as white as a sheet!"
"There, that's enough!" he answered roughly. "Where are the others?"
"Jane is out. Cook and William and the boy are downstairs."
"Come into the library here. They will think that you are up in the bedrooms. I want to have a quiet word or two with you. Turn up that reading lamp. Well, are they gone?"
"Yes, they are gone," she answered, standing by the side of the couch on which he had thrown himself. "Your father came about three with a cab, and took her away."
"She didn't make a fuss?"
"Make a fuss? No; why should she? There's fuss enough made about her, in all conscience. Oh, Ezra, before she got between us you was kind to me at times. I could stand harsh words from you six days a week, if there was a chance of a kind one on the seventh. But now—now what notice do you take of me?" She began to whimper and to wipe her eyes with a little discoloured pocket-handkerchief.
"Drop it, woman, drop it!" cried her companion testily. "I want information, not snivelling. She seemed reconciled to go?"
"Yes, she went quiet enough," the girl said, with a furtive sob.
"Just give me a drop of brandy out of that bottle over there—the one with the cork half out. I've not got over my start yet. Did you hear my father say anything as to where they were going?"
"I heard him tell the cabman to drive to Waterloo Station."
"Well, if he won't tell you, I will. They have gone down to Hampshire, my lass. Bedsworth is the name of the place, and it is a pleasant little corner near the sea. I want you to go down there as well to-morrow."
"Want me to go?"
"Yes; they need some one who is smart and handy to keep house for them. There is some old woman already, I believe, but she is old and useless. I'll warrant you wouldn't take long getting things shipshape. My father intends to stay down there some little time with Miss Harston."
"And how about you?" the girl asked, with a quick flash of suspicion in her dark eyes.
"Don't trouble about me. I shall stay behind and mind the business. Some one must be on the spot. I think cook and Jane and William ought to be able to look after me among them."
"And I won't see you at all?" the girl cried, with a quiver in her voice.
"Oh yes, you shall. I'll be down from Saturday to Monday every week, and perhaps oftener. If business goes well I may come down and stay for some time. Whether I do or not may depend upon you."
Rebecca Taylforth started and uttered an exclamation of surprise. "How can it depend upon me?" she asked eagerly.
"Well," said Ezra, in a hesitating way, "it may depend upon whether you are a good girl, and do what you are told or not. I am sure that you would do anything to serve me, would you not?"
"You know very well that I would, Mister Ezra. When you want anything done you remember it, but if you have no use for me, then there is never a kind look on your face or a kind word from your lips. If I was a dog you could not use me worse. I could stand your harshness. I could stand the blow you gave me, and forgive you for it, from my heart; but, oh! it cut me to the very soul to be standing by and waiting while you were making up to another woman. It was more than I can bear."
"Never mind, my girl," said Ezra in a soothing voice; "that's all over and done with. See what I've brought you." He rummaged in his pocket and produced a little parcel of tissue paper, which he handed to her.
It was only a small silver anchor, with Scotch pebbles inlaid in it. The woman's eyes, however, flashed as she looked at it, and she raised it to her lips and kissed it passionately.
"God bless it and you too!" she said. "I've heard tell as the anchor's the emblem of hope, and so it shall be with me. Oh, Ezra, you may travel far and meet them as can play and can sing and do many a thing as I can't do, but you'll never get one who will love you as dearly and well."
"I know it, my lass, I know it," said Ezra, smoothing down her dark hair, for she had dropped upon her knees beside the couch. "I've never met your equal yet. That's why I want you down at Bedsworth. I must have some one there that I can trust.
"What am I to do down at Bedsworth?" she asked.
"I want you to be Miss Harston's companion. She'll be lonely, and will need some other woman in the house to look after her."
"Curse her!" cried Rebecca, springing to her feet with flashing eyes. "You are still thinking of her, then! She must have this; she must have that! Everything else is as dirt before her. I'll not serve her—so there! You can knock me down if you like."
"Rebecca," said Ezra slowly, "do you hate Kate Harston?"
"From the bottom of my soul," she answered.
"Well, if you hate her, I tell you that I hate her a thousand times more. You thought that I was fond of her. All that is over now, and you may set your mind at ease."
"Why do you want her so well cared for, then?" asked the girl suspiciously.
"I want some one who feels towards her as I do to be by her side. If she were never to come back from Bedsworth it would be nothing to me."
"What makes you look at me so strangely?" she said, shrinking away from his intense gaze.
"Never mind. You go. You will understand many things in time which seem strange to you now. At present if you will do what I ask you will oblige me greatly. Will you go?"
"Yes, I will go."
"There's a good lass. Give us a kiss, my girl. You have the right spirit in you. I'll let you know when the train goes to-morrow, and I will write to my father to expect you. Now, off with you, or you'll have them gossiping downstairs. Good night."
"Good night, Mister Ezra," said the girl, with her hand upon the handle of the library door. "You've made my heart glad this night. I live in hope—ever in hope."
"I wonder what the deuce she hopes about," the young merchant said to himself as she closed the door behind her. "Hopes I'll marry her, I suppose. She must be of a very sanguine disposition. A girl like that might be invaluable down at Bedsworth. If we had no other need for her, she would be an excellent spy." He lay for some little time on the couch with bent brow and pursed lips, musing over the possibilities of the future.
While this dialogue had been going on in the library of Eccleston Square, Tom Dimsdale was still wending his way homewards with a feeling of weight in his mind and a presentiment of misfortune which overshadowed his whole soul. In vain he assured himself that this disappearance of Kate's was but temporary, and that the rumour of an engagement between her and Ezra was too ridiculous to be believed for a moment. Argue it as he would, the same dread, horrible feeling of impending trouble weighed upon him. Impossible as it was to imagine that Kate was false to him, it was strange that on the very day that this rumour reached his ears she should disappear from London. How bitterly he regretted now that he had allowed himself to be persuaded by John Girdlestone into ceasing to communicate with her. He began to realize that he had been duped, and that all these specious promises as to a future consent to their union had been so many baits to amuse him while the valuable present was slipping away. What could he do now to repair the past? His only course was to wait for the morrow and see whether the senior partner would appear at the offices. If he did so, the young man was determined that he should have an understanding with him.
So downcast was Tom that, on arriving at Phillimore Gardens, he would have slipped off to his room at once had he not met his burly father upon the stairs. "Bed!" roared the old man upon hearing his son's proposition. "Nothing of the sort, sir. Come down into the parlour and smoke a pipe with me. Your mother has been waiting for you all the evening."
"I am sorry to be late, mother," the lad said, kissing the old lady. "I have been down at the docks all day and have been busy and worried."
Mrs. Dimsdale was sitting in her chair beside the fire, knitting, when her son came in. At the sound of his voice she glanced anxiously up at his face, with all her motherly instincts on the alert.
"What is it, my boy?" she said. "You don't look yourself. Something has gone wrong with you. Surely you're not keeping anything secret from your old mother?"
"Don't be so foolish as that, my boy," said the doctor earnestly. "If you have anything on your mind, out with it. There's nothing so far wrong but that it can't be set right, I'll be bound."
Thus pressed, their son told them all that had happened, the rumour which he had heard from Von Baumser at the Cock and Cowslip, and the subsequent visit to Eccleston Square. "I can hardly realize it all yet," he said in conclusion. "My head seems to be in a whirl, and I can't reason about it."
The old couple listened very attentively to his narrative, and were silent some little time after he had finished. His mother first broke the silence. "I was always sure," she said, "that we were wrong to stop our correspondence at the request of Mr. Girdlestone."
"It's easy enough to say that now," said Tom ruefully. "At the time it seemed as if we had no alternative."
"There's no use crying over spilt milk," remarked the old physician, who had been very grave during his son's narrative. "We must set to work and get things right again. There is one thing very certain, Tom, and that is that Kate Harston is a girl who never did or could do a dishonourable thing. If she said that she would wait for you, my boy, you may feel perfectly safe; and if you doubt her for one moment you ought to be deuced well ashamed of yourself."
"Well said, governor!" cried Tom, with beaming face. "Now, that is exactly my own feeling, but there is so much to be explained. Why have they left London, and where have they gone to?"
"No doubt that old scoundrel Girdlestone thought that your patience would soon come to an end, so he got the start of you by carrying the girl off into the country."
"And if he has done this, what can I do?"
"Nothing. It is entirely within his right to do it."
"And have her stowed away in some little cottage in the country, with that brute Ezra Girdlestone hanging round her all the time. It is the thought of that that drives me wild."
"You trust in her, my boy," said the old doctor. "We'll try our best in the meantime to find out where she has gone to. If she is unhappy or needs a friend you may be sure that she will write to your mother."
"Yes, there is always that hope," exclaimed Tom, in a more cheerful voice. "To-morrow I may learn something at the office."
"Don't make the mistake of quarrelling with the Girdlestones. After all, they are within their rights in doing what they appear to have done."
"They may be within their legal rights," Tom cried indignantly; "but the old man made a deliberate compact with me, which he has broken."
"Never mind. Don't give them an advantage by losing your temper." The doctor chatted away over the matter for some time, and his words, together with those of his mother, cheered the young fellow's heart. Nevertheless, after they had retired to their rooms, Dr. Dimsdale continued to be very thoughtful and very grave. "I don't like it," he said, more than once. "I don't like the idea of the poor girl being left entirely in the hands of that pair of beauties. God grant that no harm come of it, Matilda!" a prayer which his good wife echoed with all the strength of her kindly nature.
THE JOURNEY TO THE PRIORY.
It was already dusk when John Girdlestone and his ward reached Waterloo Station. He gave orders to the guard that the luggage should be stamped, but took care that she should not hear the name of their destination. Hurrying her rapidly down the platform amid the confused heaps of luggage and currents of eager passengers, he pushed her into a first-class carriage, and sprang after her just as the bell rang and the wheels began to revolve.
They were alone. Kate crouched up into the corner among the cushions, and wrapped her rug round her, for it was bitterly cold. The merchant pulled a note-book from his pocket and proceeded by the light of the lamp above him to add up columns of figures. He sat very upright in his seat, and appeared to be as absorbed in his work as though he were among his papers in Fenchurch Street. He neither glanced at his companion nor made any inquiry as to her comfort.
As she sat opposite to him she could not keep her eyes from his hard angular face, every rugged feature of which was exaggerated by the flickering yellow light above him. Those deep-set eyes and sunken cheeks had been familiar to her for years. How was it that they now, for the first time, struck her as being terrible? Was it that new expression which had appeared upon them, that hard inexorable set about the mouth, which gave a more sinister character to his whole face? As she gazed at him an ineffable loathing and dread rose in her soul, and she could have shrieked out of pure terror. She put her hand up to her throat with a gasp to keep down the sudden inclination to cry out. As she did so her guardian glanced over the top of the note-book with his piercing light grey eyes.
"Don't get hysterical!" he cried. "You have given us trouble enough without that."
"Oh, why are you so harsh?" she cried, throwing out her arms towards him in eloquent entreaty, while the tears coursed down her cheeks. "What have I done that is so dreadful? I could not love your son, and I do love another. I am so grieved to have offended you. You used to be kind and like a father to me."
"And a nice return you have made me! 'Honour your father,' says the good old Book. What honour did you give me save to disobey every command which I have ever given you. I have to blame myself to some extent for having allowed you to go on that most pernicious trip to Scotland, where you were thrown into the company of this young adventurer by his scheming old fool of a father."
It would have been a study for a Rembrandt to depict the craggy, strongly lined face of the old merchant, and the beautiful pleading one which looked across at him, with the light throwing strange shadows over both. As he spoke she brushed the tears from her eyes and an angry flush sprang to her cheeks.
"You may say what you like of me," she said bitterly. "I suppose that is one of your privileges as my guardian. You have no right, however, to speak evil of my friends. 'He who calleth his brother a fool,' I think the good old Book says something of that."
Girdlestone was staggered for a moment by this unexpected counter. Then he took off his broad-brimmed hat and bowed his head with drooping lids.
"Out of the mouths of babes and of sucklings!" he cried. "You are right. I spoke too warmly. It is my zeal for you which betrays me."
"The same zeal which made you tell me so many things which I now know to be untrue about Mr. Dimsdale," said Kate, waxing more fearless as her mind turned to her wrongs.
"You are becoming impertinent," he answered, and resumed his calculations in his note-book.
Kate cowered back into her corner again, while the train thundered and screeched and rattled through the darkness. Looking through the steamy window, nothing was to be seen save the twinkle here and there of the lights of the scattered country cottages. Occasionally a red signal lamp would glare down upon her like the bloodshot eye of some demon who presided over this kingdom of iron and steam. Far behind a lurid trail of smoke marked the way that they had come. To Kate's mind it was all as weird and gloomy and cheerless even as the thoughts within her.
And they were gloomy enough. Where was she going? How long was she going for? What was she to do when there? On all these points she was absolutely ignorant. What was the object of this sudden flight from London? Her guardian could have separated her from the Dimsdales in many less elaborate ways than this. Could it be that he intended some system of pressure and terrorism by which she should be forced to accept Ezra as a suitor. She clenched her little white teeth as she thought of it, and registered a vow that nothing in this world would ever bring her to give in upon that point. There was only one bright spot in her outlook. When she reached her destination she would at once write to Mrs. Dimsdale, tell her where she was, and ask her frankly for an explanation of their sudden silence. How much wiser if she had done so before. Only a foolish pride had withheld her from it.
The train had already stopped at one large junction. Looking out through the window she saw by the lamps that it was Guildford. After another interminable interval of clattering and tossing and plunging through the darkness, they came to a second station of importance, Petersfield. "We are nearing our destination," Girdlestone remarked, shutting up his book.
This proved to be a small wayside station, illuminated by a single lamp, which gave no information as to the name. They were the only passengers who alighted, and the train rolled on for Portsmouth, leaving them with their trunks upon the dark and narrow platform. It was a black night with a bitter wind which carried with it a suspicion of dampness, which might have been rain, or might have been the drift of the neighbouring ocean. Kate was numb with the cold, and even her gaunt companion stamped his feet and shivered as he looked about him.
"I telegraphed for a trap," said he to the guard. "Is there not one waiting?"
"Yes, sir; if you be Mister Girdlestone, there's a trap from the Flyin' Bull. Here, Carker, here's your gentleman."
At this summons a rough-looking ostler emerged into the circle of light thrown by the single lamp and, touching his hat, announced in a surly voice that he was the individual In question. The guard and he then proceeded to drag the trunks to the vehicle. It was a small wagonette, with a high seat for the driver in front.
"Where to, sir?" asked the driver, when the travellers had taken their seats.
"To Hampton Priory. Do you know where that is?"
"Better'n two mile from here, and close to the railway line," said the man. "There hain't been no one livin' there for two year at the least."
"We are expected and all will be ready for us," said Girdlestone. "Go as fast as you can, for we are cold."
The driver cracked his whip, and the horse started at a brisk trot down the dark country road.
Looking round her, Kate saw that they were passing through a large country village, consisting of a broad main street, with a few insignificant offshoots branching away on either side. A church stood on one side, and on the other the village inn. The door was open and the light shining through the red curtains of the bar parlour looked warm and cosy. The clink of glasses and the murmur of cheerful voices sounded from within. Kate, as she looked across, felt doubly cheerless and lonely by the contrast. Girdlestone looked too, but with different emotions.
"Another plague spot," he cried, jerking his head in that direction. "In town or country it is the same. These poison-sellers are scattered over the whole face of the land, and every one of them is a focus of disease and misery."
"Beg your pardon, sir," the surly driver observed, screwing round in his seat. "That 'ere's the Flyin' Bull, sir, where I be in sarvice, and it ain't no poison-seller, but a real right down good house."
"All liquor is poison, and every house devoted to the sale of it is a sinful house," Girdlestone said curtly.
"Don't you say that to my maister," remarked the driver. "He be a big man wi' a ter'bly bad temper and a hand like a leg o' mutton. Hold up, will ye!"
The last remark was addressed to the horse, which had stumbled in going down a sharp incline. They were out of the village by this time, and the road was lined on either side by high hedges, which threw a dense shadow over everything. The feeble lamps of the wagonette bored two little yellow tunnels of light on either side. The man let the reins lie loose upon the horse's back, and the animal picked out the roadway for itself. As they swung round from the narrow lane on to a broader road Kate broke out into a little cry of pleasure.
"There's the sea!" she exclaimed joyfully. The moon had broken from behind the clouds and glittered on the vast silvery expanse.
"Yes, that's the sea," the driver said, "and them lights down yonder is at Lea Claxton, where the fisher-folk live; and over there," pointing with his whip to a long dark shadow on the waters, "is the Oilywoite."
"The Isle of Wight, he means," said Girdlestone. The driver looked at him reproachfully. "Of course," said he, "if you Lunnon folks knows more about it than we who are born an' bred in the place, it's no manner o' use our tryin' to teach you." With this sarcastic comment he withdrew into himself, and refused to utter another word until the end of their journey.
It was not long before this was attained. Passing down a deeply rutted lane, they came to a high stone wall which extended for a couple of hundred yards. It had a crumbling, decaying appearance, as far as could be judged in the uncertain light. This wall was broken by a single iron gate, flanked by two high pillars, each of which was surmounted by some weather-beaten heraldic device. Passing through they turned up a winding avenue, with lines of trees on either side, which shot their branches so thickly above them that they might have been driving through some sombre tunnel. This avenue terminated in an open space, in the midst of which towered a great irregular whitewashed building, which was the old Priory. All below it was swathed in darkness, but the upper windows caught the glint of the moon and emitted a pallid and sickly glimmer. The whole effect was so weird and gloomy that Kate felt her heart sink within her. The wagonette pulled up in front of the door, and Girdlestone assisted her to alight.
There had been no lights or any symptoms of welcome, but as they pulled down the trunks the door opened and a little old woman appeared with a candle in her hand, which she carefully shaded from the wind while she peered out into the darkness.
"Is that Mr. Girdlestone?" she cried.
"Of course it is," the merchant said impatiently. "Did I not telegraph and tell you that I was coming?"
"Yes, yes," she answered, hobbling forward with the light. "And this is the young lady? Come in, my dear, come in. We have not got things very smart yet, but they will soon come right."
She led the way through a lofty hall into a large sitting-room, which, no doubt, had been the monkish refectory in bygone days. It looked very bleak and cold now, although a small fire sputtered and sparkled in the corner of the great iron grate. There was a pan upon the fire, and the deal table in the centre of the room was laid out roughly as for a meal. The candle which the old woman had carried in was the only light, though the flickering fire cast strange fantastic shadows in the further corners and among the great oaken rafters which formed the ceiling.
"Come up to the fire, my dear," said the old woman. "Take off your cloak and warm yourself." She held her own shrivelled arms towards the blaze, as though her short exposure to the night air had chilled her. Glancing at her, Kate saw that her face was sharp-featured and cunning, with a loose lower lip which exposed a line of yellow teeth, and a chin which bristled with a tuft of long grey hairs.
From without there came the crunching of gravel as the wagonette turned and rattled down the avenue. Kate listened to the sound of the wheels until they died away in the distance. They seemed somehow to be the last link which bound her to the human race. Her heart failed her completely, and she burst into tears.
"What's the matter then?" the old woman asked, looking up at her. "What are ye crying about?"
"Oh, I am so miserable and so lonely," she cried. "What have I done that I should be so unhappy? Why should I be taken to this horrible, horrible place?"
"What's the matter with the place?" asked her withered companion. "I don't see nought amiss with it. Here's Mr. Girdlestone a-comin'. He don't grumble at the place, I'll warr'nt."
The merchant was not in the best of tempers, for he had had an altercation with the driver about the fare, and was cold into the bargain. "At it again?" he said roughly, as he entered. "It is I who ought to weep, I think, who have been put to all this trouble and inconvenience by your disobedience and weakness of mind."
Kate did not answer, but sat upon a coarse deal chair beside the fire, and buried her face in her hands. All manner of vague fears and fancies filled her mind. What was Tom doing now? How quickly he would fly to her rescue did he but know how strangely she was situated! She determined that her very first action next morning should be to write to Mrs. Dimsdale and to tell her, not only where she was, but all that had occurred. The reflection that she could do this cheered her heart, and she managed to eat a little of the supper which the old woman had now placed upon the table. It was a rough stew of some sort, but the long journey had given an edge to their appetites, and the merchant, though usually epicurean in his tastes, ate a hearty meal.
When supper was over the crone, who was addressed by Girdlestone as Jorrocks, led the way upstairs and showed Kate to her room. If the furniture of the dining-room had been Spartan in its simplicity, this was even more so, for there was nothing in it save a small iron bedstead, much rusted from want of use, and a high wooden box on which stood the simplest toilet requisites. In spite of the poverty of the apartment Kate had never been more glad to enter her luxurious chamber at home. The little carpetless room was a haven of rest where she would be left, for one night at least, to her own thoughts. As she lay in bed, however, she could hear far away the subdued murmur of Girdlestone's voice and the shrill tones of the old woman. They were in deep and animated converse. Though they were too far distant for her to distinguish a word, something told her that their talk was about herself, and the same instinct assured her that it boded her little good.
THE MAN WITH THE CAMP-STOOL.
When she awoke in the morning it was some little time before she could realize where she was or recall the events which had made such a sudden change in her life. The bare, cold room, with the whitewashed walls, and the narrow bed upon which she lay, brought back to her the recollection of a hospital ward which she had seen in Edinburgh, and her first thought was that she had had some accident and had been conveyed to some such establishment. The delusion was only momentary, however, for her true situation came back to her at once with all its vague horror. Of the two, she would have preferred that her first impression had been correct.
The small window of her apartment was covered by a dirty muslin blind. She rose and, drawing it aside, looked eagerly out. From what she had seen the night before she had hoped that this prison to which she had been conveyed might make amends for its loneliness by some degree of natural beauty. The scene which now met her eyes soon dispelled any expectations of the sort. The avenue with its trees lay on the other side of the house. From her window nothing was visible but a dreary expanse of bog-land and mudbanks stretching down to the sea. At high tide this enormous waste of dreariness and filth was covered by the water, but at present it lay before her in all its naked hideousness, the very type of dullness and desolation. Here and there a few scattered reeds, or an unhealthy greenish scum upon the mud, gave a touch of colour to the scene; but for the most part the great plain was all of the same sombre mud tint, with its monotony broken only by the white flecks where the swarms of gulls and kittiwakes had settled in the hope of picking up whatever had been left by the receding tide. Away across the broad surface a line of sparkling foam marked the fringe of the ocean, which stretched away to the horizon.
A mile or two to the eastward of her Kate saw some sign of houses, and a blue smoke which flickered up into the air. This she guessed to be the fishing village of Lea Claxton, which the driver had mentioned the night before. She felt, as she gazed at the little hamlet and the masts of the boats in front of it, that she was not alone in the world, and that even in this strange and desolate place there were honest hearts to whom as a last resource she could appeal.
She was still standing at the window when there came a knocking at the door, and she heard the voice of the old woman asking if she were awake. "Breakfast is ready," she said, "and the master is a-wondering why you bean't down."
On this summons Kate hastened her toilet and made her way down the old winding stair to the room in which they had supped the night before. Surely Girdlestone must have had a heart of flint not to be melted by the sight of that fair, fresh face. His features set as hard as adamant as she entered the room, and he looked at her with eyes which were puckered and angry.
"You are late," he said coldly. "You must remember that you are not in Eccleston Square. 'An idle soul shall suffer hunger,' says the prophet. You are here to be disciplined, and disciplined you shall be."
"I am sorry," she answered. "I think that I must have been tired by our journey."
The vast room looked even more comfortless and bleak than on the preceding evening. On the table was a plate of ham and eggs. John Girdlestone served out a portion, and pushed it in her direction. She sat down on one of the rough wooden chairs and ate listlessly, wondering how all this was going to end.
After breakfast Girdlestone ordered the old woman out of the room, and, standing in front of the fire with his long legs apart and his hands behind his back, he told her in harsh concise language what his intentions were.
"I had long determined," he said, "that if you ran counter to my wishes, and persisted in your infatuated affection for that scapegrace, I should remove you to some secluded spot, where you might reconsider your conduct and form better resolutions for the future. This country house answered the purpose admirably, and as an old servant of mine, Mrs. Jorrocks, chanced to reside in the neighbourhood, I have warned her that at any time I might come down and should expect to find things ready. Your rash and heartless conduct has, however, precipitated matters, and we have arrived before her preparations were complete. Our future arrangements will therefore be less primitive than they are at present. Here you shall remain, young lady, until you show signs of repentance, and of a willingness to undo the harm which you have done."
"If you mean until I consent to marry your son, then I shall live and die here," the girl said bravely.
"That rests with yourself. As I said before, you are under discipline here, and you may not find existence such a bed of roses as it was in Eccleston Square."
"Can I have my maid?" Kate asked. "I can hardly stay here with no one but the old woman in the house."
"Rebecca is coming down. I had a telegram from Ezra to that effect, and he will himself join us for a day or two in each week."
"Ezra here!" Kate cried in horror. Her chief consolation through all her troubles had been that there seemed to be some chance of getting rid of her terrible suitor.
"And why not?" the old man asked angrily. "Are you so bitter against the lad as to grudge him the society of his own father?"
Kate was saved from further reproaches by the entrance of the old woman to clear the table. The last item of intelligence, however, had given her a terrible shock, and at the same time had filled her with astonishment. What could the fast-living, comfort-seeking man about town want in this dreary abode? She knew Ezra well, and was sure that he was not a man to alter his ways of life or suffer discomfort of any kind without some very definite object. It seemed to her that this was a new mesh in the net which was being drawn round her.
When her guardian had left the room Kate asked Mrs. Jorrocks for a sheet of paper. The crone shook her head and wagged her pendulous lip in derision.
"Mister Girdlestone thought as you would be after that," she said. "There ain't no paper here, nor pens neither, nor ink neither."
"What, none! Dear Mrs. Jorrocks, do have pity on me, and get me a sheet, however old and soiled. See, here is some silver! You are very welcome to it if you will give me the materials for writing one letter."
Mrs. Jorrocks looked longingly with her bleared eyes at the few shillings which the girl held out to her, but she shook her head. "I dursn't do it," she said. "It's as much as my place is worth."
"Then I shall walk down to Bedsworth myself," said Kate angrily. "I have no doubt that the people in the post office will let me sit there and write it."
The old hag laughed hoarsely to herself until the scraggy sinews of her withered neck stood out like whipcord. She was still chuckling and coughing when the merchant came back into the room.
"What then?" he asked sternly, looking from one to the other. He was himself constitutionally averse to merriment, and he was irritated by it in others. "Why are you laughing, Mrs. Jorrocks?"
"I was a-laughing at her," the woman wheezed, pointing with tremulous fingers. "She was askin' me for paper, and sayin' as she would go and write a letter at the Bedsworth Post Office."
"You must understand once for all," Girdlestone roared, turning savagely upon the girl, "that you are cut off entirely from the outer world. I shall give you no loophole which you may utilize to continue your intimacy with undesirable people. I have given orders that you should not be provided with either paper or ink."
Poor Kate's last hope seemed to be fading away. Her heart sank within her, but she kept a brave face, for she did not wish him to see how his words had stricken her. She had a desperate plan in her head, which would be more likely to be successful could she but put him off his guard.
She spent the morning in her own little room. She had been provided with a ponderous brown Bible, out of which the fly leaves had been carefully cut, and this she read, though her thoughts often wandered away from the sacred pages. About one o'clock she heard the clatter of hoofs and the sound of wheels on the drive. Going down, she found that it was a cart which had come from Bedsworth with furniture. There were carpets, a chest of drawers, tables, and several other articles, which the driver proceeded to carry upstairs, helped by John Girdlestone. The old woman was in the upper room. It seemed to Kate that she might never again have such an opportunity of carrying out the resolve which she had formed. She put on her bonnet, and began to stroll listlessly about in front of the door, picking a few straggling leaves from the neglected lawn. Gradually she sauntered away in this manner to the head of the avenue, and then, taking one swift timid glance around, she slipped in among the trees, and made the best of her way, half walking, half running, down the dark winding drive.
Oh, the joy of the moment when the great white house which had already become so hateful to her was obscured among the trees behind her! She had some idea of the road which she had traversed the night before. Behind her were all her troubles. In front the avenue gate, Bedsworth, and freedom. She would send both a telegram and a letter to Dr. Dimsdale, and explain to him her exact situation. If the kind-hearted and energetic physician once knew of it, he would take care that no harm befell her. She could return then, and face with a light heart the worst which her guardian could do to her. Here was the avenue entrance now, the high lichen-eaten stone pillars, with the battered device upon the top. The iron gate between was open. With a glad cry she quickened her pace, and in another moment would have been in the high-road, when—
"Now then, where are you a-comin' to?" cried a gruff voice from among the bushes which flanked the gate.
The girl stopped, all in a tremble. In the shadow of the trees there was a camp-stool, and on the camp-stool sat a savage-looking man, dressed in a dark corduroy suit, with a blackened clay pipe stuck in the corner of his mouth. His weather-beaten mahogany face was plentifully covered with small-pox marks, and one of his eyes was sightless and white from the effects of the same disease. He rose now, and interposed himself between her and the gate.
"Sink me, if it ain't her," he said slowly, surveying her from head to foot. "I were given to understand that she was a spanker, an' a spanker she be." With this oracular remark he took a step back and surveyed Kate again with his one eye.
"My good man," she said, in a trembling voice, for his appearance was far from reassuring, "I wish to go past and to get to Bedsworth. Here is a shilling, and I beg that you will not detain me."
Her companion stretched out a very dirty hand, took the coin, spun it up in the air, caught it, bit it, and finally plunged it into the depths of his trouser pockets. "No road this way, missy," he said; "I've given my word to the guv'nor, and I can't go back from it."
"You have no right to detain me," Kate cried angrily. "I have good friends in London who will make you suffer for this."
"She's a-goin' to flare up," said the one-eyed man; "knock me helpless, if she ain't!"
"I shall come through!" the girl cried in desperation. She was only a dozen yards from the lane which led to freedom, so she made a quick little feminine rush in the hope of avoiding this dreadful sentinel who barred her passage. He caught her round the waist, however, and hurled her back with such violence that she staggered across the path, and would have fallen had she not struck violently against a tree. As it was, she was badly bruised and the breath shaken out of her body.
"She has flared up," said the one-eyed man, removing his pipe from his lips. "Blow me asunder if she bean't a rustler!" He brought his camp-stool from the side of the pillar and, planting it right in the centre of the gateway, sat down upon it again. "You see, missy," he remarked, "it's no manner o' use. If you did get out it would only be to be put in a reg'lar 'sylum."
"An asylum!" gasped Kate, sobbing with pain and anger. "Do you think I am mad, then?"
"I don't think nowt about it," the man remarked calmly. "I knows it."
This was a new light to Kate. She was so bewildered that she could hardly realize the significance of the remark.
"Who are you?" she said. "Why is it that you treat me in this cruel way?"
"Ah, now we come to business," he said, in a satisfied way, crossing his legs, and blowing great wreaths from his pipe. "This is more like reason. Who am I? says you. Well, my name's Stevens—Bill Stevens, hesquire, o' Claxton, in the county o' Hants. I've been an A.B. in the navy, and I've got my pension to show it. I've been in the loon'cy business, too—was second warder in the suicide ward at Portsmouth for more'n two year. I've been out of a billet for some time, and Muster Girdlestone he came to me and he says, 'You're William Stevens, hesquire?' says he. 'I am,' says I. 'You've had experience o' loonies?' says he. 'I have,' says I. 'Then you're the man I want,' says he. 'You shall have a pound a week an' nothing to do.' 'The very crib for me,' says I. 'You've got to sit at the gate,' says he, 'and prevent a patient from gettin' out!' That was all as he said. Then you comes down from Lunnon, an' I comes up from Claxton, and here we be, all snug an' comfort'ble. So, you see, missy, it ain't no use at all, and you'll never get out this way."
"But if you let me past he will think that I ran by so quickly that you could not stop me. He could not be very angry then, and I shall give you more money than you would lose."
"No, no," said the man, shaking his head energetically, "I'm true to my colours, sink me, but I am! I never was bribed yet, and never will be unless you can offer cash down instead o' promises. You can't lay them by to live on in your old age."
"Alas!" Kate cried, "I have no money except these few shillings."
"Give them over here, then." He put them in his trouser pocket beside the other one. "That's all right, missy," he said, in a beery whisper. "I won't say anything now to Muster Girdlestone about this job. He'd be wild if he knew, but mum's the word with William Stevens, hesquire. Lor', if this ain't my wife a-comin' out wi' my dinner! Away with ye, away! If she seed me a-speakin' to you she'd tear your hair for you as like as not. She's jealous, that's what's the matter wi' her. If she sees a woman makin' much o' me, it's just pisen to her, and she goes for 'em straight. She's the one to make the fur fly! Away with you, I say!"
Poor Kate, appalled by the possibility of making a new enemy, turned and retraced her steps slowly and sadly up the avenue. As she glanced back she saw a gaunt, hard-featured woman trudging up the lane with a tin can in her hand. Lonely and forlorn, but not yet quite destitute of hope, she turned to the right among the trees, and pushed her way through bushes and brambles to the boundary of the Priory grounds. It was a lofty wall, at least nine feet in height, with a coping which bristled with jagged pieces of glass. Kate walked along the base Of it, her fair skin all torn and bleeding with scratches from the briars, until she satisfied herself that there was no break in it. There was one small wooden door on the side which was skirted by the railway line, but it was locked and impassable. The only opening through which a human being could pass was that which was guarded in the manner she had seen. The sickening conviction took possession of her mind that without wings it was an utter impossibility either to get away or to give the least information to any one in the world as to where she was or what might befall her.
When she came back to the house, tired and dishevelled after her journey of exploration, Girdlestone was standing by the door to receive her with a sardonic smile upon his thin lips. "How do you like the grounds, then?" he asked, with, the nearest approach to hilarity which she had ever heard from him. "And the ornamental fencing? and the lodge-keeper? How did you like them all?"
Kate tried for a moment to make some brave retort, but it was a useless attempt. Her lips trembled, her eyes filled, and, with a cry of grief and despair which might have moved a wild beast, she fled to her room, and, throwing herself upon her bed, burst into such scalding bitter tears as few women are ever called upon to shed.
A TALK ON THE LAWN.
That same evening Rebecca came down from London. Her presence was a comfort to Kate, for though she had never liked or trusted the girl, yet the mere fact of having some one of her own age near her, gave her a sense of security and of companionship. Her room, too, had been altered for the better, and the maid was given the one next door, so that by knocking on the wall she could always communicate with her. This was an unspeakable consolation, for at night the old house was so full of the sudden crackings of warped timber and the scampering of rats that entire loneliness was unendurable.
Apart from these uncanny sounds there were other circumstances which gave the Priory a sinister reputation. The very aspect of the building was enough to suggest weird impressions. Its high white walls were blotched with patches of mildew, and in some parts there were long greenish stains from roof to ground, like tear streaks on the crumbling plaster. Indoors there was a dank graveyard smell in the low corridors and narrow stair-cases. Floors and ceilings were equally worm-eaten and rotten. Broad flakes of plaster from the walls lay littered about in the passages. The wind, too, penetrated the building through many cracks and crannies, so that there was a constant sighing and soughing in the big dreary rooms, which had a most eerie and melancholy effect.
Kate soon learned, however, that, besides these vague terrors, all predisposing the mind to alarm and exciting the imagination, there was a general belief that another more definite cause for fear existed in the old monastery. With cruel minuteness of detail her guardian had told her the legend which haunted those gloomy corridors.
It appears that in olden times the Priory had been inhabited by Dominicans, and that in the course of years these monks had fallen away from their original state of sanctity. They preserved a name for piety among the country folk by their austere demeanour, but in secret, within the walls of their own monastery, they practised every sort of dissipation and crime.
While the community was in this state of demoralization, each, from the abbot downwards, vying with the other in the number and enormity of their sins, there came a pious-minded youth from a neighbouring village, who begged that he might be permitted to join the order. He had been attracted, he said, by the fame of their sanctity. He was received amongst them, and at first was not admitted to their revels, but gradually, as his conscience was supposed to become more hardened, he was duly initiated into all their mysteries. Horrified by what he saw, the good youth concealed his indignation until he had mastered all the abominations of the establishment, and then, rising up on the altar steps, he denounced them in fiery, scathing words. He would leave them that night, he said, and he would tell his experiences through the length and breadth of the country. Incensed and alarmed, the friars held a hasty meeting, and then, seizing the young novice, they dragged him down the cellar steps and locked him up there. This same cellar had long been celebrated for the size and ferocity of the rats which inhabited it which were so fierce and strong that even during the day they had been known to attack those who entered. It is said that long into the weary hours of the night, the fearful shrieks and terrible struggles of the captive, as he fought with his innumerable assailants, resounded through the long corridors.
"They do say that he walks about the house at times," Girdlestone said, in conclusion. "No one has ever been found who would live here very long since then. But, of course, such a strong-minded young woman as you, who cannot even obey your own guardian, would never be frightened by such a childish idea as that."
"I do not believe in ghosts, and I don't think I shall be frightened," Kate answered; but, for all that, the horrible story stuck in her mind, and added another to the many terrors which surrounded her.
Mr. Girdlestone's room was immediately above hers. On the second day of her imprisonment she went up on to this landing, for, having nothing to read save the Bible, and no materials for writing, she had little to do but to wander over the old house, and through the grounds. The door of Girdlestone's room was ajar, and she could not help observing as she passed that the apartment was most elegantly and comfortably furnished. So was the next room, the door of which was also open. The solid furniture and rich carpet contrasted strangely with her own bare, whitewashed chamber. All this pointed to the fact that her removal to the Priory had not been a sudden impulse on the part of the old merchant, but that he had planned and arranged every detail beforehand. Her refusal of Ezra was only the excuse for setting the machinery in motion. What was the object, then, and what was to be the end of this subtle scheming? That was the question which occurred to her every hour of the day, and every hour the answer seemed more grim and menacing.
There was one link in the chain which was ever hidden from her. It had never occurred to the girl that her fortune could be of moment to the firm. She had been so accustomed to hear Ezra and his father talk glibly of millions, that she depreciated her own little capital and failed to realize how important it might be in a commercial crisis. Indeed, the possibility of such a crisis never entered her head, for one of her earliest impressions was hearing her father talk of the great resources of the firm and of its stability. That this firm was now in the direst straits, and that her money was absolutely essential to its existence, were things which never for one instant entered her thoughts.
Yet that necessity was becoming more pressing every day. Ezra, in London, was doing all that indomitable energy and extraordinary business capacity could do to prolong the struggle. As debts became due, he would still stave off each creditor with such skill and plausibility as allayed every suspicion. Day by day, however, the work became more severe, and he felt that he was propping up an edifice which was so rotten that it must, sooner or later, come crumbling about his ears. When he came down to the Priory upon the Saturday, the young man's haggard and anxious face showed the severe ordeal which he had undergone.
Kate had already retired to her room when he arrived. She heard the sound of the trap, however, and guessed who it was, even before his deep bass voice sounded in the room beneath. Looking out of her window a little later she saw him walking to and fro in the moonlight, talking earnestly to his father. It was a bitter night, and she wondered what they could have to talk about which might not be said beside the warm fire in the dining-room. They flickered up and down among the shadows for more than an hour, and then the girl heard the door slam, and shortly afterwards the heavy tread of the two men passed her chamber, and ascended to the rooms above.
It was a momentous conversation which she had witnessed. In it Ezra had shown his father how impossible it was to keep up appearances, and how infallible was their ruin unless help came speedily.
"I don't think any of them smell a rat," he said. "Mortimer and Johnson pressed for their bill in rather an ugly manner, but I talked them over completely. I took out my cheque-book. 'Look here, gentlemen,' said I, 'if you wish I shall write a cheque for the amount. If I do, it will be the last piece of business which we shall do together. A great house like ours can't afford to be disturbed in the routine of their business.' They curled up at once, and said no more about it. It was an anxious moment though, for if they had taken my offer, the whole murder would have been out."
The old man started at the word his son had used, and rubbed his hands together as though a sudden chill had struck through him.
"Don't you think, Ezra," he said, clutching his son's arm, "that is a very foolish saying about 'murder will out'? I remember Pilkington, the detective, who was a member of our church when I used to worship at Durham Street, speaking on this subject. He said that it was his opinion that people are being continually made away with, and that not more than one in ten are ever accounted for. Nine chances to one, Ezra, and then those which are found out are very vulgar affairs. If a man of intellect gave his mind to it, there would be little chance of detection. How very cold the night is!"
"Yes," returned his son. "It is best to talk of such things in the open air, though. How has all gone since you have been down here?"
"Very well. She was restive the first day, and wanted to get to Bedsworth. I think that she has given it up now as a bad job. Stevens, the gatekeeper, is a very worthy fellow."
"What steps have you taken?" asked Ezra, striking a fusee and lighting a cigar.
"I have taken care that they should know that she is an invalid, both at Bedsworth and at Claxton. They have all heard of the poor sick young lady at the Priory. I have let them know also that her mind is a little strange, which accounts, of course, for her being kept in solitude. When it happens—"
"For God's sake, be quiet!" the young man cried, with a shudder. "It's an awful job; it won't bear thinking of."
"Yes, it is a sad business; but what else is there?"
"And how would you do it?" Ezra asked, in a hoarse whisper. "No violence, I hope."
"It may come to that. I have other plans in my head, however, which may be tried first. I think that I see one way out of it which would simplify matters."
"If there is no alternative I have a man who is ripe for any job of the sort."
"Ah, who is that?"
"A fellow who can hit a good downright blow, as I can testify to my cost. His name is Burt. He is the man who cut my head open in Africa. I met him in London the other day, and spotted him at once. He is a half-starved, poor devil, and as desperate as a man could be. He is just in the key for any business of the sort. I've got the whip-hand of him now, and he knows it, so that I could put him up to anything. I believe that such a job would be a positive pleasure to him, for the fellow is more like a wild beast than a man."
"Sad, sad!" Girdlestone exclaimed. "If a man once falls away, what is there to separate him from the beasts? How can I find this man?"
"Wire to me. Put 'Send a doctor;' that will do as well as anything else, and will sound well at the post-office. I'll see that he comes down by the next train. You'd best meet him at the station, for the chances are that he will be drunk."
"Bring him down," said Girdlestone. "You must be here yourself."
"Surely you can do without me?"
"No, no. We must stand or fall together."
"I've a good mind to throw the thing over," said Ezra, stopping in his walk. "It sickens me."
"What! Go back now!" the old man cried vehemently. "No, no, that would be too craven. We have everything in our favour, and all that we want is a stout heart. Oh, my boy, my boy, on the one side of you are ruin, dishonour, a sordid existence, and the scorn of your old companions; on the other are success and riches and fame and all that can make life pleasant. You know as well as I do that the girl's money would turn the scale, and that all would then be well. Your whole future depends upon her death. We have given her every chance. She laughed at your love. It is time now to show her your hate."
"That is true enough," Ezra said, walking on. "There is no reason why I should pity her. I've put my hand to the plough, and I shall go on. I seem to be getting into your infernal knack of scripture quoting."
"There is a brave, good lad," cried his father. "It would not do to draw back now."
"You will find Rebecca useful," the young man said, "You may trust her entirely."
"You did well to send her. Have they asked for me much?"
"Yes. I have told them all the same story—nervous exhaustion, and doctor's orders that you were not to be disturbed by any business letters. The only man who seemed to smell a rat was that young Dimsdale."
"Ah!" cried the old man, with a chuckle; "of course he would be surprised at our disappearance."
"He looks like a madman; asked me where you had gone, and when I answered him as I had the others, stormed out that he had a right to know, and that he would know. His blood was up, and there was nearly being a pretty scene before the clerks. He follows me home every evening to Eccleston Square, and waits outside half the night through to see that I do not leave the house."
"Does he, though?"
"Yes; he came after me to the station to-day. He had a cravat round his mouth and an ulster, but I could see that it was he. I took a ticket for Colchester. He took one also, and made for the Colchester train. I gave him the slip, got the right ticket, and came on. I've no doubt he is at Colchester at this moment."
"Remember, my boy," the merchant said, as they turned from the door, "this is the last of our trials. If we succeed in this, all is well for the future."
"We have tried diamonds, and we have tried marriage. The third time is the charm," said Ezra, as he threw away his cigar and followed his father.
THE INCIDENT OF THE CORRIDOR.
Ezra Girdlestone hardly went through the formality of greeting Kate next morning when she came down to breakfast. He was evidently ill at ease, and turned away his eyes when she looked at him, though he glanced at her furtively from time to time. His father chatted with him upon City matters, but the young man's answers were brusque and monosyllabic. His sleep had been troubled and broken, for the conversation of the night before had obtruded unpleasantly on his dreams.
Kate slipped away from them as soon as she could and, putting on her bonnet, went for a long walk through the grounds, partly for the sake of exercise, and partly in the hope of finding some egress. The one-eyed gate-keeper was at his post, and set up a hideous shout of laughter when he saw her; so she branched off among the trees to avoid him, and walked once more very carefully round the boundary wall. It was no easy matter to follow it continuously, for the briars and brambles grew in a confused tangle up to its very base. By perseverance, however, she succeeded in tracing every foot of it, and so satisfying herself finally that there was no diminution anywhere in its height, no break in its continuity, save the one small wooden door which was securely fastened.
There was one spot, however, where a gleam of hope presented itself. At an angle of the wall there stood a deserted wooden shed, which had been used for the protection of gardeners' tools in the days when the grounds had been kept in better order. It was not buttressed up against the wall, but stood some eight or ten feet from it. Beside the shed was an empty barrel which had once been a water-butt. The girl managed to climb to the top of the barrel, and from this she was easily able to gain the sloping roof of the shed. Up this she clambered until she stood upon the summit, a considerable height above the ground. From it she was able to look down over the wall on to the country-road and the railway line which lay on the other side of it. True that an impassable chasm lay between her and the wall, but it would be surely possible for her to hail passers-by from here, and to persuade some of them to carry a letter to Bedsworth or to bring paper from there. Fresh hope gushed into her heart at the thought.
It was not a very secure footing, for the planks of, which the shed was composed were worm-eaten and rotten. They cracked and crumbled beneath her feet, but what would she not dare to see a friendly human face? As she stood there a couple of country louts, young lads about sixteen, came strolling down the road, the one whistling and the other munching at a raw turnip. They lounged along until they came opposite to Kate's point of observation, when one of them looking up saw her pale face surmounting the wall.
"Hey, Bill," he cried to his companion, "blowed if the mad wench bean't up on the shed over yander!"
"So she be!" said the other eagerly. "Give me your turnip. Jimmy, an' I'll shy it at her."
"Noa, I'll shy it mysel'," said the gallant Jimmy; and at the word whizz came the half of a turnip within art inch of Kate's ear.
"You've missed her!" shrieked the other savage. "'Ere, quick, where be a stone?" But before he could find one the poor girl, sick at heart, clambered down from her exposed situation.
"There is no hope for me anywhere," she sobbed to herself. "Every man's hand is against me. I have only one true friend, and he is far away." She went back to her room utterly disheartened and dispirited.
Her guardian knocked at her door before dinner time. "I trust," he said, "that you have read over the service. It is as well to do so when you cannot go to church."
"And why should you prevent me from going to church?" she asked.
"Ah, my lady," he said with a sneer, "you are reaping what you have sown. You are tasting now, the bitter fruits of your disobedience. Repent before it is too late!"
"I have done no wrong," she said, turning on him with flashing eyes. "It is for you to repent, you violent and hypocritical man. It is for you to answer for your godly words and your ungodly and wicked actions. There is a power which will judge between us some day, and will exact atonement for your broken oath to your dead friend and for your cruel treatment of one who was left to your care." She spoke with burning cheeks and with such fearless energy that the hard City man fairly cowered away from her.
"We will leave that to the future," he said. "I came up to do you a kindness, and you abuse me. I hear that there are insects about the house, beetles and the like. A few drops from this bottle scattered about the room would keep them away. Take care, for it is a violent though painless poison if taken by a human being." He handed her a phial, with a brownish turbid liquid in it, and a large red poison label, which she took without comment and placed upon the mantelpiece. Girdlestone gave a quick, keen glance at her as he retired. In truth he was astonished at the alteration which the last few days had made in her appearance. Her cheeks were colourless and sunken, save for the single hectic spot, which announced the fever within. Her eyes were unnaturally bright. A strange and new expression had settled upon her whole countenance. It seemed to Girdlestone that there was every chance that his story might become a reality, and her reason be permanently deranged. She had, however, more vitality than her guardian gave her credit for. Indeed, at the very time when he set her down in his mind as a broken woman, she had formed a fresh plan for escape, which it would require both energy and determination to put into execution.
During the last few days she had endeavoured to make friends with the maid Rebecca, but the invincible aversion which the latter had entertained for her, ever since Ezra had visited her with his unwelcome attentions, was not to be overcome by any advances which she could make. She performed her offices with a heart full of malice, and an eye which triumphed in her mistress's misfortunes.
Kate had bethought herself that Stevens, the gatekeeper, only mounted guard during the day. She had observed, too, at the time of her conversation with him, that the iron gate was in such a state of disrepair that, even if it were locked, it would not be a difficult matter to scramble through or over it. If she could only gain the open air during the night there would be nothing to prevent her from making her way to Bedsworth, whence she could travel on to Portsmouth, which was only seven miles away. Surely there she would find some charitable people who would communicate with her friends and give her a temporary shelter.
The front door of the house was locked every night, but there was a nail behind it, on which she hoped to find the key. There was another door at the back. Then there were the windows of the ground-floor, which might be tried in case the doors were too securely fastened. If only she could avoid waking any one there was no reason why she should not succeed. If the worst came to the worst and she was detected, they could not treat her more cruelly than they had already done.
Ezra had gone back to London, so that she had only three enemies to contend against, Girdlestone, Rebecca, and old Mrs. Jorrocks. Of these, Girdlestone slept upon the floor above, and Mrs. Jorrocks, who might have been the most dangerous of all, as her room was on the ground-floor, was fortunately so deaf that there was little risk of disturbing her. The problem resolved itself, therefore, into being able to pass Rebecca's room without arousing her, and, as she knew the maid to be a sound sleeper, there seemed to be every chance of success.
She sat at her window all that afternoon steeling her mind to the ordeal before her. She was weak, poor girl, and shaken, little fit for anything which required courage and resolution. Her mind ran much upon her father, and upon the mother whom she had never known, but whose miniature was among her most precious treasures. The thought of them helped to dispel the dreadful feeling of utter loneliness, which was the most unendurable of all her troubles.
It was a cold, bright day, and the tide was in, covering the mudbanks and lapping up against the walls of the Priory grounds. So clear was it that she could distinguish the houses at the east end of the Isle of Wight. When she opened her window and looked out she could perceive that the sea upon her right formed a great inlet, dreary and dry at low tide, but looking now like a broad, reed-girt lake. This was Langston Harbour, and far away at its mouth she could make out a clump of buildings which marked the watering-place of Hayling.
There were other signs, however, of the presence of man. From her window she could see the great men-of-war steaming up the Channel, to and from the anchorage at Spithead. Some were low in the water and venomous looking, with bulbous turrets and tiny masts. Others were long and stately, with great lowering hulks and broad expanse of canvas. Occasionally a foreign service gunboat would pass, white and ghostly, like some tired seabird flapping its way home. It was one of Kate's few amusements to watch the passing and repassing of the vessels, and to speculate upon whence they had come and whither they were bound.
On that eventful evening Rebecca went to bed rather earlier than usual. Kate retired to her room, and having made her final preparations and stuffed her few articles of jewelry into her pockets, to serve in place of money, she lay down upon her bed, and trembled at the thought of what was in front of her. Down below she could hear her guardian's shuffling step as he moved about the refectory. Then came the creaking of the rusty lock as he secured the door, and shortly afterwards he passed upstairs to his room. Mrs. Jorrocks had also gone to bed, and all was quiet in the house.