The Firm of Girdlestone
A Conversation in the Eccleston Square Library.
Arthur Conan Doyle
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.