The Firm of Girdlestone

Chapter XXXIII.

The Journey to the Priory.

Arthur Conan Doyle

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 what?”

“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.

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