The Firm of Girdlestone

Chapter XXXIV.

The Man with the Camp-Stool.

Arthur Conan Doyle

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.

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