The Firm of Girdlestone

Chapter XXXV.

A Talk on the Lawn.

Arthur Conan Doyle

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.

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