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 an 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.
Kate knew that some hours must elapse before she could venture to make the attempt. She remembered to have read in some book that the sleep of a human being was usually deepest about two in the morning, so she had chosen that hour for her enterprise. She had put on her strongest dress and her thickest shoes, but had muffled the latter in cloth, so that they should make no sound. No precaution which she could think of had been neglected. There was now nothing to be done but to spend the time as best she might until the hour of action should arrive.
She rose and looked out of the window again. The tide was out now, and the moon glittered upon the distant ocean. A mist was creeping up, however, and even as she looked it drew its veil over the water. It was bitterly cold. She shivered and her teeth began to chatter. Stretching herself upon the bed once more, she wrapped the blankets round her, and, worn out with anxiety and fatigue, dropped into a troubled sleep.
She slumbered some hours before she awoke.
Looking at her watch she found that it was after two. She must not delay any longer. With the little bundle of her more valuable possessions in her hand, she gave such a gasp as a diver gives before he makes his spring, and slipping past Rebecca’s half-opened door she felt her way down the wooden stair, picking her steps very carefully.
Even in the daytime she had often noticed how those old planks creaked and cracked beneath her weight. Now, in the dead silence of the night, they emitted such sounds that her heart sank within her. She stopped several times, convinced that she must be discovered, but all was hushed and still. It was a relief when at last she reached the ground-floor, and was able to feel her way along the passage to the door.
Shaking in every limb from cold and fear, she put her hand to the lock; the key was not there. She tried the nail; there was nothing there. Her wary gaoler had evidently carried it away with him to his room. Would it occur to him to do the same in the case of the back door? It was very possible that he might have overlooked it. She retraced her steps down the passage, passed Mrs. Jorrocks’ room, where the old woman was snoring peacefully, and began to make her way as best she could through the great rambling building.
Running along the basement floor from front to back there was a long corridor, one side of which was pierced for windows. At the end of this corridor was the door which she wished to reach. The moon had broken through the fog, and pouring its light through each opening cast a succession of silvery flickering spots upon the floor. Between each of these bars of uncertain light was an interval of darkness. Kate stood at the head of this corridor with her hand against the wall, awed by the sudden sight of the moonlight and by the weird effect which was produced by the alternate patches of shadow and brightness. As she stood there, suddenly, with eyes distended with horror, she became aware that something was approaching her down the corridor.
She saw it moving as a dark formless mass at the further end. It passed through the bar of light, vanished, appeared once more, lost itself in the darkness, emerged again. It was half-way down the passage and still coming on. Petrified with terror, she could only wait and watch. Nearer it came and nearer. It was gliding into the last bar of light Immediately in front of her! It was on her! God of mercy, it was a Dominican friar! The moon shone clear and cold upon his gaunt figure and his sombre robes. The poor girl threw up her hands, gave one terrible scream of horror, which rang through the old house, and sank senseless to the ground.