The Firm of Girdlestone

Chapter XXXVIII.

Girdlestone Sends for the Doctor.

Arthur Conan Doyle

WHEN Kate came to herself after the terrible incident which frustrated her attempt at escape, she found herself in bed in her own little room. By the light which shone in through the window she knew that it must be well on in the day. Her head was throbbing violently, and she was so weak that she could hardly raise herself in bed. When she looked round she found that Rebecca had brought a chair in from her room and was sitting by the fire. At the sound of her movement the maid glanced up and perceived that her mistress had recovered consciousness.

“Lor’ bless me!” she cried, “you’ve given us a pretty fright. We thought you wasn’t coming back to your senses no more. You’ve been a-lyin’ there since the middle of the night, and now it’s close on to twelve o’clock.”

Kate lay silent for some little time, putting together all that had occurred. “Oh, Rebecca,” she said at last, shivering at the recollection, “I have seen the most dreadful sight. Either I am going mad, or I have seen a ghost.”

“We thought you were a ghost yourself,” said the girl reproachfully. “What with the screechin’ and you lying so white in the middle of the passage, it was enough to make any one’s ’air turn grey. Mr. Girdlestone, he lifted you up, an’ carried you back into your room. He was cut to the heart, the good gentleman, when he saw what you’d been after, a-tryin’ to give him the slip.”

“Oh, this dreadful house will kill me—it will kill me!” Kate moaned. “I cannot stay in it any longer. What shall I do? Oh, Rebecca, Rebecca, what shall I do?”

The fresh-coloured maid came across with a simper upon her pretty, vulgar face, and sat on the side of the bed. “What’s the matter, then?” she asked. “What is it that you have seen?”

“I have seen—oh, Rebecca, it is too dreadful to talk of. I have seen that poor monk who was killed in the cellars. It was not fancy. I saw him as plainly as I see you now, with his tall thin figure, and long loose gown, and the brown cowl drawn over his face.”

“God preserve us!” cried Rebecca nervously, glancing over her shoulder. “It is enough to give one the creeps.”

“I pray that I may never see such a sight again. Oh, Rebecca, if you have the heart of a woman, help me to get away from this place. They mean that I should never go from it alive. I have read it in my guardian’s eyes. He longs for my death. Do, do tell me what I should do for the best.”

“I’m surprised at you!” the maid said with dignity. “When Mr. Girdlestone and Mr. Ezra is so good to you, and provides you with a country-house and every convenience as ’eart could wish, all you can find to do is to go screamin’ about at night, and then talk as if you was a-goin’ to be murdered in the day. I really am surprised. There’s Mr. Girdlestone a-callin.’ He’d be shocked, poor gentleman, if he knew how you was abusin’ of him.” Rebecca’s face assumed an expression of virtuous indignation as she swept out of the room, but her black eyes shone with the unholy light of cruelty and revenge.

Left to herself, Kate rose and dressed as well as her weakness would permit. Her nerves were so shaken that she started at the least sound, and she could hardly recognize the poor pale face which she saw in the glass as her own. She had scarcely finished her toilet before her guardian came up into her room.

“You are better, then?” he said.

“I am very ill,” she answered gently.

“No wonder, after rushing about the corridors in that absurd fashion in the dead of the night. Rebecca tells me that you imagine you met with some apparition. You are crying. Are you so unhappy, then?”

“Very, very miserable,” Kate answered, sinking her face upon her hands.

“Ah,” said Girdlestone softly, “it is only in some higher life that we shall find entire peace and contentment.” His voice had altered, so that a little warm spring of hope began to rise in the girl’s heart, that perhaps the sight of her many miseries was beginning to melt this iron man.

“Beyond the grave is rest,” he continued, in the same gentle tones. “It has seemed to me sometimes that if it were not for the duties which I have to perform in this world, and the many who are dependent upon me, I should be tempted to shorten my existence in order to attain the peace which is to come. Some precisians have pronounced it to be sinful to cut the thread of life. For my part I have never thought it so, and yet my view of morals has been a strict one. I hold that of all things in this world one’s life is the thing which belongs most entirely to one’s self, and may therefore most freely be terminated when it seems good to us.” He picked up the phial from the mantelpiece and gazed thoughtfully at it. “How strange,” he said, “to think that within the compass of this tiny bottle lies a cure for every earthly evil! One draught and the body slips off like a garment, while the soul walks forth in all its beauty and freedom. Trouble is over. One draught, and—Ah, let go, I say! What have you done?”

Kate had snatched the bottle from him, and with a quick feminine gesture had hurled it against the wall, where it splintered to pieces, sending a strong turpentiney odour through the apartment. Her strength was so impaired that she staggered back after this feat, and sat down on the side of the bed, while her guardian, grim and threatening, stood over her with his long, bony fingers opening and shutting, as though he found it difficult to keep them from her throat.

“I will not help you in it,” she said, in a low but firm voice. “You would kill my soul as well.”

The mask had fairly dropped from Girdlestone. No gaunt old wolf could have glared down with fiercer eyes or a more cruel mouth. “You fool!” he hissed.

“I am not afraid to die,” she said, looking up at him with brave, steadfast eyes.

Girdlestone recovered his self-possession by an effort. “It is clear to me,” he said calmly, “that your reason is unhinged. What is all this nonsense about death? There is nothing that will harm you except your own evil actions.” He turned abruptly and strode out of the room with the firm and decided step of a man who has taken an irrevocable resolution.

With a set and rigid face he ascended the steps which led to his bedroom, and, rummaging in his desk, produced a telegram form. This he filled up and took with him downstairs. There he put on his hat and started off to the Bedsworth Post-office at full speed.

At the avenue gate he met his sentinel, who was sitting on his camp stool as grim as ever.

“She is very bad, Stevens,” Girdlestone said, stopping and jerking his head in the direction of the house. “She is going downhill. I am afraid that she can’t last long. If any one asks you about her, you can say that she was despaired of. I am just sending off a telegram to a doctor in London, so that she may have the best advice.”

Stevens touched his greasy-peaked cap as a token of respect. “She was down here behavin’ outrageous the other day,” said he. “‘Let me pass,’ says she, ‘and you shall have ten golden guineas.’ Them’s her very words. ‘Not for ten hundred golden guineas,’ I answers, ‘would William Stevens, hesquire, do what he didn’t ought to.’”

“Very proper, very proper indeed,” said Girdlestone approvingly. “Every man in his own station has his own duties to fulfil, and he will be judged as he has fulfilled them, well or ill. I shall see that you are no loser by your staunchness.”

“Thank ye, guv’nor.”

“She is wild and delirious, and can get about in spite of her low state of health. It is possible that she may make some effort to get away, so be vigilant. Good day to you.”

“Good day, sir.” William Stevens stood at the gate, looking pensively after his employer; then he reseated himself upon his camp-stool, and, lighting his pipe, resumed his meditations. “I can’t make nought of it,” he muttered, scratching his head, “It do seem uncommon queer, to be sure. The boss he says, ‘She’s very low,’ says he, and then next minute he says, ‘She may be comin’ down and tryin’ to escape.’ I’ve seen diers o’ all shapes and sizes, but I’ve never seed one as went a galivantin’ about like this—at least, not among them as died a nat’ral death. It do seem uncommon strange. Then, again, he’s off telegrayphin’ for a doctor to Lunnon, when there’s Doctor Corbett, o’ Claxton, or Doctor Hutton, o’ Bedsworth, would come quick enough if he wanted them. I can’t make no sense of it. Why, bust my buttons!” he continued, taking his pipe out of his mouth in a paroxysm of astonishment, “if here hain’t the dier herself!”

It was, indeed, Kate, who, learning that her guardian was gone, had come out with some vague idea of making a last struggle for her life and freedom. With the courage of despair, she came straight down the avenue to the sole spot where escape seemed possible.

“Good mornin’, missy,” cried Stevens, as she approached. “You don’t look extra bright this mornin’, but you ain’t as bad as your good guardian made me think. You don’t seem to feel no difficulty in gettin’ about.”

“There is nothing the matter with me,” the girl answered earnestly. “I assure you there is not. My mind is as sound as yours.”

“That’s what they all says,” said the ex-warder with a chuckle.

“But it is so. I cannot stay in that house longer. I cannot, Mr. Stevens, I cannot! It is haunted, and my guardian will murder me. He means to. I read it in his eyes. He as good as tried this morning. To die without one word to those I love—without any explanation of what has passed—that would give a sting to death.”

“Well, if this ain’t outragis!” cried the one-eyed man; “perfectly outragis! Going to murder you, says you! What’s he a-goin’ to do that for?”

“God knows! He hates me for some reason. I have never gone against his wishes, save in one respect, and in that I can never obey him, for it is a matter in which he has no right to command.”

“Quite so!” said Stevens, winking his one eye. “I knows the feeling myself, cuss me, but I do! ‘Thine for once and thine for never,’ as the song says.”

“Why won’t you let me pass?” pleaded Kate. “You may have had daughters of your own. What would you do if they were treated as I have been? If I had money you should have it, but I have none. Do, do let me go! God will reward you for it. Perhaps when you are on your last bed of sickness the memory of this one good deed may outweigh all the evil that you have done.”

“Lor’, don’t she speak!” said Stevens, appealing confidentially to the nearest tree. “It’s like a dictionary.”

“And you won’t lose by it in this life,” the girl added eagerly. “See, here is my watch and my chain. You shall have that if you will let me through?”

“Let’s see it.” He opened it and examined it critically. “Eighteen carat—it’s only a Geneva, though. What can you expect for a Geneva?”

“And you shall have fifty pounds when I get back to my friends. Do let me pass, good Mr. Stevens, for my guardian may return at any moment.”

“See here, miss,” Stevens said solemnly; “dooty is dooty, and if every hair of your ’ead was tagged wi’ a jewel, and you offered to make me your barber, I wouldn’t let you through that gate. As to this ’ere watch, if so be as you would like to write a line to your friends, I’ll post it for you at Bedsworth in exchange for it, though it be only a Geneva.”

“You good, kind man!” cried Kate, all excitement and delight. “I have a pencil in my pocket. What shall I do for paper?” She looked eagerly round and spied a small piece which lay among the brushwood. With a cry of joy she picked it out. It was very coarse and very dirty, but she managed to scrawl a few lines upon it, describing her situation and asking for aid. “I will write the address upon the back,” she said. “When you get to Bedsworth you must buy an envelope and ask the post-office people to copy the address on to it.”

“I bargained to post it for the Geneva,” he said. “I didn’t bargain to buy envelopes and copy addresses. That’s a nice pencil-case of yourn. Now I’ll make a clean job of it if you’ll throw that in.”

Kate handed it over without a murmur. At last a small ray of light seemed to be finding its way through the darkness which had so long surrounded her. Stevens put the watch and pencil-case in his pocket, and took the little scrap of paper on which so much depended. As Kate handed it to him she saw over his shoulder that coming up the lane was a small pony-carriage, in which sat a buxom lady and a very small page. The sleek little brown pony which drew it ambled along at a methodical pace which showed that it was entirely master of the situation, while the whole turnout had an indescribable air of comfort and good nature. Poor Kate had been so separated from her kind that the sight of people who, if not friendly, were at least not hostile to her, sent a thrill of pleasure into her heart. There was something wholesome and prosaic too about this homely equipage, which was inexpressibly soothing to a mind so worn by successive terrors.

“Here’s some one a-comin’,” cried Stevens. “Clear out from here—it’s the governor’s orders.”

“Oh, do let me stay and say one word to the lady!” Stevens seized his great stick savagely. “Clear out!” he cried in a hoarse, angry voice, and made a step towards her as if he would strike her. She shrank away from him, and then, a sudden thought seizing her, she turned and ran through the woods as fast as her feeble strength would allow. The instant that she was out of sight, Stevens very deliberately and carefully tore up the little slip of paper with which she had entrusted him, and scattered the pieces to the wind.

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