KATE HARSTON fled as quickly as she could through the wood, stumbling over the brambles and crashing through the briars, regardless of pain or scratches or anything else which could stand between her and the possibility of safety. She soon gained the shed and managed to mount on to the top of it by the aid of the barrel. Craning her neck, she could see the long dusty lane, with the bare withered hedges upon either side, and the dreary line of the railway embankment beyond. There was no pony-carriage in sight.
She hardly expected that there would be, for she had taken a short cut, and the carriage would have to go some distance round. The road along which it was travelling ran at right angles to the one which she was now overlooking, and the chances were equal as to whether the lady would turn round or go straight on. In the latter case, it would not be possible for her to attract her attention. Her heart seemed to stand still with anxiety as she peered over the high wall at the spot where the two roads crossed.
Presently she heard the rattle of wheels, and the brown pony trotted round the corner. The carriage drew up at the end of the lane, and the driver seemed to be uncertain how to proceed. Then she shook the reins, and the pony lumbered on along the road. Kate gave a cry of despair and the last ray of hope died away from her heart.
It chanced, however, that the page in the carriage was just at that happy age when the senses are keen and on the alert. He heard the cry, and glancing round he saw through a break in the hedge that a lady was looking over the wall which skirted the lane they had passed. He mentioned the fact to his mistress.
“Maybe we’d better go back, ma’am,” he said.
“Maybe we’d better not, John,” said the buxom lady. “People can look over their garden walls without our interfering with them, can’t they?”
“Yes, ma’am, but she was a-hollerin’ at us.”
“No, John, was she though? Maybe this is a private road and we have no right to be on it.”
“She gave a holler as if some one was a-hurtin’ of her,” said John with decision.
“Then we’ll go back,” said the lady, and turned the pony round.
Hence it came about that just as Kate was descending with a sad heart from her post of observation, she was electrified to see the brown pony reappear and come trotting round the curve of the lane, with a rapidity which was altogether foreign to that quadruped’s usual habits. Indeed, the girl turned so very white at the sight, and her face assumed such an expression of relief and delight, that the lady who was approaching saw at once that it was no common matter which had caused her to summon them.
“What is it, my dear?” she cried, pulling up when she came abreast of the place. Her good, kind heart was touched already by the pleading expression upon the girl’s sweet face.
“Oh, madam, whoever you may be,” said Kate, in a low, rapid voice, “I believe God has sent you here this day. I am shut up in these grounds, and shall be murdered unless help comes.”
“Be murdered!” cried the lady in the pony-carriage, dropping back in her seat and raising her hands in astonishment.
“It is only too true,” Kate said, trying to speak concisely and clearly so as to enforce conviction, but feeling a choking sensation about her throat, as though an hysterical attack were impending. “My guardian has shut me up here for some weeks, and I firmly believe that he will never let me out alive. Oh, don’t, pray don’t think me mad! I am as sane as you are, though, God knows, what I have gone through has been enough to shake my reason.”
This last appeal of Kate’s was in answer to an expression of incredulity and doubt which had passed over the face of the lady below. It was successful in its object, for the ring of truth with which she spoke and the look of anxiety and terror upon her face were too genuine to be mistaken. The lady drew her rein so as to bring the carriage as near the wall as was possible without losing sight of Kate’s face.
“My dear,” she said, “you may safely tell me everything. Whatever I can do to help you shall be done, and where I am powerless there are others who are my friends and may be of assistance. Scully is my name—Mrs. Lavinia Scully, of London. Don’t cry, my poor girl, but tell me all about it, and let us see how we can put matters right.”
Thus encouraged, Kate wiped away the tears which had been brought to her eyes by the unwonted sound of a friendly voice. Leaning forward as far as she could, and preventing herself from falling by passing her arm round a great branch which shot across the top of the shed, she gave in as few words as she could a detailed account of all that had befallen her. She described her guardian’s anxiety that she should marry his son, her refusal, their sudden departure from London, their life at the Priory, the manner in which she was cut off from all human aid, and the reasons which made her believe that an attempt would be made upon her life. In conclusion, she narrated the scene which had occurred that very morning, when her guardian had tempted her to commit suicide. The only incident which she omitted from her story was that which had occurred the night before, for she felt that it might put too severe a tax upon Mrs. Scully’s credulity. Indeed, looking back at it, she almost persuaded herself that the sight which she had seen might be some phantom conjured up by her own imagination, weakened as she was in mind and in body.
Having concluded her narrative, she wound up by imploring her new-found friend to assist her by letting her friends in London know what had become of her and where she was. Mrs. Scully listened with a face which expressed alternately the most profound pity and the most burning indignation. When Kate had finished, she sat silent for a minute or more entirely absorbed in her own thoughts. She switched her whip up and down viciously, and her usually placid countenance assumed an expression so fierce that Kate, looking down at her, feared that she had given her offence. When she looked up at last, however, she smiled so pleasantly that the poor girl was reassured, and felt instinctively that she had really found a true and effective friend at last.
“We must act promptly,” she said, “for we don’t know what they may be about, or what their plans are for the future. Who did you say your friends were?”
“Dr. Dimsdale, of Phillimore Gardens, Kensington.”
“Hasn’t he got a grown-up son?”
“Yes,” said Kate, with a slight flush on her pale cheeks.
“Ah!” cried the good lady, with a very roguish smile. “I see how the land lies. Of course, of course, why shouldn’t it? I remember hearing about that young man. I have heard about the Girdlestones also. African merchants they were in the City. You see I know all about you.”
“You know Tom?” Kate cried in astonishment.
“Oh, don’t let us get talking of Tom,” said Mrs. Scully good-humouredly. “When girls get on a subject of that sort there’s an end to everything. What I want now is business. In the first place I shall drive down to Bedsworth, and I shall send to London.”
“God bless you!” ejaculated Kate.
“But not to Phillimore Gardens. Hot-headed young men do foolish things under such circumstances as these. This is a case that wants careful management. I know a gentleman in London who is just the man, and who I know would be only too proud to help a lady in distress. He is a retired officer, and his name is Major Clutterbuck—Major Tobias Clutterbuck.”
“Oh, I know him very well, and I have heard of you, too,” said Kate, with a smile. “I remember your name now in connection with his.”
It was Mrs. Scully’s turn to blush now. “Never mind that,” she said. “I can trust the major, and I know he will be down here at a word from me. I shall let him have the facts, and he can tell the Dimsdales if he thinks it best. Good-bye, dear; don’t be unhappy any more, but remember that you have friends outside who will very quickly set all right. Good-bye!” and waving her hand in encouragement, the good widow woke up the pony, which had fallen fast asleep, and rattled away down the lane in the direction from which she had come.