The Firm of Girdlestone

Chapter XLI.

The Clouds Grow Darker.

Arthur Conan Doyle

WHEN Kate had made a clean breast of all her troubles to the widow Scully, and had secured that good woman’s co-operation, a great weight seemed to have been lifted from her heart, and she sprang from the shed a different woman. It would soon be like a dream, all these dreary weeks in the grim old house. Within a day she was sure that either Tom or the major would find means of communicating with her. The thought made her so happy that the colour stole back into her cheeks, and she sang for very lightness of heart as she made her way back to the Priory.

Mrs. Jorrocks and Rebecca observed the change which had come over her and marvelled at it. Kate attempted to aid the former in her household work, but the old crone refused her assistance and repulsed her harshly. Her maid too answered her curtly when she addressed her, and eyed her in anything but a friendly manner.

“You don’t seem much the worse,” she remarked, “for all the wonderful things you seed in the night.”

“Oh, don’t speak of it,” said Kate. “I am afraid that I have given you a great fright. I was feeling far from well, and I suppose that I must have imagined all about that dreadful monk. Yet, at the time, I assure you that I saw it as plainly as I see you now.”

“What’s that she says?” asked Mrs. Jorrocks, with her hand to her ear.

“She says that she saw a ghost last night as plain as she sees you now.”

“Pack of nonsense!” cried the old woman, rattling the poker in the grate. “I’ve been here afore she came—all alone in the house, too—and I hain’t seen nothing of the sort. When she’s got nothing else to grumble about she pretends as she has seen a ghost.”

“No, no,” the girl said cheerily. “I am not grumbling—indeed I am not.”

“It’s like her contrariness to say so,” old Mrs. Jorrocks cried hoarsely. “She’s always a-contradictin’.”

“You’re not in a good temper to-day,” Kate remarked, and went off to her room, going up the steps two at a time with her old springy footstep.

Rebecca followed her, and noticing the change, interpreted it in her own narrow fashion.

“You seems cheerful enough now,” she said, standing at Kate’s door and looking into her room, with a bitter smile on her lips. “To-morrow is Saturday. That’s what’s the matter with you.”

“To-morrow Saturday!” Kate repeated in astonishment.

“Yes; you know what I mean well enough. It’s no use pretending that you don’t.”

The girl’s manner was so aggressive that Kate was astonished. “I haven’t the least idea of what you mean,” she said.

“Oh no,” cried Rebecca, with her arms akimbo and a sneer on her face. “She doesn’t know what I mean. She doesn’t know that her young man is coming down on the Saturday. She does not know that Mr. Ezra comes all the way from London on that day just for to see her. It isn’t that that makes you cheerful, is it? Oh, you double face!” The girl’s pretty features were all distorted with malice as she spoke, and her two hands were clenched passionately.

“Rebecca!” cried Kate energetically, “I really think that you are the most complete fool that ever I met in my life. I will trouble you to remember that I am your mistress and you are my servant. How dare you speak to me in such a way? Leave my room this instant!”

The girl stood her ground as though she intended to brazen it out, but Kate swept towards her with so much honest anger in her voice, and such natural dignity in her bearing, that she sank her bold gaze, and with a few muttered words slunk away into her own room. Kate closed the door behind her, and then, her sense of the ludicrous overpowering her anger, she laughed for the first time since she had been in the Priory. It was so intensely ridiculous that even the most foolish of mortals should imagine that she could, under any circumstances, be desirous of seeing Ezra Girdlestone. The very thought of him brought her amusement to an end, for the maid was right, and to-morrow would bring him down once more. Perhaps her friends might arrive before he did. God grant it!

It was a cold but a bright day. From her window she could see the snow-white sails of the Hampshire fishing-boats dipping and rising against the deep blue sea. A single barque rode amongst them, like a swan among ducklings, beating up against the wind for Portsmouth or Southampton. Away on the right was the long line of white foam which marked the Winner Sands. The tide was in and the great mudbanks had disappeared, save that here and there their dun-coloured convexity rose above the surface like the back of a sleeping leviathan. Overhead a great flock of wild geese were flapping their way southward, like a broad arrow against the sky. It was an exhilarating, bracing scene, and accorded well with her own humour. She felt so full of life and hope that she could hardly believe that she was the same girl who that very morning had hurled away the poison bottle, knowing in her heart that unless she destroyed it she might be tempted to follow her guardian’s sinister suggestions. Yet the incident was real enough, for there were the fragments of glass scattered over the bare planks of her floor, and the insidious odour of the drug was still so strong that she opened the window in order to dissipate it. Looking back at it now, it all seemed like some hideous nightmare.

She had no very clear idea as to what she expected her friends to do. That she would be saved, and that speedily, she never for one instant doubted. She had only to wait patiently and all would be well. By to-morrow night, at the latest, her troubles would be over.

So thought Girdlestone too, as he sat down below, with his head bent upon his breast and his eyes looking moodily from under his shaggy brows at the glowing coals. To-morrow evening would settle the matter once and for ever. Burt and Ezra would be down by five o’clock, and that would be the beginning of the end. As to Burt’s future there was no difficulty about that. He was a broken man. If well supplied with unlimited liquor he would not live long to trouble them. He had nothing to gain, and everything to lose by denouncing them. Should the worst come to the worst, the ravings of a dipsomaniac could do little harm to a man as respected as the African merchant. Every event had been foreseen and provided for by the old schemer. Above all, he had devised a method by which even a coroner’s inquiry could be faced with impunity, and which would do away with all necessity for elaborate concealment.

He beckoned Mrs. Jorrocks over to him, for he had been sitting in the large room, which was used both as a dining-room and as a kitchen.

“What is the latest train to-morrow?” he asked.

“There be one that reaches Bedsworth at a quarter to ten.”

“It passes the grounds at about twenty to ten, then?”

“That reg’lar that I could set my clock by it.”

“That’ll do. Where is Miss Harston?”

“Upstairs, sir. She came back a-laughin’ and a-jumpin’ and as sassy as you please to them as was old before she was born.”

“Laughing!” said Girdlestone, raising his eyebrows. “She did not seem in a laughing mood this morning. You don’t think she has gone out of her mind, do you?”

“I don’t know nought about that. There was Rebecca came down here a-cryin’ ’cause she’d ordered her out of her room. Oh, she’s mistress of the house—there’s no doubt about that. She’ll be a-givin’ of us all the sack presently.”

Girdlestone relapsed into silence, but his face showed that he was puzzled by what he had heard.

Kate slept a sound and dreamless sleep that night. At her age trouble is shaken from the young mind like water from the feathers of a duck. It had been all very gloomy and terrible while it lasted, but now the dawn of better days had come. She woke cheerful and light-hearted. She felt that when once she was free she could forgive her guardian and Rebecca and all of them—even Ezra. She would bury the whole hideous incident, and never think of it or refer to it again.

She amused herself that morning by reckoning up in her mind what the sequence of events would be in London, and how long it would be before she heard from her friends. If Mrs. Scully had telegraphed, news would have reached them last night. Probably she would write as well, giving all the particulars about her. The post came in about nine o’clock, she thought. Then some time would elapse before the major could find Tom. After that, no doubt they would have to consider what had best be done, and perhaps would go and consult with Dr. Dimsdale. That would occupy the morning and part of the afternoon. They could hardly reach the Priory before nightfall.

Ezra would be down by that time. On the Saturday before he had arrived between five and six. A great dread filled her soul at the thought of meeting the young merchant again. It was merely the natural instinct of a lady shrinking from whatever is rough and coarse and antagonistic. She had no conception of the impending danger, or of what his coming might mean to her.

Mr. Girdlestone was more gracious to her than usual that morning at breakfast. He seemed anxious to efface the remembrance of his fierce and threatening words the day before. Rebecca, who waited upon them, was astonished to hear the way in which he spoke. His whole manner was less heavy and ungainly than usual, for now that the time for action was at hand he felt braced and invigorated, as energetic men do.

“You should study botany while you are down here,” he said blandly. “Depend upon it, one cannot learn too many things in one’s youth. Besides, a knowledge of natural science teaches us the marvellous harmony which prevails throughout the universe, and so enlarges our minds.”

“I should very much like to know something of it,” answered Kate. “My only fear is that I should not be clever enough to learn it.”

“The wood here is full of wonders. The tiniest mushroom is as extraordinary and as worthy of study as the largest oak. Your father was fond of plants and animals.”

“Yes, I can remember that,” said Kate, her face growing sad as her mind travelled back to years gone by. What would that same father have thought, she wondered, had he known how this man opposite to her had treated her! What did it matter now, though, when she would so soon be out of his power!

“I remember,” said Girdlestone, stirring his tea thoughtfully, “when we lived in the City as ’prentice lads together, we shared a room above the shop. He used to have a dormouse that he was very fond of. All his leisure time was spent in nursing the creature and cleaning its cage. It seemed to be his only pleasure in life. One night it was running across the floor, and I put my foot upon it.”

“Oh, poor papa!” cried Kate.

“I did it upon principle. ‘You have devoted too much time to the creature,’ I said. ‘Raise up your thoughts higher!’ He was grieved and angry, but in time he came to thank me. It was a useful lesson.”

Kate was so startled by this anecdote that she remained silent for some little time. “How old were you then?” she asked at last.

“I was about sixteen.”

“Then you were always—inclined that way?” She found some difficulty in conveying her meaning in polite tones.

“Yes; I received a call when I was very young. I became one of the elect at an early age.”

“And which are the elect?” his ward asked demurely.

“The members of the Community of the Primitive Trinitarians—or, at least those of them who frequent Purbrook Street Chapel. I hold that the ministers in the other chapels that I have attended do not preach the unadulterated Word, and have therefore missed the narrow path.”

“Then,” said Kate, “you think that no one will be saved except those who frequent the Purbrook Street Chapel?”

“And not all of them—no, nor one in ten,” the merchant said confidently, and with some approach to satisfaction. “Heaven must be a very small place,” Kate remarked, as she rose from the table.

“Are you going out?”

“I was thinking of having a stroll in the wood.”

“Think over a text as you walk. It is an excellent commencement of the day.”

“What text should I think of?” she asked, standing smiling in the doorway, with the bright sunshine bursting in behind her.

“‘In the midst of life we are in death,’” he said solemnly. His voice was so hollow and stern that it struck a chill into the girl’s heart. The effect was only momentary, however. The day was so fine, and the breeze so fresh, that sadness was out of the question. Besides, was not her deliverance at hand! On this of all mornings she should be free from vague presentiments and dim forebodings. The change in her guardian’s manner was an additional cause for cheerfulness. She almost persuaded herself that she had misconstrued his words and his intentions upon the preceding day.

She went down the avenue and had a few words with the sentry there. She felt no bitterness against him now—on the contrary, she could afford to laugh at his peculiarities. He was in a very bad humour on account of some domestic difficulties. His wife had been abusing him, and had ended by assaulting him. “She used to argey first, and then fetch the poker,” he said ruefully; “but now it’s the poker first, and there ain’t no argeyment at all.”

Kate looked at his savage face and burly figure, and thought what a very courageous woman his wife must be.

“It’s all ’cause the fisher lasses won’t lemme alone,” he explained with a leer. “She don’t like it, knock me sideways if she do! It ain’t my fault, though. I allers had a kind o’ a fetchin’ way wi’ women.”

“Did you post my note?” asked Kate.

“Yes, in course I did,” he answered. “It’ll be in Lunnon now, most like.” His one eye moved about in such a very shifty way as he spoke that she was convinced that he was telling a lie. She could not be sufficiently thankful that she had something else to rely upon besides the old scoundrel’s assurances.

There was nothing to be seen down the lane except a single cart with a loutish young man walking at the horse’s head. She had a horror of the country folk since her encounter with the two bumpkins upon the Sunday. She therefore slipped away from the gate, and went through the wood to the shed, which she mounted. On the other side of the wall there was standing a little boy in buttons, so rigid and motionless that he might have been one of Madame Tussaud’s figures, were it not for his eyes, which were rolling about in every direction, and which finally fixed themselves on Kate’s face.

“Good morning, miss,” said this apparition.

“Good morning,” she answered. “I think I saw you with Mrs. Scully yesterday?”

“Yes, miss. Missus, she told me to wait here and never to move until I seed you. She said as you would be sure to come. I’ve been waitin’ here for nigh on an hour.”

“Your mistress is an angel,” Kate said enthusiastically, “and you are a very good little boy.”

“Indeed, you’ve hit it about the missus,” said the youth, in a hoarse whisper, nodding his head to emphasize his remarks. “She’s got a heart as is big enough for three.”

Kate could not help smiling at the enthusiasm with which the little fellow spoke.

“You seem fond of her,” she said.

“I’d be a bad ’un if I wasn’t. She took me out of the work’us without character or nothing, and now she’s a-educatin’ of me. She sent me ’ere with a message?”

“What was it?”

“She said as how she had written instead o’ electro-telegraphing, ’cause she had so much to say she couldn’t fit it all on a telegraph.”

“I thought that would be so,” Kate said.

“She wrote to Major—Major—him as is a-follerin’ of her. She said as she had no doubt as he’d be down to-day, and you was to keep up your sperrits and let her know by me if any one was a-wexin’ you.”

“No, no. Not at all,” Kate answered, smiling again. “You can tell her that my guardian has been much kinder to-day. I am full of hope now. Give her my warmest thanks for her kindness.”

“All right, miss. Say, that chap at the gate hasn’t been giving you no cheek has he—him with the game eye?”

“No, no, John.”

John looked at her suspiciously. “If he hasn’t, it’s all right,” he said; “but I think as you’re one of them as don’t complain if you can ’elp it.” He opened his hand and showed a great jagged flint which he carried. “I’d ha’ knocked his other peeper out with this,” he said, “blowed if I wouldn’t!”

“Don’t do anything of the sort, John, but run home like a good little boy.”

“All right, miss. Good-bye to ye!”

Kate watched him stroll down the lane. He paused at the bottom as if irresolute, and then she was relieved to see him throw the stone over into a turnip field, and walk rapidly off in the opposite direction to the Priory gates.

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