LATE in the afternoon Ezra arrived at the Priory. From one of the passage windows Kate saw him driving up the avenue in a high dog-cart. There was a broad-shouldered, red-bearded man sitting beside him, and the ostler from the Flying Bull was perched behind. Kate had rushed to the window on hearing the sound of wheels, with some dim expectation that her friends had come sooner than she anticipated. A glance, however, showed her that the hope was vain. From behind a curtain she watched them alight and come into the house, while the trap wheeled round and rattled off for Bedsworth again.
She went slowly back to her room, wondering what friend this could be whom Ezra had brought with him. She had noticed that he was roughly clad, presenting a contrast to the young merchant, who was vulgarly spruce in his attire. Evidently he intended to pass the night at the Priory, since they had let the trap go back to the village. She was glad that he had come, for his presence would act as a restraint upon the Girdlestones. In spite of her guardian’s amiability at breakfast, she could not forget the words which he had used the morning before or the incident of the poison bottle. She was as convinced as ever that he meant mischief to her, but she had ceased to fear him. It never for one moment occurred to her that her guardian’s machinations might come to a head before her rescuers could arrive.
As the long afternoon stole away she became more and more impatient and expectant. She had been sewing in her room, but she found that she could no longer keep her attention on the stitches. She paced nervously up and down the little apartment. In the room beneath she could hear the dull muffled sound of men’s voices in a long continuous monotone, broken only by the interposition now and again of one voice which was so deep and loud that it reminded her of the growl of a beast of prey. This must belong to the red-bearded stranger. Kate wondered what it could be that they were talking over so earnestly. City affairs, no doubt, or other business matters of importance. She remembered having once heard it remarked that many of the richest men on ’Change were eccentric and slovenly in their dress, so the new-comer might be a more important person than he seemed.
She had determined to remain in her room all the afternoon to avoid Ezra, but her restlessness was so great that she felt feverish and hot. The fresh air, she thought, would have a reviving effect upon her. She slipped down the staircase, treading as lightly as possible not to disturb the gentlemen in the refectory. They appeared to hear her however, for the hum of conversation died away, and there was a dead silence until after she had passed.
She went out on to the little lawn which lay in front of the old house. There were some flower-beds scattered about on it, but they were overgrown with weeds and in the last stage of neglect. She amused herself by attempting to improve the condition of one of them and kneeling down beside it she pulled up a number of the weeds which covered it. There was a withered rose-bush in the centre, so she pulled up that also, and succeeded in imparting some degree of order among the few plants which remained. She worked with unnatural energy, pausing every now and again to glance down the dark avenue, or to listen intently to any chance sound which might catch her ear.
In the course of her work she chanced to look up at the Priory. The refectory faced the lawn, and at the window of it there stood the three men looking out at her. The Girdlestones were nodding their heads, as though they were pointing her out to the third man, who stood between them. He was looking at her with an expression of interest. Kate thought as she returned his gaze that she had never seen a more savage and brutal face. He was flushed and laughing, while Ezra beside him appeared to be pale and anxious. They all, when they saw that she noticed them, stepped precipitately back from the window. She had only a momentary glance at them, and yet the three faces—the strange fierce red one, and the two hard familiar pale ones which flanked it—remained vividly impressed upon her memory.
Girdlestone had been so pleased at the early appearance of his allies, and the prospect of settling the matter once for all, that he received them with a cordiality which was foreign to his nature.
“Always punctual, my dear son, and always to be relied upon,” he said. “You are a model to our young business men. As to you, Mr. Burt,” he continued, grasping the navvy’s horny hand, “I am delighted to see you at the Priory, much as I regret the sad necessity which has brought you down.”
“Talk it over afterwards,” said Ezra shortly. “Burt and I have had no luncheon yet.”
“I am cursed near starved,” the other growled, throwing himself into a chair. Ezra had been careful to keep him from drink on the way down, and he was now sober, or as nearly sober as a brain saturated with liquor could ever be.
Girdlestone called for Mrs. Jorrocks, who laid the cloth and put a piece of cold corned beef and a jug of beer upon the table. Ezra appeared to have a poor appetite, but Burt ate voraciously, and filled his glass again and again from the jug. When the meal was finished and the ale all consumed, he rose with a grunt of repletion, and, pulling a roll of black tobacco from his pocket, proceeded to cut it into slices, and to cram it into his pipe. Ezra drew a chair up to the fire, and his father did the same, after ordering the old woman out of the room and carefully closing the door behind her.
“You have spoken to our friend here about the business?” Girdlestone asked, nodding his head in the direction of Burt.
“Yes. I have made it all clear.”
“Five hundred pounds down, and a free passage to Africa,” said Burt.
“An energetic man like you can do a great deal in the colonies with five hundred pounds,” Girdlestone remarked.
“What I do with it is nothin’ to you, guv’nor,” Burt remarked surlily. “I does the job, you pays the money, and there’s an end as far as you are concerned.”
“Quite so,” the merchant said in a conciliatory voice. “You are free to do what you like with the money.”
“Without axin’ your leave,” growled Burt. He was a man of such a turbulent and quarrelsome disposition that he was always ready to go out of his way to make himself disagreeable.
“The question is how it is to be done,” interposed Ezra. He was looking very nervous and uneasy. Hard as he was, he had neither the pseudo-religious monomania of his father, nor the callous brutality of Burt, and he shuddered at the thought of what was to come. His eyes were red and bleared, and he sat with one arm thrown over the back of his chair, while he drummed nervously with the fingers of his other hand upon his knee. “You’ve got some plan in your head, I suppose,” he said to his father. “It’s high time the thing was carried through, or we shall have to put up the shutters in Fenchurch Street.”
His father shivered at the very thought. “Anything rather than that,” he said.
“It will precious soon come to that. It was the devil of a fight to keep things straight last week.”
“What’s the matter with your lip? It seems to be swollen.”
“I had a turn with that fellow Dimsdale,” Ezra answered, putting his hand up to his mouth to hide the disfigurement. “He followed us to the station, and we had to beat him off; but I think I left my marks upon him.”
“He played some damned hokey-pokey business on me,” said Burt. “He tripped me in some new-fangled way, and nigh knocked the breath out of me. I don’t fall as light as I used.”
“He did not succeed in tracing you?” Girdlestone asked uneasily. “There is no chance of his turning up here and spoiling the whole business?”
“Not the least,” said Ezra confidently. “He was in the hands of a policeman when I saw him last.”
“That is well. Now I should like, before we go further, to say a few words to Mr. Burt as to what has led up to this.”
“You haven’t got a drop to drink, boss?”
“Yes, yes, of course. What is that in the bottle over there? Ginger wine. How will that do?”
“Here’s something better,” Ezra said, rummaging in the cupboard. “Here is a bottle of Hollands. It is Mrs. Jorrocks’ private store, I fancy.”
Burt poured himself out half a tumblerful, and filled it up with water. “Drive along,” he said; “I am lisnin’.”
Girdlestone rose and stood with his back to the fire, and his hands under his coat-tails. “I wish you to understand,” he said, “that this is no sudden determination of ours, but that events have led up to it in such a way that it was impossible to avoid it. Our commercial honour and integrity are more precious to us than anything else, and we have both agreed that we are ready to sacrifice anything rather than lose it. Unfortunately, our affairs have become somewhat involved, and it was absolutely necessary that the firm should have a sum of money promptly in order to extricate itself from its difficulties. This sum we endeavoured to get through a daring speculation in diamonds, which was, though I say it, ingeniously planned and cleverly carried out, and which would have succeeded admirably had it not been for an unfortunate chance.”
“I remember,” said Burt.
“Of course. You were there at the time. We were able to struggle along for some time after this on money which we borrowed and on the profits of our African trade. The time came, however, when the borrowed money was to be repaid, and once again the firm was in danger. It was then that we first thought of the fortune of my ward. It was enough to turn the scale in our favour, could we lay our hands upon it. It was securely tied up, however, in such a way that there were only two means by which we could touch a penny of it. One was by marrying her to my son; the other was by the young lady’s death. Do you follow me?”
Burt nodded his shaggy head.
“This being so, we did all that we could to arrange a marriage. Without flattery I may say that no girl was ever approached in a more delicate and honourable way than she was by my son Ezra. I, for my part, brought all my influence to bear upon her in order to induce her to meet his advances in a proper spirit. In spite of our efforts, she rejected him in the most decided way, and gave us to understand that it was hopeless to attempt to make her change her mind.”
“Some one else, maybe,” suggested Burt.
“The man who put you on your back at the station,” said Ezra.
“Ha! I’ll pay him for that,” the navvy growled viciously.
“A human life, Mr. Burt,” continued Girdlestone, “is a sacred thing, but a human life, when weighed against the existence of a great firm from which hundreds derive their means of livelihood, is a small consideration indeed. When the fate of Miss Harston is put against the fate of the great commercial house of Girdlestone, it is evident which must go to the wall.”
Burt nodded, and poured some more Hollands from the square bottle.
“Having seen,” Girdlestone continued, “that this sad necessity might arise, I had made every arrangement some time before. This building is, as you may have observed in your drive, situated in a lonely and secluded part of the country. It is walled round too in such a manner that any one residing here is practically a prisoner. I removed the lady so suddenly that no one can possibly know where she has gone to, and I have spread such reports as to her condition that no one down here would be surprised to hear of her decease.”
“But there is bound to be an inquiry. How about a medical certificate?” asked Ezra.
“I shall insist upon a coroner’s inquest,” his father answered.
“An inquest! Are you mad?”
“When you have heard me I think that you will come to just the opposite conclusion. I think that I have hit upon a scheme which is really neat—neat in its simplicity.” He rubbed his hands together, and showed his long yellow fangs in his enjoyment of his own astuteness.
Burt and Ezra leaned forward to listen, while the old man sank his voice to a whisper.
“They think that she is insane,” he said.
“There’s a small door in the boundary wall which leads out to the railway line.”
“Well, what of that?”
“Suppose that door to be left open, would it be an impossible thing for a crazy woman to slip out through it, and to be run over by the ten o’clock express?”
“If she would only get in the way of it.”
“You don’t quite catch my idea yet. Suppose that the express ran over the dead body of a woman, would there be anything to prove afterwards that she was dead, and not alive at the time of the accident? Do you think that it would ever occur to any one’s mind that the express ran over a dead body?”
“I see your meaning,” said his son thoughtfully. “You would settle her, and then put her there.”
“Of course. What could be more delightfully simple. Friend Burt here does his work; we carry her through the garden gate, and lay her on the darkest part of the rails. Then we miss her at the house. There is an alarm and a search. The gate is found open. We naturally go through with lanterns, and find her on the line. I don’t think we need fear the coroner, or any one else then?”
“He’s a sharp ’un, is the guv’nor,” cried Burt, slapping his thigh enthusiastically. “It’s the downiest lay I have heard this many a day.”
“I believe you are the devil incarnate,” said Ezra, looking at his father with a mixture of horror and of admiration. “But how about Jorrocks and Stevens and Rebecca? Would you trust them?”
“Certainly not!” Girdlestone answered. “It is not necessary. Mr. Burt can do his part of the business out of doors. We can entice her out upon some excuse. There is no reason why any one should have a suspicion of the truth.”
“But they know that she is not mad.”
“They will think that she did it on purpose. The secret will be locked up in our three breasts. After one night’s work our friend here goes to the colonies a prosperous man, and the firm of Girdlestone holds up its head once more, stainless and irreproachable.”
“Speak low!” said Ezra, in a whisper. “I hear her coming downstairs.” They listened to her light springy footstep as it passed the door. “Come here, Burt,” he said, after a pause. “She is at work on the lawn. Come and have a look at her.”
They all went over to the window, and looked out. It was then that Kate, glancing up, saw the three cruel faces surveying her.
“She’s a rare well-built ’un,” said Burt, as he stepped back from the window. “It is the ugliest job as ever I was on.”
“But we can rely upon you?” Girdlestone asked, looking at him with puckered eyes.
“You bet—as long as you pay me,” the navvy answered phlegmatically, and went back to his pipe and to Mrs. Jorrocks’ bottle of Hollands.