Chapter 31




A CRISIS AT ECCLESTON SQUARE.

His father's encouraging words had given Ezra Girdlestone fresh heart, and he had renewed his importunities with greater energy than ever. Never surely did any man devote every moment of his time more completely to the winning of a woman's heart. From morning until night the one idea was ever before his mind and every little want of Kate's was forestalled with a care and foresight which astonished her. The richest fruit and flowers found their way unexpectedly into her room; her table was littered with the latest books from Mudie's, and the newest pieces lay upon her music-stand. Nothing which attention and thoughtfulness could do was left undone either by the father or the son.

In spite of these attentions, however, and the frequent solicitations of her guardian, Kate stood firmly to her colours. If the Tom of the present were false, she at least would be true to the memory of the Tom of other days, the lad who had first whispered words of love into her ears. Her ideal should remain with her whatever might befall. No other man could ever take the place of that.

That Tom was from some unexplained and unaccountable reason false to her appeared to be beyond all question. Her trusting and innocent heart could not dream of the subtle network which was being wound round her. Her secluded life had left her very ignorant of the ways of the world, and the possibility of an elaborate deceit being practised upon her had never occurred to her. From the day that she heard the extract of the letter read by her guardian she never doubted but that such letters were received at the office by the man who professed to love her. How could she hesitate to believe it when it was confirmed by his avoidance of Eccleston Square and of herself? The cause of it all was a mystery which no amount of speculation could clear up. Sometimes the poor girl would blame herself, as is the way of women in such cases. "I have not seen enough of the world," she would say to herself. "I have none of the charms of these women whom I read of in the novels. No doubt I seemed dull and insipid in his eyes. And yet--and yet--" There always remained at the end of her cogitations the same vague sense of bewilderment and mystery.

She endeavoured as far as possible to avoid Ezra Girdlestone, and stay in her room for the most part on the days when he was at home. He had, however, on the advice of his father, ceased pressing his suit except in the silent manner aforementioned, so that she gradually took courage, and ended by resuming her old habits. In her heart she pitied the young merchant very sincerely, for he was looking haggard and pale. "Poor fellow," she thought as she watched him, "he certainly loves me. Ah, Tom, Tom! had you only been as constant, how happy we should be!" She was even prompted sometimes to cheer Ezra up by some kind word or look. This he naturally took to be an encouragement to renew his advances. Perhaps he was not far wrong, for if love be wanting pity is occasionally an excellent substitute.

One morning after breakfast the elder Girdlestone called his son aside into the library. "I've had a notice," he said, "as to paying up dividends. Our time is short, Ezra. You must bring matters to a head. If you don't it will be too late."

"You mustn't pick fruit before it is ripe," the other answered moodily.

"You can try if it is ripe, though. If not, you can try again. I think that your chance is a good one. She is alone in the breakfast-room, and the table has been cleared. You cannot have a better opening. Go, my son, and may Heaven prosper you!"

"Very well. Do you wait in here, and I shall let you know how things go."

The young man buttoned up his coat, pulled down his cuffs, and walked back into the breakfast-room with a sullen look of resolution upon his dark face.

Kate was sitting in a wicker chair by the window, arranging flowers in a vase. The morning sunlight streaming in upon her gave a colour to her pale face and glittered in her heavy coils of chestnut hair. She wore a light pink morning dress which added to the ethereal effect of her lithe beautiful figure. As Ezra entered she looked round and started at sight of his face. Instinctively she knew on what errand he had come.

"You will be late at Fenchurch Street," she said, with a constrained smile. "It is nearly eleven now."

"I am not going to the office to-day," he answered gravely. "I am come in here, Kate, to know my fate. You know very well, and must have known for some time back, that I love you. If you'll marry me you'll make me a happy man, and I'll make you a happy woman. I'm not very eloquent and that sort of thing, but what I say I mean. What have you to say in answer?" He leaned his broad hands on the back of a chair as he spoke, and drummed nervously with his fingers.

Kate had drooped her head over the flowers, but she looked up at him now with frank, pitying eyes.

"Put this idea out of your head, Ezra," she said, in a low but firm voice. "Believe me, I shall always be grateful to you for the kindness which you have shown me of late. I will be a sister to you, if you will let me, but I can never be more."

"And why not?" asked Ezra, still leaning over the chair, with an angry light beginning to sparkle in his dark eyes. "Why can you never be my wife?"

"It is so, Ezra. You must not think of it. I am so sorry to grieve you."

"You can't love me, then," cried the young merchant hoarsely. "Other women before now would have given their eyes to have had me. Do you know that?"

"For goodness' sake, then go back to the others," said Kate, half amused and half angry.

That suspicion of a smile upon her face was the one thing needed to set Ezra's temper in a blaze. "You won't have me," he cried savagely. "I haven't got the airs and graces of that fellow, I suppose. You haven't got him out of your head, though he is off with another girl."

"How dare you speak to me so?" Kate cried, springing to her feet in honest anger.

"It's the truth, and you know it," returned Ezra, with a sneer. "Aren't you too proud to be hanging on to a man who doesn't want you-- a man that is a smooth-tongued sneak, with the heart of a rabbit?"

"If he were here you would not dare to say so!" Kate retorted hotly.

"Wouldn't I?" he snarled fiercely.

"No, you wouldn't. I don't believe that he has ever been untrue to me. I believe that you and your father have planned to make me believe it and to keep us apart."

Heaven knows what it was that suddenly brought this idea most clearly before Kate's mind. Perhaps it was that Ezra's face, distorted with passion, gave her some dim perception of the wickedness of which such a nature might be capable. The dark face turned so much darker at her words that she felt a great throb of joy at her heart, and knew that this strange new thought which had flashed upon her was the truth.

"You can't deny it," she cried, with shining eyes and clenched hands. "You know that it is true. I shall see him and hear from his own lips what he has to say. He loves me still, and I love him, and have never ceased to love him."

"Oh, you do, do you?" snarled Ezra, taking a step forward, with a devilish gleam in his eyes. "Your love may do him very little good. We shall see which of us gets the best of it in the long run. We'll--" His passion was so furious that he stopped, fairly unable to articulate another word.

With a threatening motion of his hands he turned upon his heel and rushed from the room. As he passed it chanced that Flo, Kate's little Skye terrier, ran across his path. All the brutality of the man's soul rose up in the instant. He raised his heavy boot, and sent the poor little creature howling and writhing under the sofa, whence it piteously emerged upon three legs, trailing the fourth one behind it.

"The brute!" Kate cried, as she fondled the injured animal and poured indignant tears over it. Her gentle soul was so stirred by the cowardly deed that she felt that she could have flown at her late suitor were he still in the room. "Poor little Flo! That kick was meant for me in reality, my little pet. Never mind, dear, there are bright days coming, and he has not forgotten me, Flo. I know it! I know it!" The little dog whined sympathetically, and licked its mistress's hand as though it were looking into its canine future, and could also discern better days ahead.

Ezra Girdlestone, fierce and lowering, tramped into the library, and told his father brusquely of the result of his wooing. What occurred in that interview was never known to any third person. The servants, who had some idea that something was afoot, have recorded that at the beginning of the conversation the bass voice of the son and the high raucous tones of the father were heard in loud recrimination and reproach. Then they suddenly sunk into tones so low that there might have been complete silence in the room for all that any one could tell from the passage outside. This whispered conversation may have lasted the greater part of an hour. At the end of it the young merchant departed for the City. It has been remarked that from that time there came a change over both the father and the son--a change so subtle that It could hardly be described, though it left its mark upon them both. It was not that the grey, wolfish face of the old man looked even greyer and fiercer, or that the hard, arrogant expression of Ezra deepened into something even more sinister. It was that a shadow hung over both their brows--a vague indefinable shadow--as of men who carry a thought in their minds on which it is not good to dwell.

During that long hour Kate had remained in the breakfast-room, still nursing her injured companion, and very busy with her own thoughts. She was as convinced now that Tom had been true to her as if she had had the assurance from his own lips. Still there was much that was unaccountable--much which she was unable to fathom. A vague sense of the wickedness around her depressed and weighed her down. What deep scheme could these men have invented to keep him away from her during these long weeks? Was he, too, under some delusion, or the victim of some conspiracy? Whatever had been done was certainly connived at by her guardian. For the first time a true estimate of the character of the elder Girdlestone broke upon her, and she dimly realized that the pious, soft-spoken merchant was more to be dreaded than his brutal son. A shudder ran through her whole frame as, looking up, she saw him standing before her.

His appearance was far from reassuring. His hands were clasped behind his back, his head bent forward, and he surveyed her with a most malignant expression upon his face.

"Well done!" he said, with a bitter smile. "Well done! This is a good morning's work, Miss Harston. You have repaid your father's friend for the care he has bestowed upon you."

"My only wish is to leave your house," cried Kate, with an angry flash in her deep blue eyes. "You are a cruel, wicked, hypocritical old man. You have deceived me about Mr. Dimsdale. I read it in your son's face, and now I read it in your own. How could you do it--oh, how could you have the heart?"

John Girdlestone was fairly staggered by this blaze of feminine anger in his demure and obedient ward. "God knows," he said, "whatever my faults may have been, neglect of you has not been among them. I am not immaculate. Even the just man falleth. If I have endeavoured to wean you from this foolish love affair of yours, it has been entirely because I saw that it was against your own interests."

"You have told lies in order to turn me away from the only man who ever loved me. You and your odious son have conspired to ruin my happiness and break my heart. What have you told him that keeps him away? I shall see him and learn the truth." Kate's face was unnaturally calm and rigid as she faced her guardian's angry gaze.

"Silence!" the old man cried hoarsely. "You forget your position in this house. You are presuming too much upon my kindness. As to this girl's fancy of yours, you may put all thought of it out of your head. I am still your guardian, and I should be culpably remiss if I ever allowed you to see this man again. This afternoon you shall come with me to Hampshire."

"To Hampshire?"

"Yes. I have taken a small country seat there, where we intend to spend some months of the winter. You shall leave it when you have reconciled yourself to forget these romantic ideas of yours--but not till then."

"Then I shall never leave it," said Kate, with a sigh.

"That will depend upon yourself. You shall at least be guarded there from the advances of designing persons. When you come of age you may follow your own fancies. Until then my conscience demands, and the law allows, that I should spare no pains to protect you from your own folly. We start from Waterloo at four." Girdlestone turned for the door, but looked round as he was leaving the room. "May God forgive you," he said solemnly, raising his lean hands towards the ceiling, "for what you have done this day!"

Poor Kate, left to herself, was much concerned by this fresh misfortune. She knew that her guardian had power to carry out his plan, and that there was no appeal from his decision. What could she do? She had not a friend in the wide world to whom she could turn for advice or assistance. It occurred to her to fly to the Dimsdales at Kensington, and throw herself upon their compassion. It was only the thought of Tom which prevented her. In her heart she had fully exonerated him, yet there was much to be explained before they could be to each other as of old. She might write to Mrs. Dimsdale, but then her guardian had not told her what part of Hampshire they were going to. She finally came to the conclusion that it would be better to wait, and to write when she had reached her destination. In the meantime, she went drearily to her room and began packing, aided by the ruddy-cheeked maid, Rebecca.

At half-past three a cab drove up to the door, and the old merchant stepped out of it. The boxes were thrown upon the top, and the young lady curtly ordered to get in. Girdlestone took his seat beside her, and gave a sign to the cabman to drive on. As they rattled out of the square, Kate looked back at the great gloomy mansion in which she had spent the last three years of her life. Had she known what the future was to bring, it is possible that she would have clung even to that sombre and melancholy old house as to an ark of safety.

Another cab passed through Eccleston Square that evening--a cab which bore a pale-faced and wild-eyed young man, who looked ever and anon impatiently out of the window to see if he were nearing his destination. Long before reaching No. 69 he had opened the door, and was standing upon the step. The instant that the cab pulled up he sprang off, and rang loudly at the great brass bell which flanked the heavy door.

"Is Mr. Girdlestone in?" he asked, as Rebecca appeared at the door.

"No, sir."

"Miss Harston, is she at home?" he said excitedly.

"No, sir. They have both gone away."

"Gone away!"

"Yes. Gone into the country, sir. And Mr. Ezra, too, sir."

"And when are they coming back?" he asked, in bewilderment.

"They are not coming back."

"Impossible!" Tom cried in despair. "What is their address, then?"

"They have left no address. I am sorry I can't help you. Good night, sir." Rebecca closed the door, laughing maliciously at the visitor's bewildered looks. She knew the facts of the case well, and having long been jealous of her young mistress, she was not sorry to find things going wrong with her.

Tom Dimsdale stood upon the doorstep looking blankly into the night. He felt dazed and bewildered. What fresh villainy was this? Was it a confirmation of the German's report, or was it a contradiction of it? Cold beads stood upon his forehead as he thought of the possibility of such a thing. "I must find her," he cried, with clenched hands, and turned away heartsick into the turmoil and bustle of the London streets.



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