Chapter 44




THE SHADOW OF DEATH.

This conversation with Rebecca had suggested to Ezra that he might still have influence enough with his father's ward to induce her to come out of doors, and so put herself within the reach of Burt. He had proposed the plan to his father, who approved of it heartily. The only weak point in his scheme had been the difficulty which might arise in inducing the girl to venture out of the Priory on that tempestuous winter's night. There was evidently only one incentive strong enough to bring it about, and that was the hope of escape. By harping skilfully upon this string they might lure her into the trap. Ezra and his father composed the letter together, and the former handed it to Mrs. Jorrocks, with a request that she should deliver it.

It chanced, however, that Rebecca, keenly alive to any attempt at communication between the young merchant and her mistress, saw the crone hobbling down the passage with the note in her hand.

"What's that, mother?" she asked.

"It's a letter for her," wheezed the old woman, nodding her tremulous head in the direction of Kate's room.

"I'll take it up," said Rebecca eagerly. "I am just going up there with her tea."

"Thank ye. Them stairs tries my rheumatiz something cruel."

The maid took the note and carried it upstairs. Instead of taking it straight to her mistress she slipped into her own room and read every word of it. It appeared to confirm her worst suspicions. Here was Ezra asking an interview with the woman whom he had assured her that he hated. It was true that the request was made in measured words and on a plausible pretext. No doubt that was merely to deceive any other eye which might rest upon it. There was an understanding between them, and this was an assignation. The girl walked swiftly up and down the room like a caged tigress, striking her head with her clenched hands in her anger and biting her lip until the blood came. It was some time before she could overcome her agitation sufficiently to deliver the note, and when she did so her mistress, as we have seen, noticed that her manner was nervous and wild. She little dreamed of the struggle which was going on in the dark-eyed girl's mind against the impulse which urged her to seize her imagined rival by the white throat and choke the life out of her.

"It's eight o'clock now," Ezra was saying downstairs. "I wonder whether she will come?"

"She is sure to come," his father said briefly.

"Suppose she didn't?"

"In that case we should find other means to bring her out. We have not gone so far, to break down over a trifle at the last moment."

"I must have something to drink," Ezra said, after a pause, helping himself from the bottle. "I feel as cold as ice and as nervous as a cat. I can't understand how you look so unconcerned. If you were going to sign an invoice or audit an account or anything else in the way of business you could not take it more calmly. I wish the time would come. This waiting is terrible."

"Let us pass the time to advantage," said John Girdlestone; and drawing a little fat Bible from his pocket he began to read it aloud in a solemn and sonorous voice. The yellow light illuminated the old merchant's massive features as he stooped forwards towards the candle. His strongly marked nose and his hollow cheeks gave him a vulture-like aspect, which was increased by the effect of his deep-set glittering eyes.

Ezra, leaning back in his chair with the firelight flickering over his haggard but still handsome face, looked across at his father with a puzzled expression. He had never yet been able to determine whether the old man was a consummate hypocrite or a religious monomaniac. Burt lay with his feet in the light of the fire and his head sunk back across the arm of the chair, fast asleep and snoring loudly.

"Isn't it time to wake him up?" Ezra asked, interrupting the reading.

"Yes, I think it is," his father answered, closing the sacred volume reverently and replacing it in his bosom.

Ezra took up the candle and held it over the sleeping man. "What a brute he looks!" he said. "Did ever you see such an animal in your life?"

The navvy was certainly not a pretty sight. His muscular arms and legs were all a-sprawl and his head hung back at a strange angle to his body, so that his fiery red beard pointed upwards, exposing all the thick sinewy throat beneath it. His eyes were half open and looked bleared and unhealthy, while his thick lips puffed out with a whistling sound at every expiration. His dirty brown coat was thrown open, and out of one of the pockets protruded a short thick cudgel with a leaden head.

John Girdlestone picked it out and tried it in the air. "I think I could kill an ox with this," he said.

"Don't wave it about _my_ head," cried Ezra. "As you stand in the firelight brandishing that stick in your long arms you are less attractive than usual."

John Girdlestone smiled and replaced the cudgel in the sleeper's pocket. "Wake up, Burt," he cried, shaking him by the arm. "It's half-past eight."

The navvy started to his feet with an oath and then fell back into his chair, staring round him vacantly, at a loss as to where he might be. His eye fell upon the bottle of Hollands, which was now nearly empty, and he held out his hand to it with an exclamation of recognition.

"I've been asleep, guv'nor," he said hoarsely. "Must have a dram to set me straight. Did you say it was time for the job."

"We have made arrangements by which she will be out by the withered oak at nine o'clock."

"That's not for half an hour," cried Burt, in a surly voice. "You need not have woke me yet."

"We'd better go out there now. She may come rather before the time"

"Come on, then!" said the navvy, buttoning up his coat and rolling a ragged cravat round his throat. "Who is a-comin' with me?"

"We shall both come," answered John Girdlestone firmly. "You will need help to carry her to the railway line."

"Surely Burt can do that himself," Ezra remarked. "She's not so very heavy."

Girdlestone drew his son aside. "Don't be so foolish, Ezra," he said. "We can't trust the half-drunken fellow. It must be done with the greatest carefulness and precision, and no traces left. Our old business watchword was to overlook everything ourselves, and we shall certainly do so now."

"It's a horrible affair!" Ezra said, with a shudder. "I wish I was out of it."

"You won't think that to-morrow morning when you realize that the firm is saved and no one the wiser. He has gone on. Don't lose sight of him."

They both hurried out, and found Burt standing in front of the door. It was blowing half a gale now, and the wind was bitterly cold. There came a melancholy rasping and rustling from the leafless wood, and every now and again a sharp crackling sound would announce that some rotten branch had come crashing down. The clouds drove across the face of the moon, so that at times the cold, clear light silvered the dark wood and the old monastery, while at others all was plunged in darkness. From the open door a broad golden bar was shot across the lawn from the lamp in the hall. The three dark figures with their long fantastic shadows looked eerie and unnatural in the yellow glare.

"Are we to have a lantern?" asked Burt.

"No, no," cried Ezra. "We shall see quite enough as it is. We don't want a light."

"I have one," said the father. "We can use it if it is necessary. I think we had better take our places now. She may come sooner than we expect. It will be well to leave the door as it is. She will see that there is no obstacle in the way."

"You're not half sharp enough," said Ezra. "If the door was left like that it might suggest a trap to her. Better close the dining-room door and then leave the hall door just a little ajar. That would look more natural. She would conclude that Burt and you were in there."

"Where are Jorrocks and Rebecca?" Girdlestone asked, closing the door as suggested.

"Jorrocks is in her room. Rebecca, I have no doubt, is in hers also."

"Things look safe enough. Come along, Burt. This way."

The three tramped their way across the gravelled drive and over the slushy grass to the border of the wood.

"This is the withered oak," said Girdlestone, as a dark mass loomed in front of them. It stood somewhat apart from the other trees, and the base of it was free from the brambles which formed a thick undergrowth elsewhere.

Burt walked round the great trunk and made as careful an examination of the ground as he could in the dark.

"Would the lantern be of any use to you?" Girdlestone asked.

"No, It's all serene. I think I know how to fix it now. You two can get behind those trees, or where you like, as long as you're not in the way. I don't want no 'sistance. When Jem Burt takes a job in hand he carries it through in a workmanlike manner. I don't want nobody else foolin' around."

"We would not dream of interfering with your arrangements," said Girdlestone.

"You'd better not!" Burt growled. "I'll lay down behind this oak, d'ye see. When she comes, she'll think as he's not arrived yet, and she'll get standin' around and waitin'. When I see my chance, I'll get behind her, and she'll never know that she has not been struck by lightnin'."

"Excellent!" cried John Girdlestone; "excellent! We had best get into our places."

"Mind you do it all in one crack," Ezra said. "Don't let us have any crying out afterwards. I could stand a good deal, but not that."

"You should know how I hits," Burt remarked with a malicious grin, which was hidden from his companion. "If your head wasn't well nigh solid you wouldn't be here now."

Ezra's hand involuntarily went up to the old scar. "I think such a one as that would settle her!" he said, as he withdrew with his father. The two took up their position under the shadow of some trees fifty yards off or more. Burt crouched down behind the withered oak with his weapon in his hand and waited for the coming of his victim.

Ezra, though usually resolute and daring, had completely lost his nerve, and his teeth were chattering in his head. His father, on the other hand, was emotionless and impassive as ever.

"It's close upon nine o'clock," Ezra whispered.

"Ten minutes to," said the other, peering at his great golden chronometer through the darkness.

"What if she fails to come?"

"We must devise other means of bringing her out."

From the spot where they stood they had a view of the whole of the Priory. She could not come out without being seen. Above the door was a long narrow window which opened upon the staircase. On this Girdlestone and his son fixed their eyes, for they knew that on her way down she would be visible at it. As they looked, the dim light which shone through it was obscured and then reappeared.

"She has passed!"

"Hush!"

Another moment and the door was stealthily opened. Once again the broad golden bar shot out across the lawn almost to the spot where the confederates were crouching. In the centre of the zone of light there stood a figure--the figure of the girl. Even at that distance they could distinguish the pearl-grey mantle which she usually wore and the close-fitting bonnet. She had wrapped a shawl round the lower part of her face to protect her from the boisterous wind. For a minute or more she stood peering out into the darkness of the night, as though uncertain whether to proceed or to go back. Then, with a quick, sudden gesture she closed the door behind her. The light was no longer there, but they knew that she was outside the house, and that the appointment would be kept.

What an age it seemed before they heard her footsteps. She came very slowly, putting one foot gingerly before the other, as if afraid of falling over something in the darkness. Once or twice she stopped altogether, looking round, no doubt, to make sure of her whereabouts. At that instant the moon shone out from behind a cloud, and they saw her dark figure a short distance on. The light enabled her to see the withered oak, for she came rapidly towards it. As she approached, she satisfied herself apparently that she was the first on the ground, for she slackened her pace once more and walked in the listless way that people assume when they are waiting. The clouds were overtaking the moon again, and the light was getting dimmer.

"I can see her still," said Ezra in a whisper, grasping his father's wrist in his excitement.

The old man said nothing, but he peered through the darkness with eager, straining eyes.

"There she is, standing out a little from the oak," the young merchant said, pointing with a quivering finger. "She's not near enough for him to reach her."

"He's coming out from the shadow now," the other said huskily. "Don't you see him crawling along the ground?"

"I see him," returned the other in the same subdued, awestruck voice. "Now he has stopped; now he goes on again! My God, he's close behind her! She is looking the other way."

A thin ray of light shot down between the clouds. In its silvery radiance two figures stood out hard and black, that of the unconscious girl and of the man who crouched like a beast of prey behind her. He made a step forward, which brought him within a yard of her. She may have heard the heavy footfall above the shriek of the storm, for she turned suddenly and faced him. At the same instance she was struck down with a crashing blow. There was no time for a prayer, no time for a scream. One moment had seen her a magnificent woman in all the pride of her youthful beauty, the next left her a poor battered, senseless wreck. The navvy had earned his blood-money.

At the sound of the blow and the sight of the fall both the old man and the young ran out from their place of concealment. Burt was standing over the body, his bludgeon in his hand.

"Not even a groan!" he said. "What d'ye think of that?"

Girdlestone wrung his hand and congratulated him warmly. "Shall I light the lantern?" he asked.

"For God's sake, don't!" Ezra said earnestly.

"I had no idea that you were so faint-hearted, my son," the merchant remarked. "However, I know the way to the gate well enough to go there blindfold. What a comfort it is to know that there is no blood about! That's the advantage of a stick over a knife."

"You're correct there, guv'nor," Burt said approvingly.

"Will you kindly carry one end and I'll take the other. I'll go first, if you don't mind, because I know the way best. The train will pass in less than half an hour, so we have not long to wait. Within that time every chance of detection will have gone."

Girdlestone raised up the head of the murdered girl, and Burt took her feet. Ezra walked behind as though he were in some dreadful dream. He had fully recognized the necessity for the murder, but he had never before realized how ghastly the details would be. Already he had begun to repent that he had ever acquiesced in it. Then came thoughts of the splendid possibilities of the African business, which could only be saved from destruction by this woman's death. How could he, with his luxurious tastes, bear the squalor and poverty which would be his lot were the firm to fail? Better a rope and a long drop than such a life as that! All these considerations thronged into his mind as he plodded along the slippery footpath which led through the forest to the wooden gate.



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