Rebecca, the fresh-complexioned waiting-maid, was still standing behind the ponderous hall door, listening, with a smile upon her face, to young Dimsdale’s retreating footsteps, when another and a brisker tread caught her ear coming from the opposite direction. The smile died away as she heard it, and her features assumed a peculiar expression, in which it would be hard to say whether fear or pleasure predominated. She passed her hands up over her face and smoothed her hair with a quick nervous gesture, glancing down at the same time at her snowy apron and the bright ribbons which set it off. Whatever her intentions may have been, she had no time to improve upon her toilet before a key turned in the door and Ezra Girdlestone stepped into the hall. As he saw her shadowy figure, for the gas was low, he uttered a hoarse cry of surprise and fear, and staggered backwards against the door-post.
“Don’t be afeared, Mister Ezra,” she said in a whisper; “it’s only me.”
“The devil take you!” cried Ezra furiously. “What makes you stand about like that? You gave me quite a turn.”
“I didn’t mean for to do it. I’ve only just been answering of the door. Why, surely you’ve come in before now and found me in the hall without making much account of it.”
“Ah, lass,” answered Ezra, “my nerves have had a shake of late. I’ve felt queer all day. Look how my hand shakes.”
“Well, I’m blessed!” said the girl, with a titter, turning up the gas. “I never thought to see you afeared of anything. Why, you looks as white as a sheet!”
“There, that’s enough!” he answered roughly. “Where are the others?”
“Jane is out. Cook and William and the boy are downstairs.”
“Come into the library here. They will think that you are up in the bedrooms. I want to have a quiet word or two with you. Turn up that reading lamp. Well, are they gone?”
“Yes, they are gone,” she answered, standing by the side of the couch on which he had thrown himself. “Your father came about three with a cab, and took her away.”
“She didn’t make a fuss?”
“Make a fuss? No; why should she? There’s fuss enough made about her, in all conscience. Oh, Ezra, before she got between us you was kind to me at times. I could stand harsh words from you six days a week, if there was a chance of a kind one on the seventh. But now-now what notice do you take of me?” She began to whimper and to wipe her eyes with a little discoloured pocket-handkerchief.
“Drop it, woman, drop it!” cried her companion testily. “I want information, not snivelling. She seemed reconciled to go?”
“Yes, she went quiet enough,” the girl said, with a furtive sob.
“Just give me a drop of brandy out of that bottle over there-the one with the cork half out. I’ve not got over my start yet. Did you hear my father say anything as to where they were going?”
“I heard him tell the cabman to drive to Waterloo Station.”
“Well, if he won’t tell you, I will. They have gone down to Hampshire, my lass. Bedsworth is the name of the place, and it is a pleasant little corner near the sea. I want you to go down there as well to-morrow.”
“Want me to go?”
“Yes; they need some one who is smart and handy to keep house for them. There is some old woman already, I believe, but she is old and useless. I’ll warrant you wouldn’t take long getting things shipshape. My father intends to stay down there some little time with Miss Harston.”
“And how about you?” the girl asked, with a quick flash of suspicion in her dark eyes.
“Don’t trouble about me. I shall stay behind and mind the business. Some one must be on the spot. I think cook and Jane and William ought to be able to look after me among them.”
“And I won’t see you at all?” the girl cried, with a quiver in her voice.
“Oh yes, you shall. I’ll be down from Saturday to Monday every week, and perhaps oftener. If business goes well I may come down and stay for some time. Whether I do or not may depend upon you.”
Rebecca Taylforth started and uttered an exclamation of surprise. “How can it depend upon me?” she asked eagerly.
“Well,” said Ezra, in a hesitating way, “it may depend upon whether you are a good girl, and do what you are told or not. I am sure that you would do anything to serve me, would you not?”