Chapter XXXI: A Crisis at Eccleston Square

The Firm of Girdlestone

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.

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