“Very, very miserable,” Kate answered, sinking her face upon her hands.
“Ah,” said Girdlestone softly, “it is only in some higher life that we shall find entire peace and contentment.” His voice had altered, so that a little warm spring of hope began to rise in the girl’s heart, that perhaps the sight of her many miseries was beginning to melt this iron man.
“Beyond the grave is rest,” he continued, in the same gentle tones. “It has seemed to me sometimes that if it were not for the duties which I have to perform in this world, and the many who are dependent upon me, I should be tempted to shorten my existence in order to attain the peace which is to come. Some precisians have pronounced it to be sinful to cut the thread of life. For my part I have never thought it so, and yet my view of morals has been a strict one. I hold that of all things in this world one’s life is the thing which belongs most entirely to one’s self, and may therefore most freely be terminated when it seems good to us.” He picked up the phial from the mantelpiece and gazed thoughtfully at it. “How strange,” he said, “to think that within the compass of this tiny bottle lies a cure for every earthly evil! One draught and the body slips off like a garment, while the soul walks forth in all its beauty and freedom. Trouble is over. One draught, and—Ah, let go, I say! What have you done?”
Kate had snatched the bottle from him, and with a quick feminine gesture had hurled it against the wall, where it splintered to pieces, sending a strong turpentiney odour through the apartment. Her strength was so impaired that she staggered back after this feat, and sat down on the side of the bed, while her guardian, grim and threatening, stood over her with his long, bony fingers opening and shutting, as though he found it difficult to keep them from her throat.
“I will not help you in it,” she said, in a low but firm voice.
“You would kill my soul as well.”
The mask had fairly dropped from Girdlestone. No gaunt old wolf could have glared down with fiercer eyes or a more cruel mouth. “You fool!” he hissed.
“I am not afraid to die,” she said, looking up at him with brave, steadfast eyes.
Girdlestone recovered his self-possession by an effort. “It is clear to me,” he said calmly, “that your reason is unhinged. What is all this nonsense about death? There is nothing that will harm you except your own evil actions.” He turned abruptly and strode out of the room with the firm and decided step of a man who has taken an irrevocable resolution.
With a set and rigid face he ascended the steps which led to his bedroom, and, rummaging in his desk, produced a telegram form. This he filled up and took with him downstairs. There he put on his hat and started off to the Bedsworth Post-office at full speed.
At the avenue gate he met his sentinel, who was sitting on his camp stool as grim as ever.
“She is very bad, Stevens,” Girdlestone said, stopping and jerking his head in the direction of the house. “She is going downhill. I am afraid that she can’t last long. If any one asks you about her, you can say that she was despaired of. I am just sending off a telegram to a doctor in London, so that she may have the best advice.”
Stevens touched his greasy-peaked cap as a token of respect. “She was down here behavin’ outrageous the other day,” said he. “‘Let me pass,’ says she, ‘and you shall have ten golden guineas.’ Them’s her very words. ‘Not for ten hundred golden guineas,’ I answers, ‘would William Stevens, hesquire, do what he didn’t ought to.'”
“Very proper, very proper indeed,” said Girdlestone approvingly. “Every man in his own station has his own duties to fulfil, and he will be judged as he has fulfilled them, well or ill. I shall see that you are no loser by your staunchness.”