“Ah, my lady,” he said with a sneer, “you are reaping what you have sown. You are tasting now, the bitter fruits of your disobedience. Repent before it is too late!”
“I have done no wrong,” she said, turning on him with flashing eyes. “It is for you to repent, you violent and hypocritical man. It is for you to answer for your godly words and your ungodly and wicked actions. There is a power which will judge between us some day, and will exact atonement for your broken oath to your dead friend and for your cruel treatment of one who was left to your care.” She spoke with burning cheeks and with such fearless energy that the hard City man fairly cowered away from her.
“We will leave that to the future,” he said. “I came up to do you a kindness, and you abuse me. I hear that there are insects about the house, beetles and the like. A few drops from this bottle scattered about the room would keep them away. Take care, for it is a violent though painless poison if taken by a human being.” He handed her a phial, with a brownish turbid liquid in it, and a large red poison label, which she took without comment and placed upon the mantelpiece. Girdlestone gave a quick, keen glance at her as he retired. In truth he was astonished at the alteration which the last few days had made in her appearance. Her cheeks were colourless and sunken, save for the single hectic spot, which announced the fever within. Her eyes were unnaturally bright. A strange and new expression had settled upon her whole countenance. It seemed to Girdlestone that there was every chance that his story might become a reality, and her reason be permanently deranged. She had, however, more vitality than her guardian gave her credit for. Indeed, at the very time when he set her down in his mind as a broken woman, she had formed a fresh plan for escape, which it would require both energy and determination to put into execution.
During the last few days she had endeavoured to make friends with the maid Rebecca, but the invincible aversion which the latter had entertained for her, ever since Ezra had visited her with his unwelcome attentions, was not to be overcome by any advances which she could make. She performed her offices with a heart full of malice, and an eye which triumphed in her mistress’s misfortunes.
Kate had bethought herself that Stevens, the gatekeeper, only mounted guard during the day. She had observed, too, at the time of her conversation with him, that the iron gate was in such a state of disrepair that, even if it were locked, it would not be a difficult matter to scramble through or over it. If she could only gain the open air during the night there would be nothing to prevent her from making her way to Bedsworth, whence she could travel on to Portsmouth, which was only seven miles away. Surely there she would find some charitable people who would communicate with her friends and give her a temporary shelter.
The front door of the house was locked every night, but there was a nail behind it, on which she hoped to find the key. There was another door at the back. Then there were the windows of the ground-floor, which might be tried in case the doors were too securely fastened. If only she could avoid waking any one there was no reason why she should not succeed. If the worst came to the worst and she was detected, they could not treat her more cruelly than they had already done.
Ezra had gone back to London, so that she had only three enemies to contend against, Girdlestone, Rebecca, and old Mrs. Jorrocks. Of these, Girdlestone slept upon the floor above, and Mrs. Jorrocks, who might have been the most dangerous of all, as her room was on the ground-floor, was fortunately so deaf that there was little risk of disturbing her. The problem resolved itself, therefore, into being able to pass Rebecca’s room without arousing her, and, as she knew the maid to be a sound sleeper, there seemed to be every chance of success.
She sat at her window all that afternoon steeling her mind to the ordeal before her. She was weak, poor girl, and shaken, little fit for anything which required courage and resolution. Her mind ran much upon her father, and upon the mother whom she had never known, but whose miniature was among her most precious treasures. The thought of them helped to dispel the dreadful feeling of utter loneliness, which was the most unendurable of all her troubles.
It was a cold, bright day, and the tide was in, covering the mudbanks and lapping up against the walls of the Priory grounds. So clear was it that she could distinguish the houses at the east end of the Isle of Wight. When she opened her window and looked out she could perceive that the sea upon her right formed a great inlet, dreary and dry at low tide, but looking now like a broad, reed-girt lake. This was Langston Harbour, and far away at its mouth she could make out a clump of buildings which marked the watering-place of Hayling.