There were other signs, however, of the presence of man. From her window she could see the great men-of-war steaming up the Channel, to and from the anchorage at Spithead. Some were low in the water and venomous looking, with bulbous turrets and tiny masts. Others were long and stately, with great lowering hulks and broad expanse of canvas. Occasionally a foreign service gunboat would pass, white and ghostly, like some tired seabird flapping its way home. It was one of Kate’s few amusements to watch the passing and repassing of the vessels, and to speculate upon whence they had come and whither they were bound.
On that eventful evening Rebecca went to bed rather earlier than usual. Kate retired to her room, and having made her final preparations and stuffed her few articles of jewelry into her pockets, to serve in place of money, she lay down upon her bed, and trembled at the thought of what was in front of her. Down below she could hear her guardian’s shuffling step as he moved about the refectory. Then came the creaking of the rusty lock as he secured the door, and shortly afterwards he passed upstairs to his room. Mrs. Jorrocks had also gone to bed, and all was quiet in the house.
Kate knew that some hours must elapse before she could venture to make the attempt. She remembered to have read in some book that the sleep of a human being was usually deepest about two in the morning, so she had chosen that hour for her enterprise. She had put on her strongest dress and her thickest shoes, but had muffled the latter in cloth, so that they should make no sound. No precaution which she could think of had been neglected. There was now nothing to be done but to spend the time as best she might until the hour of action should arrive.
She rose and looked out of the window again. The tide was out now, and the moon glittered upon the distant ocean. A mist was creeping up, however, and even as she looked it drew its veil over the water. It was bitterly cold. She shivered and her teeth began to chatter. Stretching herself upon the bed once more, she wrapped the blankets round her, and, worn out with anxiety and fatigue, dropped into a troubled sleep.
She slumbered some hours before she awoke.
Looking at her watch she found that it was after two. She must not delay any longer. With the little bundle of her more valuable possessions in her hand, she gave such a gasp as a diver gives before he makes his spring, and slipping past Rebecca’s half-opened door she felt her way down the wooden stair, picking her steps very carefully.
Even in the daytime she had often noticed how those old planks creaked and cracked beneath her weight. Now, in the dead silence of the night, they emitted such sounds that her heart sank within her. She stopped several times, convinced that she must be discovered, but all was hushed and still. It was a relief when at last she reached the ground-floor, and was able to feel her way along the passage to the door.
Shaking in every limb from cold and fear, she put her hand to the lock; the key was not there. She tried the nail; there was nothing there. Her wary gaoler had evidently carried it away with him to his room. Would it occur to him to do the same in the case of the back door? It was very possible that he might have overlooked it. She retraced her steps down the passage, passed Mrs. Jorrocks’ room, where the old woman was snoring peacefully, and began to make her way as best she could through the great rambling building.
Running along the basement floor from front to back there was a long corridor, one side of which was pierced for windows. At the end of this corridor was the door which she wished to reach. The moon had broken through the fog, and pouring its light through each opening cast a succession of silvery flickering spots upon the floor. Between each of these bars of uncertain light was an interval of darkness. Kate stood at the head of this corridor with her hand against the wall, awed by the sudden sight of the moonlight and by the weird effect which was produced by the alternate patches of shadow and brightness. As she stood there, suddenly, with eyes distended with horror, she became aware that something was approaching her down the corridor.
She saw it moving as a dark formless mass at the further end. It passed through the bar of light, vanished, appeared once more, lost itself in the darkness, emerged again. It was half-way down the passage and still coming on. Petrified with terror, she could only wait and watch. Nearer it came and nearer. It was gliding into the last bar of light Immediately in front of her! It was on her! God of mercy, it was a Dominican friar! The moon shone clear and cold upon his gaunt figure and his sombre robes. The poor girl threw up her hands, gave one terrible scream of horror, which rang through the old house, and sank senseless to the ground.