Chapter XLV: The Invasion of Hampshire

The voices and the footsteps sounded louder and louder, until they were just at the other side of the boundary. They seemed to come from several people walking slowly and heavily. There was the shrill rasping of a key, and the wooden door swung back on its rusty hinges, while three dark figures passed out who appeared to bear some burden between them. The party in the shadow crouched closer still, and peered through the darkness with eager, anxious eyes. They could discern little save the vague outlines of the moving men, and yet as they gazed at them an unaccountable and overpowering horror crept into the hearts of every one of them. They breathed the atmosphere of death.

The new-comers tramped across the road, and, pushing through the thin hedge, ascended the railway embankment upon the other side. It was evident that their burden was a heavy one, for they stopped more than once while ascending the steep grassy slope, and once, when near the top, one of the party slipped, and there was a sound as though he had fallen upon his knees, together with a stifled oath. They reached the top, however, and their figures, which had disappeared from view, came into sight again, standing out dimly against the murky sky. They bent down over the railway line, and placed the indistinguishable mass which they bore carefully upon it.

“We must have the light,” said a voice.

“No, no; there’s no need,” another expostulated.

“We can’t work in the dark,” said a third, loudly and harshly.
“Where’s your lantern, guv’nor? I’ve got a lucifer.”

“We must manage that the train passes over right,” the first voice remarked. “Here, Burt, you light it?”

There was the sharp sound of the striking of a match, and a feeble glimmer appeared, in the darkness. It flickered and waned, as though the wind would extinguish it, but next instant the wick of the lantern had caught, and threw a strong yellow glare upon the scene. The light fell upon the major and his comrades, who had sprung into the road, and it lit up the group on the railway line. Yet it was not upon the rescuing party that the murderers fixed their terror-stricken eyes, and the major and his friends had lost all thought of the miscreants above them—for there, standing in the centre of the roadway, there with the light flickering over her pale sweet face, like a spirit from the tomb, stood none other than the much-enduring, cruelly-treated girl for whom Burt’s murderous blow had been intended.

For a few moments she stood there without either party moving a foot or uttering a sound. Then there came from the railway line a cry so wild that it will ring for ever in the ears of those who heard it. Burt dropped upon his knees and put his band over his eyes to keep out the sight. John Girdlestone caught his son by the wrist and dashed away into the darkness, flying wildly, madly, with white faces and staring eyes, as men who have looked upon that which is not of this world. In the meantime, Tom had sprung down from his perch, and had clasped Kate in his arms, and there she lay, sobbing and laughing, with many pretty feminine ejaculations and exclamations and questions, saved at last from the net of death which had been closing upon her so long.

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