The Haunted Woman, by David Lindsay

Chapter 18

A Catastrophe

After a miserable, feverish night of tossing and turning, Isbel at last fell asleep in the early house of the morning. She awoke again at eight, and at once got up. She felt dull and stupid, was incapable if quickening her movements, her eyes gave her a sense of being sunk half-way in her head. So sluggish was her blood that whatever she chanced to look at seemed to possess the power of detaining her gaze for an indefinite period, though all the time she was not really seeing it. To crown all, she had a gnawing toothache. She was deeply depressed.

She dared not think of Judge, yet all her preparations were made with the single view of journeying to Worthing that morning immediately after breakfast. What was to come of her visit, she did not know. Perhaps nothing at all; perhaps it might be the beginning of a new life.

After dressing, and before going downstairs, she stood awhile at the window. It was a still grey, dismal morning, which threatened to turn to for or fine rain. It was neither cold nor warm. She contemplated the engagement-ring on her finger, playing with it, as she smiled queerly. It was a pretty toy, and all her friends were very pleased with her for wearing it, but . . . supposing she was not destined to wear it any longer? Who could tell what this day was appointed to bring forth, whether for good or for evil? What a quaint surprise for her little circle if it were to prove that, after all, she had rich, red blood in her veins, and not rose-water!

Oh, she did not know what she felt! It could not be passion. She was conscious of no thrill, but, on the contrary, was thoroughly cold, dull, and despondent. But neither was she playing a part. Something called to her, and that silent voice was irresistible. It was something in that house . . . It was like the call of a drug; she was a drug-maniac . . . But why Judge? And why that ring yesterday? Could it be passion? . . . A passion which kept flaming up, and slumbering again? . . .

Each following day she found it harder to keep away from him. It was not his person, it was not his intellect, it was not his character; it could not be compatibility . . . Then what was it? What was this subtle attraction which was proving so increasingly overwhelming? Was it that, underneath person, intellect, character, there was something else — something which never came to the surface, but disclosed itself only to the something else in her? And was all love of this nature, or was it exceptional, prodigious? . . .

Whom to ask? Who loved nowadays? Betrothals and marriages she saw all around her, but if it wasn’t money, it was sexual admiration — she could see nothing else. Might not that secret, incomprehensible impulse which drew her to him be more worthy of the name of love than these despicable physical infatuations of worldly men and women? . . .

* * *

At ten o’clock she left the hotel, procured a taxi on the front, and within a quarter of an hour was standing inside the booking-hall at Hove Station.

It was not yet half-past eleven as she mounted the steps of the Metropole. She swept through the door, and approached the office window, assuming an air of hauteur which was contradicted by the trembling of her hands, as she fumbled in her bag for her card-case. Producing a card, she passed it over the counter to the lady clerk.

“Will you please have that sent up to Mrs. Richborough?”

The clerk looked at the card, and at her. She said nothing, but went to consul with someone else, who was out of sight; Isbel could hear them whispering together. Presently the girl came back, and requested her to accompany her to another room, adjoining the office. Isbel did so. She was begged to sit down, and then left to her own society, the door being closed upon her. It was all very solemn and mysterious.

A minute afterwards a well-dressed man of middle age entered the room. He had a florid German-looking face, and a bald forehead; he was wearing braided trousers, with an irreproachable frock-coat. Isbel took him to be the hotel manage.

“You are Miss Loment, madam?” he asked with suave gravity, gazing at the card in his hand.

She replied in the affirmative.

“You are inquiring for Mrs. Richborough?”

Isbel had risen to her feet.

“Yes; I wish to see her.”

“You are a relative, madam?”

“Oh, no. Why?”

“It is my regrettable duty to inform you that Mrs. Richborough was taken suddenly ill in her room last night, and died almost immediately afterwards. A medical man fortunately was in attendance.”

“Oh, good heavens! . . . ” Isbel grasped the chair-back to steady herself.

“The precise time was 9.15. It was very sudden, and very sad . . . Naturally, we are anxious that this should not be known among the other guests. I feel sure that I can rely upon your discretion, madam.”

“Oh, what a tragedy! . . . But surely Mr. Judge know of it?”

“Yes, Mr. Judge does know.”

“Could I speak to him a minute, please? Will you send my name up?”

“I regret that it is impossible, madam. Mr. Judge left us this morning.”

Left you? . . . Do you mean he has gone away — altogether?”

“Yes, madam; he has returned to London.”

“But — has he taken his things with him? Isn’t he coming back?”

“No, he is not coming back . . . One moment, madam . . . ” He consulted the card in his hand. “I believe he has left a letter for you in charge of the office. If you will pardon me, I will go and inquire.”

Isbel could not even find words to thank him. She sat down, feeling as if the roof had fallen upon her. She understood that a catastrophe had happened, but she was unable to realise its final significance.

It was the clerk who brought the letter in, a moment or two later. She handed it to Isbel with a pleasant smile, and instantly retired.

She broke the seal with clumsy haste. The letter ran as follows:

“My dear Miss Loment.

“I am sorry to inform you that Mrs. Richborough died suddenly last night of heart failure. The doctor who attended her earlier in the evening had ordered her to bed, and she went there, but a little while late, according to her maid’s evidence, she insisted upon rising in order to write an urgent letter, which letter she further insisted upon posting in the hotel box with her own hand. The additional strain upon her lowered vitality which this entailed evidently proved too much for her, for half an hour afterwards she was discovered lying in a dying condition in her room. There will of course be an inquest.

“Under the sad circumstances, I feel that any meeting between us would be improper — doubtless you will agree with me. I have accordingly made my arrangements to return at once to town, and by the time you receive this letter — assuming that you have made your promised visit to Worthing — I shall be already on my way back there.

“I think it will be wise if we allow a considerable time to elapse before attempting to see one another again. We have both, I am afraid, acted rather more impulsively than is altogether consistent with worldly prudence, and, to put it at the lowest, an interval for reflection and a cool weighing of the whole situation will certainly not harm either of us. You will understand, of course, that I blame myself far more than you for the unfortunate happenings of the past few days.

“I am leaving my town address with the hotel people should you desire to write me a line in reply. I do not ask it.

“I do not say adieu, for I sincerely hope that at some future time we shall see a great deal of each other.

“Believe me to be, my dear Miss Loment, your earnest friend and well-wisher.

“Henry Judge”

After flashing through the letter from beginning to end, to extract its message, Isbel allowed it to slip from her hand, while she sat back with close eyes . . . Then she picked it up again, and twice re-read it, word by word. During the perusal her bosom rose and sank the blood mounting to her face, and once or twice she laughed . . .

Crushing the sheets into her handbag, she closed it with an angry snap.

So that was over! . . .

The manager escorted her to the outer door. At the foot of the hotel steps she came to a standstill, not knowing in the least what to do, or where to go. She caught sight of an elegantly dressed lady, in expensive furs, who was in the act of entering a closed car not five yards away from where she was standing. The chauffeur was taking his final instructions, preparatory to assuming his seat. The lady’s back was towards her, but somehow her figure struck a familiar chord.

“ . . . But first of all, Runhill court,” said the unknown, as she stooped to get in.

Isbel felt bemused. It was not the destination named which dismayed her faculties, and made her feel as though she were in a dream — though this destination was extraordinary enough, in all conscience — but the intonation with which the words were uttered. That sweet, sinking whisper belonged only to one person of her acquaintance, and she could not conceive a second voice like it in the world. It was Mrs. Richborough’s . . .

As the car drove off she obtained a single rapid glimpse of the lady’s face. Mrs. Richborough was dead, and therefore it could not be she; but, then, it must be her twin sister. The resemblance was absolutely uncanny . . . Well, it was not difficult to understand why a sister should be there at such a distressful time — but what in the world was she doing at Runhill? What possible interest could she have in that house? Evidently some mystery was afoot . . . Could it be that Judge had arranged a meeting with her there in order to talk over the affairs of her late sister? But what affairs could there be to discuss between them? And why select that out-of-the-way spot for the interview? What did it all mean? . . .

She turned to the smart-looking young hotel door-porter, who still stood gazing after the car. “Who is that lady?”

“Lady Brooke, miss.”

“Is she in any way related to the late Mrs. Richborough, do you know?”

“I’ve never seen them together, miss, and I should say it’s very unlikely. Lady Brooke is a very exclusive lady.”

“She did tell the chauffeur Runhill Court, didn’t she?”

“No, miss — Arundel,” was the surprised answer.

Isbel was greatly perplexed, but thought it wise to ask no more questions about her. She inquired for, and was directed to the nearest hiring garage in the neighbourhood of the hotel.

It had entered her mind that she, too, must go to Runhill, though what she expected to accomplish by so doing, she had no idea . . . that the door-porter must have received certain instructions — or, perhaps he had mistaken the person she had referred to. She knew that it was either Mrs. Richborough or her twin-sister. And she knew that that woman had said “Runhill Court.” It was absolutely necessary and important that she should follow her there, to see what was on foot . . . And, of course, Mr. Judge must be waiting for her there . . . and it was all lies! lies! lies!

She was lucky in getting a landaulette at once. Money was of no account to her, she agreed to the charge demanded without demur, and within five minutes was on her way.

The car was badly sprung, and jolted her abominably; the cushions stank of oil; her tooth started to ache again. Although it was not actually raining, the day was gloomy and forbidding, and everything seemed saturated with damp. Water dripped from the trees. The roads were greasy and they kept skidding. Not a single gleam of light sky promised better things. Isbel squeezed herself in a corner, and closed her eyes.

After passing Steyning, she roused herself. The chauffeur seemed an utter idiot — his work was in this part of the country, and yet he was forever pulling up to ask her for directions. She told him as well as she could . . . Would this terrible journey never come to an end? . . .

At last they reached the lane which ran past the lodge. Here the road forked. One lane went by the lodge; the other, which she did not know, appeared to skirt the western boundary of the estate, going due north somewhere. The chauffeur stopped the car once more at this fork, and Isbel was about to direct him to proceed straight forward when suddenly her eyes rested on a fashionably-dressed woman in furs, who was walking quickly but delicately up the second lane, away from them. She was about twenty yards ahead, and was alone . . . it was she . . . So he had lied, that porter! . . . But, oh heavens! what an appalling resemblance to Mrs. Richborough. She could pick up that step out of a thousand others . . . Then she wasn’t dead. The whole thing was a conspiracy, directed against her, Isbel. Judge had fallen a victim to that woman at last, and they were quietly putting her out of the way, as an inconvenient person. The hotel manager had been bribed. There was really nothing left to explain . . .

“You needn’t come any further. I’m getting out.” Isbel suited the action to the word.

The man looked dissatisfied. “Am I to wait?”

“No, you can go home. Do I pay you, or the garage?”

Being a casual hirer she had to pay him. She hurriedly gave him notes to cover the charge, and, without waiting for the change, or interesting herself in his further movements, at once turned her back on him and started quickly up the lane, round the bend of which the unknown woman had by this time vanished.

She reached the bend herself. The disagreeable noise of the departing car grew fainter and fainter as the distance increased between them, until finally she heard no sounds but those of nature. Everything around her was moist, dripping, and sullen . . . Mrs. Richborough — for she had now no doubt that it was she — was still a considerable distance in front. They were both walking swiftly, so there was no question of catching her up. Isbel did not quite understand where she was going to, but probably there was another way into the grounds from this side, which would obviate the necessity of passing through the lodge-gate . . . But, if so, how had that woman come to know of it? And, by the way, where had her car disappeared to? . . . Isbel asked herself many questions during that period, but she was unable to answer any one of them.

The whole right-hand side of the lane was bordered by an ancient, red-brick wall which bounded the estate. Beyond it was a park, looking grey and disconsolate enough on such a day as this; the wet grass was knee-high, and every faintest breath of wind brought water off the brown-leaved trees. The park sloped downhill from the lane at first, but presently it became level. A dark grey shadowy mass on the forward right was probably the house itself; very likely it was not so far away as it looked, but the light was so bad . . . Suddenly half-way along a straight stretch of lane, her quarry vanished . . .

Isbel was careful to keep her eye on the spot where she had last observed her. No doubt there would be an entrance there into the grounds.

Upon coming up to it she found her anticipation was realised. A small iron wicket-gate opened into the park. It had been swung to, but was unlatched. A gravel walk, barely wide enough for two people side by side, led through the grass and under trees towards what could now distinctly be seen to be the house. It was slightly uphill. Isbel passed in without hesitation.

After walking quickly for about five minutes, she again saw the woman. She was as far ahead as ever. She had reached the foot of the steep sloping lawn under the house, and now turned sharply to the left, which would evidently bring her to the north-east side of the building — though how she could be so certain of her direction on this, her first visit to the grounds, was more than Isbel could say. The house itself was by this time quite close. Standing high above her, in the grey mist, it looked a huge, weird erection, the more especially as it was a mere silhouette. The part which faced her must be the back — the French windows of the dining-room, the bedrooms of the top storey, etc . . . But the time that Isbel had gained of the same spot, beneath the lawn, the woman had again disappeared. She also turned to the left.

The path curved, and in another minute or two she was in full view of the north-east front. The lawn, which was still steeper on this side, towered above her in that dime visibility like a veritable mountain slope, and crowning it was the great house, vast, shadowy, and grim. She could just make out the gable underneath which was the window of the East Room.

While she paused to gaze up, she became aware that the woman was standing close beside her. Then her doubts were remove. It was Mrs. Richborough! . . . there was something disquieting and peculiar in her appearance, however . . . Perhaps it was the way she was standing. Her hands were free, and they crossed, not over her breast but over the lower part of her body, with straightened elbows. She was also very erect and still. Her face appeared white and smiling, under the decorative veil she wore — but perhaps it was illusion, the light was so poor. Isbel felt a strange uneasiness.

“They told me at the hotel that — something happened to you.”

“Oh, yes — I am dead,” came the whispering voice. “I died last night.”

And then Isbel realised that her eyes ere closed, that this being standing opposite to her, with the dress and bearing of a fashionable woman, did not see the world as other people! . . .

Her tongue was paralysed, and she shook from head to foot.

The apparition vanished.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49