The Haunted Woman, by David Lindsay

Chapter 7

The Dinner-Party

At seven o’clock on Friday evening the party of six sat down to table in the public room. Judge found himself between the two girls, while Mrs. Moor had the two brothers for neighbors; Isbel faced Marshall across the table, and Blanche her own husband.

Blanche, the tall, pale, slender, fashionable blonde, looked a creature of fine clay in her dinner-frock of foam-blue and silver. She drew many glances from the other diners in the room, and for a long time Marshall and Judge entered into a sort of competition for her favour. Isbel was amused, rather than otherwise. With regard to “personal property,” there was a perfect understanding between her friend and herself, and she had already, earlier in the day, intimated to Blanche what her wishes were concerning Judge.

While waiting for her to disentangle herself, she occupied the time by chatting with Roger on indifferent topics. There could be nothing very exciting in that; he was a nice man, but she was quite well aware that for him only one woman in the world existed — namely, his own wife. His profession was historical research — fortunately, he did not rely upon it for an income — but, as everyone possesses a dual nature, his favourite role in society was that of Mephistopheles, which he undertook consistently. He was four years older than Marshall, and not unlike him in person, though built on a small scale. He had the same broad, pugnacious, good-humoured face, but it was more humorous and sympathetic, and the eyes were livelier.

Isbel’s new wine-red gown had the effect of investing her face with a strange luminous pallor, which almost took the place of beauty. At intervals Judge turned to her in a puzzled way, but Blanche’s fascinations were more obvious, and the pear was not yet ripe.

It was not until the meal was half-way through and a few bottles had been emptied, that the talk became loud and general. Mrs. Moor was fidgeting about Runhill Court, and began to think that she would never have an opportunity of opening that business. She could hardly start negotiations at table, but she told herself that at least she ought to try to find out how things lay. At the first lull in the conversation, therefore, she addressed Judge directly by name, and when he looked up, rather surprised, she introduced the subject of Sherrup.

Judge raised his brows. “I know who you mean, but we’ve never met. There has been some correspondence between us. He was making the trip to England, and wished to visit my place. It seems hos wife’s people at one time owned the estate.”

“So he told us. It was actually in your house that we met him.”

“Thumping your piano, incidentally,” added Marshall.

Judge shot him a glance of inquiry.

“Hammering out Mendelssohn,” explained the underwriter.

“It was one of Beethoven’s Symphonies, to be exact,” corrected Isbel, with a smile. “The Seventh. Are you musical, Mr. Judge?”

“Not very, I fear. You, of course, are?”

“But why ‘of course’? Am I so transparent a person?”

Roger tossed off a full glass of Sauterne. “Some women have accomplishments. Billy is one of the latter sort.”

“Honey with a sting in it, Roger. Those of us who have no brains you are kind enough to console with fascination. But perhaps I have neither.”

“Or perhaps both,” suggested Judge, gallantly. “I for one, see no reason why they should not go together. Many of the cleverest women in history have been the most fascinating.”

“But history has been written by men, and men aren’t the most enlightened critics where women are concerned. All that will have to be re-written by qualified feminine experts some day.”

Judge laughed. “But, in point of fact, men happen to be the best critics of feminine human nature. A woman’s natural impulse is to look for faults in her sisters; a man’s first thought is to look for noble qualities.”

“It may be very chivalrous, but I don’t call it criticism,” rejoined Isbel quickly. “You’re not in the least likely ever to understand a woman’s character that way.”

“If faults constitute a character — no. But my contention is that it’s this constant dwelling on faults which obscures our view of a woman’s real underlying nature. In this sense men are the best observers of your sex.”

“Let me translate,” put in Roger. “It’s good policy to credit a woman with virtues, for if she hasn’t got them already, she will have as soon as she clearly understands that other people believe that she has. Does that go?”

His wife answered: “If you praise a woman’s frock, she will probably like to go on wearing it. Why should it be different with a virtue? Because you haven’t worn a thing for a long while, it doesn’t follow, when you do wear it, that it isn’t your own rightful property.”

“Then there are no counterfeit qualities?” demanded Isbel.

“None which cannot be easily detected,” said Judge. “To extend Mrs. Stokes’ comparison: a borrowed or stolen garment can in most cases be discovered to be so by the misfit. In life, it isn’t difficult to distinguish between true and false.”

“Does that apply to everything — every quality?”

“Undoubtedly, in my opinion.”

“To the relation between men and women?”

“Certainly. Genuine love — for I take it you mean that — would be the most difficult thing in the world to simulate.”

Really?”

“Almost an impossibility, if only men and women were not so anxious to be deceived.”

“Yet coquettes have existed, and still exist.”

Judge lifted his glass with a hand steady as a rock, and examined its contents against the light meditatively.

“Don’t misunderstand me, Miss Loment. I don’t assert that an infatuated man couldn’t be hoodwinked by a clever woman, if she made it her business. All I say is, if he is dubious about her good faith, tests exist.”

“What tests?”

“A coquette, for instance, would know how to flatter his vanity and use her eyes to the best effect, but it’s extremely unlikely that she would consent to throw overboard all other society for his. That would be one test . . . And then there’s the question of sacrifice. Is she, not only ready, but eager, to sacrifice her own happiness for his, not in one way or on one occasion, but in all their relations and at all times? . . . ”

“Most excellent tests!” said Roger, with twinkling eyes. “If fulfilled satisfactorily, the fair lady in question might be safely set down as mortally wounded, and our friend could go full steam ahead with every assurance of eventually leading her to the alter.”

Blanche leant her beautiful arm on the table and propped her face with her fingers.

“But do you insist, Mr. Judge, that every romance is imperfect which doesn’t’ exhibit these extreme symptoms on both sides?”

“As a matter of fact, I wasn’t thinking of romance, in the common acceptance of the term, Mrs. ‘stokes. There are deep, and possibly painful, transactions of the heart to which the term ‘romance’ would be quite inadequate.”

There was a general silence, while the waiter removed the course. The subject was not resumed across the table, but Isbel followed it up with Judge, in a low voice.

“You seem to speak from experience, Mr. Judge?”

“A man of my age must possess a large accumulation of experience, Miss Loment, but it needn’t necessarily be personal experience.”

“In that case you are to be congratulated, for it can’t be a happy condition — this deep passion you have just described.”

He toyed with the stem of his empty glass. “Only certain natures have a capacity for it, perhaps, and they perhaps have an inward tormenting craving for it. It’s very difficult to lay down a law as to what is good, and what is not good.”

“And I think women must have it more than me.”

He glanced at her swiftly. “As the self-sacrificing sex, you mean?”

“No, I don’t mean that. I mean, as the sex which worships the heart, and believes it higher than the highest morality.”

“That’s true.”

“And the worst of it is,” went on Isbel, speaking still lower, “no woman can feel really safe until she has experienced this feeling you speak of.” She uttered a nervous laugh. “Someone else may turn up, who will prove to her how mistakenly she has been living . . . But, of course, I know nothing about it. girls get all sorts of queer fancies in their heads, and that’s because they don’t live in the real world.”

“The wisest course is not to think about such things. By a useful provision of nature, passion comes to comparatively few, and there’s no reason for anyone to suppose that he or she is one of the tragic band. The chances are infinitely against it.”

“Yes, of course — that’s the only sensible way to think . . . I hope you’re not offended by my breach of decorum in discussing such matters?”

“How could I be?”

“Then don’t let’s say any more. My aunt’s watching us . . . Apropos, have you spoken to her about Runhill yet?”

“I’ve had no real opportunity up to the present.”

“Is it really necessary to this evening?”

“Possibly not, if it could be avoided.”

“Will you leave it to me?”

“Willingly; but if she questions me, I must answer her.”

“Of course, but don’t be precipitate.” A quick smile. “I don’t want to return to town yet.”

“You find Brighton attractive?”

“It has attractions.”

Judge’s cream-ice stood in front of him untouched.

“The place itself, or the connections you have formed here?”

“The place itself is horrid.”

Meanwhile Blanche had been exchanging words with Marshall.

“I want to get Mr. Judge to show us over his house — myself and Roger, I mean. What’s the best way to go to work?”

She did not explain that the idea was Isbel’s, and she herself only the friendly medium.

“Ask him, of course,” said Marshall. “He’s quite an obliging old sort.”

“You go back on Monday, don’t you?”

“Yes. Why?”

“I thought we might fix Monday. You wouldn’t want to see the place again, would you?”

“I want Billy to come with us, though. I expect you wouldn’t take it in bad part for once — running off like that without you, I mean?”

“Lord, no! — why should I? Very glad if you can make a decent day of it. I’d take lunch and make it a picnic, if I were you.”

“Good man! . . . Then here goes for the lord of the manor! . . . ”

Judge, having concluded his talk with Isbel, had mechanically turned to his other neighbour. Blanche met his eye with a soft, disarming smile.

“I’m glad you’ve remembered me, Mr. Judge. I’m in a difficulty.”

“That’s woeful news.”

“My husband and I are madly jealous. We’re the only ones here who haven’t seen your much-talked-about house. I daren’t proffer a direct request, for fear of being snubbed.”

“You pay me a very bad compliment, Mrs. Stokes; I didn’t’ know I possessed such a forbidding exterior.”

“Then, may we come for one day?”

“I shall regard it as a distinguished honour. Pray fix your own day.”

“We go back on Tuesday. Monday perhaps . . .?”

“On Monday it shall be. I’ll bring my car over for you. At what hour?”

“But really, we wouldn’t dream of putting you to all that trouble.”

“It will be a very great pleasure. Unhappily, it’s only a four-seater, so I fear the party would have to be separated.”

“Mr. Stokes — Mr. Marshall Stokes”— she laughed —“can’t come, for the simple reason that he’s due back to work on Monday. What about you, Mrs. Moor?”

“I’ve seen the house already, my dear. Isbel will to with you, no doubt.”

“Will you, Billy?”

Isbel appeared to hesitate . . . “I don’t know that I care to, thanks. I’ve seen it, too, you know.”

“Oh, I’d go, Isbel,” urged Marshall. “The summer’s practically through, and you won’t get many more decent spins. I’d squeeze in, myself, if I hadn’t to go back.”

“Mr. Judge may object to so many women.”

“Surely you weren’t waiting for my formal invitation, Miss Loment? I shall feel extremely hurt if you refuse.”

“Very well — I’ll come,” said Isbel quietly, bending her head over her plate, with a very slight access of colour. Judge marvelled at her seeming reluctance to her own scheme, but her somehow felt pleased. It was flattering to be behind the scenes with her.

“Then that’s all right,” said Blanche. “What time will you come and collect us, Mr. Judge?”

“You shall decide. I reserve the whole of Monday.”

Isbel leant over in front of Judge to address her friend. “You don’t realise, dear, that he’s staying at Worthing — ten miles away. We’re all being deplorably inconsiderate.”

“Five miles per beauteous lady is not an extravagant addition to the petrol allowance.” Roger had no spared the bottle. “How say you, Judge?”

“As you say, sir, it’s not worth considering — especially when I have the pleasure of your society thrown in.”

Blanche’s brow was puckered, as though an idea had occurred to her. “I wonder, Mr. Judge, if it would be possible to arrange a picnic-luncheon on the grounds — or the house itself, according to the weather? It would be rather jolly. The hotel people here would make us up a hamper.”

“Not at all,” said Judge. “I’ll see to that myself. It’s a capital suggestion, for it will give us more time to look round.”

“But really, that’s the woman’s department, and we can’t allow you.”

“I insist, Mrs. Stokes. I’m an obstinate man, and there’s no more to be said. I’ll bring the hamper along with me, and call for you at . . . ten — eleven . . .?”

“Call it eleven,” said Roger. “I’m a late riser. We’ll lunch first, and saunter through the house afterwards. Don’t forget the wine.”

The girls scolded him; he defended himself with new jokes and drank off another glass. The coffee came on. The younger people lit cigarettes, but Judge reserved his after-dinner cigar till later.

Mrs. Moor, who had been silent throughout the meal, grew more irritated as she saw the minutes fly by without bringing her any nearer to an exchange of views with Judge. She momentarily expected to see him rise from the table and take his departure, leaving her still in ignorance of his intentions. Perhaps it wasn’t deliberate avoidance of the topic on his part, but it began to look very much like it. Isbel glanced at her aunt anxiously; she read her thoughts with perfect distinctness.

“You’re very quiet to-night, aunt.”

“You others are doing quite well without my help.”

“Mr. Judge has asked me to intercede for him.”

Mrs. Moor stiffened. “What is it?”

“He wants another extension of time, before giving you a final decision.”

“Really, Mr. Judge . . . ”

“It can’t be helped, aunt, and we mustn’t be stupid about it. How long do you want, Mr. Judge?”

“Shall we say a fortnight?” His manner was strangely embarrassed. “I may not need all of that. If not, I would notify you at once.”

Mrs. Moor eyed him sternly. “A fortnight, then. You quite understand my inquiries for a house are continuing in the meantime?”

“That is but fair.”

“A firm offer on my part wouldn’t expedite matters, I presume?”

“I regret to say ‘no’. The financial question does not arise at present.”

Baffled by his formal tone and the distant gravity of his demeanour, she retired into silence, to nurse her displeasure. Isbel turned in her seat to glance at Judge, and uttered a quiet little laugh.

“I’m afraid you won’t be altogether in her good graces now. It’s my fault.”

“Since I have the misfortune to be obliged to displease one of you, I would rather it were she.”

“I know that.” Her voice was very low, but he caught the words, and his face took on a deeper colour.

“How do you know it?”

“Because we are already friends.”

Both turned away, moved by the same impulse. A minute later, however, Isbel whispered to him again:

“In case I ever need it, what is your address at Worthing?”

“The Metropole.”

She thanked him, and turned finally to Roger.

“Isbel seems to find a lot to talk about with Judge,” Marshall had just been remarking to his sister-in-law.

“No cause for alarm, dear boy — she only wants his house.”

“Do you tell me she’s deliberately laying herself out to be pleasant . . .?”

“Don’t you ever use diplomacy in your trade? One has to fight with what weapons one’s got. You’re in on this too, Marshall. I suppose you do want to get Billy to yourself one day, don’t you? Well, then — hurry up and find Mrs. Moor a house.”

Shortly afterward the party rose from table, and judge immediately took his departure.

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