The Haunted Woman, by David Lindsay

Chapter 8

The Picnic

At mid-day on Monday, Judge’s Daimler pulled up outside the hall porch at Runhill Court. Roger jumped out and assisted the girls to alight, after which Judge himself got down. Beneath the motoring wraps, Blanche and Isbel wore light summer dresses, for, although it was already October, the sky was cloudless and the sun hot. All congratulated themselves on the happy selection of such a day for their excursion.

“Where do we go?” laughed Blanche.

Judge was struggling to get out the baskets. He deposited the second one on the ground and dusted his hands.

“We’re going to picnic in a very charming spot, Mrs. Stokes. Leave it to me. Mr. Stokes, as the younger man, the bigger basket falls to you.”

“Thanks! How far is it?”

“Come on!” said his wife. “Never mind how far — we’ll all give a hand. You and I will tackle the big one, Roger; Mr. Judge can take the smaller; Billy can carry the rug.”

“Won’t you leave your wraps, though?” inquired Judge. “It seems to me that once or twice I’ve half caught a glimpse of something very enticing underneath. The grass should be moderately dry.”

“You haven’t forgotten the wine, Judge?” demanded Roger. “If I work, I want pay. The girls’ frocks leave me uninspired, more especially as my wife’s hasn’t been settled for yet. I don’t stir a step till I know what’s in that basket.”

“This is a picnic, not an orgy,” said Blanche reprovingly.

Judge lifted the smaller hamper. “I saw the wine go in, and I believe it’s very good stuff.”

“But you’re a horrid sybarite, Roger,” put in Isbel. “Why is it that strong and healthy young men are invariably the most self-indulgent?” She removed her wrap and flung it carelessly in the car; Blanche followed suit.

“I like that. You women pass your whole lives delighting your souls with fine raiment, and then you have the cool impudence to rebuke us for indulgence.”

“Personally, I regard feminine adornment not only as justifiable, but as a public duty,” remarked Judge. “One can hardly say as much for the private pleasures of me.”

Roger chuckled. “If you carry on in that strain you’ll make yourself popular. Look at the girls, drinking it all in with open mouths.”

“Mr. Judge is a knight,” said Isbel coldly. “You are only a jester, Roger.”

“But is it good to be a knight, fair lady?”

“So it seems to my poor intelligence.”

“’Tis a most dangerous profession. Your knight is a flatterer. But your flatterer may well end by becoming regarded as personal property. I shall remain a jester, I think.”

They started off, by Judge’s direction, along the terrace which skirted the front of the house. Blanche and Roger went on ahead, bearing the larger hamper between them, while Isbel and Judge fell behind, the latter carrying the small basket.

Isbel looked pensive. After a minute she said: “That last remark of Roger’s was as bitter as it was untrue. It makes out that we women are incapable of discriminating between personal and impersonal flattery. It isn’t words that we go by; it’s the man himself — his character.”

“I imagine so. But, still, pleasant words lead to friendship.”

“Sometimes, perhaps. The best kind of friendships more than empty compliments.”

“And what do you understand by the best kind of friendship — between persons of opposite sex?”

She coloured faintly. “It is one of those things which are more easily known to oneself than defined.”

“For a friendship like that requires great tact, and tact is not of the brain. It is very delicate instinct.”

“Yes. And that’s why I am so glad to have you for a friend Mr. Judge — for I feel certain that you possess this . . . tact, in the highest degree . . . However, it would make no difference. We shall soon see no more of each other?”

“Can’t we arrange to the contrary?”

“How? We shall be leaving this part of the country almost directly, and you know we don’t know the same people. It’s extremely unlikely we shall ever meet again.”

“In plain language, Miss Loment — pardon me, I must speak openly — my house is the price of the continuance of your friendship? That is what you mean?”

“The statement is yours, not mine. I don’t presume to flatter myself that my humble acquaintance is worth more to you than your house. I should indeed be an egotist.”

“You mustn’t say that, Miss Loment. My interests are very complicated; it isn’t at all so simple as that. Please say no more at present . . . Of one thing you can be quite assure — I certainly do not wish to lose your friendship, and if it can in any way be arranged . . . ”

“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” said Isbel . . . “Let me relieve you with that basket.”

They had reached the east end of the house. Blanche and Roger were standing waiting at the angle, ignorant which way to proceed; they had set down the hamper.

“Which way now?” demanded Blanche.

“We’ll change over,” said Isbel. “The men can take the big basket and we’ll bring up the rear. I’ll have the other basket, Blanche, and you can carry the rug.”

Roger, with a groan, prepared to stoop again. “Don’t say it’s far!”

“About two hundred yards,” replied Judge. “The spot I have in mind is at the bottom of that field you see there.”

Isbel was staring up at the house; she pointed a finger towards a gable. “Isn’t that the window of the East Room, Mr. Judge?”

“It is; but what makes you ask?”

As she was about to reply, Blanche suddenly broke in:

“I didn’t know the house had four storeys. You said only three, Billy.”

“There are only three.”

“Four, darling!”

“No three. Count again.” The men confirmed her statement. Blanche did count again, and now made it only three. She confessed her blunder, laughed and promptly allowed the incident to pass from her mind. Isbel stole a glance at Judge, who was thoughtfully stroking his chin, while gazing at the house.

Nothing more was said till they commenced the descent of the steeply sloping lawn, the lower end of which adjoined the field. Judge and Roger went ahead.

“Did you really think you say four storeys?” asked Isbel with assumed carelessness.

“Yes, I did. Why?”

“Oh, nothing.”

“What makes you so keen on that house, Billy? I know it isn’t only on your aunt’s account.”

Isbel laughed. “You’re developing into a very suspicious person. What other motive could I possibly have? Considering the short time I should have to live there, it isn’t worth my while to get excited on my own account. It’s a quaint old place, I admit.”

“Have you got round Mr. Judge yet?”

“Not yet.”

“Don’t make poor old Marshall too jealous, that’s all.”

“Really, you say the most weird things. What do you imagine I’m doing? You might give me credit for a small modicum of self-respect.”

“All right, but men are strange animals. The flash-point is very low in some of them. Don’t forget that.”

They reached the bottom of the lawn, and then had to cross a low stile into the field. The descent continued, but not so sharply. The field lay fallow; a fringe of elms bounded it on three sides, while on the fourth was a wood, towards which they made their way. The sun blazed, and the flies were troublesome. Roger looked back, to point out to the girls some swallows which had not yet departed.

“Why should you think he’s that sort of man?” demanded Isbel.

“Oh, my dear, I’ve caught him looking rather strangely at you once or twice. Men are men and you can’t make anything else of them. He knows you’re engaged, of course?”

“My dear Blanche! . . . ”

“Well, I won’t say anything more. You know best. Only, do be very, very careful.”

Isbel maintained an indignant silence until they neared the lower end of the field. The men, who had increased their distance, kept glancing over their shoulder by way of protest against the girls’ leisurely pace.

“Surely, I’m not asking very much of him, Blanche? If he doesn’t want to live in the house himself, he might just as well let us have it. Aunt will pay him his full price.”

“No doubt he’s an excellent business man,” said Blanche enigmatically.

They rejoined the others at the spot selected for lunch.

The rug was spread on the grass, and the hampers were unpacked. While Roger busied himself with carving the pheasants and uncorking the hock, the girls neatly set out rolls, pastries, fruit, etc., and Judge made himself generally useful. They lunched in full sunlight in the field, by the side of a rather romantic little stream. This brook separated them from the steeply-ascending wood beyond, and — only an inch or so in depth — was so beautifully transparent, and flowed over its clean bed of pebbles with so musical a gurgle, that Isbel’s spirits imperceptibly became tranquillised. They were in the trough of the two hillsides, and the house was out of sight.

“This licks friend Omar, I fancy,” said Roger, vigorously attacking his half-bird. “For one flask of rotten syrup we have three bottles of the genuine stuff, for a loaf of bread we have game, and for ‘thou’ we have two. Can’t you compose a verse for the occasion, Judge?”

“I strongly protest against figuring in as a ‘thou’” said Isbel, coolly. “Those times are past for ever. Henceforward men are going to exist for us, not we for them.”

“Capital! You have my fullest consent. I haven’t the faintest shadow of an objection to assisting to change a pretty woman’s wilderness into a paradise. Choose forthright between Judge and me.”

“This is the grave historian, Mr. Judge, who spends his days in the dusty old reading-room at the British Museum.”

“All the more justification for letting it go now, my dear,” returned Roger. “After long enforced spells of hobnobbing with kings, heroes, and politicians, nature cries out for a little human intercourse with simple Jane and pleasant Muriel.”

“Which of us is simple Jane?” demanded Isbel coldly.

“Simple Jane is the one with the fewer ideas, and pleasant Muriel is the one with the greater number of smiles. You can fight it out between you . . . Now leave me alone. I’m going to be busy.”

“Mr. Judge, are you going to let this unparalleled rudeness pass without rebuke?”

Judge threw out his hands. “What can I do, dear lady? He leaves nothing to catch hold of. Personally, I think it is a very cunning device on his part to draw more smiles from both of you.”

“Are you asserting that we are being dull?” asked Blanche, retaining her fork with its fragment of food in mid-air, as she stared at him with wide eyes.

“Not dull, certainly. Perhaps a shade more thoughtful than the occasion warrants. I was wondering whether possibly I had said or done something to offend you?”

“How absurd!” exclaimed Isbel. ”You of all people.”

“Guilty conscience, Billy,” said Roger, with his mouth full. “He’s done something, but isn’t sure if it’s been spotted. Out with it, Judge!”

“No, no, that doesn’t arise. Since Miss Loment assures me to the contrary, it would be ungallant to carry the matter further.”

“Coward! . . . Moi, I offend Billy on an average once a fortnight throughout the year. A capital creature, but slightly hasty-tempered.”

“You’ve never once upset me in your life, my good man. Whenever you get beyond a certain level of offensiveness, I can see only the funny side . . . Besides, that’s not the point. We were discussing Mr. Judge, not you. To be offended is to be disappointed, and what right have I to be disappointed at anything Mr. Judge may say or do, seeing that I am practically unacquainted with his character?”

Blanche looked up sharply. Judge’s face took on a deep flush.

“As far as that goes,” he said, after a moment’s pause, “I don’t know that I’m very different from what I seem.”

“That must mean, you never do unexpected things? Everything proceeds with you according to your physiognomy? You must be a very happy man, Mr. Judge.”

“And why should he do unexpected things?” asked Roger. “The unexpected is sometimes charming, but nearly always idiotic. Give me a man who can explain his actions afterwards.”

“Yes, I suppose that’s the man’s ideal. It isn’t the woman’s. We like men who obey the heart occasionally, instead of the head. It’s stupid, of course, and we can’t defend it, but somehow that’s the kind of men we should prefer to have for a friend.”

“And why?”

“Because we women count generosity as a virtue, Roger.”

Roger drank, and wiped his mouth.

“Then, is an irresponsible person necessarily generous?”

“No, but all I mean is, we admire people who place friendship first, self-interest second.”

“It appears that the fair Billy doth know a thing or two!”

Isbel wriggled her shoulders impatiently. “I don’t want gifts from friends, but I do want friends who aren’t afraid of giving. Surely that distinction is obvious?”

“Quite. What you are suffering from is acute romance. Such interesting persons no longer walk this hard, cold world of ours, if they have ever done so. A man’s best friend is his bank balance. You may take that as an axiom.”

“I fully believe it.” Isbel raised her glass to the level of her face. “So here’s long life to money, property, and self!”

“And wine, and women, and smiles, and the blessed sunshine — everything, in short, that makes life worth living! And a bas all metaphysical discussions between living men and women! A special staff of professors has been retained by the world to deal with all that trash.”

Having emptied his glass at a gulp, Roger pulled out a cigar, which he proceeded to cut and light with relish. Judge regarded him smilingly.

“You never take things seriously, Mr. Stokes?”

“Yes, my work. But after work I believe in play.”

“And no doubt you deserve it. Does he deserve it, Mrs. Stokes?”

“He works like a nigger, I fancy,” answered Blanche, negligently. “It runs in the family. His brother Marshall’s rapidly acquiring a fortune, and Roger is rapidly acquiring a reputation. Sometimes I feel I should like it to be the other way round.”

“So Mr. Marshall Stokes is really clever?”

“They tell me he’s a sort of little Napoleon, in his way. Billy’s a lucky girl, whether she knows it or not.”

“And Mr. Stokes is lucky, too.”

“No, no — no gamble about it at all. A man is not a man till he gets married, and if he’s unhappy afterwards, it’s in all cases entirely his own fault. Look at Mr. Roger Stokes here. He’s thoroughly contented with life — it’s true he’s been a trifle spoilt . . . Mr. Stokes, your health! . . . You must come to all my future picnics, if I am fortunate enough to have any more — if only for the sake of your high spirits.”

“Then, on the whole, I’ve given greater satisfaction than the girls?”

“That I didn’t say. Some things are outside praise, as you know — the glorious sun, for example. You’re the wine of the party, Mr. Stokes, while the ladies are the sunshine.”

* * *

As the afternoon wore on, Isbel developed a head-ache. She withdrew from the talk, and kept glancing at her wrist-watch; it was nearing two o’clock.

“You look pale, Billy,” said Blanche at last.

“My head aches a little.”

Everyone manifested sympathy. They decided to pack up and go, and meanwhile Isbel was made to sit in the shade of the trees. When finally they were ready to start for the house, she found herself with empty hands, walking beside Judge.

“May I speak, or would you rather be quiet?” he asked, after a few paces.

“No; please do.”

“It’s about my house. Why do you want it so badly, Miss Loment?”

She was silent for quite a long time.

“Perhaps it’s your friendship I want, and not your house.”

“Ah! . . . But since when . . . ”

“I don’t know. These feelings grow, don’t’ they?

“Yes . . . but why my friendship? . . . How have I deserved this? . . . ”

“Then perhaps it is your house I want, after all . . . Really, Mr. Judge, I know as little about this as you.” She lowered her town. “Of course, you know you are an exceptional man? You can understand it must be very flattering for a girl to be friends with such a man.”

His face grew dark, but he said nothing till they were nearing the stile, where the others stood waiting for them. Then:

“You have my permission to tell your aunt that she may have Runhill Court at an agreed figure. I won’t stand out any longer.”

“And this offer is . . . unconditional?”

“Yes, unconditional.”

“You clearly understand — oh, I can’t say it . . . ”

“You need not try. I clearly understand everything, and the offer is entirely without conditions.”

“Then I will accept it,” said Isbel, in a nearly inaudible voice.

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