In the latter half of August, Marshall Stokes went to New York, in order to wind up the estate of the lately-deceased brother of the lady to whom he was betrothed. As a busy underwriting member of Lloyd’s, he could ill afford the time — he was over there for upwards of a fortnight — but no alternative had presented itself. Miss Loment had no connections in America, she possessed no other relations, except a widowed aunt, with whom she live, and it was clearly out of the question for either of the two ladies to travel across in person, to examine books, interview lawyers, deal with claims, etc. — they had not the necessary business experience. The task, therefore, had devolved on Marshall. He had not been able to conclude the business, but he had put it in a fair way of being concluded, and had appointed a reputable firm to act as Miss Loment’s representatives. The estate was worth forty thousand dollars.
Upon his return to London about the middle of September he found that his friends had departed for Brighton; Mrs. Moor — the aunt — apparently was feeling rundown. A perfumed little note from Isbel pressed him to join them there. Marshall was unable to leave town immediately, but two days later, on Friday afternoon, he abruptly shut down work for the week-end, and motored down by himself in glorious weather. His heart was high, and as he ran through the richly gleaming Sussex country, overspread with a blue, plum-like bloom, arising from the September mists, he thought that he had never seen anything quite so lovely. The sun was brilliant, and there was a crisp, invigorating breeze.
He dined the same evening with Isbel and her aunt, in the public room at the Hotel Gondy, where they were staying. Neither of the ladies attracted as much attention as Marshall himself. His large, loose, powerful figure went admirably with evening dress, while his full-blooded face, still covered with ocean tan, was peculiarly noticeable for its heavy, good-humored immobility; his very hands, huge and crimson, yet not vulgar, marked him out from other men. Isbel kept alternately glancing at him and smiling down at her plate with pleasure, apropos of nothing. Most of the talking came from him. Reserving business until afterwards, he entertained his friends during the meal with his personal experiences in the United States, the relation of which was rendered more piquant by a free adoption of the very latest slang. Aunt and niece were both perfectly acquainted with America, but they had the tact to keep this to themselves.
Isbel was dressed in black, on account of her brother’s death. The gown, according to the prevailing fashion, was cut low across her somewhat full bosom, bur lower still in the back. She was neither plain nor handsome; a first glance showed an ordinarily attractive girl of five-and-twenty, and nothing more. Her face was rather short and broad, with thick but sensitive features, a lowish forehead, and a dull, heavy skin, rendered almost unnaturally pale by the excessive quantity of power she employed. The tranquillity of her expression was rarely broken by an emotion or a smile, but whenever this did happen it was like a mask lifting. The full, grey-black eyes as a rule appeared a trifle bored and absent, but occasionally they narrowed into a subtle and penetrating glance which nearly resembled a stab. Her hair was long and fine, but mouse-coloured. She was short, rather than tall, and somewhat too broad-hipped for modern ideas of beauty; nevertheless, her person was graceful and well-covered, she moved with style, while her hands and feet were particularly small and aristocratic. She affected little jewelry.
She commanded all her friends, and was adored by the two or three nearest to her. Further, no matter what company she was in, and although she never exerted herself to win people, before the evening was out her personality always succeeded in making itself felt, and she became the centre of interest to men and women alike. Never self-conscious, never embarrassed, always quiet and rather ennuye, she fascinated by the very strength of her silence, which, it was abundantly clear, had nothing in common with stupidity. She had already declined three offers of marriage, before Marshall had appeared on her horizon. Curiously enough, these offers had all been made by men very much older than herself.
She had a queer habit, while sitting, of constantly, though quite unconsciously, attending her person. She would keep putting her hand to her hair, adjusting her skirt, feeling her waist-band, altering the position of a necklace or bracelet, etc. It was not vanity, but a sort of nervous irritability, which prevented her from continuing still. Her aunt frequently cautioned her against the fault, which was one of those that grow by indulgence; Isbel would deny the offence, and five minutes later would begin to repeat it. The strange thing was that a good many persons of the other sex liked to watch her toying with her garments in this way. She was perfectly well aware of the fact, and it rather disgusted her.
Mrs. Moor, the third member of the party, had just entered her sixtieth year. She was — as already mentioned — a widow. Her husband, a stockbroker in a small way, had during the rubber boom amassed a sudden fortune, which fell to her intact upon his death in 1911. By shrewd speculation she had increased it considerably since, and could now be regarded as a wealthy woman. Isbel’s father, who had died nearly at the same time, was her younger brother. He was a widower, with only one other child, a son — the one who had recently died in New York. Isbel, who at that time was sixteen became Ann Moor’s ward, under the will. She was at once removed from school — rather against her desire — and the two women commenced the more or less vagrant existence together, which they had continued ever since, drifting from hotel to hotel in all quarters of the globe. It was a free life, and Isbel came to grow extremely fond of it. In any case, her own money was not sufficient to support her, so that in a manner she was dependent upon her aunt’s whims. It only remains to add that she tyrannised over the older woman in all her personal relations, and that the latter not only permitted this, but even seemed to expect it as a natural thing.
Mrs. Moor was short, erect, and dignified, with a somewhat stiff carriage. Her face, which resembled yellow marble, bore a consistently stern and dauntless expression, rarely relaxing into a smile. She was in complete possession of all her faculties, and her health, generally speaking, was good. The art of dressing she did not understand; Isbel selected her garments for her, while her maid told her when and how to put them on. She was, in fact, one of those eccentric women who ought to have been born men. Her tastes were masculine, her knowledge chiefly related to masculine topics. She knew, for instance, how to invest her money to the best advantage, how to buy and sell land, and how to plan a serviceable house; but what she did not know was how to flatter men, how to talk gracefully about nothing, how to interest herself in the minute details of another woman’s household, or how to identify herself in thought with the members of the upper circles of society. She bowed to no authority, and took pride in speaking her mind in whatever company she might find herself. The natural consequence was that, while her friends esteemed her highly for her genuine qualities, they were more than a little frightened of her, and never really regarded her as one of themselves. It sometimes dawned on her that she was lonely. On such occasions she sought solace in music. She loved everything classical, Beethoven in particular she venerated, but the history of music came to an end, for her, with Brahms. Weeks would pass without her once opening the piano, and then a sudden, almost passionate yearning would seize her, when she would sit down and play by the hour together. Her execution was bold, slow, rather coarse, full of deep feeling.
The two women were excessively fond of each other, thought neither cared to show it. Temperamentally, however, they were so antagonistic that frequent quarrels were inevitable. Whenever this happened, the aunt ordinarily expressed herself in vigorous language, while Isbel, on the other hand, would become sullen and vindictive, saying little, but requiring time to be appeased.
As soon as dinner was concluded, the trio retired to Mrs. Moor’s private apartment on the first floor. The waiter brought up coffee and Chartreuse. The room was handsomely appointed, a distinctive note being lent to it by the bowls of pale chrysanthemums with which it was profusely and artistically decorated — Isbel’s labour of love. The evening was chilly, and a small fire was burning in the grate. They brought their chairs forward, so as to form a semi-circle round the hearth, Isbel being in the middle. She stretched a languid hand up, and took two cigarettes from an open box on the mantelshelf, passing one to Marshall and keeping one herself; Mrs. Moor very rarely smoked.
For some twenty minutes they talked business. Marshall told them exactly what he had accomplished on the other side, and what still remained to be done.
“Anyhow,” said Mrs. Moor, “it seems that the main difficulties have been got over, and the money’s quite safe for Isbel?”
“Oh, quite. She may have to wait some months before she can touch it — that’s the only thing.”
Isbel took little sips of coffee, and looked reflectively into the fire.
“No doubt you’ll find a use for it, Isbel, when it does come.”
“Oh, it’s more sentimental, aunt. Naturally, I don’t want to go to Marshall with empty hands.”
The others protested simultaneously.
“You needn’t cry out,” said the girl calmly. “I know it’s done very day, but that’s no reason why I should be content to follow suit. After all, why should a married woman be a parasite? It makes her out to be a kind of property. And that’s not the worst . . . ”
“Very well, child. You’ve got the money — don’t make a fuss.”
“Isbel’s right, mind you,” said Marshall. “There’s a decent amount of cold horse-sense about what she says. A girl wants to feel independent. I’m not gifted with a great deal of imagination, but I can see it must be pretty rotten to have to keep on good terms with a man — even when she’s not feeling like it — simply and solely for the sake of his cash.”
“I wasn’t thinking so much of my attitude as yours,” replied Isbel.
“Now, that is rather uncalled for. It isn’t at all likely that a question of private means is going to affect my behaviour. What made you come out with that?”
“Oh, I don’t mean it in your sense,” said Isbel. “I don’t mean anything brutal or tyrannical, of course. I simply say that your whole attitude toward me would be unconsciously modified, and you couldn’t help it. Being a man, the mere knowledge that you held the purse would be bound to make you kinder and more chivalrous toward me. That would be a lifelong humiliation. I should never be able to feel quite sure whether you were being kind to me or to my poverty.”
“Rot!” exclaimed Marshall. “That sort of thing doesn’t exist in married life.”
“I couldn’t bear to ask for love and be fed with sympathy.” Her voice was cold, quiet, and perfectly unembarrassed.
“You girls are all the same,” said Mrs. Moor pettishly. “You have that word ‘love’ on the brain. Most married women are very thankful to have an occasional dish of sympathy set before them, I can assure you. We all know what love without sympathy is.”
“Pure, brutal egotism, my dear. If that’s what your heart is crying for, so much the worse for you.”
“Perhaps that’s what I want, all the same. Every woman has a savage streak in her, they say. I should probably always sell myself to the highest bidder — in love . . . You’d better look out, Marshall.”
“Well, it’s a lucky thing we both know you as well as we do,” said her aunt, dryly.
“The question is, do you know me?” Isbel fingered the lace of her corsage.
“The question is, what is there to know? Girls may be exceedingly mysterious to young me, but they’re not in the least mysterious to old women, my dear. You’ve over-indulged in Russian literature lately.”
Her niece laughed, as if unwillingly. “If all girls are so hopelessly alike, what becomes of ancestral traits?
“You don’t claim more ancestors than other people, I hope? What is this new pose of inscrutability, child?”
Marshall thought it high time to interrupt the duel, which threatened to develop into something unpleasant.
“To change the subject,” he said, rather hastily, “have you got fixed for a house yet, Mrs. Moor?”
“No, I haven’t. Why?”
“Would Sussex suit you?”
Isbel anticipated her aunt’s reply, turning to him with a friendly smile, as if anxious to counteract the impression caused by her free speaking. “Have you heard of something? Whereabouts in Sussex?”
“You get there from Worthing, don’t you?”
“You get there from anywhere, in a car. It’s not far from Brighton.”
“Tell us all about it. What kind of a house is it?”
“Surely I may speak, Isbel!” said her aunt irritably. “Is it a large property, Marshall? How did you come to hear of it?”
“It’s an Elizabethan manor. Two hundred acres of ground go with it, mostly timber. The hall goes back to the thirteenth century. I met the owner coming across.”
“And the price?”
“He declined to say off-hand. As a matter of fact, he’s not frightfully keen on selling at all. His wife’s just died in San Francisco, so I snatched the opportunity and asked him what his plans were about going back. He hasn’t decided yet, but I’ve got a sort of idea that a prompt bid might do the trick, if it at all appeals to you.”
“Poor fellow! At least, I hope so . . . Young or old?”
“He told me his age — fifty-eight. He was in the Birmingham brass trade. His name’s Judge. You don’t know him by any chance?”
“Do we, Isbel?”
“He is quite a decent chap. He and his wife have lived at Runhill Court for eight years, so it sounds all right.”
“Is that the name of the house?”
“Yes. Historical — supposed to be derived from the old Saxon ‘rune-hill,’ so he says. The runes were engraved letters, intended to keep off the trolls and blendings. I don’t suppose that interests you greatly; what’s more to the point is that the place is thoroughly up to date, he tells me. He’s spent no end on modern improvements — electric lighting, and so forth . . . Well now, do you feel disposed to take it up?”
Mrs. Moor wriggled in her chair, which was a sign of indecision. Isbel emitted clouds of cigarette-smoke, in the manner of women.
“An Elizabethan manor,” she remarked reflectively. “Sounds thrilling. Is there a family ghost?”
“Do you want one?”
“In any case, you wouldn’t have to live there long, child.” Her aunt’s tone was sharp. “That is, unless you’ve been alerting your programme, you two, behind my back?”
“We’re not conspirators, thanks. It’s still to be April.”
“Then pray leave me to make my own arrangements. When could I go over to the house, Marshall?”
“Anytime, I fancy. Would you care to have Judge’s address in town?”
He scribbled it on a scrap of paper, and passed it over.
Isbel eyed him thoughtfully. “Aren’t you coming with us, Marshall?”
“Really, I wasn’t thinking of doing so. Of course, of you’d like me to . . . ”
“We should,” said Mrs. Moor. “What day would suit you best?”
“There you have me.” He hesitated . . . “Well, as we’re all here together, what’s wrong with to-morrow morning? I could run you over in the car. The country’s looking magnificent.”
Mrs. Moor consulted the paper in her hand. “But Mr. Judge is in town, you say? How can we get an order to view between now and to-morrow morning?”
“Yes, I see . . . As a matter of fact, I have an order in my pocket.”
“But, my dear boy, in that case why did you wish me to go to the trouble of communicating with Mr. Judge?”
“Yes, why did you?” supplemented Isbel, puckering her brow.
“The order’s a personal one, you see, and I had no idea I was coming with you.”
The girl stared at him in a sort of bewilderment. “Do you mean you intended to go alone, without us?”
“Well, yes. I purposely didn’t tell you, because it’s more or less a confidential matter, but the fact is Judge wants a private opinion from me with regard to one of the rooms . . . ”
“Go on. What sort of opinion? Do you mean he’s planning and an alteration, or what?”
“Not an alteration exactly, as far as I’m aware . . . I’m very sorry, Isbel, but it’s confidential, as I said before. Having passed my word, of course I’m not at liberty to say anything more about it, much as I should like to . . . However, I shall be only too happy to accompany you both.”
She slowly passed her palm backward and forward across her skirt, feeling its texture.
“It’s very strange, though. So you meant to hide it from us altogether, this mysterious transaction?”
“I meant to keep my word.”
“In plain language, you set out a higher value on the regard of this total stranger than on ours? I don’t care two pins about the room, or what he proposes to do with it, but I certainly do care that . . . ”
“But, my dear girl . . . ”
“Why have you done it? It’s disquieting. I shan’t know what you’re keeping back now.”
Mrs. Moor gazed sternly at her niece. “Do try not to be a fool, Isbel. If Marshall has passed on his word, do you want him to break it? He’s perfectly in the right, only, of course, you must try to work up a scene. Just tell us right out, Marshall — would you rather have us with you, or not?”
“I shall be delighted to have you with me . . . 10.30 in the morning — will that suit?”
“Admirably. Well, that’s that. Now you can go downstairs, you two. I want to read. I shan’t see you again to-night, Marshall . . . Good-night! . . . Ring for the waiter, please, as you go past. I want these things cleared away.”
She remained sitting bolt upright in her chair, waiting for the servant to come and go, when it was her intention, not to read — she had changed her mind at the very moment of expressing it — but to play. These wretched misunderstandings over nothing at all always left her with an unpleasant taste in her mouth, which she could only rid herself of by entering that other world of pure and lofty idealism.
The two younger people walked slowly downstairs, Isbel slightly leading the way.
“Shall we see if we can get a game of billiards?” asked Marshall, in a somewhat subdued voice.
“If you like.”
As they passed by the drawing-room the door was wide open; the room was empty.
“Let’s come in here,” said the girl.
They did so. She shut the door after them; both remained on their feet.
“May I ask,” began Isbel, and a spot of colour came into her cheeks, “if it is your intention to keep confidences from me? I wish to know.”
“My dear Isbel —”
“Yes or no?” Her tone was quietly menacing. Marshall felt that the shaping of his whole future very likely depended on the next few words addressed by him to this tranquil, dangerous-mannered girl in black.
He reflected before answering.
“Of course, if you put it in that way, Isbel, I mean to keep nothing from you. I gave my word to Judge, it’s true, but I quite see that perhaps I had no right to give it. I fully realise that personal secrets vitiate the whole meaning of marriage.”
“Then we’ll say no more about it. I’m glad. If we held different views on the subject, it would be rather ominous, wouldn’t it? . . . But what really is your compact wit this man — what does he want you to do exactly? He’s quite a stranger, isn’t he?”
“Then tell me. I shan’t talk.”
“I know that. In any case, the affair isn’t one of national importance. The truth is, this chap Judge once had — or thought he had — a succession of marvellous experiences in one of the rooms at Runhill; an attic on the top storey which rejoices in the name of the East Room. It happened just after he’d moved into the house, eight years ago, and apparently it’s been weighing on his mind ever since. For some unknown reason, it pleases him to imagine that I possess an average quantum of common sense, on which account he has invited my assistance in clearing up the mystery. In a soft moment I agreed — and that’s all there is to it.”
“But I don’t understand. Why you? What made him fix on you?”
“I really can’t say. It just resulted from a casual friendly conversation on board ship, coming home. We happened to be discussing the Fourth Dimension, and all that sort of thing.”
“What were these marvellous experiences of his, then?”
“A species of delusion, I take it. Every morning, for a week on end, a flight of stairs used to appear to him in that room, leading up out of a blank wall. He avers that he not only saw them, but used to go up them, but he hasn’t the vaguest recollection of what took place on top.”
“What an extraordinary fancy!”
“Eventually his wife found hi out at it — that is, of course she saw nothing, but it frightened him off. He had the room locked, and no one has set foot in it from that day to this. Now she’s dead, he appears to think there’s no longer the same necessity for secrecy.”
“Does he look mad?”
“Not in the least. Far from it.”
“And you actually promised to investigate?”
“My dear girl, what could I do? I couldn’t tell the man to his face that he was a lunatic, could I? There was no way out of it . . . It will be an excuse for a run in the car, anyway.”
“So you agreed, simply to spare his feelings?”
“We’ll put it that way.”
“I think it was rather fine of you, Marshall . . . I’m glad you’ve told me.. I must know all your affairs. You see that, don’t you?”
“Of course I see it.”
Having gained her point, she swiftly took him in both arms, and lifted her lips to be kissed. They both laughed . . . Marshall, however, remained uneasy. After they had separated again — for obviously it was no place for love-making — he thoughtfully scrutinised her powdered face, with its steady, indecipherable eyes.
“While we’re by ourselves, perhaps you’ll tell me, Isbel — what exactly did you mean just now by that remark about selling yourself to the highest bidder in love: were you serious, or pulling my leg?”
“Yes, I must have love,” said the girl quietly.
“I don’t contest it. But the point is, you seem to regard love as a sort of jam, to be taken in a spoon. There’s no such thing as love independent of a person. It appears to be a matter of indifference to you who that person is, so long as he makes it sufficiently sweet for you.”
“Don’t let’s quarrel. I didn’t say it to vex you. It isn’t sweetness that I want.”
Isbel was silent for a moment. She turned half-away from him, feeling the back of her hair with her white, tapering fingers.
“I don’t know . . . Love must be stronger than that . . . I mean, one girl might be content with mere placid affection, and another might ask for nothing better than a thick sentimental syrup. It depends on character. My character is tragic, I fancy.”
“I hope not.” He stood looking rather puzzled . . . “Tell me one thing, Isbel — you’re not by any chance finding our engagement . . . monotonous, are you?”
“Quite sure. But isn’t it a rather extraordinary question?”
Marshall, gazing at her quietly mocking smile, grew suddenly inflamed.
“I suppose you realise in your heart of hearts that you can do what you like with me, and that’s why you are so contemptuous. It’s a feeble thing to say, but I’d rather go on struggling for your good opinion all my life, Isbel, than be worshipped by any other woman without an effort on my part.”
“You will always have my good opinion, if that’s all you want.”
He flushed up, and took a step towards her. As she awaited him with the same smile, the handle of the door turned noisily from the outside. They started guiltily away from each other.
“Then we’ll see if we can get a game of billiards,” remarked Isbel in a conversational voice, turning her neck to glance at the two ladies who were entering.
Marshall assented, and they at once left the room.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57