The hall was as she had left it, and her friends apparently had not yet returned. Her head was bewildered; she was unable at first to realise what had happened to her. She knew that a staircase had appeared to her, that she had climbed it some little time ago, and that it was only this minute that she had come down again. But the stairs had vanished, and her memory concerning the adventure was an utter blank. Pressing her hand to her hot forehead, she stared earnestly at the wall, in the effort to concentrate her will on that one task of recollection; but it was quite useless — the experience, whatever it was, had grazed her mind as lightly as a dream . . . Yet it had now happened to her twice, and it had happened to Mr. Jude as well, in years gone by . . .
She made up her mind to talk to that man on the subject. He was the only one to whom she could talk about it, and it was impossible to go on any longer hugging this awful secret in solitude . . . That would be the best. He might be angry at Marshall’s breach of confidence, but perhaps it would be possible to contrive that that should not come out. She need not decide now. When she got home she would think about it all out carefully, weighing the affair in all its bearings . . .
Her watch told her that it was close upon half-past three. It was evident that she had been somewhere all that time . . . Then suddenly she realized the absence of her scarf. Uttering an exclamation of annoyance, she quickly cast her eyes around for the missing article, but it was nowhere visible in the hall, and she had not been in any other part of the house. She concluded that she must have dropped it out of doors — perhaps where they had picnicked in that field. She did not value the scarf highly, but it was vexing to lose it so stupidly. It would not take long to run there and back before the others came downstairs again.
Passing out of the hall-door, she retraced their route to the place where they had lunched, keeping a sharp watch for the bright, silken fabric, which ought to catch the eye quickly enough. She covered the whole distance, only stopping short at the little stream, but failed to see it anywhere. Then, recollecting that Blanche might possibly have picked it up and taken charge of it, she returned more quietly to the house.
The little distraction had at least one good result, it enabled her for a few minutes to forget that other thing, thereby permitting her nerves to tranquillise themselves, and in consequence she was now in a position to meet her friends again with tolerable coolness. On re-entering the hall she found them waiting for her; they seemed to have just come down.
Even before anyone spoke, Isbel was conscious of a changed atmosphere. An air of constraint hung over the little party, and for a moment she had a guilty feeling that this embarrassment was in some way connected with herself. No one remembered to inquire after the condition of her head.
Blanche addressed her with a cold smile: “We seem to be playing at hide-and-seek this afternoon. First Mr. Judge loses himself, and then you.”
“I’m exceedingly sorry. I missed my scarf, and went outside to look for it. You haven’t picked it up by any chance?”
“It doesn’t matter, but it’s gone.”
“You haven’t been upstairs, have you?”
“No — oh, no. Why?”
“You needn’t look so startled — I only meant you had it round your neck when we went up. It was the last thing I saw.”
“Surely not!” said Isbel, much puzzled.
“Were you in the hall all the time, up to the moment you missed it?”
Blanche shrugged her shoulders, and turned away.
“Mrs. Stokes must be mistaken, and you must have dropped it out of doors,” suggested Judge. “I’ll tell Priday to institute a thorough search for it. When found, I’ll send it on.”
“Thank you very much!”
Isbel kept stealing perplexed glances at Judge, and each time she did so she surprised him in the act of hastily averting his eyes from her. She could not imagine why they were regarding each other with such furtive interest. As far as she knew, nothing had changed in their relations since they had last spoken together, yet now it seemed as if they had a great deal to say to each other which they had somehow failed to discover at the time. She wondered how she could get to speak to him again.
“How did Mr. Judge contrive to get lost, then?” she inquired of Roger, who appeared the most approachable of the trio.
“With perfect ease. Blanche and I were wandering about the premises, like Adam and Eve turned out of Eden, for the space of half an hour.”
“I can only repeat my apologies,” said Judge rather stiffly. “I admit it was a most unpardonable breach of courtesy.”
Isbel looked from one to another. “How did it come about, then?”
“The explanation is not very much to my credit, Miss Loment, but I fear I have no right to stand on dignity. We had come downstairs from the top storey, after visiting the East Room, and were about to enter the drawing-room, when I suddenly remembered that I had omitted to lock that other room again — which is to break my own rule. Mrs. Stokes was kind enough to allow me a couple of minutes’ leave of absence to attend to the business . . . ”
“Which Mr. Judge promptly extended to half-an-hour,” said Blanche, with her back still turned.
“Why, what happened?”
“A somewhat absurd accident, Miss Loment. Whether it was the hot sun, or the wine, I don’t know, but I fell asleep upstairs.”
“How funny!” Isbel began to laugh.
Blanche swung round. “But the funniest thing was that when we went upstairs to look for him he was nowhere to be found.”
“I repeat, Mrs. Stokes — because you looked in the wrong place. I was in one of the servants’ rooms. I recollected having seen a window left open, and went along to shut it.”
“Quite a chapter of accidents!” said Isbel. “However, the main thing is we’re all happily assembled again, safe and sound, after our various adventures. Did you see anything interesting, Roger?”
“Much. The house is a veritable pot-pourri of styles and centuries. I have counted three distinct periods, and perhaps there are more.”
Judge entered the conversation with a visible effort. “This hall is one, the main body of the house is another, but what is the third?”
“Why, the East Room. There’s old, old, very old work there, unless I’m crassly ignorant. One of the rafters of the ceiling is carved with runes. That was placed there by no Elizabethan hand.”
“You said nothing about this at the time?”
“I had no audience, my dear proprietor. My lady-wife was gazing around for ghosts, while you were deep in abstract thought, and did not once remove your eyes from the blank wall they chanced to alight on.”
“But what would be the object of this carving?” demanded Isbel hurriedly.
“Doubtless a magic formula employed by our heathen Saxon forefathers to prevent the goblins from riding the roof — a favourite supernatural pastime of the olden days. Were I Judge, I would fain remove the timber and send it to our authorities to be deciphered.”
“Perhaps I will,” said Judge.
Isbel did not listen to Roger very attentively: she was cogitating Judge’s story. She did not believe that he had spoken the truth. A quite different explanation of his disappearance had dawned on her, and with Isbel’s intuitions from dawn to full day was but a flash. On his return to the East Room, he had seen that the staircase again which he had seen so many times before. He had ascended it, and — her heart beat rapidly — they two had met up there! . . . That was why they had been glancing at each other so strangely . . . She was as sure of it all as if she had heard it from his own mouth.
She turned aside in sick excitement.
“We’d better get home,” remarked Blanche coldly. “It’s nearly four, and I shan’t be sorry for some tea?”
Judge glanced at her rather anxiously “Would you prefer to stop somewhere en route?”
“We’ll get home, I think.”
As there was nothing to wait for, they at once left the hall. The girls went in front, but as soon as they were outside Blanche accompanied her husband to the car, leaving the others on the doorstep while Judge prepared to lock up.
“I’m coming over to Worthing to-morrow, to see you,” murmured Isbel, standing straight up, facing the door and Judge.
Without changing countenance or so much as looking at her, he bent down to insert the key in the hole.
“Certainly, Miss Loment.”
“I’ll come over by train in the morning. Can you meet me on the front, as if by accident? Do you know a train?”
“There’s the 10.40 from Hove.”
“That will do. Please don’t say a word to anyone.”
Without waiting for his response, she hastened to join her friends. The two girls resumed their wraps, and got into the back seat. Judge took his place behind the wheel, and lastly Roger climbed in. After a little preliminary backing, they made a clear start down the drive.
At the lodge-gate they stopped for a minute, while Mrs. Priday called her husband out, in obedience to Judge’s request. The head gardener was in the middle of tea, and his mouth was still busily engaged, in spite of his efforts to empty it.
“Priday,” said his master, leaning out of the car towards him, “one of the ladies has lost a scarf somewhere on the grounds. It might be as far away as the stream by Moss’s Wood. Have a good look round for it — to-day. It must be found.”
Judge mutely transferred the inquiry to Isbel.
“Vieux rose. A long silk scarf.”
“Pink, Priday. See to it at once. Good afternoon!”
* * *
Blanche paid a visit to Isbel’s room that evening, during the dressing hour before dinner. Isbel, fully gowned, was sitting on a sofa, reading a magazine. Blanche had on the frock which she had worn on the occasion of the dinner-party; she refused to sit down, and altogether seemed rather unusual in her manner. Isbel, being in a highly sensitive mood, detected the presence of feminine electricity at once; she quietly set down her paper beside her, feeling more apprehension than she cared to admit to herself.
“What’s the matter, Blanche?”
“Nothing. I’ve just looked in.”
“I thought perhaps you wanted to say something . . . Well, have you enjoyed your day?”
“Oh, I expect so. Have you?”
“Yes — but I’m vexed about the scarf.”
Blanche pointed her toes together and gazed down at the carpet. “Is it worth worrying about?”
“I hate losing things.”
There was a pause.
“I know where it is — if that’s any help to you,” said Blanche quietly.
“You do? . . . Why, where is it?”
Her friend slowly lifted her eyes, until they stopped on Isbel’s face. “In Judge’s breast-pocket.”
Isbel jumped up, then sat down again.
“That’s where it was, dear, at any rate, for I saw it there — peeping out.”
“Oh, absurd! . . . What on earth should he be doing with my scarf?”
“I wonder you don’t rather ask how it comes to be in his possession. You didn’t give it to him, I presume?”
“I decidedly didn’t. I’m not in the habit of giving articles of clothing to men.”
Blanche pursed her lips for a second or two . . . “You certainly were wearing it when we went upstairs. You never came upstairs at all, and Judge never went downstairs. Yet the next time we meet him, it has become mysteriously transferred to his pocket. He hadn’t even taken common precautions to hide it . . . Somewhat puzzling, don’t you think?”
Danger signals appeared suddenly on Isbel’s cheeks.
“You infer . . .?”
“Nothing, dearest. But if you’re speaking the truth — as I hope, for your own sake, you are — then that man isn’t. In any case, he isn’t. A girl’s scarf doesn’t float upstairs and find it’s way into a man’s pocket of its own sweet will.”
“Most likely it wasn’t my scarf at all.”
“My dear child, whatever else I don’t know, I do know the contents of your wardrobe. You might put Roger off with that suggestion, but not me. It was your scarf.”
Isbel bit her lip, and stared at the carpet beneath her.
“Then all I can say is, he must be pretty far gone. He has no right to it, and I don’t know in the least what he’s doing with it. Perhaps it’s a form of mania with him.”
“Yes — but you won’t see the point. How did he get hold of it?”
“I expect after he had made his escape from you he slipped quietly down the servants’ staircase and got into the hall that way. Finding me asleep, he appropriated the scarf. I can’t think of any other solution.”
“He may be a lunatic, of course,” said Blanche, in her driest tone.
“Thanks! I quite understand what you’re driving at all along.”
Blanche said nothing. Isbel, after waiting in vain for her to speak, uttered a high, metallic laugh.
“Oh, I admit the evidence is overwhelmingly damning against both of us. You might as well be honest about it.”
“For heaven’s sake don’t take up that tone! You must see for yourself how it compromises you. Instead of losing your temper, you had much better set about recovering your property. If I’ve seen it, somebody else may.”
“From which I assume that you don’t propose to acquaint the others with the details of this romantic affair?”
“I’m not a sneak. You ought to know me better than that.”
Isbel gnawed away at her finger-nails.
“I came here to try and help you,” went on Blanche. “It’s not very encouraging to find myself treated as an interfering busybody.”
“Oh, don’t imagine I’m not grateful to you. It isn’t everyone who would undertake such an unpalatable duty — I quite see that . . . Perhaps I should have been even more grateful to you for a little loyal backing up, but I see your point of view perfectly. I’ve no right to expect other people to behave as quixotically as I should have done under similar circumstances. Every woman must act according to her nature.”
“It will be time enough to show sympathy when I know it’s wanted.”
“And deserved. Don’t spare me, I beg.”
Blanche sat down slowly on the sofa. After a minute she impulsively seized her friend’s hand.
“Billy, swear there’s nothing between you and that man, and I’ll believe you. I don’t think you could tell me a direct lie. Up to the present we’ve always shared each other’s secrets.”
“I do swear that I haven’t the faintest notion how that scarf got out of my possession, or into his. I’m as utterly mystified as you are.”
“Quite sure,” said Isbel, colouring and smiling.
“Very well; that’s all I wanted to hear. As long as it’s all right on your side, his conduct is of quite secondary importance. I’m more relieved than I can tell you . . . But you’ll have to get it back, by fair means or foul.”
“I’ll think it over to-night in bed.”
Blanche gazed at her steadily, still holding her hand.
“If I were you, I should drop the acquaintance altogether. You won’t derive much good from a man like that.”
“You mean, give up the idea of his house?”
“There are plenty of other houses. Have you told your aunt yet about his change of decision?”
“That’s good. Don’t . . . Dash a line off to Judge to say it’s all over. And you can mention about the scarf at the same time. Say you understand it’s in his possession, and beg him to return it at once . . . You could almost do it now, before dinner.”
“No, there isn’t time,” replied Isbel. And she found no time the whole of the evening.
In bed, the same night, she tossed for hours, tormenting her brain over the events of the day. As often as she had satisfactorily assured herself of the impossibility of her having given that scarf personally to Judge, the whole problem would break open again, like a badly-bandaged wound, and she would find herself once more searching in vain in all directions for some escape from the necessity of accepting this awful, unthinkable hypothesis.
Her thoughts travelled round and round in circles, and relief came to her at last only in absolute physical exhaustion.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11