Immediately after the departure of Blanche and Roger next morning, Isbel — attired in an old, though still serviceable, tweed walking costume, with stout, low-heeled shoes — announced her intention of taking a long tramp on the downs by herself; she might, or might not, be back for lunch. It was the only programme she could think of in which her aunt would be certain not to offer to participate. Mrs. Moor, of course, raised some half-hearted objections — that was more in the nature of a ritual between the two ladies — but in the end Isbel got her way, and before ten o’clock she was out of the hotel. Not en route to the downs, however. At the top of Preston Street she caught a bus to Hove Station, and, on arriving there, purchased a ticket to Worthing.
The train was a little overdue. Not many people were travelling, and she was able to secure an empty first-class compartment. Her first action was to fling down both windows for the atmosphere was suffocating close; it was one of those heavy, sluggish, overcast, depressing mornings which are the sure forerunners of steady rain. As they ran into Worthing, a few spots already began to gather on the left-hand side windows.
She found Judge waiting for her at the Parade end of South Street. He was smartly clad, had his hands behind him, and was gazing idly, yet with dignity, at the outside shelves of a book-dealer’s shop. No one could have guessed from his manner that he was there by appointment. When she touched him lightly on the arm, his start of surprise nearly deceived herself into imagining that the meeting was accidental; but then she remembered her own caution to him.
“I am the one you’re waiting for, I hope?” she asked, with a smile.
He replaced his hat. “I would have come to the station, but your instructions were definite.”
“Then let’s get on to the front. It’s going to rain, isn’t it?”
“I fear so — and you have no protection.”
“I’ve nothing on to spoil.”
They crossed the road to the Parade, and started to walk in the direction of the Burlington. There were a few people abroad, and certainly no one she knew, yet the mere fact that she was in a strange town, strolling with a strange man, had a peculiarly exciting effect upon her nerves. Everyone they passed seemed to be regarding her with suspicion.
“You didn’t mind meeting me here this morning, Mr. Judge?”
“Just the reverse, Miss Loment. I regard it as a great honour.”
“It’s nothing very dreadful. I just wanted to talk things over.”
“I quite understand.” But he looked rather puzzled.
She waited till some approaching women had met and passed. “First of all, Mr. Judge — did you find my scarf?”
“Yes; it’s in my pocket, and you shall have it when we separate. I’ve made a small parcel of it.”
“Where was it found, then?”
He hesitated. “In a very queer resting-place, I’m afraid. On getting home last evening I found it reposing neatly folded in my breast-pocket.”
“Doubtless a practical joke on someone’s part — a kind of joke, I must admit, I don’t much care about.”
“You mean Roger, I suppose? I don’t think he would have done it. Couldn’t you have placed it there yourself in a fit of abstraction?”
“No, that is entirely out of the question. I think we must call it a joke.”
There was an interval of silence, and then she turned to him quietly:
“Mr. Judge . . . ”
“Yes, Miss Loment?”
“When you disappeared yesterday afternoon, where were you?”
“Surely I have explained that?”
“I don’t blame you for giving an untrue account of your movements, because, of course, you had to say something. But you’ll tell me the truth now, won’t you?”
“But, really! . . . ”
“You did go up those stairs, didn’t you?”
Judge gave her a swift sidelong glance. “What stairs?”
“That strange staircase leading out of the East Room.”
“Mr. Marshall Stokes told you, then?”
“Please leave him out of it. My information is first-hand.”
It now came on to rain more sharply, and they were forced to take refuge in an adjacent shelter, which luckily proved to be vacant. They sat facing the sea. Judge rested both hands on his gold-headed stick, and stared straight before him.
“Yet I distinctly gathered that you have never personally visited that room, Miss Loment?”
“Nor have I. Your house has more mysteries than you are aware of, Mr. Judge. The hall also has its staircase.”
“What staircase?” He frowned. “I don’t quite know how to take this.”
“Not only have I seen it with my own eyes, but I have twice set foot on it — once being yesterday afternoon. I want you to believe that I am being quite serious, and not fabricating in the least.”
“Five minutes after you had all gone upstairs.”
“Could you describe them — those stairs?”
“The were plain, narrow, wooden stairs, going up through an opening in the wall; no handrail. The top was out of sight.”
“This is indeed extraordinary! Can you tell me your experience?”
“No; for I remember nothing of it. But I went up them and came down again.”
There was a long pause, during which Judge frequently cleared his throat.
“I must believe you, Miss Loment, and yet . . . And this was the second occasion, you tell me? Were you by yourself the first time as well?”
“I can’t doubt your word; the same thing has happened to me more than a few times. Astonishing as your statement is, Miss Loment, in a sense I’m relieved by it. I may as well confess it — I have sometimes been alarmed for my reason. The stable laws of Nature are the foundation of the whole of our experience, and when once in a while we seem to see them no longer valid, it is inevitable that we should prefer to suspect our understanding.”
“Then you did go up yesterday?”
“Yes, I did go up.”
“And remember nothing?”
“Nothing that strikes you?”
“Might not we have met in that upper part of the house?”
Judge looked up quickly. “What makes you think that?”
“You don’t realise that it might explain my scarf’s being in your possession?” she asked in a very low voice.
“Don’t be in a hurry. Think it over for a minute, Mr. Judge. It’s important.”
“I cannot see how our meeting there, or anywhere else, would account for your scarf’s being in my pocket.”
“If you cannot see, I cannot help you.”
“I am not a thief, and why should such a gift by made?”
“But perhaps it was made.”
“I cannot imagine what you mean,” said Judge, turning pale.
Isbel cast uneasy glances around her. She drew a little closer to him, re-arranging her skirt with nervous impatience.
“That’s the another thing I wanted to talk about, Mr. Judge. I don’t know how we really stand towards each other . . . Of course we’re friends . . . Since yesterday, our relationship has somehow seemed to me very undefined. It has been worrying me.”
“I think I understand what you mean.”
“Is it our experience in common, or is it something else? Do try and help me. It’s frightfully difficult for me to speak of all this.”
“But is it necessary to, Miss Loment? As you say, we are friends. Perhaps if we show ourselves too curious, we shall merely be robbing ourselves of what we already possess.”
“Oh, don’t you see? If we don’t know how we stand, we can’t even be friends. How can I have a man for a friend whose feelings I have to guess at? . . . I believe I’m justified in asking you, I don’t require you to commit yourself in any way, and whatever you tell me, I shan’t take advantage of it — but I think I ought to know just how it stands with you.”
Judge kept closing and opening his hand agitatedly.
“We are really carrying the conversation too far, Miss Loment. You must see that you and I have no right whatever to discuss feelings.”
“You don’t or won’t understand. If you have feelings which refer to me, they are my property, and I have a perfect right to know what they are.” Her voice quietened. “I must ask you to tell me . . . Do you regard me . . . in any special manner? Or . . . Can’t you see how awkwardly I am situated till I know how . . . we stand to each other?” she concluded weakly.
“We are good friends, Miss Loment, and nothing more.”
“So you persist in setting up this icy barrier? But how can we go on meeting each other, if our heads are to remain full of unsatisfied fancies and suspicions? . . . I promise you one thing, Mr. Judge — if you decline to be my real friend, you shan’t be my friend at all. I shall never want to see you again after this.”
“I shall be sorry for that, but if everything is to finish so suddenly, at least I prefer that it shall not be owing to an act of egregious folly on my part. Since I don’t possess the advantages of a younger man, I daren’t imitate the rashness of one.”
“But what are you afraid of? I can scarcely punish you for obeying me. Whatever you tell me, I promise you it shan’t bring our friendship to a close. Nothing will be changed, except for the better. Won’t you speak now?”
She paled, and began to tap the asphalt paving with her foot. “You can hardly refuse to answer a direct question. Am I anything to you at all, Mr. Judge?”
“Perhaps you are a very great deal, but the point is, I can be nothing to you.”
“You mean exactly that?”
“Yes. I have a higher regard for you, Miss Loment, than for any other living woman.”
“But what is implied by a very high regard?” She could scarcely breathe the words out.
“There is a special term for that feeling but I am not permitted to pronounce it.”
“Do I understand you correctly?” she asked, nearly inaudibly.
Judge made no reply.
After a long silence, Isbel gave a spasmodic, wavering sigh.
“Shall I take my scarf now? There’s no one to see.”
He produced a small brown paper packet from his pocket, and passed it over to her. She kept turning it in her hand, with a sort of weary indifference.
“What are we to do about it? You know we must find out how it came to be in your possession. I cannot go there again, but you can.”
“If you wish me to. But of what use is it, if I am to remember nothing?”
“Could you not take pencil and paper?”
“That’s an idea, and I can’t conceive why it has never occurred to me before. Very well, then; I will run over.”
“This afternoon. But how shall I communicate the result to you?”
“I don’t wish you either to write or call, Mr. Judge. Couldn’t you manage to come over to Brighton to-morrow afternoon, and see me somewhere?”
“I must manage it. Where shall it be, and at what time?”
“My aunt always takes her rest in the afternoon, Let’s say three o’clock — at the Hove, I think; there are fewer people there to bother one. You know the Baths, facing the sea?”
“Outside there, then. You see the importance of this to both of us, don’t you?”
“My only motive in the business is to re-assure your mind. I draw no anticipations from the result.”
Isbel gave him a keen glance. “Yet after what you have said, it can’t be a matter of indifference to you.”
“Candidly, Miss Loment, I don’t wish for a result. I want our friendship to continue, and that will be impossible if . . . I desire nothing more than that we shall settle down again into the old pleasant state. I feel confident that you will find we have foolishly allowed our imaginations to run away with us over this matter.”
They had both risen to their feet, but a heavier shower at that moment coming on, they were compelled to seat themselves again. Isbel turned her head away, and started fingering her hair.
“By the way,” she announced suddenly, “I haven’t mentioned your decision about the house yet to my aunt, so you had better not, either.”
“Just as well not to I’m not sure at all, after this, that Runhill will make a suitable residence for you.”
“For all that, I may keep you to your word. However, we won’t do anything in a hurry . . . That woman will spoil her furs, if she’s not careful.”
She referred to an elegantly-garbed lady who was bearing down on their shelter from the west. She was obviously flurried by the distressing rain, as only a woman is flurried; but her action remained perfectly graceful and fascinating to watch, while she carried her furs and velvets as though they were a part of herself. Though tall and slender, it was evident even at that distance that she had long since finished with girlhood, but Isbel was unable as yet to distinguish her features. Judge happened to be sitting on her other side, so she failed to notice his embarrassment.
“It’s an acquaintance of mine,” he brought out somewhat quickly. “That is, she is staying at the same hotel. A Mrs. Richborough — a widow.”
“Charming!” responded Isbel vaguely. “I can’t see her face. Is she pretty?”
“More distinguished-looking than pretty. A most interesting woman to talk to — which is as far as my acquaintance extends. A keen spiritualist.”
“Yes — I can see now. She’s got one of those white, peaky faces. Is she well-off?”
“I really can’t say. She has fashionable clothes and jewels. I am merely on nodding terms with her.”
“She seems to be coming here. I think I’ll go.”
“No — don’t, please, Miss Loment! It will look too marked. I’ll just introduce you and you can take your departure immediately.”
Isbel bent her mouth into a scornful little smile. “As you please. It’s rather bad luck, but, anyway, she won’t know me from Eve . . . Do tell me a train back. I expect you have a time-table.”
He had, and produced it for consultation at once. While he was hurriedly turning over the leaves, Mrs. Richborough advanced upon them with a quickened step and a sudden smile of recognition — but, somehow, Isbel had a suspicion that the meeting was not quite so unpremeditated. All her poses were so accurately graceful and studied that the latter wondered if, by any chance, she could be a mannequin on holiday; her heels were perfect stilts. The face, however, when she came close up, was a good thirty-six or seven, and was not even decently pretty for that age. It was long, thin, and pale, with high cheek-bones and a fixed, insolent smile, which expressed nothing at all except pretension. But it was very beautifully made-up — so much so that it almost required another woman to see that it had been touched at all. Her whole toilette, from clothes to perfume, was based on an appeal to sex, and, men being such crude animals, Isbel thought that it was quite possible she might still pick up an occasional victim here or there . . . She glanced down at her own shabby tweeds, and smiled ironically.
“May I come in out of the weather? What a delightfully unexpected meeting!” Mrs. Richborough, without waiting for permission, stepped under the shelter and shook out her muff.
Judge, still holding the open time-table in his hand, rose with a courteous smile and removed his hat; he continued standing.
“It is indeed a pleasant surprise! But aren’t you terribly wet?”
“A little . . . Am I intruding?” Her voice was quiet, sweet almost to lusciousness, and very leisurely. Each word was produced with a distinctness nearly theatrical, but at the conclusion of all her periods she had the strange trick of dropping to a whisper.
“Not in the least,” replied Judge. “We’re cast up here by the rain, and very thankful to see a new face. This is a friend of mine . . . Miss Loment — Mrs. Richborough . . . I’m just in the act of looking up a train for Miss Loment, if you’ll pardon me a minute.”
Mrs. Richborough sank lightly down next to Isbel.
“You aren’t a Worthing resident, then?”
“Oh, no. Do I look like one?”
“I hardly know how one distinguishes them by appearance. Then you come from . . .?”
“From Brighton. Why?”
The widow laughed. “I really can’t say why I’m asking. Why does one ask these things? So Mr. Judge is in Fortune’s good graces this morning. Was yours accidental, too?”
“My what? . . . I fear the rain won’t have done your beautiful furs much good.”
“Isn’t it perfectly distressing? And I so hoped it was to be fine. You have been sensible, at any rate.”
“You mean my get-up? Oh, I put these on specially to come over here.”
Mrs. Richborough glanced at the little parcel on Isbel’s lap. “Surely you didn’t bring lunch with you?”
“Oh, no; I’m only here on business.”
Judge at last succeeded in finding a train. It would convey her to Brighton in time for luncheon, but she would have to start for the station at once, and lose no time on the way.
Mrs. Richborough held out her hand. “I hope we shall resume the acquaintance under more propitious circumstances.”
Isbel returned the slightest and coldest of bows, deliberately overlooking the hand.
“No, don’t trouble to come with me, Mr. Judge,” she said, touching his fingers, with a smile. “People who run for trains aren’t very good company, and I know the way quite well.”
And she immediately set off through the rain in the direction of the railway station.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11