Wednesday afternoon turned out cold and fine, with a watery sun. Isbel arrived at the rendezvous at a few minutes before the appointed time, but Judge was not yet there.
She was fashionably but inconspicuously dressed in a dark serge costume, with skunk furs; at the back of her mind was the desire to correct any possible wrong impression caused by her unfortunately-chosen attire of yesterday. After pacing up and down the parade in front of the Baths for a good while, however, with carefully assumed nonchalance, she began to fear that her forethought would be wasted; no one even distantly resembling Judge was in sight.
Her feelings passed from disappointment to impatience, and thence to anger, by the gradations which familiar to everyone who has ever been kept waiting. At a quarter past three she decided that it was inconsistent with her dignity as a woman to stay for his good pleasure any longer . . . yet five minutes later she had still not dragged herself away from the spot . . .
She was really going, when she caught sight of a familiar person approaching her — a surprising vision, which caused her to catch her breath and turn rather pale. It was Mrs. Richborough. She was mincing along the parade, without any great appearance of haste, from the direction of Brighton. Her furs were still very much in evidence, but they were different from those she had worn yesterday, being even heavier and more expensive-looking; she had on a smart black velvet toque, ornamented with a single paradise feather, and was wearing quite new white gloves. Isbel feared that her presence there was directly connected with Judge’s absence; she felt wretchedly sure that something must have happened to him. Without standing on pretence she hurried to meet the widow.
They met, and lightly touched hands — Mrs. Richborough with a correct smile, but Isbel too worried to think of observances.
“I suppose you come from Mr. Judge?” she demanded, at once.
“I do, and I’m frightfully sorry I couldn’t get here before, for I know what girls are when they’re disappointed . . . but really — I’m so out of breath with running here . . . you will excuse me, won’t you? The trains, as usual, are running just at the wrong time . . . You see how distressed I am with hurrying.”
“Never mind. Why couldn’t he come himself?”
“He’s unwell . . . No — not badly. A chill on the liver, or something of the kind. Of course, we know he’s not as young as he was. He wanted to come, but I wouldn’t hear of it. rather than that he should risk more serious complications, I offered to act as messenger myself . . . Shall we sit down?”
“You’re sure it’s nothing serious?”
“Oh, my dear! . . . It’s only a cold. He’ll be all right to-morrow again.”
They sat down side by side on one of the public seats. Mrs. Richborough made a feint of recovering her breath, which Isbel did not condescend to notice.
“Have you brought a note from him, or is it a verbal message?”
“It’s a letter, my dear. I’m going to find it in a minute.” She opened her hand-bag, and peered into it with provoking leisureliness . . . “Do you know, I feel quite an intrigante. Of course, it isn’t a romance, but I’ve been amusing myself all the way here by imagining it really to be one. I’ve a fearfully romantic disposition.”
“Oh, it’s only about his house, which my aunt proposes to buy.”
“How disillusioning! . . . So you act as her business manager?”
“I help her sometimes. Is that the note?”
“It’s a little crumpled, but otherwise quite intact.”
Isbel turned the large, square envelope over in her hand; it was unaddressed, but sealed with yellow wax. Contact with Mrs. Richborough’s scent-sachet in her bag had invested it with a heavy feminine odour. She examined the sealing-wax more closely than was altogether courteous.
“Does he want me to read it now, and return an answer?”
“He is rather expecting one, I fancy. Don’t study me, my dear — I shan’t look.”
Isbel still fingered the envelope. “You’re not in his confidence, naturally?”
“That’s quite a horrid question!” The widow’s voice remained soft, but her eye was hard and insolent. “I’m afraid we haven’t arrived at that stage of intimacy yet.”
“I didn’t know.”
She hesitated no longer, but at once broke open the envelope. Her companion discreetly bent down to lift and minutely inspect the hem of her skirt; she allowed it to fall again gracefully, and then produced from her bad a little silver mirror, in which she critically scrutinised her reflected features.
In addition to a letter, there was something wrapped in white paper, and this Isbel opened first. It proved to be a hairpin. She gazed at in blank astonishment, and then hurriedly thrust it back inside the envelope, before Mrs. Richborough should see. The letter itself was in Judge’s firm, precise hand-writing, and ran as follows:
“My dear Miss Loment.
“I am not quite the thing to-day, so please forgive my non-attendance. Mrs. R. has very kindly offered to run over to see you and bring you this letter with enclosure. The latter was picked up — you know where. The pencil-note I brought back with me from the same place related, I am reluctant to inform you, only to my own personal feelings, and I have taken the liberty to destroy it; but I am afraid that your hypothesis is, after all, correct. If you are able to identify the article enclosed, we must regard the evident as conclusive.
“I now propose that we shall go over there to-morrow (Thursday) together. Mrs. R. has kindly volunteered to accompany us, and, if you think well of the proposition, perhaps you will fix up things with her. She knows nothing of the affair in question. Very probably I have no right to ask you to come, and I do not do so on my own account — which I believe you understand. But I know what anxiety the whole business is causing you, and must cause you so I thought it only fair that the opportunity should be placed within your reach, should you desire to avail yourself of it. if you are unable to arrange for to-morrow, perhaps you could give Mrs. R. another date?
“It is unnecessary to impress on you the desirability of destroying this letter at the earliest moment.
“Very sincerely yours.
Isbel read through the missive twice, then returned it thoughtfully to the envelope and placed the latter in her handbag.
“Thanks, Mrs. Richborough!”
The widow, who was in the act of adjusting her veil, turned about with a quick, impulsive smile.
“Everything satisfactory, my dear?”
“As regards the main business — yes. But he says something about our all going over to Runhill Court to-morrow . . . ”
“Do let’s! I’m positively dying to see that place.”
“I dote on these ancient family houses. I don’t know why. I’m more than a little mediumistic — that may be one reason.”
“If you’re so keen, you needn’t wait for me, I suppose?”
Mrs. Richborough’s smile faded. “I suppose not, if I could find another woman. Unluckily, I know nobody in this part of the world. My own set happens to be up North.”
“Is there no one at the hotel?”
“I’m just a little exclusive, I fear . . . Why shouldn’t you come, my dear? What are you afraid of?”
“You don’t know, of course — I’ve already seen that place three times. There are limits to one’s enthusiasm . . . I don’t think I’ll come, thanks!”
“This is truly unexpected. Most girls would be charmed at the prospect of another pleasure party.”
“The only pleasure I can see in it is the pleasure of your society, Mrs. Richborough. Of course, that is a great inducement.”
“No, don’t be horrid, my dear. Let me put it in a different form. Perhaps you’re not keen on coming; but do it to please Mr. Judge. The poor man’s so proud of his house, and so delighted — so almost childishly delighted at the opportunity of exhibiting it to his friends. For some unknown reason, he chooses to set a very high value on my artistic opinion, and I have promised to tell him honestly exactly what I think of Runhill Court . . . And now, because you’re afraid of being a little bored, you’re going to dash all our plans to the ground.”
Isbel laughed. “The long and short of it is I’m not wanted for my own sake, but only to act as chaperon to you.”
The widow, too laughed - so energetically that her long, white face became quite strange to look at.
“It sounds rather weird for an unmarried girl to chaperon an experienced widow, but you know, my dear, two women can always go where one can’t. After all, I have my reputation to lose, just as much as the youngest and most innocent of you . . . You will come now, won’t you?”
“I’m still rather at sea, Mrs. Richborough. Is all this solicitude on your account, or Mr. Judge’s?”
“On his — because I’m so sorry for him. The poor man is so lonely. He’s lost his wife, he has no friends to speak of, and he lives all by himself in a seaside hotel, where he’s surrounded by a set of entirely new faces every day. We women ought to do what we can for him. I know he can’t be precisely a congenial companion for a girl your age, but if you’ll only act the good Samaritan and come with us I give you my solemn word of honour I’ll take as much of his conversation off your hands as I can manage.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt that in the very least.”
“Then you consent?”
“No, I refuse,” said Isbel, drily.
“It’s too bad of you! . . . Won’t you give a reason? I must tell him something.”
“Tell him I don’t care to. He’ll understand. Tell him I don’t care to go running about the country with total strangers. I don’t like it, and my friends wouldn’t like it . . . Thanks for coming over, Mrs. Richborough! There’s nothing else you want to say, is there?” She prepared to get up.
“One little minute more, my dear . . . If you don’t care about accompanying us, would your aunt, I wonder? You say she is negotiating for the house. Mr. Judge, of course, would bring his car for her.”
“I’m afraid if he brought wild horses it wouldn’t have the desired effect. She’s a very difficult person to move.”
“There’s nothing like trying. If I were to walk back with you to your hotel, should I find her in?”
“She would be in, but whether she would be visible is quite another matter. I may as well tell you that her interest in Runhill Court is extremely thin at the moment, and as for Mr. Judge — merely to mention his name is like holding out a red cloak to a bull . . . She fancies he hasn’t treated her with an excessive amount of consideration — and that’s really why the negotiations are falling on me.”
“There would be no harm in my trying, though. I think I will look in on my way to the station. It’s the Hotel Gondy, isn’t it? I fancy I once stayed there.”
“You seem quite well posted,” said Isbel, smiling with vexation. “Go, by all means, if you think it’s at all likely to answer the purpose. Only, please don’t bring my name into it — I particularly request that.”
The widow shot her a malicious little glance.
“If it can possibly be avoided, my dear, it shall me. In any case, she shall hear nothing of the letter — I promise you that.”
“I begin to see!”
“I can hardly do more, can I? If we aren’t to be friends, you really can’t expect me to fib for you. Be reasonable!”
“No, I really suppose I can’t . . . The only thing that still puzzles me is why my humble society should be so much in request. Such red-hot zeal in the cause of sight-seeing strikes one as quite uncanny! Surely you can’t have told me the whole story?”
“I believe we shall come to terms now. Do you know, my dear, you’re ever so much cleverer than I gave you credit for at first.” She bestowed on Isbel one of those disarming smiles which she ordinarily reserved for her male acquaintances. “As you’re so direct with me, I’m going to be equally open with you. Runhill Court is notoriously haunted, and . . . I’m a spiritist . . . That explains everything at last, doesn’t it?”
Isbel stared at her. “But is it notoriously haunted?”
“Perhaps ‘haunted’ is a rather misleading term. Shall we say queer? There’s a corridor there which is quite celebrated throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom — in psychic circles, it goes without saying. You must know it, since you’ve been there so many times?”
“Oh, yes — but if that’s all, it’s not much.”
“Not to you, my dear, for you take no interest in such matters, but to anyone who is interested in another world the smallest clue is deeply engrossing. Possibly you have never lost anyone who is very, very dear to you? I have.”
“And that’s the true reason why I’m to be forced to do something I don’t want? Excuse my scepticism, Mrs. Richborough, but you’ve been rattling out different explanations at the rate of sixty miles an hour for the last ten minutes. I’m not sure whether there are more to come.”
The widow threw her a hostile glance. “Such as what?”
“That’s what I don’t know, and what I am wondering.”
“You seem to suggest a personal motive?”
“I suggest nothing at all, but it’s very funny . . . How long have you really know Mr. Judge?”
“Exactly a fortnight to-morrow, my dear. You see, there’s no question of intimacy between us.”
“What is the extent of his fortune, really? I’ve never heard.”
Mrs. Richborough showed her long, but beautifully white teeth, in a smile. “Has he one? He has that house, of course . . . I confess I’ve never heard whether he’s rich or poor, and, to tell the truth, it doesn’t worry me in the slightest. I’m afraid I’m a dreadfully unmercenary creature; I choose my friends for their distinction of character, and not at all for their money-bags. I’ve never had anything to do with money, and I hate the very mention of it.”
“Then how do you contrive to live?” asked Isbel bluntly.
“Oh, one has an income, of course . . . still, one leaves all that to one’s banker. The great art of living happily, my dear, is to cut your coat according to your stuff . . . Now, it’s getting late — what about to-morrow?”
“I suppose I shall have to say ‘Yes,’ since you’re so very persuasive.”
“I felt sure you would relent eventually.”
“On condition that the whole thing is kept quiet.”
Mrs. Richborough reassured her with effusiveness.
“It had better be in the morning,” said Isbel, cutting her short somewhat contemptuously.
“I was going to suggest it. I’m so glad you can fit in — I know how horribly tied you girls are. They call it a free country, yet a girl is a perfect slave to her little circle . . . Now, will you come over to Worthing by the same train as before? Come straight along to the Metropole, and ask for me. The car will be waiting, and we can start at once — just the three of us.”
“How do you know that Mr. Judge will be sufficiently recovered to come?”
“Oh, he will be. There’s nothing seriously wrong with him, my dear. I shall pack him off to bed early, and see that he gets a real good night’s rest.”
Isbel stood up. “He’s evidently in good hands.”
“Any woman would do that much for him. It would be abominable to leave him to the mercies of the hotel staff.” Mrs. Richborough also ascended to the perpendicular position — a floating mass of soft furs . . . “You don’t wish me to convey a personal message?”
“Oh, say I’m sorry he’s unwell, and that the other matter is all right.”
She extended her hand, which the widow hastened to grasp warmly. The latter even raised her veil and pushed her face forward, but this was too much for Isbel, who deliberately ignored the invitation. Mrs. Richborough, recognising her faux pas, made all speed to cover it up:
“I hear you’re to be married, my dear?”
“Oh, yes . . . Who told you?”
“Mr. Judge hinted at it . . . I’m so glad!”
“Thanks! But I wish he’d leave my private affairs alone.”
“He’s so isolated, and had so little to talk about.”
“He has no right to discuss me. I don’t like it.”
“My dear, it was only the shadow of a hint — perhaps not even that. Perhaps he said nothing at all, and it was merely my intuition . . . Well, then, good-bye till to-morrow. By the way, if you would care to dash off a few lines to him, I have paper and a fountain pen.”
Isbel declined, thinking the offer rather strange. They separated, to go their respective ways.
Five minutes later, as she passed along the now nearly deserted parade towards the hotel, she whipped a hairpin out of her hair, and, halting for a moment, compared it carefully with that which Judge had sent her. They were identical in size and shape . . . She returned them both to her hair.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57