It had been raining heavily, but the sky was rapidly clearing and there were great tracts of blue everywhere as Isbel mounted the steps of the Metropole Hotel at Worthing shortly after noon on the following day. She had been unable to escape from her aunt in time to catch the earlier train, but to compensate for this she was free to spend the whole day as she pleased. By a lucky chance, Mrs. Moor was compelled to go up to town on business.
Judge was waiting in the porch. He grasped her hand warmly, preventing her apologies.
“It was very good of you to come at all, Miss Loment. As far as we are concerned, the time is of no importance. Mrs. Richborough will be here immediately.”
Even as he spoke, the widow appeared. Her tall and lovely form was attired as usual in the rich, soft furs and velvets which she so much affected. She moved charmingly, and her grace-fully swaying waist was that of a quite young woman, but Isbel no sooner saw the angular, witchlike face than her old feelings of repugnance and distrust returned.
As it was so late, an early lunch at the hotel was agreed upon, before starting. They passed into the restaurant. Here Isbel received an unpleasant shock. She recognised and was recognised by a girl acquaintance belonging to her particular set — Louie Lassells, who probably was more intimate with Blanche, Marshall, and the rest than with her own relations.
Louie was lunching with a couple of youngsters of the subaltern type; she seemed in the highest spirits, and champagne was already on the table. She pledged Isbel in a glass from the other side of the room. Presently she came over to her, her dark, bold, handsome, gypsy-like face looked very flushed and defiantly gay.
“So this is where you get to!” she began, throwing a single critical glance towards Mrs. Richborough and Judge.
“I’m not the only one, it appears,” retaliated Isbel. She laid down her knife and fork, and looked up calmly. “You’re having a high old time, obviously.”
“Rather! We’re making a day of it. Sorry I can’t introduce you, but we’re all here incog. I’m supposed to be in Regent Street at this blessed minute.”
“Bravo! I’m supposed to be in Brighton. We’d better draw up a deed.”
Louie laughed immoderately. “What shall we drink it in?” Her eye roved round the table. “What are you drinking? Only Burgundy? . . . I say . . . "— she bent to whisper —“you’re not having much of a time, are you? Where did you dig them up?”
Mrs. Richborough unluckily overheard.
“Surely I know your face?” she remarked graciously to Louie, who still held on to the edge of the table. “Your name is just hovering on the tip of my tongue.”
The girl smiled vaguely, without even looking at her. “One sees so many people. It’s going to turn out a quite charming day, I think . . . Well, ta-ta, Isbel! No manner of use asking you to join us, of course?”
“You see, I can’t.”
Louie trod lightly back to her impatient squires, while Isbel watched with some amusement Mrs. Richborough’s efforts to regain her composure.
“She seems a pleasant girl,” remarked Judge.
“Is she a very close friend of yours?” inquired the widow of Isbel, returning, however, to her plate.
“We know each other fairly well.”
“What an unfortunate coincidence that she should be lunching here to-day, of all days.”
“Why?” asked Judge.
“Miss Loment rather wished to keep her visit private, I fancy. I’m afraid she is inclined to regard it in the light of an escapade.”
“Is that really so, Miss Loment?”
“Naturally I have appearances to consider. However, it’s no good crying over spilt milk if anyone splits, it won’t be Louie.”
“Quite sure?” asked Mrs. Richborough, with a smile which was almost a sneer.
“I hope I can trust my own friends to behave with common decency.”
Judge looked perplexed. “I hope you’re not here against your will?”
“Why should I come, if I hadn’t wanted to? I’m a free agent.”
“Can’t you grasp, Mr. Judge? La tante terrible! Miss Loment is experiencing the fearful joy of being out of school.”
“Clever, but unsound, Mrs. Richborough. I was thinking more of public opinion.”
“You think you are acting unwisely?” asked Judge, wrinkling his forehead.
“Oh, I know if there’s any doubt about it the judgement won’t be given in my favour. Lunching in a strange town, with quite unknown people, strikes me as being exactly calculated to lead to a lot of questions being asked. And we know that if a question is uncharitable, the answer to it won’t be otherwise. Even if I were to plead altruistic motives, I’m afraid it wouldn’t be of any avail.”
“Does that imply you’re here out of kindness?”
“Perhaps it comes to that in the end. The pleasure of a chaperon is always rather impersonal.”
“Of a chaperon, Miss Loment?
“Didn’t you know? I’m chaperoning Mrs. Richborough. She made such a strong point of it that really I hadn’t the heart to refuse. Otherwise, I didn’t mean to come.”
Judge’s expression was one of absolute amazement.
“Here is some misunderstanding, evidently. Mrs. Richborough was kind enough to offer herself as chaperon to you, on learning that you were so anxious to see the house once more . . . ”
The widow actually coloured, beneath her paint and powder. “Really, I’ll never equivocate again as long as I live! Miss Loment seemed so unwilling to join us that there was positively nothing left to do except appeal to her sympathy . . . I feel an absolute criminal.”
“Oh, it’s funny, Mrs. Richborough!” said Isbel. “Don’t start apologising or you’ll spoil the joke.”
“But surely, Miss Loment,” said Judge, “you didn’t for one minute imagine that I desired to fetch you all the way from Brighton merely to act as a companion to another lady? I must have made that clear in my letter.”
“Oh, it’s a mix-up, and that’s all about it. Mrs. Richborough was obliging me, and I was under the impression that I was obliging her. When women start conferring favours on one another there’s no end to the complications. To show our thorough disinterestedness, we stick at nothing.”
“It must certainly have been a most confusing situation for both of you,” remarked Judge, smiling at last “However, the main point is we’ve got you here, by fair means or foul; and I don’t think you need be in the least afraid of tittle-tattle, as we are both highly respectable people. If might suggest a compromise, you had better terminate your dispute of generosity by agreeing to chaperon each other, since in the eyes of the world I am such a dangerous person.?
“Then what are we waiting for?” demanded Isbel cheerfully. “Lunch seems to be at an end.”
They stayed for coffee, however, and then, while Judge went outside to prepare the car, Mrs. Richborough led the somewhat unwilling girl upstairs to her room, where for five unpleasant minutes she was forced to inhale an atmosphere almost nauseous with feminine perfume, while witnessing the elder woman’s final applications of paint, powder, and salve. Refusing the use of these materials for herself, at the end of that time she broke away, and went downstairs alone.
She found Judge promenading before the hotel. A rather embarrassed discussion of the weather began.
“Thanks for the letter!” said Isbel, quietly and suddenly.
“It was my hairpin.”
“I decided as much; there’s no one else it could have belonged to.”
“Won’t you tell me what was in that note you destroyed?”
“I can’t — I can’t. Say no more about it.”
“Whose idea really was it, that I should come over to-day — yours or hers?”
“Mine, Miss Loment. She has nothing at all to do with the business. I am simply bringing her because you can’t go with me alone.”
“I’d rather it were anyone else. Who is she? Do you know anything about her?”
“Nothing, I fear, except that she’s quite reputable . . . Don’t you like her, then?”
“Not particularly — but we won’t pay her the honour of talking about her . . . What are we to do to-day?
“I thought we could make a desperate effort to get this mystery cleared up, once for all . . . I fear we must both recognise that things can’t go on in the way they’re doing. It’s unfair to both of us.”
Isbel gave him a half-frightened glance. “What’s to prevent us from finishing now? Why need we take a still deeper plunge — for that’s what it amounts to . . . or does it? What do you think — shall we really ever get any satisfaction? I’m fearfully uncertain . . . ”
“You place a great responsibility on my shoulders, Miss Loment . . . To be quite truthful, I feel I have no right to ask you to proceed further. I would not have written you as I did, except that I somehow had it firmly wedged in my head that the uncertainty was causing you great uneasiness . . . ”
“It’s half-killing me . . . We’ll go . . . But what are we to do with that woman when we get there?”
“It hasn’t occurred to me. It may be awkward, I can see.”
“If we don’t hurry up and plan something, we shall have her trailing after us all the time.”
“Something may turn up, to give us our chance.”
“That’s most unlikely — nothing ever turns up when you want it to. We’d better contrive something after this style: while we are all three going over the house together, I’ll accidentally become separated from you, and you must leave her while you hunt for me. We both know our respective stations.”
“But if she insists on accompanying me . . .?”
“OH, she won’t keep it up; she’ll soon tire of tramping up and down stairs, and along interminable corridors, in her high-heeled boots — searching for a girl she’s utterly callous about. Besides, she has a weak heart . . . ”
“Did she say so?”
“No, but she has all the symptoms . . . Of course, you’ll make a point of looking upstairs first.”
Judge obviously was reluctant to assent to her plan. “I suppose we can think of nothing better. Apart altogether from putting a deliberate deceit on a defenceless and unsuspecting woman, we have to consider the circumstance that she will be alone in a large and gloomy house very likely upwards of half an hour; and you say her heart is not in good shape.”
“I expect she’ll survive the ordeal, and if it’s any consolation to you, I fancy her own programme won’t bear a great deal of looking at.”
“What programme is that?”
“Oh, I don’t pretend to know the details, Mr. Judge; only I’m pretty sure she’s hatching something. Otherwise, why should she go to the trouble of blackmailing me into accompanying you to-day? I don’t suppose you’re aware of the fact that she openly threatened me with informing my aunt that I had met you privately at Worthing?”
“You didn’t tell me that! . . . Upon my soul! . . . Solely for the purpose of getting you to come?
“Yes. I refused at first. I wasn’t very keen on her society, to tell you the truth.”
“But what can her motive be for such conduct?”
“I have my ideas on the subject.”
“I really must ask you . . . ”
“I may be mistaken, but my belief is she wants to compromise me.”
Isbel smiled cynically. “As a necessary preliminary to breaking off my intimacy with you, I imagine.”
“You are telling me most astonishing things, Miss Loment. What interest is it of hers to break off this intimacy?”
“Oh, that’s the simplest question of all to answer. To keep the matrimonial field clear for herself, of course . . . Didn’t you know she had marked you down?”
“I cannot believe it,” said Judge, halting to stare at her, in his bewilderment.
“If you don’t know it, I expect everyone else does at your hotel.” The words dropped from her lips with such dry assurance that he felt she must be possessed of special knowledge.
He was silent for a moment.
“This is a revelation indeed, Miss Loment! . . . I don’t know what to say to it all. Now you speak of it, I confess I have had my suspicions once or twice lately, but I have always dismissed them as discreditable . . . But really, such a diabolical plot against the honour of a young girl is wholly unbelievable. It savours more of melodrama.”
“Oh, I won’t swear to hat part of it, but there’s something funny up, and I advise you to keep your eyes opened to the fullest possible extent. I mean to.”
“I hardly feel like meeting her after this.”
“You must, though — and you must go on behaving to her as nicely as ever. Remember, it’s our only chance of going to the house together.”
Mrs. Richborough herself at that moment appeared, descending from the hotel.
“I didn’t tell you,” said Isbel, “but we’re returning to town next week.”
“What! You’re leaving Brighton? But this is very unexpected. Has your aunt changed her plans, or what?”
“I only knew last night. She thinks I am looking unwell.”
“Bur you are not feeling unwell?”
“It’s useless to deny that my nerves are a bit jangled,” replied Isbel carelessly.
“Then she is giving up all idea of my house?”
“I can’t say, Mr. Judge. I shall have a word in the matter. We shall see. Don’t say any more — here she comes.”
The widow came up to them with a prepared smile. “I’m so frightfully sorry to have kept you both waiting. No doubt you’ve been saying hard things about me?”
“People evidently have spoilt you, Mrs. Richborough,” returned Isbel. “When I turn my back on company I invariably expect to be promptly forgotten.”
“What ideal modesty! People always talk. The only problem is: have they been pitying us, or annihilating us? I’m not sure I wouldn’t rather it were the second.”
“Well, you’re still alive,” was the dry reply.
Judge opened the door of the car gravely, without committing himself to a word, and the ladies got in. While he was settling himself preliminary to starting, the widow turned to Isbel.
“I understood you might have something to say to each other, my dear; that’s why I delayed.”
“That was very kind of you.”
“I do hope we’re to be friends. I like you tremendously already.”
“What for? I really can’t see what I’ve done to make myself so beloved.”
“Oh, it isn’t what one does, but what one is. I think you have a perfectly wonderful character, for a girl.”
Isbel did not even smile. “My dear Mrs. Richborough, If you were a man I should think you were trying to make love. As it is, I don’t understand you in the least.”
“Surely it is permissible for women to admire one another’s natures? You are so sympathetic, and so tactful, my dear. I’m sure when we know each other better we shall get on splendidly together.”
“What good qualities do you bring into the pool, Mrs. Richborough?”
“Alas, my dear! I have only one; and that is a heart.”
“So you are to do the feeling, while I am to do the sympathising; is that the arrangement?”
The widow gave a distant, rather melancholy smile.
“No one can deny that you are a very clever girl, and perhaps that is one more reason why I like you.”
The dialogue was terminated by the abrupt starting of the car. Isbel glanced at her watch. It was half-past one.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11