At ten minutes to three, while they were all together in the library on the first floor, Mrs. Richborough and Judge were inspecting one of the corner shelves, with their backs turned upon her — thereby effectually excluding her from the conversation — Isbel seized the opportunity to slip quietly from the room. Descending on tip-toe the servants’ staircase opposite, she found herself in the kitchens, through which she was obliged to pass in order to regain the hall. As she went by the foot of the main staircase, she heard her name being called . . . “Miss Loment! Miss Loment!” . . . It was Judge’s voice. She had been missed already, and the mock search had commenced.
A short half-hour ago, when she had entered the hall from out of doors in company with the others, those strange stairs had not been there. Whether it was that her agitation prohibited the use of her reasoning faculties, or whether that her mind had become surfeited with marvels, it hardly occurred to her to doubt that she should see them now. Hurried to action by the distant hailing, she at once lifted her eyes, anxiously and fearfully, to the wall beyond the fireplace, while still hastening across the floor . . . There they were! . . .
She arrived at the foot of the staircase as in a dream, and stood a moment with one shoe poised on the bottom step, her gaze vainly directed towards the invisible top. Then, without changing a muscle of her face, she began to mount.
Half-way up, when the hall was already our of sight, her memory came back and she started piecing together the incidents of her last visit to that extraordinary region of the house. To allow herself time to thoroughly reconstruct everything, she seated herself sideways on one of the steps, staring fixedly downstairs, with twisted neck and eyes which saw nothing . . .
The more she recollected of that meeting with Judge, the greater became her disquietude; she kept starting nervously to rise, while the blood ebbed and flowed in her cheeks. If in that interview they had succeeded in keeping within the bounds of friendship, it was obviously it had only been by the exercise of great self-control; and, in view of his later confession, who could say what would now happen? The warm sympathy of their exchanges, their almost unseemly anxiety to lay aside all deception with each other, their mutual approval of one another’s conduct — upon which the world would pass an altogether different judgement — and, lastly, her gift to him of that scarf, warm from her own neck: all this, as it grew slowly together in her mind, appeared to her as something which was irreconcilable with her true character, as something shameless and dreadful; it was like awaking by degrees to the awful temporary insanity . . . Only it was not insanity; it was not even an accidental expression of excited feelings, induced by the strange circumstances in which they had found themselves. It was worse than that. It sprang from the genuine and unfeigned emotion of both their hearts . . .
By what miraculous chance had they met there, at the same hour, on the same day, in the same unreal room of a house which, less than a month ago, she had not known the existence? Judge had not set foot in that weird room for eight years, while she had never been inside it before in her life — and now, suddenly, they meet there, and within a few minutes she has given him a tangible pledge of her favour . . .
It was more than chance; it was fate. Something — some strange influence in the house, was throwing them together . . . how far and for what purpose she dared not ask herself. It was of no use to disguise things. Every step they took — inside the house, or out of it — had the direct effect of entangling them more and more, and there could be but one end to it all; an end which bore a double face. The obverse face was noble, uplifting union with a man of unique character; the reverse face was social catastrophe . . .
She was a betrothed girl, and honour commanded she go back at once. It was untrue . . . she did not love Judge, she did love Marshall. On the last occasion she had met Judge by chance, therefore she was not at fault, but if now she persisted in repeating the adventure she would be committing a sin of conscience. And how would it be possible for her ever to hold up her head again among her friends, if she elected to act with such disgusting faithlessness towards a true-hearted man of her own age, in order to accept the sudden protestations of emotional affinity of an elderly widower? . . . She buried her face in her hands . . .
But it was out of the question to turn tail now, without first clearing things up. If she did, it would simply mean the whole torturing business over again — the same failure of memory, the same anxiety to find out what had happened, the same dallyings with Judge, the same surreptitious visits and counter-visits, the same humiliating scheming and deception, the same lowering of her entire moral and physical tone, and in the end . . . exposure! If she were so miserably weak and cowardly, so unsure of her own moral fibre, that she dared not meet a strange man in a private place for ten minutes, in order to finish with him once for all, then affairs had arrived at a very serious impasse, and she was deliberately turning her back on the only apparent means of escape from an impossible situation.
However much she dreaded it, there was really no alternative to her seeing Judge upstairs just this once more . . . not as stolen joy, but in order to put a definite end to their disagreeable intimacy. Exactly how this was to be effected she did not know, but, since he was a gentleman, he would of course make it his business to devise some plan . . . After all, this dreadful manor house was his, he was responsible for what went on inside it; if there were mysteries there requiring a solution, he had no earthly right to call upon her for assistance . . .
She got up and mechanically shook out her garments. Slowly climbing the remaining stairs, she again stood in the familiar ante-chamber, with its three doors. Without any hesitation whatever she advanced to the middle one, and, sharply turning the handle, let herself into the apartment, where last Monday she had met Judge.
Nothing was different. There were the same panelled walls, the same polished flooring, the same solitary couch at the end of the room. She cast a troubled glance round, and sat down, with heaving bosom, to wait . . .
Five minutes later the door was thrown open, and Judge walked in. He stopped where he was, looked anxiously at Isbel and at the same time pushed the door to, behind him, but failed to close. Isbel gazed in his direction with equal earnestness, but she did not offer to rise.
“I’ve got away, as you can see,” began Judge. “May I sit down?”
“Please!” She made space for him. They both sat in stiff attitudes, at some distance from each other.
There was an awkward pause, which Isbel broke by saying: “I don’t wish to come here again, so we must think of some way of ending it.”
“I quite understand.”
“It’s making my existence intolerable.”
“It was madness on my part to accept that scarf. That’s the root of all the mischief. I ought to have known that we should remember nothing of the circumstances under which it came into my possession.”
“We were both to blame for that. It doesn’t matter now. But I shan’t come here again, so I wish to ask you to take steps to prevent a repetition.”
“Very well. I’ll write a note before we go down, and put it in my vest pocket, where I shall be sure to strike it . . . But are we not to see that other room?”
Isbel, glancing at him, uttered an involuntary little exclamation.
“What’s the matter?” asked Judge.
“Nothing — but how extraordinarily young you look!”
“You are strangely alter, too. Not younger, not even more beautiful, I think, but . . . more wonderful . . . It’s a weird, mystical room, there’s no doubt.”
“Have you still no idea where we are?”
She pointed towards the walls “Al this is workmen’s work.”
“We daren’t think otherwise. But the place is intensely dreamlike . . . and yet I can’t remember having ever enjoyed a more poignant sense of actuality.”
“Was it accident, or fate, that brought us here together last time? It has been puzzling me. It looks as if something — perhaps the house itself — were throwing us together, without our wills being in any way consulted . . . Is such a thing possible, do you think?”
“We cannot think it. of what possible advantage can it be to an unseen Power that I should be forced to play the part of a persecutor, and you that of a victim?”
“Aren’t we both victims? To me we seem like moths fluttering round a lamp. I expect a moth has no memory, either — only instinct and a capacity for suffering . . . I see no end to it; we shall return here again and again, until our wings are burnt indeed!”
Her voice caught a little. Judge moved closer to her, and placed a hand on her sleeve, but lightly and without familiarity.
“We are not moths, but creatures endowed with reason, and we can blow our lamp out without waiting for the tragedy. If necessary, I will shut the place up, and go abroad for a time. It won’t be long before you have forgotten all about the affair.”
Isbel gave him a singular, half-wistful smile. “Have you sufficient strength of character to do this?”
“Yes; if I were once assured that your happiness is involved. To secure that, I would willingly burn the whole house to the ground.”
“I know it.”
“And I know that you know it; and that is my reward.”
There was a break in the conversation, but she made no movement to disengage her arm. After a moment she said very quietly:
“It’s just because you ask less than other men that I can afford to give you more. You understand that?”
“So let it be,” replied Judge.
“Are you content?”
“I have confessed my feelings, and you have not withdrawn your friendship. That fixes our relations, and I have no desire to transgress the bounds laid down.”
“Because your temper is naturally noble,” said Isbel. “All the other men I have met have been plebeians, but you are made of different material, and that is why you act so differently . . . When I go downstairs again, I shall go downstairs indeed! . . . ”
* * *
The were so absorbed in their talk that neither of them observed that the door had become pushed half-open, and that a figure stood on the threshold, watching them in silence.
It was Mrs. Richborough!
It did not appear how long she had been standing there, but suddenly Isbel looked up. She uttered a little scream, wrenched her arm free, and started to her feet. Judge followed the direction of her horrified stare, and swore under his breath; he also got up.
“I’m sorry if I’ve frightened you,” said Mrs. Richborough quietly, without smiling. “I won’t stay — but where are we, and what does it all mean?”
There was a tense silence.
“I’m afraid Miss Loment feels slightly upset at finding herself here,” offered Judge at last, in a fairly firm voice. “I have been trying to reassure her. We met here by accident.”
“But what part of the house is this? I thought the East Room was at the top, immediately under the roof?”
“So I believe.”
“Then where are we?”
“Higher still, it appears. You know as much as I do about it, Mrs. Richborough . . . You followed me after all, then?”
“Yes. Your manner struck me as peculiar, and I was suspicious. I kept you in sight as far as the East Room, but there you shut the door after you, and I didn’t venture to intrude at first. Your direction was so very decided that I felt positive it was a got-up thing. I listened outside for voices for some minutes, but, as everything was quite quiet, at last I did summon courage to enter. You weren’t there, but I caught sight of another flight of stairs leading upwards, so very naturally I made use of them. And here I am.”
Judge heard her to the end attentively, and then, turning half away, began to whistle beneath his breath, between his teeth. Isbel, looking very distressed, sat down again.
“Has either of you ever been here before?” asked Mrs. Richborough, glancing first at one and then at the other.
“I have, a good many times, in former years,” answered Judge.
“Then surely you have some idea where we are?”
“I haven’t.” His tone was dry and decided.
Mrs. Richborough launched a queer look at him, and began to gaze around her restlessly.
“What’s in that other room?”
“On the right, as you come up the stairs. The other one can’t be anything much.”
“What makes you say that?” questioned Isbel, surprised out of her silence.
“Intuition . . . But what is in that right-hand room?”
“I’ve never been inside it,” replied Judge.
“Why ever not? Most likely it’s the key to the whole place. Someone ought to go in. May I go?”
“I don’t care to ask you, Mrs. Richborough. It’s totally unexplored, and you might quite conceivably meet with an unpleasant experience.”
“I don’t view these things from the common standpoint. For me, there’s nothing whatever terrifying in the supernatural . . . Have I your permission to go?”
“Of course — but perhaps we ought to accompany you?”
“Oh, no — there’s not the slightest necessity. Besides, you have your talk to finish. I’m perfectly conscious of having interrupted you.”
Isbel clutched the couch on either side of her with her hands, and looked up. “Have you nothing to say about . . . your surprise . . . at finding us together like this?”
Mrs. Richborough gave a strange, but not unpleasant smile.
“No, I have nothing to say about that.”
“But, of course, you . . . put the worst construction . . . ”
“No . . . ” She passed her hand across her eyes. “A change of some sort has come over me. It is this terribly unreal place, I think. Your meeting is not what I expected to find. You must be struggling against your hearts, both of you . . . No, I have nothing to say.”
“And yet you came to look for us?”
“Yes, I did; but it is all different. As I came upstairs I hated you both, and vowed revenge — I confess it. but now I can’t even remember how I came to be like that. All that state of mind suddenly seems so trivial and unimportant.”
She was about to move towards the door.
“Mrs. Richborough! . . . ” said Isbel abruptly.
“What is it?”
“Why were you so anxious to bring me here to-day?”
“You must know that without my telling you. Here all things are so transparent to all of us.”
“You meant to tell Mr. Stokes, didn’t you?”
The older woman looked down at her calmly. “Yes, I meant to restore you to your duty. But now I no longer pretend to know where your duty lies. Let me go now, my dear. All that is ancient history; everything has changed.”
Isbel said nothing more, but allowed her to leave the room. The door closed behind her.
Judge resumed his seat.
“We need not fear this development,” he said slowly. “She will remember nothing.”
“So much the worse, for she will go back to her plots and schemes. You haven’t thought of that?”
The suggestion startled him. “You think so?”
“How can it be otherwise? Oh, if her present mood lasted, I should never, never wish to speak ill of her. But we know it will disappear with her memory. What is to be done?”
He preserved silence for a few moments.
“After all, there is no cause for alarm. She will demand her price, and we shall pay it.”
“No, no; she will accept nothing short of the whole — I know her. In that she will be disappointed, and so she will do whatever mischief she can. Oh, I’m quite sure of it.”
“What do you mean by ‘the whole?”
“She intends to marry you.”
“And failing that? . . . ”
“Failing that, she will dishonour me — or perhaps she means to dishonour me in any case. You heard with your ears what she said.”
“Bit if I consented to marry her I should, of course, make her silence a condition.” The words came in a very low voice, as he bent his head towards the floor.
“What do you mean?” she demanded, sharply. “How could you marry her? You don’t love her.”
“Then it would be wicked of you! . . . What put that awful thought in your head? I can’t understand.”
“Yet it would solve other difficulties, too.”
“What difficulties? What difficulties can a wrong marriage solve? It would be criminal.”
“Some such decisive step must be taken to end the situation. Our friendship won’t continue to pass unnoticed.”
“You wish to terminate it, then?”
“For your sake; not mine.”
“And to achieve that result you accept a living death? . . . But perhaps you do really love her?”
Isbel laid her hand on his arm. “Promise me never to think of this again. It is absolute madness. We will find some other way out of our troubles. Promise me.”
“You may be sure of one thing,” replied Judge, looking at her steadily; “I shall not renounce my moral right to devote my life to your service, except as the very last resource. Beyond that I cannot go.”
Suddenly Isbel raised her head and seemed to listen to some sound outside the room.
“What was that?” she asked quickly.
“It sounded extremely like a stiff window-shutter being jerked open; it’s probably Mrs. Richborough in the next room.”
He had scarcely spoken when another noise, more distinct and far more peculiar, struck their ears.
“It’s music!” said Isbel, shaking from head to foot, and attempting unsuccessfully to rise.
“Yes . . . A bass viol — but some way off. I can’t conceive what it can be. Would you wait here while I go and investigate?”
“No, you mustn’t — I won’t have it! I won’t be left . . . ”
Judge sat down again, and they went on listening in silence. The low, rich, heavy scraping sound certainly did resemble that of a deep-toned stringed instrument, heard from a distance, but to Isbel’s imagination, it resembled something else as well. She thought she recognised it as the must of that dark upstairs corridor, which she had heard on her first visit to the house. But this time it was ever so much nearer, fuller, and more defined; the electric buzzing had resolved itself into perfectly distinct vibrations . . . A tune was being played, so there was no doubt about the nature of the noise. It was a simple, early-English rustic air — sweet, passionate and haunting. The sonorous and melancholy character of the instrument added a wild, long-drawn-out charm to it which was altogether beyond the range of the understanding and seemed to belong to other days, when feelings were more poignant and delicate, less showy, splendid, and odourless . . . After the theme had been repeated once, from beginning to end, the performance ceased, and was succeeded by absolute stillness.
They looked at each other.
“How beautiful! . . . but how perfectly awful!” said Isbel.
“Do you wish to go downstairs at once?”
Some seconds passed before she answered.
“No, I’ll stay. How could we leave it without finding out? . . . We’ll go in there in a minute. I don’t wish to while she’s there. Let’s finish what we were saying . . . You mustn’t commit that crime.”
“Your honour comes before everything.”
“You don’t belong to her.” She drew a long breath before proceeding . . . “You belong to me.”
“I do not belong to you.”
“Yes — you know it is so.”
“I beg you to reflect upon what you’re saying. You are not yourself at present. Don’t use language you will be sure to regret afterwards.”
Isbel ignored his interruption.
“I have lied too much to my own heart, and it’s time I were honest. They talk of faith and loyalty, but how can one be loyal to others if one is not first loyal to one’s own nature? There cannot be a greater sin than to pretend that our feelings are what in reality they are not.”
“This is no place for such deliberations. I beg you earnestly to say no more here and now. Reserve it until later.”
“No, I must speak. If I don’t speak out now, when shall I get another chance? . . . My engagement has been a ghastly mistake . . . It must have always been in the back of my mind, but now I see it all clearly for the first time . . . ” She crouched nearly double, and covered her face with her two hands.
Judge, much agitated, got up.
“I can’t listen to this. It’s impossible for me to discuss such a subject. It rests entirely between you and your own heart.”
“I made the terrible blunder of imagining that identity of tastes and friends means love. I took things too much for granted . . . His nature had no depth . . . He has never suffered. It isn’t in him.”
“You must think it over in quietness. Say no more now.”
She sat up suddenly, and stared at him.
“You throw me to him, then? — you who profess to have such ideal love for me!”
Judge was silent.
“So you don’t love me?”
“In the end you will understand that I love you deeply and truly.”
She slowly rose to her feet. “Then what do you advise me to do?”
“Do nothing at all, but wait.”
“You have no questions for me?”
“I love no one but you,” said Isbel. She caught his hand, and crushed it hard in hers; then abruptly turned her back on him . . . Judge stood like one transfixed.
At the same moment Mrs. Richborough came into the room. Her natural pallor was intensified, while her face was set and drawn, as though she had received a shock.
“Oh, what’s the matter?” exclaimed Isbel, taking a step in her direction.
The older woman swayed, as if about to fall. Judge hastened forward to support her.
“I’m afraid I’ve just seen a sight which I can only regard as a warning. As you look out of the window there is a man, with his back turned. He looked round, and then I saw his face. I can’t describe it . . . I think I’ll go downstairs, if you don’t mind.”
The others looked at one another.
“Shall I take you down?” asked Judge.
“If you would assist me to the head of the stairs, I shall be all right.”
He asked no questions, but at once supported her from the room. Isbel followed. On arriving at the top of the staircase, he lent the dazed woman his arm down the first few steps, then watched her out of sight before rejoining his companion.
Again they gazed at each other.
“You heard what she said,” remarked Judge quietly. “Under the circumstances I don’t feel justified in asking you to accompany me into that room.”
“Are you going?”
“Yes, I’m going.”
“Then I shall go, too.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57