The staircase had vanished, the house was in silence, evening was closing in, and her companions were absent. Isbel’s heart throbbed heavily, she felt sick and weak, yet she thought she ought to go upstairs to look for them. She knew that Judge would not have departed without her. She considered that it would be best if she were to go straight upstairs to the East Room.
The prospect of visiting that remote part of the house so late in the day did not inspire her with any enthusiasm, but anything was preferable to waiting about in that awful hall. It was most singular why they should be so long. She made her way upstairs slowly, stopping at every sixth step to listen for sounds; but all was quiet as a tomb. As she groped her passage along the nightlike corridor at the top of the house, it occurred to her for the first time that she had never yet seen the East Room, though all her acquaintances seemed to have done so. She smiled rather contemptuously. Well, it would complete her experience of the place!
The door stood wide open. It was dim twilight within, and the apartment did not strike her as very noteworthy. It was small and square, with a single window on the far side; very poorly furnished. But as she stood at the door, looking in, her eyes immediately fell upon something which completely took away all her interest in the room itself. Mrs. Richborough was lying extended on the floor, with Judge kneeling beside her!
She rushed forward quickly. “Whatever’s the matter, Mr. Judge? Is she ill?”
He looked up from bathing her forehead and lips with the contents of a pocket-flask.
“It’s a swoon, and rather a bad one. I couldn’t leave her, to come down to you.”
“How did it happen?”
“I don’t know. She was lying like this when I came down.”
Isbel turned hastily from the unconscious woman to look at Judge. “Then you have been up?”
“Yes. And you?”
“Yes; but I remember nothing — nor, of course, you, either?”
“Nothing.” He went on dabbing Mrs. Richborough’s forehead.
“Is that doing her any good? Hadn’t we better try and get her downstairs?”
“Her pulse is stronger, and I think she is coming round. It’s hopeless to think of a doctor in these parts. If we can get her in the car, we’ll soon run her down to Worthing. She must have had a fright of some sort.”
“But how came she to find her way up here?”
“I suppose she looked everywhere for me . . . I’ve been staring at something on the floor over there for some while, but haven’t been able to get up to investigate. It looks like a ring, or a brooch. She may have dropped it in falling.”
Isbel, following the direction of his finger, detected the article, and picked it up. It proved to be a lady’s diamond ring.
“It is a ring — and a rather nice one. It’s very much like mine.”
As she spoke the words, she instinctively felt for her engagement ring beneath her glove . . . It was not there! . . . She whipped off the glove, in dismay. Her third finger was ringless.
The recovered ring fitted it perfectly.
“It is mine!” she went on, with a desperate effort to keep calm, but unable to keep a slight break out of her voice.
“What! You surely must be mistaken.”
“It’s my engagement ring and ought to have been on my finger.”
They stared at each other.
“You are sure?”
“Yes, I am quite sure.”
“Then what is it doing her, Miss Loment? I can’t understand it. You haven’t been in this room before?”
“I have never been in this room before in my life. And I wore this ring at lunch to-day.”
She retained it on her finger and replaced her glove over it. At the same time, Mrs. Richborough’s face and neck stirred uneasily, and her eyelids flickered. Judge remained on his knees.
“How are we to understand it, do you suppose?” demanded Isbel, after a long pause, in the increasing darkness.
“I will not suggest what I don’t think, Miss Loment, and I may not suggest what I do think.”
“Oh, I know what you mean — and it’s ghastly! It can’t be . . . ” Her face suddenly crimsoned; she felt as if she were on fire. “But perhaps I don’t know what you mean. What do you mean?”
“I cannot say. But I can give you a piece of counsel. You cam here to-day to end a mystery, and you have started a still worse one. Things can’t go on like this; so I strongly advise that you make this your last visit to my house. This is the second time something has happened without your knowledge or consent.”
“It’s the uncertainty which is so horrible . . . Oh, can’t something be done? Have you no initiative at all, Mr. Judge? You call yourself a man.”
“It is high time to retrace our steps. We have already gone too far. I think my best plan will be to shut the house up altogether. I think I will do that.”
He applied himself to moistening Mrs. Richborough’s lips with the brandy. Her limbs began to move restlessly; it was evident that she was on the verge of regaining consciousness. After a moment or two he again looked up.
“I have only to express my sincere repentance at having invited you here this afternoon, Miss Loment. Of course, I should not have done so, and I am very sorry for it. My only excuse is that I knew no more than yourself.”
She made no reply.
Mrs. Richborough at last opened her eyes. Judge, bending lower, obliged her to take a sip of the brandy, and the powerful stimulant had a nearly instant effect upon her heart. She struggled into a sitting posture, supported by his arm, and smiled wanly.
“Where am I? What has happened?”
“It’s I— Mr. Judge — and this is Miss Loment. You have fainted.”
He forced her to swallow another mouthful of the spirit, and the colour started to return to her cheeks.
“You’ll be all right in a minute or two. We’ll get you downstairs to the car, make you comfortable, and run you home in less than no time. Feeling better already, aren’t you?”
“But so absurdly shaky! . . . I remember now. I had a sudden fright. It was horrid, and I was all alone.”
“We’ll hear about it later; never mind now.”
With Isbel’s assistance he succeeded in raising her to her feet. She was established in the chair, while the girl set her attire to rights. She started looking round on the floor uneasily.
“There should be a ring on the ground somewhere. Can you see it?”
“It has been picked up,” said Isbel shortly.
“It belongs to me. Can you tell me how it comes to be in this room, Mrs. Richborough?”
“It fell down from the wall. I did not know it was yours.”
Judge and Isbel exchanged glances.
“How do you mean ‘it fell down from the wall’?”
“It does sound stupid, but so it happened. That’s what frightened me. It seemed to tumble on to the middle of the floor, from nowhere at all.”
“But you said from the wall. Which wall?”
Mrs. Richborough turned weakly in her chair, and pointed behind her. “That wall. Where the stairs were previously. It rolled on to the floor, and I was just going to pick it up when I must have fainted.”
“But what stairs are you alluding to?” asked Judge.
She smiled, closed her eyes, and was silent for a moment.
“How can I explain? It sounds incredible, but I saw a flight of stairs in the middle of that wall, ascending out of sight. I actually went up them — or could I have dreamt it all? I’m afraid my mind is all upside-down this afternoon.”
Isbel coughed dryly, and glanced at her watch. Judge again pressed his flask on the widow.
“I won’t, thanks. My heart is scarcely in a state to stand over-stimulation. If you could help me, I think I could make my way downstairs. That would be best for everybody.”
Judge offered her his arm. On getting outside, he shut and locked the door of the room, putting the key in his pocket.
“You had better lead the way, Miss Loment. Take my torch.”
Slowly and with frequent pauses, they passed through the corridor and descended the stairs to the hall. Judge was about to proceed outside, but Mrs. Richborough asked to be allowed to sit down, to recover her strength.
“Tell me,” she said, after a minute, “Where did you both get to? I can’t understand what happened.”
“Perhaps we have been where you have been, Mrs. Richborough,” replied Isbel coldly.
“Oh! . . . Do you mean that? Are you pretending you saw those extraordinary stairs, too?”
“Unless they were a figment of your brain, why should not we have seen them? As a matter of fact — I don’t speak for Mr. Judge — I did see them, and went up them.”
“I, too,” said Judge.
“Then we are either all mad together, or something very strange has taken place. Possibly you can tell me where thy led to?”
“No; my memory is a blank, till I came down again.”
“And you, Mr. Judge?”
“I also remember nothing.”
Mrs. Richborough suddenly lost colour, and her breathing grew difficult. She recovered herself by a violent effort.
“You must both have gone up before me, and come down after me. How was that? And how did your ring come to fall down out of the wall? A ring doesn’t escape from one’s finger of its own accord.”
“I cannot answer the conundrum.” Isbel’s face was like granite.
“If I were an engaged girl I should not like such a thing to happen to me. Have you no idea how it could have happened?”
“It’s very, very strange.” Mrs. Richborough essayed a laugh. “If it did not sound absolutely insane, one might almost suppose you had been playing pitch-and-toss with it.”
Isbel went white to the lips, but she said nothing.
“You take it very calmly,” proceeded the widow. “Let us hope that Mr. Stokes, when he hears . . . ”
“Please hold your tongue, Mrs. Richborough! It has nothing whatever to do with you. I’ve not even told you that it is his ring. You are taking a very great deal for granted.”
“You only wore one ring at lunch, my dear, and that was on the third finger of your left hand.”
“Very well — then it is my engagement ring. What of it? Must I ask your permission before accidentally losing it?”
“I assure you I haven’t the slightest wish to interfere in your affairs; still sometimes the advice of an older woman . . . ”
“Oh, advice! . . . Well, what do you advise?”
“I think it is only good sense to try and find out something more about it. Let us assume that the explanation is supernatural . . . "— she looked up with a malicious half-smile —“or can you account for it in some other way?”
“I have already told you that I can’t account for it. If you have any useful suggestion to make, please be quick about it.”
“I suggest that we all come over here again in the morning and pursue the investigation. I cannot see what else there is to do.”
“Why should you trouble to come again because I have mysteriously lost and found a ring?”
“Because I wish to,” responded Mrs. Richborough, coolly.
“And if I refuse?”
“I shall assume that you consider my society undesirable.”
“And . . .?”
“And act accordingly.”
Isbel opened her bag to take out her handkerchief. In doing so, she encountered among it’s miscellaneous contents a strange envelope. The light in the hall, though fast fading, was still sufficiently strong to read by, and she drew the letter out to see what it was.
It was addressed to Mrs. Richborough.
She turned it about in a puzzled manner. “This appears to be your property. How it comes to be reposing in my bag I have no idea.”
The widow took it almost rudely.
“It certainly is mine. There’s no letter inside — you haven’t that inside your bag, I suppose?” She searched hurriedly in her own. “It’s all right — I have it myself. I’m sorry. But what in the world are you doing with the envelope?”
“There’s nothing written on it, by any chance?” suggested Judge thoughtfully.
Mrs. Richborough turned it over to see the back.
“Yes, there is. What led you to inquire?”
“If it’s nothing personal, do you mind my looking?”
“I can’t make head or tail of it. It’s music.” She handed it up to Judge, who gazed at it for some moments with a kind of uneasy rumination. Isbel looked over his shoulder.
“I only got that letter by this morning’s post, so those notes must have been added since. Who did it?”
Isbel gave an icy smile. “We needn’t stare at each other so suspiciously. Its sufficiently obvious what has happened. You wrote it yourself upstairs, Mrs. Richborough, and I picked it up and brought it down with me.”
“You really think that?”
“I’m convinced of it.”
“Then all I can say is we’re living in the land of dreams!” . . . Continuing to gaze at the back of the envelope, she started to whistle softly through the roughly-written notes of music. The others listened intently. The tune was unrecognisable, yet there was something strangely perplexing in it. It broke off abruptly in the middle; there was no more written down. They stole questioning glances at each other.
The gloom of the hall deepened . . . Suddenly, the fragment of air which Mrs. Richborough had just whistled was repeated by a distant stringed instrument, which seemed to possess very much the vibrating timbre and deep register of a double bass. It continued to carry the theme to its proper ending. The sound appeared to come from a very long way off, for though quite clear it was extraordinarily faint; it gave them the impression of being high over their heads, but, for all that, seemed to belong to the house . . . it lasted for littler longer than a minute, then everything went back to silence.
Judge stood looking as though he were still unable to grasp what had happened, Isbel’s white face bore a peculiar smile, but Mrs. Richborough was obliged to take deep and rapid breaths to prevent herself from swooning again. She sat erect in her chair, holding on to the arms.
“What was that?” demanded Judge at last.
“It reopens everything,” replied Isbel.
“What do you mean?”
“It looks as if they do not mean to leave us alone. We are not to be allowed to go back, so we must go on. So be it! I am content.”
“I don’t understand you.”
“I think you do, but it doesn’t matter.”
“I must ask you to speak more clearly, Miss Loment.”
“It is not what I say, or what I do, but what is being decided for us. Mrs. Richborough was quite right — we must come here again to-morrow.”
“Please take me outside,” murmured the widow weakly. Judge at once moved to her assistance, but the girl stepped in between.
“Wait a minute! . . . ” She faced Judge. “Do you think things can stop here? Have you no manhood at all? What do you imagine it all means?”
“I must refuse to take the responsibility of inviting you to this house again, Miss Loment.” He attempted to speak with firmness but his voice trembled. “If we go on — as you call it — nothing but unpleasantness awaits us; that is manifest. In the meantime, we ought to hurry home as fast as possible. She is seriously unwell.”
Mrs. Richborough really looked ghastly. He hastily produced his flask again, which this time she did not refuse. After swallowing a portion of the contents she felt better.
“I shall be quite well in the morning, Mr. Judge,” she managed to say the next minute. “Perhaps there will be no great pleasure in coming here again, but we have all a duty to perform. Miss Loment’s whole future happiness may be involved.”
He eyed her sternly. “What makes you say that?”
“I am neither more intelligent than you, Mr. Judge, not more enlightened; there is not the slightest necessity for me to explain my words. I insist upon our all coming here to-morrow morning.”
“That’s what I said. I will not consent to leave things in their present uncertainty. I also am implicated in a certain degree. If you really refuse, I shall have to consider where my further duty lies.”
“That is plain enough language, I think, Mr. Judge,” said Isbel, dryly. “You had better accept. It is the smaller of two evils.”
Judge looked at her, but made no reply. He offered his arm to Mrs. Richborough, and she at last got up from her chair.
They quitted the hall. The two women took their places in the car. After locking the house door, Judge approached Isbel to ascertain her wishes with regard to being set down. At her request he consulted his time-table to discover if there were a convenient train from Shoreham. He found one which would not involve an unreasonable detention at the station, and it was arranged that she should alight there.
He was then about to leave her, to take his own seat, when she pulled quietly at his sleeve.
“What are you feeling?” she asked in a low voice.
“You must know.”
“Tell me one thing — you haven’t altered towards me?”
“No, I haven’t altered.”
“You have been so cold. You don’t wish to break off our . . . friendship?”
Judge worked his jaw, pouched his mouth, and looked away.
“No, I don’t wish it; but perhaps it will be necessary.”
“You are made of stone, I think. But I’m coming here to-morrow.”
“Very well — if it can be arranged. I strongly doubt whether she will be fit.”
“And if she isn’t?”
“That is a question which answers itself, Miss Loment.”
“I’m coming over to Worthing by the same train, in any case. Expect me . . . You don’t altogether despise me, do you?”
“Hush!” . . . He nodded significantly towards Mrs. Richborough. “How could I?”
“Oh, she doesn’t hear. Her eyes are closed. Then you will wait for me to-morrow?”
“With or without her, we must go . . . There’s nothing else you wish to say to me now?”
“You are sure?”
Isbel sighed, as she sank back on the cushioned seat. Two minutes later they started down the drive.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11