After the breakfast on Saturday morning, Marshall brought the car round. He strolled up and down for some time, smoking, before the ladies made their appearance in the portico of the hotel. Isbel wore a new travelling-ulster with a smart check; her small, black satin hat was completed by a floating veil. Her face was powdered, and she was rather heavily scented. Mrs. Moor’s short, commanding person was dressed with plain dignity. She looked the more distinguished of the two.
Isbel walked round the new car, appraising it critically, Marshall had bought it two months earlier, but delivery had been postponed until his return from America.
“Looks rather ladylike,” he apologised, “but it’s a devil to go.”
Aunt and niece were in the best of humours. The morning was ideal for motoring, while an objective, of course, made it so much more interesting. It was hot, breathless, misty — a typical September day. The sun beat down from a cloudless sky, and the sea was like milk. Crowds of holiday-makers thronged the parade, a piano-organ up some back street was rattling out a popular tune, everyone looked in good health and free from care.
“Can we get back for lunch?” demanded the older lady.
“We’ll do our best. It’s about fifteen miles each way, I take it.”
“Come on, then, and don’t waste time.”
As Isbel lightly touched Marshall’s arm in following her aunt into the back seat, she gave him an intimate smile. Their somewhat dangerous conversation of the preceding evening was forgotten, and both felt the engagement to be a wonderful thing. Climbing in behind the wheel, the underwriter’s face took on a deeper colour.
They started. The girl was delighted with the easy running of the car; its power, smoothness, and silence were something impressive. She was voluptuous by nature, and enjoyed luxurious travel, just as she enjoyed every form of softness. Mrs. Moor, for her part, sat as nearly upright as the thickly-padded cushions would permit, staring severely at the throng, which gradually thinned as they approached Hove.
Their road ran through Portslade, Shoreham, and up the valley of the Adur. The sun steadily increased in power, while the morning mists insensibly dissipated. They passed from sunshine to shadow, and from shadow to sunshine, fanned all the time by their own wind. Isbel’s first exhilaration faded: she wrinkled her brow, and grew dreamy, pensive, vaguely anxious. Nature always had this effect on her. Streets, ships, crowds, any form of human activity, enabled her to forget herself, but natural surroundings threw her back on her own mental resources, and then the whole emptiness and want of purpose of her life loomed up in front of her . . . Her aunt viewed the changing landscape sternly. These trees, these fields and meads, but, above all, those bare downs of grass-covered chalk in the background, were to her sacred. Isbel respected her mood, and made no attempt at conversation.
Presently they came to Bramber and Steyning. At the latter place Marshall slowed down to inquire the way, and was instructed to take the left-hand fork about a mile further on. Runhill Court would be, roughly, three miles north-west from that point, but the road was a complicated one.
The Downs were on their left. Chanctonbury Ring, with its crest of dark trees, dominated the whole country. The sun blazed, while a plague of flies swarmed round the car, which had to crawl as soon as they entered the puzzling network of by-lanes. They met few people, and the way was hard to pick up, in consequence of which it was already nearing twelve when at last they drew up before the lodge gate at their destination.
Beyond the gate a winding carriage drive went forward to the house, which was out of sight; it was bordered on either side by the usual shrubbery of rhododendrons, hollies, etc. on the left, again, was a rising park, containing some fine specimens of beech, while to the right a real wood appeared, the extent of which, however could not be seen. An ancient, moss-grown, red brick wall bounded the estate. On the other side of the narrow lane which passed the lodge were meadow lands, fringed by a line of tall elms, which effectually shut out the view. It was a solitary and charming spot. The air was peculiarly sweet, clean, yet heavy with fragrance.
As Marshall was in the act of getting down, a middle-aged woman emerged from the lodge. She was smoothing her dress and hair, and evidently had just removed an apron.
He produced Judge’s order. The woman took it in her hand and proceeded to read it, passing her thumb under each line form side to side of the sheet, while her lips silently framed the words. She was a tall, big-boned, fresh-complexioned person, of the upper-servant type; handsome, in a common way, but with sarcastic eyes. Her hair was thick and yellow.
Having examined the signature musingly, she turned again to him.
“When did you want to see the house, sir?”
“Now, if we may.”
She stared at one of the buttons of his coat. “That makes it rather awkward, sir. I gave the house-key to an American gentleman a short time back, and he’s still over there. Will you wait?”
“I didn’t know you admitted the general public.”
“We don’t, sir. This was another order, like yours.”
“Someone Mr. Judge picked up on the other side, no doubt. . . . Well, Mrs. . . . ”
“Mrs. Priday, sir.”
“Well, Mrs. Priday, I don’t see that it matters at all; we shan’t interfere with each other. As the house is open, I suppose we can get in?”
“Oh, yes — but did you wish me to show you over?”
“If you will.”
“I must find my husband first, before I can leave the lodge. He’s working somewhere in the grounds; he’s head gardener here. Will the ladies step inside and wait, sir?”
“Well, look here, Mrs. Priday — we’re somewhat pressed for time, so if you’ll open the gate we’ll just run up to the house and be starting. You can follow when you’re ready.”
“As you please, sir,” replied the caretaker, with an almost imperceptible shrug. She proceeded, without any great show of alacrity, to unlatch and swing open the carriage-gate, and meanwhile Marshall returned to the car, which a minute later passed slowly through the entrance to the drive.
Travelling at low speed, they obtained round the first bend, about three hundred yards further on, their first view of the house. It stood on high ground, and cool, dark-green lawns sloped down from it on all four sides. The front, which they approached, faced the south-east. It was a large edifice, in the Elizabethan style, but the exterior had been so renovated and smartened — perhaps by Judge — that it looked almost a modern erection. The irregular, many-gabled roof was bright with new tiles, the facing of red bricks on the ground storey had been pointed recently, while the two upper storeys were plastered with dazzling white stucco.
The house was long-fronted, possessing a double row of lattice windows overlooking the gravel terrace at the head of the lawn. A small, square wing, about thirty feet in height, jutted from the left end of the front, and appeared to belong to a different order of architecture. This was the famous thirteenth-century hall, built during the reign of the first Edward. It’s steeply-pointed roof was covered with grey slates. The wide double-door was resplendent with dark green paint and highly polished brass.
Mrs. Moor, as she continued to gaze at it, reflected that the possession of so stylish and picturesque a dwelling would not disgrace her in the eyes of her social circle.
“One might live here very comfortably, Isbel?”
Her niece gave a smile of vexation. “Since you have absolutely determined to immure yourself in the heart of the wilds.”
“Pray don’t let us thrash that out again,” said the old lady. “The suburbs I cannot endure, town flats are prisons, while hotels will be impossible after you’ve left me. Here, at all events, I should have space and independence.”
Isbel turned away without replying.
The car stopped outside the hall porch, with its green door. It was exactly mid-day. The sun glared down, but a refreshing breeze fanned their faces. The house was built on such an elevation that they could see a section of the distant country before them — Adur valley, with the Downs on both flanks, and, right down at its mouth, the sea at Shoreham.
Marshall stamped the ground with his foot. “This must be the original Run Hill that we’re standing on.”
“Has it a history, then?” asked Isbel.
“Every place must have a history. To me, the mere fact that the ancient Saxons knew it by the same name is rather inspiring.”
“Because you’re of Saxon blood. I’m a Celt.”
“As if that had anything to do with it.”
“And then, Saxons is a very general term. There were Saxon rustics, and there were Saxon pirates. If you’re referring to the latter I might feel sympathetic. It must be awfully jolly to annihilate people you don’t like.”
Mrs. Moor became impatient. “Did we come here to discuss your character, Isbel, or to see the house?”
Isbel grimaced in silence, and jerked back once again the veil which kept straying over her shoulder.
Having locked the wheel of the car Marshall walked across to the hall door, and tried the handle. The door opened smoothly and noiselessly. The ladies discarded their wraps, and followed him into the house.
A small lobby brought them to the main hall. Its age, loftiness, and dim light reminded them of an ancient chapel. It was two storeys in height; everything was of wood. The dark-oak, angular roof was crossed by massive beams, the walls were wainscoted, the floor was of polished oak, relieved only by a few Persian rugs, of dignified colours. At the back of the hall, halfway up, a landing, or gallery, ran across its entire breadth. It was reached by a wide staircase, with shallow steps, heavily carpeted, which formed the right-hand exit of the downstairs chamber. Two doors were underneath the gallery, communicating with the interior of the house. A big, ancient fireplace occupied the centre of one of the side walls; against the opposite one stood a modern steam-heating apparatus. Three perpendicular windows over the lobby-door had alternate diamond panes of coloured and uncoloured glass; the colours were dark blue and crimson, and whatever object these rays fell upon was made beautiful and sombre . . . The woodwork was in excellent repair, and appeared newly polished. Al the appointments of the hall were bright, spotless, and in perfect condition. Judge evidently had had the place thoroughly restored and redecorated. And yet the general effect was not quite satisfactory. Somehow, it was discordant . . .
Marshall gazed around him with an uncertain air.
“Rather over-modernised, isn’t it? I mean, a place like this ought to be more a museum.”
“Not at all,” said Mrs. Moor. “It’s a lounge.”
“I know — but would anyone dream of using it as such? Could I smoke a pipe and read a newspaper here? What I say is, why not frankly make a show-place of it?”
“But how? I don’t know exactly what you’re complaining of.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, don’t be so obtuse, aunt!” exclaimed Isbel, irritably. “He merely means, it’s all too spick-and-span. When one goes back a few centuries, one expects a certain amount of dust. I quite agree with Marshall. And of course the furniture’s hopeless.”
“What’s wrong with the furniture?”
“Oh, it’s a curiosity-shop. All styles and periods . . . Either Mr. Judge has frantic taste or his wife had. Probably the late lamented. I imagine him as the sort of man to be ruled entirely by shopmen, and no one can accuse shopmen of being eccentric.”
“You’re showing off to Marshall,” said Mrs. Moor curtly. “Of one thing I’m certain. Mr. Judge must be a highly moral man. Order and cleanliness like this could only spring from a thoroughly self-respecting nature.”
“If soap and water constitute morality,” retorted Isbel.
Time was precious. They passed through the left-hand door beneath the gallery, and found themselves in the dining-room. It was a long, low, narrow, dusky apartment, extending lengthwise from the hall. The noon sunshine filled it with solemn brightness, but the hand of the past was upon everything, and the girl’s hear sank as she contemplated the notion of taking her meals here, if only for a few months. She became subdued and silent.
“I fancy you’re not impressed?” whispered Marshall.
“It’s all so horribly weird.”
“I quite understand. You think it would get on your nerves?”
“Oh, I can’t express it. It’s ghostly, of course — I don’t mean that . . . The atmosphere seems tragical to me. I should have a constant feeling that somebody or something was all the way waiting to trip me up. I’m sure it’s an unlucky house.”
“Then you’d better tell your aunt. I suppose you will have the final say in the matter.”
“No, wait a bit,” said Isbel.
They passed into the kitchens. They were spotless, up-to-date, and fitted with all modern appliances. Mrs. Moor was delighted with all that she saw.
“No expense has been spared here evidently,” she spoke out. “So far the house strikes me as eminently satisfactory in every way, and I am very glad you introduced it to my notice, Marshall. If only the rest is equally convenient . . . ”
“We’re of one mind about this part of it, anyway,” said Isbel. “If I’m doomed to live at Runhill this kitchen will be where I shall spend the greater part of my time.”
Her aunt gave her a sharp look. “Do you mean you don’t like the rest of the house?”
“I’m not infatuated.”
“I couldn’t stay long in that hall, for example, without reckoning how many coffins had been carried downstairs since it was first built.”
“Oh, rubbish, child! People die everywhere.”
Isbel said nothing for a minute; then, “I wonder if she were old or young?”
“Mr. Judge’s wife.”
“Why, what makes you think she might be young?”
“I have a sort of impression that she might be. I haven’t succeeded in placing her in this house yet . . . Do you think he’ll marry again, Marshall?”
“Judging by the way he avoided women on board I should say not.”
Mrs. Moor glanced at her wrist-watch.
“It’s getting on toward half-past, and we’ve two more floors to see yet. We mustn’t stand about.”
They returned to the hall, and immediately began the ascent of the main staircase. So far they had neither seen nor heard anything of the American visitor; everything in the house remained as still as death. Mrs. Priday, too, was a long time in putting in an appearance . . . The landing, which constituted a part of the hall, was lighted by its windows; the golden sunlight, the black shadows cast by the balustrade, the patches of deep blue and crimson, produced a weird and solemn phantasmagoria of colour. All the air smelt of eld. They stopped for a minute at the top of the stairs, looking down over the rail of the gallery into the hall.
Mrs. Moor was the first to get to business again. She took a rapid survey of their situation. On the left, the gallery came to a stop at the outer wall of the hall. Two doors faced them; one opposite the head of the stairs, the other, which was ajar, further along to the left. On the right, beyond the foot of a second flight of stairs leading upwards, the landing extended forward as a long, dark corridor having rooms on both sides. The obscurity, and a sharp turn, prevented the end from being seen.
Isbel called attention to a plaster nymph, standing in an alcove.
“Mrs. Judge must have put that there,” she said, rubbing her forehead; “and I am sure she was little more than a girl.”
Her aunt regarded her askance. “What do you know about it?”
“I have a feeling. We’ll ask Mrs. Priday when she comes. I think Mr. Judge is a very susceptible elderly gentleman with a penchant for young women. Remember my words.”
“At least you might have the decency to recollect that you’re in his house.”
The words were hardly out of Mrs. Moor’s mouth when they were startled by a strange sound. It came from the open door on their left, and was exactly like a single chord struck heavily on the piano. They looked at one another.
“Our Transatlantic friend,” suggested Marshall.
Mrs. Moor frowned. “It’s singular he didn’t hear us come in.”
Another chord sounded, and then two or three more in quick succession.
“He’s going to play,” said Isbel.
“Shall I go and investigate?” asked Marshall; but Mrs. Moor held up her hand.
The music had commenced.
The ladies, who possessed a wide experience of orchestral concerts, immediately recognised the Introduction to the opening movement of Beethoven’s A major Symphony. It did not take long to realise, however, that the American — if it were the American — was not so much attempting to render this fragment from giant-land, as experimenting with it. his touch was heavy and positive, but he picked out the notes so tardily, he took such liberties with the tempo, there were such long silences, that the impression given was that he must be reflecting profoundly upon what he played . . .
Mrs. Moor looked puzzled, but Isbel, after her first shock of surprise, grew interested. She had an intuitive feeling that the unseen performer was not playing for the pleasure of the music, but for some other reason; but what this other reason could be, she could not conceive . . . Could it be that he was a professional musician, who was taking advantage of the presence of a grand piano to go over something in the work which was not quite clear in his mind? Or was the performance suggested by the house?
She knew the composition well, but had never heard it played like that before. The disturbing excitement of its preparations, as if a curtain were about to be drawn up, revealing a new marvellous world . . . It was wonderful . . . most beautiful, really . . . Then, after a few minutes came the famous passage of the gigantic ascending scales, and she immediately had a vision of huge stairs going up . . . And, after that, suddenly dead silence. The music had ceased abruptly . . .
She glanced round at her friends. Marshall was lounging over the rail of the gallery, his back to the others; stifling yawn after yawn; her aunt was staring at the half-open door, with an absent frown. The pianist showed no sign of resuming; two minutes passed, and still the deathly silence remained unbroken. Marshall stood erect and grew restive, but her aunt raised her hand for quiet. Isbel silently fingered her hair.
While they still waited, the foor of the room from which the sounds had issued opened to its full extent, and the musician appeared standing on the threshold, tranquilly smoking a newly-lighted cigarette.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11