The fine weather ran into Sunday. Mrs. Moor went to church in the morning, while Isbel dragged the unwilling Marshall with her to the West Pier to hear music. In honour of his return, she had to-day for the first time got back into colours, and was wearing a light summer frock, with cerise hat; her pale face was powdered as usual. She was a good deal stared at as they sauntered through the double-row of seated people, which had the effect of irritating her, for she was not feeling in a particularly social humour — she had slept abominably on the previous night.
The band was playing in the pavilion, but the windows were open, and they could hear perfectly well outside. They sank into a couple of deck-chairs which happened to be vacant. An undistinguished valse was just slowing to a finish.
A minute later Isbel nudged her escort; with a significant glance she directed his attention to his neighbour on the other side. It was Sherrup.
“Shall I speak?” he whispered.
Marshall drew reflectively at his cigarette, making no sign until the piece ended. Then he turned to the other good-humouredly.
“Bit warm this morning, Mr. Sherrup?”
The thick, red-bearded American was in the act of wiping his over-heated brow with an ornate handkerchief. He slipped it away, and calmly passed his hand over to the underwriter. The tail of his eye rested for a single instant on Isbel’s face, but he did not venture to claim the acquaintanceship.
“You’ve got my name, I see?”
“The caretaker told us. My own name’s Stokes — and this is Miss Loment.”
Sherrup rose and bowed.
“Staying long in Brighton?” inquired Marshall.
“No, I’m getting back to London in the morning, en route to Italy.”
“You won’t be seeing Judge, then? You don’t know him personally, I think you said.”
“Why, no; I’ve never met him. My wife wished me to take that house in on my trip, so I wrote him about it, and he was good enough to mail me an order. That’s all my connection with Mr. Judge.”
“You know he’s just back from America?”
“They told me at the house.”
Isbel whispered to Marshall to change seats. He obeyed, and she found herself between the two men.
“Still in quest of music, it seems, Mr. Sherrup?”
He laughed. “Oh, well, music was invented for lonely men. ”
“Your wife isn’t with you, then?”
“You mustn’t blame me for that, Miss Loment. It wasn’t my fault. She just wouldn’t come. Scared of the sea.”
“Is it a professional trip for you, or a holiday?”
“Oh, I’m seeing the galleries, that’s all.”
“What is your particular branch of art?”
“I’m a portrait-painter.”
“How awfully interesting! But don’t you have to accept commissions from all sorts of objectionable types?”
“There are no objectionable types, Miss Loment. In an art sense, every man and woman alive is an individual problem, with special features you won’t find elsewhere.”
“I never looked at it in that light. It must be so. But how absorbing you must find it all!”
Marshall got up.
“I’m going to hunt for cigarettes, if you’ll both excuse me. Stay here, Isbel. I won’t be long.”
“No, don’t be long.” She turned again to Sherrup.
“Do you find you get most of your applications from women or men?”
“The sexes are about equally vain, Miss Loment; but maybe the ladies are ahead in self-enthusiasm. I couldn’t supply the statistics off-hand.”
She laughed. A light entr’acte struck up, and further conversation was postponed for a few minutes. Isbel began to tap the pier flooring with the tip of her sunshade nervously and absently. As the last notes sounded she threw a hurried glance to the right, to see if Marshall were returning, and then leant over, almost confidentially, toward her companion.
“Tell me — what did you really think of that house yesterday?”
“A real impressive old pile, Miss Loment.”
He gave her a guarded look. “I guess a house can’t be much more than a house.”
“What made you sit down to that piano, then?”
“Oh, that!” He removed his hat, and slowly passed his hand over his broad, prominent forehead . . . “My little performance has surely struck your imagination. I thought we were through with that yesterday.”
“But it was a strange notion, you must admit.”
“Perhaps I’m a strange character, Miss Loment.”
“Don’t let’s fence. Mr. Stokes will be back directly. I want to know, please — what had the house to do with it?”
Sherrup hesitated. “I had some sensations.”
“I thought so. And where did you have them? Wasn’t it in the gable of that dark corridor on the top floor?”
There was a short pause.
“We look to be in the same boat, Miss Loment.”
“Then it was there?”
“Not there, but near there. It was outside the door of that room they call the East Room these days. It used to be Ulf’s Tower. Did you get as far?”
“Yes. And what was it you heard?”
“Heard? . . . Oh, I guess you’re referring to the sound in that passage? No, it wasn’t that, Miss Loment.”
“Then what was it? Tell me what happened?” She spoke quickly.
“Nothing happened. We were talking of sensations, weren’t we? . . . I’m an artist, Miss Loment, and that means a bundle of live nerves. My mind gets troubled maybe ten or twenty times a day, without my ever guessing what for. This one was what you might call a bad ‘seismic disturbance,’ and there’s no more to it.”
“Perhaps you think my questions are prompted by inquisitiveness? It isn’t that. My aunt may be buying Runhill Court, and, if she does, I shall have to live there; so you see my interest is quite legitimate.”
Sherrup watched her professionally. The quivering nostrils, the nervous mouth, the peculiar expression of the grey-black eyes, fascinated without satisfying him. Her character possessed an important quality which he was unable to locate on her features. It was contained only in that quiet, pleasant, yet metallic and foreign-toned voice.
“I can’t tell you much,” he said at length, and then there was another silence.
Isbel glanced around her rather guiltily. “Still, I feel you can tell me something. Can’t we talk it over together, somewhere? Obviously it’s out of the question here.” She laughed, without conviction. “I know it sounds terribly melodramatic, still you understand my point of view, don’t you?”
“I shall feel honoured and delighted. But you’ll sure be disappointed when you see how little I have to hand over, Miss Loment . . . and another thing — I’m away to-morrow morning, as I told your friend.”
“By what train?”
She pondered. Marshall would depart for town three hours earlier than that.
“Let us fix up something. Can you be outside the turnstiles of this pier to-morrow morning at ten o’clock sharp? That would allow you ample time to catch your train.”
“Right. Ten sharp. I’ll be there.”
“I rely on you, mind.”
“Oh, I keep my appointments, Miss Loment,” said the American.
Isbel was about to say something else, when turning her eyes, she observed Marshall approaching. During his absence his chair had been appropriated by a pale, stout, flabby lady of uncertain age, with a drooping mouth, and eyes which positively snapped; the usurpation had passed unnoticed by the others.
Sherrup rose. “I’ll quit. You take my seat, Mr. Stokes — I’ll have a turn along the front till luncheon.”
Next morning Isbel breakfasted early with Marshall, and saw him depart for the station. As he intended returning to Brighton for the following week-end, the car and the major portion of his belongings were left behind.
At ten o’clock she was outside the West Pier, Sherrup, who already waited there, immediately came up to her, raising his hat and removing the cigar from his mouth.
“Let’s walk towards Hove,” she suggested. “It’s less crowded that way.”
He assented in dry silence.
“It was most kind of you to come out of your way for me,” began Isbel. “After all, we are total strangers.”
“Now, don’t say that; I feel as if I’d known you quite a long time . . . My cigar doesn’t worry you any?”
“No, please . . . ”
“All right. Now let’s get to business. Time’s short, Miss Loment. Well, now I’m here for, I conclude, is to specify my sensations at Runhill on Saturday. There wasn’t anything else, was there?”
“It won’t embarrass you?”
“Oh well, I’m not easily embarrassed . . . Now, I told you where it all happened. Outside the door of that East Room. Honestly, that was one of the things I came to see. I could have just kicked myself when I found that lock fast.”
“First of all — you did hear the sound in that corridor, didn’t you? My friends didn’t — that’s why I ask.”
“Yes, I heard it. like the far-away scrape of a double-bass.”
“Yes, yes — it was like that. I couldn’t identify the sound it reminded me of, but that was it.”
“It’s tough to explain, but it might be in the nature of a flow from that East room to another part of the house.”
“Caused by what?”
“I can’t say. But is that what was troubling you?”
“It was so horribly uncanny. I can almost hear it still.”
“Anyway, we’ll quit that, and come to my experience. It isn’t a mile long. While I stood outside that door, just after trying to burgle the lock — for I had my knife out to it — a kind of smell came wafting over me of a sudden . . . Now, I don’t want you to smile, Miss Loment. There needn’t be anything funny in a smell. I know, and you know, that a smell can be the powerfullest variety of sensation, when it sets out to be. You can’t kill a man by a sight or a sound, but I wouldn’t like to say you couldn’t kill him with some smells, and not always disagreeable ones at that. That just shows the superior sensitiveness of the nose as an organ. I would like for somebody to take that up as an art . . . Well, this particular odour was of the delirious species. It was like the epitome of a spring day in the woods — all the scent of the pines, and the violets, and the rich, moist, dark brown soil, and whatever else comes carried to you by the breezes — only, all double-distilled, as if it was the spillings of a bottle of a new sort of women’s perfume . . . ”
“Call to mind where I smelt it all, Miss Loment. In a dark, dusty, airless corridor of an ancient house, which god’s air hasn’t blown through for centuries . . . I jumped— nearly. Then it passed away quite suddenly again. I figure it didn’t last all told more than ten seconds. But after it was gone I stood there kind of transfigured, like a man that has just seen a vision. It wasn’t till it quitted that I saw its importance. It was like a waft from another world . . . that house is alive, Miss Loment.”
“Is that the whole?”
“It’s very, very strange. But still I don’t quite see why it should have suggested that music to you?”
“Yes, now, why did it? But somehow it did. I can’t explain it to myself. The suggestion thought has gone, and I can’t recover it . . . The orchestra was tuning up. Something big was going to happen. Something like that. You mustn’t press the resemblance too close. Any kind of big symphonic music might have done, but I just chose that — it must have seemed more appropriate.”
Isbel tried unsuccessfully to put indifference into her voice as she asked the question:
“I’m going to make what you may consider a very singular inquiry, Mr. Sherrup. Was your reason for playing that music the fact that the passage of the ascending scales suggested to you the idea of a mysterious gigantic staircase?”
He blew out a cloud of smoke, at the same time looking at her from the corner of his eye.
“Why should that be?”
“I don’t know why it should be, or why it should not be; but was it so?”
“It was not. You appear to know something I don’t, Miss Loment. What staircase?”
“Oh, nothing. It was just a foolish question . . . Shall we turn back?”
They did so.
Isbel nervously cast in her mind for a change of conversation.
“You say that room used to go by another name. How was that?”
“It was called Ulf’s Tower. The story is that Ulf was the original builder of the house. He lived about a hundred years after the first landing of the South Saxons. Four or five houses have been put up on the same site since then, but the name struggled through till a couple centuries ago. My wife’s ancestor, Michael Bourdon, set it all down in his papers. The history of Runhill Court goes back to the sixth century Anno Domini.”
“But why should that particular room have been selected to preserve his memory?”
“Oh, well, because the missing rooms of the legend were supposed to be immediately above that side of the house. That’s quite clear.”
“I have heard no legend. What missing rooms?”
“You surely surprise me. I guessed every man, woman, and child in the Old Country would know about the lost rooms of Runhill Court. When Ulf built his house, Miss Loment, it was on haunted land. Run Hill was a waste elevation, inhabited by trolls — which, I figure, were a variety of malevolent land-sprites. Ulf didn’t care, though he was a pagan. He built his house. I gather he was a tough fellow, away above the superstitions of his time and country. And — well, one day Ulf disappears and a part of his house with him. Some of the top rooms of the Tower were clean carried off by the trolls; it happened to be the east end of the house, the nearest to their happy hunting-grounds. That was the very last that was heard of Ulf, but all through the centuries folks have been jumping up to announce that they’ve caught sight of the lost rooms . . . That’s the fable.”
They walked along in silence.
“Then would you advise me to live in that house?” asked Isbel suddenly, with an unsteady smile.
Sherrup smoked for quite a minute before answering.
“If you ask that, Miss Loment, you must have a reason for asking it. tell me what you feel.”
“Confessions are so awkward, and I’m not sure you won’t laugh.”
“I won’t laugh.”
“Well, then — when I was listening to that weird sound in that passage, it suddenly seemed to strike a very deep string in my heart, which had never been struck before. It was a kind of passion . . . It was passion. But there was something else in it besides joy — my heart felt sick and tormented, and there was a horrible sinking sensation of despair. But the delight was there all the time, and was the strongest . . . It only lasted a very short time, but I don’t think I could ever forget it . . . ”
“Yes, I know,” said Sherrup.
“Then tell me what it means, and what I’m to do.”
He threw away his cigar.
“Do nothing, Miss Loment, and ask no questions. That’s the advice of a man who has daughters of his own.”
“Not live there, you mean?”
“No.” He made an emphatic side-gesture with his hand. “Cut it right out. A house like that is going to do you no good. Shall I tell you what you are, Miss Loment? You’re an artist without a profession. You’re like a lightning-rod without an outlet — you want to steer clear of all kinds of storms. Oh, I’m not a portrait-painter for nothing. Your nervous system is shining through all right . . . Well, you asked me for it, so I’ve handed it out. But honestly, I wouldn’t take on that house. If you feel like that at the beginning, what are you going to feel after a while? It’s too risky?”
“Thank you,” she said quietly. “I think I will take your advice. I’m afraid I’m rather highly strung by nature, although, oddly enough, not one of my friends appears to have any suspicion of the fact. I pass for being stolid, rather than otherwise. You are almost the first to give me credit for exceptional feelings.”
When they had arrived opposite the pier once more, Sherrup took his departure.
So strong was the impression made upon him by Isbel’s personality that in the train, before it started, he was induced to commit her elusive features to one of the pages of his precious sketch-book. When it was completed, however, he shook his head with an air of profound dissatisfaction. It was a good likeness, but he still couldn’t get that voice into the picture.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57