It was Tuesday afternoon. Marshall had returned to town. The weather had suddenly broken, and rain had fallen steadily since early morning. Mrs. Moor was in her room, while Isbel, rather reluctantly, took the opportunity of bringing her correspondence up to date — a task she cordially detested. Half a dozen laconic epistles, sealed and addressed in her large, sprawling handwriting, already pay piled on the table, and now she was writing to Blanche, expressing her pleasure at the imtimation that she and Roger proposed to spend the coming week-end at the Gondy. Blanche was her old school chum and dearest friend. It was she who had introduced her to Marshall (her husband Roger’s younger brother); consequently, she regarded the engagement as her own peculiar handiwork, though of course Isbel held different ideas on the subject, which she kept strictly to herself. Isbel, who was “Isbel” to all the rest of her circle, was “Billy” to Blanche and her husband. They lived at Hampstead, and were fairly well off.
A knock sounded at the door, and a visiting-card for Mrs. Moor was handed in by the hotel hall-boy. Isbel read the name in silent astonishment. Directing the boy to wait, she at once went to her aunt’s room.
“Mr. Judge is here,” she announced dryly, standing by the door.
The older lady half got up, then lay down again.
“Where is he?”
“Downstairs, presumably. Will you see him?”
“Really, it’s most unreasonable! He appears to imagine he’s privileged to do whatever he pleases. What an impossible hour to call! . . . Well, I shan’t see him, that’s all.”
“You’d better ascertain what he wants, hadn’t you? Shall I go down?”
“You? Certainly not, child. Just send down word that I’m not at home, and if he has anything to say he can write.”
Isbel smiled remonstratingly. “I think perhaps I’d better go down.”
“A pity you’re not always so considerate.”
“It’s only common courtesy, after all. The poor man may have come to Brighton specially.”
“Do as you please about it — only, bind me to nothing.”
“Don’t be absurd, aunt! How can I bind you?”
She went away. Mrs. Moor stared thoughtfully at the closed door, rubbed her eyes, and took up her book again.
“Where is the gentleman?” demanded Isbel of the hall-boy.
“In the lounge, madam.”
She accompanied him downstairs. It was not yet the tea-hour and the lounge was nearly deserted. Judge was sitting in a stiff attitude on a straight-backed chair near the door. Although his garments were suited to the weather, he looked exceedingly well-groomed, and Isbel, contrary to her anticipation, was favourably struck. He appeared considerably younger than his reported age, was short, wiry, and clean-looking, and altogether was a thoroughly good and dignified type of wealthy provincial Englishman. His clean-shaven face was sallowish; it possessed power and resolution, quite evidently derived from long practice in handling men. The eyes were grey, shrewd, and steady, and he wore no glasses . . . The boy briefly introduced him, and disappeared.
Judge rose and bowed gravely, waiting for her to speak first.
“Mrs. Moor unfortunately is engaged. I am her niece.”
He bowed again. “May I ask your name?”
“I am Miss Loment.”
He scrutinised her person somewhat closely. Her rather full bosom was strongly suggested beneath her loose silk afternoon jumper. Her neck was bare. A long chain of amethyst beads hung from it as far as the waist, and with this chain she toyed all the time they stood talking.
“I happened to be in Brighton on other business,” he explained, in a pleasant, solemn voice, “and thought to kill two birds with one stone. I’m sorry I’ve been unlucky. Perhaps you’ll be kind enough to convey a message?”
“Of course; I shall be most pleased to.”
“You may possibly be aware that Mrs. Moor and I have been in indirect communication, through Mr. Stokes, regarding the sale of my property, Runhill Court?”
“Naturally, I am aware. My aunt and I live together, and always have done.”
“Of course, I was ignorant of that . . . Well, Miss Loment, I am sorry to have kept her waiting so long, but at least I’ve been able to come to a decision. After a very full consideration of the matter and looking at it from all sides, I find it will not be — for the present, at all events — quite advisable to dispose of the estate. I shall confirm it in writing when I get back home, but in the meantime no doubt you will intimate my decision to Mrs. Moor?”
A red blotch appeared suddenly in the centre of each of Isbel’s cheeks . . . There was quite a long pause.
“But this decision appears to me very strange,” she said at length, in a scarcely audible voice.
“In what respect?”
She lost her head. “I understood from Mr. Stokes that you were anxious to sell your house.”
“Mr. Stokes was not authorised by me to make any such statement,” replied Judge, in a tone of extreme annoyance. “I have never at any time expressed anxiety to sell. It was he who suggested the business, and I made my reluctance clear from the very first. There is no breach of faith in any shape or form.”
There was a settee situated in a retired corner of the room, and toward this she steered him, without protest on his part. They seated themselves. Isbel smoothed out her skirt and kept throwing nervous glances about her, as though at a loss how to reopen the subject.
“Would it be rude to ask you why— I mean . . . ” She broke off in confusion.
“Why I don’t wish to sell? Because my future movements are uncertain, Miss Loment. There are substantial reasons against my taking up residence there again at the moment, but later on I may wish to do so.”
There was another awkward silence, the end of which was marked by a bitter smile on Isbel’s face.
“No doubt you are more accustomed to dealing with business me, Mr. Judge?”
“Now, what makes you say that?”
“This decision of yours is so blunt. It’s almost like a challenge.”
“I feel just as though I had received a slap on the face.”
He fidgeted in his place. “I may have expressed myself rather abruptly, but that was because I had no idea that the matter was of any great importance to you ladies. If I have unwittingly been the means of upsetting your plans, I can only say I am very sorry.”
“But you remain stubborn?”
“My dear lady, you hardly realise what you are asking. I have lived in that house for eight years, and it is associated with the happiest period of my life. You have never even seen it, and yet you are disappointed because I decline to give it up in your favour. And you must remember that you ladies, after all, are total strangers to me.”
“But we’re not asking for charity, Mr. Judge. We would take the place at your figure, even if it were a trifle unreasonable. If you don’t mean to live there again yourself — and you seem very doubtful about it — surely there can’t be any object in refusing to allow other people to occupy it? if you don’t want to sell it outright, you might consent to let it for a term of years?”
Judge smiled uneasily. “It’s very painful to me to have to go on refusing. I must admit I don’t quite understand your eagerness in the matter. Not having seen Runhill Court, you don’t even know that it will suit your requirements.”
“We have seen it. Mr. Stokes took us over. It will suit our requirements perfectly.”
“Oh . . . I had no idea. Mr. Stokes said nothing to me in his letter about that. However, there’s no harm done.”
“My aunt and I are quite harmless persons.”
“I regard it as an honour to the house. May I ask whether you saw the whole of it?”
She imperceptibly drew a little nearer, so that the perfume of her clothes began to insinuate itself into his consciousness.
“Except prohibited parts.”
“It’s a pity I wasn’t told beforehand, Miss Loment. I could have shown you over personally.”
Their eyes chanced to meet. Isbel smiled, and looked down at her lap, while Judge coloured faintly.
“That would have been nice.”
“At all events, you would have had the advantage of seeing the so-called ‘prohibited parts’ as well. I might still hold that out as an inducement for a second visit, but I suspect you would think it not worth while?”
She began biting her chain. After a pause, she said: “Something might be arranged, perhaps. I should love to see it again. My best friend’s coming down for the week-end, and I could bring her with me — if you feel you could endure the society of a couple of frivolous girls for half-a-day. You’d be quite safe, Mr. Judge; Blanche is married, and I am to be soon.”
“Your aunt would come, too?”
“I haven’t the slightest objection, if you can persuade her.”
“I have first to meet her.”
“Then dine with us here one night. Let me think . . . Friday would do, if you can manage it?” She gave him a friendly look. “We can discuss the programme at table. Blanche’s husband is Mr. Stokes’ brother; they’re both coming down.” . . . Hesitating, and blushing a little —“Of course, their company wouldn’t be inflicted on you at Runhill.”
Judge also hesitated. “It’s most kind of you; but how do I know that your aunt may not have objections to sitting down to table with a stranger, who is not even obliging?”
“The invitation is mine, Mr. Judge.”
“Then, of course, I shouldn’t know how to refuse, even if I wanted to. A charming invitation demands a graceful acceptance. I shall be delighted to come.”
“At seven . . . But will you have to come all the way from town?”
“No — my headquarters are at Worthing for the time being. I have to be near Runhill to look after things. I can quite easily run over.”
“Then it’s a fixed engagement . . . And meanwhile, you still remain adamant?”
Her own question seemed to agitate her, for her bosom rose and fell. Judge summed her up in his mind as a spoilt and capricious young woman of fortune, who was totally unaccustomed to being baulked even in her most unnecessary whims.
“It’s exceedingly unpleasant for me, Miss Loment, but I’m afraid I must reply in the affirmative. If circumstances permit me later on to change my decision . . . ”
“It would be too late. In point of fact, the moment my aunt has your verdict we shall leave Brighton. We’re only waiting for that. But I shall leave you to tell her yourself, so as not to interfere with our little pleasure-party.”
“Then your permanent residence is not in Brighton?”
Judge contracted his brows. “It’s a strange fact, but it has always been my disappointing lot to fall in with really pleasant acquaintances just when it is too late.”
“It does seem to happen like that very often. Perhaps it’s because the pleasure doesn’t have time to wear off . . . Of course, if you were to leave the question of your house in abeyance we might still see something of each other — especially since you are staying so close at hand. But that wouldn’t be quite the right thing, I expect?”
“Mrs. Moor would hardly consent to postpone it indefinitely.”
“Then that’s no good . . . Anyhow, don’t write her, Mr. Judge. She can very well wait till Friday.”
He got up to go. Isbel rose, too, and held out her hand. It was white and elegant in shape, but was ink-stained from her correspondence. Judge continued holding it while he went on talking.
“I’ve no right to ask such a thing, Miss Loment, but I’m interested, and perhaps you won’t mind telling me. You said you are to be married; is it, by any chance, to my friend Mr. Stokes?”
“Yes.” She coloured nervously, and withdrew her hand.
“Thanks! And my I venture to add my congratulations to those you have doubtless received from friends of longer standing? He is a very pleasant, sensible young fellow, and, from what I know of him, will certainly make an admirable husband.”
“Thank you, Mr. Judge! My only fear is that I may not make as admirable a wife.”
Judge laughed courteously. “All I have to say to that is that I consider Mr. Stokes a very lucky individual — very lucky indeed!”
Isbel felt so strangely confused that she could not bring out another word. They passed into the hall, where Judge, with leisurely dignity, put on his gloves and buttoned his coat, while the girl watched him. At last he bade her a smiling “Good-day,” and went out stiffly through the swing-doors into the rain. She remained for a moment standing by the office, looking after him with a peculiar little smile.
On arriving upstairs, her aunt gave her a keen stare.
“You’ve got a very flushed very, child.”
“I ran upstairs.”
“What a long time you’ve been with that man. What did he want?”
“Oh, he’s frantically long-winded. The long and short of it is, I’ve asked him to dinner on Friday, to meet you. It seems he’d rather discuss it with you personally.”
“Upon my soul! Why in the world should we dine him? . . . I had a presentiment you would do something silly.”
“Oh, he’s perfectly presentable. Besides, he’ll be glad to meet Marshall again. I had to make some definite arrangement.”
Mrs. Moor growled in her throat. “Well, the point is, are we to get the house, or not?”
“I fancy he still hasn’t made up his mind,” replied Isbel indifferently.
Her aunt made sundry inarticulate sounds, indicative of her vexation, and prepared to rise.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52