Chapter X

Mrs. Willoughby Smythe

The song​—​of the inane sentimental revue type, in waltz time, of course​—​was not finished, and Norman and Violetta waited in the hall rather than interrupt it. Violetta could have easily escaped to her room had she chosen to do so, but she was filled with the spirit of defiance. She knew perfectly well that Norman would need an ally against Ella, certainly, if not against some of the visitors. From what Norman had said about them, she gathered that they were of the new rich class, always ready to stand on what they called their “dignity”​—​others might term it vulgarity​—​and the absence of their host they might regard as a great offence. Still, much might be forgiven a baronet. No doubt Violetta would be looked upon as the chief culprit, and she was ready to defend herself if need be.

She chanced to look at Norman. He had gone very pale and he was gnawing his lower lip nervously. He evidently dreaded the coming conflict. Violetta was puzzled. It was unaccountable that he should be in such terror of his sister.

The song ended in a prolonged note, loud and shrill, and the accompanist’s concluding chord was drowned in uproarious applause. Norman still hung back.

“We’d better face the situation,” whispered Violetta. “We’ve got to do it some time, you know.”

Her steady voice and her composed manner gave him courage. They entered before the clamour died away. Some of the audience were eager for an encore, which, without a doubt, would have been granted, but for the distraction caused by the unexpected appearance of the two truants. Every eye was turned in their direction, and Violetta did not fail to note the glare of annoyance thrown at her by the vocalist.

Ella hastened to her brother. She looked unmistakably angry.

“Don’t make your apologies just yet, John,” she whispered snappishly. “Mrs. Willoughby Smythe is going to sing again. So like you, to come at the wrong moment.”

Of Violetta she took not the slightest notice.

But Mrs. Willoughby Smythe had no intention of obliging again. She kept her stony stare fixed on Violetta and then deliberately turned her back​—​there was a good deal of the latter on view. She was a tall fair woman, with a well-developed​—​almost too well-developed​—​form, and she was undeniably handsome, but of a type more fleshly than refined. Her complexion was artistically laid on, and herein she showed discretion. It was not overdone. Her age was probably not less than thirty.

Violetta classed her at once. She had seen many like her in Paris, on the race course, and at the Folies Bergère. Her prototype was familiar at Monte Carlo. These women were out to make money not by their wits but by the exhibition of their charms. But anyone less like the orthodox spiritualistic medium could hardly be conceived. What was she doing in that galère? Violetta looked at her with considerable curiosity and decided that her interest in the Norman household was deepening.

Norman knew one or two of the visitors and greeted them politely. Then Ella took him in charge and introduced him to others, coming finally to Mrs. Willoughby Smythe, who with her back still turned to the company generally, was apparently absorbed in turning over a pile of music.

Mrs. Willoughby Smythe,” said Ella in her high-pitched voice, “I want to introduce my brother to you.”

The lady wheeled round slowly and fixed a somewhat hard smile on Sir John. The latter bowed without saying a word.

“I shall leave him to make his excuses for missing your striking demonstration of psychic power.”

Ella swished away and the two were left together. No one was very near, and the loud chatter effectually masked their voices. Mrs. Willoughby Smythe waited for Sir John to speak, and he had no alternative but to begin.

“What does your coming here mean?” he asked coldly.

“I wanted to see you again. I wanted your forgiveness. I know I behaved in a very silly fashion, and you must have thought ever so many bad things about me. But, as you must admit, I wasn’t wholly to blame.”

“Is it worth while to go into the past?” said he. “You took your own course and I suppose you acted according to what you thought was right. I’ve nothing to say. You can hardly expect me to forgive you.”

“Indeed I do. You must. Of course, we can’t discuss the matter here. I ask you​—​I entreat you to meet me, I want to go into an explanation.”

“I’d rather not hear it. What would be the use? It’s all over between us.”

“Indeed it isn’t. How can it be so? You know better than that, John. Don’t make an enemy of me. I warn you.”

Up to this point her voice, which was really musical, was soft and wheedling. It now took on a harshness of which one would hardly have suspected it was capable.

“I don’t desire that we should be enemies, though I’ve ample cause to look upon you as anything but a friend. Still …”

“When will you meet me, and where?” she interjected.

“You’d better write what you wish to say. I don’t see that any good can come of a meeting.”

“Who’s the girl you’ve been taking for a joy ride?” she burst out with a quiver in her utterance which told of passion raging within her.

“She’s a friend of my sister’s, but it’s no affair of yours.”

“That’s where you make a mistake. It is my affair, and you know it.”

“I know nothing of the kind. Of all people in the world, you’ve the least right to criticise what I choose to do.”

She laughed scornfully.

“We’ll see about that later on. Don’t forget that I can if I choose throw a bombshell into this room that you wouldn’t find very pleasant.”

“Nor would you. I can’t imagine you making such a fool of yourself, Christine.”

The lady’s eyes were blazing in the effort to control herself, and she compressed her lips until they were little more than a thin white line. She had evidently taken his words to heart. John Norman had unexpectedly shown fight. It was his way. He was not wanting in courage, but it had to be roused by real danger. He was at his best when in a hot corner.

“We’ll defer the argument, but all the same it’ll have to be thrashed out.”

“As you please. For to-night I take it we’ve said enough.”

He bowed coldly and turned away. He was only just in time. One of the women whom he knew had drawn near them and had they continued the altercation she must have overheard their words, for do what they would they could not help raising their voices.

“Has Mrs. Willoughby Smythe been telling the wonderful things she said about you in her message from the other world?” asked the new comer.

Mrs. Willoughby Smythe has revealed nothing,” returned Norman, with a significant glance at the “medium.”

“I never remember what I say under the influence. It all goes when the spirit no longer desires to make use of me.”

Mrs. Willoughby Smythe had a voice and manner at her command which she employed when speaking of the spirit world, and she became preternaturally solemn and deliberate. She had discovered that nonsense uttered in an impressive tone generally went down as truth. With spiritualism personal conviction is everything.

“Is that really so? Well, that makes it all the more wonderful. Then you must get your sister, Sir John, to tell you. She says that if Mrs. Willoughby Smythe had known you all your life she could not have been more accurate. I understood from Miss Norman that you and Mrs. Smythe were perfect strangers.”

“Quite true, Miss Alison,” rejoined Norman, with another challenging glance at Mrs. Willoughby Smythe, who remained silent.

“I do hope you’ll give us another manifestation soon, Mrs. Smythe. You won’t be leaving Thames-side yet awhile, will you?” went on Miss Alison.

“I don’t know. I haven’t made any plans. I’m wanted very much in London.”

“Oh you must be. Spiritualism is so interesting whether you believe in it or not. Good-bye. I trust we shall be meeting again before long. Good-bye, Sir John. The next time we have a séance you really must come.”

“I’m a sceptic. I’m afraid my presence would act as a deterrent.”

“You don’t know until you try. I’ve heard of pronounced sceptics being convinced against their wills and becoming fervent believers. It might be so in your case, Sir John.”

“It might,” echoed Norman. “Anyhow, I’m contented as I am.”

He shot the words at Mrs. Willoughby Smythe as he turned aside to shake hands with another departing guest.

The evening was at an end. The end had come about sooner than was expected. Somehow the arrival of Norman and Violetta had broken into the enjoyment and the interruption could not be bridged over. Ella had not anticipated anything would follow the séance, but a reaction had set in after an hour’s enforced silence in a darkened room, and music was welcomed.

Violetta was not averse to the exodus. Ella had behaved very rudely towards her and had not spoken. She was being cut severely, but she did not show the least resentment. She could have slipped away without being noticed, but she never moved. She was determined to sit through the drama which was going on at the other end of the room. Not a single word could, of course, be heard, but the faces of Sir John and Mrs. Willoughby Smythe told her they were not indulging in commonplaces.

Violetta had not removed her outdoor costume, but she was in keeping with others in the room. The party was quite an informal one, and only Mrs. Willoughby Smythe in her capacity as medium was hatless. On the whole Violetta was satisfied with her appearance and was perfectly conscious that the sober simplicity of her attire was in effective contrast with the over-gowned and over-jewelled women. Quite at home, she chatted easily with her nearest neighbour, hoping to annoy Ella by her indifference to the slight sought to be put upon her.

But when the last visitor had departed she prepared herself for the fray. She made up her mind she would have no assistance from Sir John who, with a cigarette between his lips, was walking restlessly about the room, but this did not matter. She could always fight for herself.

Ella came up to her boiling with emotional rage. She could only control herself sufficiently to ejaculate one word which escaped her like a pellet from a popgun.

“Well!”

“Well​—​what?” was Violetta’s retort.

“What? What explanation have you to offer of your extraordinary conduct?”

“Extraordinary conduct? Please, Ella, spare me. I never was good at guessing riddles.”

“No? Well, I think I can guess yours. I call it most disgraceful.”

“Call what most disgraceful?”

“Your motoring about all day with John and returning at this time of night.”

Norman interposed.

“Come, now, Ella, be fair. What has Violetta——?”

“Violetta? I suppose you mean Miss Vaughan.”

“I said Violetta, and I mean Violetta. If you’re going to work yourself into a passion over anybody, please select me. I’m used to your hysterical outbursts, she’s not. If there’s any blame​—​which I flatly deny​—​I’ll take it. But, good Heavens, do you suppose I’m to be talked to as though I were a school boy? Don’t answer, Violetta. There’s nothing for you to answer.”

Norman’s sudden show of spirit both surprised and pleased Violetta.

“I quite agree with you, Sir John,” said she.

“Sir John? Why not John​—​or dear John. I’ve no doubt it was dear John and dear Violetta on your joy ride.”

“Oh, you’re simply impossible,” cried Norman, waving his hand at Violetta to signal her to keep silence though he need not have troubled himself. She was quite contented to shrug her shoulders and allow him to carry on the contest single handed. She was curious to see whether he would hold his own.

“Impossible, am I? Then what are you? The story will be common talk all over the place to-morrow. There’s nothing the people down here like better than scandal. I begin to think there’s a good deal of truth in what Mrs. Willoughby Smythe said while she was in a trance.”

Mrs. Willoughby Smythe in a trance! That’s too funny. But I’ll have no more of this nonsense. It’s absolutely silly. I apologise to you, Violetta. I’m sorry my sister has made such an exhibition of herself.”

“I’m sorry too, but it’s not of the least consequence excepting that I regret I’ve been the cause of so much trouble between you. However, I can easily put an end to it. To-morrow morning I return to London.”

“I should think so, indeed,” almost shrieked Ella, who was not to be appeased while her nerves were in tumult.

“I wish you good-night, Sir John, and thank you​—​not only for the ride but for what you’ve said just now in my behalf.”

Violetta did not show the least discomposure. Norman, anticipating her, moved swiftly to the door, opened it for her, and held out his hand as she passed.

“You’re quite right to leave the house, but it’s not going to mean a parting between us,” said he in a low voice.

“I don’t see why it should. Good-night once more.”

Then she vanished. She had caught sight of Ella’s face white with fury. But for this she did not care a button. She had roused Norman’s latent energy, and this was everything.

“I’ve always said you were a fool where women were, John,” burst out his sister. “If I’d thought Violetta’s object in coming here was to make love to you I’d never have invited her. Yet I might have known what would happen. At school she was always getting other girls into scrapes and escaping blame herself.”

“Look here, Ella, I’m not in the mood to quarrel with you, either about Violetta or anybody else. Good-night.”

He walked off to Ella’s intense disgust. She had worked herself into a volcano of rage and was eager to vent it upon her brother. But it would keep. She had seen John many a time before slip out of a wrangle by a judicious retirement. It was his way of admitting his defeat. She could not believe that his precipitous retreat meant any more than his usual flight.

The next morning Violetta was up betimes. She always got on well with servants as she never assumed airs and was generous with her tips. She easily persuaded a housemaid to go out and arrange for a taxi to come for her and her luggage. She refused breakfast and accepted only a cup of tea. She was anxious to get away as soon as possible, and so avoid an encounter with Ella, which would have been an unprofitable waste of time. As for Sir John well, she didn’t particularly want to see him. She was still in the same mind about renting the Owl’s Nest, but he had given her the name and address of his solicitor, and she could easily arrange the matter through the lawyer.

No one was in the dining-room when she went in. The cook was scandalised at the idea of so nice a young lady going away breakfastless, and on her own responsibility had added an egg and bread and butter to the cup of tea. She was indifferent to what her mistress would say, but there was little risk of her knowing anything about it, as after one of her outbursts of nerves Ella usually remained in bed half the next day.

Violetta swallowed the meal hastily lest Norman should come in and delay her. The early morning is always an unfavourable time for discussing embarrassing questions. One is rarely strung up to the proper pitch, and she was thankful he did not make his appearance.

Before nine o’clock she was at the station, where she found she had half an hour to wait for the train.

For ten minutes or so she walked up and down the platform and was about to sit down when she saw Norman emerge from the booking office and look about him. Directly he caught sight of her he came forward rapidly.

“By Jove,” he exclaimed, raising his hat, “you flitted away like a ghost. You hadn’t been gone a minute before I came down. I wanted to have a word with you. I didn’t think you would be off so early. You needn’t have been in such a hurry. Still, I’d rather talk with you here than in the house. Whether sleeping or waking, Ella’s spirit somehow is always pervading the place. What did you think of the unpleasantness last night?”

“I’ve forgotten all about it. On the whole, it was rather amusing. You see, I knew Ella of old. Perhaps it was as well we came to grips at an early stage. We were bound to have a row sooner or later.”

“Yet knowing this you ventured to come.”

“Yes, I ventured to come.”

“Why on earth did you?”

“I had so pleasant a recollection of my stay at Normanhurst I was tempted to repeat the pleasure. Of course, I hadn’t the slightest idea things had so changed. Your losses don’t seem to have affected you so much as they have Ella. She has become frightfully tetchy, and much more difficult to deal with than she used to be.”

“Beastly difficult. I wish to goodness she’d marry the young fool she’s engaged to, and let me run alone. But”​—​his manner had become a little hesitating​—​“when I asked you what you thought of last night I hadn’t Ella in my mind. Like the poor, she’s always with us, and I don’t believe she’ll ever alter. What I wanted to know was your opinion of​—​of Mrs. Willoughby Smythe?”

“Does my opinion matter?”

“It matters very much​—​to me. You strike me as so level headed, Violetta, that I feel almost inclined to——” he broke off, reddening. “Yes, I want your opinion of her​—​candidly.”

“What one woman thinks of another is bound to be prejudiced and possibly unfair.”

“But often bitterly true.”

“Well, as I presume what I think can be of no consequence to you one way or the other, I’ll venture to speak my mind. I don’t know, of course, anything about her as a spiritualistic medium​—​she may be genuine, she may be a fraud​—​but in other respects​—​by the way, are you interested in her?”

“In a fashion I suppose I am.”

“Then please let me off saying anything more. I’d rather not.”

“But you must. I’ve my reasons for asking.”

At that moment the screech of an engine was heard. The London train was approaching.

“I can only look upon her in the light in which one woman always regards another, though perhaps she won’t confess it. I should say to a man who was thinking of marrying her, remember Punch’s advice​—​don’t.”

Norman did not at once reply. His expression was sombre; his eyes fixed on space. A second screech from the nearing engine recalled his wandering senses.

“Advice which generally comes too late to be of any good,” said he. “You may be right about Mrs. Willoughby Smythe. She has the reputation of being a reckless gambler and can never resist betting on horses. She is of a class whom I’ve come to detest.”

“Then you know her?”

“No one better. She happens to be my wife! There, it’s out. I wanted to tell you but I hadn’t the pluck. Good-bye. Are you still fixed on taking the Owl’s Nest?”

Violetta stood mute. The unexpected confession had paralysed her. Before she had recovered herself the train was slowing down at the platform. There was no time to express astonishment or sympathy​—​if sympathy was required. All she could do was to reply to his question.

“Yes”​—​she forced herself to say​—​“I shall call on your lawyer as soon as I get back to town.”

“I’m glad​—​I’m awfully glad. I don’t want to lose sight of you. I won’t. Good-bye​—​and good luck.”

The next minute she was in the carriage and the train bore her away. Norman, hat in hand, waved her a farewell.