Chapter VII

“I’ve Sworn to be Master of Normanhurst Once More”

The next day was wet. The river was out of the question. There was quite sufficient dampness in the air outside and inside the house to satisfy anybody with aquatic tastes. Violetta hadn’t the slightest inclination for boating exercise, and secretly was pleased she had escaped. Reclining languorously on the cushions of a punt​—​preferably amber cushions, as the tint would intensify the violet blue of the Irish eyes she had inherited from her mother​—​was a different matter. But the picture demanded a scorching sun and the contrast of the deep purple shadows of the overhanging trees of Cliefden. Norman suggested billiards for the morning’s amusement, and this was entirely to her fancy.

“Then you won’t want me,” put in Ella.

“Thanks no, old girl. The last time you marked for me and Percival you were perpetually giving him my score as well as his own. That’s the drawback of an engaged girl, Miss Vaughan. She can think of nobody but the man she’s taken under her wing.”

“Don’t be stupid, John,” returned his sister, half annoyed and half pleased. “As for marking for you, I’m only too glad to escape. The click of the balls is apt to get on my nerves, and the talk peculiar to the game bores me to death. Why don’t you billiard players find something more original to say than ‘hard lines,’ ‘just missed it, by Jove,’ ‘sorry old man,’ when you pocket the other one’s white ball, and so on?”

“You’ve left out the most important expression ‘dammit.’ I admit there’s not much variation, but I suppose no other words fit the situations so well. How are you going to amuse yourself this morning?”

“I shall call on the Vicar. I’m awfully keen on interesting him in our religious stage work. He’s a bit afraid of some of his congregation, but I’m in hopes of talking him over. His mind at present’s a perfect blank on the subject. He knows nothing about the old Mystery and Miracle Plays. We’re going to revive one, Violetta. You ought to be a member of our Society. I believe you’d do one of the characters splendidly.”

“Please don’t ask me. I’m sure I should be a frightful duffer.”

“I’m not so sure. You used to take part in the plays at school that we used to get up on prize-giving days.”

“That’s a different thing. I’m as ignorant as the Vicar about religious plays.”

“Oh, there’s an excuse for you but not for him. He didn’t even know until I told him that the drama really had its origin in the church, and he looked quite horrified.”

“I should think so,” said her brother. “He was afraid you’d be asking him to lend you his church for a theatrical show.”

“I wish you’d take up the study, John. It would at least give you an interesting subject to think about.”

“I hate what you call ‘interesting’ subjects. They’re only called interesting because you don’t know what else to say about them. But go and convert the Vicar by all means.”

Ella went off in something like a huff, and Norman, turning to Violetta, said lightly:

“That’s how my discussions with Ella always end. When she finds herself cornered she takes to her heels. She’s sometimes impossible. If she were not for ever formulating rules of conduct for my guidance, her impossibility wouldn’t matter much, but unfortunately I’m one of her hobbies. Do you know I had the greatest difficulty in persuading her that a billiard room was indispensable in any house she might select. How on earth could I amuse myself indoors on a day like this without one? I suppose she saw this, as she eventually gave in. There are two or three decent boating men who live in the neighbourhood, and they now and again drop in. You play?”

“Oh, a little, but after what you’ve told me I should be ashamed to show my awkwardness before an expert.”

“I’m very far from being that. Occasionally I play a decent game, at other times I’m simply out of it. It all depends upon the mood I’m in, I suppose.”

“I hope you’re in good form this morning.”

“I ought to be.”

He smiled at her and his eyes twinkled. That look on his face was new to Violetta. She could not remember anything like it when she was staying at Normanhurst. He struck her then as remote, unfriended, melancholy, slow, especially the two last. Animation certainly improved him. Perhaps the cloud of his matrimonial trouble was the cause of his subdued aspect in the old days. Or had she misread his character? Whatever it was she was disposed to be more interested in him than she had anticipated.

“Of course you ought. I want to pick up a few hints.”

“I’ll do my best. One thing’s in my favour​—​I shan’t have any bets on.”

“Do you bet on the game?”

“Generally. It puts a little spice into the play, though I must confess it often spoils mine. Directly I have the slightest responsibility I begin to feel nervous. It’s a beastly stupid weakness, but I’ve never been able to conquer it. In fact——”

He stopped abruptly. Violetta looked at him enquiringly, but he said no more.

The billiard room was built out from the house, and the housekeeper​—​the only one of the old Normanhurst servants who had been retained​—​knowing her master’s tastes, had had a fire lighted. The blaze was a sufficient antidote to the drabness and damp of the outside, and the room was really inviting with its crimson walls adorned with sporting prints depicting bygone champions of the racecourse.

Norman’s eyes followed Violetta’s as they glanced at the pictures. Horses appealed to her irresistibly.

“I’d half a mind to have these things removed when I took the place,” said he, half apologetically.

“Why?”

“They gave my conscience a twinge. But I’ve got used to them now. I can see they interest you, so I’m glad I let them remain.”

“Anything to do with horses I like.”

She walked slowly round the room, reading the inscriptions recording the victories of “Voltigeur,” “The Flying Dutchman,” “Blink Bonny,” “Donovan,” “Eclipse,” “Pretty Polly,” “Ormonde,” and other dead and gone celebrities, while Norman got out the balls and spotted the red. He gave her the choice of the white balls. She chose the plain, and she opened with the usual miss in baulk.

“You know something,” said he, laughingly. “Ella, when she deigns to play, which isn’t often, can never manage the safety stroke. She goes for the red invariably and nearly always misses it and lets me in.”

His reply should, of course, have been another miss in baulk, but he went for the red and left her an easy cannon. She guessed that he made the stroke out of politeness, and she purposely mis-cued, and her ball rolled into a pocket without hitting either the red or the white.

“Better luck next time,” was Norman’s comment.

The red was over the middle pocket and he could not very well avoid scoring without obviously betraying his desire to see her win. The game went on. Do what he would, Norman always found himself a little ahead. Violetta made no break of any account, but what puzzled her antagonist was that when she went for a particularly difficult stroke she always brought it off. On the other hand, she missed some ridiculously easy ones. The game ended in Norman’s favour in spite of his intention to lose.

“I don’t understand your play,” said he. “You made some amazing shots. I never thought you’d go for them. But you had bad luck. The game ought to have been yours anyway.”

“I suppose so. You did your best to help me, you know.”

He flushed slightly. His little ruse to please her had failed. The tone of her voice as well as her words told him that.

“I confess it. The plain truth is I underrated your skill and benefited by what you call your bad luck. I wanted you to win, but I don’t believe you tried.”

“That’s my impression about you, Sir John​—​unless you were in one of your moods.”

“Honestly, I played up as though I was in form. But come now, did either of us go straight? You’ve seen what I can’t do. I saw lots of chances you’d have gone for but I funked them. What do you say​—​shall we try again and do our level best?”

“If you like, so long as you don’t hate me if I beat you.”

“Hate you, Violetta​—​by the way, it used to be Violetta at Normanhurst.”

“I don’t remember.”

But she did quite well.

“Well, it must be Violetta once more. No. I won’t hate you whatever you do​—​I couldn’t. Now I warn you, I’m going to play as I never played before. I’ve a horrible feeling that you ought to give me twenty in a hundred.”

“Nonsense. Do you always have nervous fears you won’t succeed when you attempt anything?” asked Violetta a little scornfully.

“Very often, I own.”

“It’s a great mistake. Haven’t you heard the old foxhunter’s advice when about to jump a fence? Throw your heart over first, he said, and your horse will follow. It’s true.”

“By Jove, that’s a fact. Then we start level. I break, I suppose, according to the rules.”

Violetta, nodding, chalked her cue.

Norman gave the customary safety miss and Violetta going for the red accomplished a difficult cannon. The positions that followed were easy, and so far from fumbling and mis-cueing as in the first game, she kept the balls well together and left off with a start of twenty-five and with a double baulk for her opponent.

“You take my breath away. See what you’ve left me.”

“Not much, I admit. Are you going in for boldness? There’s a possible cannon on.”

“I daresay, but it’s not possible for me. My choice lies between safety and a fluke. I’ll try the latter just to show you I haven’t forgotten what the huntsman said.”

He struck the ball recklessly. The cannon was not achieved, but unexpectedly he went in off the red. The latter was in baulk and Violetta’s ball tucked under the cushion. Naturally, he left the white alone and played at the red. He missed it, and his own ball remained in baulk.

The stroke in front of Violetta was enormously difficult. Her ball was at the top end of the table and almost angled. She could hardly expect to do more than go for one or the other ball and not attempt to score.

“You’ll have to trust to your luck this time, Violetta,” Norman explained.

“Indeed I won’t. I’m going to pot the red and maybe my own ball too. At least, that’s what I shall try for. They’re nearly in a direct line from where I am.”

Norman held his breath while he watched her. Violetta’s statuesque pose while measuring the distance with her eye and estimating the exact amount of force necessary, seemed to Norman to personify the very poetry of billiards.

Violetta was wearing the dress in which she arrived, her everyday wardrobe not having yet come to hand. Her corsage was in the fashion favoured by pretty women to whom nature has generously given full curves. It was cut low at the neck and back, the sleeves were very short and there was a studied absence of trimmings in the way of frills, lace and whatnot. Obviously the costume was very trying to those not qualified to wear it. Violetta would have taken first prize in a competition in this style of dress.

Her arms were beautifully shaped, as Norman could not help seeing when she had to hold the cue at an angle of nearly sixty degrees in order to strike the ball at the exact spot. The position of the body and the elevated right arm slackened the front of the bodice, and for an instant the symmetrical lines of the bust were revealed. Her eyes were fixed steadily on the object ball and the brows slightly drawn together. For a couple of seconds she stood motionless, and then in a flash the statue came to life.

It was a moment of concentrated energy. Force was not so much wanted as a restraint of force. The exact pace had to be given to the ball and no more. It rolled along as if conscious of the skilful hands that had guided it. It clicked the red ball gently and sent it very slowly into the pocket and followed behind as if to make assurance doubly sure.

“Great Scott!” ejaculated Norman. “Who on earth taught you to do that? John Roberts himself couldn’t beat it.”

“My father was a very fine billiard player. I learned from him pretty well all I know.”

“Well, but you must have practised an awful lot. You can’t become a player of your rank in five minutes.”

“I suppose I was an apt pupil,” laughed Violetta.

She did not think it necessary to add that she had many spare hours at the club, and that she often devoted them to billiards. She became so expert that she had no hesitation in opposing the best players among the members. As more than one were little better than sharpers and up to every trick of the game, it is more than probable she learned as much from them as from her father.

The game proceeded. The feat just described was the only one out of the common that she indulged in, and she did not trouble to do more than run up a break out of easy shots. Of course, she won, but she let him down easy, and ran out the victor by ten points. Norman took his defeat very good-humouredly and was warm in his praise.

“That ten points doesn’t represent the real difference between us. You could give me twenty-five​—​thirty in a hundred and still beat me to a frazzle. You’re a witch at the game. I only know one man​—​among amateurs, I mean​—​who could meet you on level ground.”

“Yes? Does he come here?”

“No, and I wouldn’t have him. We were great chums at Oxford, and he was a decent chap, I always thought. But since then​—​well, he’s turned out a blackguard. I don’t think I’d care to come across him now. There might be ructions.”

John Norman’s face darkened and, turning abruptly from Violetta, he walked to the fire and stood looking at the blazing coals, his back turned towards his companion.

Had he chosen to glance at Violetta he would have seen that she was as much disturbed as he himself was. It had crossed her mind with a feeling of certainty that the man he referred to was George Godfree. She knew his method of play quite well and could just hold her own with him.

Norman turned. His face had resumed its usual composure.

“Shall we play the conqueror? You to give me thirty points?”

“No. We’ve each won a game. Let’s remain on terms of equality.”

“As you please. What about a cigarette? I’ll bet that you smoke. You couldn’t possibly have found out all you know about billiards without.”

“How long will Ella be?” she asked hesitatingly.

“What? Are you among the crowd that Ella rules with a rod of iron?”

“Not quite that. I know her views on the matter, and I don’t want to hurt her feelings.”

“Ella’s feelings? I doubt whether she has any. Real feeling, I mean. It’s funny that whenever any family matter is under discussion the first thing everybody asks is what Ella will think​—​what will she say? She exercises some horrible spell. I find myself under its influence constantly. Are you going to alter your mind?” and he held out his cigarette case, but Violetta shook her head.

They were now seated on a Chesterfield in front of the fire and Violetta made no reply to Norman’s reference to Ella. At the same time, she quite agreed with him, for she remembered how at school Ella in her semi-hysterical “swarming” way dominated the rest. Violetta used to think that Ella would develop into an extremely unpleasant tyrannical old woman.

Norman went on smoking silently and staring at the fire. Suddenly he broke out:

“I suppose she’s told you all about my mad folly​—​racing, betting, the loss of Normanhurst, and all the rest of my crazy doings?”

“Yes, she referred in a way to your heavy losses. It came upon me quite as a shock to hear that you had to sell Normanhurst.”

“It was a bit of a wrench, and it’s left me stranded​—​just for the moment​—​but ……”

“Then you have some plans for the future,” put in Violetta, to fill up a somewhat embarrassing pause.

“In a way. I’ve sworn to be master of Normanhurst once more, but how the deuce I’m going to do it beats me. You see, I’m left entirely to myself, and I’m not much good by myself. Ella knows that as well as I do, and she’s perpetually worrying me with suggestions, all more or less impracticable. What I want is some clever shrewd person always at my elbow​—​one I can talk to​—​one that’ll do things and not dream over them. I can do the dreaming​—​done too much of it already.”

“You need some friend to protect you against yourself? Is that what you mean?”

“Yes, you’ve hit it.”