Chapter VIII

A Chapter from the Past

“Yes, you’ve hit it,” repeated Sir John. He had turned his eyes from the fire to Violetta and he allowed them to rest upon her.

Violetta’s pose just then was highly attractive. She was leaning slightly forward, her knees crossed and her clasped hands embracing the upper one. The attitude suggested energy, independence; it seemed to indicate that she was mistress of herself; that she was not one to yield to momentary impulses; that she was alert and ready of resource in cases of difficulty. The small compact head, the full neck set on firmly rounded shoulders confirmed this view of her character. Even the shapely arms had character in them.

“You have Ella to talk to,” said she.

“Bother Ella. She’s always been the obstacle. We never agree on a single point and aren’t likely to. Discussions with her always take an unpleasantly personal tone, with any number of ‘I told you so’s.’ She can’t understand the influence of circumstances on character on one’s destiny. Can you, Miss Vaughan​—​I beg your pardon​—​Violetta I should have said?”

“Yes. No one better. I’ve seen it verified ever so many times.”

“Then when I tell you I’ve been an ass you won’t believe it’s entirely owing to myself?”

“Of course I shan’t. In cases of extreme foolishness so much depends not only on circumstances but on other people. You remember what a French philosopher once said​—​‘to know all is to forgive all.’”

“By the lord, it is so. Look here, Violetta, I’m wondering if I should bore you very much if I told you something about what Ella calls my childish folly? I promise to boil the story down to shreds.”

“If it will give you any satisfaction, by all means tell me. I’ll be the most patient of listeners.”

“Thanks. The business really began with my marriage. I was only a youngster​—​just come of age. My father was old and feeble, and he’d got a yearning to see a grandson in the world. He didn’t want the baronetcy to go to any male relation outside the direct line. He mentioned the girl he wished me to many​—​the daughter of an old friend. I’ve always looked upon what some people call the serious steps in life as trifles, and it seemed to me it didn’t matter who was my wife so long as she was amiable and decent looking.”

“You were easily pleased at twenty-one. Have you become more fastidious since?” asked Violetta meditatively.

“Can’t say. Perhaps. Certainly I don’t think doll faces appeal to me. Poor Alice had a doll face. Round blue eyes, a small mouth, dimples when she laughed and fair wavy hair. I suppose we were equally matched as to brains. We both made a mistake. We were too much alike​—​in temperament, I mean. We ought to have had our opposites. A son, to my father’s huge delight, was born, and two years after came a catastrophe. The boy was drowned.”

“Great Heaven. Why did you tell me?” cried Violetta, with genuine sympathy. “Ella has never mentioned this terrible thing.”

“It isn’t often raked up,” said Norman huskily. “I wanted to forget it, but I never have. I had too many other misfortunes to remember it by. My wife was stricken down by the news; she had a child prematurely​—​stillborn​—​she had a fever, lost her reason, and never regained it. My father also was so much affected that he died within a year.”

“What a frightful list of troubles. I think you’re wonderful, Sir John, to have maintained your cheerfulness. When I first saw you I should never have suspected you kept so sad a story locked up within you.”

“Well, some twelve years had passed over, and one can’t be always wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve. That’s stupid; besides, it’s not my idea of bearing troubles.”

He relapsed into silence and seemed so absorbed that Violetta hardly liked to disturb his reverie. At last she said:

“I suppose you now and again visited your wife. That must have been a painful ordeal.”

“At first it was, but I soon got used to it, as she never recognised me. Some days she was plunged in melancholy. On others she did nothing but rave. Her wild talk revealed something I never suspected. Before I proposed to her she wanted to marry another man, and it was his name that was always in her thoughts. Subsequently, I discovered that she really had been engaged to this man, and she jilted him to marry me. He thought I was to blame, but I knew nothing of her prior engagement. In fact, they kept it a secret.”

“Have you ever met him?”

“Yes​—​since Lady Norman died.”

“And are you on speaking terms?”

Norman smiled grimly.

“Not exactly. I think he’d like to cut my throat. He’s got it into his head that my wife went out of her mind through me. It’s utterly false.”

“You never injured him, then?”

“Robbing a man of a girl he’d set his heart upon would be an injury, wouldn’t it?”

“Not if you did it unknowingly.”

“Well, he didn’t take that view. But we needn’t bother about him further than to say that I believe he’s at the bottom of my ruin, though he was far too cunning to show himself.”

“Who were the men who were acting for him?” asked Violetta with sudden interest.

Norman looked at her slightly surprised. He was not a man of quick perception, but he could not help seeing that she did not put the question out of mere curiosity.

“Oh, there was a gang. There always is, I believe, in a racing swindle, and when they quarrel over the spoil the truth oozes out, but the honest man​—​otherwise the victim, doesn’t necessarily come into his own. I was induced to buy some wretched platers and was kidded into believing that they were ‘dark’ horses, certain to win and at long odds I should have netted a fortune. I never won a race.”

“But didn’t you know someone of the gang outside racing? You wouldn’t have believed downright strangers, would you?”

“Of course not, and that’s where the sting comes in. The man I mentioned some time ago​—​the billiard player​—​my own friend​—​let me down. I don’t want to talk about him. I’ve wiped the blackguard out of my life.”

Violetta dared not ask for this man’s name. There was no necessity. Ella had told her. She glanced at Norman’s face. She seemed to read in it more determination than she had hitherto credited him with possessing. Maybe his inertness and indecision had their origin in the fact that he had always taken things too easily and had allowed others to think for him. He had indeed hinted at this defect in his character. Maybe if he were forced to fight for himself he would show he could do it.

Then his features relaxed. The resolute look passed away. He relapsed into his habitual dreaminess.

“I wish, Violetta, you hadn’t left Normanhurst four years ago. When you were gone I felt horribly restless. I wanted excitement. The country had lost its attraction. I took a furnished flat in London and that’s where the trouble began. Why did you go?”

“I had to. My father needed me.”

“Your father? He’d been in the Army, hadn’t he? What did he want you for?”

“Various things. We’d always been a good deal together. He was accustomed to rely upon me. Really, we were more like chums than father and daughter. I felt I couldn’t leave him to shift for himself.”

“And he’s dead​—​so I understand from Ella.”

“Yes, he was killed riding in a steeplechase. It was about the last thing one would have expected. He was a splendid horseman.”

“His death must have made you hate racing and all that belongs to it. Wasn’t that so?”

Violetta evaded the question.

“Has your ill luck made you hate it?” said she.

“By heaven, I loathe it. I’ll never again risk a farthing on a horse, and I’ll never trust a woman who does.”

Was this meant as a warning to her? Why should it? There could be no significance in his words beyond an expression of his own tastes. He knew nothing of her life​—​of her experience. She wondered if he had that knowledge what he would think of her.

“You’re rather hard upon women who bet,” said she, quietly.

“I’ve reason to be. But we needn’t go into that.”

So there was a woman at the bottom of the trouble. Knowing the racing world as she did, Violetta would have been surprised if there hadn’t been.

“Raking up the past is stupid and profitless. It’s the future that matters, isn’t it? I should like to hear how you propose getting back Normanhurst.”

“I’ve told you I don’t know. I’m totally ignorant of soap making, motor manufacturing, or anything like that. It would have been better if I’d been brought up to a business. It would have kept me out of temptation, wouldn’t it?” and he laughed a little bitterly.

“You can make money in business without knowing anything about the business itself. It only wants capital and brains.”

Violetta’s frankness did not offend him in the least. On the contrary it amused him.

“Thanks,” said he, smilingly. “You’ve spotted the two weak points.”

“I suppose they can be remedied. Was Normanhurst your only landed property?”

“No. I’ve a ramshackle place about ten miles distant from it that’s never brought in more than £50 a year. The house is beastly ugly and the soil’s so barren I didn’t think it worth while to try to mortgage it. It’s called the Owl’s Nest and there never was a more appropriate title.”

“The Owl’s Nest! How romantic it sounds! Is it picturesque?”

“Rather. That’s its only recommendation. Between ourselves, I’d a fancy for taking up my quarters there when the crash came, but Ella shrieked when I suggested it. She declared that the place was haunted, and my argument that spooks were in her line​—​perhaps she hasn’t told you that she’s a bit gone on spiritualism​—​went for nothing. Of course, I gave in for the sake of peace and quietness, and so we came to this show, which I never particularly cared for, and which I’m now heartily sick of. But I may like it better now you’ve come.”

Violetta took no notice of the implied compliment. She brushed it aside impatiently.

“I want to hear more about the Owl’s Nest. Do tell me. Is it occupied?”

“No, and it hasn’t been for over a year. I doubt if the house is inhabitable.”

“I should like to see it.”

“Would you? There’s no difficulty. We could motor there in an hour and a half.”

“How jolly. When can we go? To-morrow?”

“All the days are the same to me. To-morrow, if you like.”

“I suppose Ella wouldn’t go?” Violetta’s question was not put with much enthusiasm.

“Not she. I don’t see that we want her. You’re not afraid of Mrs. Grundy, are you?”

“Isn’t Mrs. Grundy out of date these days?”

“Well, yes. Jazz dancing, bare backs and the divorce court have been too much for the old lady. And a good thing too, don’t you think so?”

“I won’t commit myself to that opinion. It all depends upon the person and circumstances.”

At that moment there was a bustle in the lobby outside and Ella bounced in.

“You two look pretty comfy I must say,” she exclaimed in not a particularly pleased tone. “I thought you came here to play billiards.”

“And so we did. We’ve had two games. I beat Violetta in one and she beat me in the other.”

“How did she manage that? You let her win, I suppose.”

“No. It was the other way about. She let me win the first game, and in the second she simply ran away from me.”

Ella’s face became as unpleasant as her voice.

“How on earth did you learn to play so well? I almost feel inclined to quote the worn saying that skill at billiards is evidence of an ill-spent youth.”

“It’s a question of comparison, my dear. It doesn’t follow that I play well because I beat your brother.”

“Of course not,” put in Sir John with a chuckle. “What does follow is that I played dashed bad.”

Ella tossed her head. She did not pursue the subject. She turned to her brother in her spasmodic way.

“You’ll be glad to hear, John, that I’ve had a most successful morning.”

“What, has the Vicar promised to lend his church for one of your performances?”

“Don’t be stupid. No. I found a number of most interesting people at the Vicarage. The talk turned upon spiritualism, and I was amazed to find how many of the party had taken up the study. Some of them have had the most satisfactory results.”

“What do you mean by satisfactory?”

“Why, they’ve had most convincing proof of the possibility of communicating with the other world.”

“Really. What did the Vicar say to that? Poaching on his preserves, wasn’t it? I’ve always had an idea that the church was supposed to look after the other world for us.”

“We didn’t let him know what we were talking about. It so happened that those who were interested in the subject were sitting together. Of course we couldn’t talk freely, as he was present and we didn’t know how he would take it. I was afraid he might reprove us and in an argument with a clergyman one always feels at a disadvantage​—​you can’t contradict the man without an uncomfortable sensation that you’re guilty of blasphemy. So we agreed to meet again and compare our experiences.”

“Hang it, Ella, what experiences have you had?”

“Not any, but I want to have some. We’ve arranged to hold a seance here to-morrow evening. The little round table in the spare room will do splendidly. Mrs. Parry has offered to bring a wonderful medium​—​a Mrs. Willoughby Smythe, who by a great piece of luck happens to be staying here. We’re bound to have some remarkable manifestations if all that’s said about her is true.”

John Norman stared blankly at his sister. He was biting his lips and frowning slightly. Apparently he did not welcome the prospect of the avalanche.

“I’ve been thinking, John, that you might do worse than go in for spiritualism as a hobby. It would take you completely out of yourself.”

“Thanks. I’m quite contented with myself as I am, and I don’t want to be anybody else. So far as spiritualism is concerned, I hate it, and you needn’t reckon upon me to-morrow night.”

Norman spoke with unwonted asperity and his self-assertion evidently took Ella by surprise.

“Do as you like, of course, but it’ll be very awkward. What excuse am I to offer? How am I to explain your refusal to join us when you’re in the house all the time?”

“That’s where you’re wrong. I shan’t be in the house. I’ve promised to motor Violetta to the Owl’s Nest. I’ve been telling her about it and its reputation for being haunted. She’s most anxious to see it. Possibly we shall have a better chance there of running across a ghost than you’ll have here.”

“Motor Violetta to the Owl’s Nest,” repeated Ella, her face suddenly growing very long. “It’s absurd. You must put off the excursion. Any other day but to-morrow will do just as well. Have you promised to go, Violetta?”

“Yes. I was looking forward to it, but as you say, another day will do just as well.”

“Indeed it won’t,” broke in Norman, half angrily. “I hate putting things off​—​especially for the sake of people I don’t know and don’t want to know. After what Violetta has just said, I shan’t disappoint her.”

“But surely, Violetta, under the circumstances you wouldn’t think of going?” cried Ella petulantly.

“If Sir John insists, I don’t know how I can refuse.”

Violetta from the corner of her eye could see a look of relief stealing over Norman’s face. It looked as if a contest of wills between brother and sister was going on, and she determined to back him up for all she was worth. From what she had seen of the Norman household she had decided that it was time John Norman asserted himself.

“Oh, very well,” snapped Ella, and she swept from the room, her features twitching and suggesting that she was on the verge of tears.