Chapter XIX

Ella Asserts Herself

Violetta was busily occupied in going through her accounts. Her bets on Killarney figured largely in them. She had won over £500.

“That man must be paid back,” she decided. “The question is, how am I to get it to him? He shan’t come here, anyhow.”

It seemed to be a case of the mountain going to Mahomet. Unpleasant, but there was no alternative. She meant Westoby to give her a receipt and that receipt would have to state the circumstances under which he paid her the money. There must be no mistake about that.

She had just locked up her books, and Mrs. Stubbles had entered to consult her as to lunch, when there came the loud clang of the outer door bell, followed by an imperious rat-tat of the knocker.

A visitor most certainly. Tradesmen announced themselves in a much more modest way. Violetta looked at Mrs. Stubbles and Mrs. Stubbles looked at her mistress.

For a minute or so Violetta’s heart beats quickened. Could the visitor be Lord Verschoyle? Hardly. He would not have shown so much impatience and pomposity.

“Go and see who it is, Stubbles. If it be any stranger be sure to ask their business. I’m not in a very good humour this morning, and I don’t feel inclined to be bothered.”

Mrs. Stubbles was not disposed to offer any contradiction. She had already noticed Violetta’s mood. She disappeared and Violetta sat expectantly. Once she glanced at the mirror and then shrugged her shoulders disdainfully at her involuntary lapse into feminine weakness. The impression lurked in her mind that after all it might be Lord Verschoyle.

She heard the tones of a high-pitched voice, and the softer accents of Mrs. Stubbles in reply. There was something in the strained note of the voice that seemed familiar, but she could not fix it. Then the housekeeper came into the room looking a little flurried.

“A lady wants to see you, Miss.”

“Did you ask her name?”

“Oh, yes. She said it didn’t matter. She must see you she said​—​quite snappy. She seems put out, and nearly jumped down my throat.”

This did not look promising.

“I suppose you’d better show her in here, Stubbles. Though I hate people who won’t give their names. They nearly always come on some unpleasant business.”

Mrs. Stubbles went off, and presently the door opened and in walked Ella Norman, her nose in the air and a spot of scarlet on each cheek. Violetta, who knew her thoroughly, saw that she had worked herself into a violent passion.

“Well, upon my word,” burst out the young lady as soon as her rage would enable her to speak. But she could say no more.

Violetta looked at her steadily, and showed no signs of trepidation. Indeed, she felt none. Ella had certainly taken her by surprise​—​that was all.

“Why not sit down?” she remarked. “You might find it easier to explain the object of your visit when you’re comfortable.”

Violetta’s manner and voice were the essence of sweetness. It set Ella’s passion seething.

“The object of my visit? I should have thought you’d have guessed it. I​—​I—aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” she almost screamed.

“I don’t think so. What have I to be ashamed of? If that question is all that has brought you here, you might have saved yourself the trouble.”

“I couldn’t believe my ears when Mr. Barlowe told me you were living here.”

“Well, what of it? I must live somewhere, I suppose.”

“But why all this secrecy? Why didn’t you write to me?”

“Write to you? After you virtually turned me out of your house? You’re talking nonsense.”

“Nonsense? I consider your conduct disgraceful. Simply shocking!”

“Does it matter what you think?”

“Answer me this​—​aren’t you​—​what is the polite term for a questionable connection​—​under John’s protection? I suppose you know what I mean?”

Violetta’s reply was to strike the alarm bell which was on, the table. Mrs. Stubbles came in so quickly after the summons that she must have been listening outside the door.

“Please show out this lady, Stubbles,” said Violetta, coldly.

“Well, of all the——”

“I’ve nothing to say to you. I refer you to Mr. Barlowe if you care to know what rent I pay.”

“Rent! I’ve no doubt you and my foolish brother have managed the thing very nicely. I’m quite sure the rent doesn’t come out of your pocket.”

“The door, please, Stubbles.”

Violetta rose without haste and walked towards the French window which was open. Without another word she went into the garden and left her visitor speechless with indignation. When she had sufficiently recovered herself she turned to the housekeeper.

“Do you know Sir John Norman?” she demanded, haughtily.

“No, I don’t,” retorted Mrs. Stubbles, who was nothing if not blunt.

“I don’t believe you. He comes here under another name, most likely.”

“That’s false, beggin’ your pardon, ma’am.”

“Doesn’t Miss Vaughan have a gentleman visitor ever?”

“I’m not here to answer impertinent questions. If you want to know anything about Miss Vaughan you’d better ask Miss Vaughan herself. So far as I’m concerned, I may tell you that Miss Vaughan has no visitors, man or woman. This is the way to the hall.”

She opened the door and stood there, a sturdy janitor, Ella would have dearly liked to vent her rage upon an “inferior,” but she had sense enough to see that she would get from this buxom independent domestic as good as she gave, and perhaps better, so she pocketed her wrath and marched out of the room. Mrs. Stubbles followed her and shut the front door after her with a slam which spoke volumes as to her sentiments. Then she joined her mistress in the garden.

“She’s gone an’ a good thing. Lor, what a wax she was in,” exclaimed Mrs. Stubbles with a heave of her ample bosom.

Violetta had her back turned to the woman. When she wheeled round, Mrs. Stubbles saw that her eyes were moist and shining.

“Don’t take on about her,” exclaimed Mrs. Stubbles sympathisingly. “I’ll warrant you gave her a dressin’ down or she wouldn’t ha’ been so wild. A regular vixen I call her. But there​—​well, after it’s all over one can’t help givin’ way a bit. I s’pose we women are built that way. Maybe it’s all for the best.”

“I dare say. We won’t talk any more about it, Stubbles.”

Violetta mopped up the betraying tears that stood in her eyes. She was angry with herself for showing signs that Ella’s words had wounded her so much. She wished Mrs. Stubbles had not come upon her while she was struggling with her emotion, but the woman meant her intrusion kindly.

“She wanted to pump me about you, Miss,” went on the housekeeper, “but I wasn’t taking any. Asked me if Sir John Norman ever came to see you. Not knowing nothing, I couldn’t tell her nothing. What I did say wasn’t much short o’ telling her she was a liar.”

“That’ll do. I don’t want to hear any more,” rejoined Violetta, a little chokingly.

Violetta had always prided herself upon her perfect self control, but Ella’s cruel insinuations were more than she could bear, and for once she had broken down. The ordeal had come upon her at a time when she was least prepared for it. And the irony of the thing was that the three men who had come into her life​—​Norman, Lord Verschoyle and Dan Westoby​—​were nothing to her.

Mrs. Stubbles wisely left her to herself, and after a while she sat down upon a garden chair and allowed the cool, fresh spring air and the bright sunshine to restore her nerves.

In a way this came about, but the recollection of that passage of arms​—​it had hardly lasted more than a couple of minutes​—​still rankled.

“I could have launched a bomb shell had I chosen,” she thought. “I’m sure she doesn’t know that John Norman has a wife​—​and that wife the woman who called herself Mrs. Willoughby Smythe. But it would have been horridly mean of me to give the poor man away.”

Besides, it would have done her more harm than good. It would have made it plain to Ella that John Norman was thoroughly abandoned, and that she, Violetta Vaughan, was quite aware of his supposed loose principles and had encouraged them. She quivered at the thought of the story which a spiteful woman could concoct on such a foundation.

As to her feelings towards John Norman, she could hardly analyse them, had she cared to face the task. She liked him as a companion. His amiability and geniality could not be gainsaid. Violetta had a considerable spice of romance about her​—​perhaps her varied life had had much to do with it, so much of that life had been unusual and sometimes she had seen herself acting as his guardian angel​—​a rôle which most women of good instincts love to play and well it is for the world that it should be so​—​but why she should have this desire she could not explain. It certainly did not spring out of what is called love. And the odd thing was that if one judged by what Sir John Norman had done and left undone, it could hardly be said he was worth the sacrifice that a woman would make to ensure his happiness.

But Violetta now saw Norman by the light of depreciation. At the same time by contrast with the self-indulgent and depraved men she had encountered, he was almost perfection, though she was quite conscious of his shortcomings. Hence, because of Norman’s harmlessness and because of her own desire, out of pure friendliness, to extricate him from his embarrassments, Ella’s insinuations were doubly shameful and doubly galling.

She began to think that in associating herself with Norman by renting the Owl’s Nest, she had made a mistake. Their relations, purely those of landlord and tenant, could be so easily misconstrued. Yet he had never been near her​—​had never written her a line. But who would believe it?

“Well,” at last she exclaimed, “it’s the old story, I suppose. ‘Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny.’ Anyway, I’m too deeply in with horses and racing to go back. And I don’t think I want to go back. I love horses. They’re honest and faithful. And they can’t talk. After all, what Ella chooses to say about me isn’t of much consequence. But she’ll go for Sir John. Poor chap, I’m sorry for him.”

As far as calumny went, George Godfree and Dan Westoby were much more to be feared than Ella Norman.

Violetta had half determined to go to Westoby that very day and force him to accept the £250, but after what had happened her nerves were too strained.

“I must be at the very top of my form when I interview that cold-blooded fellow,” was the conclusion she came to, and hearing the housekeeper’s summons for lunch, she went into the house in much her usual unruffled demeanour.

Violetta was quite right in foreshadowing a bad quarter of an hour for John Norman. Ever since her departure from Thames-side, relations between him and his sister had been somewhat strained, but there had not been anything like an open rupture.

Norman had long been chafing at his dependance upon Ella. It was her money which paid the rent of The Willows and kept the household going. When she was in a bad temper she was not above reminding him of his obligation to her. His enforced helplessness, however, had had one good effect. It made him exert himself, and he had succeeded in obtaining a Government appointment which with economy (if he were capable of such a virtue) would enable him to run his own diggings. But with his temperamental inertness he had put off announcing his intention.

Ella’s return from her visit to the Owl’s Nest and the way she flew at him brought matters to a crisis.

Happily, or unhappily, he was in the mood to show fight. Alf Richards as a detective had not turned out a success. He had proved to be more like a sponge than a ’tec. Money had the knack of slipping from him​—​or into him, as it mostly disappeared in the shape of whiskey​—​in the most aggravating fashion.

So far as any details as to Christine’s mode of life was concerned, he had plenty to say but the details were repellant, and John Norman’s sensitiveness received a most disagreeable shock. No doubt, if Richards was to be believed he would have no difficulty in obtaining a divorce, but it meant descending into a sordid story from which he shrank.

The worst point to Norman, however, was the fact​—​again, if Richards spoke the truth​—​that the man upon whom she bestowed her favours was George Godfree. They were always together, reported Richards. Not, said Alfred, always like turtle doves, but more often like fighting cocks. But, considering the tastes of both for champagne, whiskies and sodas, and liqueurs, this mixture of moods was not surprising.

The upshot of the matter was that Norman had determined upon dispensing with Alf’s services, and had told him on the very day of Ella’s visit to the Owl’s Nest that he need not do any more detective work, as he had got all the material he wanted and more. He softened the blow by presenting Mr. Richards with a treasury note over and above his weekly allowance, but the amateur detective went away looking very gloomy.

That evening Norman came home to dinner in a very distracted mood, and the angry look upon Ella’s face he never noticed. He sat down to the table without a word, served the soup and the fish and still remained silent.

Meanwhile, Ella was fretting and fuming. She was burning for him to give her an opening for unburdening her soul, but she had no chance. Not that she could have launched her grievance while the parlour maid was hovering round, but she could have delivered some irritating shafts apropos of nothing in particular and so relieved her overcharged feelings.

At last she could bear the restraint no longer.

“What a cheerful companion you are, John,” she broke out. “You sit there solemn as an owl.”

“I’ve nothing to say,” he rejoined curtly.

“No? Doesn’t the reference to the owl stimulate you?”

Ella had got in one shot. She thought it remarkably apt.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Really? I should have thought the association of ideas would have suggested something pleasant.”

“It doesn’t suggest anything at all. You’re talking in riddles. I hate riddles.”

Ella gave him an acid smile.

“Very well. I’ll give you the answer when we’re by ourselves.”

Shot number two. Norman had afforded her the chance she wanted but for the moment she would hold her hand.

The dinner over, Norman lit a cigar and was about to retire to his room when his sister held up her hand.

“Stay a moment, John, I want to talk to you. Do sit down. I can’t say what’s in my mind while you’re wandering about like a wild beast at the Zoo.”

John did not look particularly well pleased, and he threw himself into a chair with an air of resignation.

“What’s it all about?”

“The answer to what you were pleased to call my riddle.”

“Bother your riddle. Do for once talk sense.”

“Oh, you shall have sense enough, my boy, I promise you. I only said one of two words at dinner​—​owl​—​and you did not understand, or pretended you didn’t. Had I said ‘Owl’s Nest’ it would, I fancy, have gone home. Ha, ha!”

There was something ominous in Ella’s assumption of hilarity, obviously forced. John Norman shrugged his shoulders and made no reply.

“I’ve been to Owl’s Nest to-day.”

In spite of himself Norman started. He knew now what was in his sister’s mind.

“How nicely you’ve laid your heads together so that I shouldn’t know what you and that woman were up to.”

A much milder tempered man than John Norman would have been roused by Ella’s offensive words, accentuated as they were by her still more offensive manner.

“And what have we been up to?” he retorted, flushing angrily.

“Don’t try to put me off, please, because you won’t. I’m not a child. I suppose I know what the scandalous business means. I’m not surprised that you wanted to keep me in the dark. Of course, you’ve a right to do as you like, but if you must mix yourself up in a disgraceful intrigue you might have had the decency to keep your property out of it. I’m told that such immoral arrangements as you have made with a woman, who’s little more than an adventuress, are common enough in the West end of London. In the circles of vice one expects——”

Norman sprang to his feet. He had fairly boiled over.

“Hold your tongue,” he shouted. “What you’ve just said is a tissue of false slanderous assertions. I’ll listen to no more of them.”

“Oh, I know the truth is always unpleasant. Do you deny that you’re paying for the keep of Violetta Vaughan​—​that it is into her pocket that your money goes​—​that in short, she is your​—​mistress?”

Ella uttered the last word with a great effort, as though it were something that contaminated her lips. Her face wore such a look of horror that had her brother not been in such a towering passion, it must have struck him as extremely comical.

“I deny every one of your libels.”

“Of course you do. But you can’t deceive me. The woman had very little money when she came to stay here. I saw evident signs of luxury where she is now. I noticed a horse in the stables​—​a sort of poultry farm in miniature​—​a couple of servants. She can’t keep up an establishment of that kind on nothing. Where does her money come from, I ask you?”

“And you may ask. I know no more about Miss Vaughan’s affairs than you do. Indeed, I should say I know less, for you’ve visited her and I haven’t.”

“What does that matter? No doubt you had her reputation to consider. It is so easy​—​to meet in town.”

Norman quivered with rage. He could not believe that his prim sister could say such things.

“Infamous,” he cried. “You talked just now about West end vice. It seems to me that you know as much about it as any woman needs to know if she has use for it.”

It was Ella who was now in a paroxysm of rage, and when she was in this mood her speech inclined to that of the melodrama.

“If anybody had told me you would have used such vile language to your own flesh and blood, I​—​I would have struck the base slanderer to the earth,” she screamed hysterically.

“You brought it on yourself. I told you to hold your tongue. As it is, we’ve only succeeded in irritating one another. I can see but one thing left for me to do, and that is to leave you to run this show by yourself. We can’t meet with any degree of satisfaction after to-night,” said Norman, cooling down.

“I quite agree, and I hope you’ll go as soon as possible. It’s what I would have proposed but I didn’t want you to spread it abroad that I’d turned you out. I may say that I contemplate certain changes here, and now that you’ve plunged into what the dear vicar calls an irregular life, your presence here would be most embarrassing both for him and for me.”

Ella’s emotional temperament permitted her to pass from one mood to another with lightning rapidity. Her fit of highflown indignation had disappeared, and she now spoke with quite an air of relief.

John Norman stared, much puzzled by her announcement.

“The dear vicar! What the deuce has the dear vicar got to do with it? I don’t see where he comes in.”

“Then I’ll tell you. I’m going to marry him.”

“What, have you chucked young Percival?”

“Pray don’t use such vulgar expression. I’ve ‘chucked’ as you’re pleased to term it, nobody. I was never engaged to Mr. Percival.”

“Weren’t you? I thought you and he had fixed up matters. But it’s no affair of mine. You can marry whom you please and do as you like. I presume I’m entitled to the same liberty.”

Now that they had spoken their minds Norman in his new found energy determined to start upon his fresh path in life at once.

That night brother and sister parted coldly polite to each other, and Norman put up at the Great Western Hotel until he could secure a suitable rest for the sole of his foot.

He began to realise the true cause of Ella’s disposition to treat him as a sort of pariah. She was eaten up by the canker of “respectability,” and her marriage to a parson would set its seal upon her destiny. Norman was inclined to laugh when he thought what she would have said had she known about Christine!