Chapter VI

“I’ve No Horses to Show You Now”

Two days later Violetta was at Paddington on her way to Maidenhead. She had written to Ella to say she was coming and had a reply sufficiently cordial to warrant her expecting a warm welcome.

However, she was now on her way to a different world​—​a world, which if it were placid and monotonous, was at least refined, and her mercurial temperament revived at the thought. And she was in addition really anxious to hear the story of Sir John Norman’s misfortunes.

She easily found her way to The Willows. It was a double-fronted house with a verandah and a wisteria half covering the windows and reaching to the roof. It had a spacious garden in front with stabling at the side. Very cosy and comfortable, but suburban​—​quite a contrast to Normanhurst, the stately white stone mansion built in the florid Italian style with its pilasters, its Parthenon-like front, its long balconied windows, its imposing projecting porch, its terrace and spacious lawn and shrubberies.

A neatly dressed maid opened the door to Violetta and ushered her into a pretty room with French windows opening into a fairly large garden, at the end of which was the river. Comfortable, like the rest of the house, but again a complete contrast to the oak-panelled morning room at Normanhurst.

She had not long to wait. Ella burst in upon her with that hurried, almost rushing manner, which Violetta remembered so well.

“My dear Vi, how glad I am to see you. How awfully sweet of you to come!” she cried in a high-pitched voice.

Violetta found herself being kissed effusively, then held at arms’ length, and being kissed again.

Ella Norman had always been a gusher, and she seemed to Violetta to be more gushing than ever. At seventeen it could be put up with, but at twenty-two it was slightly over-powering. In addition, she had a way of swarming over one, which Violetta had always found rather irritating. Just now it was particularly so. She was half a head taller than her visitor, slim and undulating, and her long arms, after being stretched out after the fashion of the angel on the preposterous Guards’ Memorial in Waterloo Place, enfolded Violetta in a kind of bear’s hug. Despite this overwhelming affection Violetta was quite conscious that her appearance and her dress were being closely scrutinised.

Then the two looked at each other appraisingly, as women do who have not seen each other for a long time. Violetta knew by the faint shade of disappointment which crept over Ella’s face, that she expected to find the wanderer had “gone off,” and that the contrary had happened. As for Ella, she had decidedly deteriorated. The dark half-circles beneath the eyes and the pinched-in sallow cheeks, showed that she was inclined to be neurotic.

Violetta was sorry but not surprised. If only half the misfortunes hinted at in Ella’s letter had taken place, the experience was enough to leave traces behind. But she asked no questions, she knew the story would come. Ella was not one to keep her woes to herself.

“Come and see your room, dear,” was Ella’s remark after the look of inspection. “I want you to stay a long, long time with me.”

“Oh, but I’ve not come prepared to do that. I’ve brought nothing with me.”

“That doesn’t matter. You can easily wire instructions to have your luggage sent on. Meanwhile, with my help you can make shift. It isn’t boating weather yet, so you won’t be asked to spoil that charming dress, as it certainly would be spoilt if John had the handling of the punt. He hasn’t got the hang of the pole yet, and he splashes awfully.”

It was characteristic of the baronet’s sedateness and incapacity that his sister always spoke of him as “John,” never as “Jack.”

“He’s on the river now,” went on Ella, as they ascended the staircase. “I persuaded him to come here. The doctor said he was thoroughly run down and wanted a complete change and plenty of open air exercise. Boating seemed to me to be the best antidote to that detestable racing, so when the collapse came and ruin was in sight, I took this furnished house and brought him here. He was really incapable of thinking for himself. Oh, my dear Violetta, I’ve heaps to tell you. It’s a wonder I’m not dead with worry. What’s going to happen I haven’t the least idea. Of course, our affairs are in the hands of the lawyers, and you know what snails they are.”

Talking incessantly and buzzing about Violetta, hindering rather than helping her to disrobe herself, Ella showed sufficiently the state of her nerves by her passing from one subject to another without the slightest connecting link, and by her spasmodic “oh dear, oh dear,” which seemed to come from her more by force of habit than from any emotional necessity.

At last they were seated quietly in the room with the French windows. Ella ordered tea and plunged without preface into a recital of her brother’s disasters.

“It’s all come about through races and betting. I assure you I never suspected anything of the kind. Of course, John was always fond of horses, but I thought his taste never went beyond hunters, and those cost him no end of money, Heaven knows​—​one lump, or two, dear? No sugar? Oh well, we can still afford that luxury in spite of the price. What was I telling you?”

“About Sir John’s love of hunting.”

“Oh yes. I used to be thankful that he had a hobby as it kept his mind from dwelling on poor Alice. She, I needn’t say, was a constant drag upon him. He paid the doctor who had charge of her £750 a year, and then there were continual extras. I know he looked forward to a life-long infliction, and perhaps had he anticipated she was so soon to pass away, he might not have been so foolish. It’s a terrible thing that the marriage laws are so stupid. He ought to have been able to free himself​—​I mean so far as the marriage tie was concerned​—​but there it was. He was helpless. You see the hunting season only lasts a few months, and what was he to do the rest of the year? It never occurred to me when he took to going to races that he had any interest in anything beyond the animals.”

“Did you really imagine that?” asked Violetta with a elevation of her dark eyebrows at the ends nearest the nose, which always charmed the men.

“Yes, why not? I’ve always heard that racing was supported because it improved the breed of horses.”

“Rubbish. That’s a part of our English self-deception. No one seriously believes it. Stop betting and you stop races. Not that I see any harm in betting.”

“No harm! Violetta, it’s horrible. You don’t know. You don’t understand.”

Violetta was inclined to laugh, but she kept her countenance.

“Haven’t I told you it was betting which practically ruined John? At the same time, he mightn’t have been so foolish but for a friend of his​—​a man who was with him at Balliol. They hadn’t seen each other for years when unluckily they met accidentally at Newmarket. I never could get much out of John how it was brought about, but it’s certain he came under the influence of this man, who, though of good family, is, I’m sure, a shocking blackguard. I saw him once, and once was quite enough.”

“What was his name?” asked Violetta suddenly.

“George Godfree. I believe he’s entitled to call himself ‘The Honourable,’ and that’s the only thing about him that is honourable. He’s connected with the Fitzhaughton family. The Marquis of Fitzhaughton was his uncle or brother-in-law. Some relation anyhow. I never cared to enquire what, I hated the man too much.”

George Godfree! Gentleman George! For a moment Violetta’s heart sank. She felt almost terrified. It was not that she was afraid of Godfree, but it was so strange that the working of Fate should have thrown Gentleman George in her way twice within forty-eight hours. His connection with Norman’s downfall was certainly a serious matter. Soon she recovered herself sufficiently to ask:

“Did your brother run any horses?”

“I don’t know. He never told me he did, but, of course, he may have done so. You see, I was mostly in town. I was very much occupied at the time with various social movements. Christian Science was greatly interesting me just then, and soon after I took up the Religious Stage Society. Studying the old Mystery Plays I found exceedingly absorbing, and really I had no leisure for enquiring what John was doing. Why should I? There was no need​—​at least, so I thought. Of course, I knew nothing about his friendship with Godfree​—​nor about Godfree either.”

Violetta hardly heard what Ella was saying. She didn’t care a fig for Christian Science or for Mystery Plays. George Godfree was in her thoughts. She was wondering with what gang he was in league. Gentry of his kind never worked by themselves. Their schemes for swindling the unwary required more than one hand. Gentleman George, with his insinuating society tone and manner when it was necessary to use them, and his real knowledge of society ways, was invaluable as a decoy, but he had not the brains to originate a modus operandi or to carry one out.

Violetta was brought back to the subject by Ella entering into a long and involved story how John had got deeper and deeper into the mire and at last had to sell Normanhurst.

“I don’t exactly understand how it came about,” said she. “I never could grasp figures or law.”

“I should like to know,” said Violetta.

“Well, I daresay John could tell you if you care to ask.”

“But haven’t you?

“Of course I have, but I couldn’t make head or tail of the affair. It seemed to me to be awfully complicated. The only thing really definite was that when all the debts were paid there remained enough to bring in about £1,000 a year, and we both have to live upon it.”

“You may marry well. You hinted that you were engaged,” put in Violetta.

“Oh, well, nothing’s settled. It can’t be——” she broke off suddenly.

“There’s John. Shall we go and meet him?” she exclaimed.

Violetta was only too glad. She found the continuous pouring out of sympathy to be a little trying. The interruption was also acceptable for another reason. Ella at any moment might dart off at a tangent and enquire what she had been doing during the past four years, and though Violetta was ready with a story she was not at all anxious to tell it. The inventive tale might break down under cross-examination. No doubt at some time or another Ella would question her, but the longer the ordeal was delayed the better.

The two passed into the garden. A head and shoulders​—​the first surmounted by a boating cap, the second swathed in a muffler​—​could be seen rising slowly above the river bank. Soon the whole figure was visible​—​tall and slim, resembling Ella’s conformation of body, but not so willowy.

Recalling her castle in the air at Monte Carlo when she first learned that Lady Norman was dead, Violetta regarded the man crossing the lawn, his walk half slouching, half springy, with no little curiosity. She remembered perfectly well how he looked at Normanhurst, and she wondered whether ill luck had affected him. Of course, her aerial castle had toppled over at Ella’s story, but the ruins had still some interest for her.

Norman suddenly straightened himself and raised his cap. Violetta thought he was better looking than when she last saw him. His dark hair, which came rather low down on his forehead, showed streaks of grey, but his drooping moustache was unchanged. His expression was as refined as ever, but seemed to show more decision. His eyes, like Ella’s, somewhat dreamy, were in keeping with the reputation he had among his friends of being a poet. Violetta had forgotten this side of his character, and it came back to her memory with a sense of surprise.

“You must forgive me, Miss Vaughan, for not being here to welcome you,” said he. “Ella didn’t appear to know what time you were coming. Anyhow, I hope she’s looked after you properly.”

“You needn’t have any doubt on that score, Sir John. I am quite at home already.”

“There’s not much to feel at home with. At any rate, I’ve no horses now to show you,” said he.

“I admire other things besides horses.”

“I doubt if you’ll find many here, and what there is isn’t mine.”

“The river?”

“I share that in common with others. Are you fond of boating?”

“I know nothing about it.”

“Then we’ll go out to-morrow providing it’s fine. I’ll give you a lesson if you like.”

“Don’t try punting,” put in Ella. “It’s all very well in the summer when the trickling of cold water down your arm isn’t unpleasant; but in this weather​—​ugh!”

“I didn’t say punting. We’ll have the double sculler. You may steer us, Ella, if you’ll promise to keep your thoughts fixed on the rudder lines. You’re not to be trusted, you know.”

“You’d better wait until Violetta’s luggage comes. I’m not going to let her spoil her pretty frock. There’s no hurry, because I want Violetta to stay with us a long, long time​—​that is, if her plans will allow her.”

“Yes​—​yes. You must stay,” urged Norman.

“You’re very kind, but I don’t intend to inflict myself upon you,” said Violetta, who did not fail to note the sudden intensity of Sir John’s gaze. “For a few days I’m unsettled and if you don’t mind putting up with me while I’m looking out for a post of some kind, I shall be very thankful.”

“There’s plenty of time for that. After I’ve made myself decent, I’ll join you two. Seven o’clock I suppose, as usual, Ella?”

His sister nodded, and the baronet raising his cap slowly, sauntered towards the house.

“How do you think John looks?” enquired Ella anxiously.

“Better than I should have expected after what he’s gone through.”

“Do you really think so? I hope you’re right. The question that’s worrying me is what is he going to do? At his age he ought to get rid of his purposeless life and have some occupation.”

“I suppose so, but one generally regards existence according to one’s temperament. Your brother always seemed to be fairly busy one way or the other.”

“Yes, but he had Normanhurst to look after. Now that is gone he is like a derelict drifting anywhere, and he may come into collision with something ugly and awkward and be smashed entirely.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“My dear Violetta, don’t you understand?” cried Ella, impatiently. “In his present mood he’s liable to be imposed upon by any designing woman who takes the trouble to capture him.”

“Such women are not usually ugly and awkward,” remarked Violetta drily.

“Well, we needn’t go into details. I know very well that during the last two years he must have mixed with very queer society, both men and women, on the racecourse. He was bound to, you know​—​or perhaps you don’t know.”

“I’ll take your word for it. But if occupation is to be his protection against these dangers, why doesn’t he get some Government post?”

“I doubt if he’s fitted for Government work. He’s frightfully unbusinesslike. Of course, I’m aware a man needn’t be clever to do all that’s wanted in the War Office or Foreign Office. If you turn up every morning like a piece of clockwork, and are contented with filling up forms and are not silly enough to suggest improvements and are never in a hurry, I believe you get on all right. Cleverness in a Government Department means the knack of shifting responsibility on to another Department, never knowing anything, holding your tongue, and taking as many holidays as the chief will stand. John’s a good deal too conscientious for that sort of thing; besides, he’s too fond of airing his own opinion, and as he’s generally wrong, you see what a mess he’d get into. No, there’s only one thing I can see for him.”

“Ah, and what’s that?”

“Marriage, my dear. Marriage with a level-headed rich woman who’s above the frivolity of the tastes of the present day and who takes life seriously.”

“Oh yes. A bishop’s widow, for instance. It’s a pity so few of them are about.”

Ella looked up sharply. Was her dear friend pulling her leg?

But Violetta’s face never moved a muscle.