Chapter IX

Violetta’s “Joy-Ride”

The evening passed in a not particularly lively fashion. Ella was alternately snappy and sulky. Her brother was distraught and Violetta felt bored to death. She played and sang out of sheer desperation, and did not much care whether or not she was entertaining her friends. Her hostess professed a slight indisposition and could not be persuaded into doing anything. Evidently she did not look upon the proposed trip to the Owl’s Nest with approval. Violetta was quite glad when the time came to say good-night. Before going to bed, she sat for some time in a comfortable, padded wicker chair, nursing her knee​—​her favourite attitude when she wanted to think over things. On the whole, she was more interested in Sir John Norman than she had expected. She no longer had any idea of captivating him. That notion, if she had ever meant it seriously, had passed away, but it was not from any mercenary motive. She wanted money, it was true, but she was not anxious to get it by marrying a rich man. It might mean a sacrifice of her independence and she valued her freedom more than anything in life. The discovery, therefore, that the baronet was ruined did not come as the disappointment which she would have felt had she fixed upon him as her husband.

At the same time, he did interest her. She was not clear why it was so. She was inclined to put it down to her innate antagonism towards Ella. Outwardly Ella had always been very friendly with her, but the two had never come into conflict over any vital matter. Violetta was not one to take any account of trifling differences of opinion, and she had always given way.

Somehow she now felt inclined for active hostilities. It angered her to see Ella domineering over her brother, and it angered her still more to find the man tamely submitting.

“It’s no business of mine, anyway,” she told herself. “I suppose I shall have to stay some little time as I’ve sent for my things and it would be stupid to quarrel with Ella just because her brother hasn’t pluck enough to stand up for himself.”

She smiled. It had occurred to her that a little drama was beginning in the unexpected determination of Sir John to have his own way, and that this determination was primarily due to herself. But mightn’t there be some other motive at work? Why was Norman so set against a spiritualistic seance? She, Violetta, would rather have liked it. “Cranks” of any sort were entertaining once in a way. She did not think that the baronet was afraid of “cranks” or had any particular objection to a seance per se. His manner suggested some personal dislike.

“Perhaps there may be more fun here than I imagined at first” was her final comment, and with hope in her mind she went peacefully to sleep.

It was clear the next morning that Ella had not recovered her good temper. She did not appear at the breakfast table and sent down word that she had a bad headache. Sir John, on the other hand, had risen early. He was anxious, he explained, not to be disappointed about the car, and had gone to the garage before breakfast.

“It’s all right,” said he. “Shall we start about eleven? Will that suit you?”

“Admirably. I shall enjoy the ride immensely, I’m sure. It’s a delightful morning, and promises to be an ideal spring day. I’m sorry, though, I haven’t any proper motor costume. Do you mind?”

I don’t mind. Why should I? It’s you who ought to worry. But you don’t seem much troubled.”

Violetta, as a matter of fact, was in great good humour and was looking her best. She had had misgivings that Norman’s courage might have oozed out during the night, and was rejoiced to find that it hadn’t. In addition, her belongings had arrived from the hotel in London, and this was a special source of satisfaction. No woman likes to depend upon a single dress no matter how well she may look in it.

“Troubled? No indeed. I’m never troubled when I’m expecting a pleasure.”

“I hope it will be one. Anyway, I shall have nothing to prevent me devoting myself entirely to you. I’m an awful ass where motoring is concerned, so we shall have a chauffeur to take the responsibility. I know it’s not the right thing. Almost as bad as a boating man having someone to row for him.”

“Luckily, I’m neither a motorist or a boating woman, so it doesn’t matter, does it?”

“I don’t know that it does. Still, it won’t be what’s called a joy ride.”

“And what’s that?” asked Violetta, as demure as the lady depicted in Milton’s “Penseroso.”

He laughed.

“It must be experienced, I believe. It can’t be described. Part of the enjoyment, I understand, consists in getting every ounce of speed out of the car and defying the regulations.”

“I shouldn’t at all mind that​—​on a horse.”

He became a little graver.

“I suppose not. I remember your splendid riding at Normanhurst. I’ve given up thinking about horses.”

“Not for ever, surely?”

“If I keep in my present mind it may be so, but we won’t talk about horses, please.”

“You ought to have gone in for training in motoring, then you’d have a topic you’d have plenty to say about. I’m told motor talk’s most engrossing.”

“I know​—​I know. I’ve run across motor maniacs. They open their mouths over nothing else. It’s all gibberish to me. Don’t worry. Where you are Violetta there’ll be no lack of a subject for conversation.”

“Thanks. I didn’t know I could let my tongue run away with me.”

“I don’t mean that.”

He shot her a glance, the meaning of which Violetta understood quite well, and she left it at that.

“Will you give me half an hour, please, to get ready?” said she.

“Take your time, but don’t be longer than you can help. Between ourselves, I’d like to get away before Ella shows up. I upset her last night, and she’s horrid when she’s put out. I hate to start the day with a row, don’t you?”

Violetta nodded and tripped away. She joined him within the half hour. He was pacing the room restlessly, a cigarette between his lips. She thought he looked worried, but she made no remark. He brightened when his eyes lighted upon her, as well they might, for she presented an engaging picture with her tailor made skirt, blouse, up and down collar, and scarf, the pin of which added a provoking touch of coquetry. The masculine suggestions of her costume suited her amazingly. Her hat was a little sailor straw, with a feather artfully disposed.

“By Jove, one would think you were about to mount a horse rather than a motor,” he could not help saying.

“I thought you didn’t want horses mentioned.”

“Perhaps I didn’t explain myself. I meant horse racing. Anyhow, let’s be off.”

As the car started Violetta glanced at one of the upper windows. She saw the blind shift slightly, and she laughed. Ella was on the watch. Violetta had in a way thrown down the gauntlet.

Soon they were bowling along the high road. Presently the car turned into a lane and the chauffeur slackened speed.

“It’s a cross-country run to Weltersfield, sir. I suppose you’d like me to take the shortest cut?”

“I’m not so sure about that. What do you say?”

He had turned to Violetta.

“There’s no hurry, I suppose,” said she. “I should like to see as much as I can of English scenery. I’ve been away for a long time you know, and there’s nothing on the Continent like the fresh green of our country. I missed the English hedgerows terribly.”

“Very well, then, we’ll go by the prettiest route and chance it being the longest. It’s between thirty and forty miles, I suppose, to Weltersfield, eh?”

“Quite that, sir.”

“Nothing for a motor ride, so we’ll go leisurely. No ‘scorching’ mind.”

The chauffeur’s wooden face never moved. Going leisurely was not his idea of motoring. His difficulty would be keeping within his instructions.

“Whereabouts is Weltersfield?” asked Violetta.

“On the borders of Surrey, ten miles from Normanhurst. As I told you, I should have gone there but for Ella. Plenty of rabbit shooting but not much good for anything else. If you’re fond of the picturesque you’ll get it there. An artist friend I showed it to raved over the views.”

“Well, that’s something, anyhow. You don’t sketch, I suppose?”

“No. I’m fond of pictures and all that, but nothing more. To tell you the truth, Violetta, I don’t believe I’m good at anything​—​excepting,” he added with a queer sort of laugh, “at being fooled.”

“Oh, we’re most of us touched a bit that way at times, I fancy. We can’t always be wise. It would be an awfully dull world if it weren’t for the fools. They contribute largely to the gaiety of nations.”

“That’s your idea, is it? Then you don’t think I’m an absolute ass because I allowed myself to be taken in?”

“I don’t see why I should. I told you so last night. It’s generally the people we trust we have to thank for our misfortunes, where money’s concerned.”

“Well, yes. The odd thing was I discovered that what I thought I knew most about I knew least. Horses were always my hobby until I went in for keeping racers, but even then if I hadn’t been let down by the man I trusted I mightn’t have been so smashed up. You see, he induced me to buy a lot of crocks which turned out frauds. But this wasn’t the worst. The best horse I bought was on my own judgment. I backed it for all I was worth to win the Derby, and I’ll swear it would, too, but at the last moment it was got at or the jockey was. Do you know what that means?”

“I think I can guess.”

“And that’s how I came to grief. Then​—​hang it, Violetta, I entreated you not to talk about horse racing, and here I am prancing about on forbidden ground! I’ve said enough. Tell me something about yourself just to change one’s thoughts. What did you do in Paris?”

Violetta had no difficulty in reeling off actual and imaginary experiences, but not a word did she breathe about racing or gambling.

She saw plainly enough that Norman in his present mood detested both. No doubt it was a case either of a burnt child dreading the fire or of the old adage of the devil being sick, etc.; and maybe if Norman was again in possession of money his interest in horses might revive, but this point just now Violetta was not called upon to decide. She wanted to amuse him and she succeeded. Gradually the nervousness and occasional fits of absorption which Violetta had noticed disappeared, and he chatted as in the old days at Normanhurst.

They lunched at Cobham and sat talking for some time afterwards. The spectre of Ella not hanging over the feast, Violetta had no scruple in indulging in cigarettes. Norman complimented her on her smoking.

“You smoke like a man​—​you don’t hurry. The idea of most women is that a cigarette should be burnt away as quickly as possible.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed it is so. Perhaps that’s why I don’t do it. I don’t always follow the example of other women.”

“I’m glad of that,” said he, in what sounded almost like a tone of relief.


“Oh, it doesn’t matter. As one goes through life one learns things, that’s all.”

Had Violetta cared to avail herself of the opening, she could have teased him as to his views of women, but she remembered the tragedy of his married life, and she let him alone.

They strolled about Cobham and did not resume the journey for some time. It was but a ten mile ride to Weltersfield, and had they gone by the nearest road they would have passed Normanhurst. But Norman could not face the sight of the old house, and directed the chauffeur down a series of lanes by which the estate was avoided. The car finally emerged upon a fine breezy common on the other side of which was a road which led past a small estate bordered by an oak fence wire barbed at the top. On the other side of the fence was a broad stretch of meadow land, and beyond, sheltered by pine trees, was a squat house, a plain, square, uncompromising sort of building​—​dull brick with a door in the centre and a window each side, and three windows above. At the side was an extensive range of outbuildings.

Some horses were grazing in the meadow, and between them and the house stood a short thick-set man with slightly bowed legs and somewhat stooping in the shoulders. A companion to whom he was talking was slim, undersized, and with the unmistakable look of a jockey about him.

Violetta took in the shape and build of the horses, their shining, sleek, well-groomed coats and their springy walk, with the delight of a connoisseur. She noted the men and their surroundings, and she knew perfectly well she was passing a trainer’s headquarters. But mindful of Norman’s injunction, she did not say a word.

Suddenly the motor engine gave one of those irritating alarming explosions to which the mechanism is liable. The full-blooded horses, startled by the sound, set off on a stampede. It was a pretty sight but not to the trainer or his companion. They both shouted and set off to head the frightened steeds. Fortunately, no harm was done as they had raced in the direction of a high hedge, against which one was cannoned by the rest, but suffered no hurt. It might have been otherwise had they rushed for the fence. Doubtless the men expressed their feelings vigorously, but they were too far away for their words to be heard.

“Confound it,” she heard Norman mutter. “What the mischief made the thing explode just here. If any of those gees had come to grief I’d have had to make it up to old Peter Gumley, though I suppose legally he’d have no claim against me or the chauffeur either.”

“Do you know him?” asked Violetta.

“Know Peter Gumley? I should think I did. The most honest trainer who ever handled horseflesh. Doesn’t bet. Imagine that. But I forgot you know nothing about trainers or betting.”

“They’re lovely horses, and I’m glad none of them were hurt.”

“So am I. Peter Gumley and I were once great pals, and I was an ass to fall out with him. It was a misunderstanding, engineered, as I’ve reason to know, by enemies of both of us.”

Norman said no more, and Violetta asked him no questions, but she treasured up the name of Peter Gumley.

The trainer’s quarters were left behind, and about a mile further on the aspect of the country began to change. The road ascended, skirting a typical Surrey common covered with gorse and bracken, interspersed with thickets of bramble and holly. Ahead to the right were rolling downs and to the left woods with here and there clumps of tall pines. The ground was broken, the road still ascending was as full of turns as a snake, and the loose sharp-edged stones showed that there was little or no traffic. The car was traversing what was practically a spur of the long range of chalk hills, of which at Guildford the Hog’s Back was a portion.

“I don’t much like this travelling, sir,” said the chauffeur, jerking round his head. “It’ll be a miracle if we get through without a puncture. Is the place far?”

“About half a mile. Go slowly.”

“Slow or fast won’t make a razor-edged pebble any better,” grumbled the chauffeur. “The road’s worse the farther one goes.”

“Shall we get out and walk?”

“It ’ud be as well I do think, sir.”

“What do you say, Violetta?”

“I should like it. I’m feeling rather cramped.”

“Are you? Sorry. I don’t mind confessing I’m a bit that way myself. Here goes.”

He opened the door sprang to the ground and assisted Violetta to alight.

“Wait here,” said he to the chauffeur. “We may be some time. Here’s a cigar to while away the time.”

The chauffeur took the corona gratefully, and put down Sir John in his mind as a real gentleman.

“Some toffs would ha’ kicked up a shindy,” he remarked to himself. “He’s got a proper sort o’ girl with him too. She knows how to walk. It’s a treat to see a pair o’ ankles just the right shape, and shoes as don’t have egg boilers for heels. Neat figure, dashed if she aint.”

And the better to enjoy the pleasing picture, the chauffeur sat down on a grassy bank commanding a view of the winding road and watched the couple toiling up the ascent.

“You see now why I’ve so much difficulty in letting the Owl’s Nest. It’s such a climb to get there. Cartage is a frightful bother. Shops are miles away, and the butcher and baker often forget to call or are too lazy to fag up the hill.”

“That’s true. One would have to turn vegetarian to avoid starvation. I suppose there’s accommodation for a cow?”

“Well, yes, and a jolly fine paddock for pasture. It’s the only piece of level ground there is.”

“Why don’t you sell the place?”

“Who’d buy it? Might make a poultry farm, perhaps. Maybe you wonder why a house was stuck here. I’ll tell you. It came about when there was such a scare about Bonaparte invading England more than a century ago. Some genius suggested that a number of tower houses should be built on hills between London and Portsmouth, where a sort of telegraphing could be carried on by semaphore signalling in the daytime, and blazing fires at night. Boney never came and the telegraph houses were useless ever after.”

“So the house has a history; that makes it interesting.”

“I suppose it does. Anyhow, something in it must have interested my father or he wouldn’t have bought it. He used to come here for rabbit shooting. He was a bit of a recluse and liked his own company better than anybody else’s. I often wonder whether I take after him.”

“I hope you don’t find me boring you,” said Violetta, in a mock reproachful tone.

“My dear Violetta,” began Norman, but went no further.

They had reached the ground surrounding the house. It was approached by a narrow winding road and hedged and fenced around. The foliage of a little wood could be seen beyond. Norman had brought the keys and he unlocked the gate.

“This is the paddock I told you of. It’s not very wide, as you see, but I’m told its half a mile round and fairly level. It wouldn’t make a bad circus.”

“You’re getting near the forbidden topic,” laughed Violetta. “I warn you.”

“Thanks. I’ll not forget. The house didn’t exhaust the brains of the architect who designed it​—​what do you think?”

“It’s solid enough, and I imagine it was built to last.”

The Owl’s Nest was simply a square brick building of two storeys. Nothing could be simpler. Between the house and the paddock was a flower garden of an irregular shape on slightly higher ground than the paddock; the house dominated everything.

“To last? I should think it was. I believe the foundations are very solid.”

They entered the house. There were two rooms on a floor, and in each room was some plain old fashioned furniture.

“Mostly Queen Anne stuff. A dealer offered me £250 for the lot, which I guess meant it was worth three or four times that amount. I wasn’t in want of money then and I refused to sell. Most of it came from Normanhurst. If ever I’m stranded I suppose it’ll have to go.”

Violetta was delighted with the place. Its entire absence of ornamentation did not repel her. The furniture was quite in keeping with the severity of the surroundings. They ascended to the roof which was approached through a big trap door by a broad step ladder from one of the rooms. The roof was raised slightly in the centre to allow the rain to drain into a broad gutter on one side. Thence it descended to a tank on the ground.

“That’s for soft water​—​useful you know for the garden or the laundry,” said Norman. “The views are splendid. My dad liked to smoke his pipe here. You can see into four counties, I believe.”

A wall some three feet high surrounded the roof and against a stack of chimneys was a brazier used at night in former days for signalling purposes. The air was delightfully fresh and the sweet fragrant smell of the pine woods distinctly perceptible. Violetta inhaled it with pleasure. Her eyes wandered over the landscape taking in its varied beauties and its lights and shadows.

After a time they descended and inspected the outhouses built for the rearing of poultry and other live stock. Everything was in a fair state of repair.

“Shall we have a look at the wood?”

Violetta assented, and they crossed the paddock, and passed through a little wicket gate.

The wood was on the slope of the hill and the irregularity of the ground added to its picturesqueness. The footpaths were innumerable, but the undergrowth was so dense that many of them could only be followed with difficulty.

All at once an opening showed itself. A precipitous path, practically a series of steps, led down to a pond upon which the sun was pouring its full brilliance. It was like coming upon a dazzling mirror. The banks in some places were steep and at others only of gentle descent. All were covered with vegetation at present showing only the tender green of spring, and promising summer luxuriance. Lichen covered roots had here and there forced themselves through the loose soil and by colour and shape added their charm. At one end a thin stream trickled down huge chalk boulders and kept a sufficient movement to prevent the formation of duckweed save in obstructed patches where a fallen tree trunk had held up the current. At the end opposite the miniature waterfall was an outlet and from here the water had made for itself a passage and after many twistings found its way to a ditch.

“How exquisite!” cried Violetta, clasping her hands. “Why, it’s like fairyland. One can imagine Oberon and Titania holding their revels here in the moonlight.”

“I told you that artists went mad over it. But it has practical qualities as well as poetic ones. It’s a rare place for carp and tench.”

“And you wanted me to believe that the Owl’s Nest was a kind of Starvation Hall. What with growing one’s own vegetables and what with fish, rabbits, and poultry, there’s not much fear of going short. I noticed a fine brick oven in the scullery. What’s to prevent baking one’s daily bread?”

“Nothing whatever. It is, I admit, an ideal Tolstoi residence. It means a lot of work, though.”

“What of that? I’m in love with the place. Do you want to let it?”

“I’ve no objection but who’d take it?”

“I would. What’s the rent?”

Norman stared. He was flabbergasted at the idea. He looked upon Violetta’s proposal as the outcome of a woman’s romance. He said as much.

“It’s not romance at all. I assure you I mean business, and I’m quite prepared to tackle the hard work.”

“You’d better think over it.”

“I have thought over it, and I’ve made up my mind. You really must take a common-sense view of your affairs, Sir John, and not let them drift anyhow.”

Violetta had straightened herself. Her tone was emphatic. Her eyes shone with a steady light. Her face, though animated, was firm. She looked more masculine than ever. Norman was taken aback. He recognised her energy but he was incredulous as to her capacity for such a crazy enterprise.

“You don’t realise the difficulties,” he objected. “What’s put this Robinson Crusoe idea into your head? Do you want the place as a haven of rest and pleasure in the summer time​—​the delusion of the simple life?”

“Not at all. I mean business. Poultry farming. I’m out to make money. Come, the rent please. What did the former tenant pay?”

Norman felt himself cornered by her directness.

“I don’t exactly remember,” said he, reluctantly. “£50, I think it was.”

“Dirt cheap, I call it. If £50 will content you I’ll take it at that.”

“But really​—​the winter time​—​you’ll be horribly lonely.”

“I shall have a capable woman or two about me, and a man to do the rough work.”

“But you can’t make friends of them.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I can easily invite friends to stay with me, I suppose.”

“No doubt. Ella might, perhaps​—​”

“Ella won’t. I don’t think she’ll approve of my being your tenant.”

“Maybe not,” rejoined Norman doubtfully. “I doubt if I shall tell her.”

“Do as you like about that. I don’t care so long as she doesn’t talk you into giving me notice to quit.”

“She won’t do that, I promise you, but I daresay she’ll nag me a bit.”

“Will you stand it? I suppose a man can’t get away from a nagging wife, but a nagging sister​—​well!”

Violetta finished the sentence with an expressive shrug of the shoulders.

Norman looked a little shamefaced. He remembered how long he had endured Ella’s tyranny and in the face of Violetta’s rebuke he began to wonder why. But at Normanhurst he had to. How could he leave the place and how could he turn his sister out? Both courses were impossible. He had always given in to her to avoid quarrelling. Yet he had escaped from her domination​—​for a time. That was when he took the bold step​—​for him​—​of running a flat in London.

“I shan’t tell her,” said he presently. “This is a compact between ourselves Violetta, and it has nothing to do with anyone else.”

“Then you agree? Thanks awfully. I suppose we shall have an agreement or lease, or whatever you like to call it, drawn up, shan’t we? But your lawyer will see to that. You’re not going back from your word?”

“No. I swear​—​”

“You needn’t. Your promise will be sufficient.”

“You don’t bar me from coming to see you?”

“A landlord has a right, I fancy, to enter his premises at a reasonable time and for a sufficient reason. I daresay you’ll want to satisfy yourself that I’ve kept the place in proper repair.”

“I don’t care a fig about that. I can’t see myself as your landlord, Violetta.”

“I shan’t forget it, and I’ll not fail to remind you every quarter day. Now please let us go back to the house. I want to begin planning at once. You won’t mind I hope my making a few alterations.”

“Make any that pleases you. Pull the house down if you care to do it.”

“Nothing so stupid. I may be silly at times, but not so silly as all that.”

They returned to the house. Violetta was full of ideas. The prospect of a speculative enterprise had given her new life, and she rattled on, to the surprise and entertainment of her companion. Suddenly she looked at her watch.

“Mercy on us. Do you know we’ve been here nearly three hours? What will have become of your car?”

“It should be where we left it. Perhaps we’d better get back.”

They found the chauffeur fast asleep and he looked rather foolish when he was roused.

“Beg pardon, sir,” he stammered. “I didn’t know how long you’d be. But a car ain’t a horse​—​it can’t bolt.”

“Oh, it’s all right. Look here, take us on to Guildford. We want to see the country as we go. No making up for lost time, or anything of that sort.”

“Right you are, sir,” rejoined the man, with a sly look at Violetta, as much as to say, “You’re the cause of this slow going.”

They did not arrive at Guildford until five. They put up at the Angel. Violetta had a cup of tea, and Norman ordered dinner for half past six. Meanwhile, they strolled about the interesting old town. They were the best of friends and, as Norman thought, in a fair way of becoming chums.

Most of Norman’s lady friends at Normanhurst were of the conventional type. Those at Thames-side, when they were not conventional were slightly vulgar and decidedly commonplace. They seemed to exude wealth in their display of jewellery, and were of the sort who in London appear to live at restaurants. Dinners and lunches were to them the most important functions of the day, and auction bridge at night. Violetta on the other hand was wholly unconventional. She had moved about in the world and had been observant of things, and had her own opinion on them. Never had Norman passed a more enjoyable day. Violetta had completely chased away his gloom of the morning.

But as night approached he became a little fidgety. He invented all manner of excuses for delay, and Violetta acquiesced. A motor ride by moonlight promised enjoyment and novelty. It was a goodish stretch from Guildford to Thames-side, and as the chauffeur had to stop several times​—​generally at hostelries, to enquire the way​—​the car did not arrive at the Willows until half past ten.

The house was lighted up, and the sounds of a piano and singing were heard.

“Beastly nuisance,” exclaimed Norman in a tone of vexation. “I’d hoped the spiritualistic tomfoolry was over. Ella seems to have turned it into a sing song.”

“Does it matter?” asked Violetta.

“I don’t know that it does. Still​—​well, we must go through it, I suppose. But I hate the Thames-side people.”

He spoke in a kind of desperation and seemed to regard the gathering much more seriously than it warranted. So at least Violetta thought. But was there any other reason?