The Shadow of the Rope by E.W. Hornung
Chapter X. A Slight Discrepancy
Mrs. Woodgate paid the promised call a few days later, walking briskly by herself along the woodland path that made it no distance from Marley Vicarage to Normanthorpe House, and cutting a very attractive figure among the shimmering lights and shadows of the trees. She was rather tall, and very straight, with the pale brown skin and the dark brown eye, which, more especially when associated with hair as light as Morna Woodgate's, go to make up one of the most charming and distinctive types of English womanhood. Morna, moreover, took a healthy interest in her own appearance, and had not only the good taste to dress well, but the good sense not to dress too well. Her new coat and skirt had just come home, and, fawn-colored like herself, they fitted and suited her to equal perfection. Morna thought that she might even go to church in the coat and skirt, now and again during the summer, and she had a brown straw hat with fine feathers of the lighter shade which she made peculiarly her own; but this she had discarded as too grand for an informal call, for Hugh had been summoned to a sick-bed at the last moment, and might be detained too late to follow. But the Steels had been back two days, and Morna could not wait another hour.
She was certainly consumed with curiosity; but that was not the only feeling which Mrs. Woodgate entertained towards the lady who was to be a nearer neighbor of her own sex and class than any she could count as yet. On the class question Morna had no misgivings; nevertheless, she was prepared for a surprise. Both she and her husband had seen a good deal of Mr. Steel. Morna had perhaps seen the best of him, since she was at once young and charming, and not even an unwilling and personally innocent candidate for his hand, like honest Sybil Venables. Yet Morna herself was not more attracted than repelled by the inscrutable personality of this rich man dropped from the clouds, who had never a word to say about his former life, never an anecdote to tell, never an adventure to record, and of whom even Mrs. Venables had not the courage to ask questions. What sort of woman would such a man marry, and what sort of woman would marry such a man? Morna asked herself the one question after the other, almost as often as she set her right foot in front of her left; but she was not merely inquisitive in the matter, she had a secret and instinctive compassion for the woman who had done this thing.
"She will not have a soul to call her own, poor thing!" thought Morna, as indignantly as though the imaginary evil was one of the worst that could befall; for the vicar's wife had her little weaknesses, not by any means regarded as such by herself; and this was one of the last things that could have been said about her, or that she would have cared to hear.
The woodland path led at last into the long avenue, and there was Normanthorpe House at the end of the vista; an Italian palace transplanted into the north of England, radiantly white between the green trees and blue sky, with golden cupola burning in the sun; perhaps the best specimen extant to mark a passing fashion in Georgian architecture, but as ill-suited to the Delverton district as an umbrella-tent to the North Pole. A cool grotto on a really hot day, the house was an ice-pit on any other; or so Mrs. Woodgate fancied, fresh from the cosey Vicarage, and warm from her rapid walk, as she stepped into another temperature, across polished marble that struck a chill through the soles of her natty brown shoes, and so into the lofty drawing-room with pilasters and elaborate architraves to the doors. What a place for a sane man to build in bleak old Delverton, even before there was any Northborough to blacken and foul the north-east wind on its way from the sea! What a place for a sane man to buy; and yet, in its cool white smoothness, its glaring individuality, its alien air--how like the buyer!
Though it was May, and warm enough for the month and place, Morna got up when the footman had left her, and thrust one brown shoe after the other as near as she could to the wood fire that glimmered underneath the great, ornate, marble mantelpiece. Then she sat down again, and wondered what to say; for Morna was at once above and below the conversational average of her kind. Soon she was framing a self-conscious apology for premature intrusion--Mrs. Steel was so long in coming. But at last there was a rustle in the conservatory, and a slender figure in a big hat stood for an instant on the threshold.
That was Morna's first impression of the new mistress of Normanthorpe, and it was never erased from her mind; a slender silhouette in an enormous hat, the light all behind her, the pilastered doorway for a frame, a gay background of hothouse flowers, and in the figure itself a nervous hesitancy which struck an immediate chord of sympathy in Morna. She also was shy; the touch of imperfect nature was mutually discernible and discerned; and the two were kin from the meeting of their hands.
Morna began her apology, nevertheless; but Rachel cut it very short. "My dear Mrs. Woodgate, I think it is so kind of you!" she exclaimed, her low voice full of the frankest gratitude; and Morna was surprised at the time; it was as though she were the rich man's wife, and Mrs. Steel the vicar's.
They sat a little, talking of the time of year; and it was some minutes before Morna really saw her new neighbor's face, what with her great hat and the position of the chair which Mrs. Steel selected. And for these few minutes, after that first frank speech, the greater constraint was on the part of the hostess; then all at once she seemed to throw it off, rising impulsively, as though the great high room, with the Italian tiles and the garish gilt furniture, struck the same chill to her as to Morna before her.
"Come round the garden," said Rachel, quickly. "I am delighted with the garden, and I think it's really warmer than the house."
Delightful it certainly was, or rather they, for the Normanthorpe gardens were never spoken of in the singular number by those familiar with their fame; they had been reconstructed and enlarged by a dead duke with a fad for botany, and kept up by successors who could not endure the cold, uncomfortable house. It was said to have been a similar taste in Mr. Steel which had first attracted him to the place; but as he never confirmed or contradicted anything that was said of him, and would only smile when a rumor reached his ears, there was no real foundation for the report.
The ducal botanist had left behind him the rarest collection of plants and trees, and a tradition in scientific gardening which had not been allowed to die; it was neglected Normanthorpe that had loaded the tables and replenished the greenhouses of seats more favored by the family; and all this was the more wonderful as a triumph of art over some natural disadvantages in the way of soil and climate. The Normanthorpe roses, famous throughout the north of England, were as yet barely budding in the kindless wind; the blaze of early bulbs was over; but there were the curious alien trees, and the ornamental waters haunted by outlandish wildfowl, bred there on the same principle of acclimatization.
"I expect you know the way quite well," said Rachel, as they followed a winding path over a bank of rhododendrons near the lake; "to me every stroll is still a voyage of exploration, and I shall be rather sorry when I begin to know exactly what I am going to see next. Now, I have never been this way before, and have no idea what is coming, so you must tell me, if you know. What a funny scent! I seem to know it, too. Why, what have they got here?"
On the further side of the bank of rhododendrons the path had descended into a sheltered hollow, screened altogether from the colder winds, and, even in this temperate month of May, a very trap for the afternoon sun. And in this hollow was a clump of attenuated trees, with drooping leaves of a lacklustre hue, and a white bark peeling from the trunk; a pungent aroma, more medicinal than sylvan, hung rather heavily over the sequestered spot.
Rachel stood a moment with wide nostrils and round eyes; the look hardly lasted longer, and she said no more, but she was aware that Morna had made some answer to her question.
"What did you say?" inquired Rachel, turning politely to her visitor.
"I said they were blue gums from Australia."
Rachel made no immediate comment; secretive she might have to be, but to a deliberate pretence she would not stoop. So she did not even say, "Indeed!" but merely, after a pause, "You are something of a botanist yourself, then, Mrs. Woodgate?" For they had been talking of the gardens and of their history as they walked.
"I?" laughed Morna. "I only wish I was; but I happen to remember Mr. Steel telling me that one day when we were here last summer."
Rachel opened her eyes again, and her lips with them; but instead of speaking she went to the nearest gum-tree and picked a spray of the lacklustre leaves. "I like the smell of them," she said, as they went on; and the little incident left no impression upon Morna's mind.
Yet presently she perceived that Mrs. Steel had some color after all--at the moment Rachel happened to be smelling her gum-leaves--and that she was altogether prettier than Morna had fancied hitherto. The fact was that it was her first good look at Rachel, who had kept her back to the light indoors, and had literally led the way along the narrow paths, while her large hat had supplied a perpetual shadow of its own. It was a pathetic habit, which had become second nature with Rachel during the last six months; but now, for once, it was forgotten, and her face raised unguardedly to the sun, which painted it in its true and sweet colors, to Morna's surprise and real delight. The vicar's wife was one of those healthy-hearted young women who are the first to admire their own sex; she had very many friends among women, for whom marriage had not damped an enthusiasm which she hid from no one but themselves; and she was to be sufficiently enthusiastic about the thin but perfect oval of Rachel's face, the soft, sweet hazel of her eyes, the impetuous upper lip and the brave lower one, as she saw them now for an instant in the afternoon sun.
Moreover, she was already interested in Rachel on her own account, and not only as the wife of the mysterious Mr. Steel. There was an undoubted air of mystery about her also; but that might only be derived from him, and with all her reserve she could not conceal a sweet and sympathetic self from one as like her in that essential as they were different in all others. Not that the reserve was all on one side. Morna Woodgate had her own secrets too. One of them, however, was extracted during their stroll.
"May I make a personal remark?" asked Rachel, who had been admiring the pale brown face of Morna in her turn, as they came slowly back to the house across the lawns.
"You frighten me," said Morna, laughing. "But let me hear the worst."
"It's the ribbon on your hat," went on Rachel. "What pretty colors! Are they your husband's school or college?"
"No," said Morna, blushing as she laughed again. "No, they're my own college colors."
Rachel stood still on the grass.
"Have you really been at college?" said she; but her tone was so obviously one of envy that Morna, who was delightfully sensitive about her learning, did not even think of the short answer which she sometimes returned to the astonished queries of the intellectually vulgar, but admitted the impeachment with another laugh.
"Now, don't say you wouldn't have thought it of me," she added, "and don't say you would!"
"I am far too jealous to say anything at all," Rachel answered with a flattering stare. "And do you mean to tell me that you took a degree?"
"Of sorts," admitted Morna, whose spoken English was by no means undefiled. But it turned out to have been a mathematical degree; and when, under sympathetic pressure, Morna vouchsafed particulars, even Rachel knew enough to appreciate the honors which the vicar's wife had won. What was more difficult to understand was how so young a woman of such distinguished attainments could be content to hide her light under the bushel of a country vicarage; and Rachel could not resist some expression of her wonderment on that point.
"Did you do nothing with it all," she asked, "before you married?"
"No," said Morna; "you see, I got engaged in the middle of it, and the week after the lists came out we were married."
"What a career to have given up!"
"I would give it up again," said Morna, with a warmer blush; and Rachel was left with a deeper envy.
"I am afraid we shall have nothing in common," sighed Mrs. Steel, as they neared the house. "I have no education worthy the name."
Morna waxed all but indignant at the implication; she had a morbid horror of being considered a "blue-stocking," which she revealed with much girlish naivete and unconscious simplicity of sentiment and praise. She was not so narrow as all that; she had had enough of learning; she had forgotten all that she had learnt; any dolt could be crammed to pass examinations. On the contrary, she was quite sure they would have heaps in common; for example, she was longing for some one to bicycle with; her husband seldom had the time, and he did not care for her to go quite alone in the country roads.
"But I don't bicycle," said Mrs. Steel, shaking her head rather sadly.
"Ah, I forgot! People who ride and drive never do." And it was Morna's turn to sigh.
"No, I should like it; but I have never tried."
"I'll teach you!" cried Morna at once. "What fun it will be!"
"I should enjoy it, I know. But--"
The sentence was abandoned--as was often the case in the subsequent intercourse between Rachel Steel and Morna Woodgate. From the beginning, Rachel was apt to be more off her guard with Morna than with any one whom she had met during the last six months; and, from the beginning, she was continually remembering and stopping herself in a manner that would have irritated Morna in anybody else. But then--yet again, from the beginning--these two were natural and immediate friends.
"You must learn," urged Morna, when she had waited some time for the sentence which had but begun. "There are people who scorn it--or pretend to--but I am sure you are not one. It may not be the finest form of exercise, but wait till you fly down these hills with your feet on the rests! And then you are so independent; no horses to consider, no coachman to consult; only your own bones and your own self! The independence alone--"
"May be the very thing for you, Mrs. Woodgate, but it wouldn't do for my wife!"
Mr. Steel had stolen a silent march upon them, on the soft, smooth grass; and now he was taking off his straw hat to Morna, and smiling with all urbanity as he held out his hand. But Morna had seen how his wife started at the sound of his voice, and her greeting was a little cool.
"I meant the bicycling," he was quick enough to add; "not the independence, of course!"
But there was something sinister in his smile, something quite sinister and yet not unkindly, that vexed and puzzled Morna during the remainder of her visit, which she cut somewhat short on perceiving that Mr. Steel had apparently no intention of leaving them to their own devices after tea. Morna, however, would have been still more puzzled, and her spirit not less vexed, had she heard the first words between the newly married couple after she had gone.
"What's that you have got?" asked Steel, as they turned back up the drive, after seeing Morna to her woodland path. Rachel was still carrying her spray of gum-leaves; he must have noticed it before, but this was the first sign that he had done so. She said at once what it was, and why she had pulled it from the tree.
"It took me back to Victoria; and, you know, I was born there."
Steel looked narrowly at his wife, a hard gleam in his inscrutable eyes, and yet a lurking sympathy too, nor was there anything but the latter in the tone and tenor of his reply.
"I don't forget," he said, "and I think I can understand; but neither must you forget that I offered to take you back there. So that's a sprig of gum-tree, is it?"
Rachel gave him a sudden glance, which for once he missed, being absorbed in a curious examination of the leaves.
"Did you never see one before?" she asked.
"A gum-tree?" said Steel, without looking up, as he sniffed and scrutinized. "Never in all my life--to my knowledge!"