The Red House Mystery

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Mrs. norbury confides in dear mr. gillingham

They left the road, and took the path across the fields which sloped gently downwards towards Jallands. Antony was silent, and since it is difficult to keep up a conversation with a silent man for any length of time, Bill had dropped into silence too. Or rather, he hummed to himself, hit at thistles in the grass with his stick and made uncomfortable noises with his pipe. But he noticed that his companion kept looking back over his shoulder, almost as if he wanted to remember for a future occasion the way by which they were coming. Yet there was no difficulty about it, for they remained all the time in view of the road, and the belt of trees above the long park wall which bordered its further side stood out clearly against the sky.

Antony, who had just looked round again, turned back with a smile.

"What's the joke?" said Bill, glad of the more social atmosphere.

"Cayley. Didn't you see?"

"See what?"

"The car. Going past on the road there."

"So that's what you were looking for. You've got jolly good eyes, my boy, if you recognize the car at this distance after only seeing it twice."

"Well, I have got jolly good eyes."

"I thought he was going to Stanton."

"He hoped you'd think so obviously."

"Then where is he going?"

"The library, probably. To consult our friend Ussher. After making quite sure that his friends Beverley and Gillingham really were going to Jallands, as they said."

Bill stopped suddenly in the middle of the path.

"I say, do you think so?"

Antony shrugged his shoulders.

"I shouldn't be surprised. We must be devilishly inconvenient for him, hanging about the house. Any moment he can get, when we're definitely somewhere else, must be very useful to him."

"Useful for what?"

"Well, useful for his nerves, if for nothing else. We know he's mixed up in this business; we know he's hiding a secret or two. Even if he doesn't suspect that we're on his tracks, he must feel that at any moment we might stumble on something."

Bill gave a grunt of assent, and they went slowly on again.

"What about to-night?" he said, after a lengthy blow at his pipe.

"Try a piece of grass," said Antony, offering it to him. Bill pushed it through the mouthpiece, blew again, said, "That's better," and returned the pipe to his pocket.

"How are we going to get out without Cayley knowing?"

"Well, that wants thinking over. It's going to be difficult. I wish we were sleeping at the inn… . Is this Miss Norbury, by any chance?"

Bill looked up quickly. They were close to Jallands now, an old thatched farmhouse which, after centuries of sleep, had woken up to a new world, and had forthwith sprouted wings; wings, however, of so discreet a growth that they had not brought with them any obvious change of character, and Jallands even with a bathroom was still Jallands. To the outward view, at any rate. Inside, it was more clearly Mrs. Norbury's.

"Yes Angela Norbury," murmured Bill. "Not bad-looking, is she?"

The girl who stood by the little white gate of Jallands was something more than "not bad-looking," but in this matter Bill was keeping his superlatives for another. In Bill's eyes she must be judged, and condemned, by all that distinguished her from Betty Calladine. To Antony, unhampered by these standards of comparison, she seemed, quite simply, beautiful.

"Cayley asked us to bring a letter along," explained Bill, when the necessary handshakings and introductions were over. "Here you are."

"You will tell him, won't you, how dreadfully sorry I am about what has happened? It seems so hopeless to say anything; so hopeless even to believe it. If it is true what we've heard."

Bill repeated the outline of events of yesterday.

"Yes… . And Mr. Ablett hasn't been found yet?" She shook her head in distress. "It still seems to have happened to somebody else; somebody we didn't know at all." Then, with a sudden grave smile which included both of them, "But you must come and have some tea."

"It's awfully decent of you," said Bill awkwardly, "but we—er—"

"You will, won't you?" she said to Antony.

"Thank you very much."

Mrs. Norbury was delighted to see them, as she always was to see any man in her house who came up to the necessary standard of eligibility. When her life-work was completed, and summed up in those beautiful words: "A marriage has been arranged, and will shortly take place, between Angela, daughter of the late John Norbury… ." then she would utter a grateful Nunc dimittis and depart in peace to a better world, if Heaven insisted, but preferably to her new son-in-law's more dignified establishment. For there was no doubt that eligibility meant not only eligibility as a husband.

But it was not as "eligibles" that the visitors from the Red House were received with such eagerness to-day, and even if her special smile for "possibles" was there, it was instinctive rather than reasoned. All that she wanted at this moment was news—news of Mark. For she was bringing it off at last; and, if the engagement columns of the "Morning Post" were preceded, as in the case of its obituary columns, by a premonitory bulletin, the announcement of yesterday would have cried triumphantly to the world, or to such part of the world as mattered: "A marriage has very nearly been arranged (by Mrs. Norbury), and will certainly take place, between Angela, only daughter of the late John Norbury, and—Mark Ablett of the Red House." And, coming across it on his way to the sporting page, Bill would have been surprised. For he had thought that, if anybody, it was Cayley.

To the girl it was neither. She was often amused by her mother's ways; sometimes ashamed of them; sometimes distressed by them. The Mark Ablett affair had seemed to her particularly distressing, for Mark was so obviously in league with her mother against her. Other suitors, upon whom her mother had smiled, had been embarrassed by that championship; Mark appeared to depend on it as much as on his own attractions; great though he thought these to be. They went a-wooing together. It was a pleasure to turn to Cayley, that hopeless ineligible.

But alas! Cayley had misunderstood her. She could not imagine Cayley in love until she saw it, and tried, too late, to stop it. That was four days ago. She had not seen him since, and now here was this letter. She dreaded opening it. It was a relief to feel that at least she had an excuse for not doing so while her guests were in the house.

Mrs. Norbury recognized at once that Antony was likely to be the more sympathetic listener; and when tea was over, and Bill and Angela had been dispatched to the garden with the promptness and efficiency of the expert, dear Mr. Gillingham found himself on the sofa beside her, listening to many things which were of even greater interest to him than she could possibly have hoped.

"It is terrible, terrible," she said. "And to suggest that dear Mr. Ablett—"

Antony made suitable noises.

"You've seen Mr. Ablett for yourself. A kinder, more warmhearted man—"

Antony explained that he had not seen Mr. Ablett.

"Of course, yes, I was forgetting. But, believe me, Mr. Gillingham, you can trust a woman's intuition in these matters."

Antony said that he was sure of this.

"Think of my feelings as a mother."

Antony was thinking of Miss Norbury's feelings as a daughter, and wondering if she guessed that her affairs were now being discussed with a stranger. Yet what could he do? What, indeed, did he want to do except listen, in the hope of learning? Mark engaged, or about to be engaged! Had that any bearing on the events of yesterday? What, for instance, would Mrs. Norbury have thought of brother Robert, that family skeleton? Was this another reason for wanting brother Robert out of the way?

"I never liked him, never!"

"Never liked?" said Antony, bewildered.

"That cousin of his Mr. Cayley."

"Oh!"

"I ask you, Mr. Gillingham, am I the sort of woman to trust my little girl to a man who would go about shooting his only brother?"

"I'm sure you wouldn't, Mrs. Norbury."

"If there has been any shooting done, it has been done by somebody else."

Antony looked at her inquiringly.

"I never liked him," said Mrs. Norbury firmly. "Never." However, thought Antony to himself, that didn't quite prove that Cayley was a murderer.

"How did Miss Norbury get on with him?" he asked cautiously.

"There was nothing in that at all," said Miss Norbury's mother emphatically. "Nothing. I would say so to anybody."

"Oh, I beg your pardon. I never meant—"

"Nothing. I can say that for dear Angela with perfect confidence. Whether he made advances—" She broke off with a shrug of her plump shoulders.

Antony waited eagerly.

"Naturally they met. Possibly he might have—I don't know. But my duty as a mother was clear, Mr. Gillingham."

Mr. Gillingham made an encouraging noise.

"I told him quite frankly that—how shall I put it?—that he was trespassing. Tactfully, of course. But frankly."

"You mean," said Antony, trying to speak calmly, "that you told him that—er—Mr. Ablett and your daughter—?"

Mrs. Norbury nodded several times.

"Exactly, Mr. Gillingham. I had my duty as a mother."

"I am sure, Mrs. Norbury, that nothing would keep you from doing your duty. But it must have been disagreeable. Particularly if you weren't quite sure—"

"He was attracted, Mr. Gillingham. Obviously attracted."

"Who would not be?" said Antony, with a charming smile. "It must have been something of a shock to him to—"

"It was just that which made me so glad that I had spoken. I saw at once that I had not spoken a moment too soon."

"There must have been a certain awkwardness about the next meeting," suggested Antony.

"Naturally, he has not been here since. No doubt they would have been bound to meet up at the Red House sooner or later."

"Oh,—this was only quite lately?"

"Last week, Mr. Gillingham. I spoke just in time."

"Ah!" said Antony, under his breath. He had been waiting for it.

He would have liked now to have gone away, so that he might have thought over the new situation by himself; or, perhaps preferably, to have changed partners for a little while with Bill. Miss Norbury would hardly be ready to confide in a stranger with the readiness of a mother, but he might have learnt something by listening to her. For which of them had she the greater feeling, Cayley or Mark? Was she really prepared to marry Mark? Did she love him or the other—or neither? Mrs. Norbury was only a trustworthy witness in regard to her own actions and thoughts; he had learnt all that was necessary of those, and only the daughter now had anything left to tell him. But Mrs. Norbury was still talking.

"Girls are so foolish, Mr. Gillingham," she was saying. "It is fortunate that they have mothers to guide them. It was so obvious to me from the beginning that dear Mr. Ablett was just the husband for my little girl. You never knew him?"

Antony said again that he had not seen Mr. Ablett.

"Such a gentleman. So nice-looking, in his artistic way. A regular Velasquez—I should say Van Dyck. Angela would have it that she could never marry a man with a beard. As if that mattered, when—" She broke off, and Antony finished her sentence for her.

"The Red House is certainly charming," he said.

"Charming. Quite charming. And it is not as if Mr. Ablett's appearance were in any way undistinguished. Quite the contrary. I'm sure you agree with me?"

Antony said that he had never had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Ablett.

"Yes. And quite the centre of the literary and artistic world. So desirable in every way."

She gave a deep sigh, and communed with herself for a little. Antony was, about to snatch the opportunity of leaving, when Mrs. Norbury began again.

"And then there's this scapegrace brother of his. He was perfectly frank with me, Mr. Gillingham. He would be. He told me of this brother, and I told him that I was quite certain it would make no difference to my daughter's feelings for him… . After all, the brother was in Australia."

"When was this? Yesterday?" Antony felt that, if Mark had only mentioned it after his brother's announcement of a personal call at the Red House, this perfect frankness had a good deal of wisdom behind it.

"It couldn't have been yesterday, Mr. Gillingham. Yesterday—" she shuddered, and shook her head.

"I thought perhaps he had been down here in the morning."

"Oh, no! There is such a thing, Mr. Gillingham, as being too devoted a lover. Not in the morning, no. We both agreed that dear Angela—Oh, no. No; the day before yesterday, when he happened to drop in about tea-time."

It occurred to Antony that Mrs. Norbury had come a long way from her opening statement that Mark and Miss Norbury were practically engaged. She was now admitting that dear Angela was not to be rushed, that dear Angela had, indeed, no heart for the match at all.

"The day before yesterday. As it happened, dear Angela was out. Not that it mattered. He was driving to Middleston. He hardly had time for a cup of tea, so that even if she had been in—"

Antony nodded absently. This was something new. Why did Mark go to Middleston the day before yesterday? But, after all, why shouldn't he? A hundred reasons unconnected with the death of Robert might have taken him there.

He got up to go. He wanted to be alone—alone, at least, with Bill. Mrs. Norbury had given him many things to think over, but the great outstanding fact which had emerged was this: that Cayley had reason to hate Mark,—Mrs. Norbury had given him that reason. To hate? Well, to be jealous, anyhow. But that was enough.

"You see," he said to Bill, as they walked back, "we know that Cayley is perjuring himself and risking himself over this business, and that must be for one of two reasons. Either to save Mark or to endanger him. That is to say, he is either whole-heartedly for him or whole-heartedly against him. Well, now we know that he is against him, definitely against him."

"But, I say, you know," protested Bill, "one doesn't necessarily try to ruin one's rival in love."

"Doesn't one?" said Antony, turning to him with a smile.

Bill blushed.

"Well, of course, one never knows, but I mean—"

"You mightn't try to ruin him, Bill, but you wouldn't perjure yourself in order to get him out of a trouble of his own making."

"Lord! no."

"So that of the two alternatives the other is the more likely."

They had come to the gate into the last field which divided them from the road, and having gone through it, they turned round and leant against it, resting for a moment, and looking down at the house which they had left.

"Jolly little place, isn't it?" said Bill.

"Very. But rather mysterious."

"In what way?"

"Well, where's the front door?"

"The front door? Why, you've just come out of it."

"But isn't there a drive, or a road or anything?"

Bill laughed.

"No; that's the beauty of it to some people. And that's why it's so cheap, and why the Norburys can afford it, I expect. They're not too well off."

"But what about luggage and tradesmen and that kind of thing?"

"Oh, there's a cart-track, but motor-cars can't come any nearer than the road" he turned round and pointed "up there. So the week-end millionaire people don't take it. At least, they'd have to build a road and a garage and all the rest of it, if they did."

"I see," said Antony carelessly, and they turned round and continued their walk up to the road. But later on he remembered this casual conversation at the gate, and saw the importance of it.

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