“Ursula! I am glad to see you!” Julia Earle moved forward to the carriage door to greet the tall, well-dressed woman who stepped down on the platform of the tiny station of Ash in Surrey.
“Julia! This is nice!” They kissed affectionately, then the new arrival swung round to a second woman who had followed in the wake of the first.
“And Marjorie! My goodness, Marjorie,”—they also kissed—“when I remember the last time I saw you! I declare we haven’t met since Bolsover. How many years ago is that?” “Don’t let’s think. You’re not much altered, Ursula. I should have known you easily.”
“Nor are you; wonderfully little.” She turned back to the first woman. “And how’s the world, Julia?”
The interchange of reunion was interrupted in order to superintend the removal by a porter of Ursula Stone’s two suitcases from the carriage and their conveyance by the same agency to a waiting car.
“Where will you sit?” went on Julia: “in front with me or behind with Marjorie?”
“Oh, in front. I always like this drive. A lovely country, isn’t it, Marjorie?”
“In its way, yes. Of course where I’m living is much finer, but this Surrey landscape is more restful.”
“I forget your headquarters now, Marjorie. San Remo, isn’t it?”
“Rocquebrune; close to Rocquebrune, that is. You know it perhaps; just beyond Monte Carlo?”
“I’ve passed it in the train. I love all that coast.”
Meanwhile Julia had started up the Morris saloon and they were soon bowling along towards the ridge of the Hog’s Back, which presently came into view as their southern horizon. Julia Earle and her husband, a retired doctor, had settled down in the heart of wild Surrey, though, as they were only some four miles from Farnham, and little more from Guildford and Godalming, they could not be said to be entirely divorced from civilisation. Though she had made many friends in the neighbourhood, Julia found the life lonely, and to have two visitors simultaneously was a pleasure she had not enjoyed for a long time.
Of these two, Marjorie Lawes, her unmarried sister, was the greater stranger. Marjorie liked heat and sunshine and she ordered her goings to the vagaries of Nature in this respect. She was a migrant. Winter drew her to Egypt; spring and autumn she spent on the Riviera, while in summer she penetrated as far north as Switzerland or the Dolomites. She lived by her pen. “Not serious stuff, you know, my dear,” she would truly say. Sentiment, splashed lavishly on in huge purple patches, was her standby. Her simple tales of the loves of earls and typists, turned out in bulk, paid well enough for her needs and a little over, and formed just the interest required to keep her mind keen and fit.
Ursula Stone was no relation of the sisters, but at school the three had been inseparable and they had kept up their intimacy. Ursula had not married and now she lived a placid life at Bath, where she was popular enough in the local society. An occasional letter had prevented her getting entirely out of touch with the sisters, and after the Earles had moved to their present house Julia had asked her to pay them a visit. That was four years ago. This time she had been invited specially to meet Marjorie, who was spending a few weeks in England.
Julia, reaching the top of the hill up which they had been climbing, cautiously nosed the car out on to the high-speed Guildford-Farnham road which here runs along the spine of that curious narrow ridge known as the Hog’s Back. The others instinctively paused to watch for approaching traffic; then as they turned west, their voices broke out again.
“Tell me about yourself, Ursula,” Marjorie went on. “You’re living at Bath?”
“Yes, I’ve got a cottage perched up on Bathwick Hill. It’s a nice position. The town lies in the valley and you see across it to the hills beyond.”
“And what do you do with yourself?”
Ursula smiled. “My hospital! I call it mine because I like working for it so much. It’s a children’s hospital and I’m honorary secretary. It’s fascinating work, though it would make you weep tears of blood to see some of the little mites that are in it.”
Marjorie shrugged. “More useful than my job. But then I couldn’t afford it. Tell me, have you ever come across the Bantings?” And the talk went back to school days.
Except from the point of view of age—none of them would see thirty-five again—the three women contrasted both in appearance and manner. Ursula Stone was tall and slight with a facial angle approaching the vertical. All her lines indeed were vertical. Her narrow forehead was high, and instead of retreating seemed to project further forward as it rose, her nose was thin and aquiline, and her pointed chin was set well forward. Good features, all of them. With her very erect carriage and well-cut clothes she was an interesting, indeed a striking figure. Her manners were old-fashioned, courteous and unworldly, and she had the air of living in an age that has gone.
Julia Earle was also a handsome woman, tall, fair, with a commanding presence, and extremely well dressed. She was the sort of woman whom men turn to look at in the street. She did not look her age, not by a dozen years. A kind of competence radiated from her. One felt instinctively that she would hold her own in any company and deal efficiently with any situation that might arise. There was indeed too marked a hardness in her face, a hardness notably absent from Ursula’s.
Her sister, Marjorie Lawes, while neither so good-looking nor so well dressed, gave an impression of greater kindliness. Marjorie was smaller and thinner and had grown slightly wizened. Her skin was darkened from southern suns, showing up more prominently her greying hair. She was the only one of the three to wear glasses, through which gazed out upon the world a pair of extremely intelligent greenish-grey eyes. They had turned south from the Hog’s Back through the quaint old-world village of Seale, and now were passing through the dense pine woods of Hampton Common. At a cross-roads they turned to the left through a still thicker wood of oak, beech and ash, with plenty of birch and nut trees; an almost impenetrable thicket. Presently Julia slowed down.
“Here we are,” she said, turning the car into a narrow gateway which bore on a plate the name “St. Kilda.”
A short curving drive brought them to the house, a typical modern South of England cottage, with lower walls of purple brick, upper storey and roof of “antique” red tiles and steel-framed casement windows. In front and at both sides the trees had been cleared back to leave room for a small garden. All round was the wood. The place had struck Ursula on her one former visit as small but fascinating, and immediately she felt once again its restful charm.
But what had most impressed her then, and now impressed her more than ever, was the isolation of the house. As far as appearances went it might be the only dwelling in the world.
“Oh no,” Julia said when she commented on this; “Colonel Dagger lives just down the road and the Forresters are close to him. There are plenty of houses about, but you don’t see them because of the trees.”
Ursula was tired from her journey. It had been good up to Reading, where she had changed. But the local train through Farnborough took a leisurely interest in the surrounding country, stopping whenever possible and being in no hurry to restart.
Not till she came down dressed for dinner did Ursula see her host. Dr. Earle was a small, rather insignificant-looking man of about sixty with a round face of that high colour so often associated with heart affections. He had lived and practised in Godalming until some six years earlier. Then he had come into a little money, and hating general practice and loving research, he had obtained a partner, a Dr. Campion, to take over the heavy end of the work. He had bought St. Kilda for himself, intending to devote himself to writing a book on some abstruse theory he had formed on the culture of germs. Before, however, he had moved out, he had met with an accident and gone to Brighton to recuperate. There he had met and married Julia Lawes. Now he greeted Ursula with a shy cordiality which somehow convinced her that he was really pleased that she had come.
“So glad to see you again, Miss Stone,” he said with a smile. “I hope you had a comfortable journey?”
Ursula reassured him and they began to chat. On her previous visit she had liked James Earle. She had found him unassuming and retiring and anxious to do what he could to make her visit pleasant. Also though surprisingly ignorant of books other than scientific treatises, he was fond of light reading, and she had enjoyed the appreciation he had shown when introduced to some of her favourites.
“What have you been doing with yourself lately, Dr. Earle?” she asked.
“Nothing very much, I’m afraid,” the little man smiled. “A little golf, a little writing, some work in the garden, still unhappily a few patients—I’ve tried to get rid of them with- out success—some books: particularly some books. Have you read—?” And they seemed quite naturally to slip into their relations of four years earlier. But it didn’t last long. Julia and Marjorie soon came in and they moved to the dining-room.
During dinner Ursula realised with some small feeling of regret that what she had anticipated during her previous visit had come to pass. Then the Earles had not long settled down at St. Kilda: it was just a couple of years since their marriage. Though both were advanced in age, they had been very much Mr. and Mrs. Newly-Wed: Julia was evidently newfangled and amused with her unwonted position and was fond in a maternal sort of way of her elderly boy, for James Earle was just a grown-up boy. As for him, he obviously doted on her. Now things were changed. Earle clearly had not stood up to his wife, with the result that she had taken command and now appeared to give him but little consideration. Inevitable, Ursula thought, from their respective temperaments, but rather distressing. Not that Julia was at all unpleasant to her husband; simply she did not appear to consider him of any account in her scheme of things. But Earle did not seem at all unhappy. It was just that Ursula thought they had missed a companionship which they might so easily have had.
The evening passed uneventfully in bridge, and when Ursula went to bed it was with feelings of satisfaction that she had come. She had enjoyed her previous visit to this charming country and she believed she was going to enjoy the coming fortnight. Marjorie’s presence was an added pleasure. Ursula had always liked Marjorie better than Julia. Julia she had found a little bit too conscious of the side on which her bread was buttered, but Marjorie would have shared her last crust with a stranger.
The next day the weather seemed to confirm Ursula’s optimism. It was one of those charming autumn days which are not uncommon in south-eastern England. The sun shone placidly with a comfortable warmth, reflecting mellow lights from the rich colouring of the turning leaves and drawing delightful aromatic scents from the woods. The twittering of birds cut sharp across the soft cooing of distant pigeons. Stretched lazily on its side on the grass lay the Earles’ big black cat, the epitome of luxurious ease, yet with a wary eye on the birds and an occasional thump of its tail on the ground as a protest against their presence. No wonder Ursula felt optimistic. Yet had she been able to foresee the future she would have recoiled with horror and without a moment’s delay would have fled from St. Kilda and all connected with it.
It was indeed on that very day that the first of those small incidents occurred which were to lead up to the awful culmination which spelled tragedy for the party and gave a thrill to the entire country. The occupants of St. Kilda had dispersed on their lawful occasions. Earle had gone to play golf, walking: the clubhouse was only some half-mile back along the road to the station. Marjorie had disappeared to her room to write, while Julia was busy with household chores. Ursula, finding a deck-chair in the hall, had fixed it in a shady corner of the garden and opened a new novel. But she didn’t read with diligence. The sun and air were soporific and with closed eyes she lay in dreamy content.
Presently she became faintly conscious of a movement behind her. Julia, she supposed, and she prepared to congratu- late her on the perfect setting of her home. But the movement ceased and Ursula sleepily imagined she had been mistaken. Then suddenly she felt a presence and opened her eyes.
A startled-looking young man was bending over her. His face was nearly on a level with her own and Ursula realised that he had been about to kiss her, in fact that she had missed the salute by a fraction of a second. He was a tall young man, tall and thin and rabbit-faced, with protruding mouth and retreating forehead and chin. He was obviously very much perturbed.
“Beg pardon, I’m sure,” he muttered, drawing hastily back. “I thought it was”—he checked himself quickly, adding, “someone else.”
“Oh,” said Ursula frigidly.
“Yes,” he went on, regaining confidence; “only saw your feet, you know; your face was hidden by the back of the chair. And that red dress”—again he broke off in confusion. “I mean—it was an accident. Sorry and all that.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry about,” Ursula said very distinctly.
“No, no, of course not,” he agreed. Ursula could have boxed his ears. “But I waked you up, you know. Shouldn’t have done that. By the way, my name’s Slade, Reggie Slade. Live next door, you know.” He pointed vaguely to the trees ahead. “D’you happen to know if Mrs. Earle’s about?”
“I don’t know where Mrs. Earle is,” Ursula answered unhelpfully.
He took out his cigarette-case, selected a cigarette and slowly lit it.
“No?” he said. “I expect she’s indoors. Have a message for her, you know.” He paused, hung about undecidedly on one leg, then went on: “You’re Miss Stone, I suppose? Heard you were coming. Julia—I mean, Mrs. Earle—has been looking forward to your visit.”
Ursula wondered who this young man could be who seemed on such familiar terms with Julia Earle, for she had just grasped the significance of the reference to her dress. Julia had a dress of much the same colour; she had seen it in her wardrobe when in her room on the previous afternoon. Slade was certainly on very familiar terms; there was no doubt he had been going to kiss Julia, and what was more intriguing, Ursula was satisfied he would never have dared to do so unless he knew Julia would be a consenting party. “I expect you’ll find Mrs. Earle in the house,” she said coldly, opening her book in a marked way.
But the young man showed no signs of taking the hint. “Oh, come now, Miss Stone,” he said, looking round as if for a seat; “don’t be mad with me for a mistake, specially when I’ve apologised. Couldn’t have known it was you, you know.”
“I’m not in the least annoyed. Kindly allow me to get on with my book.”
“That means you are annoyed,” he grumbled. “It wasn’t as if—” He broke off and his face and tones grew suddenly eager as he added, “Here’s Julia!”
Ursula felt a little shocked as she looked at him. There was no mistaking the expression in his eyes. They had the adoring, worshipping look of a dog which fawns on its master. Whoever or whatever Reggie Slade might be, one thing about him was certain: he was utterly, overwhelmingly in love with Julia Earle.
Julia took no notice of him at first. She spoke cheerily to Ursula, asking her if she was cold and saying that if so there were rugs in the hall. Then she glanced at her other visitor frowningly.
“What on earth do you want?” she asked unpleasantly. “If it’s my husband, he’s gone out.”
The rabbit-faced young man looked so crestfallen that soft-hearted Ursula was sorry for him in spite of herself.
“It was only,” he stammered, “that I’ve—er—got the Bentley back. Just been into Farnham for her. She’s—er— going better than ever. I wondered if perhaps—”
“Oh, you were going to take James to play golf?” Julia mocked. “Well, he’s gone already.”
“Then there was that book,” the young fellow pleaded desperately.
“Oh yes, the financial book for Colonel Dagger. Yes, I’ll get it for you if you come in. Sure you’re all right, Ursula?” “In heaven,” Ursula declared dreamily, and the others disappeared.
Ursula felt more than a little distressed at this development, though not wholly surprised. She was not taken in by Julia’s manner. That Julia had encouraged and was encouraging the young man she hadn’t the least doubt. Probably, thought Ursula, not at all cynically, but with the humorous toleration with which she had trained herself to look on life, Reggie Slade was bestowing that selfsame kiss at the present moment. Probably also he was receiving value for it. Julia had always been like that, ever since Ursula knew her. She couldn’t live without male admiration. Admittedly wherever she went she received it. And yet, until James Earle appeared, no one, so far as Ursula knew, had wished to marry her. Men were ready enough for a flirtation, but when things began to grow serious a bar to matrimony invariably appeared. Sometimes it was an existing wife, but usually that they suddenly found they had no money. For all of them knew that a poor man’s love was no good to Julia.
Ursula had indeed been surprised to hear of her friend’s marriage. She wondered, as she had wondered before, if it was Earle’s money which had proved the attraction. Earle was by no means rich, but he was comfortably off. Or was it that Julia thought she could so dominate a man of Earle’s temperament that she would be left free for any deviations from the narrow path to which she felt a drawing?
Suddenly Ursula felt ashamed of herself. This was no way to be thinking of her hostess, of her friend indeed, for during those years at school, and since, Julia had proved herself a real friend. Besides, though Julia had these little weaknesses, she was in other ways a real good sort. She was attractive socially, a pleasant companion, and good-natured—at least, so long as her good nature did not inconvenience herself.
All the same Ursula could not help feeling extremely sorry for James Earle. At his age and after his life of uncongenial work, he must have wanted to settle down and have a home. It looked as if he was scarcely getting all he had bargained for. With a little sigh and a mental note to mind her own business instead of her neighbours’, Ursula resumed her book. But she had not read many pages before she was again interrupted. This time it was Marjorie.
“I saw you out here,” Marjorie announced, “and I felt I must come out and enjoy the day with you. There’s something mild and soothing about this English sun that you don’t get abroad. At home, or what I call home for this time of year, the light’s harder; there’s more glare.”
Marjorie had brought her writing-pad, but she did not seem in any hurry to resume work. The two women dropped into a desultory conversation. It was many years since they had met and there were multitudinous confidences to be exchanged.
The talk was at first about their various experiences during that long period of separation, then at last it turned to the present.
“You know, Ursula,” Marjorie said, staring before her into the distance and speaking more confidentially, “I’m not very happy about Julia and James. I’m afraid things are not going as well as one would have liked.”
“In what way, Marjorie?”
Marjorie moved uneasily. “I don’t exactly know,” she answered. “There seems to be a strain between them that shouldn’t be there. You haven’t noticed anything?”
“I think Julia’s a little bit too high-handed with Dr. Earle,” Ursula declared. “You remember last night at dinner. He wanted to go up to Town to some meeting, but no, he couldn’t do so. She wanted him to go with us to East Grin- stead so that he could drive to that nursery for the shrubs while we were seeing the Leathems. It seemed a pity to me. There was no hurry about the shrubs, and why couldn’t he have gone to his meeting if he had wanted to?”
“It isn’t that; James didn’t mind about that. As a matter of fact I happen to know he wasn’t really particular whether he went to the meeting or not. Besides,”—she paused and glanced sideways at Ursula—“James is not so meek and mild as you think. He can be quite nasty to her if he wants to. I’ve heard him: quite nasty. I was surprised.”
Ursula smiled. “You don’t say so? I shouldn’t have believed it.”
“Well, it’s quite true. But she deserved it.” She paused again, then drew closer and sank her voice confidentially. “It’s Julia’s fault. I daren’t say anything: she wouldn’t take it from me. But you’re different. She’s always had an immense opinion of you and she’d listen to what you said. It’s just what you’d expect from Julia, it’s what she’s always done.
She—well, she has men hanging about. That’s what annoys James so much.”
“Dear Marjorie, what could I say? It’s not my business.
I suppose you mean Reggie Slade?”
Marjorie stared. “Goodness, Ursula! You almost frighten me. How could you possibly have known that?”
“I’ve become a detective in my old age,” Ursula smiled. “I’ve met the gentleman. He came up and introduced him- self. He thought I was Julia. Then Julia came out and I could see from his face.”
“Did she encourage him?”
Ursula laughed outright. “Encourage is not exactly the word I should have used,” and she repeated Julia’s greeting. Marjorie grunted. “She shouldn’t do it,” she protested. “James is the mildest of men, but even a worm will turn. I sometimes imagine that only for his patients he’d go away.”
“I thought he’d given up his practice?”
“So he has really, but some old patients insist on having him still. Besides, Dr. Campion—that’s the partner, you know—calls him in occasionally in consultation. Just after I came old Mr. Frazer died, and Dr. Campion had called him in there two or three times. I heard them talking about it. You know who I mean? Old Mr. Frazer of Frazer’s, the theatrical booking people?”
“That was the owner of that fine place near Compton?” “Yes, a lovely place and a lovely house. They say he left pots of money; most of it to his wife, but a big chunk to his nephew, Mr. Gates, who lives there. I don’t care for them much.”
“Oh, then you know them?”
“Slightly. They were over here to see James the other day and I met them. She’s a rather polite icicle and he’s a rough diamond, with the emphasis on the adjective. Julia said he’s been a labourer in Australia, and he just sounds like it.”
“Perhaps, in its less civilised manifestations. People are talking about them already, staying on alone there in that big house. However, that’s their own business. We were talking of James and Julia. I wish, Ursula, you’d give Julia a hint. I believe she’d take it from you.”
Ursula didn’t think she would be given an opportunity, but agreed to do what she could, and the subject dropped. “Funny that Dr. Campion should have come as assistant to James,” Ursula said presently. “You know they used to live at Bath; Howard—that’s Dr. Campion—and Alice and Flo, his sisters. I knew them well, or at least the girls.”
Marjorie nodded. “So Julia told me. I heard her speaking of Miss Campion. She was talking of asking her over. She said you would be sure to want to see her.”
“That’s good of Julia; I should like to.” “I like Miss Campion.”
“Yes, Alice is a good sort. Tell me, Marjorie—” and the talk reverted once again to old acquaintances.
The day passed uneventfully. Earle did not appear at lunch, but he was home for dinner. Things seemed to go quite smoothly, and afterwards there was another game of rather mediocre bridge. They retired early, and next morning Ursula felt that she had quite settled down and that she was going to enjoy her fortnight with her old friends.
She little knew what the next few days would bring forth.