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   Chapter 4 OUR MYSTERIOUS NEIGHBORS

The Yellow House By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 18128

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


This was a faithful and exact account of my meeting with the first of those two of our neighbors who seemed, according to Lady Naselton's report, to remain entirely outside the ordinary society of the place. Curiously enough, my meeting with the second one occurred on the very next afternoon.

We came face to face at a turning in the wood within a few yards of her odd little house, and the surprise of it almost took my breath away. Could this be the woman condemned to isolation by a whole neighborhood-the woman on whose shoulders lay the burden of Bruce Deville's profligacy? I looked into the clear, dark eyes which met mine without any shadow of embarrassment-returning in some measure the keen interest of my own scrutiny-and the thing seemed impossible.

She spoke to me graciously, and as though to do so were quite a matter of course. Her voice completed my subjugation. One may so often be deceived by faces, but the voice seems an infallible test.

"There is going to be a terrible storm," she said. "Won't you come in for a few minutes? You will scarcely be able to get home, and these trees are not safe."

Even while she was speaking the big rain drops began to fall. I gathered up my skirts, and hurried along by her side.

"It is very good of you," I said, breathlessly. "I am dreadfully afraid of a thunderstorm."

We crossed the trim little lawn, and in a moment I had passed the portals of the Yellow House. The front door opened into a low, square hall, hung with old-fashioned engravings against a background of dark oak. There were rugs upon the polished floor, and several easy chairs and lounges. By the side of one was a box from Mudie's, evidently just arrived, and a small wood fire was burning in the open grate. She laid her hand on the back of a low rocking chair.

"Shall we sit here?" she suggested. "We can keep the door open and watch the storm. Or perhaps you would rather see as little of it as possible?"

I took the easy chair opposite to her.

"I don't mind watching it from inside," I answered. "I am not really nervous, but those trees look horribly unsafe. One wants to be on the moor to enjoy a thunderstorm."

She looked at me with a faint smile, kindly but critically.

"No, you don't look particularly nervous," she said. "I wonder--"

A crash of thunder drowned the rest of her sentence.

In the silence which followed I found her studying my features intently. For some reason or other she seemed suddenly to have developed a new and strong interest in me. Her eyes were fastened upon my face. I began to feel almost uncomfortable.

She suddenly realized it, and broke into a little laugh.

"Forgive my staring at you so outrageously," she exclaimed. "You must think me a very rude person. It is odd to meet any one in the woods about here, you know; and I don't think that I have ever seen you before, have I?"

I shook my head.

"Probably not; unless you were at church yesterday," I said.

"Then I certainly have not, for I do not attend church," she answered. "But you don't live in church, do you?"

I laughed.

"Oh, no; but we have only been here a week or so," I told her. "My name is Kate Ffolliot. I am the daughter of the new vicar, or, rather, curate-in-charge."

Once more the hall was filled with white light.

There was a moment's breathless silence, and then the thunder came crashing over our heads. When it was over she was leaning forward with her face buried in her hands. She did not look up immediately.

"The thunder is awful!" I remarked. "I never heard it more directly overhead. I am afraid it is making you uncomfortable, is it not?"

She did not move her hands or answer me. I rose to my feet, frightened.

"What is the matter?" I cried. "Are you ill? Shall I call any one?"

She raised her head and looked at me, motioning me to sit down with a little wave of her hand. Evidently the storm had affected her nerves. Her face was paler than ever save where her clenched fingers seemed to have cut into her cheeks and left red livid marks on either side. Her dark eyes were unnaturally bright and dry. She had lost that dignified serenity of manner which had first impressed me.

"No; please sit down," she said, softly. "I am all right-only very foolish. That last crash was too awful. It was silly of me to mind, though. I have seen worse storms. It is a sign of advancing age, I suppose."

I laughed. She was still regarding me fixedly.

"So we are neighbors, Miss Ffolliot?" she remarked.

"Close ones," I answered. "There is only a little belt of trees between us."

"I might have guessed who you were," she said. "For the moment, though, it did not occur to me. You are not," she said, with a faint smile, "at all what one looks for in a country clergyman's daughter."

"I have lived abroad nearly all my life," I said. "I was at school in Berlin and Heidelberg. My sister has always been my father's helper. I am afraid that parish work does not appeal to me at all."

"I am not surprised at that," she answered. "One needs a special disposition to interest one's self in those things, and, without being a physiognomist, I can tell you that you have not got it."

"People in the country are so stupid, and they take so much for granted," I remarked. "If I were a philanthropist, I should certainly choose to work in a city."

"You are quite right," she answered, absently. "Work amongst people who have learned to think a little for themselves is more inspiring."

We were silent for a moment or two. She was evidently not interested in the discussion, so I did not attempt to carry it on. I turned a little in my chair to watch the storm outside, conscious all the time that her eyes scarcely left my face.

"I had grown so used," she said, presently, "to the rectory being empty, that I had quite forgotten the possibility of its being occupied again. The vicar used to live several miles away. I wonder that Mr. Deville did not know anything about you-that he did not know your name, at any rate."

Now I was sorry that she had mentioned Mr. Deville. I was doing my best to forget all that I had heard from Lady Naselton, and to form an independent judgment; but at her words the whole substance of it returned to me with a rush. I leaned back in my chair, and looked at her thoughtfully. She was a woman whose age might be anything between thirty-five and forty. She was plainly dressed, but with a quiet elegance which forbade any idea of a country dressmaker. She was too thin for her figure to be considered in any way good; but she was tall and graceful in all her movements. Her thick, brown hair, touched here and there with grey, was parted in the middle and vigorously brushed away from a low, thoughtful forehead, over which it showed a decided propensity to wave. Her features were good and strongly marked, and her skin was perfect. Her eyes were bright and dark, her mouth piquant and humorous. She had no pretence to beauty, but she was certainly a very attractive and a very well-bred woman. I had never in all my life seen any one who suggested less those things at which Lady Naselton had hinted.

Perhaps she saw the slight change in my face at Mr. Deville's name. At any rate, she turned the conversation.

"Have you been living in the country before you came here, or near a large city?" she asked. "You will find it very quiet here!"

"We came from Belchester," I answered. "My father had a church in the suburbs there. It was very horrid; I was not there long, but I hated it. I think the most desolate country region in the world is better than suburbanism."

"I don't think that I agree with you," she smiled. "In a large community at any rate you are closer to the problems of life. I was at Belchester not long ago, and I found it very interesting."

"You were at Belchester!" I repeated in surprise.

"Yes; I was electioneering. I came to help Mr. Densham."

"What! The Socialist!" I cried.

She nodded, and I could see that the corners of her mouth were twitching with amusement.

"Yes. I thought that Belchester was rather an enlightened place. We polled over four thousand votes. I think if we had another week or two, and a few less helpers we might have got Mr. Densham in."

"A few less helpers!" I repeated, aimlessly.

"Yes. That is the worst of Labor and Socialist meetings. There is such a terrible craving amongst the working classes to become stump orators. You cannot teach them to hold their tongues. They make silly speeches, and of course the newspapers on the other side report them, and we get the discredit of their opinions. One always suffers most at the hands of one's friends."

I looked at her in silent wonder. I, too, had helped at that election-that is to say, I had driven about in the Countess of Applecorn's barouche with a great bunch of cornflower in my gown, and talked amiably to a lot of uninteresting people. I had a dim recollection of a one-horse wagonette which we had passed on the way preceded by a brass band

and a lot of factory hands, and of Lady Applecorn raising her gold-rimmed eyeglass and saying something about the Socialist candidate.

"Did you make speeches-and that sort of thing?" I asked, hesitatingly.

She laughed outright.

"Of course I did. How else could I have helped? I am afraid that you are beginning to think that I am a very terrible person," she added, with a decided twinkle in her rich brown eyes.

"Please don't say that!" I begged. "Only I have been brought up always with people who shuddered at the very mention of the word both here and abroad, and I daresay that I have a wrong impression about it all. For one thing I thought it was only poor people who were Socialists."

For a moment she looked grave.

"True Socialism is the most fascinating of all doctrines for the rich and the poor, for all thoughtful men and women," she said, quietly. "It is a religion as well as the very core of politics. But we will not talk about that now. Are you interested in the new books? You might like to see some of these."

She pointed at the box. "I get all the new novels, but I read very few of them."

I looked them over as she handed the volumes out to me. I had read a good many books in which she was interested. We began to discuss them, casually at first, and then eagerly. An hour or more must have slipped away. At last I looked at the clock and sprang up.

"You must have some tea," she said, with her hand on the bell. "Please do not hurry away."

I hesitated, but she seemed to take my consent for granted, and I suffered myself to be persuaded.

"Come and see my den while they bring it."

She opened a door on the left hand of the hall, and I passed by her side into a large room of irregular shape, from which French windows led out on to the trim little lawn. The walls were almost lined with books-my father's library did not hold so many. A writing table drawn up to the window was covered with loose sheets of paper and works of reference turned upon their faces. For the rest the room was a marvel of delicate coloring and refined femininity. There were plenty of cosy chairs, and three-legged tables, with their burden of dainty china, rare statuettes, and many vases of flowers, mostly clustering yellow roses. But what absorbed my attention after my rapid glance around was the fact that Mr. Bruce Deville was sitting in a very comfortable chair near the window, reading one of the loose sheets of paper which he had taken from the desk.

He rose from his feet at the sound of the opening of the door, but he did not immediately look up. He spoke to her, and I scarcely recognized his voice. His gruffness was gone! It was mellow and good-humored.

"Marcia! Marcia! Why can't you leave poor Harris alone?" he said. "You will drive him out of his senses if you sling Greek at him like this. You women are so vindictive!"

"If you will condescend to turn round," she answered, smiling, "I shall be glad to know how you got in here, and what are you doing with my manuscript?"

He looked up, and the sheet fluttered from his fingers. He regarded me with undiluted astonishment. "Well, I came in at the window," he answered. "I was in a hurry to escape getting wet through. I had no idea that you had a visitor!"

I glanced towards her. She was in no way discomposed or annoyed.

"I am not inclined to walk this afternoon," she said. "Will you come down after dinner, about nine? I want to see you, but not just now."

He nodded, and took up his cap. At the window he looked back at me curiously. For a moment he seemed about to speak. He contented himself, however, with a parting bow, to which I responded. Directly he got outside the garden he took his pipe from his pocket and lit it.

The incident did not seem to have troubled her in any way. She pointed out some of the treasures of her room, elegant little trifles, collected in many countries of the world, but I am afraid I was not very attentive.

"Is Mr. Deville a relation of yours?" I asked, rather abruptly.

She had just taken down a little Italian statuette for my inspection, and she replaced it carefully before she answered.

"No. We are friends. I have known him for a good many years."

A tiny Burmese gong rang out from the hall. She came across the room towards me, smiling pleasantly.

"Shall we go and have some tea? I always want tea so much after a thunderstorm. I will show you some more of my Penates, if you like afterwards."

I followed her into the hall, and took my tea from the hands of a prim little maid servant. With the Dresden cup between my fingers a sudden thought flashed into my mind. If only Lady Naselton could see me. Unconsciously my lips parted, and I laughed outright.

"Do forgive me," I begged. "Something came into my mind. It was too funny. I could not help laughing."

"To be able to laugh at one's thoughts is a luxury," she answered. "I know a man who lived through a terrible illness solely because of his sense of humor. There are so many things to laugh at in the world, if only one sees them in the right light. Let me give you some more tea."

I set down my cup. "No more, thanks. That has been delicious. I wonder whether I might ask you a question?" I added. "I should like to if I might."

"Well, you certainly may," she answered, good-humoredly.

"Mr. Deville spoke of your work," I continued; "and of course I could see you had been writing. Do you write fiction? I think it is so delightful for women to do anything for themselves-any real work, I mean. Do you mind my asking?"

"I do not write fiction as a rule," she said, slowly. "I write for the newspapers. I was a correspondent for several years for one of the dailies. I write more now for a purpose. I am one of the 'abhorred tribe,' you know-a Socialist, or what people understand as a Socialist. Are you horrified?"

"Not in the least," I answered her; "only I should like to know more about it. From what I have heard about Socialism I should never have dreamed of associating it with-well, with Dresden cups and saucers, for instance," I laughed, motioning to her own.

Her eyes twinkled. "Poor child," she said, "you have all the old-fashioned ideas about us and our beliefs, I suppose. I am not sure that, if you were a properly regulated young lady, you would not get up and walk out of the house."

A shadow had fallen across the open doorway, and a familiar voice, stern, but tremulous with passion, took up her words.

"That is precisely what my daughter will do, madam! At once, and without delay! Do you hear, Kate?"

I rose to my feet dumb with amazement. My father's tall figure, drawn to its utmost height, stood out with almost startling vividness against the sunlit space beyond. A deep red flush was on his pale cheeks. His eyes seemed on fire with anger. My hostess rose to her feet with dignity.

"Your daughter is at liberty to remain or go at any time," she said, coolly. "I presume that I am addressing Mr. Ffolliot?"

She looked over my shoulder towards my father, and their eyes met. I looked from one to the other, conscious that something was passing outside my knowledge-something between those two. Her eyes had become like dull stones. Her face had grown strangely hard and cold. There was a brief period of intense silence, broken only by a slow, monotonous ticking of the hall clock and the flutter of the birds' wings from amongst the elm trees outside. A breath of wind brought a shower of rain drops down on to the gravel path. A sparrow flew twittering into the hall and out again. Then it came to an end.

"Marcia!"

His single cry rang out like a pistol shot upon the intense silence. He took a quick step across the threshold. She held out both her hands in front of her, and he stopped short.

"You had better go," she said. "You had better go quickly."

I went out and took my father's arm. He let me lead him away without a word; but he would have fallen several times if it had not been for my support. When we reached home he turned at once into the library.

"Go away, Kate," he said, wearily. "I must be alone. See that I am not disturbed."

I hesitated, but he insisted. I shut the door and left him. I, too, wanted to be alone. My brain was in a whirl. What was this past whose ghosts seemed rising up one by one to confront us? First there had been Mr. Deville, and now the woman whom my father had called Marcia. What were they to him? What had he to do with them? Where had their lives touched? I pressed my hot forehead against the window-pane, and looked across at the Yellow House. The sunlight was flashing and glistening upon its damp, rain-soaked front. In the doorway a woman was standing, shading her eyes with her hand, and looking across the park. I followed her gaze, and saw for whom she was waiting. Bruce Deville was walking swiftly towards her. I saw him leap a fence to save a few yards, and he was taking huge and rapid strides. I turned away from my window and hid my face in my hands.

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