Then I dismissed him from my mind, and returned to the contemplation of my own affairs.
The evening passed pleasantly enough; and I dreamed that night of that enigmatical woman, Mary Cavendish.
The next morning dawned bright and sunny, and I was full of the anticipation of a delightful visit.
I did not see Mrs Cavendish until lunch-time, when she volunteered to take me for a walk, and we spent a charming afternoon roaming in the woods, returning to the house about five.
As we entered the large hall, John beckoned us both into the smoking-room. I saw at once by his face that something disturbing had occurred. We followed him in, and he shut the door after us.
‘Look here, Mary, there’s the deuce of a mess. Evie’s had a row with Alfred Inglethorp, and she’s off.’
‘Evie? Off ?’
John nodded gloomily.
‘Yes; you see she went to the mater, and—oh, here’s Evie herself.’
Miss Howard entered. Her lips were set grimly together, and she carried a small suit-case. She looked excited and determined, and slightly on the defensive.
‘At any rate,’ she burst out, ‘I’ve spoken my mind!’
‘My dear Evelyn,’ cried Mrs Cavendish, ‘this can’t be true!’
Miss Howard nodded grimly.
‘True enough! Afraid I said some things to Emily she won’t forget or forgive in a hurry. Don’t mind if they’ve only sunk in a bit. Probably water off a duck’s back, though. I said right out: “You’re an old woman, Emily, and there’s no fool like an old fool. The man’s twenty years younger than you, and don’t you fool yourself as to what he married you for. Money! Well, don’t let him have too much of it. Farmer Raikes has got a very pretty young wife. Just ask your Alfred how much time he spends over there.” She was very angry. Natural! I went on: “I’m going to warn you, whether you like it or not. That man would as soon murder you in your bed as look at you. He’s a bad lot. You can say what you like to me, but remember what I’ve told you. He’s a bad lot!”’
‘What did she say?’
Miss Howard made an extremely expressive grimace.
‘“Darling Alfred”—“dearest Alfred”—“wicked calumnies”—“wicked lies”—“wicked woman”—to accuse her “dear husband”! The sooner I left her house the better. So I’m off.’
‘But not now?’
For a moment we sat and stared at her. Finally John Cavendish, finding his persuasions of no avail, went off to look up the trains. His wife followed him, murmuring something about persuading Mrs Inglethorp to think better of it.
As she left the room, Miss Howard’s face changed. She leant towards me eagerly.
‘Mr Hastings, you’re honest. I can trust you?’
I was a little startled. She laid her hand on my arm, and sank her voice to a whisper.
‘Look after her, Mr Hastings. My poor Emily. They’re a lot of sharks—all of them. Oh, I know what I’m talking about. There isn’t one of them that’s not hard up and trying to get money out of her. I’ve protected her as much as I could. Now I’m out of the way, they’ll impose upon her.’
‘Of course, Miss Howard,’ I said, ‘I’ll do everything I can, but I’m sure you’re excited and overwrought.’
She interrupted me by slowly shaking her forefinger.
‘Young man, trust me. I’ve lived in the world rather longer than you have. All I ask you is to keep your eyes open. You’ll see what I mean.’
The throb of the motor came through the open window, and Miss Howard rose and moved to the door. John’s voice sounded outside. With her hand on the handle, she turned her head over her shoulder, and beckoned to me.
‘Above all, Mr Hastings, watch that devil—her husband!’
There was no time for more. Miss Howard was swallowed up in an eager chorus of protests and goodbyes. The Inglethorps did not appear.
As the motor drove away, Mrs Cavendish suddenly detached herself from the group, and moved across the drive to the lawn to meet a tall bearded man who had been evidently making for the house. The colour rose in her cheeks as she held out her hand to him.
‘Who is that?’ I asked sharply, for instinctively I distrusted the man.
‘That’s Dr Bauerstein,’ said John shortly.
‘And who is Dr Bauerstein?’
‘He’s staying in the village doing a rest cure, after a bad nervous breakdown. He’s a London specialist; a very clever man—one of the greatest living experts on poisons, I believe.’
‘And he’s a great friend of Mary’s,’ put in Cynthia, the irrepressible.
John Cavendish frowned and changed the subject.
‘Come for a stroll, Hastings. This has been a most rotten business. She always had a rough tongue, but there is no stauncher friend in England than Evelyn Howard.’
He took the path through the plantation, and we walked down to the village through the woods which bordered one side of the estate.
As we passed through one of the gates on our way home again, a pretty young woman of gipsy type coming in the opposite direction bowed and smiled.
‘That’s a pretty girl,’ I remarked appreciatively.
John’s face hardened.
‘That is Mrs Raikes.’
‘The one that Miss Howard –’
‘Exactly,’ said John, with rather unnecessary abruptness.
I thought of the white-haired old lady in the big house, and that vivid wicked little face that had just smiled into ours, and a vague chill of foreboding crept over me. I brushed it aside.
‘Styles is really a glorious old place,’ I said to John.
He nodded rather gloomily.
‘Yes, it’s a fine property. It’ll be mine some day—should be mine now by rights, if my father had only made a decent will. And then I shouldn’t be so damned hard up as I am now.’
‘Hard up, are you?’