“We must talk very earnestly,” she said. “Otherwise you will be snatched away from me, Mr. Ricardo.” She bent forward urgently and with the air of one speaking of life and death babbled about the first thing which came into her head.
“One of your great ladies, shrewd as your great ladies are, told me, when I first came to England, that if I ever wanted particularly to speak to a man, my moment would come when he and the other men joined the ladies. She said that there were always a few seconds when they stood rather self-conscious and embarrassed in a silly group, wondering to whom they’d be welcome and to whom they would not. If at such a time a girl directed the least tiny beckoning glance to one of them, he would be gratefully at her feet for the rest of the evening. But the plan almost missed fire tonight, although I gave you a ploughman’s grin.”
“I thought that there must be some Adonis just behind my shoulder,” Mr. Ricardo replied; and the hostess, who had not quite abandoned her chase, hesitated.
Mr. Ricardo had a certain value of an evening. He had no wish to run away and dance at night clubs. So he could be depended upon to play bridge until the party broke up. And though, alas, he did occasionally say with a giggle, “Now, where shall we go for honey?” or perpetrate some such devastating jest, he played a sound, unenterprising game. But it was evident to his hostess that tonight he was winged for higher flights. She turned away, and Joyce Whipple drew a little breath of relief.
“You know a friend of mine, Diana Tasborough,” she said.
“She is kind enough to nod to me across a ballroom when she remembers who I am,” Mr. Ricardo answered modestly.
Joyce Whipple betrayed a little impatience.
“But you are going to stay with her, of course, at the Château Suvlac when you go wine-hunting in the autumn.”
Mr. Ricardo winced. He could not have imagined a phrase so unsuitable to his dignified pilgrimage through the Medoc and the Gironde.
“No,” he replied rather coldly. “I shall be staying in the neighbourhood, but with the Vicomte Cassandre de Mirandol.”
He is not to be blamed if he rolled the name rather grandly upon his tongue. It belonged undoubtedly to the first cru among names, and had a delicate fine flavour of the Crusades. However, Mr. Ricardo was honest and, after only the slightest possible struggle with his vanity, he added: “But I have not yet made the acquaintance of the Vicomte, Miss Whipple. There is illness in the house where I was to have stayed and I have been passed on in the hospitable way people have there.”
“I see.” Joyce Whipple was clearly disappointed and almost aggrieved. “I made certain, since I have met you at Diana’s house, that you would be breaking your journey at Suvlac.”
Mr. Ricardo shook his head. “But I shall be no more than a mile away, and if I can do anything for you I certainly will. As a matter of fact, I haven’t seen either Miss Tasborough or her aunt for at least six months.”
“No. They have been all the summer at Biarritz,” said Joyce.
“I have never stayed at the Château Suvlac,” Mr. Ricardo continued naively, “though I should have liked to. For from the outside it is charming. A rose-pink house of one story in the shape of a capital E, with two little round towers in the main building and a great stone-paved terrace at the back overlooking the river Gironde—”
But Joyce Whipple was not in the least interested in his description of the rose-pink country house, and Mr. Ricardo broke off. Joyce Whipple was leaning forward, her elbow on her knee and her chin propped in the cup of her hand, and a look of anxiety upon her face.
“Yes—after all,” said Mr. Ricardo on quite a new note of interest, “it is a little odd.”
“What’s odd?” asked Joyce Whipple, turning her face to him.
“That the Tasboroughs should have spent the whole summer at Biarritz. For if anywhere was anybody’s spiritual home, London was Miss Diana’s.”
Rich by the inheritance of the Suvlac vineyards, and chaperoned by a submissive aunt, Diana Tasborough was the heart and pivot of one of those self-contained sets into which young London is sub-divided. A set of people, youthfully middle-aged for the most part, who had already reached distinction or were on the way to it. Diana, it is true, fished a river in Scotland and hunted in the Midlands, but London was her home and the headquarters of the busy company of her friends.
“She has been ill?” Mr. Ricardo suggested.
“No. She writes to me and there’s never a word about any illness. All the same, I am troubled. Diana was terribly kind to me when I first came over to England and knew nobody at all. I should hate anything to happen to her—anything, I mean—evil.”
Joyce pronounced the word slowly, not because she had any doubt that it was the right word to use, but so that Mr. Ricardo might not make light of it. Mr. Ricardo, indeed, was startled. He looked about the room. The banks of roses, the brightness of the illumination, the smartly dressed people, were not in accord with so significant a word.
“Do you really think that something evil is happening to her?” he asked. He was thrilled, even a little pleasurably thrilled.
“I am sure,” Joyce Whipple declared.
“Why are you sure?”
“Diana’s letters to me,” said Joyce, and turning towards Mr. Ricardo, she fixed her big grey eyes upon his face. “I tell you frankly that I can’t find in any one of them a single sentence, even a single phrase, which taken by itself is alarming. I know that, for I have analysed them carefully over and over again. And I want you to believe that I am not imaginative, or psychic—no, not the least bit in the world. And yet I never read a letter from Diana without going through the most horrible experience. I seem to see”—and she broke off to correct herself—“no, there’s no seeming about it. I do see underneath the black-ink letters, swinging backwards and forwards somehow between the written words and the white paper they are written on, a chain of faces, grotesque, unfinished and dreadful. And they are always changing. Sometimes they—how shall I describe it?—flatten out into featureless, pink round discs with eyes which are alive. Sometimes they quiver up again into distorted human outlines. But they are never complete. If they were, I feel sure that they would be utterly malignant. And they are never still. They float backwards and forwards, like”—and she clasped her hands over her eyes for a moment and shivered so that a big fire-opal on a plain gold bracelet flamed against her wrist—“like the faces of drowned people who have been swinging to and fro with the tides for months.”
Joyce Whipple was no longer concerned with the effect of her narrative upon Mr. Ricardo. She had almost forgotten his presence. Her eyes, too, though they moved here and there from a bridge table to a group of people talking, saw really nothing of the room. She was formulating her strange experience for the hundredth time to herself, in the hope that somewhere, in her story, by some chance word, she would be led to its explanation.
“And I am afraid,” she continued in a low but—very distinct voice. “I am afraid that sooner or later I shall see all those cruel dead faces complete and alive, the faces of living people.”
“Living people who are threatening Diana Tasborough,” said Mr. Ricardo gently, so that he might not break the train of Joyce Whipple’s thoughts.
“More than threatening her,” said Joyce. “Harming her—yes, now already doing her harm which already it may be too late to repair. No doubt it sounds mediaeval and—and—ridiculous, but I have a horrible dread that utterly evil spirits—the elementals are fighting in the darkness for her soul, that she herself isn’t aware of it, but that by some dispensation the truth is allowed to break through to me.”
Joyce threw up her hands suddenly in a little gesture of despair. “But, you see,” she cried, “the moment I begin to piece my fears together into a pattern of words, they just shred away into little wisps too elusive to mean anything at all to anybody except myself.”
“No,” Mr. Ricardo objected. It was his proud thought that he was a citizen of the world with a very open mind. There were thousands of strange occurrences, of intuitions, for instance, subsequently justified, which science could not explain and only the stupid could deride. “I would never say that the shell of the world mightn’t crack for any one of us and let some streak of light come through, misleading perhaps, true perhaps—a will-o’-the-wisp, or a sunbeam.”
It seemed to him that to no one might this hint of a revelation be more naturally vouchsafed than to this girl with the delicate, sensitive face and the grey eyes to which her long silken eyelashes, with their upward curve, lent so noticeable a look of mystery.
“After all,” he continued. “Who knows enough to deny that there may come messages and warnings?”
“Yes.” Joyce Whipple caught at the word. “Repeated warnings. For if I put the letters away, and after a time take them out and read them again, I have just the same dreadful vision. I see just the same heave and surge of water with the unfinished faces washing to and fro.”
Mr. Ricardo began to rebuild his recollections of Diana Tasborough, fitting one in here, and another in there, until he had a fairly clear picture of the girl. She was tall, with hair of the palest gold, very pretty but a trifle affected in strange company. She had a way of fluttering her eyelids and pursing her mouth as she spoke, as if each word that she dropped was a pearl of rarest price. There was another quality too.
“She was always a little aloof,” he said.
Joyce took him up at once. “Yes, but sedately aloof. Not as if she was living some mysterious secret life of her own all the time. I know what you mean. But it really only signified that she was just a little bit more her own mistress than were most of her friends. She—what shall I say?—she romped without romping. And don’t you see that precisely that extra hold she had upon herself increases my fears? She is the last person for whose soul and body the powers of evil should be fighting in the shadows.”
A movement amongst the guests diverted Mr. Ricardo’s thoughts. The evening was growing late. One of the bridge tables had already broken up. Mr. Ricardo was a practical man.
“But what in the world can I do about it?” he asked.
“You will be in the neighbourhood of the Château Suvlac in September?”
“And Diana always has a party for the vintage.”
Mr. Ricardo smiled. Diana’s parties were famous in the Gironde. For ten nights or so the windows of that old rose-pink château of the sixteenth century blazed out upon the darkness until dawn. The broad stone terrace was gay with groups of young people dancing, and the music of their dances and even their laughter were heard far out upon the river, by the sailors in their gabares waiting upon the turn of the tide. The hour at which the guests retired precluded early rising, except perhaps upon the first day. But somewhere about twelve o’clock the next day they might be seen picking grapes in attractive costumes and looking rather like the chorus of a musical comedy whose action took place in a vineyard of France.
“Yes, she certainly has a party for the vintage,” he said.
“Well then, you see what I want you terribly to do,” said Joyce, turning again towards him and plying him—oh, most unfairly!—with all the glamour of a lovely girl’s confidences and appealing eyes. “If you will, of course. It’s a little prayer, of course. I have no claim. But I know how kind you are—” Did she see the poor man flinch, that she must pile flattery upon prayer and woo him with the most wistful, plaintive voice? “I want you to spend as much time as you can at the Château Suvlac. You will be welcome, of course”—she dismissed the ridiculous idea that he could ever be unwelcome with a flicker of her fingers. “You could watch. You can find out what is happening to Diana—whether there is anybody really dangerous to her amongst her associates and then—”
“And then I shall write to you, of course,” Mr. Ricardo said, as cheerfully as these arduous duties so confidently laid upon him enabled him to do. He was surprised, however, to discover that letters to Joyce Whipple upon the subject were not to be included in his duties.
“No,” she answered with a trifle of hesitation. “Of course I should love to hear from you—naturally I should, and not only about Diana—but I can’t quite tell where I shall be towards the end of September. No, what I want you to do is, once you have found out what’s wrong, to jump in and put a stop to it.”
Mr. Ricardo sat back in his chair with a very worried expression on his face. For all his finical ways and methodical habits he was at heart a romantic. To play the god for five minutes so that a few young people stumbling in the shadows might walk with sure feet in a serene light—he knew no higher pleasure than this. But romance must nevertheless be reasonable, even if it took the shape of so engaging a young lady as Joyce Whipple. What she was proposing was work for heroes, not for middle-aged gentlemen who had retired from Mincing Lane. And as he ran over in his mind the names of more suitable champions, a tremendous fact leaped into his mind.
“But surely,” he stammered in his eagerness. “Diana Tasborough is engaged. Yes, I am sure of it. To a fine young fellow too. He was in the Foreign Office and went out of it and into the City, because he didn’t want to be the poor husband of a rich wife.” Mr. Ricardo’s memory was working at forced draught, now that he saw the way of escape opening in front of him, a passage between the Scylla of refusal and the Charybdis of failure. “Bryce Carter! That’s his name! That is his business. You must describe your experiences to him, Miss Whipple, and—”
But Miss Whipple cut him short, very curtly, whilst the blood mounted curiously over her throat and painted her cheeks pink. “Bryce Carter has crashed.”
Mr. Ricardo was shocked and disappointed. “In an aeroplane? I hadn’t heard of it. I am so sorry. Crashed? Dear me!”
“I mean,” said Joyce patiently, “that Diana has broken off the engagement. That’s another reason why I think something ought to be done about it. She was very much in love with him and it all went in a week or two—she gave him no reason. So he’s barred out, isn’t he? I feel that I can’t really stand aside . . . not, of course, that I have anything to do with it. . . . ” Joyce Whipple was rapidly becoming incoherent, whilst the colour now flamed in her cheeks. “So unless you can help—”
But Mr. Ricardo felt that his position was more delicate than ever. He was not at all attracted by his companion’s confusion; and since the hoped-for avenue of escape was closed for him, he cast desperately about for another; and found it.
“I have got it,” he said, shaking a finger at her triumphantly.
“What have you got?” Joyce asked warily. “The only possible solution of the problem.” He was most emphatic about it. There was to be no discussion at all. His arrangement must just go through.
“You are the one person indicated to put the trouble right,” he declared. “You are Diana’s friend. You know all her other friends. You can propose yourself for her party at the Château Suvlac. You have influence with her. If there is anyone—dangerous—wasn’t that the word you used?—no one is so likely as you to discover who it is—yes.”
He looked her over. There was a vividness about her, a suggestion of courage and independence which went very well with the straight, slim figure and the delicate tidiness of her appearance. She seemed purposeful. This was the age of young women. By all means let one of them, radiant as Joyce Whipple, blow the trumpet and have the intense satisfaction of seeing the walls of this new Jericho collapse. He himself would look on without one pang of envy from the house of the nobleman with the resonant name, the Vicomte Cassandre de Mirandol.
“You! Of course, you!” he exclaimed admiringly.
Suddenly the positions were reversed. So great a discomfort was visible in Joyce Whipple’s movements and in her face that Mr. Ricardo was astonished. He had chanced upon a quite unexpected flaw in her armoury. It was she who now must walk delicately.
“No doubt,” she admitted with a great deal of embarrassment. “Yes, and I have been asked to Suvlac . . . and I shall go if—I can. But I don’t think that I can.” She broke out passionately: “I wish with all my heart that I could! But I shall probably be out of reach. In America. That’s why I said that it was of no use to write to me, and why I wanted to unload the whole problem upon you. You see”—she looked at Mr. Ricardo shyly and quickly looked away again—“you see, Cinderellas must be off the premises by midnight,” and with a hurried glance at the clock, “and it’s almost midnight now.”
She rose quickly as she spoke, and with a smile and a pleasant word, she joined a small cluster of young people by the flower-banked grate. These had obviously been waiting for her, for they wished their hostess good night and immediately went away.
Mr. Ricardo certainly had the satisfaction of knowing that he had not committed himself to Joyce Whipple’s purposes. But the satisfaction was not very real. The odd story which she had told him was just the sort of story which appealed to him; for he had a curious passion for the bizarre. And even then he was less intrigued by the narrative than by the narrator. He tried indeed to fix his mind upon the problem of Diana Tasborough. But the problem of Joyce Whipple popped up instead. Almost before he realized his untimely behaviour, he had got her dressed up like some wilful beauty of the Second Empire. There she was, sitting in front of him, as he drove back to his house in Grosvenor Square, her white shoulders rising entrancingly out of one of those round, escalloped gowns which kept up heaven knows how, and spread in voluminous folds about her feet. Yet even so, with her thus attired before his eyes, as it were, he began to doubt, to wonder whether he was not growing a trifle old-fashioned and prejudiced. For after all, could Joyce Whipple, with her straight, slender limbs, her wrists and hands and feet and ankles as fragile seemingly as glass, have looked more lovely in any age than she had looked in the short shimmering frock which she had worn that night? Her voice certainly supported the argument that her proper period was the Second Empire. For instead of the brisk high notes to which he was accustomed, it was soft and low and melodious and had a curiously wistful little drawl which it needed great strength of character to resist. There were, however, other points which affected him less pleasantly. Why had his two suggestions thrown her into so manifest a confusion? What had she to do with Bryce Carter that she must blush so furiously over the rupture of his engagement to Diana Tasborough? And—
“Bless my soul,” he cried, in the solitude of his limousine, “what was all this talk of Cinderella?” The glass-slipper portion of that pretty legend was all very appropriate and suitable. But the rest of it? Miss Joyce Whipple had come over from the United States with a sister a year or two older than herself, and almost as pretty—yes. The sister had married recently and had married well—yes. But before that event, for two years wherever the fun of the fair was to be found, there also were the Whipple girls. Deauville and Dinard had known them and the moors of Scotland, from which Mr. Ricardo was excluded. He himself had seen Joyce Whipple flaming on the sands of the Lido in satin pyjamas of burnt orange. For Mr. Ricardo was one of those seemly people who from time to time looked in at the Lido in order that they might preach sermons about its vulgarities with a sound and thorough knowledge. Joyce Whipple had certainly looked rather dazzling in her burnt orange pyjamas—but at that moment Mr. Ricardo’s car stopped at his front door and put an end to his reflections. Perhaps it was just as well.