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2: The Red Cottage

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Author Topic: 2: The Red Cottage  (Read 19 times)
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« on: August 07, 2023, 12:32:03 pm »

IT happened that Alice Campion was unable to come to the Earle’s on the afternoon on which Julia had asked her, and a couple of days later Ursula took advantage of a visit of Julia and Marjorie to Dorking to go over and lunch with her old friend. The Red Cottage was situated in the little village of Binscombe, some two miles from Godalming and five from St. Kilda. There was no direct railway, but the bus which passed St. Kilda ran within half a mile of the Red Cottage. In little more than half an hour after starting Ursula rang at the door.

Alice Campion was unfeignedly glad to see her visitor. “I was so sorry I couldn’t go over to St. Kilda,” she explained. “Some people were coming here whom I couldn’t very well put off. But I’m all the better pleased now, for I have you to myself.”

Miss Campion was small, stout, round-faced and jolly; good-tempered, a great talker and a staunch friend. When Ursula could get in a word she asked after Dr. Campion.

“Howard will be sorry to miss you,” his sister answered. “He’s out on his rounds and always lunches at Godalming. But all the better for me again. Now tell me what you have been doing with yourself since I saw you. Let’s see, how long ago is that? Why, it must be four years since you were here. The Earles went to St. Kilda six years ago---that’s two years before we came out here---and you paid your visit to them the year we arrived.”

Dr. Campion had, in fact, followed Dr. Earle’s example in taking a partner to live over the surgery in Godalming, while he moved out into the country at Binscombe.

Alice rattled on, not waiting for a reply. Ursula, who was really attached to her, sat smiling and putting in a word now and then, not to stem, but to direct the torrent. Listening indeed with somewhat wandering attention to the flow, Ursula presently became aware that she was being asked a question.

“How long am I staying?” she repeated. “Till Monday week, I think.”

“A pity it’s not longer. Flo’s coming on Saturday; I mean Saturday week, the Saturday before that Monday. You must wait and see her.”

Flo was the third member of the Campion family. She had lived with the others in Bath, and she and Ursula had been close friends.

“Flo! Is she really? Oh, I certainly must see her. I don’t like to think how many years it is since we met. But I’m afraid I couldn’t stay longer. I have to be home on Tuesday.”

“Put it off, whatever it is,” Alice urged. “It can get on quite well without you.”

“No, I really think I ought to go home. What about Sunday? Suppose I were to come over in the afternoon?”

“Come and spend the day on Sunday. That would be better than nothing.”

“Oh I couldn’t, Alice. I couldn’t leave Julia for the whole of my last day. But I’ll come in the afternoon.”

After some grumbling on the part of Alice Campion it was arranged that Ursula should go over in time for tea and stay for the evening, when Dr. Campion would run her back to St. Kilda.

“You must see the house,” Alice declared. “I don’t think we were settled in last time you were here.”

They went through all the rooms, of which Alice was evidently extremely proud. Ursula duly admired everything she saw, though to herself she admitted that the furniture was all very ordinary. Indeed, she was surprised that Alice had not shown better taste. However, she told herself that if it pleased Alice, it was efficiently serving its purpose.

One new and elaborate piece of furniture formed an exception to the rule, an inlaid and beautifully carved radio gramophone; really an ornament to any room. Ursula cried out with genuine delight when she saw it.

“Say that to Howard,” Alice answered. “He’s just finished making it and it’s the apple of his eye at present. If you praise it he’ll take you to his heart at once.”

“Making it?” Ursula repeated in astonishment. “You don’t mean that he made that case?”

“He made everything you see and fitted in all its works. And it has a very good tone too. Listen.” She turned a switch and the room was filled with the sickly pulsating throbs of a cinema organ.

“You must see his workshop,” Alice went on; “only he’d like to show it to you himself. He really can do anything with his hands. But of course he’s got good tools. I don’t know what that place hasn’t cost him,” and she produced further samples of Campion’s skill. Ursula was fond of anything mechanical and she took a mental note to remember to see the workshop on her next visit.

In discussing old times the day slipped quickly away, and evening had come and Alice had driven her guest to the St. Kilda bus before they had finished half what they wanted to say.

Ursula was enjoying her visit to the Earles. She had quite settled down into their ways, and she had the freedom to amuse herself that she so much liked. In the forenoon she lay about and read, while Marjorie added page after page to the latest tale of love and longing and Julia busied herself about the house. In the afternoon they usually went exploring, either in the car or on foot. James Earle spent a good deal of his time on the golf links, but sometimes he stayed working in his study or amusing himself in the most leisurely way with odd jobs about the place. After dinner they usually played bridge.

No discord had so far marred the visit. On several other occasions Reggie Slade had put in an appearance, after which he and Julia generally somewhat mysteriously vanished. In spite of Marjorie’s request Ursula had not spoken to Julia on the subject of Slade. She felt it would be a useless impertinence. It was not as if Julia were a girl. She was a woman of very nearly Ursula’s own age, and she knew what she was doing and how far she intended to go without advice from any other person. Ursula indeed felt that her interference would cost her her friend, and she did not see why she should pay this price for no adequate return.

Then one day a trifling but unpleasant incident took place which worried Ursula and made her fear that affairs at St. Kilda were in a more parlous state than she had supposed.

It occurred towards the end of her visit---on a Thursday, and she was leaving the following Monday. That morning Dr. Earle had said he was going to play on the Merrow links, near Guildford, and that he would stay afterwards for bridge, returning only in time for dinner. This had happened twice before since Ursula’s arrival and the intimation was received without comment. Shortly after breakfast he set off in the car.

He had scarcely gone when Ursula was called to the telephone. A great friend of hers, whom she had not seen for years, was passing through London that day on her way from South Africa to Yorkshire. Would Ursula come up and lunch with her?

Ursula would. Nothing special had been arranged for that afternoon. Julia, however, was overwhelmed with regrets. If only the message had come ten minutes earlier James could have taken her to Guildford. Now Ursula would have to walk to the Shackleford road for the bus. She could, of course, get the train at Godalming and she would be in plenty of time. But it was too unfortunate that the car had gone. . . .

Ursula really did not mind in the least. She reassured Julia, said she would be back to dinner, and started off.

Again it was a lovely day and she enjoyed her journey. At Waterloo her friend met her, and as it was early for lunch, they decided to carry out one or two small commissions first. One of these took them to Marylebone Station, and it was when they were returning to the Marble Arch that the incident happened.

They were walking along the east side of Seymour Place, when near the crossing of Upper George Street a car overtook them, travelling at a very slow speed. Ursula glanced at it casually and instantly became rigid.

The car was Dr. Earle’s and in it sat Earle himself. For a moment Ursula could not believe her eyes and almost stopped, staring. But she had not been mistaken. It was James Earle beyond any shadow of doubt.

In a dream she watched the car. It pulled in to the pavement a few steps beyond where she and her companion were walking, and came to a stand. As it did so a lady whom she had vaguely noticed waiting on the footpath, stepped forward. Earle opened the door, the lady entered, and the car drove off, turning westwards at Upper Berkeley Street. It must have been held up at the Edgeware Road crossing, for when Ursula reached Upper Berkeley Street she glimpsed the car disappearing westwards into Connaught Street.

The little incident had taken place not more than a dozen feet from Ursula, and she had a good look at the woman. It was someone she had never seen before. She was young and rather plainly dressed in grey and was good-looking after the classical Grecian fashion. She seemed to know Earle well.

Scarcely hearing the “Someone you know?” of her friend, Ursula gazed after the retreating vehicle. James Earle! That quiet meek little man, with his uncomplaining acceptance of his wife’s vagaries, his shy friendship with herself and his unobtrusive interest in books! Here was another side to his character! She could not have imagined his taking the law into his own hands like this.

There was, of course, no earthly reason why her host should not come up in his car to Town, meet a lady, and drive her wherever she wanted to go. If that were all neither Julia nor anyone else could have had the least objection. But the fact that Earle should have thought it necessary to hide his action made all the difference. He had said that he was going to spend the day playing golf at Merrow. That statement changed an innocent meeting into a guilty one. He would have had no need to tell that story unless he had something to hide.

For Julia Ursula had no sympathy whatever. Julia had only got what she very richly deserved. At the same time, Ursula was sorry. She had no special moral scruples on these subjects, but her experience told her that such a state of affairs could lead only to unhappiness. Ursula wanted everyone to be happy, and it hurt her when she saw possible happiness being missed.

However, the affair was no business of hers. Dismissing it from her mind, she lunched with her friend, saw her off to the north and returned to Waterloo. But in the train the matter recurred to her. Gradually she began to wonder could she not have been mistaken. There really was something in that theory of doubles. She remembered how on one occasion at a musical festival at Cheltenham several people had come up and spoken to her, calling her Miss Oliphant. A strange and disconcerting experience! Probably this was a similar case. The man was exceedingly like Earle, but he was not Earle. Of course, on the other hand, there was the car. . . .

Then Ursula thought that she was merely making a fool of herself; building up this vast edifice of distrust and suspicion on no real foundation whatever. Why should not the same thing have happened to Earle as had happened to herself? Why should not he too have received an unexpected message requiring his presence in Town?

This, she felt, was the explanation of the mystery. She was now curious to meet Earle, to hear him tell of this unexpected change in his plans.

When, however, they met for dinner Earle made no reference to his day. Ursula, however, watching him covertly, thought he seemed restless, as if trying to hide some repressed excitement. She could not control her interest in the affair, and in spite of her decision that it was not her business, she felt she must obtain some information.

“Did you have a good day’s golf, Dr. Earle?” she asked at the next pause in the conversation.

He started, unmistakably; started and paused before replying. Then with an evident effort he said: “Quite good. In fact, though I say it who shouldn’t, I covered myself with glory in going round in three less than I had done before. I don’t suppose I shall ever do such a thing again.”

Ursula was unhappily satisfied. Earle had spoken in a self-conscious way that left no doubt that he was lying. Indeed, it was his usually straightforward character which had prevented him from hiding it.

It was not then an unexpected call to Town. Ursula’s common sense warned her to let the thing alone, but her curiosity would not allow of this.

“I had an unexpected journey to-day,” she went on conversationally. “I was in Town. I lunched there.”

Earle was evidently suspicious, and though he achieved a creditable reply, it had no conviction. Disappointed, Ursula with an effort turned the conversation to the views visible from the train, and they began to discuss the country.

Sunday came without further incident, and after lunch Ursula took the Godalming bus and walked up from the Shackleford road to the Red Cottage. It was another splendid day, warm and summery as early September. Ursula was looking forward with a good deal of eagerness to seeing Flo Campion. Flo had been her special pal and for a dozen years they had not met. Flo was companion to a wealthy old lady, a great traveller. With her she had been twice round the world, and had spent months in China, Japan, the South Sea Islands, and other places out of the beaten tourist track.

The meeting proved as satisfying as Ursula had anticipated. Flo Campion was but little changed. No reserve had grown up which required to be thawed, and the two women were able to pick up their friendship at the point at which they had laid it down. Flo had seen much during her travels, and as she had the gift of putting her experiences in an interesting way, time passed quickly and pleasantly.

Shortly before dinner Howard Campion came in. He was a tall man, of rather slight build, though evidently healthy and muscular. His manners were quiet and direct, and though he was retiring rather than pushing, in his personality there seemed to Ursula latent force. She felt that he would be a good man in a tight place.

When they had chatted for some time Ursula turned the conversation to the radio gramophone. “Alice tells me you made it, Dr. Campion. I do think it’s a wonderful piece of work. I’ve never seen one which was a greater ornament to a room.”

Campion was obviously delighted. “Won’t you come and see my workshop, Miss Stone? I have a rather good lathe which might interest you, if you care for such things.”

The workshop was outside, a wooden shed, an extension of the garage. It was not large, but the most had been made of the space and it was scrupulously clean and tidy. There were several machine tools, all small, but all polished till they shone. In the centre was a tiny circular saw and planing machine. A mortising machine and a vertical drill stood against one wall, while against another was the lathe. Ursula did not understand all the gadgets of the latter, though the doctor explained them patiently. But she could see that it was a beautiful piece of work and admired it accordingly. Beside the circular saw was a well equipped bench with above it rows and rows of shining tools.

As they moved round Campion picked up a brown paper parcel from one of the shelves.

“Ah,” he said, “I had forgotten all about this. It just occurs to me that you might like it.”

“I, Dr. Campion? What is it?”

He unwrapped the paper. Within were some strangely shaped bits of three-ply wood, tiny hinges and other small metal objects, together with coloured and patterned papers.

“It’s a dolls’ house,” he explained. “One of those packets that the Handicrafts people put out. You know, the Weedington Street people, N.W.3. You have nothing to do but stick the pieces together. Here are the parts of the house, the windows, doors and so on, and this is brick paper for the walls and tile paper for the roof. I got it for a patient, a little girl of six, but before I could put it together the poor little mite died. Now it occurs to me that you might like it for your hospital.”

Ursula was genuinely grateful. “Oh, Dr. Campion, how good of you!” she said warmly. “I’d be just delighted. But can you send it after me? I’m afraid I’m going home to-morrow.”

“No need to do that. I’ll slip it together after dinner.”

“Can you really? In so short a time?”

Campion smiled. “Bless you, yes; it’s nothing of a job. I use a cold glue that sets very quickly. I’ll do it after dinner and you can take it with you.” He put down the bits of wood and pointed to a half-finished frame. “Here’s something that may interest you also. It’s supposed to be a combined tea-table and cake-stand. The tea will be here”; and he went on to describe the affair, which folded, and which was evidently an idea of his own of which he was very proud.

Ursula was interested and she talked about the scheme till Alice came out to say that dinner was ready.

Campion had not much to say at meals. Indeed, neither he nor either of the visitors had much chance to say anything. Alice’s tongue seldom ceased. Ursula indeed wondered how she was able to eat anything and keep the flow of conversation going. But all that she said was both interesting and kindly. Ursula enjoyed listening to her, though how long she would continue to do so she would not have prophesied.

After dinner the women returned to the drawing-room, while Campion went to his workshop to assemble the dolls’ house. Ursula got into an argument with Alice as to how she should go back to St. Kilda.

“I will not have Dr. Campion take out the car,” Ursula insisted. “There is a bus about nine and I’ll go by it. Why shouldn’t I?”

“Indeed, you’ll do nothing of the kind. You mustn’t go so early for one thing. Of course Howard will run you over. That was the arrangement from the beginning.”

Ursula gave in and they settled down to chat. Flo was full of a new tour her old lady was about to undertake. She was certainly a wonderful old woman, nearly seventy, and with the wanderlust of a girl of twenty. She wanted, it appeared, to cross the Andes before she died. It had been a dream with her for many years and now she was going to do it. She would go direct to Buenos Aires, then cross the continent to Valparaiso, and so up the coast, returning via the Panama Canal and New York.

Presently the doctor came in. He was carrying the assembled body of the dolls’ house, but without windows, fittings and decorative papers.

“This’ll give you an idea of what it’s going to look like, Miss Stone,” he said. “I wondered if you would like a brick house and a red roof, or a stone house with slates. I’ve got papers for both. Personally I like the brighter colours, but I think in Bath the others are the rule. What do you say?”

Ursula was delighted with the tiny structure. “Oh how splendid!” she cried enthusiastically. “The children will simply love it. It is good of you, Dr. Campion.” She turned to the others. “See what I’m getting for the hospital. What do you both think: bright colours or dull? Bright, I suggest.”

“You should have a red cottage,” said Flo, “to remind you of where it came from,” a suggestion which was unanimously agreed on.

“I’m running you over in the car of course,” Campion said, pausing as he reached the door. “Don’t forget that and try and slip off by the bus.”

“She was trying,” Alice put in; “in fact, she wanted right or wrong to go. But I wouldn’t let her. I told her you’d run her across.”

“Of course. It won’t take any time.”

“Very good of you all, I’m sure,” Ursula declared as Campion disappeared.

“There now,” said Alice, who never missed an opportunity of proving herself in the right, “you see you couldn’t have caught the bus even if you’d wanted to. You’d have had to leave now---without your dolls’ house.”

Ursula admitted it and took advantage of the change of subject to urge Alice and Flo to visit her at Bath. “Run over in the car,” she begged, “even if you only stay the night. Let’s have a walk over some of the old places.”

They both said that they would love it. Alice promised she would try to do it in the summer and Flo when, if ever, she got back from South America. This restarted the matter of the tour, and they discussed routes and ports of call and shore excursions till Campion again entered, this time with the completed house.

When the little building had been duly admired, Ursula said she must go.

“We’ll all go,” Alice declared. “It’s not a very big car, but we’ll manage it. Come on, Flo; you needn’t put on a hat. Bring round the car, Howard. Have you got your things, Ursula?”

That was Alice all over, arranging everything and everybody. But no one minded, and presently they all packed into the doctor’s small Standard and started on the five-mile run to St. Kilda.

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