THE CAR, a rakish-looking two-seater of uncertain age, drew up outside the house in Surbiton. The driver, David Wiston, was about to get out and ring the bell, when the door was opened and Annabel Dorset appeared. "I'm ready, for once," she remarked. "It was sweet of you to ring up and offer to take me for a run. Where are we going?"
"I'd take you to the sea, somewhere, if I could spare the petrol," David replied. "But I'm afraid that's out of the question. What about Fembrake Forest?"
"Fembrake Forest!" Annabel exclaimed. "You're not suggesting that we should pay a call on my great-aunt, surely?"
"Good heavens, no," David replied. "The old lady would hardly welcome us with open arms, I fancy. The Forest is big enough for us to wander about in it without troubling her. And then we could look in at my father's place. He'll give us a cup of tea."
Annabel took her seat in the car, and they drove off. They were both young, Annabel in her early twenties, a tall, graceful girl, generally described as attractive. Pretty was not the epithet to be applied to her. She had too much of the Lavant blood in her for that, and the Lavants were a notoriously ugly family. But she had merry grey eyes, an unfailingly cheerful expression, and an irresistible smile. She was quite as much sought after as many far prettier girls of her own age.
Of this she was fully conscious. But, having thoroughly learnt her way about the world-she had served in the W.R.N.S. during the latter part of the war-she did not attribute this entirely to her personal charm. She was very well aware that, as far as any one could be these days, she was an heiress. And this knowledge caused her to regard advances on the part of the opposite sex with a half-amused suspicion. David, for instance. They had known one another for years, and David knew what her prospects were as well as she did herself. She had been expecting him to come to the point for some little time now. Perhaps this was the opportunity he had contrived. A stroll through the secluded glades of Fembrake Forest, culminating in a romantic declaration?
Romantic, yes, but none the less tiresome. Annabel had by no means made up her mind about David. All she would admit, even to herself, was that she liked him the best of any man she had met so far. But that was quite a long way from feeling an ardent desire to marry him. Why couldn't he be content to let things go on as they were? They had always been content in one another's companionship. Why seek anything further?
The answer came with shattering realism. Because it was not herself, but her money, he was after. David was a quiet, rather reserved young man, with the keen appreciation of his own interests derived from his Welsh ancestry. The son of a doctor, he had himself recently qualified in that profession, and was now a house-surgeon at St. Lucy's. He was not at all the sort of person to encumber himself so early in his career with a wife for purely sentimental reasons. The fact of the matter was that he dare not wait, lest he should see the golden apple snatched from the tree before his very eyes.
Annabel had plenty of time for these meditations, for the attention of her companion was concentrated upon the control of the car. David was not a very experienced driver, and had only lately acquired this restive discard from some sportsman's garage. Fortunately Annabel was not of a nervous disposition, and regarded their antics as they negotiated the traffic with more amusement than alarm. Anyway, she was spared the necessity of conversation.
David's intentions were becoming clear to her. Fembrake Forest, followed by a call at Dr. Wiston's house at Ridhurst for a cup of tea! What a delightfully natural setting! But Annabel saw, or thought she saw, the romantic drama which was to be played against it. Saw it with complete detachment, as though she were sitting in a cinema, watching the scenes as they flashed across the screen. The lovers wandering side by side beneath the overshadowing trees. The sudden passionate avowal, the bashful response, as she subsided gracefully into David's embrace. Then the pilgrimage of the affianced couple to David's father, to seek his parental blessing. Annabel wriggled in her seat at the contemplation of such hideous banalities.
She blamed herself for not realising all this before. She should never have accepted David's invitation, for her intuition told her that the expedition was bound to end in a quarrel. If he thought that things were going to be as easy as all that, he would find that he was vastly mistaken. Ridicule, rather than indignation, would be her line. Amazement at the aspirations of a presumptions child. Did he really suppose that she was going to fling herself away upon a man who had hardly set his foot upon the first rung of the ladder of his career? If he did, he had better think again. Meanwhile-oh, for mercy's sake let's talk about something else.
They left the main highway at last, turning off along a less-frequented thoroughfare which, as the signpost indicated, led to Ridhurst. But David did not follow this very far, turning off again into a by-road as soon as they reached the outskirts of the Forest. "I know just the place," he explained. "I used to ride all round here on my bicycle in the old days, when I was at home for the holidays. I don't suppose there's been much change since then. Let's go and see."
Annabel raised no objection. If the situation had to be faced, the scene hardly mattered. They followed the by-road for a couple of miles or so, passing only a few isolated houses on the way. The Forest was by no means continuous woodland, rather wide groves of trees interspersed with stretches of open ground covered with gorse and bracken. Suddenly David applied the brakes and the car drew up jerkily at the side of the road. "This is the place!" he exclaimed.
He had pulled up at a low stile, beyond which a footpath wound through the trees. They got out of the car, climbed the stile, and set off along the footpath. It was obviously to some extent a public right of way, as for some distance it was littered with orange-peel and empty cigarette cartons. However, after a while these evidences of a refined civilisation were left behind, and they found themselves in what might have been almost virgin country. The path had led them to the edge of a sheet of water, long but not very wide, with trees and undergrowth stretching down to the water's edge. Through a narrow gap in these they caught a glimpse of a large house on the farther side of the lake. It was a hideous castellated structure, without a single redeeming feature. The tall beech-trees surrounding it seemed to express by their grace the clumsiness of man's handiwork. Beyond the house, in the distance, could be seen between the trunks of the beech-trees the outline of a high wall, capped with fragments of broken glass, glittering evilly where they caught the sun.
Annabel, who was not without artistic appreciation, frowned at this spectacle. "Whoever desecrated such a lovely spot by building a house like that!" she exclaimed. "And that cruel wall! What is it, David? An asylum for criminal lunatics? Or does somebody really live there?"
David shrugged his shoulders. "I couldn't say," he replied off-handedly. "I suppose I must have seen the house before, but I never noticed it particularly. I dare say some trees have been cut down since I was last here. What about a bathe in the lake?"
"My dear man!"Annabel protested. "What a preposterous suggestion! Your lake looks to me more mud than water, and it's probably full of slimy weeds. I hate bathing in fresh water. Besides, I haven't brought a bathing-dress with me, and I don't fancy myself as a nudist. But if you feel you must take the plunge, don't let me stop you."
"I'm more than tempted," David replied. "Just a few minutes' swim, and then dry off in the sun. Sure you'll be all right?"
"Of course I shall," said Annabel. "What do you think is likely to happen to me? What I'm wondering is whether you'll be all right. Never mind, if you get caught in the weeds, just sing out, and I'll come and rescue you."
David went off among the bushes, she supposed to find a secluded spot in which to undress. It was what the town-dweller describes as a perfect summer's afternoon, with a cloudless sky and the temperature somewhere in the seventies. Under the trees nearby Annabel found a bed of withered leaves, and, having satisfied herself that the spot was comparatively free from insects, curled herself up upon it. She felt half-relieved and, for some reason she could hardly explain, half-resentful. Things hadn't turned out at all as she had expected. Unless the invitation to bathe in this unfrequented environment had been the first step towards seduction. David being the sort of person he was, that was quite unthinkable.
Where she lay, it was extraordinarily silent. At the height of the summer afternoon not a bird twittered. No sound came from that appalling house, now mercifully hidden from her eyes. She imagined herself as Ariadne, abandoned-rather to her relief-by Theseus on Naxos, but with very little chance of Bacchus appearing to her from among the trees. The fancy pleased her, and she played with it for a while, until it became merged in other nonsensical visions.
She woke up, to find David standing beside her. "Hallo, Theseus!" she murmured dreamily. "So you've come back? That's all wrong, you know. You ought to have gone on to Ridhurst. Your father, watching for the approach of your two-seater, and seeing its black hood raised, would have flung himself out of the window for grief."
David stared at her. His strictly practical education had included no smattering of Greek mythology. "What are you talking about? You've been to sleep, that's what's the matter with you. You'd much better have had a bathe."
Annabel shook her head as she got up. "Don't feel like it," she replied tersely. "Where do we go from here?"
David shrugged his shoulders. "It's up to you. Personally, I feel like a bit of exploring. Let's go on and see where this track leads to."
It was all one to Annabel, and she followed him as he moved off. Only single file was possible, for the track was narrow, and so little frequented that in several places they had to push away the undergrowth to make their way through. The track twisted about among trees and brushwood, through which at intervals they caught a glimpse of the lake. At its head was a ruinous structure which they took to be a boat-house. But the track did not approach it closely enough to allow of investigation. Having negotiated a final bend, they found themselves confronted by another low stile. Beyond this was a narrow road, hardly more than a lane, running roughly parallel to the one on which they had left the car.
They climbed the stile, and Annabel looked about her. "Have you the remotest idea where we are?" she asked.
"Well, not exactly," David replied. "I don't remember having come this way before. But now we're here, let's see if we can't find another way back, round the other side of the lake."
They turned to the right, and followed the road for some little distance, to find that it meandered rather purposely through the forest. Finding no sign of a path leading in the direction they desired, they were about to turn back. Then, without warning, they came to a gateway on the right, beyond which stretched a sandy drive. And by the side of the gateway there was a post surmounted by a board, bearing the words, "To The Brake."
Annabel stared at this, then rounded upon David. "You old humbug!" she exclaimed. "You knew all the time!"
"What's come to you now?"David replied with an air of injured innocence. "What am I supposed to have known all the time?"
"You know perfectly well," she exclaimed petulantly, pointing at the board. "The Brake I That's where my great-aunt lives."
David shook his head. "My dear girl, I know nothing of your great-aunt beyond what you've told me yourself, that her name was Mrs. Lavant, and that she had a house somewhere in Fembrake Forest. That we should have stumbled on the estimable lady's abode is quite accidental. Now that we have done so, would you like to pay a dutiful call?"
"Not I!" Annabel replied. "I've never set eyes on her in my life. She must be eighty if she's a day, and I don't suppose she has the dimmest interest in her great-niece. Do you suppose The Brake is that hideous house we saw just now?"
David hesitated. "Might be. But I think we must have come farther than that. I expect we're on the farther side of that high wall with the broken glass on top of it. There's nothing to prevent us going down the drive and seeing for ourselves. It's not marked private."
"Only a little way, then," said Annabel. "I should hate my great-aunt to think that I was butting in." With the furtive air of a pair of conspirators they passed through the gateway and started up the drive. Before they had gone very far, it turned out that David had been right. They had rounded the end of the wall, which now appeared to their right, running parallel to the drive. Beyond it they could make out the roof of the house they had already seen. And, as they progressed, they discovered on their left a second lake, very similar in size and shape to the first. And, facing this lake, with a lawn sloping gently down to it, was another house, smaller and of more pleasing architecture. "That'll be The Brake," David remarked. "Not at all a bad-looking place. Care to have a closer view of it?"
"I feel horribly guilty," Annabel replied. "But there seems to be nobody about. Let's go on just a wee bit farther." The front entrance to The Brake was on the side of the house farthest from the lawn, and towards this the drive wound through the trees, never diverging far from the wall. But this was not the side they wanted to see, for the lake frontage appeared far more enticing. They came at last to a ragged shrubbery, through which a path led off from the drive in the direction of the lawn. "Let's go along there and have a peep," David whispered.
But Annabel shook her head. "I'm not going a step farther. You can go if you like. But if you're caught, I shall disown you."
David nodded, and crept off on tiptoe. Annabel entered the shrubbery and took up a position where she wasn't very likely to be noticed. Left alone, she felt a strong inclination to panic. How on earth could she explain her presence if her great-aunt, or any one else for that matter, bore down upon her? It was with difficulty that she restrained herself from taking to her heels and bolting back down the drive by the way she had come. She was still struggling with the impulse when David returned, grinning broadly. "There's only one person about, and she's fast asleep," he whispered quietly. "It must be your great-aunt, I think. Come and look for yourself. It's quite safe."
For a moment Annabel held back. But her curiosity got the better of her, and she allowed David to lead her along the path. They reached the farther edge of the shrubbery, and peeped out between the bushes.
The lawn lay spread before them, with the lake beyond. In the centre of the lawn was an elaborate hammock, fringed and tasselled, swung from a complicated framework, with a brightly-coloured canopy above. In the hammock lay a woman, dressed in white, and wearing an almost barbaric profusion of jewellery. Her attitude was one of complete repose, and her face was hidden by the newspaper she had allowed to fall upon it.
Annabel giggled faintly. "Yes, that's Great-aunt Claire," she whispered. "There's a photograph of her at home, which shows her all got up with trinkets like that. She was an actress, you know, before she was married. Well, I shall be able to tell my astonished parents that I've seen her, anyhow. Now let's get away quickly before any one comes."
They retraced their steps through the shrubbery to the drive, which, as they found, led on past the front entrance to the house. "There's another gate, I expect," said David. "If there is, it must be on the road where we left the car. We may as well go on and get off the premises that way."
Once again his sense of direction proved correct. They followed the drive for some little distance, with the forbidding wall never far away on the right. Then ahead of them appeared the expected gate, and beside it, hidden among the trees, a gloomy building, not unlike a medieval castle in miniature, and evidently the lodge. As they hurried towards the gate, the door of the lodge opened, and a man emerged to intercept their passage.
He was a rough-looking type, but there was something about his appearance that fascinated Annabel. A ridiculous flash of her daydream returned to her. This was Bacchus, then, though he seemed very much alone, and was certainly unaccompanied by any jovial convoy of Bacchanals. Nor did he display any trace of the exuberance of the wine-god. He was young, perhaps a few years older than David, with a shock of dark curly hair and a pair of sardonic deep-blue eyes. He stood there, with his hands on his hips and elbows outspread, frowning menacingly. There was no avoiding him, and David and Annabel came to an awkward halt.
The man eyed them contemptuously. "Thought you'd slip out without being seen, did you?" he growled in a deep and curiously resonant voice. "Who might you be, and what have you been a-doing of?"