"And what is his name?"
Lady Splay looked down and looked up.
"Mr. Albany Todd," she said.
"I don't like it," said Harold Jupp.
"No," added Dennis Brown sadly from a corner. "We can't like it, Lady Splay."
Lady Splay turned with her most insinuating smile towards Brown.
"Oh, Dennis, do be nice and remember this isn't your house," she cried. "You can be so unpleasant if you find any one here you don't like. Mr. Albany Todd's quite a famous person."
Harold Jupp, of the inquiring mind, still stood looking down on Lady Splay without any softening of his face.
"What for?" he asked.
Lady Splay groaned in despair.
"Oh, I was sure you were going to ask that. You are so unpleasant." She put her hand to her forehead. "But I know quite well. Yes, I do." Her face suddenly cleared. "He is a conversationalist—that's it—a great conversationalist. He is the sort of man," she spoke as one repeating a lesson, "who would have been welcome at the breakfast table of Mr. Rogers."
"Rogers?" Harold Jupp asked sternly. "I don't know him."
"And probably never will, Harold, I am sorry to say," said Lady Splay triumphantly. "Mr. Rogers was in heaven many years ago." She suddenly changed her note and began to implore. "Oh, do be pleasant, you and Dennis!"
Harold Jupp's mouth began to twitch, but he composed it again, with an effort, to the stern lines befitting the occasion.
"I'll tell you what I think, Lady Splay," said he, pronouncing judgment. "Your new guest's a Plater."
The dreadful expected word was spoken. Lady Splay broke into appeals, denials, threats. "Oh, he isn't, he isn't!" She turned to her husband. "Chichester, exert your authority! He's not a Plater really. He's not right down the course. And even if he were, they've got to be polite to him."
Sir Chichester, however, was the last man who could be lured into the expression of a definite opinion.
"My dear, I never interfere in the arrangements of the house. You have your realm. I have mine. I am sure those papers are being kept in the servants' hall," and he left the room hurriedly.
"Oh, how mean men are!" cried Millie; and they all began to laugh.
Lady Splay saw a glimpse of hope in their laughter and became much more cheerful.
"As you are not racing, dear," she said to Joan, "he will be quite a pleasant companion for you."
Sir Chichester returned with the evening papers. Dennis and Miranda and Harold Jupp rose to go upstairs and change into flannels; and suddenly, a good hour before his time, Harper, the butler, announced:
"Mr. Albany Todd."
Mr. Albany Todd was a stout, consequential personage, and ovoid in appearance. Thin legs broadened out to very wide hips, and from the hips he curved in again to a bald and shiny head, which in its turn curved inwards to a high, narrow crown. Lady Splay casting a look of appeal towards her refractory young guests hurried forward to meet him.
"This is my husband." She presented him to the others. "I was going to send the motor-car to meet the seven o'clock train."
"Oh, thank you, Lady Splay," Mr. Albany Todd returned in a booming voice. "I have been staying not more than twenty miles from here, with a dear old friend, a rare and inestimable being, Lord Bilberry, and he was kind enough to send me in."
"What, old man Bilberry," cried Harold Jupp. "Isn't he balmy?"
"Balmy, sir?" Mr. Todd asked in surprise. "He takes the air every morning, if that is what you mean." He turned again to Lady Splay. "He keeps the most admirable table. You must know him, Lady Splay. I will see to it."
"Thank you," said Millie Splay humbly.
"Ah, muffins!" said Mr. Albany Todd with glistening eyes. He ate one and took another. "These are really as good as the muffins I ate at a wonderful week-end party a fortnight ago."
The chatter of the others ceased. The great conversationalist, it seemed, was off. Miranda, Dennis, Harold Jupp, Sir Chichester, even Joan looked up with expectation.
"Yes," said Lady Splay, encouraging him. She looked around at her guests. "Now you shall see," she seemed to say.
"How we laughed! What sprightly talk! The fine flavour of that party is quite incommunicable. Just dear old friends, you see, intimate, congenial friends."
Mr. Albany Todd stopped. It appeared that he needed a question to be put to him. Lady Splay dutifully put it.
"And where did this party take place, Mr. Albany Todd?"
Mr. Albany Todd smiled and dusted the crumbs from his knees.
"At the Earl of Wimborough's little place in the north. Do you know the Earl of Wimborough? No? You must, dear lady! I will see to it."
"Thank you," said Millie Splay.
Harold Jupp looked eagerly at the personage, and said, "I hope Wimborough won't go jumping this winter."
"Jumping!" cried Mr. Albany Todd turning indignantly. "I should think not indeed! Jumping! Why, he is seventy-three!"
He was utterly scandalised that any one should attribute the possibility of such wayward behaviour to the venerable Earl. In his agitation he ate another muffin. After all, if the nobleman did go jumping in the winter why should this young and horsey man presume to criticise him.
"Harold Jupp was drawing a distinction between flat racing and steeple-chasing, Mr. Albany Todd," Sir Chichester suavely explained.
"Oh, I see." Mr. Albany Todd was appeased. He turned a condescending face upon Joan Whitworth.
"And what are you reading, Miss Whitworth?"
"What ho!" interposed Harold Jupp.
Joan shot at him a withering glance.
"It wouldn't interest you." She smiled on Mr. Albany Todd. "It's Browning."
"Well, that's just where you are wrong," returned Jupp. "Browning's the only poet I can stick. There's a ripping thing of his I learnt at school."
"'I sprang to the saddle and Joris and he, I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three.'"
"Oh," exclaimed Miranda eagerly, "a horse race!"
"Nothing of the sort, Miranda. I am thoroughly ashamed of you," said Harold in reproof. "It's 'How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix.'"
Here Joan intervened disdainfully.
"But that's not Browning!"
Lady Splay looked perplexed.
"Are you sure, Joan?"
Joan tossed her head.
"Of course, it's Browning all right," she explained, "but it's not Browning if you understand me."
The explanation left that company mystified. Harold Jupp shook his head mournfully at Joan, and tapped his forehead.
"Excessive study, Joan, has turned that little head. The moment I saw you in sandals I said to myself, 'Joan couldn't take the hill.'"
Joan wrinkled her nose, and made a grimace at him. What rejoinder she would have made no one was to know. For Mr. Albany Todd finding himself unduly neglected burst into the conversation with a complete irrelevance.
"I am so happy. I shot a stag last autumn."
Both Dennis Brown and Harold Jupp turned to the great conversationalist with real interest.
"How many stone?" asked Dennis.
"I used a rifle," replied Mr. Albany Todd coldly. He did not like to be made fun of; and suddenly a ripple of clear laughter broke deliciously from Joan.
Lady Splay looked agitatedly around for succour. Oh, what a mistake she had made in bringing Mr. Albany Todd into the midst of these ribald young people. And after all—she had to admit it ruefully, he was a bit of a Plater. Dennis Brown, however, hurried to the rescue. He came across the room to Joan, and sat down at her side.
"I haven't had a word with you, Joan."
"No," she answered.
"And how's the little book going on? Do tell me! I won't laugh, upon my word."
Joan herself tried not to. "Oh, pig, pig!" she exclaimed, but she got no further in her anathema for Miranda drew up a stool, and sat in admiration before her.
"Yes, do tell us," she pleaded. "It's all so wonderful."
Miranda, however, was never to hear. Mr. Albany Todd leaned forward with an upraised forefinger, and a smile of keen discernment.
"You are writing a book, Miss Whitworth," he said, as if he had discovered the truth by his own intuition, and expected her to deny the impeachment. "Ah, but you are! And I see that you can write one."
"Now, how?" asked Harold Jupp.
Mr. Albany Todd waved the question aside. "The moment I entered the hall, and saw Miss Whitworth, I said to myself, 'There's a book there!' Yes, I said that. I knew it! I know women."
Mr. Albany Todd closed his eyelids, and peeped out through the narrowest possible slits in the cunningest fashion. "Some experience you know. I am the last man to boast of it. A certain almost feminine sensibility—and there you have my secret. I read the character of women in their eyebrows. A woman's eyebrows. Oh, how loud they speak! I looked at Miss Whitworth's eyebrows, and I exclaimed, 'There is a book there—and I will read it!'"
Joan flamed into life. She clasped her hands together.
"Oh, will you?" The question was half wonder, half prayer.
No man could have shown a more charming condescension than did Mr. Albany Todd at this moment.
"Indeed, I will. I read one book a year—never more. A few sentences in bed in the morning, and a few sentences in bed at night. Yours shall be my book for 1923." He took a little notebook and a pencil from his pocket. "Now what title will it have?"
"'A Woman's Heart, and Who Broke It,'" replied Joan, blushing from her temples to her throat.
Miranda repeated the title in an ecstasy of admiration, and asked the world at large: "Isn't it all wonderful?"
"'And Who Broke It,'" quoted Mr. Albany Todd as he wrote the title down. He put his pocket-book away.
"The volume I am reading now——"
"Yes?" said Joan eagerly. With what master was she to find herself in company? She was not to know.
"——was given to me exquisitely bound by a very dear friend of mine, now alas! in precarious health!—the Marquis of Bridlington," said Mr. Albany Todd—an audible groan from Harold Jupp; an imploring glance from Millie Splay, and to her immense relief the butler ushered in Harry Luttrell. He was welcomed by Millie Splay, presented to Sir Chichester, and surrounded by his friends. He was a trifle leaner than of old, and there were lines now where before there had been none. His eyes, too, had the queer, worn and sunken look which was becoming familiar in the eyes of the young men on leave. Joan Whitworth watched him as he entered, carelessly—for perhaps a second. Then her book dropped from her hand upon the carpet—that book which she had so jealously read a few minutes back. Now it lay where it had fallen. She leaned forward, as though above all she wished to hear the sound of his voice. And when she heard it, she drew in a little breath. He was speaking and laughing with Sir Chichester, and the theme was nothing more important than Sir Chichester's Honorary Membership of the Senga Mess.
"Lucky fellow!" cried Sir Chichester. "No trouble for you to get into the papers, eh! Publicity waits on you like a valet."
"But that's just the kind of valet I can't afford in my profession," said Harry.
The conversation was all trivial and customary. But Joan Whitworth leaned forward with a light upon her face that had never yet burnt there. Colonel Luttrell was presented to Mr. Albany Todd, who was most kind and condescending. Joan looked suddenly down at her bilious frock, and the horror of her sandals was something she could hardly bear. They would turn to her next. Yes, they would turn to her! She looked desperately towards the great staircase with its broad, shallow steps which ran up round two sides of the hall. Millie Splay was actually beginning to turn to her, when Dennis Brown came unconsciously to her rescue.
"We looked out for you at Gatwick," he said.
"I only just reached the race course in time for the last race," said Harry Luttrell. "Luckily for me."
"Why luckily?" asked Harold Jupp in surprise.
"Because I backed the winner," replied Luttrell.
The indefatigable race-goers gathered about him a little closer; and Joan Whitworth rose noiselessly from her chair.
"Which horse won?" asked Harold Jupp.
"Loman!" Harold Jupp stared at Dennis Brown. Incredulity held them as in bonds.
"But he couldn't win!" they both cried in a breath.
"He did, you know, and at a long price."
"What on earth made you back him?" asked Dennis Brown.
"Well," Luttrell answered, "he was the only white horse in the race."
Miranda uttered a cry of pleasure. She recognised a brother. "That's an awfully good reason," she cried. But science fell with a crash. Dennis Brown took his "Form at a Glance" from his pocket, and sadly began to tear the pages across. Harold Jupp looked on at that act of sacrilege.
"It doesn't matter," he said, and offered his invariable consolation. "Flat racing's no use. We'll go jumping in the winter."
But Harold Jupp was never again to go jumping in the winter. Long before steeple chasing began that year, he was lying out on the flat land beyond the Somme, with a bullet through his heart.
Dennis Brown returned "Form at a Glance" to his pocket; and Millie Splay drew Harry Luttrell away from the group.
"I want to introduce you to Joan Whitworth," she said, and she turned to the chair in which Joan had been sitting a few moments ago.
It was empty.
"Why, where in the world has Joan gone to?" she exclaimed.
"She has fled," explained Jupp. "Joan saw his 'Form at a Glance,' without any book. She saw that he was incapable of the higher Life, and she has gone."
"Nonsense, Harold," cried Millicent Splay in vexation. She turned towards the stairs, and she gave a little gasp. A woman was standing on the second step from the floor. But it was not Joan, it was Stella Croyle.
"I thought you had such a bad headache," said Lady Splay, after a perceptible pause.
"It's better now, thank you," said Stella, and coming down the remaining steps, she advanced towards Harry.
"How do you do, Colonel Luttrell?" she asked.
For a moment he was taken aback. Then with the blood mounting in his face, he took a step forwards and shook hands with her easily.
"So you know one another!" said Lady Splay.
"We have known each other for a long while," returned Stella Croyle.
So that was why Stella Croyle had proposed herself for the week! Lady Splay had been a little surprised; so persistently had Stella avoided anything in the shape of a party. But this time Stella had definitely wished to come, and Millie Splay in her loyalty had not hesitated to welcome her. But she had been a little curious. Stella's visit, indeed, was the third, though the least, of her preoccupations. The Ball on the Thursday of next week at the Willoughby's! Well, Stella was never lacking in tact. That would arrange itself. But as Millie Splay looked at her, recognised her beauty, her eager advance to Harry Luttrell, and Harry Luttrell's embarrassment, she said to herself, for quite other reasons:
"If I had guessed why she wanted to come, nothing would have persuaded me to have her."
Millie Splay had more reason to repeat the words before the week was out.
THE MAGNOLIA FLOWERS
"I hadn't an idea that we should find her here," said Hillyard. "Lady Splay told me so very clearly that Mrs. Croyle always timed her visits to avoid a party."
Hillyard was a little troubled lest he should be thought by his friend to have concurred in a plot to bring about this meeting.
"I suppose that Hardiman told her you were coming to Rackham Park. I haven't seen her until this moment, since I returned."
"That's all right, Martin," Luttrell answered.
The two men were alone in the hall. The tennis players had changed, and were out upon the court. Millie Splay had dragged Stella Croyle away with her to play croquet. Luttrell moved to a writing-table.
"You are going to join the tennis players," he said. Hillyard was already dressed for the game, and carried a racket in his hand. "I must write a letter, then I will come out and watch you."
"Right," said Martin, and he left his friend to his letter.
The hall was very still. A bee came buzzing in at the open window, made a tour of the flower-vases, and flew out again into the sunshine. From the lawn the cries of the tennis players, the calls of thrush and blackbird and dishwasher, were wafted in on waves of perfume from the roses. It was very pleasant and restful to Harry Luttrell after the sweat and labour of France. He sighed as he folded his letter and addressed it to a friend in the War Office.
A letter-box stood upon a table close to the staircase. He was carrying his letter over to it, when a girl came running lightly down the stairs and halted suddenly a step or two from the bottom. She stood very still where Stella Croyle had stood a few minutes ago, and like Stella, she looked over the balustrade at Harry Luttrell. Harry Luttrell had reached the letter-box when he caught sight of her, but he quite forgot to drop his letter through the slit. He stood transfixed with wonder and perplexity; wonder at her beauty; perplexity as to who she was.
Martin Hillyard had spoken to him of Joan Whitworth. By the delicious oval of her face, the deep blue of her eyes, the wealth of rippling bright hair, the soft bloom of colour on her cheeks, and her slim, boyish figure—the girl should rightly be she. But it couldn't be! No, it couldn't! This girl's lips were parted in a whimsical friendly smile; her eyes danced; she was buoyant with joy singing at her heart. Besides—besides——! Luttrell looked at her clothes. She wore a little white frock of chiffon and lace, as simple as could be, but even to a man's eyes it was that simplicity which is the last word of a good dressmaker. A huge rose of blue and silver at her waist was its only touch of colour. With it she wore a white, broad-brimmed hat of straw with a great blue bow and a few narrow streamers of blue ribbon floating jauntily, white stockings and shoes, cross-gartered round her slender ankles with shining ribbons. Was it she? Was it not? Was Martin Hillyard crazy or the whole world upside down?
"You must be Colonel Luttrell," his gracious vision exclaimed, with every appearance of surprise.
"I am," replied Luttrell. He was playing with his letter, half slipping it in, and then drawing it back from the box, and quite unaware of what he was doing.
"We had better introduce ourselves, I think. I am Joan Whitworth."
She held out her hand to him over the balustrade. He had but to reach up and take it. It was a cool hand, and a cordial one.
"Martin Hillyard has talked to me about you," he said.
"I like him," she replied. "He's a dear."
"He told me enough to make me frightened at the prospect of meeting you."
Joan leaned over the banister.
"But now that we have met, you aren't really frightened, are you?" she asked in so wistful a voice, and with a look so deeply pleading in her big blue eyes that no young man could have withstood her.
Harry Luttrell laughed.
"I am not. I am not a bit frightened. In fact I am almost bold enough to ask you a question."
"Yes, Colonel Luttrell?"
The invitation was clear enough. But the Colonel was suddenly aware of his audacity and faltered.
"Oh, do ask me, Colonel Luttrell!" she pleaded. The old-fashioned would have condemned Joan Whitworth as a minx at this moment, but would have softened the condemnation with a smile forced from them by her winning grace.
"Well, I will," replied Luttrell, and with great solemnity he asked, "How is Linda Spavinsky?"
Joan ran down the remaining steps, and dropped into a chair. A peal of laughter, silvery and clear, and joyous rang out from her mouth.
"Oh, she's not at all well to-day. I believe she's going. Her health was never very stable."
Then her mood changed altogether. The laughter died away, the very look of it faded from her face. She stood up and faced Harry Luttrell. In the depths of her eyes there appeared a sudden gravity, a certain wistfulness, almost a regret.
She spoke simply:
"Iram indeed is gone with all his rose, And Jamshyd's seven-ringed cup—where, no one knows! But still a ruby kindles in the vine, And many a garden by the water blows."
She had the air of one saying good-bye to many pleasant follies which for long had borne her company—and saying good-bye with a sort of doubt whether that which was in store for her would bring a greater happiness.
Harry Luttrell had no answer, and no very distinct comprehension of her mood. But he was stirred by it. For a little while they looked at one another without any words. The air about them in that still hall vibrated with the emotions of violins. Joan Whitworth was the first to break the dangerous silence.
"I am afraid that up till now, what I have liked, I have liked tremendously, but I have not always liked it for very long. You will remember that in pity, won't you?" she said lightly.
Harry Luttrell was quick to catch her tone.
"I shall remember it with considerable apprehension if I am fortunate enough ever to get into your good books." His little speech ended with a gasp. The letter which he was holding carelessly in his fingers had almost slipped from them into the locked letter box.
Joan crossed to where he stood.
"That's all right," she said. "You can post your letter there. The box is cleared regularly."
"No doubt," Harry Luttrell returned. "But I am no longer sure that I am going to post it."
The letter to his friend at the War Office contained an earnest prayer that a peremptory telegram should be sent to him at Rackham Park, at an early hour on the next morning, commanding his return to London.
He looked up at Joan.
"You despise racing, don't you?"
"I am going to Gatwick to-morrow."
"You are!" he cried eagerly.
He stood poising the letter in the palm of his open hand. The thought of Stella Croyle bade him post it. The presence of Joan Whitworth, and he was so conscious of her, paralysed his arm. Some vague sense of the tumult within him passed out from him to her. An intuition seized upon her that that letter was in some way vital to her, in some way a menace to her. Any moment he might post it! Once posted he might let it go. She drew a little sharp breath. He was standing there, so still, so quiet and slow in his decision. It became necessary to her that words should be spoken. She spoke the first which rose to her lips.
"You are going to stay for the Willoughbys' ball, aren't you?"
Harry Luttrell smiled.
"But you despise dancing."
"I? I adore it!"
She smiled as she spoke, but she spoke with a queer shyness which took him off his feet. He slowly tore the letter across and again across and then into little pieces and carried them to the waste-paper basket.
The action brought home to her with a shock that there was a letter which she, in her turn, must write, must write and post in that glass letter-box, oh, without any hesitation or error, this very evening. She thought upon it with repugnance, but it had to be written and done with. It was the consequence of her own folly, her own vanity. Harry Luttrell returned to her but he did not remark the trouble in her face.
"When I left England," he said slowly, "people were dancing the tango. That is—one couple which knew the dance, was dancing it in the ball-room, and all the others were practising in the passage. That's done with, I suppose?"
"Quite," said Joan.
Harry Luttrell heaved a sigh.
"I should have liked to have practised with you in the passage," he said ruefully.
"Still, there are other dances," Joan Whitworth suggested. "The one-step?"
"That's going for a walk," said Harry Luttrell.
"In an unusual attitude," Joan added demurely. "Do you know the fox-trot?"
"The twinkle step?"
"Not at all."
"I might teach you that," Joan suggested.
"Oh, do! Teach it me now! Then we'll dance it in the passage."
"But every one will be dancing it in the ball-room," Joan objected.
"That's why," said Harry Luttrell, and they both laughed.
Joan looked towards the gramophone in the corner of the room. She was tempted, but she must have that letter written first. She would dance with Harry Luttrell with an uneasy mind unless that letter were written and posted first.
"Will you put a record ready on the gramophone, whilst I write a note," she suggested. "Then I'll teach you. It's quite a short note."
Joan sat in her turn at the writing table. She wrote the first lines easily and quickly enough. But she came to explanations, and of explanations she had none to offer. She sat and framed a sentence and it would not do. Meanwhile the gramophone was open and ready, the record fitted on to the disc of green baize and her cavalier in impatient attendance. She must be quick. But the quicker she wanted to be, the more slowly her thoughts moved amongst awkward sentences which she must write. She dashed off in the end the standard phrase for such emergencies. "I will write to you to-morrow," addressed and stamped her letter and dropped it into the letter box. The letter fell in the glass box with the address uppermost. But Joan did not trouble about that, did not even notice it; a weight was off her mind.
"I am ready," she said, and a few seconds later the music of "The Long Trail" was wafted to the astonished ears of the tennis players in the garden. They paused in their game and then Dennis Brown crept to the window of the hall and looked cautiously in. He stood transfixed; then turned and beckoned furiously. The lawn-tennis players forsook their rackets, Lady Splay and Stella Croyle their croquet mallets. Dennis Brown led them by a back way up to the head of the broad stairs. Here a gallery ran along one side of the hall. Voices rose up to them from the floor above the music of the gramophone.
Joan's: "That's the twinkle."
Luttrell's: "It's pretty difficult."
"Try it again," said Joan. "Oh, that's ever so much better."
"I shall never dare to dance it with any one else," said Luttrell.
"I really don't mind very much about that," Joan responded dryly.
Millie Splay could hardly believe her ears. Cautiously she and her party advanced on tiptoe to the balustrade and looked down. Yes, there the pair of them were, now laughing, now in desperate earnest, practising the fox-trot to the music of the gramophone.
"Do I hold you right?" asked Harry.
"Well—I shan't break, you know," Joan answered demurely, and then with a little sigh, "That's better."
Under her breath Stella Croyle murmured passionately, "Oh, you minx!"
As the record ran out a storm of applause burst from the gallery.
"Oh, Joan, Joan," cried Harold Jupp, shaking his head reproachfully. "There's the poet kicked right across the room."
"Where?" asked Harry Luttrell, looking round for the book.
"Oh, it doesn't matter," said Joan impatiently. "It's only an old volume of Browning."
Cries of "Shame" broke indignantly from the race-goers, and Joan received them with imperturbable indifference. Harry Luttrell, however, went on his knees and discovering the book beneath a distant sofa, carefully dusted it.
"Did you ever read 'How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix'?" he asked.
The audience in the gallery waited in dead silence for Joan Whitworth's answer. It came unhesitatingly clear and in a voice of high enthusiasm.
"Isn't it the most wonderful poem he ever wrote?"
The gallery broke into screams, catcalls, hisses and protests against Joan's shameless recantation.
"It's Browning, of course, but it's not Browning at all, if you understand me," Dennis Brown exclaimed with every show of indignation; and the whole party trooped away again to their tennis and their croquet.
Harry Luttrell placed the book upon a table and turned to Joan.
"Now what would you like to do?" he asked.
Joan shrugged her shoulders.
"We might cut into the next tennis set," she said doubtfully.
"You could hardly play in those shoes," said Harry Luttrell.
Joan contemplated a heel of formidable height. Oh, where were the sandals of the higher Life?
"No, I suppose not. Of course, there's a—but it wouldn't probably interest you."
"Wouldn't it?" cried Harry Luttrell.
"Well, it's a maze. Millie Splay is rather proud of it. The hedges are centuries old." She turned innocent eyes on Harry Luttrell. "I don't know whether you are interested in old hedges."
It is to be feared that "minx" was the only right word for Joan Whitworth on this afternoon. Harry Luttrell expressed an intense enthusiasm for great box hedges.
"But they aren't box, they are yew," said Joan, stopping at once.
Harry Luttrell's enthusiasm for yew hedges, however, was even greater and more engrossing than his enthusiasm for box ones. A pagoda perched upon a bank overlooked the maze and a narrow steep path led down into it between the hedges. Joan left it to her soldier to find the way. There was a stone pedestal with a small lead figure perched upon the top of it in the small clear space in the middle. But Harry Luttrell took a deal of time in reaching it. If, however, their progress was slow, with many false turnings and sudden stops against solid walls of hedge, it was not so with their acquaintanceship; each turn in the path brought them on by a new stage. They wandered in the dawn of the world.
"Suppose that I had never come to Rackham Park!" said Harry Luttrell, suddenly turning at the end of a blind alley. "I almost didn't come. I might have altogether missed knowing you."
The terrible thought smote them both. What risks people ran to be sure. They might never have met. They might have never known what it was to meet. They might have lived benighted, not knowing what lovely spirit had passed them by. They looked at one another with despairing eyes. Then a happy thought occurred to Joan.
"But, after all, you did come," she exclaimed.
Harry Luttrell drew a breath. He was relieved of a great oppression.
"Why, yes," he answered in wonderment. "So I did!"
They retraced their steps. As the sun drew towards its late setting, by an innocent suggestion from Joan here, a little question there, Harry Luttrell was manoeuvred towards the centre of the maze. Suddenly he stopped with a finger on the lips. A voice reached to them from the innermost recess—a voice which intoned, a voice which was oracular.
"What's that?" he asked in a whisper.
Joan shook her head.
"I haven't an idea."
As yet they could hear no words. Words were flung from wall to wall of the centre space and kept imprisoned there. It seemed that the presiding genius of the maze was uttering his invocation as the sun went down. Joan and Harry Luttrell crept stealthily nearer, Harry now openly guided by a light touch upon his arm as the paths twisted. Words—amazing words—became distinctly audible; and a familiar voice. They came to the last screen of hedge and peered through at a spot where the twigs were thin. In the very middle of the clear space stood Sir Chichester Splay, one hand leaning upon the pedestal, the other hidden in his bosom, in the very attitude of the orator; and to the silent spaces of the maze thus he made his address:
"Ladies and gentlemen! When I entered the tent this afternoon and took my seat upon the platform, nothing was further from my thoughts than that I should hear myself proposing a vote of thanks to our indefatigable chairman!"
Sir Chichester was getting ready for the Chichester Flower Show, at which, certainly, he was not going to make a speech. Oh dear, no! He knew better than that.
"In this marvellous collection of flowers, ladies and gentlemen, we can read, if so we will, a singular instance of co-ordination and organisation—the Empire's great needs to-day——"
Harry Luttrell and Joan stifled their laughter and stole away out of hearing.
"We won't breathe a word of it," said Joan.
"No," said Harry.
They had a little secret now between them—that wonderful link—a little secret; and to be sure they made the most of it. They could look across the dinner-table at one another with a smile in which no one else could have a share. If Sir Chichester spoke, it would be just to kindle that swift glance in lovers' eyes from which the heart takes fire. Love-making went at a gallop in nineteen hundred and sixteen; it jumped the barriers; it danced to a lively and violent tune. Maidens, as Sir Charles Hardiman had pronounced, had become more primeval. Insecurity had dropped them down upon the bed-rock elemental truths. Men were for women, women for men, especially for those men who went out with a cheery song in their mouths to save them from the hideous destiny of women in ravaged lands. The soldier was here to-day on leave, and God alone knew where he would be to-morrow, and whether alive, or perhaps a crippled thing like a child!
Joan Whitworth and Harry Luttrell had been touched by the swift magic of those days; he, when he had first seen her in the shining armour of her youth upon the steps of the stairs; she, when Harry had first entered the hall and spoken his few commonplace words of greeting. This was the hour for them, the hour at the well with the desert behind them and the desert in front, the hour within the measure of which was to be forced the essence of many days. When they returned to the hall they found most of the small party gathered there before going up to dress for dinner; and there was that in the faces of the pair which betrayed them. Hillyard looked quickly round the hall, as a qualm of pity for Stella Croyle seized him. But he could not see her. "Thank Heaven she has already gone up to dress," he said to himself. A marriage between Joan Whitworth and the Harry Luttrell of to-day, the man freed now from the great obsession of his life and trained now to the traditional paths, was a fitting thing, a thing to be welcomed. Hillyard readily acknowledged it. But he had more insight into the troubled soul of Stella Croyle than any one else in that company.
"No one's bothering about her," he reflected. "She came here to set up her last fight to win back Harry. She is now putting on her armour for it. And she hasn't a chance—no, not one!"
For Harry's sake he was glad. But he was a creator of plays; and his training led him to seek to understand, and to understand with the sympathy of his emotions, the points of view of others who might stand in a contrast or a relation. He walked up the stairs with a heart full of pity when Millicent Splay caught him up.
"What did I tell you?" she said, brimful with delight. "Just look at Joan! Is there a girl anywhere who can match her?"
Martin looked down over the balustrade at Joan in the hall below.
"No," he said slowly. "Not one whom I have ever seen."
The little note of melancholy in his voice moved Millie Splay. She was all kindness in that moment of her triumph. She turned to Martin Hillyard in commiseration. "Oh, don't tell me that you are in love with her too! I should be so sorry."
"No, I am not," Martin Hillyard hastened to reassure her, "not one bit."
The commiseration died on the instant in Millicent Splay.
"Well, really I don't see why you shouldn't be," she said coldly. "You will go a long way before you find any one to equal her."
Her whole attitude demanded of him an explanation of how he dared not to be in love with her darling.
"A very long way," Martin Hillyard agreed humbly. "All the way probably."
Lady Splay was mollified, and went on to her room. Down in the hall, Harry Luttrell turned to Joan.
"This is going to be a wonderful week for me."
"I am very glad," answered Joan, and they went up the stairs side by side.
"I have put out the blue dress with the silver underskirt, madam," said Jenny Prask, knowing well that nothing in Stella Croyle's wardrobe set off so well her dark and fragile beauty.
"Very well, Jenny."
Stella Croyle answered listlessly. She was discouraged by her experience of that afternoon. She had come to Rackham Park, certain of one factor upon her side, but very certain of that. She would find no competitor, and lo! the invincible competitor, youth, had put on armour against her! Stella looked in the mirror. She was thirty, and in the circle within which she moved, thirty meant climbing reluctantly on to the shelf.
"Don't you think, Jenny, the blue frock makes me look old?"
Jenny Prask laughed scornfully.
"Old, madam! You! Just fancy!"
Stella Croyle, living much alone, had made a companion of her maid. There was nothing of Mrs. Croyle's history which Jenny Prask did not know, and very few of her hopes and sorrows were hidden from her.
"My gracious me, madam! There will be nobody to hold a candle to you here!" she said, with a sniff, as she helped Stella to undress.
Stella looked in the glass. Certainly there was not a line upon the smoothness of her cheeks; her dark hair had lost none of its gloss. She took her features one by one, and found no trace of change. Nor, indeed, scrutinised in that way did Stella show any change. It was when you saw her across a room that you recognised that girlhood had gone, and that there was a woman in the full ripeness of her beauty.
"Yes," she said, and her listlessness began to disappear. She turned away from the mirror. "Come, Jenny!" she cried, with a hopeful smile. She was saying to herself, "I have still a chance."
Jenny rattled on while she assisted her mistress. Stella's face changed with her mood, more than most faces. Disappointment and fatigue aged her beyond due measure. Jenny Prask was determined that she could go down to dinner to-night looking her youngest and best.
"I went for a walk this evening with Mr. Marvin. He's Colonel Luttrell's soldier-servant, and quite enthusiastic, he was, madam."
"Was he, Jenny?"
"Quite! The men in his company loved him—a captain he was then. He always looked after their dinner. A bit strict, too, but they don't mind that."
Jenny was busy with Stella Croyle's hair; and the result satisfied her.
"There won't be anybody else to-night, madam," she said.
"Won't there, Jenny?" said Mrs. Croyle, incredulously. "There'll be Miss Whitworth."
Jenny Prask sniffed disdainfully.
"Miss Whitworth! A fair sight I call her, madam, if I may say so. I never did see such clothes! And how she keeps a maid for more than a week beats me altogether. What I say, madam, is those who button in front when they should hook behind are a fair washout."
"I'm afraid that you'll find, Jenny, that Miss Whitworth will hook behind to-night."
Jenny went on unaffected by the rejoinder. She had her little item of news to contribute to the contentment of her mistress.
"Besides, Miss Whitworth is in love with the foreign gentleman. Oh, madam, if you turn as sharp as that, I can't but pull your hair."
"That Mario Escobar." Jenny looked over Stella's head and into the reflection of her eyes upon the mirror. "I don't hold with foreigners myself, madam. A little ridiculous they always seem to me, with their chatter and what not."
"And you believe Miss Whitworth's in love with him."
"Outrageous, Mr. Harper says. Quite the talk of the servants' hall, it is. Why, even this afternoon she wrote him a letter. Mr. Harper showed it me after he took it out of the letter-box to post it. 'That's her 'and,' says he—and there it was, Mario Escobar, Esquire, the Golden Sun Hotel, Midhurst——"
"Midhurst?" cried Stella with a start. She looked eagerly at the reflection of Jenny Prask. "Mr. Escobar is staying in an hotel at Midhurst?"
"And Miss Whitworth wrote to him there this afternoon?"
"It's gospel truth, madam. May it be my last dying word, if it isn't!" said Jenny Prask.
The blood mounted into Stella Croyle's face. Since that was true—and she did not doubt Jenny Prask for a moment—Jenny would have given anything she had to save her mistress trouble, and Stella knew it. Since it was true, then, that Mario Escobar was staying hidden away in a country hotel five miles off, and that Joan was writing to him, why, after all, she had no rival.
Her spirits rose with a bound. She had a week, a whole week, in the company of Harry Luttrell; and what might she not do in a week if she used her wits and used her beauty! Stella Croyle ran down the stairs like a girl.
Jenny Prask shut the door, and, opening a wardrobe, took from a high shelf Mrs. Croyle's dressing-bag. She opened it, and from one of the fittings she lifted out a bottle. The bottle was quite full of a white, colourless liquid. Jenny Prask nodded to herself and carefully put the bottle back. There was very little she did not know about the proceedings of her mistress. Then she went out of the room into the gallery, and peeped down to watch the other guests assemble. She saw Miranda Brown, Stella, Sir Chichester Splay, Dennis and Harry Luttrell come from their different rooms and gather in the hall below. From a passage behind her, a girl, butterfly-bright, flashed out and danced joyously down the stairs. A new-comer, thought Jenny, with a pang of alarm for her mistress! But she heard the new-comer speak, and heard her spoken to. It was Joan Whitworth.
"Oh!" Jenny Prask gasped.
Undoubtedly Joan "hooked behind" to-night. What had come over her? Jenny asked. Her quick mind realised that Mario Escobar was not answerable for the change since Mario Escobar was miles away at Midhurst. Besides, according to Mr. Harper, this flirtation with Escobar had been going on a year and more.
Jenny Prask looked from Joan to Harry Luttrell. She saw them drawn to one another across the hall and move into the dining-room side by side. She turned back with a little moan of disappointment into Stella Croyle's bedroom; and whilst she tidied it, more than once she stopped to wring her hands.
Stella Croyle, however, kept her good spirits through the evening. For after dinner Harry Luttrell, of his own will, came straight to her in the drawing-room.
"Oh, Wub," she said in a whisper as she drew her skirt aside to make room for him upon the couch. "Oh, Wub, what years it is since I have seen you."
When the old nickname fell upon Harry's ears, he looked quickly about him to see where Joan Whitworth sat. But she was at the other end of the room.
"Yes, it is a long time."
"Stockholm!" said Stella, dwelling upon the name. She lowered her voice. "Wub, I suffered terribly after you went away. Oh, it wasn't a good time. No, it wasn't!"
"Stella, I am very sorry," he said gently. He knew himself this day the glories and the pangs of love. He was sunk ocean-deep one moment in the sense of his unworthiness, the next he knocked his head against the stars on the soaring billow of his pride. He could not but feel for Stella, who had passed through the same furnace. He could not but grieve that the wondrous book of which he was racing through the first pages had been closed for her by him. Might she not open it again, some time, with another at her side?
"Wub, tell me what you have been doing all these years," she said.
He began the tale of them in the short, reluctant, colloquial phrases which the English use to strip their achievements of any romantic semblance until Millicent Splay sailed across the room and claimed him for a table of bridge.
"He will be safer there," she said to herself.
"Yes, but she had to take him away," Stella's thoughts responded. She was dangerous then in Millie Splay's judgment. The sweet flattery set Stella smiling. She went up to her room rejoicing that she had chosen that week to visit Rackham Park. She was playing a losing game, but she did not know it.
Thus the very spirit of summer seemed to inform the gathering. Saturday brought up no clouds to darken the clear sky. Harold Jupp and Dennis Brown actually scored four nice wins at Gatwick on horses which, to celebrate the week, miraculously ran to form. Miranda under these conditions would have inevitably lost, but by another stroke of fortune no horse running had any special blemish, name, colour or trick calculated to inspire her. Sir Chichester was happy too, for he saw a lady reporter write down his name in her notebook. So was Mr. Albany Todd. For he met the Earl of Eltringham, with whom he had a passing acquaintance; and his lordship, being complimented upon his gardens, of which Country Life had published an account, was moved to say in the friendliest manner: "You must propose yourself for a week-end, Mr. Todd, and see them."
As for Joan and Harry Luttrell, it mattered little where they were, so that they were together. They walked in their own magical garden.
It fell to Martin Hillyard to look after Stella Croyle, and the task was not difficult. She kept her eyes blindfold to what she did not wish to see. She had a chance, she said to herself, recollecting her talk with Harry last night, and the news of Joan which Jenny Prask had given to her. She had a chance, if she walked delicately.
"Old associations—give them opportunity, and they renew their strength," she thought. "Harry is afraid of them—that's all."
On the Monday evening Jenny Prask brought a fresh piece of gossip which strengthened her hopes.
"Miss Whitworth had a letter from him this morning," said Jenny. "She wouldn't open it at the breakfast-table, Mr. Harper says. Quite upset she was, he says. She took it upstairs to her room just as it was."
"It might have been from some one else," answered Stella.
"Oh, no, madam," replied Jenny. "It had the Midhurst postmark, and Mr. Harper knows his handwriting besides. Mr. Harper's very observant."
"He seems to be," said Stella.
"Miss Whitworth answered the letter at once, and took it out to the village and posted it with her own hands," Jenny continued.
"Are you sure?" cried Mrs. Croyle.
"I saw her go with my own eyes, I did. She went in her own little runabout, and was back in a jiffy, with a sort of 'There-I've-done-it!' look about her. Oh, there's something going on there, madam—take my word for it! She's a deep one, Miss Whitworth is, and no mistake. Will you wear the smoke-grey to-night, madam? I am keeping the pink for the ball on Thursday."
Stella allowed a moment or two to pass before she answered.
"I shan't go to the Willoughbys' ball, Jenny."
Jenny Prask stared in dismay.
"You won't, madam!"
"No, Jenny. But I want you to be careful not to mention it to any one. I shall dress as if I was going, but at the last moment I shall plead a headache and stay behind."
"Very well, madam," said Jenny. But it seemed to her that Stella was throwing down her arms. Stella, however, had understood, upon hearing of the invitation for Lady Splay's party, that she could do nothing else. The Willoughbys were strict folk. Mrs. Croyle could hardly hope to go without some rumour of her history coming afterwards to the ears of that family; and the family would hold her presence as a reproach against Millie Splay. Stella had herself proposed her plan to Millie, and she noted the relief with which it was received.
"You will be careful not to mention it to a soul, Jenny," Stella insisted.
"My goodness me, madam, I never talk," replied Jenny. "I keep my ears open and let the others do that."
"I know, Jenny," said Stella, with a smile. "I can't imagine what I should do without you."
"And you never will, madam, unless it's your own wish and doin'," said Jenny heartily. "I have talked it over with Brown"—Brown was Mrs. Croyle's chauffeur—"and he's quite willin' that I should go on with you after we are married."
"Then, that's all right," said Stella.
Many a one looking backwards upon some terrible and unexpected tragedy will have noticed with what care the great dramaturgist so wove his play that every little unheeded event in the days before helped directly to create the final catastrophe. It happened on this evening that Stella went downstairs earlier than the other guests, and in going into the library in search of an evening paper, found Sir Chichester standing by the telephone instrument.
"Am I in your way?" she asked.
"Not a bit, Stella," he answered. "In fact, you might help me by looking up the number I want." He raised the instrument, and playing with the receiver as he stood erect, remarked, "Although I am happy to think that I shall not be called upon to deliver any observations on the occasion of the Chichester flower show next Thursday, I may as well ask one of the newspapers if their local correspondent would give the ceremony some little attention."
Stella Croyle took up the telephone book.
"Which newspaper is it to be, Sir Chichester?"
"The Harpoon, I think. Yes, I am sure. The Harpoon."
Stella Croyle looked up the number and read out:
"Gerrard, one, six, two, double three."
Sir Chichester accordingly called upon the trunk line and gave the number.
"You will ring me up? Thank you," he said, and replacing the receiver, stood in anxious expectancy.
"I thought that your favourite paper was the Daily Flashlight?" Stella observed.
"That's quite true, Stella. It was," Sir Chichester explained naively. "But I have noticed lately a regrettable tendency to indifference on the part of the Flashlight. The management is usually too occupied to converse with me when I ring it up. On the other hand, I am new to the Harpoon. Hallo! Hallo! This is Sir Christopher Splay speaking," and he delivered his message. "Thank you very much," said Sir Chichester as he hung up the receiver. "Really most courteous people. Yes, most courteous. What is their number, Stella? I must remember it."
Stella read it out again.
"Gerrard, one, six, two, double three," and thus she, too, committed the number to memory.
PLANS FOR THE EVENING
The library at Rackham Park was a small, oblong room, with a big window upon the garden. It opened into the hall on the one side and into the dining-room on the other, and in one corner the telephone was installed. At half-past eight on the night of the dance at Harrel, this room was empty and in darkness. But a second afterwards the door from the hall was opened, and Joan stood in the doorway, the light shimmering upon her satin cloak and the silver embroidery of her frock. She cast an anxious look behind her and up the staircase. It seemed as if some movement at the angle made by the stairs and the gallery caught her eye, for she stepped back for a clearer view, and listened with a peculiar intentness. She saw nothing, however, and heard nothing. She entered the library swiftly and closed the door behind her, so that the room fell once more upon darkness save for a thread of gold at the bottom of the other door behind which the men of the party were still sitting over their wine. She crossed the room towards the window, stepping cautiously to avoid the furniture. She was quite invisible. But for a tiny rustle of the lace flounces on her dress one would have sworn the room was empty. But when she was half-way across a sudden burst of laughter from the dining-room brought her to a stop with her hand upon her heart and a little sob not altogether stifled in her throat. It meant so much to her that the desperate adventure of this night should be carried through! If all went well, as it must—oh, as it surely must!—by midnight she would be free of her terrors and distress.
The laughter in the dining room died down. Joan stole forward again. She drew away the heavy curtains from the long window, and the moonlight, clear and bright like silver, poured into the room and clothed her in its soft radiance. She drew back the bolts at the top and bottom of the glass door and turned the key in the lock. She touched the glass and the door swung open upon the garden, easily, noiselessly. She drew it close again and leaving it so, raised her hands to the curtains at the side. As she began carefully to draw them together, so that the rings should not rattle on the pole, the door from the hall was softly and quickly opened, and the switch of the electric lights by the side of the door pressed down. The room leapt into light.
Joan swung round, her face grown white, her eyes burning with fire. She saw only Jenny Prask.
"I hope I don't intrude, miss," said Jenny respectfully. "I came to find a book."
The blood flowed back into Joan's cheeks.
"Certainly, Jenny, take what you like," said Joan, and she draped the curtains across the window.
"Thank you, miss."
Jenny chose a book from the case upon the table and without a glance at Joan or at the window, went out of the room again. Joan watched her go. After all, what had Jenny seen? A girl whose home was there, drawing the curtains close. That was all. Joan shook her anxiety off. Jenny had left the door of the library open and some one came running down the stairs whistling as she ran. Miranda Brown dashed into the room struggling with a pair of gloves.
"Oh, how I hate gloves in this weather!" she cried. "Well, here I am, Joan. You wanted to speak to me before the others had finished powdering their noses. What is it?"
"I want you to help me."
"Of course I will," Miranda answered cheerily. "How?"
Joan closed the door and returned to Miranda, who, having drawn the gloves over her arm, was now struggling with the buttons.
"I want you, when we reach Harrel——"
"To lend me your motor-car for an hour."
Miranda turned in amazement towards her friend. But one glance at her face showed that the prayer was made in desperate earnest. Miranda Brown caught her friend by the arm.
"Yes," Joan Whitworth answered, nodding her head miserably. "That's the help I want and I want it dreadfully. Just for an hour—no more."
"Joan, my dear—what's the matter?" asked Miranda gazing into Joan Whitworth's troubled face.
"I don't want you to ask me," the girl answered. "I want you to help me straight off without any questions. Otherwise——" and Joan's voice shook and broke, "otherwise—oh, I don't know what will happen to me!"
Miranda put her arm round Joan Whitworth's waist. "Joan! You are in real trouble!"
"For the first time!" said Joan.
"No," Joan interrupted. "There's only the one way, Miranda."
She sat down upon a couch at Miranda's side and feverishly caught her hand. "Do help me! You can't tell what it means to me!... And I should hate telling you! Oh, I have been such a fool!"
Joan's face was quivering, and so deep a compunction was audible in her voice, so earnest a prayer was to be read in her troubled eyes, that Miranda's doubt and anxiety were doubled.
"I don't know what I shall do, if you don't help me," Joan said miserably as she let go of Miranda. Her hands fluttered helplessly in the air. "No, I don't know!"
Miranda was thoroughly disturbed. The contrast between the Joan she had known until this week, good-humoured, a little aloof, contented with herself and her ambitions, placid, self-contained, and this lovely girl, troubled to the heart's core, with her beseeching eyes and trembling lips touched her poignantly, meltingly.
"Oh, Joan, I don't like it!" she whispered. "What mad thing have you done?"
"Nothing that can't be put right! Nothing! Nothing!" Joan caught eagerly at the argument. "Oh, I was a fool! But if you'll only help me to-night, I am sure everything will be arranged."
The words were bold enough, but the girl's voice trailed off into a low, unsteady whisper, as terror at the rash plan which she had made and must now carry through caught at her heart. "Oh, Miranda, do be kind!"
"When do you want the car?" asked Miranda.
"Immediately after we get to Harrel."
Miranda herself was growing frightened. She stood torn with indecision. Joan's distress pleaded on the one side, dread of some tragic mystery upon the other. For the first time in her life Joan was in some desperate crisis of destiny. Her feet and hands twitched as though she were bound fast in the coils of a net she could not break. What wisdom of experience could she bring to help her to escape? On what wild and hopeless venture might she not be set?
"Yes, yes," Joan urged eagerly. "I have thought it all out. I want you to tell your chauffeur privately to return along the avenue after he has set you down. There's a road on the right a few yards down. If he will turn into that and wait behind the big clump of rhododendrons I will join him immediately."
"But it will be noticed that you have gone. People will ask for you," Miranda objected.
"No, I shall be back again within the hour. There will be a crowd of people. And lots won't imagine that I should ever come to the dance at all." Even at that moment a little smile played about the lips. "And if the ball had been a week ago, I shouldn't have gone, should I? I should still be wearing sandals," she explained, as she looked down at the buckles of her trim satin slippers, "and haughtily wishing you all good night in the hall here. No, it will be easy enough. I shall just shake hands with Mrs. Willoughby, pass on with the rest of our party into the ball-room and then slip out by the corridor at the side of the park."
"It's dangerous, Joan!" said Miranda.
"Oh, I know, but——" Joan rose suddenly with her eyes upon the door. "The others are coming. Miranda, will you help me? I would have driven over to Harrel in my own little car. But it's open and I should have got blown about until everybody would have begun asking why in the world I used it. Oh, Miranda, quick!"
Her ears had heard the voices already in the hall. Miranda heard them too. In a moment the door would be thrown open. She must make up her mind now.
"Very well. The first turning to the right down the avenue and behind the rhododendrons. I'll tell the chauffeur."
"And no one else! Not even Dennis!"
"No, not even Dennis! Promise me!"
Millie Splay was heard to be inquiring for them both.
"Very well. I promise!"
"Oh, thank you! Thank you."
The door from the hall was opened upon that cry of gratitude and Millie Splay looked in.
"Oh, there you are." A movement of chairs became audible in the dining-room. "And those men are still sitting over their miserable cigars."
"They are coming," said Joan, and the next moment the dining-room door was thrown open and Sir Chichester with his guests trooped out from it.
"Now then, you girls, we ought to be off," he cried as if he had been waiting with his coat on for half an hour. "This is none of your London dances. We are in the country. You won't any of you get any partners if you don't hurry."
"Well, I like that!" returned Millie Splay. "Here we all are, absolutely waiting for you!"
Mr. Albany Todd approached Joan.
"You will keep a dance for me?"
"Of course. The third before supper," answered Joan.
Already Sir Chichester was putting on his coat in the hall.
"Come on! Come on!" he cried impatiently, and then in quite another tone, "Oh!"
The evening papers had arrived late that evening. They now lay neatly folded on the hall table. Sir Chichester pounced upon them. The throbbing motor-cars at the door, the gay figures of his guests were all forgotten. He plumped down upon a couch.
"There!" cried Millie Splay in despair. "Now we can all sit down for half an hour."
"Nonsense, my dear, nonsense! I just want to see whether there is any report of my little speech at the Flower Show yesterday." He turned over the leaves. "Not a word apparently, here! And yet it was an occasion of some importance. I can't understand these fellows."
He tossed the paper aside and took up another. "Just a second, dear!"
Millie Splay looked around at her guests with much the same expression of helpless wonderment which was so often to be seen on the face of Dennis Brown, when Miranda went racing.
"It's the limit!" she declared.
There were two, however, of the party, who were not at all distressed by Sir Chichester's procrastination. When the others streamed into the hall, Joan lingered behind, sedulously buttoning her gloves which were buttoned before; and Harry Luttrell returned to assist her. The door was three-quarters closed. From the hall no one could see them.
"You are going to dance with me in the passage," he said.
Joan smiled at him and nodded. Now that Miranda had given way, Joan's spirits had revived. The colour was bright in her cheeks, her eyes were tender.
"Yes, but not at once."
"I'll finish my duty dances first," said Joan in a low voice. She did not take her eyes from his face. She let him read, she meant him to read, in her eyes what lay so close at her heart. Harry Luttrell read without an error, the print was so large, the type so clear. He took a step nearer to her.
"Joan!" he whispered; and at this, his first use of her Christian name, her face flowered like a rose.
"Thank you!" she said softly. "Oh, thank you!"
Harry Luttrell looked over his shoulder. They had the room to themselves, so long as they did not raise their voices.
"Joan," he began with a little falter in his voice. Could he have pleaded better in a thousand fine speeches, he who had seen his men wither about him on the Somme, than by that little timorous quaver in his voice? "Joan, I have something to ask of you to-night. I meant to ask it during a dance, when you couldn't run away. But I am going to ask it now."
Joan drew back sharply.
"No! Please wait!" and as she saw his face cloud, she hurried on. "Oh, don't be hurt! You misunderstand. How you misunderstand! Take me in to supper to-night, will you? And then you shall talk to me, and I'll listen." Her voice rose like clear sweet music in a lilt of joy. "I'll listen with all my heart, my hands openly in yours if you will, so that all may see and know my pride!"
"Joan!" he whispered.
"But not now! Not till then!"
Harry Luttrell did not consider what scruple in the girl's conscience held him off. The delay did not trouble him at all. She stood before him, radiant in her beauty, her happiness like an aura about her.
"Joan," he whispered again, and—how it happened who shall say?—in a second she was within his arms, her heart throbbing against his; her hands stole about his shoulders; their lips were pressed together.
"Harry! Oh, Harry!" she murmured. Then very gently she pushed him from her. She shook her head with a wistful little smile.
"I didn't mean you to do that," she said in self-reproach, "until after supper."
In the hall Sir Chichester threw down the last of the newspapers in a rage. "Not a word! Not one single miserable little word! I don't ask much, goodness knows, but——" and his voice went up in an angry incredulity. "Not one word! And I thought the Harpoon was such a good paper too!"
Sir Chichester sprang to his feet. He glanced at his guests. He turned upon his wife.
"God bless my soul, Millie, what are we waiting for? I'll tell you girls what it is. Unless we get off at once, we had better not go at all. Where's Joan? Where's Luttrell?"
"Here we are!" cried Luttrell from the library, and in a lower tone to Joan, he observed, "What a bore people are to be sure, aren't they?"
The guilty couple emerged into the hall. Sir Chichester surveyed them with severity.
"I don't know whether you have heard about it, Luttrell, but there's a ball to-night at Harrel, and we all rather thought of going to it," he remarked with crushing sarcasm.
"I am quite ready, sir," replied Harry humbly. Sir Chichester was mollified.
"Very well then. We'll go."
"But Mrs. Croyle isn't down yet," said Miranda.
"Stella isn't going, dear," answered Millie Splay; and a cry of dismay burst from Joan.
The consternation in the girl's voice was so pronounced that every eye in that hall turned to her in astonishment. There was consternation, too, most legible in her widely-opened eyes. Her cheeks had lost their colour. She stood for a fleeting moment before them all, an image of terror. Then she caught at an excuse.
"Stella's ill then—since she's not going."
"It's not as bad as all that, dear," Lady Splay hastened to reassure her. "She complained of a racking headache at dinner. She has gone to bed."
The blood flowed back into Joan's cheeks.
"Oh, I see!" she observed slowly. "That is why her maid came to the library for a book!"
But she was very silent throughout the quarter of an hour, which it took them to drive to Harrel. There was somebody left behind at Rackham Park that night. Joan had overlooked one possibility in contriving her plan, and that possibility, now developed into fact, threatened to ruin all. One guest remained behind in the house, and that one Joan's rival.
JENNY PRASK IS INTERESTED
Rackham was a red Georgian mansion with great windows in flat rows, and lofty rooms made beautiful by the delicate tracery of the ceilings. It has neither wings nor embellishments but stood squarely in its gardens, looking southwards to the Downs. The dining-room was upon the east side, between that room and the hall was the library, of which the window faced the north. Mrs. Croyle's bedroom, however, was in the south-west corner and from its windows one could see the smoke of the train as it climbed from Midhurst to the Cocking tunnel, and the gap where the road runs through to Singleton.
"You won't be going to bed yet, madam, I suppose," said Jenny.
She had not troubled to bring upstairs into the room the book which she had picked out at random from the stand that was lying on the hall table.
"No, Jenny. I will ring for you when I want you," said Stella.
Stella was dispirited. Her week was nearly at an end. To-morrow would be the last day and she had gained nothing, it seemed, by all her care. Harry was kind—oh, ever so much kinder than in the old days when they had been together—more considerate, more thoughtful. But the skies of passion are stormily red, and so effulgent that one walks in gold. Consideration, thoughtfulness—what were these pale things worth against one spurt of fire? Besides, there was the ball to-night. He would dance with her, would seek the dim open spaces of the lawns, the dark shadows of the great elms, with her—with Joan.
"I'll ring for you, Jenny," she repeated, as her maid stood doubtfully by the door. "I am quite right."
"Very well, madam."
Stella Croyle's eyes were drawn when she was left alone to that cupboard in which her dressing-bag was stowed away. But she arrested them and covered them with her hands.
"This is my last chance," she said to herself aloud in the anguish of her spirit. If it failed, there was nothing in front of her but a loneliness which each year must augment. Youth and high spirits or the assumption of high spirits—these she must have if she were to keep her place in her poor little circle—and both were slipping from her fast. "This is my last chance." She stood in front of her mirror in her dancing frock, her dark hair exquisitely dressed, her face hauntingly wistful. After all, she was beautiful. Why shouldn't she win? Jenny thought that she could.
At that moment Jenny was slipping noiselessly along a corridor to the northern side of the house. The lights were all off; a pencil of moonlight here and there from an interstice in the curtains alone touched her as she passed. At one window she stopped, and softly lifted the blind. She looked out and was satisfied.
"Thought so!" she murmured, with a little vindictive smile. Just beneath her was that long window of the library which Joan had been at such pains to arrange.
Jenny stationed herself by the window. The night was very still. She could hear the voices of the servants in the dining-room round the angle of the house, and see the light from its windows lying in frames upon the grass. Then the light went out, and silence fell.
From time to time the hum of a motor-car swelled and diminished to its last faint vibrations on the distant road; and as each car passed Jenny stiffened at her post. She looked at her watch, turning the dial to the moonlight. It was ten minutes past nine now. The cars had left Rackham Park well before nine. She would not have long to wait now! As she slipped her watch again into her waistband she drew back with an instinctive movement, although the window at which she stood had been this last half-hour in shadow. For under a great copper beech on the grass in front of her a man was standing. The sight of him was a shock to her.
She wondered how he had come, how long he had been there—and why? Some explanation flashed upon her.
"My goodness me!" she whispered. "You could knock me down with a hairpin. So you could!"
Whilst she watched that solitary figure beneath the tree, another motor whizzed along the road. The noise of its engine grew louder—surely louder than any which, standing at this window, she had heard before. Had it turned into the park? off the main road. Was it coming to the house? Before Jenny could answer these questions in her mind, the noise ceased altogether. Jenny held her breath; and round the angle of the house a girl came running swiftly, her skirt sparkling like silver in the moonlight, and a white cloak drawn about her shoulders. She drew open the window of the library and passed in. A few seconds passed. Jenny imagined her stealthily opening the door into the hall, and listening to make sure that the servants were in their own quarters and this part of the house deserted. Then the girl reappeared at the window and made a sign. From beneath the tree the man ran across the grass. His face was turned towards Jenny, and the moonlight revealed it. The man was Mario Escobar.
Jenny drew a little sharp breath. She heard the window ever so gently latched. Suddenly the light blazed out from the room and then, strip by strip, vanished, as if the curtains had been cautiously drawn. The garden, the house resumed its aspect of quiet; all was as it had been when Jenny Prask first lifted the window of the corridor. Jenny Prask crept cautiously away.
"Fancy that!" she said to herself, with a little chuckle of triumph.
In the room below Mario Escobar and Joan Whitworth were talking.
IN A LIBRARY
"You insisted that I should see you. You have something to say to me," said Joan. She was breathing more quickly than usual and the blood fluttered in her cheeks, but she faced Mario Escobar with level eyes, and spoke without a tremor in her voice. So far everything had happened just as she had planned. There were these few difficult minutes now to be grappled with, and afterwards the ordeal would be ended, that foolish chapter in her life altogether closed. "Will you please be quick?" she pleaded.
But Mario Escobar was in no hurry to answer. He had never imagined that Joan Whitworth could look so beautiful. He had never dreamed that she would take so much trouble. Mario Escobar understood women's clothes, and his eyes ran with a sensation of pleasure over her delicate frock with its shining bands, its embroidery of silver and flounces of fine lace, down to her slim brocaded shoes. He had not, indeed, thought very much of her in the days when Linda Spavinsky was queen. She had been a sort of challenge to him, because of her aloofness, her indifference. Women were his profession, and here was a queer outlandish one whom it would be amusing to parade as his. So he had set to work; he had a sense of art, he could talk with ingenuity on artistic matters, and he had flattered Joan by doing so; but always with a certain definite laughter and contempt for her. Now her beauty rather swept him off his feet. He looked at her in amazement. Why this change? And—the second question for ever in his mind—how could he profit by it?
"I don't understand," he said slowly, feeling his way. "We were good friends—very good friends." Joan neither denied nor agreed. "We had certain things in common, a love of art, of the finer things of life. I made enemies, of course, in consequence. Your racing friends——" He paused. "Milly Splay, who would have matched you with some dull, tiresome squire accustomed to sleep over his port after dinner, the sort of man you are drawing so brilliantly in your wonderful book." A movement of impatience on Joan's part perplexed him. Authors! You can generally lay your praise on with a trowel. What in the world was the matter with Joan? He hurried on. "I understood that I was making enemies. I understood, too, why I was no longer invited to Rackham Park. I was a foreigner. I would as soon visit a picture gallery as shoot a pheasant. I would as soon appreciate your old gates and houses in the country as gallop after a poor little fox on the downs. Oh, yes, I wasn't popular. That I understand. But you!" and his voice softened to a gentle reproach. "You were different! And you had the courage of your difference! Since I was not invited to Rackham Park, I was to come down to the inn at Midhurst. I was to drive over—publicly, most publicly—and ask for you. We would show them that there were finer things in the world than horse-racing and lawn tennis. Oh, yes. We arranged it all at that wonderful exhibition of the New School in Green Street."
Joan writhed a little at her recollection of the pictures of the rotundists and of the fatuous aphorisms to which she had given utterance.
"I come to Midhurst accordingly, and what happens? You scribble me out a curt little letter. I am not to come to Rackham Park. I am not to try to see you. And you are writing to-morrow. But to-morrow comes, and you don't write—no, not one line!"
"It was so difficult," Joan answered. She spoke diffidently. Some of her courage had gone from her; she was confronted with so direct, so unanswerable an accusation. "I thought that you would understand that I did not wish to see you again. I thought that you would accept my wish."
Mario Escobar laughed unpleasantly.
"Why should I?"
"Because most men have that chivalry," said Joan.
Mario Escobar only smiled this time. He smiled with narrowed eves and a gleam of white teeth behind his black moustache. He was amused, like a man who receives ridiculous answers from a child.
"It is easy to see that you have read the poets—Joan," he replied deliberately.
Joan's face flamed. Never had she been addressed with so much insolence. Chaff she was accustomed to, but it was always chaff mitigated by a tenderness of real affection. Insolence and disdain were quite new to her, and they hurt intolerably. Joan, however, was learning her lessons fairly quickly. She had to get this meeting over as swiftly and quietly as she could, and high words would not help.
"It's true," she admitted meekly. "I know very little."
Joan looked very lovely as she stood nervously drumming with her gloved fingers on a little table which stood between them, all her assurance gone.
Mario Escobar lived always on the whirling edge of passion. The least extra leap of the water caught him and drew him in. He gazed at Joan, and the computing look which cast up her charms made her suddenly hot from head to foot. The good-looking, pretentious fool whom it had been amusing to exhibit amidst the black frowns of her circle had suddenly become exquisitely desirable for herself as a prize, with her beauty, her dainty care to tend it, and her delicious clothes. She would now be a real credit! Escobar took a step towards her.
"After all," he said, "we were such good friends. We had little private interests which we did not share with other people. Surely it was natural that I should wish to see you again."
Mario was speaking smoothly enough now. His voice, his eyes actually caressed her. She was at pains to repress a shiver of physical repulsion. But she remembered his letter very clearly. It had expressed no mere wish to see her. It had claimed a right with a vague threat of making trouble if the right were not conceded. She had recognised the right, not out of the fear of the threat so much—although that weighed with her, as out of a longing to have done with him for good and all. Instinct had told her that this was the last type of man to find favour in Harry Luttrell's eyes, that she herself would be lowered from her high pedestal in his heart, if he knew of the false friendship.
"Well, I agreed to see you," she replied. "But I have to go back to the ball. Will you please to be quick?"
"The time and the place were of your own choice."
"My choice!" Joan answered. "I had no choice. A girl amongst visitors in a country house—when is she free? When is she alone? She can keep to her room—yes! But that's all her liberty. Let her go out, there will be some one at her side."
"If she is like you—no doubt," said Escobar, and again he smiled at her covetously. Joan shook the compliment off her with a hitch of her shoulders.
"We could have met in a hundred places," Mario continued.
"I could have come to call on you as we arranged."
"No!" cried Joan with more vigour than wisdom in her voice. She had a picture of him, of the embarrassment of the Splays and her friends, of the disapproval of Harry Luttrell.
Escobar was quick when he dealt with women, quick and sensitive. The passionate denial did not escape him. He began to divine the true cause of this swift upheaval and revolution in her.
"You could have sent me a card for the Willoughbys' dance. It would have been easy enough for us to meet there."
Again she replied, "No!" A note of obstinacy was audible.
Joan did not answer at all.
"I'll tell you," Escobar flashed out at her angrily. "You wouldn't be seen with me any more! Suddenly, you would not be seen with me—no, not for the world! That's the truth, isn't it? That's why you come secretly back and bid me meet you in an empty house."
"Hush!" pleaded Joan.
Mario Escobar's voice had risen as his own words flogged him to a keener indignation.
"Why should I care if all the world hears me?" he replied roughly. "Why should I consider you, who turn me down the moment it suits you, without a reason? It's fairly galling to me, I assure you."
Joan nodded her head. Mario Escobar had some right upon his side, she was ready to acknowledge.
"I beg your pardon," she said simply. "Won't you please be content with that and leave things as they are?"
"When you are a little older you will know that you can never leave things as they are," answered Mario. "I was looking forward to a week of happiness. I have had a week of torment. For lesser insults than yours, men kill in my country."
There were other differences, too, between her country and his. Joan did not cry out, or burst into tears or flinch in any way. She was alone in this room; there was no one, as far as she knew, within the reach of her voice. She had chosen this meeting-place, not altogether because the house would be empty, but because in this first serious difficulty of her life she would be amongst familiar things and draw from them confidence and strength, and a sense of security. With Mario Escobar in front of her, his face ablaze with passion, the security vanished altogether. Yet all the more she was raised to the top of her courage.
"Then I shall tell you the truth," she answered gently. "You speak to me of our friendship. It was never anything serious to me. It was a taunt—a foolish taunt to other people."
Mario Escobar flinched, as if she had struck him in the face.
"Yes, I hurt you," she went on in the same gentle voice, which was not the least element in Escobar's humiliation. "I am very sorry. I tried not to hurt you. I am very ignorant, as you have told me, but I wouldn't believe it till a week ago. I made it my pride to be different from anybody else. I believed that I was different. I was a fool. I wouldn't listen. Even during the war. I have shut myself up away from it, trying not to share in the effort, not to feel the pride and the sorrow, pretending that it was just a horrible, sordid business altogether beneath lofty minds! That's one of the reasons why I chose you for my friend! I was flinging my glove in the face of the little world I knew. I had got to be different. It's all very shameful to tell, and I am sorry. Oh, how I am sorry!"
Her sorrow was most evident. She had sunk down upon a couch, her fair head drooping and the tears now running down her cheeks in the bitterness of her shame. But Mario Escobar was untouched by any pity. If any thought occurred to him outside his burning humiliation, it was prompted by the economy of the Spaniard.
"She'll spoil that frock if she goes on crying," he said to himself, "and it was very expensive."
"I have nothing but remorse to offer in atonement," she went on. "But that remorse is very sincere——"
Mario Escobar swept her plea aside with a furious gesture.
"So that's it!" he cried. "You were just making a fool of me!" That she, this pretty pink and white girl, should have been making a show of him, parading him before her friends, exhibiting him, using him as a challenge—just as in fact he had been using her, and with more success! Only to think of it hurt him like a knife. "Your remorse!" he cried scornfully. "There's some one else, of course!"
Joan sat up straight and stiff. Escobar might have laid a lash across her delicate shoulders.
"Yes," she said defiantly.
"Some one who was not here a week ago?"
To Escobar's humiliation was now added a sudden fire of jealousy. For the first time to-night, as woman, as flesh and blood, she was adorable, and she owed this transformation, not to him, no, not in the tiniest fraction of a degree to him, but to some one else, some dull boor without niceties or deftness, who had stormed into her life within the week. Who was it? He had got to know. But Joan was hardly thinking of Escobar. Her eyes were turned from him.
"He has set me free from many vanities and follies. If I am grieved and ashamed now, I owe it thankfully to him. If my remorse is bitter, it is because through him I have a gleam of light which helps me to understand."
"And you have told him what you have told me?"
"No, but I shall to-night when all this is over, when I go back to Harrel."
Mario Escobar moved closer to her.
"Are you so sure that you are going back to Harrel to-night?" he asked in a low voice.
"Yes," she replied, and only after she had spoken did the menace of his voice force itself into her mind as something which she must take into account. She looked up at him startled, and as she looked her wonderment turned into stark fear. The cry that in his country men killed had left her unmoved. But she was afraid now, desperately afraid, all the more afraid because she thought of the man searching for her through the reception-rooms at Harrel.
"We are alone here in an empty quarter of the house. So you arranged it," he continued. "Good! Women do not amuse themselves at my expense without being paid for it."
Joan started up in a panic, but Escobar seized her shoulders and forced her down again.
"Sit still," he cried savagely. Then his face changed. For the first time for many minutes his lips parted in a smile of pleasure.
"You are very lovely, Joan. I love to see you like that—afraid—trembling. It is the beginning of recompense."
Joan had tumbled into a deeper pit than any she had dreamed of. In desperation she cast about for means to climb out of it. The secrecy of this meeting—that must go. But, even so, was there escape? The bell? Before she could be half-way across the room, he would be holding her in his arms. A cry? Before it was half uttered, he would have stifled her mouth. No, she must sit very still and provoke no movement by him.
Mario Escobar was a creature of unhealthy refinements. He wanted to know, first, who was the man who had touched this indifferent maiden into warm life. The knowledge would be an extra spice to his pleasure.
"Who are staying in the house?" he asked. It would be amusing to make his selection, and discover if he were right.
"Dennis Brown, Harold Jupp"—Joan began, puzzled by his question, yet welcoming it as so much delay.
"I don't want to hear about them," Mario Escobar replied. "Tell me of the new-comers!"
"Martin Hillyard——" Joan began again, and was aware that Mario Escobar made a quick startled movement and gasped. Martin Hillyard's name was a pail of cold water for Escobar.
"Does Hillyard know that I am at Midhurst?" he asked sharply.
"No," Joan answered.
There was something which Hillyard had told her about Mario Escobar, something which she had rejected and dismissed altogether from her thoughts. Then she remembered. Escobar was an enemy working in England against England. She had given the statement no weight whatever. It was the sort of thing people said of unconventional people they disliked in order to send them to Coventry. But Escobar's start and Escobar's question put a different value upon it. Joan caught at it. Of what use could it be to her? Of some use, surely, if only she had the wit to divine it. But she was in such a disorder of fear and doubt that every idea went whirling about and about in her mind. She raised her hand to her forehead, keeping her eyes upon Escobar. She felt as helpless as a child. Almost she regretted the love which had so violently mastered her. It had made clear to her her ignorance and so stripped her of all assurance and left her defenceless.
But even in the tumult of her thoughts, she began to recognise a change. The air was less charged with terror. There was less of passion and anger in Mario Escobar, and more of speculation. He watched her in a gloomy silence, and each moment she took fresh heart. With a swift movement he seated himself on the couch beside her.
Joan sprang up with a little cry, and her heart thumping in her breast.
"Hush!" said Escobar. Yes, it was now he who pleaded for secrecy and a quiet voice.
There was a stronger passion in Mario than the love of women, and that was the love of money. Women were to him mainly the means to money. They were easier to get, too, if you were not over particular. Money was a rare, shy thing, except to an amazing few who accumulated it by some obscure, magnetic attraction; and opportunities of acquisition were not to be missed.