"Hush!" he said. "You treated me badly, Joan. It was right that I should teach you a lesson—frighten you a little, eh?"
He smiled at her with eyes half closed and eyelids cunningly blinking. Now that her fears were weakening Joan found his impertinence almost insufferable. But she held her tongue and waited.
"But you owe me a return, don't you?"
Joan did not move.
"A little return—which will cost you nothing at all. You know that I represent a line of ships. You can help me. We have rivals, with active agents. You shall find out for me exactly what Martin Hillyard is doing in the Mediterranean, and why he visits in a yacht the ports of Spain. You will find this out for me, so that I may know whether he is acting for my rivals. Yes."
"He is not," answered Joan.
"You will find this out for me, so that I may know," Escobar repeated smoothly. "Exactly what he is doing in the Mediterranean, what special plans, and why he visits in a yacht the ports of Spain. You promise me that knowledge, and you can go straight back to your dancing."
"I have no knowledge," said Joan quietly.
"But you can obtain it," Escobar insisted. "He is a friend of yours. Exactly what he is doing—is it not so?"
So Martin's accusation was true. Joan nodded her head, and Escobar, with a smile of relief, took the gesture as a consent to his proposal.
"Good!" he said, rising from the couch. "Then all is forgiven! You will make some notes——"
"I will do nothing of the kind," said Joan quietly, but she was white to the edge of her lips, and she trembled from head to foot. But there was no room any more for fear in her. She was in a heat of anger which she had never known. "Oh, that you should dare!" and her words choked her.
Mario Escobar stared at her.
"With all my soul."
Escobar took a step towards her, but she did not move.
"You are alone with me, when you should be dancing at the ball. You made the appointment, chose the hour, the place ... even if you scream, there will be a scandal, a disgrace."
"I don't care."
"And the man you are in love with, eh? That makes a difference," he said, as he saw the girl falter. "Do we think of him?"
"No," said Joan. "We incur the disgrace."
She saw his eyes open wide with terror. He drew a step away from her. "Oh!" he exclaimed, in a long-drawn whisper; and he looked at Joan with incredulity and hatred. "You——" he used some Spanish word which Joan did not catch. It would have told her little if she had caught it. It was "Cabron," a harmless, inoffensive word which has become in Spain the ultimate low word of abuse. "You have laid a trap for me."
Joan answered him in a bewilderment. "I have laid no trap for you," and there was so much scorn and contempt in her voice that Escobar could hardly disbelieve her.
But he was shaken. He was in a panic. He was in a haste to go. Money—yes. But you must live in order to enjoy it.
"I will give you a day to think over my proposal," he said, stammering the words in his haste. And then, "Don't write to me! I will find a means," and, almost before she was aware of his movements, he had snatched up his cap, and the room was empty. The curtain was torn aside; the glass door stood open; beyond it the garden lay white in the light of the moon.
"A trap?" Joan repeated his accusation in a perplexity. She turned and she saw the door, the door behind her, which Escobar had faced, the door into the hall, slowly open. There had been no turning of the handle, it was unlatched before. Yet Joan had seen to it that it was shut before ever she beckoned Mario Escobar into the room. Some one, then, had been listening. Mario Escobar had seen the handle move, the door drawn ajar. Joan saw it open now to its full width, and in the entrance Stella Croyle.
A FATAL KINDNESS
Joan picked up her cloak and arranged it upon her shoulders. She did not give one thought to Stella, or even hear the words which Stella began nervously to speak. Her secret appointment would come to light now in any case. It would very likely cost her—oh, all the gold and glamour of the world. It would be bandied about in gossip over the tea-tables, in the street, at the Clubs, in the Press. Sir Chichester ought to be happy, at all events. The thought struck her with a wry humour, and brought a smile to her lips. He would accomplish his dream. Without effort, without a letter or a telephone call, or a rebuff, he would have such publicity as he could hardly have hoped for. "Who is that?" Joan made up a little scene. "That? Oh, don't you know? That's Sir Chichester Splay. You must have heard of Sir Chichester! Why, it was in his house that the Whitworth girl, rather pretty but an awful fool, carried on with the spy-man."
Joan was a little overstrung. All the while she was powdering her nose in front of a mirror and removing as best she could the traces of tears, and all the while Mrs. Croyle was stammering words and words and words behind her. Joan regretted that Stella was not going to the Willoughbys' ball. If she had been, she would probably be carrying some rouge in her little hand-bag, and Joan might have borrowed some.
"Well, since you haven't got any with you, I must go," said Joan, bursting suddenly into Stella's monologue. But she had caught a name spoken just before Stella stopped in her perplexity at Joan's outbreak.
"Harry Luttrell!" Joan repeated. What in the world had Stella Croyle got to say to her about Harry Luttrell? But Stella resumed her faltering discourse and the sense of her words penetrated at last to Joan's brain and amazed her.
Joan was to leave Harry Luttrell alone.
"You are quite young," said Stella, "only twenty. What does he matter to you? You have everything in front of you. With your looks and your twenty years you can choose where you will. You have lovers already——"
"I?" Joan interrupted.
Joan repeated the name with such a violence of scorn that for a moment Stella Croyle was silenced.
"He was here with you a moment ago."
Joan answered quietly and quite distinctly:
"I wish he were dead!"
Stella Croyle fell back upon her first declaration.
"You must leave my Wub alone."
Joan laughed aloud, harshly and without any merriment. She checked herself with an effort lest she should go on laughing, and her laughter turn uncontrollably into hysteria and tears. Here was Mrs. Croyle, a grown woman, standing in front of her like a mutinous obstinate child, looking like one too, talking like one and bidding Joan leave her Wub alone. Whence did she get that ridiculous name? It was all degrading and grotesque.
"Your Wub! Your Wub!" she cried in a heat. "Yes, I am only twenty, and probably I am quite wrong and stupid. But it seems to me horrible that we two women should be wrangling over a man neither of us had met a week ago. I'll have no more of it."
She flung towards the window, but Stella Croyle cried out, "A week ago!" and the cry brought her to a stop. Joan turned and looked doubtfully at Mrs. Croyle. After all, that ridiculous label had not been pasted on to Harry Luttrell as a result of a week's acquaintance. Harry Luttrell had certainly talked to Stella through the greater part of an evening, his first evening in the house, but they had hardly been together at all since then. Joan came back slowly into the room.
"So you knew Colonel Luttrell before this week?"
"We were great friends a few years ago."
It was disturbing to Joan that Harry Luttrell had never spoken to her of this friendship. Was it possible that Stella had a claim upon him of which she herself knew nothing? She sat down at a table in front of Mrs. Croyle.
"Tell me," she said.
Once, long ago, upon the deck of the Dragonfly at Stockholm, Stella had cried out to Harry Luttrell, "Oh, what a cruel mistake you made when you went out of your way to be kind!" Joan was now to hear how that cry had come to be uttered by a woman in the nethermost distress. She knew, of course, that Stella was married at the age of seventeen and had been divorced, but little more than that.
"There was a little girl," said Stella, "my baby. I lost her."
She spoke very simply. She had come to the end of efforts and schemes, and was very tired. Joan's anger died away altogether in her heart.
"Oh, I am very sorry," she replied. "I didn't know that you had a little girl."
"Yes. Look, here is her portrait." Stella Croyle drew out from her bosom a locket which hung night and day against her heart, and showed it to Joan across the table. "But I don't know whether she is little any more. She is thirteen now."
Joan gazed at the painted miniature of a lovely child with the eyes and the hair of Stella Croyle.
"And you lost her altogether?" she asked with a rising pity.
"Not at first," answered Stella. "I was allowed by the Court to have her with me for one month in every year. And I lived the other eleven months for the one, the wonderful one."
Stella's face softened indescribably. The memory of her child did for her what all her passion for Harry Luttrell could not do. It restored her youth. Her eyes grew tender, her mouth quivered, the look of conflict vanished altogether.
"We had good times together, my baby and I. I took her to the sea. It sounds foolish, but we were more like a couple of children together than mother and daughter"; and Joan, looking at the delicate, porcelain-like figure in front of her, smiled in response.
"Yes, I can understand that."
"She was with me every minute," Stella Croyle resumed. "I watched her so, I gave her so much of me that when I had seen her off at the station with her nurse at the end of the month, I was left behind, as weak and limp as an invalid. I lived for her, Joan, believe that at all events in my favour! There was no one else."
"I do believe it."
"Then one year in the winter she did not come to me."
"They kept her back!" cried Joan. "But you had the right to her."
"Yes. And I went down to Exeter to her father's house, to fetch her away."
It was curious that Stella Croyle, who was speaking of her own distressful life, told her story with a quiet simplicity of tone, as if she had bent her neck in submission to the hammer strokes of her destiny; whereas Joan, who was but listening to griefs of another, was stirred to a compassion which kindled her face and made her voice shake.
"Oh, they hadn't sent her away! She was waiting for you," she cried eagerly.
"She was waiting for me. Yes! But it was no longer my baby who was waiting. They had worked on her, Robert, my husband—and his sisters. They had told her—oh, more than they need! That I was bad."
"Oh!" breathed Joan.
"Yes, they were a little cruel. They had changed baby altogether. She was just eight at that time." Stella stopped for a moment or two. Her voice did not falter but her eyes suddenly swam with tears. "She used to adore me—she really and truly did. Now her little face and her eyes were like flint. And what do you think she said to me? Just this! 'Mummy, I don't want to go with you. If you take me with you, you'll spoil my holidays!'"
Joan shot back in her chair.
"But they had taught her to say that?"
Stella Croyle shook her head.
"They had taught her to dislike me. My little girl has character. She wouldn't have repeated the words, because she had been taught them. No, she meant them."
"But a day or two with you and she would have forgotten them. Oh, she did forget them!"
In her great longing to comfort the woman, whose deep anguish she divined beneath the quiet desolation of her voice, Joan overleapt her own knowledge. She was still young enough to will that past events had not occurred, and that things true were false.
"I didn't take her," replied Stella Croyle. "I wouldn't take her. I knew baby—besides she had struck me too hard."
"You came away alone!" whispered Joan.
"In the cab which I had kept waiting at the door to take us both away."
"That's terrible!" said Joan. The child with her lovely face set like flint in the room, the mother creeping out of the house and stumbling alone into the fly at the door—the picture was vivid before her eyes. Joan wrung her hands with a little helpless gesture, and a moan upon her lips. Almost it seemed that these sad things were actually happening to her; so poignantly she felt them.
"Oh, and you had all that long journey back to London, the journey you had dreamt of for eleven months with your baby at your side—you had now to take it alone."
Stella Croyle shook her head.
"No! There was just one and only one of my friends—and not at all a great friend—who had the imagination to understand, as you understand too, Joan, just what that journey would have meant to me, if anything had gone wrong, and the kindness to put himself out to make its endurance a little easier."
Joan drew back quickly.
"Harry Luttrell," she whispered.
"Yes. He had once been stationed at Exeter. He knew Robert Croyle and the sisters. He guessed what might happen to me. Perhaps he knew that it was going to happen."
So, when Stella, having pulled down her veil that none might see her face, was stumbling along the platform in search of an empty carriage, a hand was very gently laid upon her and Harry Luttrell was at her side. He had come all the way from London to befriend her, should she need it. If he had seen her with her little girl, he would have kept out of sight and himself have returned to London by a later train.
"That was fine," cried Joan.
"Fine, yes!" answered Stella. "You realise that, Joan, and you have never been in real trouble, or known what men are when kindness interferes with their comfort. I am not blaming people, but women do get the worst of it, if they are fools enough—wicked enough if you like, to do as I did. I knew men—lots of them. I was bound to. I was fair game, you see."
Joan's forehead wrinkled. The doors of knowledge had been opening very rapidly for her during the last few minutes. But she was still often at a loss.
"Fair game. Why? I don't understand."
"I had been divorced. Therefore I wasn't dangerous. Complications couldn't follow from a little affair with me." Stella explained bitterly. "I had men on my doorstep always. But not one of these men who protested and made love to me, would have put themselves out to do what Harry Luttrell did. It was fine—yes. But for three years I have been wondering whether Harry Luttrell would not really have been kinder if he had thought of his own comfort too, and had never travelled to Exeter to befriend me."
"Why?" asked Joan.
"I should have thrown myself out of the carriage and saved myself—oh, so much sorrow afterwards," Stella Croyle answered in so simple and natural a voice that Joan could not disbelieve her.
Joan clasped her hands before her eyes and then gazed again at Stella sitting in front of her, with pity and wonder. It was so hard for her to understand that this pretty woman, who made it her business to be gay, whom she had met from time to time in this house and had chatted with and forgotten, had passed through so dreadful an ordeal of suffering and humiliation. She was to look closer still into the mysteries which were being revealed to her.
Harry Luttrell had held Stella in his arms just as if she had been a child herself whilst the train rushed through the bleak winter country. Stella had behaved like a child, now sobbing in a passion of grief, now mutinous in a passion of rage, now silent and despairing under the weights that nothing, neither sympathy, nor grief, nor revolt, can lift.
"He took me home. He stayed with me. Oh, it wasn't love," cried Stella. "He was afraid."
"Afraid!" asked Joan. She wished to know every least detail of the story now.
"Afraid lest I should take—something ... as I wished to do ... as during the trouble of the divorce I learned to do."
She related little ridiculous incidents which Joan listened to with a breaking heart. Stella could not sleep at all after her return. She lived in a little house with a big garden on the northern edge of London, and all night she lay awake, listening to the patter of rain on melancholy trees, and thinking and thinking. Harry Luttrell kept her from the drugs in her dressing-case. She had no anodyne for her sorrows—but one.
"You will laugh," said Stella with a little wry smile of her own, "when I tell you what it was. It was a gramophone. I got Harry to set it going, whilst I lay in bed—to set it playing rag-time. While it was playing, I stopped thinking. For I had to keep time in my brain with the beat of the tune. And so, at last, since I couldn't think, or remember, I fell asleep. The gramophone saved me"; and again Joan was smitten by the incongruity of Stella with her life. She had eaten of all that nature allots to women—love, marriage, the birth of children, the loss of them—and there she was, to this day half-child, and quite incompatible with what she had suffered and endured.
"After a fortnight I got quieter of course," said Stella. "And suddenly a change sadder than anything I have told you took place in me. I suppose that I had gone through too much on baby's account for me. I lost something more than my baby, I lost my want to have her with me."
She remained silent for a little while reviewing the story which she had told.
"There, that's all," she said, rising suddenly. "It's no claim at all, of course. I know that very well. Harry left me at Stockholm four years ago;" and suddenly Joan's face flushed scarlet. She had been absorbed in Stella's sorrows, she had admired that kind action of Harry Luttrell's which had brought so much trouble in its train. It needed that reminder that Harry had only left Stella Croyle at Stockholm to bring home the whole part which Harry had taken in the affair. Now she understood; a flame of sudden jealousy confused her; and with it came a young girl's distaste as though some ugly reptile had raised its head amongst flowers.
"I never saw Harry again until this week, except for a minute outside a shop one morning in Piccadilly. But he hasn't married during those four years, so I always kept a hope that we should be somewhere together again for a few days, and that afterwards he would come back to me."
"That's why you chose this week to come to Rackham Park?"
"Yes," answered Stella Croyle; and she laughed harshly. "But I hadn't considered you."
Joan looked helplessly at her companion. Stella had not one small chance of the fulfilment of her hope—no, not one—even if she herself stood a million miles away. Of that Joan was sure. But how was she to say so to one who was blind and deaf to all but her hope, who would not listen, who would not see? Mario Escobar had left his gloves behind him on a couch. Joan saw them, and remembered to whom they belonged, and her thoughts took another complexion. Harry Luttrell! What share had she now in his life? She rose abruptly and pushed back her chair.
"Oh, I'll stand aside," she said, "never fear! We are to talk things over to-night. I shall say 'No.'"
She had turned again to the window, but a startled question from Stella Croyle stayed her feet.
"Harry has asked you to marry him?"
"He was going to," Joan faltered. The sense of her own loss returned upon her, she felt utterly alone, all the more alone because of the wondrous week which had come to so desolate an end to-night. "Here in this little room, not two hours ago. But I asked him to wait until supper time to-night. Here—it was here we stood!"
Joan looked down. Yes, she had been standing in this very spot, the table here upon her left, that chair upon her right, that trifolium in the pattern of the carpet under her feet, when Harry Luttrell had taken her in his arms. What foolish thing was Stella Croyle saying now?
"I take back all that I have said to you. If Harry has spoken to you already I have lost—that's all. I didn't know," she said. Her cheeks were white, her eyes suddenly grown large with a horror in them which Joan could not understand.
"Yes, it's all over. I have lost," she kept repeating in a dreadful whisper, moistening her dry lips with her tongue between her sentences.
"Oh, don't think that I am standing aside out of pity," Joan answered her. "To-morrow I shall be impossible as a wife for Harry Luttrell." The words fell upon ears which did not hear. It would not have mattered if Stella had heard. Since Harry Luttrell was that night asking Joan to marry him, the hopes upon which she had so long been building, which Jenny Prask had done so much to nurse and encourage, withered and crumbled in an instant.
"I must go back and dance," said Joan with a shiver.
She left Stella Croyle standing in the room like one possessed with visions of terrible things. Her tragic face and moving lips were to haunt Joan for many a month afterwards. She went out by the window and ran down the drive to the spot where she had left Miranda's car half-way between the lodge and the house. The gates had been set open that night against the return of the party from Harrel. Joan drove back again under the great over-arching trees of the road. It was just ten o'clock when she slipped into the ball-room and was claimed by a neighbour for a dance.
THE RANK AND FILE
Martin Hillyard crammed a year's enjoyment into the early hours of that night. He danced a great deal and had supper a good many times; and even the girl who had passed the season of 1914 in London and said languidly, "Tell me more," before he had opened his mouth, failed to ruffle his enjoyment.
"If I did, you would scream for your mother," he replied, "and I should be turned out of the house and Sir Chichester would lose his position in the county. No, I'll tell you less. That means we'll go and have some supper."
He led a subdued maiden into the supper-room and from that moment his enjoyment began to wane. For, at a little table near to hand, sat Joan Whitworth and Harry Luttrell, and it was clear to him from the distress upon their faces that their smooth courtship had encountered its obstacles. A spot of anger, indeed, seemed to burn in Joan's cheeks. They hardly spoke at all.
Half an hour later, he came face to face with Joan in a corridor.
"I have been looking for you for a long while," she cried in a quick, agitated voice. "Are you free for this dance?"
Martin Hillyard lied without compunction.
"Then will you take me into the garden?"
He found a couple of chairs in a corner of the terrace out of the hearing of the rest.
"We shall be quiet here," he said. He hoped that she would disclose the difficulty which had risen between herself and Harry, and seek his counsel as Harry's friend. It might be one of the little trifling discords which love magnifies until they blot out the skies and drape the earth in temporary mourning. But Joan began at once nervously upon a different topic.
"You made a charge against Mario Escobar the other day. I did not believe it. But you spoke the truth. I know that now."
She stopped and gazed woefully in front of her. Then she hurried on.
"I can prove it. He demands news of your movements in the Mediterranean. If it is necessary I must come forward publicly and prove it. It will be horrible, but of course I will."
Martin looked at her quickly. She kept her eyes averted from him. Her fingers plucked nervously at her dress. There was an aspect of shame in her attitude.
"It will not be necessary, Joan," he answered. "I have quite enough evidence already to put him away until the end of the war."
Joan turned to him with quivering lips.
"You are sure. It means so much to me to escape—what I have no right to escape, I can hardly believe it."
"I am quite sure," replied Martin Hillyard.
Joan breathed a long, fluttering sigh of relief. She sat up as though a weight had been loosed from her shoulders. The trouble lifted from her face.
"You need not call upon me at all?"
"I don't want to shirk—any more," she insisted. "I should not hesitate."
"I know that, Joan," he said with a smile. She looked out over the gardens to the great line of hills, dim and pleasant as fairyland in the silver haze of the moonlight. Her eyes travelled eastwards along the ridge and stopped at the clump of Bishop's Ring which marks the crest of Duncton Hill, and the dark fold below where the trees flow down to Graffham.
"You ask me no questions," she said in a low, warm voice. "I am very grateful."
"I ask you one. Where is Mario Escobar to-night?"
"At Midhurst," and she gave him the name of the hotel.
Martin Hillyard laughed. Whilst the police were inquiring here and searching there and watching the ports for him, he was lying almost within reach of his hand, snugly and peacefully at Midhurst.
"But I expect that he will go from Midhurst now," Joan added, remembering his snarl of fear when the door had opened behind her, and the haste with which he had fled.
Hillyard looked at his watch. It was one o'clock in the morning.
"You are in a hurry?" she asked.
"I ought to send a message." He turned to Joan. "You know this house, of course. Is there a telephone in a quiet room, where I shall not be interrupted or be drowned out, voice and ears by the music?"
"Yes, Mrs. Willoughby's sitting-room upstairs. Shall I ask her if you may use it?"
"If you please."
Joan left Martin standing in one of the corridors and rejoined him after a few minutes. "Come," she said, and led the way upstairs to the room. Martin called up the trunk line and gave a number.
"I shall have to wait a few minutes," he said.
"You want me to go," answered Joan, and she moved towards the door reluctantly.
"No. But you will be missing your dances."
Joan shook her head. She did not turn back to him, but stood facing the door as she replied; so that he could not see her face.
"I had kept all the dances after supper free. If I am not in the way I would rather wait with you."
He was careful to use the most commonplace tone with the thought that it would steady her. The trouble which this telephone message would finally dispel was clearly not all which distressed her. She needed companionship; her voice broke, as though her heart were breaking too. He saw her raise a wisp of handkerchief to her eyes; and then the telephone bell rang at his side. He was calling at a venture upon the number which Commodore Graham had rung up in the office above the old waterway of the Thames.
"Is that Scotland Yard?" he asked, and he gave the address at which Mario Escobar was to be found. "But he may be gone to-morrow," he added, and hearing a short "That's all right," he rang off.
"Now, if you will get your cloak, we might go back into the garden."
They found their corner of the terrace unoccupied and sat for a while in silence. Hillyard recognised that neither questions nor any conversation at all were required from him, but simply the sympathy of his companionship. He smoked a cigarette while Joan sat by his side.
She stretched out her hand towards the Bishop's Ring, small as a button upon the great shoulder of the Down.
"Do you remember the afternoon when I drove you back from Goodwood?"
"You said to me, 'If the great trial is coming, I want to fall back into the rank and file.' And I cried out, 'Oh, I understand that!'"
"What a fool I was!" said Joan. "I didn't understand at all. I thought that it sounded fine, and that was why I applauded. I am only beginning to understand now. Even after I had agreed with you, my one ambition was to be different."
Her voice died remorsefully away. From the window further down the terrace the yellow light poured from the windows and fought with the moonlight. The music of a waltz floated out upon the yearning of many violins. There was a ripple of distant voices.
"All this week," Joan began again, "I have found myself standing unexpectedly in a strong light before a mirror and utterly scared by the revelation of what I was ... by the memory of the foolish things which I had done. From one of the worst of them, you have saved me to-night. You are very kind to me, Martin."
It was the first time he had ever heard her use his Christian name.
"I should like to be kinder, if you'll let me," he said. "I am not blind. I was in the supper-room when you and Harry were there. It was for him that you had kept all the last dances free. And you are here, breaking your heart. Why?"
Joan shook her head. A little sob broke from her against her will. But this matter was between her and Harry Luttrell. She sought no counsel from any other.
"Then I am very grieved for both of you," said Hillyard. Joan made a movement as if she were about to rise. "Will you wait just a moment?" Martin asked.
He guessed that some hint of Stella Croyle's story had reached the girl's ears. He understood that she would be hurt, and affronted; that she would feel herself suddenly steeped in vulgarities; and that she would visit her resentment sharply upon her lover, and upon herself at the same time. And all this was true. But Martin was not sure of it. He meant to tread warily, lest if he stumbled, the harm should be the more complete.
"I have known Harry Luttrell a long while," he said. "No woman ever reached his heart until he came home from France this summer. No woman I believe, could have reached it—not even you, Joan, I believe, if you had met him a year ago. He was possessed by one great shame and one great longing—shame that the regiment with which he and his father were bound up, had once disgraced itself—longing for the day to come when it would recover its prestige. Those two emotions burnt in him like white flames. I believe no other could have lived beside them."
Joan would not speak, but she concentrated all her senses to listen. A phrase which Stella Croyle had used—Harry had feared to become "the slovenly soldier"—began to take on its meaning.
"On the Somme the shame was wiped out. Led by such men as Harry—well, you know what happened. Harry Luttrell came home freed at last from an overwhelming obsession. He looked about him with different eyes, and there you were! It seems to me a thing perfectly ordained, as so few things are. I brought him down here just for a pleasant week in the country—without another thought beyond that. All this week I have been coming to think of myself as an unconscious agent, who just at the right time is made to do the right thing. Here was the first possible moment for Harry Luttrell—and there you were in the path—just as if you without knowing it, had been set there to wait until he came over the fields to you."
He turned to her and took her hand in his. He had his sympathies for Stella Croyle, but her hopes held no positive promise of happiness for either her or Harry Luttrell—a mere flash and splutter of passion at the best, with all sorts of sordid disadvantages to follow, quarrels, the scorn of his equals, the loss of position, the check to advancement in his profession. Here, on the other hand, was the fitting match.
"It would be a great pity," he said gently, "if anything were now to interfere."
He stood up and after a moment Joan rose to her feet. There was a tender smile upon her lips and her eyes were shining. She laid a hand upon his arm.
"I shall have to get you a wife, Martin," she said, midway between laughter and tears. "It wouldn't be fair on us if you were to escape."
This was her way of thanking him.
THE LONG SLEEP
The amazing incident which cut so sharply into these tangled lives occurred the next morning at Rackham Park. Some of the house party straggled down to a late breakfast, others did not descend at all. Harry Luttrell joined Millie Splay upon the stairs and stopped her before she entered the breakfast-room.
"I should like to slip away this morning, Lady Splay," he said. "My servant is packing now."
Millie Splay looked at him in dismay.
"Oh, I am so sorry," she said. "I was hoping that this morning you and Joan would have something to say to me."
"I did too," replied Harry with a wry smile. "But Joan turned me down with a bang last night."
Lady Splay plumped herself down on a chair in the hall.
"Oh, she is the most exasperating girl!" she cried. "Are you sure that you didn't misunderstand her?"
Lady Splay sat for a little while with her cheek propped upon her hand and her brows drawn together in a perplexity.
"It's very strange," she said at length. "For Joan meant you to ask her to marry you. She has been deliberately showing you that you weren't indifferent to her. Joan would never have done that if she hadn't meant you to ask her; or if she hadn't meant to accept you." She rose with a gesture of despair.
"I give it up. But oh, how I'd love to smack her!" and with that unrealisable desire burning furiously in her breast, Lady Splay marched into the breakfast-room. Dennis Brown and Jupp were already in their white flannels at the table. Miranda ran down into the room a moment afterwards.
"Joan's the lazy one," she said, looking round the table. She had got to bed at half-past four and looked as fresh as if she had slept the clock round. "What are you going to eat, Colonel Luttrell?"
Luttrell was standing by her at the side table, and as they inspected the dishes they were joined by Mr. Albany Todd.
"You were going it last night," Jupp called to him, with a note of respect in his voice. "For a top-weight you're the hottest thing I have seen in years. Stay another week in our academic company, and we shall discover so many excellent qualities in you that we shall be calling you Toddles."
"And then in the winter, I suppose, we'll go jumping together," said Mr. Albany Todd.
Like many another round and heavy man, Mr. Albany Todd was an exceptionally smooth dancer. His first dance on the night before he had owed to the consideration of his hostess. Sheer merit had filled the rest of his programme; and he sat down to breakfast now in a high good humour. Sir Chichester stumped into the room when the serious part of the meal was over, and all the newspapers already taken. He sat down in front of his kidney and bacon and grunted.
"Any news in The Times, Mr. Albany Todd?"
"No! No!" replied Mr. Albany Todd in an abstracted voice, with his head buried between the pages. "Would you like it, Sir Chichester?"
He showed no intention of handing it over; and Sir Chichester replied with as much indifference as he could assume,
"Oh, there's no hurry."
"No, we have all the morning, haven't we?" said Mr. Albany Todd pleasantly.
Sir Chichester ate some breakfast and drank some tea. "No news in your paper is there, Dennis, my boy?" he asked carelessly.
"Oh, isn't there just?" cried Dennis Brown. "Oppifex and Hampstead Darling are both running in the two-thirty at Windsor."
Sir Chichester grunted again.
"Racing! It's wonderful, Mr. Albany Todd, that you haven't got the disease during the week. There's a racing microbe at Rackham."
"But I am not so sure that I have escaped," returned Mr. Albany Todd. "I am tempted to go jumping in the winter."
"You must keep your old Lords out if you do," Harold Jupp urged earnestly. "Bring in your Dukes and your Marquises, and we poor men are all up the spout."
Thus they rattled on about the breakfast table; cigarettes were lighted, Miranda pushed back her chair; in a minute the room would be deserted. But Millie Splay uttered a little cry of horror, so sharp and startling that it froze each person into a sudden immobility. She dropped the newspaper upon her knees. Her hands flew to her face and covered it.
"What's the matter, Millie?" cried Sir Chichester, starting up in alarm. He hurried round the table. Some stab of physical pain had caused Millie's cry—he shared that conviction with every one else in the room. But Millie lifted her head quickly.
"Oh, it's intolerable!" she exclaimed. "Chichester, look at this!" She thrust the paper feverishly into his hands. Sir Chichester smoothed its crumpled leaves as he stood beside her.
"Ah, the Harpoon," he said, his fear quite allayed. He knew his wife to have a somewhat thinner skin than himself. "You are exaggerating no doubt, my dear. The Harpoon is a good paper and quite friendly."
But Millie Splay broke in upon his protestations in a voice as shrill as a scream.
"Oh, stop, Chichester, and look! There, in the third column! Just under your eyes!"
And Sir Chichester Splay read. As he read his face changed.
"Yes, that won't do," he said, very quietly. He carried the newspaper back with him to his chair and sat down again. He had the air of a man struck clean out of his wits. "That won't do," he repeated, and again, with a rush of angry blood into his face, "No, that won't do." It seemed that Sir Chichester's harmless little foible had suddenly received more than its due punishment.
The newspaper slipped from his fingers on to the floor, whilst he sat staring at the white tablecloth in front of him. But no sooner did Harold Jupp at his side make a movement to pick the paper up than Sir Chichester swooped down upon it in a flash.
"No!" he said. "No!" and he began to fold it up very carefully. "It's as Millie says, a rather intolerable invention which has crept into the social news. I must consider what steps we should take."
There was another at that table who was as disturbed as Sir Chichester and Lady Splay. Martin Hillyard knew nothing of the paragraph which had caused this consternation in his hosts; and he had asked no questions last night. But he remembered every word that Joan had said. She had seen Mario Escobar somewhere since leaving Rackham Park—that was certain; and Mario Escobar had demanded information. "Demanded" was the word which Joan had used. Mario Escobar was of the blackmailing type. Martin's heart was in his mouth.
"An invention about us here?" he asked.
"About one of us," answered Sir Chichester; and Martin dared ask no more.
Harry Luttrell, however, had none of Martin's knowledge to restrain him.
"In that case, sir, wouldn't it be wiser to read it now, aloud?" he suggested. "It can't be suppressed now. Sooner or later every one will hear of it."
Every one agreed except Hillyard. To him Harry Luttrell seemed wilfully to be rushing towards catastrophe.
"Yes ... yes," said Sir Chichester slowly. He unfolded his newspaper again and read; and of all those who listened no one was more amazed than Hillyard himself. Mario Escobar had no hand in this abominable work. For this is what Sir Chichester read:
"'A mysterious and tragic event has occurred at Rackham Park, where Sir Chichester Splay, the well-known Baronet——'" He broke off to observe, "Really, it's put quite civilly, Millie. It's a dreadful mistake, but so far as the wording of the Editor is concerned it's put really more considerately than I noticed at first."
"Oh, please go on," cried Millie.
"Very well, my dear," and he resumed—"where Sir Chichester Splay, the well-known Baronet is entertaining a small party. At an early hour this morning Mrs. Croyle, one of Sir Chichester's guests, died under strange circumstances."
Miranda uttered a little scream.
"Died!" she exclaimed.
"Yes, listen to this," said Sir Chichester. "Mrs. Croyle was discovered lying upon her side with her face bent above a glass of chloroform. The glass was supported between her pillows and Mrs. Croyle's fingers were still grasping it when she was discovered."
A gasp of indignation and horror ran round that breakfast table when Sir Chichester had finished.
"It's so atrociously circumstantial," said Mr. Albany Todd.
"Yes." Sir Chichester seized upon the point. "That's the really damnable point about it. That's real malice. This report will linger and live long after the denial and apology are published."
Lady Splay raised her head.
"I can't imagine who can have sent in such a cowardly lie. Enemies of us? Or enemies of Stella?"
"We can think that out afterwards, Lady Splay," said Harold Jupp. He was of a practical matter-of-fact mind and every one turned to listen to his suggestion. "The first thing to do is to get the report contradicted in the evening papers."
There was something to be done. All grasped at the doing of it in sheer relief—except one. For as the men rose, saying; one "I'll look after it"; and another "No, you'd better leave it to me," Luttrell's voice broke in upon them all, with a sort of dreadful fatality in the quiet sound of it.
"Where is Mrs. Croyle now?" he asked, and he was as white as the tablecloth in front of him.
There was no further movement towards the door. Slowly the men resumed their seats. A silence followed in which person after person looked at Stella's empty place as though an intensity of gaze would materialise her there. Miranda was the first bravely to break through it.
"She hasn't come down yet," she said, and Millie Splay seized upon the words.
"No, she never comes down for breakfast—never has all this week."
"Yes, that's true," returned Dennis Brown with an attempt at cheerfulness.
"Besides—what makes—the idea—impossible," said Sir Chichester, "is the publication this morning. There wouldn't have been time.... It's clearly an atrocious piece of malice." He was speaking with an obvious effort to convince himself that the monstrous thing was false. But he collapsed suddenly and once more discomfort and silence reigned in the room.
"Stella's not well," Millie Splay took up the tale. "That's why she is seldom seen before twelve. Those headaches of hers——" and suddenly she in her turn broke off. She leaned forward and pressed the electric bell upon the tablecloth beside her. That small trivial action brought its relief, lightened the vague cloud of misgiving which since Luttrell had spoken, had settled upon all.
"You rang, my lady," said Harper in the doorway.
"Yes, Harper. We were making some plans for a picnic to-day and we should like to know if Mrs. Croyle will join us. Can you find out from her maid whether she is awake?"
It was superbly done. There was not a quaver in Lady Splay's voice, not a sign of agitation in her manner.
"I'll inquire, my lady," replied Harper, and he left the room upon his errand.
"One thing is certain," Mr. Albany Todd broke in. "I was watching Harper over your shoulder, Lady Splay. He hasn't seen the paragraph. There's nothing known of it in the servants' hall."
Sir Chichester nodded, and Millie Splay observed:
"Harper's so imperturbable that he always inspires me with confidence. I feel that nothing out of the way could really happen whilst he was in the house." And her attitude of tension did greatly relax as she thought, illogically enough, of that stolid butler. A suggestion made by Martin Hillyard set them to work whilst they waited.
"Let us see if the report is in any of the other papers," and all immediately were busy with that examination—except one again. And that one again, Harry Luttrell. He sat in his place motionless, his eyes transfixed upon some vision of horror—as if he knew, Martin said to himself, yes, as if all these questions were futile, as if he knew.
But no other newspaper had printed the paragraph. They had hardly assured themselves of this fact, when Harper once more stood in the doorway.
"Mrs. Croyle gave orders last night to her maid that she was not to be disturbed until she rang, my lady," he said.
"And she has not rung?" Millie asked.
"No, my lady."
Miranda suddenly laughed in an odd fashion and swayed in her chair.
"Miranda!" Millie Splay brought her back to her self-control with a sharp cry of rebuke. Then she resumed to Harper.
"I will take the responsibility of waking Mrs. Croyle. Will you please, ask her maid to rouse Mrs. Croyle, and inquire whether she will join us this morning. We shall start at twelve."
"Very well, my lady."
There was no longer any pretence of ease amongst the people seated round the table. A queer panic passed from one to the other. They were awed by the imminence of dreadful uncomprehended things. They waited in silence, like people under a spell, and from somewhere in the house above their heads, there sounded a loud rapping upon a door. They held their breath, straining to hear the grate of a key in a lock, and the opening of that door. They heard only the knocking repeated and repeated again. It was followed by a sound of hurrying feet.
Jenny Prask ran down the great main staircase, and burst into the breakfast room, her face mottled with terror, her hand spread above her heart to still its wild beating.
"My lady! My lady! The door's locked. I can get no answer. I am afraid."
Sir Chichester rose abruptly from his chair. But Jenny Prask had more to say.
"The key had been removed. My lady, I looked through the keyhole. The lights are still burning in the room."
Martin Hillyard had started to his feet. He remembered another time when the lights had been burning in Stella Croyle's room in the full blaze of a summer morning. She was sitting at the writing-table then. She had been sitting there all through the night making meaningless signs and figures upon the paper and the blotting-pad in front of her. The full significance of that flight of the unhappy Stella to the little hotel below the Hog's Back was now revealed to him. But between that morning and this, there was an enormous difference. She had opened her door then in answer to the knocking.
"We must get through that door, Lady Splay," he said. Sir Chichester was already up and about in a busy agitation.
"Yes, to be sure. It's just an ordinary lock. We shall easily find a key to fit it. I'll take Harper with me, and perhaps, Millie, you will come."
"Yes, I'll come," said Millie quietly. After her first shock of horror and surprise when she had first chanced upon the paragraph in the Harpoon, she had been completely, wonderfully, mistress of herself.
"The rest of you will please stay downstairs," said Sir Chichester, as he removed the key from the door of the room. Jenny Prask was not thus to be disposed of.
"Oh, my lady, I must go up too!" she cried, twisting her hands together. "Mrs. Croyle was always very kind to me, poor lady. I must come!"
"She won't keep her head," Sir Chichester objected, who was fast losing his. But Milly Splay laid her hand upon the girl's arm.
"Yes, you shall come with us, Jenny," she said gently, and the four of them moved out of the room.
The others followed them as far as the hall, and stood grouped at the foot of the staircase.
"Miranda, would you like to go out into the air?" Dennis Brown asked with solicitude of his wife.
"No, dear, I am all right. I—oh, poor woman!" and with a sob she dropped her face in her hands.
"Hush!" Luttrell called sharply for silence, and a moment afterwards, a loud shrill scream rent the air like lightning.
Miranda cowered from it.
"Jenny Prask!" said Hillyard.
"Then—then—the news is true," faltered Miranda, and she would have fallen but for the arm of her husband about her waist.
They waited until Sir Chichester came down the stairs to them. He was shaken and trembling. He, the spectator of dramas, was now a character in one most tragically enacted under his own roof.
"The report is true to the letter," he said in a low voice. "Dennis, will you go for McKerrel, the doctor. You know his house in Midhurst. Will you take your car, and bring him back. There is nothing more that we can do until he comes." He stood for a little while by the table in the hall, staring down at it, and taking particular note of its grain.
"A curious thing," he said. "The key of her room is missing altogether."
To no one did it come at this moment that the disappearance of the key was to prove a point of vast importance. No one made any comment, and Sir Chichester fell to silence again. "She looked like a child sleeping," he said at length, "a child without a care."
Then he sat down and took the newspaper from his pocket. Mr. Albany Todd suddenly advanced to Harry Luttrell. He had been no less observant than Martin Hillyard.
"You alone, Colonel Luttrell," he said, "were not surprised."
"I was not," answered Harry frankly. "I was shocked, but not surprised. For I knew Mrs. Croyle at a time when she was so tormented that she could not sleep at all. During that time she learnt to take drugs, and especially that drug in precisely that way that the newspaper described."
The men drifted out of the hall on to the lawn, leaving Sir Chichester brooding above the outspread sheets of the Harpoon. Here was the insoluble sinister question to which somehow he had to find an answer. Stella Croyle died late last night, in the country, at Rackham Park; and yet in this very morning's issue of the newspaper, her death with every circumstance and detail was truthfully recorded, hours before it was even known by anybody in the house itself.
"How can that be?" Sir Chichester exclaimed in despair. "How can it be?"
JENNY PUTS UP HER FIGHT
Stella, the undisciplined! She had flung out of the rank and file, as long ago Sir Charles Hardiman had put it, and to this end she had come, waywardness exacting its inexorable price. Harry Luttrell, however, was not able to lull his conscience with any such easy reflections. He walked with Martin Hillyard apart in the garden.
"I am to blame," he cried. "I took on a responsibility for Stella when I went out of my way to do one kind, foolish thing.... Yet, she would have killed herself if I hadn't—as she has done five years afterwards!... I couldn't leave her when I had brought her home ... she was in such misery!... and it couldn't have gone on.... Old Hardiman was right about that.... It would have ended in a quarrel when unforgivable words would have been used.... Yet, perhaps, if that had happened she wouldn't have killed herself.... Oh, I don't know!"
Martin Hillyard had never seen Harry Luttrell so moved or sunk in such remorse. He did not argue, lest he should but add fuel to this high flame of self-reproach. Life had become so much easier as a problem with him, so much inner probing and speculation and worry about small vanities had been smoothed away since he had been engaged day after day in a definite service which was building up by a law deduced here, an inspired formula there, a tradition for its servants. The service, the tradition, would dissolve and blow to nothing, when peace came again. Meanwhile there was the worth of traditional service made clear to him, in an indifference to the little enmities which before would have hurt and rankled, in a freedom from doubt when decision was needed, above all in a sort of underlying calm which strengthened as his life became more turbulently active.
"It's a clear principle of life which make the difference," he said, hesitating, because to say even so much made him feel a prig. "Stella just drifted from unhappiness to unhappiness——"
But Harry Luttrell had no attention to give to him.
"I simply couldn't have gone on," he cried. "It wasn't a question of my ruin or not.... It was simply beyond me to go on.... There were other things more powerful.... You know! I once told you on the river above Kennington Island.... Oh, my God, I am in such a tangle of argument—and there she is up there—only thirty, and beautiful—such a queer, wayward kid—'like a child sleeping.'"
He quoted Sir Chichester's phrase, and hurried away from his friend.
"I shall be back in a little while," he muttered. His bad hour was upon him, and he must wrestle with it alone.
Martin Hillyard returned to the hall, and found Sir Chichester with the doctor, a short, rugged Scotsman. Dr. McKerrel was saying:
"There's nothing whatever for me to do, Sir Chichester," he said. "The poor creature must have died somewhere about one o'clock of the morning." He saw Sir Chichester with a start fall once more to reading the paragraph in the Harpoon, and continued with a warmth of admiration, "Eh, but those newspaper fellows are quick! I saw the Harpoon this morning, and it was lucky I did. For I'd ha' been on my rounds otherwise when that young fellow called for me."
"It was good of you to come so quickly," said Sir Chichester.
"I shall charge for it," replied Dr. McKerrel. "I'll just step round to the Peace Officer at once, and I'll be obliged if you'll not have that glass with the chloroform touched again. I have put it aside."
Martin Hillyard was disturbed.
"There will have to be an inquest then?" he asked.
"Aye, but there wull."
"In a case of this kind," Sir Chichester suggested, "it would be better if it could be avoided."
"But it can't," answered Dr. McKerrel bluntly. "And for my part, I tell you frankly, Sir Chichester, I have no great pity for poor neurotic bodies like the young lady upstairs. If she had had a little of my work to do, she would have been too tired in the evening to think about her worries." He looked at the disconsolate Baronet with a sudden twinkle in his eye. "Eh, man, but you'll get all the publicity you want over this case."
Sir Chichester had no rejoinder to the quip; and his unwonted meekness caused McKerrel to relent. He stopped at the door, and said:
"I'll give you a hint. The coroner can cut the inquest down to the barest necessary limits, if he has got all the facts clear beforehand. If he has got to explore in the dark, he'll ask questions here and questions there, and you never know, nor does he, what he's going to drag out to light in the end. But let him have it all clear and straight first! There's only one character I know of, more free from regulations and limitations and red-tape than a coroner, and that's the police-sergeant who runs the coroner. Goodday to you."
A telegram was brought to Martin Hillyard whilst McKerrel was yet speaking; and Hillyard read it with relief. Mario Escobar had been taken that morning as he was leaving the hotel for the morning train to London. He was now on his way to an internment camp. So that complication was smoothed out at all events. He agreed with Sir Chichester Splay that it would be prudent to carry out McKerrel's suggestion at once.
"I will make the document out," said Sir Chichester importantly. Give him a little work which set him in the limelight as the leader of the Chorus, and nothing could keep down his spirits. He took a sheet of foolscap, a blotting pad, a heavy inkstand, and a quill pen—Sir Chichester never used anything but a quill pen—to the big table in the middle of the hall, and wrote in a fair, round hand:
"The case of Mrs. Croyle."
and looked at his work and thought it good.
"It looks quite like a cause celebre, doesn't it?" he said buoyantly. But he caught Martin Hillyard's eye, and recovered his more becoming despondency. Harry Luttrell came in as the baronet settled once more to his task. He laid a shining key upon the table and said:
"I found this upon the lawn. It looked as if it might be the key of Mrs. Croyle's room."
It was undoubtedly the key of a door. "We'll find out," said the baronet. Harper was sent for and commissioned to inquire. He returned in a few minutes.
"Yes, sir, it is the key of Mrs. Croyle's room." He laid it upon the table and went out of the room.
"I suppose it is then," said Harry Luttrell. "But I am a little puzzled."
"It wasn't lying beneath Mrs. Croyle's window as one might have expected. But at the east side of the house, below the corridor, and almost in front of the glass door of the library."
Both of his hearers were disturbed. Sir Chichester took up the key, and twisted it this way and that, till it flashed like a point of fire in the sunlight; as though under such giddy work it would yield up its secret for the sake of peace. He flung it on the table again, where it rattled and lay still.
"I can't make head or tail of it," Sir Chichester cried. Martin Hillyard opened his mouth to speak and thought better of it. He could not falter in his belief that Stella had destroyed herself. The picture of her that morning in Surrey, with the lamps burning in her room and the bed untouched, was too vivid in his memory. What she had tried to do two years ago, she had found the courage to do to-day.
That was sure. But it was not all. There was some one in the shadows who meant harm, more harm than was already accomplished. There was malevolence at work. The discovery of the key in that position far from Stella's window assured him of it. The aspect of the key itself as it lay upon the table made the assurance still more sure. But whom was this malevolence to hurt? And how? At what moment would the hand behind the curtain strike? And whose hand would it be? These were questions which locked his lips tight. It was for him to watch and discover, for he alone overlooked the battle-field, and if he failed, God help his friends at Rackham Park. Mario Escobar? Mario Escobar could at all events do no harm now.
Sir Chichester explained to Harry Luttrell Dr. McKerrel's suggestion.
"Just a clear, succinct statement of the facts. The witnesses, and what each one knows and is ready to depose. I shall put the statement before the coroner, who is a very good fellow, and we shall escape with as little scandal as possible. Now, let me see——" Sir Chichester put on his glasses. "The most important witness, of course, will be Stella's maid."
Sir Chichester rang the bell, and in answer to his summons Jenny came down the stairs. Her eyes were red with weeping and she was very pale. But she bore herself steadily.
"You wanted me, sir?" she asked. Her eyes travelled from one to the other of the three men in the hall. They rested for a little moment longer upon Harry Luttrell than upon the rest; and it seemed to Hillyard that as they rested there they glittered strangely, and that the ghost of a smile flickered about her mouth.
"Yes," said Sir Chichester, pompously. "You understand that there will have to be an inquiry into the cause of Mrs. Croyle's death; and one wants for the sake of everybody, your dead mistress more than any one, that there should be as little talk as possible."
Jenny's voice cut in like ice.
"Mrs. Croyle had no reason that I know of to fear the fullest inquiry."
"Quite so! Quite so!" returned Sir Chichester, shifting his ground. "But it will save time if we get the facts concisely together."
Jenny stepped forward, and stood at the end of the table opposite to the baronet.
"I am quite willing, sir," she said respectfully, "to answer any question now or at any time"; and throughout the little interrogatory which followed she never once changed from her attitude of respect.
"Your name first."
"Jenny Prask," and Sir Chichester wrote it down.
"You have been Mrs. Croyle's maid for some time."
"For three and a half years, sir."
"Good!" said Sir Chichester, with the air of one who by an artful question has elicited a most important piece of evidence.
"Now!" But now he fumbled. He had come to the real examination, and was at a loss how to begin. "Yes, now then, Jenny!" and again he came to a halt.
Whilst Jenny waited, her eyes once glittered strangely under their half-dropped lids; and Martin Hillyard followed the direction of their gaze to the door-key lying upon the table beside Sir Chichester's hand.
"Jenny," said Sir Chichester, who had at last formulated a question. "You informed us that Mrs. Croyle instructed you last night not to call her until she rang. That, no doubt, was an unusual order for her to give."
Sir Chichester leaned back in his chair.
"Oh, it wasn't?"
Sir Chichester looked a little blank. He cast about for another line of examination.
"You are aware, of course, Jenny, that your mistress was in the habit of taking drugs—chloroform especially."
"Never, sir," answered Jenny.
"You weren't aware of it?" exclaimed Sir Chichester.
"She never took them."
Harry Luttrell made a little movement. He stared in perplexity at Jenny Prask, who did not once remove her calm and respectful eyes from Sir Chichester Splay. She waited in absolute composure for the next question. But the question took a long time to formulate. Sir Chichester had framed no interrogatory in a sequence; whereas Jenny's answers were pat, as though, sitting by the bed whereon her dead mistress lay, she had thought out the questions which might be asked of her and got her answers ready. Sir Chichester began to get flurried. At every conjecture which he expressed, Jenny Prask slammed a door in his face.
"But you told me——" he cried, turning to Harry Luttrell and so broke off. "Are you speaking the truth, Jenny?"
Suddenly Jenny's composure broke up. The blood rushed into her face. She shouted violently:
"I swear it! If it was my last dying word, I do! Chloroform indeed!" She became sarcastic. "What an idea! Just fancy!"
Sir Chichester threw down his pen. He was aghast before the conclusion to which his examination was leading him.
"But, if Stella didn't put that glass of chloroform between her pillows—herself—of her own accord—why then, whilst she was asleep——" He would not utter the inevitable induction. But it was clear enough, hideous enough to all of them. Why then, whilst she was asleep, some one entered the room, placed the chloroform where its deadly fumes would do their work, locked her door upon her and tossed the key out on to the lawn. A charge of murder—nothing less.
"Don't you see what you are suggesting, Jenny," Sir Chichester spluttered helplessly.
"I am suggesting nothing, sir," the maid answered stolidly. "I am answering questions."
She was lying, of course! Hillyard had not a doubt of it. Jenny Prask was the malevolent force of which he was in search. So much had, at all events, sprung clear from Sir Chichester's blunderings. And some hint, too, of the plan which malevolence had formed—not more than a hint! That Jenny Prask intended to sustain a charge of murder Martin did not believe. She was of too strong a brain for that folly. But she had some clear purpose to harm somebody; and Martin's heart sank as he conjectured who that some one might, nay must, be. Meanwhile, he thought, let Sir Chichester pursue his questioning. He got glimpses through that clouded medium into Jenny Prask's mind.
"You must realise, Jenny, the unfortunate position into which your answers are leading you," said Sir Chichester with a trace of bluster.
Hillyard could have laughed. As if she didn't realise exactly the drift and meaning of every word which she uttered. Jenny was not at all perturbed by Sir Chichester's manner. Her face took on a puzzled look.
"I don't understand, sir."
"No? Let me make it clear! If your mistress never took drugs, if she did not place the glass of chloroform in the particular position which would ensure her death, then, since you, her maid, were alone in this part of the house with her and were the last person to see her alive——"
"No, sir," Jenny Prask interrupted.
Sir Chichester stared. He was more and more out of his depth, and these were waters in which expert swimming was required.
"I don't understand. Do you say that somebody saw Mrs. Croyle after she had dismissed you for the night?"
"Will you please explain?"
The explanation was as simple as possible. Jenny had first fetched a book for her mistress from the library, before the house-party left for the ball. She then had supper and went to Mrs. Croyle's room. It was then about half-past nine, so far as she could conjecture. Her mistress, however, was not ready for bed, and dismissed Jenny, saying that she would look after herself. Jenny thereupon retired to her own bedroom and wrote a letter. After writing it, she remembered that she had not put out the distilled water which Mrs. Croyle was in the habit of using for her toilet. She accordingly returned to Mrs. Croyle's bedroom, and to her surprise found it empty. She waited for a quarter of an hour, and then becoming uneasy, went downstairs into the hall. She heard her mistress and some one else talking in the library. Their voices were raised a little as though they were quarrelling.
"Quarrelling!" Sir Chichester Splay cried out the word in dismay. His hand flapped feebly on the table. "I am afraid to go on.... What do you think, Hillyard? I am afraid to go on...."
"We must go on," said Luttrell quietly. He was very white. Did he guess what was coming, Hillyard wondered? At all events he did not falter. He took the business of putting questions altogether out of his host's hands.
"Was the somebody a man or a woman?"
"A woman, sir."
"Did you recognise her voice?"
"Who was it?"
Harry Luttrell nodded his head as if he had, during these last minutes, come to expect that answer and no other. But Sir Chichester rose up in wrath and, leaning forward over the table, shook his finger threateningly at the girl.
"Now you know you are not speaking the truth. Miss Whitworth was at Harrel last night with the rest of us."
"Yes, sir, but she came back to Rackham Park almost at once," said Jenny; and Harry Luttrell's face showed a sign of anxiety. After all, he hadn't seen Joan himself in the ball-room until well after ten o'clock. "I should have known that it was Miss Whitworth even if I had not heard her voice," and Jenny described how, on fetching Mrs. Croyle's book, she had seen Joan unlatch the glass door of the library.
Sir Chichester was shaken, but he pushed his blotting-paper here and his pen there, and pished and tushed like a refractory child.
"And how did she get back? I suppose she ran all the way in her satin shoes and back again, eh?"
"No, sir, she came back in Mrs. Brown's motor-car. I saw it from my bedroom window waiting in the drive."
"Ah! Now that we can put to the test, Jenny," cried Sir Chichester triumphantly. "And we will——" He caught Hillyard's eye as he moved towards the door in order to summon Miranda from the garden. Hillyard warned him with an almost imperceptible shake of the head. "Yes, we will, in our own time," he concluded lamely. His anger burst out again. "Joan, indeed! We won't have her mixed up in this sordid business, it's bad enough as it is. But Joan, no! To suggest that Joan came straight back from the Willoughbys' dance in order to quarrel with a woman whom she was seeing every day here, and, having quarrelled with her, afterwards——No, I won't speak the word. It's preposterous!"
"But I don't suggest, sir, that Miss Whitworth came back in order to quarrel with my mistress," Jenny Prask returned, as soon as Sir Chichester's spate of words ran down. "I only give you the facts I know. I am quite sure that Miss Whitworth can quite easily explain why she came back to Rackham Park last night. There can't be any difficulty about that!"
Jenny Prask had kept every intonation of her voice under her control. There was no hint of irony or triumph. She was a respectful lady's maid, frankly answering questions about her dead mistress. But she did not so successfully keep sentinel over her looks. She could not but glance from time to time at Harry Luttrell savouring his trouble and anxiety; and when she expressed her conviction that Joan could so easily clear up these mysteries, such a flame of hatred burnt suddenly in her eyes that it lit Martin Hillyard straight to the heart of her purpose.
"So that's it," he thought, and was terrified as he grasped its reach. An accusation of murder! Oh, nothing so crude. But just enough suggestion of the possibility of murder to make it absolutely necessary that Joan Whitworth should go into the witness box at the coroner's inquest and acknowledge before the world that she had hurried secretly back from Harrel to meet Mario Escobar in an empty house. Mario Escobar too! Of all people, Mario Escobar! Jenny Prask had builded better than she knew. That telegram which Martin had welcomed with so much relief but an hour ago taunted him now. The scandal would have been bad enough if Mario Escobar were nothing more than the shady hunter of women he was supposed to be. It would be ten times louder now that Mario Escobar had been interned as a traitor within twelve hours of the secret meeting!
Some escape must be discovered from the peril. Else the mud of it would cling to Joan all her life. She would be spoilt. Harry Luttrell, too! If he married her, if he did not. But Martin could not think of a way out. The whole plan was an artful, devilish piece of hard-headed cunning. Martin fell to wondering where was Jenny Prask's weak joint. She certainly looked, with her quiet strength, as if she had not one at all.
To make matters worse, Miranda Brown chose this moment to re-enter the hall. Sir Chichester, warned already by Martin, threw the warning to the winds.
"Miranda, you are the very person to help us," he cried. "Now listen to me, my dear, and don't get flurried. Think carefully, for your answer may have illimitable consequences! After your arrival at Harrel last night, did Joan return here immediately in your car?"
Sir Chichester had never been so impressive. Miranda was frightened and changed colour. But she had given her promise and she kept it pluckily.
"No," she answered.
Jenny Prask permitted herself to smile her disbelief. Sir Chichester was triumphant.
"Well, there's an end of your pretty story, my girl," he said. "You wanted to do a little mischief, did you? Well, you haven't! And here, by a stroke of luck, is Joan herself to settle the matter."
He sat down and once more he drew his sheet of foolscap in front of him. He could write his clear succinct statement now, write it in "nervous prose." He was not quite sure what nervous prose actually was, but he knew it to be the correct medium to use on these occasions.
Meanwhile Joan ran down the stairs.
"I am afraid I have been very lazy this morning," she cried. She saw Harry Luttrell, she coloured to the eyes, she smiled doubtfully and said in a little whimsical voice, "We didn't after all, practise in the passage."
Then, and only then, did she realise that something was amiss. Millie Splay in her desire to spare her darling the sudden shock of learning what calamity had befallen the house that night had bidden Joan's maid keep silence. She herself would break the news. But Millie Splay was busy with telegrams to Robert Croyle and Stella's own friends, and all the sad little duties which wait on death; and Joan ran down into the midst of the debate without a warning.
Martin Hillyard would have given it to her, but Sir Chichester was hot upon his report.
"Joan, my dear," he said confidently. "There's a little point—not in dispute really—but—well there's a little point. It has been said that you came straight back here last night from Harrel?"
Joan's face turned slowly white. She stood with her great eyes fixed upon Sir Chichester, still as an image, and she did not answer a word. Harry Luttrell drew in a quick breath like a man in pain. Sir Chichester was selecting a new pen and noticed nothing.
"It's ridiculous, of course, my dear, but I must put to you the formal question. Did you?"
"Yes," answered Joan, and the pen fell from Sir Chichester's hand.
"But—but—how did you come back?"
"I borrowed Miranda's car."
Miranda's legs gave under her and she sank down with a moan in a chair.
"But Miranda denies that she lent it," said Sir Chichester in exasperation.
"I asked her to deny it."
Joan's eyes for one swift instant swept round to Harry Luttrell. She swayed. Then she answered:
"I can't tell you."
Sir Chichester rose to his feet and tore his sheet of foolscap across.
"God bless my soul!" he said to himself rather than to any of that company. "God bless my soul!" He moved away from the table. "I think I'll go and see Millie. Yes! I'll consult with Millie," and he ascended the stairs heavily, a very downcast and bewildered man. It seemed as though old age had suddenly found him out, and bowed his shoulders and taken the spring from his limbs. Something of this he felt himself, for he was heard to mutter as he passed along the landing to his wife's sitting-room:
"I am not the man I was. I feel difficulties more"; and so he passed from sight.
Harry Luttrell turned then to Joan.
"Miss Whitworth," he began and got no further. For the blood rushed up into the girl's face and she exclaimed in a trembling voice:
"Colonel Luttrell, I trust that you are not going to ask me any questions."
"Why?" he asked, taken aback by the little touch of violence in her manner.
"Because, at twelve o'clock last night, I refused you the right to ask them."
The words were not very generous. They were meant to hurt and they did. They were meant to put a sharp, quick end to any questioning; and in that, too, they succeeded. Harry Luttrell bowed his head in assent and went out into the garden. For a moment afterwards Martin Hillyard, Joan and Jenny Prask stood in silence; and in that silence once more Martin's eyes fell upon the key of Stella's room. The earth had moved since the interrogatory had begun and the sunlight now played upon the key and transmuted it into a bright jewel. Martin Hillyard stepped forward and lifted it up. A faint, a very faint light, as from the far end of a long tunnel began to glimmer in his mind.
"I must think it out," he whispered to himself; and at once the key filled all his thoughts. He turned to Joan:
"Will you watch, please?" He opened the drawer in the table and laid the key inside it. Then he closed the drawer and locked it and took the key of the drawer out of the lock.
"You see, Joan, what I have done? That key is locked in this drawer, and I hold the key of the drawer. It may be important."
"I see what you have done. And now, will you please leave me with Jenny Prask?"
The smile was very easy to read now in Jenny's face. She could ask nothing better than to be left alone with Joan.
"I think, Joan, that you ought to see Lady Splay before you talk to any one," he counselled gently.
"Is everybody going to give me orders in this house?" Joan retorted with a quiet, dangerous calm.
Martin Hillyard turned and ran swiftly up the stairs. There was but one thing to do. Lady Splay must be fetched down. But hurry as he might, he was not in time. For a few seconds Joan and Jenny Prask were alone in the hall, and all Jenny's composure left her on the instant. She stepped quickly over to Joan, and in a voice vibrating with hatred and passion, she hissed:
"But you'll have to say why you came back. You'll have to say who you came back to see. You'll have to say it publicly too—right there in court. It'll be in all the papers. Won't you like it, Miss Whitworth? Just fancy!"
Joan was staggered by the attack. The sheer hatred of Jenny bewildered her.
"In court?" she faltered. "What do you mean?"
"That Mrs. Croyle died of poison last night in her room," answered Jenny.
Joan stared at her. "Last night, after we had talked—she killed herself—oh!" The truth reached her brain and laid a chill hand upon her heart. She rocked backwards and forwards as she stood, and with a gasping moan fell headlong to the ground. She had fainted. For a little while Jenny surveyed her handiwork with triumph. She bent down with a laugh.
"Yes, it's your turn, you pretty doll. You've got to go through it! You won't look so young and pretty when they have done with you in the witness-box. Bah!"
Jenny Prask was a strenuous hater. She drew back her foot to kick the unconscious girl as she lay at her feet upon the floor. But that insult Millie Splay was in time to prevent.
"Jenny," she cried sharply from the balustrade of the landing.
Jenny was once more the quiet, respectful maid.
"Yes, my lady. You want me? I am afraid that Miss Whitworth has fainted."
A REVOLUTION IN SIR CHICHESTER
Upon that house which had yesterday rung with joyous life now fell gloom and sorrow and grave disquiet. Millie Splay drew Miranda, Dennis Brown and Harold Jupp aside.
"You three had better go," she said. "You have such a little time for holidays now; and I can always telegraph for you if you should be wanted."
Miranda bubbled into little sympathetic explosions.
"Oh, Millie, I'll stay, of course. These boys can go. But Joan will want some one."
Millie, however, would not hear of it.
"You're a brick, Miranda. But I have ordered the car for you all immediately after luncheon. Joan's in bed, and wants to see no one. She seems heartbroken. She will say nothing. I can't understand her."
There was only one at Rackham Park who did, and to him Millie Splay turned instinctively.
"I should like you to stay, if you will put up with us. I think Chichester feels at a loss, and he likes you very much."
"Of course I'll stay," replied Hillyard.
Mr. Albany Todd drifted away to the more congenial atmosphere of a dowager duchess's dower-house in the Highlands, where it is to be hoped that his conversational qualities were more brilliantly displayed than in the irreverent gaiety of Rackham. Millie Splay meant to keep Harry Luttrell too. She hoped against hope. This was the man for her Joan, and whether he was wasting his leave miserably in that melancholy house troubled her not one jot.
"It would be so welcome to me if you would put off your departure," she said. "I am sure there is some dreadful misunderstanding."
Luttrell consented willingly to stay, and they went into the library, where Sir Chichester was brooding over the catastrophe with his head in his hands and the copy of the Harpoon on the floor beside him.
"No, I can't make head or tail of it," he said, and Harper the butler came softly into the room, closing the door from the hall.
"There's a reporter from the West Sussex Advertiser, sir, asking to see you," he said, and Sir Chichester raised his head, like an old hunter which hears a pack of hounds giving tongue in the distance.
"Where is he?"
"In the hall, sir."
The baronet's head sank again between his shoulders.
"Tell him that I can't see him," he said in a dull voice.
The butler was the only man in the room who could hear that pronouncement with an unmoved face, and he owed his imperturbability merely to professional pride. Indeed, it was almost unthinkable that a couple of hours could produce so vast a revolution in a man. Here was a reporter who had come, without being asked, to interview Sir Chichester Splay, and the baronet would not see him! The incongruity struck Sir Chichester himself.
"Perhaps it will seem rather impolite, eh, Luttrell? Rather hard treatment on a man who has come so far? What do you think, Hillyard? I suppose I ought to see him for a moment—yes." Sir Chichester raised his voice in a sharp cry which contrasted vividly with the deliberative sentences preceding it. "Harper! Harper!" and Harper reappeared. "I have been thinking about it, Harper. The unfortunate man may lose his whole morning if I don't see him. We all agree that to send him away would be unkind."
"He has gone, sir."
"Gone?" exclaimed Sir Chichester testily. "God bless my soul! Did he seem disappointed, Harper?"
"Not so much disappointed, sir, as, if I may utilise a vulgarism, struck of all a heap, sir."
"That will do, Harper," said Millie Splay, and Harper again retired.
"Struck all of a heap!" said Sir Chichester sadly. "Well he might be!" He looked up and caught Harry's eye. "They say, Luttrell, that breaking a habit is only distressing during the first few days. With each refusal of the mind to yield, the temptation diminishes in strength. I believe that to be so, Luttrell."
"It is very likely, sir," Harry replied.
Harper seemed to be perpetually in and out of the library that morning. For he appeared with a little oblong parcel in his hand. Sir Chichester did not notice the parcel. He sprang up, and with a distinct note of eager pleasure in his voice, he cried:
"He has come back! Then I really think——"
"No, sir," Harper interrupted. "These are cigarettes."
"Oh, yes," Hillyard stepped forward and took the parcel from the table. "I had run out, so I sent to Midhurst for a box."
"Oh, cigarettes!" Sir Chichester's voice sagged again. He contemplated the little parcel swinging by a loop of string from Martin's finger. His face became a little stern. "That's a bad habit, Hillyard," he observed, shaking his head. "It will grow on you—nicotine poisoning may supervene at any moment. You had better begin to break yourself of it at once. I think so."
"Chichester!" cried Millie Splay. "What in the world are you doing?"
Sir Chichester was gently but firmly removing the parcel from Martin's hands, whilst Martin himself looked on, paralysed by the aggression.
"A little strength of character, Hillyard.... You saw me a minute ago.... The first few days, I believe, are trying."
Martin sought to retrieve his cigarettes, but Sir Chichester laid them aside upon a high mantelpiece, as if Hillyard were a child and could not reach them.
"No, don't disappoint me, Hillyard! I am sure that you, too, can rise above a temptation. Why should I be the only one?"
But Hillyard did not answer. Sir Chichester's desire that he should have a companion in sacrifice set a train of thought working in his mind. In the hurry and horror of that morning something had been forgotten—something of importance, something which perhaps, together with the key locked away in the hall table, might set free Joan's feet from the net in which they were entangled. He looked at his watch.
"Will you lend me your car, Harry, for a few hours?" he asked suddenly.
"Then I'll go," said Martin. "I will be back this afternoon or evening, Lady Splay." He went to the door, but was delayed by a box of Corona cigars upon a small table. "I'll take one of your cigars, Sir Chichester," he said drily.
"Anything in the house, of course, my boy," began the baronet hospitably, and pulled himself up. "A very bad habit, Hillyard. You disappoint me."
A trick of secrecy grows quickly upon men doing the work to which Martin Hillyard had been assigned during the last two years. Nothing is easier than to reach a frame of mind which drives you about with your finger to your lips, whispering "Hush! hush!" over the veriest trifles. Hillyard had not reached that point, but, like many other persons of his service, he was on the way to it. He gave no information now to any one of his purpose or destination, not even to Millie Splay, who came out with him alone into the hall, yearning for some crumb of hope. All that he said to her was:
"It is possible that I may be later than I think; but I shall certainly be back to-night." And he drove off in Luttrell's powerful small car.
It was, in fact, ten o'clock when Hillyard returned to Rackham Park. There was that in his manner which encouraged the inmates to hope some way out had been discovered. Questions were poured upon him, and some information given. The date of the inquest had been fixed for the next Monday, and meanwhile no statement of any kind had been put before the coroner. Jenny had not yielded by an inch. She would certainly tell her story with all the convincing force behind it of her respectful quiet manner and her love for her mistress.