"You know perfectly well you've got to have meat to drive the ghosties out of your silly head."
Timmy submitted with a grunt of disappointment, and the meal proceeded. Again Radmore felt surprised and puzzled. Was it conceivable that the whole family—with the exception of Mr. Tosswill, Jack and Timmy, had become so High Church that Friday was with them a meatless day?
After her visitors had gone, Mrs. Crofton had come back slowly, languidly, to her easy-chair.
It was too warm for a fire, yet somehow the fire comforted her, for she felt cold as well as tired, and, yes, she could admit it to herself, horribly disappointed. How stupid men were—even clever men!
It was so stupid of Godfrey Radmore not to have come to see her, this the first time, alone. He might have found it difficult to have come without one of the Tosswill girls, but there was no reason and no excuse for his being accompanied by that odious little Timmy. It was also really unkind of the boy to have brought his horrid dog with him. Even now she seemed to hear Flick's long-drawn-out howls—those horrible howls that at the time she had not believed to be real. What a nervous, hysterical fool she was becoming! How long would she go on being haunted by the now fast-disappearing past?
There came back to Enid Crofton the very last words uttered by Piper, the clever, capable man who, after having been Colonel Crofton's batman in the War, had become their general factotum in Essex:—"Don't you go and be startled, ma'am, if you see the very spit of Dandy in this 'ere village! As me and your new lad was cleaning out the stable-yard this morning, a young gentleman came in with a dog as was 'is exact image. After a bit o'course, I remembered as what we'd sent one of Juno's and Dandy's pups to a place called Beechfield this time last year—'tis that pup grown into a dog without a doubt!"
It was certainly a bit of rank bad luck that there should be here, in Beechfield, a dog which, whenever she saw it, brought the image of her dead husband so vividly before her.
She had just settled herself down, and was turning over the leaves of one of the many picture papers which Tremaine had bought for her on their jolly little journey on the day of her arrival at The Trellis House, when there came a ring at the door.
Who could it be coming so late—close to seven o'clock? Enid Crofton got up, feeling vaguely disturbed.
The new maid brought in a reply-paid telegram, and Mrs. Crofton tore open the orange envelope with just a faint premonition that something disagreeable was going to happen:—"May I come and stay with you for the week-end? Have just arrived in England. Alice Crofton."
Thank Heaven she had been wrong as to her premonition! This portended nothing disagreeable—only something unexpected. The sender of this telegram was the kind, opulent sister-in-law whom she always thought of as "Miss Crofton."
Going over to her toy writing-table, she quickly wrote on the reply-paid form:—"Miss Crofton, Buck's Hotel, Dover Street. Yes, delighted. Do come to-morrow morning. Excellent eleven o'clock train from Waterloo.—Enid."
As she settled herself by the fire she told herself that a visit from Miss Crofton might be quite a good thing—so far as Beechfield was concerned. Her associations with her husband's sister were wholly pleasant. For one thing, Alice Crofton was well off, and Enid instinctively respected, and felt interested in, any possessor of money. What a pity it was that Colonel Crofton had not had a fairy godmother! His only sister had been left L3,000 a year by a godmother, and she lived the agreeable life so many Englishwomen of her type and class live on the Continent. While her real home was in Florence, she often travelled, and during the War she had settled down in Paris, giving many hours of each day to one of the British hospitals there.
The young widow's mind flew back to her one meeting with Alice Crofton. It was during her brief engagement to Colonel Crofton, and the latter's sister, without being over cordial, had been quite pleasant to the startlingly pretty little woman, who had made such a fool of her brother.
But at the time of Colonel Crofton's death, his sister had been truly kind. She had telegraphed L200 to her sister-in-law from Italy, and this sum of ready money had been very useful during that tragic week—and even afterwards, for the insurance people had made a certain amount of fuss after Colonel Crofton's sad suicide, "while of unsound mind," and this had caused a disagreeable delay.
The new tenant of The Trellis House had her lonely dinner brought in to her on a tray, and then, perhaps rather too soon—for she was not much of a reader, and there was nothing to while away the time—she went upstairs to her pleasant, cosy bedroom, and so to bed.
But, try as she might, she found it impossible to fall asleep; for what seemed to her hours she lay wide awake, tossing this way and that. At last she got up, and, drawing aside the chintz curtain across one of the windows, she looked out. The window was open, and in the eerily bright moonlight the upper part of the hill on which Beechfield village lay seemed spread before her. There were twinkling lights in many of the windows—doubtless groups of happy, cheerful people behind them. She felt horribly lonely and depressed as well as wide awake to-night.
In her short, healthy life, Enid Crofton had only had one attack of insomnia. During the ten days that had followed her husband's sudden death—for the inquest had had to be put off for a day or two—she had hardly slept at all, and the doctor who had been so kind a friend during that awful time, had had to give her a strong narcotic. To his astonishment it had had no effect. She had felt as if she were going mad—the effect, so he had told her afterwards, of the awful shock she had had.
To-night she wondered with a kind of terror whether that terrible sleeplessness which had ended by making her feel almost lightheaded was coming back.
She turned away from the window, and, getting into bed again, tried to compose her limbs into absolute repose, as the doctor had advised her to do. And then, just as she was mercifully going to sleep, there floated in, through the open window, a variant on a doggerel song she had last heard in Egypt:—
"The angels sing-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling, They've got the goods for me. The bells of hell ring ting-a-ling-a-ling For you, as you shall see."
Enid Crofton sat up in bed. She felt suddenly afraid—horribly, desperately afraid. As is often the case with those who have drifted away from any form of religion, she was very superstitious, and terrified of evil omens. During the War she had been fond of going first to one and then to another of the fashionable sooth-sayers.
They had all agreed as to one thing—this was that her husband would die, and of course she had thought he would be killed at the Front. But he had come through safe and sound, and more—more hateful than ever.
One fortune-teller, a woman, small, faded, commonplace-looking, yet with something sinister about her that impressed her patrons uncomfortably, had told Enid Crofton, with a curious smile, that she would have yet another husband, making the third. This had startled her very much, for the woman, who did not even know her name, could only have guessed that she had been married twice. Enid Crofton was not given to making unnecessary confidences. With the exception of her sister-in-law, none of the people who now knew her were aware that Colonel Crofton had been her second husband.
She lay down again, and in the now dying firelight, fixed her eyes on the chintz square of the window curtain nearest to her. She shut her eyes, but, as always happens, there remained a square luminous patch on their retinas. And then, all at once, it was as if she saw, depicted on the white, faintly illuminated space, a scene which might have figured in one of those cinema-plays to which she and her house-mate, during those happy days when she had lived in London, used so often to go with one or other of their temporary admirers.
On the white, luminous background two pretty little hands were moving about, a little uncertainly, over a window-ledge on which stood a row of medicine bottles. Then, suddenly the two pretty hands became engaged in doing something which is done by woman's hands every day—the pouring of a liquid from one bottle into another.
Enid Crofton did not visualise the owner of the hands. She had no wish to do so, but she did see the hands.
Then there started out before her, with astonishing vividness, another little scene—this time with a man as central figure. He was whistling; that she knew, though she could not hear the whistling. It was owing to that surprised, long-drawn-out whistling sound that the owner of the pretty hands had become suddenly, affrightedly, aware that someone was there, outside the window, staring down, and so of course seeing the task on which the two pretty little hands were engaged.
Now, the owner of that pair of now shaking little hands had felt quite sure that no one could possibly see what they were engaged in doing—for the window on the ledge of which the medicine bottles were standing looked out on what was practically a blank wall. But the man whose long, surprised whistle had so suddenly scared her, happened at that moment to be sitting astride the top of the blank wall, engaged in the legitimate occupation of sticking bits of broken bottles into putty. The man was Piper, and doubtless the trifling incident had long since slipped his mind, for that same afternoon his master, Colonel Crofton, had committed suicide in a fit of depression owing to shell shock.
Enid Crofton opened her eyes wide, and the sort of vision, or nightmare—call it what you will—faded at once.
It was a nightmare she had constantly experienced during the first few nights which had succeeded her husband's death. But since the inquest she had no longer been haunted by that scene—the double scene of the hands, the pretty little hands, engaged in that simple, almost mechanical, action of pouring the contents of one bottle into another, and the vision of the man on the wall looking down, slantwise, through the window, and uttering that queer, long-drawn-out whistle of utter surprise.
When at last Mrs. Crofton had had to explain regretfully to clever, capable Piper that she could no longer afford to keep him on, they had parted the best of friends. She had made him the handsome present of twenty-five pounds, for he had been a most excellent servant to her late husband. And she had done more than that. She had gone to a good deal of trouble to procure him an exceptionally good situation. Piper had just gone there, and she hoped, rather anxiously, that he would do well in it.
The man had one serious fault—now and again he would go off and have a good "drunk." Sometimes he wouldn't do this foolish, stupid thing for months, and then, perchance, he would do it two weeks running! Colonel Crofton, so hard in many ways, had been indulgent to this one fault, or vice, in an otherwise almost perfect servant. When giving Piper a very high character Mrs. Crofton had just hinted that there had been a time when he had taken a drop too much, but she had spoken of it as being absolutely in the past. Being the kind of woman she was, she wouldn't have said even that, had it not been that Piper had got disgracefully drunk within a week of his master's death. She had been very much frightened then, though not too frightened to stay, herself, within hail of the man till he had come round, and to make him a cup of strong coffee. When, at last, he was fit to do so, he had uttered broken words of gratitude, really touched at her kindness, and frightfully ashamed of himself.
Lying there, wide awake, in the darkness and utter stillness of Beechfield village, Enid Crofton reminded herself that she had treated Piper very well. In memory of the master whom he had served she had also given him, before selling off her husband's kennel, two prize-winners. But it is sometimes a mistake to be too kind, for on receiving this last generous gift the man had hinted that with a little capital he could set up dog-breeding for himself! She had had to tell him, sadly but firmly, that she could not help him to any ready money, and Piper had been what she now vaguely described to herself as "very nice" about it, though obviously disappointed.
At the end of their little chat, however, he had said something which had made her feel rather uncomfortable:—"I was wondering, ma'am, whether Major Radmore might perhaps be inclined for a little speculation? I wouldn't mind paying, say, up to ten per cent, if 'e'd oblige me with a loan of five hundred pounds."
She had been astonished at the suggestion—astonished and unpleasantly taken aback. He had surprised her further by going on:—"I believe as what the Major is coming 'ome soon, ma'am. Perhaps then I might venture to ask you to say a word for me? Major Radmore was known in the regiment as a very kind gentleman."
"I'll do what I can, Piper." She had said the words with apparent earnestness, but, deep in her heart, she had thought the request totally unreasonable.
And now it was this conversation which came back to her as she moved restlessly about in her bed. She wondered uneasily whether she had made a mistake. Her capital was very small, and she was now living on her capital, but after all, perhaps it would have been wiser to have given Piper that L500. She was quite determined not to mix up Piper with Godfrey Radmore, but she had a queer, uncomfortable feeling that she had not done with this man yet.
At last she fell into a heavy, troubled, worried sleep—the kind of sleep from which a woman always wakes unrefreshed.
But daylight brought comfort to Enid Crofton, and after she had had her early cup of tea and had enjoyed her nice hot bath, she felt quite cheery again, and her strange, bad night faded into nothingness. She was young, she was strong, above all she was enchantingly pretty! She told herself confidently that nothing terrible, nothing really dreadful ever happens to a woman who is as attractive as she knew herself to be to the sex which still holds all the material power there is to hold in this strange world.
During the last three weeks, she had sometimes wondered uneasily whether Godfrey Radmore realised how very pretty she was. There was something so curiously impersonal about him—and yet last night he had very nearly kissed her!
She laughed aloud, gaily, triumphantly, as she went down to her late breakfast.
At the moment that Enid Crofton was telling herself that everything was going fairly well with her, and that nothing could alter the fact that she was now, and likely to remain for a long time, a woman likely to attract every man with whom she came in contact—Godfrey Radmore, following Janet Tosswill after breakfast into the drawing-room of Old Place, exclaimed deprecatingly:—"I feel like Rip Van Winkle!'
"Do you?" She turned to him and smiled a little sadly. "It's you that have changed, Godfrey. Everything here is much the same. As for me, I never see any change from one year to another."
"But they've all grown up!" he exclaimed plaintively. "You can't think how odd it seems to find a lot of grown-up young ladies and gentlemen instead of the jolly little kids who were in the nursery with Nanna nine years ago. By the way, Nanna hasn't changed, and"—he hesitated, then brought out with an effort, "Mr. Tosswill is exactly the same."
She felt vexed that he hadn't included Betty. To her step-mother's fond eyes Betty was more attractive now than in her early girlhood. "I think the children have improved very much," she said quickly. "Jack was a horrid little prig nine years ago!"
She hadn't forgiven Radmore. And yet, in a sense, she was readjusting her views and theories about him, for the simple reason that he, Godfrey Radmore, had changed so utterly. From having been a hot-tempered, untameable, high-spirited boy, he was now, or so it seemed to her, a cool, restrained man of the world, old for his years. In fact it was he who was now a stranger—but a stranger who had most attractive manners, and who had somehow slipped very easily into their everyday life. Janet liked his deferential manner to the master of the house, she enjoyed his kindly and good-humoured, if slightly satirical dealings with Jack and with pretty Rosamund, and she was very grateful to him for the way he treated queer, little Timmy, her own beloved changeling child.
And now something happened that touched her, and made her suddenly feel as if she was with the old Godfrey Radmore again.
"Look here," he said, in a low, hesitating voice, "I want to tell you, Janet, that I didn't know till yesterday about George. You'll think me a fool—but somehow I always thought of him as being safe in India." And then with sudden passion he asked:—"How can you say that everything is the same in Old Place with George not here? Why, to me, George was as much part of Old Place as—as Betty is!"
"We all thought you knew—at least I wasn't sure."
"Thank God he didn't think so poorly of me as that," he muttered, and then he looked away, his eyes smarting with unshed tears. "Nothing will ever be the same to me again without George in the world."
As she said nothing, he went on with sudden passion:—"Every other country in Europe has changed utterly since the War, but England seemed to me, till last night, exactly the same—only rather bigger and more bustling than nine years ago." He drew a long breath. "Timmy and I went into the post-office last evening, and Cobbett asked me to go in, and see his wife. I thought I remembered her so well—and when I saw her, Janet, I didn't know her! Then I asked after her boys—and she told me."
"It's strange that a man who went through it all himself should feel like that," she said slowly.
The door opened suddenly and Rosamund's pretty head appeared: "There's a message come through saying that your car's all right, and that it will be along in about an hour," she exclaimed joyfully. To Rosamund, Godfrey Radmore was in very truth a stranger, and a very attractive stranger at that.
As a rule, after breakfast, all the young people went their various ways, but this morning they were all hanging about waiting vaguely for Godfrey to come and do something with one or all of them. Rosamund was longing to ask him whether he knew any of the London theatrical managers; Tom was wondering whether Godfrey would allow him to drive his car; Dolly and Timmy, as different in everything else as two human beings could well be, each desired to take him into the village and show him off to their friends. The only one of the young people who was not really interested in Radmore was Jack Tosswill. He was engaged just now in looking feverishly for an old gardening book which he had promised to lend Mrs. Crofton, and he was cursing under his breath because the book had been mislaid.
As Rosamund looked in, her step-mother and Radmore both stopped speaking abruptly, and so after a doubtful moment, she withdrew her head, and shut the door behind her.
"Tell me about George," he said, without looking at her.
"I think Betty would like to tell you," she answered slowly: "Ask her about him some time when you're alone together."
"Where is she now?" he asked abruptly.
"In the kitchen I think—but she won't be long."
Jack, looking ruffled and uneasy, very unlike his quiet, cool self, burst into the room. "I can't think where that old shabby green gardening book has gone, Janet. Do you know where it is?"
"You mean 'Gardening for Ladies'?"
"What on earth d'you want it for?"
"For Mrs. Crofton. Her garden's been awfully neglected."
"I'll find it presently. I think it's in my bedroom."
Again the door shut, and Janet turned to Radmore: "Your friend has made a conquest of Jack!" She spoke with a touch of rather studied unconcern, for she had been a little taken aback last evening when Timmy had told her casually of his own and his godfather's call at The Trellis House.
"My friend?" Radmore repeated uncertainly.
"I mean Mrs. Crofton. The coming of a new person to live in Beechfield is still quite an event, Godfrey."
"I don't think she'll make much difference to Beechfield," again he spoke with a touch of hesitation. "To tell you the truth, Janet, I rather wonder that she decided to live in the country at all. I should have thought that she would far prefer London, and all that London stands for. But I'm afraid that she's got very little money, and, of course, the country is cheaper than town, isn't it?"
"I suppose it is. But Mrs. Crofton can't be poor. I know she paid a premium for the lease of The Trellis House."
"That's odd." Radmore spoke in an off-hand manner, but Janet, watching him, thought he felt a little awkward. He went on:—"I know that Colonel Crofton was hard up. He told me so, quite frankly, the last time I saw him. But of course she may have had money of her own."
Janet looked at him rather hard. A disagreeable suspicion had entered her mind. She wondered whether there was anything like an "understanding" between the man she was talking to and the tenant of The Trellis House. If so, she wished with all her heart that Godfrey Radmore had kept away. Why stir up embers they had all thought were dead, if he was going to marry this very pretty but, to her mind, second-rate little woman, as soon as a decent time had elapsed?
"What are your plans for the future?" she asked. "Are you going to settle down, or are you going to travel a bit?" ("After all, he won't be able to marry Mrs. Crofton for at least another six months," she said to herself.)
"Oh, I mean to settle down." His answer was quick, decisive, final.
He went on: "My idea is to find a place, not too far from here, that I can buy; and my plan is to go about and look for it now. That's why I've hired a motor for a month. Perhaps you'd lend me Timmy, and, if it wouldn't be improper, one of the girls, now and again? We might go round and look about a bit."
And then he walked across to where she was standing, and put his hand on her arm, "How about you?" he asked, "why shouldn't I take you and Timmy a little jaunt just for a week or so—that would be rather fun, eh?"
She smiled and shook her head.
He took a step back. "Look here, Janet—do try and forgive me—I'm a more sensible chap than I was, honest Injun!"
"I'm beginning to think you are," she cried, and then they both burst out laughing.
He lingered a moment. He was longing, longing intensely, to ask her certain questions. He wanted to know about Betty—what sort of a life Betty had made for herself. He still, in an odd way, felt responsible for Betty—which was clearly absurd.
And then Janet Tosswill said something that surprised him very much. "I think you'd better go round and see some of the people in the village to-day. I was rather sorry you went off straight to The Trellis House last evening. You know how folks talked, even in the old days, in Beechfield?"
He looked uneasy—taken aback, and she felt, if a little ashamed, glad that she had made that "fishing" remark.
There was a pause, and then he said with a touch of formality: "Look here, Janet? I'd like you to know that though I've become quite fond of Mrs. Crofton, I'm only fond—nothing more, you understand? Perhaps I'll make my meaning clearer when I tell you that I was the only man in Egypt who knew her who wasn't in love with her."
He saw her face change and, rather piqued, he asked: "Did you think I was?"
"I thought that you and she were great friends—"
"Well, so we are in a way. I saw a great deal of her in London."
"And you went straight off to see her the moment you arrived here."
"Well, perhaps I was foolish to do that."
What an odd admission to make. He certainly had changed amazingly in the last nine years!
Then it was Janet who surprised him: "Don't make any mistake," she said quickly. "There's no reason in the world why you shouldn't marry Mrs. Crofton—after a decent interval has elapsed. All I meant to say—and I'd rather say it right out now—is that as most people know that her husband hasn't been dead more than a few weeks, you ought to be rather careful, all the more careful if—if your friendship should come to anything, Godfrey."
"But it won't!" he exclaimed, with a touch of the old heat, "indeed it won't, Janet. To tell you the truth, I don't think I shall ever marry."
"I certainly shouldn't if I were a rich bachelor," she said laughing; and yet somehow what he had just said hurt her.
As for Radmore, he felt just a little jarred by her words. Had she quite forgotten all that had happened in that long ago which, in a sense, seemed to belong to another life? He hadn't, and since his arrival yesterday certain things had come back in a rushing flood of memory.
"I've something to do in the garden now." Janet was smiling—she really did feel perhaps rather absurdly relieved. Like Timmy, she didn't care for Mrs. Crofton, and the mere suspicion that Godfrey Radmore had come back here to Old Place in order to carry on a love affair had disturbed her.
"By the way, how's McPherson?" he asked abruptly. "He is a splendid gardener and no mistake! I've never seen a garden looking more beautiful than yours does just now, Janet. I woke early this morning and looked out of my window. I suppose McPherson's about—I'll go out and speak to him."
Her face shadowed. "McPherson," she said slowly, "was one of the first men to leave Beechfield. He was perfectly fit, and he made up his mind to go at once. You know, Godfrey—or perhaps you don't know—that the Scotch glens emptied first of men?"
She nodded. "He was killed at the second battle of Ypres. He was sent to the Front rather sooner than most, for he was a very intelligent man, and really keen. I've got a boy now, a lad of seventeen—not half a bad sort, but it does seem strange to give him every Saturday just double the money I used to give McPherson!"
She went out, through into the garden, on these last words, and again there came over Radmore a feeling of poignant sadness. How strange that he should have spent those weeks in London, knowing so little, nay, not knowing at all, what the War had really meant to the home country.
He opened the door into the corridor, and listened, wondering where they had all gone. He had some business letters to write, and he told himself that he would go and get them done in what he still thought of in his mind as George's room. He had noticed that the big plain deal writing table was still there.
He went upstairs, and when he opened the bedroom door, he was astonished to find Rosamund kneeling in front of George's old play-box, routing among what looked like a lot of papers and books.
"I'm hunting for a prescription for father," she said, looking up. "Timmy thinks he put it in here one day after coming back from the chemist's at Guildford." She looked flushed, and decidedly cross, as she went on: "No one's taught Timmy to put things in their proper place, as we were taught to do, when we were children!"
Radmore felt amused. She certainly was very, very pretty, and did not look much more than a child herself.
"Look here," he said good-naturedly, "let me help. I don't think you're going the right way to work." He felt just a little bit sorry for Timmy; Rosamund was raking about as if the play-box was a bran-pie.
Bending down he took up out of the box a bundle of envelopes, copybooks, and Christmas cards. Then he sat himself down on a chair in the window, and began going through what he held, carefully and methodically.
Suddenly through the open door there came a cry of "Miss Rosamund, I want you!"
Rosamund got up reluctantly. "Nanna's a regular tyrant!"
"Leave all this to me," he said. "I'll find the prescription if it's here."
She went off, and almost at once he came to a folded bit of paper. Perhaps this was the prescription? He opened it, and this is what he read:—
March 12, 1919. This is the happiest day of my life. One of my godmothers has died and left me L50. I am going to buy two nanny-goats, a boy and a girl. They will have kids, and I shall make munny. We shall then have a propper cook, and I shall never help Betty wash up any more. I wish my other godmother would die. She is very genrus and kind—she would go strait to Heaven. But she is very hellfy.
Poor little Timmy! Dear little unscrupulous child of nature! Would Timmy wish him, Godfrey Radmore, dead, if some accident were to reveal to him what a great difference it would make to them all? He hoped not. But he couldn't feel sure, for, from being well-to-do the Tosswills must have become poor, painfully and, to his mind, unnaturally poor.
Further search proved the prescription was not in the play-box, and he went downstairs. Still that same unnatural silence through the house. Where could Timmy be? Somehow he felt that he wanted to see Timmy and find out about the nanny-goats. He feared his godson's expectations of wealth had not been fulfilled, but he supposed that there was a "propper cook," probably the lack of her had been quite temporary.
He wandered into the drawing-room. In the old days all five sitting-rooms had been in use. Now four of them were closed, and the drawing-room was everybody's meeting place. Dolly was there working a carpet-sweeper languidly.
"Where's everybody?" he asked.
"I think Betty and Timmy are still in the scullery. I don't know where Rosamund is."
"I suppose I can go into the scullery?"
She looked at him dubiously. "Yes, if you'd like to—certainly. Betty loves cooking and all that sort of thing. I hate it—so in our division of labour, I do the other kind of housework." She looked ruffled and he told himself, a little maliciously, that she was not unlike a lazy, rather incompetent, housemaid. "If it's Timmy you want," she continued, "I'll go and see if he can come."
"Please don't trouble. I'll find him all right."
Radmore went out into the passage. As the baize door, which shut off the kitchen quarters, opened, he saw his godson and Rosamund before they saw him, and he heard Rosamund say, in a cross tone: "It only means that someone else will have to help her; I think it's very selfish of you, Timmy."
From being full of joy Timmy's face became downcast and sullen.
"Hullo!" Radmore called out, "I want you to show me the garden, Timmy. Where's Betty?"
"She's in the scullery, of course. I tell you I have done, Rosamund. You are a cruel pig—"
"Come, Timmy, don't speak to your sister like that."
It ended in the three of them going off—Rosamund to look for the prescription, and the other two into the garden.
* * * * *
Nanna waddled into the scullery: "I'll wipe up them things, Miss Betty," she said good-naturedly; "you go out to Mr. Godfrey and Master Timmy—they was asking for you just now."
Betty hesitated—and then suddenly she made up her mind that, yes, she would do as Nanna suggested.
In early Victorian days women of Betty Tosswill's class and kind worked many of their most anxious thoughts and fears, hopes and fancies, into the various forms of needlework which were then considered the only suitable kind of occupation for a young gentlewoman; and often Betty, when engaged on the long and arduous task of washing up for her big family party, pondered over the problems and secret anxieties which assailed her. Though something of a pain, it had also been to her a great relief to realise that the living flesh and blood Godfrey Radmore of to-day had ousted the passionately devoted, if unreasonable and violent, lover of her early girlhood. In the old days, intermingled with her deep love of Radmore, there had been a protective, almost maternal, feeling, and although Radmore had been four years older than herself, she had always felt the older of the two. But now, in spite of the responsible, anxious work she had done in France during the War, she felt that the roles were reversed, and that her one-time lover had become infinitely older than she was herself in knowledge of the world.
Old Nanna hoped that Miss Betty would go upstairs and change her plain cotton dress for something just a little prettier and that she would put on, maybe, a hat trimmed with daisies which Nanna admired. But Betty did nothing of the sort. She washed her hands at the sink, and then she went out into the hall, and taking up her big plain old garden hat went straight out into the keen autumnal air.
And then, as she caught sight of the tall man and of the little boy, she stayed her steps, overwhelmed by a flood of both sweet and bitter memories.
During the year which had followed the breaking of her engagement there had been corners and by-ways of the big, rambling old garden filled with poignant, almost unbearable, associations of the days when she and Godfrey had been lovers. There had been certain nooks and hidden oases where it had been agony to go. She had considered all kinds of things as being possible. Perhaps her most certain conviction had been that he would come back some day with a wife whom she, Betty, would try to teach herself to love; but never had she visioned what had now actually occurred, that is Radmore's quiet, commonplace falling-back into the day-to-day life of Old Place.
All at once she heard Timmy's clear treble voice:—"Hullo! There's Betty."
Radmore turned and said something Betty did not hear, and the child went off like an arrow from the bow. Then Radmore, turning, came towards her quickly. She had no clue to the strange look of pain and indecision on his face, and her heart began to beat, strangely.
When close to her:—"Betty," he said in a low voice, "I want to tell you that I didn't know about George till last night. How could you think I did?"
"I suppose one does think unjust things when one's in great trouble," she answered.
He felt hurt and angry and showed it. "I should have thought you would all have known me well enough to know that I should have written at once—at once. Why, the whole world's altered now that I know that George is no longer in it! Perhaps that sounds foolish and exaggerated, as I never wrote to him. But I think you'll know what I mean, Betty? It was all right, as long as I knew he was somewhere, happy."
She said almost inaudibly:—"I think that he is happy somewhere. You know—but no, you don't know—that George was a born soldier. Those months after he joined up, and until he was killed, were, I do believe, by far the happiest of his life. He always said they were."
As he made no answer she went on:—"I'll show you some of his letters if you like, and father will show you the letters that were sent to us—afterwards."
By now they had left the garden proper, and were walking down an avenue which was known as the Long Walk. It was here that they two, with George always as a welcome third, used to play "tip and run" and "hide and seek" with the then little children.
"Tell me something about the others," he said abruptly. "I'm moving in a world unrealised."
She smiled up into his face. Somehow that confession touched her, and brought them nearer to one another.
"Jack frightens me a bit, you know—he's so unlike George. And then the girls? Is it true what Timmy says—that Rosamund wants to be an actress?"
There was a slight tone of censorious surprise in his voice, and Betty reddened.
"I don't see why she shouldn't be an actress if she wants to be! Father's making her wait till she's twenty-one."
"Let me see," he said hesitatingly, "Dolly's older than Jack, isn't she?"
"Oh, no. Dolly will only be twenty next Thursday."
There came over her an overwhelming impulse to tell him something—the sort of thing she could only have told George.
"You know that pretty old church at Oakford?"
"Well, Mr. Runsby is dead. They've got a bachelor clergyman now, and Janet and I think that he's becoming very fond of Dolly! He's away just now, or you would have already seen him. He's very often over here."
"I should have thought—" He hesitated in his turn, but already he was falling again into the way of saying exactly what he thought right out to Betty—"that with you and Rosamund in the house, no one would look at Dolly!"
Betty blushed, and for a fleeting moment Godfrey saw the blushing, dimpling Betty of long ago.
"Rosamund has the utmost contempt for him. As for me, he never sees me—I'm always in the kitchen when he comes here." She added with a touch of the quiet humour he remembered, "I don't think Dolly's in any danger from me!"
"Why are you always in the kitchen, Betty?" he asked. "Is it really necessary?"
"Yes, it really is necessary," she answered frankly. "Father's got much poorer, and everything's about a hundred times as dear as it was before the War. But you mustn't think that I mind. I like it in a way—and it won't last for ever. Some of father's investments are beginning to recover a little even now, and prices are coming down—"
They had now come back to the garden end of the Long Walk. "I must go now," she said. "Would you like me to send out one of the girls to entertain you?"
He shook his head. "No, I think I'll stroll about the village for a bit."
They both felt as if the first milestone of their new relationship had been set deep in the earth, and both were glad and relieved that it was so.
Radmore walked about a bit, admiring Janet's autumnal herbaceous borders, and then he remembered a door that he had known of old which led from the big kitchen garden into the road. If it was open he could step out without walking across the front of the house.
He turned into the walled garden, and walked quickly down a well-kept path past the sun-dial to the door. It was open. He walked through it, and then, with a rather guilty feeling—a feeling he did not care to analyse—he made his way round the lower half of the village till he reached the outside wall of The Trellis House.
There he hesitated for a few moments, but even while he was hesitating he knew that he would go in. Before he could turn the handle the door in the garden wall was opened by Enid Crofton herself. Radmore was surprised to see that she was dressed in a black dress, with the orthodox plain linen collar and cuffs of widowhood. It altered her strangely.
He was at once disappointed and a little relieved also, to find Jack Tosswill in the garden with her. But soon the three went indoors, and then, as had often been Mrs. Crofton's experience with admirers in the past, each man tried to sit the other out.
At last the hostess had to say playfully:—"I'm afraid I must turn you out now, for I'm expecting my sister-in-law, Miss Crofton."
And then they both, together, took their departure; Radmore feeling that he had wasted an hour which might have been so very much more profitably spent in going to see some of his old friends among the cottagers. As to Jack Tosswill, he felt perplexed, and yes, considerably put out and annoyed. He had been a good deal taken aback to see how close was the acquaintance between Mrs. Crofton and Godfrey Radmore.
There is nothing like a meal, especially a good meal, for inducing between two people an agreeable sense of intimacy. When Enid Crofton and her elderly sister-in-law passed from the dining-room of The Trellis House into the gay-looking little sitting-room, with its old-fashioned, brightly coloured chintz furnishings, and quaint reproductions of eighteenth-century prints, the two ladies were far more at ease the one with the other than before luncheon.
Enid, in the plain black woollen gown, with its white linen collar and cuffs, which she had discarded almost at once after her husband's funeral, felt that she was producing a pleasant impression. As they sat down, one on each side of the cheerful little wood fire, and began sipping the excellent coffee which the mistress of the house had already taught her very plain cook to make as it should be made, she suddenly exclaimed:—
"I do want to thank you again for the money you sent me when poor Cecil died! It was most awfully good of you, and very useful, too, for the insurance people did not pay me for nearly a month."
These words gave her visitor an opening for which she had waited during the last hour: "I'm glad my present was so opportune," said Miss Crofton in her precise, old-fashioned way. "As we have mentioned money, I should like to know, my dear, how you are situated? I was afraid from something Cecil told me last time he and I met that you would be very poorly left."
She stopped speaking, and there followed a long pause. Enid Crofton was instinctively glad that she was seated with her back to the window. She was afraid lest her face should betray her surprise and discomfiture at the question. And yet, what more natural than that her well-to-do, kind-hearted sister-in-law should wish to know how she, Enid, was now situated?
Cecil Crofton's widow was not what ordinary people would have called a clever woman, but during the whole of her short life she had studied how to please, cajole, and yes—deceive, the men and women about her. Unfortunately for her, Alice Crofton was a type of woman with whom she had never before been brought in contact; and something deep within her told her that she had better stick as close to the truth as was reasonably possible with this shrewd spinster who was, in some ways, so disconcertingly like what Enid Crofton's late husband had been, in the days when he had been a forlorn girl-widow's protecting friend and ardent admirer.
Yet, even so, she began with a lie: "When my mother died last year she left me a little money. I thought it wise to spend it in getting this house, and in settling down here." She said the words in a very low voice, and as Miss Crofton said nothing for a moment, she added timidly:—"I do hope that you think I did right? I know people think it wrong to use capital, but the War has changed everything, including money, and one simply can't get along at all without paying out sums which before the War would have seemed dreadful."
"That's very true," said Miss Crofton finally.
Enid, feeling on sure ground now, went on: "Why, I had to pay a premium of L200 for the lease of this little house. But I'm told I could get that again—even after living for a year or two in it."
Miss Crofton began looking about her with a doubtful air: "I suppose you mean to spend the winter here," she said musingly, "and then let the house each summer?"
"Yes," said Enid, "that is my idea."
As a matter of fact, she had never thought of doing such a thing, though she saw the point of it, now that it was put by her sister-in-law. She hoped, however, that long before next summer her future would be settled on most agreeable lines.
"Then I suppose the balance of what your mother left you forms a little addition to your pension, and to what poor Cecil was able to leave you?"
As the other hesitated, Miss Crofton went on, in a very friendly tone:—"I hope you won't think it interfering that I should speak as I am doing? I expected to find you much less comfortably circumstanced, and I was going to propose that I should increase what I had feared would be a very small income, by two hundred a year."
Enid was as much touched by this unexpected generosity as it was in her to be, and it was with an accent of real sincerity that she exclaimed:—"Oh, Alice, you are kind! Of course two hundred a year would be a great help. Nothing remains of what my mother left me. But you must not think that I'm extravagant. I sold a lot of things, and that made it possible for me to take over The Trellis House exactly as you see it. But even during the very few days I have been here I have begun to find how expensive life can be, even in a village like this."
"All right," said Miss Crofton. She got up from her easy chair with a quick movement, for she was still a vigorous woman. "Then that's settled! I'll give you a cheque for L100 to-day—and one every six months as long that is, as you're a widow." Then she smiled a little satirically, for Enid had made a quick movement of recoil which Alice Crofton thought rather absurd.
"It's early to think of such a thing, no doubt," she said coolly. "But still, I shall be very much surprised, Enid, if you do not re-make your life. I myself have a dear young friend, very little older than you are, who has been married three times. The War has altered the views and prejudices even of old-fashioned people."
"I want to ask you something," said Enid, "d'you think I ought to tell people that I have already been married twice?"
Miss Crofton told herself quickly that such questions are always put with a definite reason, and that she probably would not be called upon to pay her sister-in-law's allowance for very long.
"I don't think you are in the least bound to tell anyone such a fact about yourself, unless"—she hesitated,—"you were seriously thinking of marrying again. In such a case as that I think you would be well advised, Enid, to tell the man in question the fact before you become obliged to reveal it to him."
There was a pause, and then Miss Crofton abruptly changed the subject by saying something which considerably disturbed her young sister-in-law.
"I should be much obliged, my dear, if you would tell me a few details as to my poor brother's death. Your letter contained no particulars at all," and as the other made no immediate answer, Miss Crofton went on:—"I know there was an inquest, for one of my friends in Florence saw a report of it in an English paper. Perhaps you would kindly let me see any newspaper account or cuttings you may have preserved?"
"I have kept nothing, Alice!" Enid Crofton uttered the words with a touch of almost angry excitement. Then, perhaps seeing that the other was very much surprised, she said more quietly:—"The inquest was a purely formal affair—the Coroner himself told me that there must always be an inquest when a person died suddenly."
"Oh, but surely the question was raised, and that very seriously, as to whether Cecil took what he did take on purpose, or by accident? I understood from my friend that the account of the inquest she saw in some popular Sunday paper was headed 'An Essex Mystery.'"
Enid felt as if all the blood in her body was flowing towards her face. She congratulated herself that she was sitting with her back to the light. These remarks, these questions made her feel sick and faint. Yet she answered, composedly:—"Both the Coroner and the jury felt sure he had taken it on purpose. Poor Cecil had never been like himself since the unlucky day, for us, that the War ended!" And then to Miss Crofton's surprise and discomfiture Enid burst into tears.
The older lady got up and put her hand very kindly on the younger one's shoulder:—"I'm sorry I said anything, my dear," she exclaimed; "I'm afraid you went through a much worse time than you let me know."
"I did! I did!" sobbed Enid. "I cannot tell you how terrible it was, Alice."
Then she made a determined effort over herself, ashamed of her own emotion. Still neither hostess nor guest was sorry when there came a knock at the door, followed a moment later by the entry into the room of a stranger who was announced by the maid as "Miss Pendarth."
Enid Crofton got up, and as she shook hands with the newcomer she tried to remember what it was that Godfrey Radmore had said of her old-fashioned looking visitor. That she was a good friend but a bad enemy? Yes, that had been it. Then she remembered something else—the few kind words scribbled on a visiting card which had been left at The Trellis House a day or two ago.
She turned to her sister-in-law:—"I think Miss Pendarth knew poor Cecil years and years ago," she said softly.
"Are you—you must be Olivia Pendarth?" There was a touch of emotion in Alice Crofton's level voice.
"Yes, I am Olivia Pendarth."
Enid was surprised—not over pleased by the revelation that these two knew one another.
"I suppose it's a long time since you met?" she said pleasantly.
"Miss Crofton and I have never met before," said Miss Pendarth quietly. "But I knew your husband very well in India, when he and I were both young. My brother was in his regiment."
"The dear old regiment!" exclaimed Miss Crofton.
Enid Crofton smiled a little to herself. It amused her to see that these two old things—for so she described them to herself—had so quickly become friends. "The Regiment!" How sick she had got of those two words during her second married life! She was sorry that Alice, whom she liked, should be so queerly like Cecil. Even their voices were alike, and she had uttered the two words with that peculiar intonation her husband always used when speaking of any of his old comrades-in-arms.
All the same Miss Pendarth's sudden appearance had been a godsend. Enid hated going back to the dreadful time of her husband's death.
And then, when everything seemed going so pleasantly, and when Enid Crofton was still feeling a glow of joy at the thought of the cheque for L100, one of those things happened which seem sometimes to occur in life as if to remind us poor mortals that Fate is ever crouching round the corner, ready to spring. The door opened, and the buxom little maid brought in two letters on the salver she had just been taught to use.
One of the envelopes was addressed in a clear, ordinary lady's hand; the other, cheap and poor in quality, was in a firm, and yet unformed, handwriting.
Enid glanced at the two elder ladies; they were talking together eagerly. She walked over to the bow-shaped window, and opened the commoner envelope:
I hope you will excuse me writing to tell you that my husband has had to leave Mr. Winter's situation. Piper considers he has been treated shameful, and that if he chose he could get the law on Mr. Winter. I am writing to you unknown to Piper. If you could see me I think I could explain exactly what it is I want Piper to get. There do seem a difficulty now in getting jobs of Piper's sort, but from what he has told me there were one or two other jobs you heard of that might have suited him.
Yours respectfully, Amelia Piper.
Enid Crofton stared down at the signature with a sensation of puzzled dismay. Piper married? This was indeed a complication, and a complication which in her most anxious communings she had never thought of. The man had always behaved like a bachelor—for instance he had always made love to the maids. There also came back to her the memory of something her husband had once said, with one of his grimly humorous looks:—"Piper's a regular dog! If he'd been born in a different class of life he'd have been a real Don Juan." She now asked herself very anxiously how far a married Don Juan of any class confides in his wife? Does he tell her his real secrets, or does he keep them to himself? Judging by her own experience the average man who loves a woman is only too apt to tell her not only his own, but other people's secrets.
Slowly she put the letter back in its envelope. She had gone to a great deal of trouble, and even to some little expense, over procuring Piper a really good situation. She had seen not only his new employer, but also what she liked doing far less, his new employer's wife; and she had got him extraordinarily good wages, even for these days. It was too bad that he should worry her, after all she had done for him. As for his wife—nothing would induce her to see Mrs. Piper. Neither did she wish Piper to come down to Beechfield. She was particularly anxious that the man should not learn of Godfrey Radmore's return to England. Unfortunately Radmore was on the lookout for a good manservant.
She took up the other letter. It was a nice, prosperous-looking, well addressed envelope, very different from the other. Perhaps this second letter would contain something that would cheer her up. But alas! when she opened it, she found it was from Mrs. Winter, Piper's late employer's wife.
Poor Enid Crofton! As she stood there reading it, she turned a little sick. Piper had got drunk the very first day he had been in his new situation. While drunk he had tried to kiss a virtuous young housemaid. There had been a regular scene, which had ended in the lady of the house being sent for. There and then Piper had been turned out neck and crop.
It was not only a justifiably angry letter, it was a very disagreeable letter, the writer saying plainly that Mrs. Crofton had been very much to blame for recommending such a man....
Feeling very much disturbed she turned and came back towards her two visitors. They were now deep in talk, having evidently found a host of common associations: "I find I ought to answer one of my letters at once," she said. "Will you forgive me for a few moments?"
They both looked up, and smiled at her. She looked so pretty, so fragile, so young, in her widow's mourning.
She went through into the dining-room. There was a writing-table in the window, and there she sat down and put her head in her hands; she felt unutterably forlorn, frightened too—she hardly knew of what. It had given her such a horrible shock to learn that Piper was married....
Taking up a pen, she held it for a while poised in the air, staring out of the window at the attractive though rather neglected old garden, in which only this morning she had spent more than an hour with Jack Tosswill.
Then, at last, she dipped her pen in the ink, and after making two rough drafts, she decided on the following form of answer to Mrs. Piper, telling herself that it might be read as addressed to either husband or wife:—
Mrs. Crofton is very sorry to hear that Piper has lost his good situation. She will try and hear of something that will suit him. Mrs. Crofton cannot see Mrs. Piper for the present, as she is leaving home to start on a round of visits, but she will keep in touch with Mr. and Mrs. Piper and hopes to hear of something that may suit Piper very soon.
She began by writing "Mr. Piper," on one of her pretty black-edged mauve envelopes; then she altered the "Mr." to "Mrs." After all it was Piper's wife who had written to her, and she suddenly remembered with a slight feeling of apprehension, that Mrs. Piper, for some reason best known to herself, had not told Piper that she was writing. On the other hand it was quite possible that the husband and wife had concocted the letter between them.
Having addressed the envelope, she suddenly got up and ran up to her bedroom. There she opened her dressing-table drawer. Quite at the back lay an envelope containing four L5 notes. She took one of the notes, and running down again, slipped it in the envelope and added a postscript to her letter:—
Mrs. Crofton sends L5, which she hopes will be of use while Piper is out of a situation.
She went downstairs, giving her letter, on her way back to the drawing-room, to the cook to take out to the post-box.
As she opened the drawing room door, something which struck her as a little odd happened. Her two visitors, the murmur of whose voices she had heard in deep, eager converse while she was stepping across her hall, abruptly stopped talking, and she wondered uneasily what they could have been saying that neither wished her to hear.
As a matter of fact that sudden silence was owing to a kindly, old-fashioned, wholly "ladylike" instinct, on the part of the two older women. Miss Crofton had been talking of her brother's death, confiding to Miss Pendarth her desire to learn something more as to how it had actually come about. With what was for her really eager sympathy, Miss Pendarth had offered to write to a friend in Essex, in order to discover the name of the local paper where, without doubt, a full account of the inquest on Colonel Crofton must have been published.
Saturday, Sunday, Monday, slipped away, and on Tuesday there seemed no reason why Godfrey Radmore should leave Old Place. And so he stayed on, nominally from day to day, settling down, as none of them would have thought possible that anyone now a stranger could settle down, to the daily round and common task of the life led by the Tosswill family. After two or three days he even began to take command of the younger ones, and Janet was secretly amused to see how he shamed both Rosamund and Dolly into doing something like their full share of the housework.
In relation to the two younger girls, his attitude was far more that of a good-natured, rather cynical, elder brother than was his attitude to Betty. Into her special department, the kitchen, he seldom intruded, though when he did so it was to real purpose. Thus, Dolly's twentieth birthday was made by him the excuse for ordering from a famous London caterer a hamper containing enough cold and half-cooked food to keep them junketing for two or three days. Janet was rather puzzled to note that Betty, alone of them all, seemed to look askance at the way Radmore spent his substance in showering fairy-godfather-like gifts on the inmates of Old Place.
The happiest of them all was Timmy. Most men would have been bored by having so much of a child's company, but Radmore was touched and flattered by the boy's devotion, and that though there was a side of his godson which puzzled and disturbed him. Now and again Timmy would say something which made Radmore wonder for a moment if he had heard the words aright, but he followed the example silently set him by all the others of taking no notice of Timmy's claim both to see and foresee more than is vouchsafed to the ordinary mortal.
Miss Crofton had also stayed on in Beechfield, but only a day longer than she had intended to do—that is, till the Tuesday. She and Miss Pendarth had met more than once, striking up something like a real friendship. But this, instead of modifying, had intensified Miss Pendarth's growing prejudice against the new tenant of The Trellis House. She felt convinced that the pretty young widow had made her kind sister-in-law believe that she was far poorer, and more to be pitied, than she really was.
Life in an English village is in some ways like a quiet pool—and, just as the throwing of a pebble into such a pool causes what appears to create an extraordinary amount of commotion on the surface of the water, so the advent of any human being who happens to be a little out of the common produces an amount of discussion, public and private, which might well seem to those outside the circle of gossip, extravagant, as well as unnecessary.
The general verdict on Mrs. Crofton had begun by being favourable. Both with gentle and simple her appealing beauty told in her favour, and very soon the village people smiled, and looked knowingly at one another, as they noted the perpetual coming and going of Jack Tosswill to The Trellis House. No day went by without the young man making some more or less plausible excuse to call there once, twice, and sometimes thrice.
It was noticed, too, by those interested in such matters—and in Beechfield they were in the majority—that Mr. Godfrey Radmore, whose return to Old Place had naturally caused a good deal of talk and speculation—was also a frequent visitor at The Trellis House. Now and again he would call there in his car, and take Mrs. Crofton for a long drive; but they never went out alone—either Dolly or Rosamund, and invariably Timmy, would be of the party.
As the days went on, each member of the Tosswill family began to have a definite and, so to speak, crystallised view of Enid Crofton. Rosamund had become her champion, thus earning for the first time in her life the warm approval of her brother Jack; but Dolly and Tom grew rather jealous of their sister's absorption in the stranger. Rosamund was so very often at The Trellis House. In fact, when Jack was not to be found there, Rosamund generally was. But she had soon discovered that her new friend preferred to see her visitors singly. Betty kept her thoughts as to Mrs. Crofton to herself—for one thing the two very seldom met. But Janet Tosswill was more frank. With her, tepid liking had turned into dislike, and when she alluded to the pretty widow, which was not often, she would tersely describe her as "second-rate."
Now there is no word in the English language more deadly in its vague import than that apparently harmless adjective. As applied to a human being, it generally conveys every kind of odious significance, and curiously enough it is seldom applied without good reason.
Mrs. Crofton had gentle, pretty manners, but her manner lacked sincerity. She was not content to leave her real beauty of colouring and feature to take care of itself; her eye-brows were "touched up," and when she fancied herself to be "off colour" she would put on a suspicion of rouge. But what perhaps unduly irritated the mistress of Old Place were Mrs. Crofton's clothes! To such shrewd, feminine eyes as were Janet Tosswill's, it was plain that the new tenant of The Trellis House had taken as much pains over her widow's mourning as a coquettish bride takes over her trousseau.
Janet Tosswill was far too busy a woman to indulge in the village game of constant informal calls on her neighbours. She left all that sort of thing to her younger step-daughters; and as Mrs. Crofton never came to Old Place—making her nervous fear of the dogs the excuse—Janet only saw the new tenant of The Trellis House when she happened to be walking about the village or at church.
But for a while, at any rate, an untoward event drove the thoughts of most of the inmates of Old Place far from Mrs. Crofton and her peculiarities, attractive or other.
* * * * *
One day, when Radmore had already been at Beechfield for close on a fortnight, Timmy drew him aside, and said mysteriously: "Godfrey, I want to tell you something."
Radmore looked down and said pleasantly, though with a queer inward foreboding in his mind: "Go ahead, boy—I'm listening."
"Something's going to happen to someone here. I saw Dr. O'Farrell last night, I mean in a dream. You were driving him in your car through our gate. Last time I dreamt about him Dolly had measles; she was awfully ill; she nearly died."
As he spoke, Timmy kept looking round, as if afraid of being overheard. "I don't mean to tell anyone else," he added confidentially. "You see it upsets Mum, and makes the others cross, if I say things like that. But still, I just thought I'd tell you."
Radmore was impressed, disagreeably so, in spite of himself; but: "Look here, Timmy," he said chaffingly. "The Greeks have a proverb about the bearer of ill-tidings; don't let yourself ever become that, old man! Have you ever heard, by the by, about 'the long arm of coincidence'?"
"Don't you think it possible that your having dreamt about Dr. O'Farrell just before Dolly was taken ill may have been that long arm of coincidence—and nothing more? I can't help thinking that probably your mother said something about sending for Dr. O'Farrell—for people don't get measles in a minute, you know; they are seedy for some days beforehand—and that made you dream of him. Eh?"
But Timmy answered obliquely, as was rather his way when brought to book by some older person than himself. "I think this time it's going to be an accident," he said thoughtfully.
And an accident it was! Old Nanna, who, in spite of her age, had become the corner-stone of the household as regarded its material well-being, slipped on the back staircase, and sprained her leg, and of course it was Radmore who went off in his car to fetch and bring back Dr. O'Farrell.
A slight alleviation to their troubles was brought about by Miss Pendarth, who was going off on a visit the very day the accident happened, and who practically compelled Janet to accept the temporary service of her own excellent servant. It was her readiness to give that sort of quick, kindly, decisive help which made so many of those who had the privilege of her acquaintance regard Miss Pendarth with the solid liking which is founded on gratitude.
But the help, offered and accepted in the same spirit, could not go on for long, for Miss Pendarth came home after a four days' absence; and, for the first time in many months, Janet Tosswill made time to pay a formal call at Rose Cottage in order that she might thank her old friend. She intended to stay only the time that strict civility enjoined, and she would have been surprised indeed had she been able to foresee what a pregnant and, to her, personally, painful train of events were to follow as a result of the quarter of an hour she spent in Miss Pendarth's old-fashioned upstairs sitting-room where only privileged visitors were ever made welcome.
"Will you come upstairs to-day, Janet? I have something about which I want to consult you."
And then, when they had sat down, Miss Pendarth said abruptly: "While I was in Essex I came across some people who had been acquainted with Mrs. Crofton and her husband."
Janet looked across at the speaker with some surprise. "What an odd thing!" she exclaimed, and she did think it rather odd.
But Olivia Pendarth was a very honest woman—too honest, some people might have said. "It was not exactly odd," she said quickly, "for, to tell you the truth, I made it my business while there to make certain enquiries about the Croftons. In fact, I partly went to Essex for that purpose, though I did not tell my friends so."
The visitor felt rather shocked, as well as surprised. Surely Olivia Pendarth's interest in her neighbours' concerns was, to say the least of it, excessive. But the other's next words modified her censorious thoughts.
"Colonel Crofton and one of my brothers were in the same regiment together. I knew him quite well when he and I were both young, and when Miss Crofton came to see her sister-in-law a fortnight ago, I offered to make certain enquiries for her."
There was a touch of mystery, of hesitation in the older lady's voice, and Janet Tosswill "rose" as she was perhaps meant to do. "What sort of enquiries?" she asked. "I thought Miss Crofton was on the best of terms with her sister-in-law."
"So she is; but she wanted to know more than Mrs. Crofton was inclined to tell her about the circumstances—the really extraordinary circumstances, Janet—concerning Colonel Crofton's death. And now I'm rather in a quandary as to whether I ought to tell her what I heard, and indeed as to whether I ought even to send her the report of the inquest which appeared in a local paper, and which I at last managed to secure."
"Of course I know that Colonel Crofton committed suicide." Janet Tosswill lowered her voice instinctively. "That poor, second-rate little woman seems to have told Rosamund as much, and Godfrey Radmore confirmed it."
"Yes, I suppose one ought to say that there is no real doubt that he committed suicide." Yet Miss Pendarth's voice seemed to imply that there was some doubt.
She went on: "It was suggested at the inquest that the chemist who made up a certain heart tonic Colonel Crofton had been in the habit of taking for some time, had put in a far larger dose of strychnine than was right."
Janet Tosswill repeated in a startled tone: "Strychnine! You don't mean to say the poor man committed suicide with that horrible poison?"
Miss Pendarth looked up, and Janet was struck by her pallor and look of pain. "Yes, Janet; he died of a big dose of strychnine, and the medical evidence given at the inquest makes most painful reading."
"It must have been a mistake on the part of the chemist. No sane man would take strychnine in order to commit suicide. Besides, how could he have got it?"
"There was strychnine in the house," said Miss Pendarth slowly. "When Mrs. Crofton was in Egypt it was prescribed for her. You know how people take it by the drop? A chemist out there seems to have given her a much greater quantity than was needed, and in an ordinary, unlabelled medicine bottle, too." The speaker waited a moment, then went on: "Though she brought it back to England with her, she seems to have quite forgotten that she had it. But he must have known it was there, for after his death the bottle was found in his dressing room."
"What a dreadful thing! And how painful it must have been for her!"
"Yes, I think she did go through a very dreadful time. But, Janet, what impressed me most painfully, and what I am sure would much distress Miss Crofton were I to tell her even only a part of what I heard, was the fact that the husband and wife were on very bad terms. This was testified to, and very strongly, by the only woman servant they had at the time of his death."
"I never believe servants' evidence," observed Janet Tosswill drily.
"The Coroner, who I suppose naturally wished to spare Mrs. Crofton's feelings, told the jury that it was plain that Colonel Crofton was a very bad-tempered man. But the people with whom I was staying, and who drove me over to look at the God-forsaken old house where the Croftons lived, said that local feeling was very much against her. It was thought that she really caused him to take his life by her neglect and unkindness."
"What a terrible idea!"
"I fear it's true. And now comes the question—ought I to tell his sister this? Some of the gossip I heard was very unpleasant."
"Do you mean that there was another man?"
"Other men—rather than another man. She was always going up to London to enjoy herself with the various men friends she had made during the War, and the only guests they ever entertained were young men who were more or less in love with her."
Janet smiled a little wryly. "There's safety in numbers, and after all she's extraordinarily attractive to men."
"Yes," said Miss Pendarth, "there is safety in numbers, and it's said that Colonel Crofton was almost insanely jealous. They seem to have led a miserable existence, constantly quarrelling about money, too, and often changing their servants. On at least one occasion Mrs. Crofton went away, leaving him quite alone, with only their odd man to look after him, for something like a fortnight. Colonel Crofton's only interest in life was the terriers which he apparently bred with a view to increasing his income."
"They can't have been so very poor," said Janet abruptly. "Look at the way she's living now."
"I feel sure she's living on capital," said Miss Pendarth slowly, "and I think—forgive me for saying so—that she hopes to marry Godfrey Radmore. I'm sure that's why she came to Beechfield."
"You're wrong there! She settled to come here before Godfrey came home."
"I'm convinced that she knew he was coming home soon."
Janet got up. "I must be going now," she exclaimed. "There's a great deal to do, and only Betty and I to do it."
"I suppose Godfrey Radmore will be leaving now?"
"I hope not, for he's a help rather than a hindrance. He takes Timmy off our hands—"
"—And he's so much at The Trellis House. I hear he dined there last night."
"Yes, with Rosamund," answered Janet shortly.
Miss Pendarth accompanied her visitor down and out to the wrought-iron gate. There the two lingered for a moment, and than Janet Tosswill received one of the real surprises of her life.
"Colonel Crofton and I were once engaged. I went out to India to stay with my brother, and it happened there. Now we should have married. But things were very different then. When my father found Captain Crofton was not in a position to make what was then regarded as a proper settlement, he declared the engagement at an end."
Janet felt touched. There was such a depth of restrained feeling in her old friend's voice. Somehow it had never occurred to her that Olivia Pendarth could ever have been in love!
"It must be very painful for you to have her here," she said involuntarily.
"In a way, yes. But I suspected she was his widow from the first."
"I think that, if I were you, I would say nothing to his sister," observed Janet.
"Very well. I will take your advice."
She changed the subject abruptly. "Let me know if Kate can be of any more use. She's quite anxious to go on helping you all. She's got so fond of Betty: she says she'd do anything for her."
"We're managing all right now, and Godfrey really is a help, instead of a hindrance. He actually suggested that he should do the washing-up this morning!"
"That's the best thing I've ever heard of Godfrey Radmore," exclaimed Miss Pendarth. "I sincerely hope—forgive me for saying so, Janet—that there's really nothing between him and Enid Crofton. I should be sorry for my worst enemy to marry that woman, if the things I was told about her were true."
"I don't believe that he is thinking of her, consciously—" Janet Tosswill spoke slowly, choosing her words.
"Of course she's making a dead set at him. But there's safety in numbers, even here," observed the other, grimly. "I hear that your Jack simply lives at The Trellis House. The whole village is talking about it."
Jack? Janet Tosswill felt vexed by what she considered a bit of stupid, vulgar, village gossip. "Jack's the most level-headed young man about women I've ever known," she said, trying to speak pleasantly. "If anyone has fallen in love with Mrs. Crofton, it's our silly little Rosamund!"
The morning after Janet Tosswill's call at Rose Cottage, Rosamund followed her step-mother into the drawing-room immediately after breakfast, and observed plaintively that it did seem strange that "Enid" was never asked to Old Place. "We take anything from her, and never give anything back," she said.
Janet, who had a certain tenderness for the pretty black sheep of the family, checked the sharp retort which trembled on her lips. Still, it was quite true that Rosamund had more than once been kept to lunch at The Trellis House, and that on the day of Nanna's accident Mrs. Crofton had issued a sort of general invitation to supper to the young people of Old Place—an invitation finally accepted, at Betty's suggestion, by Godfrey Radmore and Rosamund.
Janet admitted to herself that they did owe Mrs. Crofton some civility. If the thing had to be done, it might as well be done at once, and so, when Rosamund had reluctantly gone upstairs to do her share of the household work, his mother beckoned Timmy into the drawing-room, and told him that she would have a note ready for him to take to The Trellis House in a few minutes.
"Oh, Mum, do let Jack take it!" the boy exclaimed. "I can't go to The Trellis House with Flick, and it's such a bore to shut him up."
"Why can't Flick go with you?"
"Mum! Don't you remember? Mrs. Crofton is terrified of dogs. Do let Jack take it!"
"But are you sure Jack is going there this morning?" she asked, and then she remembered Miss Pendarth's ill-natured remark.
"He goes there every morning," said Timmy positively, "and this morning he's going there extra early, as he's lending Mrs. Crofton our best preserving pan. She wants to make some blackberry jam."
And then there occurred one of those odd incidents which were always happening in connection with Timmy and with which his mother never knew quite how to deal. He screwed up his queer little face for a moment, shaded his eyes with his hand, and said quietly: "I think Jack is just starting down the drive now. You'll catch him if you'll open the window and shout to him, Mum—it's no good my going after him—he wouldn't come back for me."
Janet Tosswill got up from her writing-table. She opened the nearest window and, stepping out, looked to her right. Yes, there was Jack's neat, compact figure sprinting down the long, straight avenue towards the gate. He was holding a queer-looking, badly done up parcel in his hands.
"Jack! Jack! Come here for a minute—I want you," she called out in her clear, rather high-pitched voice.
He slackened, and it was as if she could see him hesitating, wondering whether he dare pretend he had not heard her. Then he turned and ran back down the drive and across the wide lawn to the window.
"What is it?" he asked breathlessly. "I'm late as it is! I'm taking one of our preserving pans to The Trellis House. The fruit was all picked yesterday."
"I won't be a moment. I want you to take a letter for me to Mrs. Crofton. I'm asking her to come in to dinner to-night."
She turned back into the room and, sitting down, took up her pen: "Timmy? Go into the scullery, and help Betty for a bit."
After her little son had left the room, she called out to Jack, "Do come inside; it fidgets me to feel that you're standing out there."
After what seemed to Jack Tosswill a long time, though it was only three minutes, his step-mother turned, and held out her note: "She needn't write—a verbal answer will do. If she can't come we shall have done the civil thing."
And then, thinking aloud, she went on: "Somehow I don't expect her to stay long in Beechfield. She's too much of a London bird."
"I don't suppose she would have come at all if she had known what a beastly, inhospitable place Beechfield is," said Jack sharply. Though he was in such a hurry to be off, he waited in order to add: "She's been here nearly a month, and you've never called on her yet—it's too bad!"
Janet Tosswill flushed deeply. Jack had not spoken to her in such a tone since he was fifteen.
"What nonsense! She must be indeed silly and affected," she exclaimed, "if she expected me to pay her a formal call, especially as we had her in to supper the very first day she was here! I might retort by saying that she might have sent or called to know how poor old Nanna was! Everyone in the village has done so—but then your friend, Jack, is not what my father used to call '18 carat'!"
"I think it's we who are not '18 carat,'" he answered furiously. "We have shown Mrs. Crofton the grossest discourtesy, and I happen to know that she feels it very much."
Janet Tosswill looked at her elder stepson with a feeling of blank amazement. It had often astonished her to notice how completely Jack had his emotions and temper under control. Yet here he was, his face aglow with anger, his voice trembling with rage.
Poor Janet! She had had long days of fatigue and worry since the old nurse's accident, and suddenly she completely lost her temper. "I don't want to say anything unkind about the little woman, but I do think her both silly and second-rate. I took a dislike to her when she behaved in such a ridiculous manner over Flick."
"You were almost as frightened as she was," said Jack roughly.
"It's quite true that I was frightened for a moment, but only because I was afraid for Timmy."
"I can tell you one thing—she won't come here again to supper unless I can give her my word that all our dogs are really shut up. And I fear I must ask you to undertake to see that Timmy does not let Flick out after I have shut him up."
Janet Tosswill held out her hand. "I think you'd better give me that note back," she said curtly. "We certainly don't want anyone here of the kind you have just described. From something Godfrey said to me it's clear that Mrs. Crofton's horror of dogs is just a pose she thinks makes her interesting. Why, her husband bred terriers; Flick actually came from there! And Godfrey says that she herself had a little dog called by the absurd name of 'Boo-boo' to which she was devoted."
"'Boo-boo' was the exception that proves the rule," answered Jack hotly. "As for Colonel Crofton, it was beastly of him to breed terriers, knowing how his wife felt about dogs! She told me herself she would never have married him if she had known there was any likelihood of that coming to pass. She feels about dogs as some people feel about cats."
"I never heard such nonsense!"
"Nonsense?" he repeated in an enraged tone. "It isn't nonsense! The best proof that that horror of dogs is instinctive with her is the effect that she herself has on every dog she comes across. That was shown the evening she was here."
"Really, Jack, that's utterly absurd! Flick was not thinking of her at all. Something in the garden had frightened him. Your father feels sure that it was a snake which he himself killed the next morning." And then, for she was most painfully disturbed by this scene between herself and Jack, she said quietly: "I'm sorry that Mrs. Crofton ever came to Beechfield. I didn't think there was anyone in the world who would make you speak to me as you have spoken to me now."
"I hate injustice!" he exclaimed, a little shamefacedly. "I can't think why you've turned against her, Janet. It's so mean as well as so unkind! She has hardly any friends in the world, and she thought by the account Godfrey gave of us that we should become her friends."
"It's always a woman's own fault if she has no friends, especially when she's such an attractive woman as Mrs. Crofton," said Janet shortly. She hesitated, and then added something for which she was sorry immediately afterwards: "I happen to know rather more about Mrs. Crofton than most of the people in Beechfield do."
She spoke with that touch of mysterious finality which is always so irritating to a listener who is in indifferent sympathy with a speaker.
"What d'you mean?" cried Jack fiercely. "I insist on your telling me what you mean!"
Janet Tosswill told herself with Scotch directness that she had been a fool. But if Jack was—she hardly knew how to put it to herself—so—so bewitched by Mrs. Crofton as he seemed to be, then perhaps, as they had got to this point, he had better hear the truth:
"Mrs. Crofton made herself very much talked about in the neighbourhood of the place where she and her husband settled after the War. She was so actively unkind, and made him so wretched, that at last he committed suicide. At least that is what is believed by everyone who knew them in Essex."
"I suppose a woman told you all this?" he said in a dangerously calm voice.
"Yes, it was a woman, Jack."
"Of course it was! Every woman, young or old, is jealous of her because she's so pretty and—so—so feminine, and because she has nothing about her of the clever, hard woman who is the fashion nowadays! The only person who does her justice in this place is Rosamund."
"I disapprove very much of Rosamund's silly, school-girlish, adoration of her," said Janet sharply.
She was just going to add something more when she saw Timmy slipping quietly back into the room. And all at once she felt sorry—deeply sorry—that this rather absurd scene had taken place between herself and Jack. She blamed herself for having let it come to this pass.
"I daresay I'm prejudiced," she exclaimed. "Take this note, Jack, and tell Mrs. Crofton that Flick shall be securely shut up."
"All right." Jack shrugged his shoulders rather ostentatiously, and disappeared through the window, while Janet, with a half-humorous sigh, told herself that perhaps he was justified in condemning in his own mind, as he was certainly doing now, the extraordinary vagaries of womankind. She turned back to her writing-table again. However disturbed and worried she might feel, there were the weekly books to be gone through, and this time without Nanna's shrewd, kindly help.
Suddenly she started, for Timmy's claw-like little hand was on her arm: "Mum," he said earnestly, "do tell me what Colonel Crofton was really like? Did that lady—you know, I mean the person Jack thinks is jealous of Mrs. Crofton—tell you what he was like?"