There was no one in the kitchen, and it did not look as tidy as it generally looked; though the luncheon things had been washed up, they had not been put away.
Mother and son walked on into the scullery to find Betty there, boiling some water over a spirit lamp. "Betty? How very delightful you look!" her step-mother exclaimed. "Just like an old picture, child! Wherever did you get that charming motor-bonnet?"
And then Timmy chipped in: "I thought of it," he said triumphantly; "it was my idea, Mum, but Godfrey paid for it. He said he hadn't given Betty a proper present yet, so he had to pay for it, and, and—"
Janet was just a little surprised. She was very old-fashioned in some ways, and she had brought up her step-daughters to be, as regarded money matters at any rate, as old-fashioned as herself. It seemed to her very strange that Betty had allowed Godfrey Radmore to give her such a present as a hat! Yet another thing puzzled her. She had understood that the three of them were going off some way into Sussex to look at a house, but they had evidently been up to London. Motor bonnets don't grow on country hedges.
"Where's the cat?" she asked, looking round.
"Godfrey has taken her up to the nursery," said Betty, "partly to show her to Nanna, and partly because we thought it would be better for her to be quiet up there than down here."
"Oh, Mum—do say that she can stay up there," cried Timmy pleadingly. "I hate the thought of her being in that dark old stable!"
"Very well; put her in the night nursery."
Even as she spoke, Janet was still gazing at her eldest step-daughter. Betty certainly looked extraordinarily charming this afternoon. It showed that the child required more change than she had had for many a long day. They had got too much, all of them, into thinking of her as a stand-by. After all she was only eight and twenty! Janet, with a sigh, looked back to the days when she had been eight and twenty, a very happy, independent young lady indeed, not long before she had met and married her quiet, wool-gathering John, so losing her independence for ever.
"I suppose you haven't heard the great news," she exclaimed, forgetting that Timmy was there.
"What news?" asked Betty.
She glanced at her step-mother. Surely Janet hadn't been crying? Janet never cried. She had not cried since that terrible day when the news had come of George's death.
"What news?" she asked again.
"Mr. Barton—I really can't call him Lionel yet—came over this afternoon and—and—"
Timmy rushed forward in front of his mother, his little face all aglow: "Oh, Mum! You don't mean to say that he's popped?" he cried.
"Timmy, don't be vulgar!" exclaimed Janet severely.
Betty began to laugh a little wildly. "How very, very strange that it should have happened to-day—"
"I don't think it's strange at all," said Janet quietly. "The strange thing is that it hasn't happened before! But there it is—they're engaged now. He seems to have told her that he thought it wrong to make his offer until he had saved L100. She has gone over to Oakford, and they are busy making an inventory of the things they will have to buy."
"Has he actually saved L100?" asked Betty.
"No, he never could have done that. He's had a legacy left him, and he seems to think that L100 will start them most splendidly and comfortably on their married life. He is a fool!"
The door which gave on to the stairs which led from the scullery to the upper floor opened, and Godfrey Radmore stepped down. "Am I the fool?" he asked pleasantly.
Janet answered, smiling: "No, no; you're anything but that. I was only telling Betty that Dolly and Mr. Barton are engaged at last." She turned to Betty. "Of course, he's coming to supper to-night. I've been wondering what we can do in the way of something extra to celebrate the occasion. We were going to have cold mutton."
"At any rate I'll go and see what the village pub. can produce in the way of champagne," exclaimed Godfrey. He turned to his godson. "Timmy? Run up and look at Josephine and her kittens. I've put them in the old night nursery for a bit."
And then, when the boy had gone, he went up to Janet and, to her surprise, put his arm through hers: "I'm glad about Dolly," he said heartily.
"It proves how very little one really knows of human nature." She sighed, but it was a happy sigh. "I was beginning to believe that he would never what Timmy calls 'pop,' and yet the poor fellow was only waiting to be a little forward in the world. Someone's left him L100, so he felt he could embark on the great adventure. Your father and I have already talked it over a little"—she turned to Betty—"and we think we could squeeze out L100 a year somehow."
"I think we could," said Betty, hesitatingly. "After all, L1 is now only what 8/- was before the War."
"But not to us," cried Janet; "not to us!"
And then, to the utter discomfiture of both her companions, she began to laugh and cry together.
Godfrey rushed over to the sink. He took up a cup, filled it with water, rushed back to where Janet was standing, shaking, trembling all over, making heroic efforts to suppress her mingled tears and laughter, and dashed the water into her face.
"Thank you," she gasped; "thank you, Godfrey! I'm all right now. I may as well tell you both the truth. There's been a row—an awful row—between Jack and Timmy, and it thoroughly upset me. It was only over the cat—over Josephine—but of course it proved that what Betty and I were talking about this morning is true. Jack's madly in love with Mrs. Crofton—and—and—it's all so pitiful and absurd—"
"I doubt if you're quite fair to Mrs. Crofton, Janet," said Godfrey, in a singular tone. "I fancy she really does care for Jack. Of course it seems odd to all of us, but still, after all, odder things have been known! If you ask me whether they will marry in the end—that's quite another matter. If you ask me whether they're engaged, well, yes, I'm inclined to think they are!"
Even Betty felt violently disturbed and astonished.
"Oh, Godfrey!" she exclaimed. "D'you really think that?"
"I can't tell you what makes me think so, or rather I'd rather not tell you. But I don't think you need worry, if you'll only take a long view. They can't marry yet, and long before they could marry, she'll have got tired of him, and fond of someone else."
Betty gave him a quick look. Was he really unconscious of the reason why Mrs. Crofton had come to Beechfield?
Through her mind in a flash there crowded the many small, almost imperceptible, impressions made on her mind by the new tenant of The Trellis House. Enid Crofton in love with Jack? Betty shook her head. The idea was absurd. And yet Godfrey had spoken very decidedly just now. But men, even very shrewd, intelligent men, are at a hopeless disadvantage when dealing with the type of woman to which Enid Crofton belonged.
As for Janet she exclaimed, with sudden passion, "I would give anything in this world to see Mrs. Crofton leave Beechfield for ever—" She stopped abruptly, for at that moment the staircase door to her right burst open, and Timmy stepped down into the scullery.
Since she had had the horrid accident which had laid her up, Timmy had not gone to see his old Nanna nearly as often as he ought to have done. Nanna herself, however, with the natural cunning of those who love, had made certain rules which ensured her a regular, daily glimpse of the strange little being she had had under her charge, as she would have expressed it, "from the month." Nanna did not desire his attendance before breakfast for she would not have considered herself fit to be seen by him till she herself was neat and tidy. Like all the women of her class and generation, the Tosswills' old family nurse was full of self-respect, and also imbued with a stern sense of duty. Timmy stood far more in awe of her than he did of his mother.
One of the stated times for Timmy's visits to the old night nursery was just before he had to start for church each Sunday, and on this particular Sunday, the day after that on which had occurred Dolly's engagement, and Mrs. Crofton's return from London, he came in a few moments before he was expected, and began wandering about the room, doing nothing in particular. At once Nanna divined that he had something on his mind about which he was longing, yet half afraid, to speak to her. She said nothing, however, and at last it came out.
"I want you to lend me your Bible," he said, wriggling himself about. "I want to take it to church with me."
This was the last thing Nanna had expected the boy to ask, for, of course, Timmy had a Bible of his own, a beautiful thin-paper Bible, which she herself had given him on his seventh birthday, having first asked his mother's leave if she might do so. The Bible was in perfect condition. It stood on a little mat on his chest of drawers, and not long before her accident Nanna had gone into his bedroom, opened the sacred Book, and gazed with pleasure on the inscription, written in her own large, unformed handwriting, on the first page:
Timothy Godfrey Radmore Tosswill on his seventh birthday from his loving nurse,
All this being so, his mother, or even his sister, Betty, would at once have enquired, "Why don't you take your own Bible to church?" But somehow Nanna thought it best not to put this question, for a lie, shocking on any day, is more shocking than usual, or so she thought, if uttered on a Sunday. So, after a moment's hesitation, she replied: "Certainly, Master Timmy, if such is your wish. But I trust you will be very careful with it, my dear."
"I will be very, very careful!" he exclaimed. "And I will bring it straight back to you up here after church."
He threw her a grateful look. He did more, and Nanna felt amply rewarded as he climbed up on her bed and, putting his arms round her neck, kissed her on each cheek.
"I hope," she said impressively, "that you are going to be a good boy in church—a boy that Nurse can be proud of."
Nanna never called herself "Nanna" to the children.
"I am always very good in church," cried Timmy, offended. "I don't see why you should go and spoil everything by saying that!" With these cryptic words he slid off the bed, taking with him the large old-fashioned Bible which always lay by Nanna's bedside.
Dolly, and Rosamund, who was Dolly's stable-companion, were attending the service held by Dolly's fiance, Lionel Barton, in the next parish. As for Betty, her heart was very full, and as she did her morning's work and while she dressed herself for church, she still felt as if she was living through a wonderful dream.
Jack, who did not always go to church, had elected to go to-day; so had Tom and Godfrey; and thus, in spite of the absence of the two younger girls, quite a considerable party filed into the Tosswill pew.
All the people belonging to Old Place were far too much absorbed in their own thoughts on this rather strange Sunday morning to give any thought to Timmy. So it was that he managed, after a moment's thought, to place himself between his father and his godfather. He judged, rightly, that neither of them would be likely to pay much attention to him or to his doings.
When the rather nervous young rector had got well away with his sermon, and had begun to attract the serious attention of Mr. Tosswill and of Godfrey Radmore, Timmy very quietly drew out of his little, worn tweed coat a long sharp pin. Wedging the Bible, as he hoped reverently, but undoubtedly very securely between his knees, he thrust the pin firmly in the middle of the faded, gilt-edged leaves of Nanna's Bible, where there were already many curious little brown dots caused by similar punctures, the work of Nanna herself.
Having done this, Timmy carefully lifted the Bible from between his knees and let it fall open at the page the pin had found. The text where the point rested ran as follows:
Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.
His father's eyes flickered for a moment and fixed themselves on Timmy with a worried, disturbed expression. As a child he himself would have been sternly reproved for reading, even the Bible, during a sermon, but he supposed that Janet knew better than his own mother had done. Timmy certainly loved Janet far, far more than he, John Tosswill, had loved his own good mother. So he averted his eyes from his little son, and tried to forget all about him.
But John Tosswill did not know his Janet. Though three off from Timmy, she had become aware that her son was bending over a very big, shabby-looking book, instead of sitting upright, listening sedately. She gave him one glance, and Timmy, with a rather confused and guilty look, hurriedly shut Nanna's Bible, and turned his mind to the sermon. He had seen what he wanted to see; and further, he had made a mental note of the page and place.
At last the service was over, and the congregation streamed out of church. Timmy hung back a little, behind his mother. He did not wish her to see that he had Nanna's Bible instead of his own, but she was far too full of her own exciting and anxious thoughts to give any attention to her little boy. Rather to her surprise, she found her mind dwelling persistently on Enid Crofton. It was at once a relief and a disappointment not to see the young widow's graceful figure, and her heart ached when she saw the cloud come down over Jack's face.
All at once she felt a detaining gesture on her arm, and turning, she found Miss Pendarth at her elbow. They generally had a little talk after church, for it was often the only time in the week when these two, both in their several ways busy women, felt that they had a few minutes to spare for gossip.
"I wonder if you could come in to Rose Cottage for a minute? I want to show you something which I think will interest you as much as it has me."
Neither of them noticed that Timmy had crept up quite close and was listening eagerly. In a village community the gossip holds a place apart, and Olivia Pendarth, though by no means popular with the young people of Old Place, nevertheless had her value as the source of many thrilling tales.
Janet Tosswill hesitated. "I wish I could come back with you," she said at last, regretfully. "But I promised to go straight home this morning."
She debated within herself whether she should say anything here and now about Dolly's engagement; then she made up her mind not to do so yet.
Miss Pendarth, slightly lowering her voice, went on: "Perhaps I might come in this afternoon, and bring what I want to show you with me? It's a full report of the inquest held on Colonel Crofton."
Janet looked up quickly. "I confess I should very much like to read that," she exclaimed, and then she added, "but I shan't be in this afternoon. I've promised to go over to Oakford."
That much information she would vouchsafe her old friend.
A slightly satirical look came over Miss Pendarth's face. She told herself how foolish it was of Janet to suppose for a single moment that that good-looking young clergyman was ever likely to make an offer to tiresome, stupid, untidy Dolly Tosswill!
"I wonder if you would lend me the paper?" Janet suggested hesitatingly. "Timmy could go for it now, and I would send it you back the moment I had read it."
"Very well," said the other, not very graciously. "I suppose Timmy can be trusted to be careful of it? I went to great trouble to get a copy, and I don't think I should be able to get another." She added slowly: "I got it at the request of Colonel Crofton's sister, but I have not yet sent it to her because I thought it would distress her too much."
* * * * *
A few minutes later Timmy was gazing round the hall of Rose Cottage with eager, inquisitive eyes. Miss Pendarth did not care for children, and though Timmy frequently came to her door with a note, he was very seldom invited inside the house.
Even now his hostess said rather sharply: "Run out into the garden, Timmy, while I go upstairs and find an envelope big enough in which to put the paper for your mother. I daresay I shall be away five minutes, for I want you to take her a note with it."
The boy went through the glass door into the garden. He walked briskly up the path, kicking a pebble as he went, and then he sat down on the bench where, not so very long ago, Olivia Pendarth and Godfrey Radmore had sat discussing the curious and tragic occurrence which still filled Miss Pendarth's mind.
Timmy asked himself what exactly was the meaning of the word inquest? Why had a paper printed what Miss Pendarth called a full account of the inquest on Colonel Crofton's death? Was it "inquest" or "henquest"? His agile mind swung back to the mysterious words he had heard Mrs. Crofton's ex-man-servant utter in the stable-yard of The Trellis House.
At last Miss Pendarth opened the door giving into the garden, and Timmy, jumping up, hurried down the path toward the house. He then saw that she held a neat-looking brown paper roll in her hand, and over the roll was slipped an india-rubber band.
"I thought it a pity to waste a big envelope," she observed, "so I have done up the newspaper and my note to your mother into a roll. Will you please ask your mother to put it back exactly as it is now—with the india-rubber band round it? These bands have become so very expensive. She need not send it back. I will call for it to-morrow morning about twelve. Mind you give it to her at once, Timmy. I don't want to have a thing like that left lying about."
Timmy slipped into Old Place by a back way often used by the young people, for it was opposite a garden door set in the high brick wall which gave on to one of the by-ways of the village.
But instead of seeking out his mother, as he ought at once to have done, he went upstairs and so into what had been the day nursery. There he locked the door, and having first put Nanna's Bible on the big, round table, at which as a baby boy he had always sat in his high chair, he went over to the corner where Josephine was peacefully reposing with her kittens, and sat down on the floor by the cat's basket.
Very carefully he then slipped the india-rubber band off the roll of brown paper which had been confided to him by Miss Pendarth. He spread out the sheet of newspaper, putting aside the brown paper in which it had been rolled, as also Miss Pendarth's open letter to his mother. And then, with one hand resting on his cat's soft, furry neck, he read through the long account of the inquest held on Colonel Crofton's death. As he worked laboriously down the long columns, Timmy's freckled forehead became wrinkled, for, try as he might, he could not make out what it was all about. The only part he thoroughly understood was the description of Colonel Crofton's last hours; the agony the dying man had endured, the efforts made by the doctor, not only to save his life, but to force him to say how the virulent poison had got into his system—all became vividly present to the boy.
Timmy felt vexed when he realised, as he could not help doing, that Mrs. Crofton had looked very pretty when she was giving evidence at the inquest; in fact, the descriptive reporter had called her "the dead man's beautiful young widow."
And then, all at once, he bethought himself of Miss Pendarth's letter to his mother.
Now Timmy was well aware that it is not an honourable thing to read other people's letters; on the other hand, his mother always left Miss Pendarth's notes lying about on her writing table, and more than once she had exclaimed: "Betty? Do read that note, and tell me what's in it!"
And so, after a short conflict between principle and curiosity, in which curiosity won, he began to read the letter. As he did so, he realised that it formed a key to the newspaper report he had just read, for Miss Pendarth's letter ran:
My dear Janet,
I am longing to talk over the enclosed with you. I was lately in Essex, and when we meet I will tell you all that was said and suspected there at the time of Colonel Crofton's death.
Someone we wot of got off very lightly. You will realise from even this rather confused report that someone must have put the bottle of strychnine into the unhappy man's bedroom—also that he absolutely denied having touched it. No one connected with the household, save of course Mrs. Crofton, had ever seen the bottle until after his death.
It is a strange and sinister story, but I remember my father used to say that Dr. Pomfrett (who for fifty years was the great medical man of our part of the world) had told him that not one murder in ten committed by people of the educated class was ever discovered.
I think you know that Mrs. C. has had a very handsome offer for The Trellis House from that foolish Mrs. Wallis, but I believe that up to yesterday she had not vouchsafed any answer.
P.S.—Please burn this note as soon as read. I don't want to be had up for libel.
Timmy read the letter twice through. Then he very carefully folded up the newspaper in its original creases, put Miss Pendarth's letter inside, and made as tidy a roll as he could with the help of the brown paper. Finally he slipped on the india-rubber band, and scrambling up from the floor, unlocked the door. Taking Nanna's Bible off the round table, he went into his own bedroom and there laboriously copied out, with the help of a very blunt pencil, the text where the pin had rested in church. Then he took the Bible into Nanna's room.
"What's that you're holding?" she asked suspiciously.
"It's something I have to give to Mum."
Somehow the sight of Nanna, sitting up there in her big armchair, made him feel extremely guilty, and he was relieved when she said mildly: "You run along and give it to her, then."
He found his mother in his father's study, and they both stopped abruptly when he came in. Timmy supposed, rightly, that they had been speaking of Dolly and her engagement.
Janet took the roll of paper from her boy and slipped off the band absently: "What's this?" she exclaimed. And then, "How stupid of me! I remember now." She turned to her husband. "It's an account of the inquest held on Colonel Crofton. What a tremendous long thing! I shall have to put it aside till after lunch."
She did, however, read through Miss Pendarth's letter.
"Oh! John," she said, smiling, "this letter is too funny! Olivia Pendarth may be a good friend, but she's certainly a good hater. She simply loathes Mrs. Crofton." Then, deliberately, she went over to the fireplace and, lighting a match, set fire to the letter.
Timmy watched the big sheet of paper curling up in the flame. He was glad indeed that he had read the letter before it was burnt, but he made up his mind that when he was a grown-up man, he also would burn any letter that he thought the writer would prefer destroyed. In a way Janet was her son's great exemplar, but he was apt to postpone following the example he admired.
It was after seven, on the evening of that same Sunday, that Enid Crofton, after having spent the whole day in her bedroom, came down to her pretty, cheerful, little sitting-room.
She had returned from London in an anxious, nervous, strung-up frame of mind. For the first time in her life she did not know what it was she really wanted, or rather she was uncertain as to what it would be best for her to do.
The thought of seeing Jack Tosswill, of having to fence and flirt with him in her present disturbed state of mind, had been intolerable. That was the real reason why she had stayed upstairs all to-day. He had called three times, and the third time he had brought with him a letter even more passionately loving, while also even more angry and hurt in tone, than the one which she had received from him the day before.
As she read this second epistle she had told herself, with something like rage, that it was not her fault that what she had intended should be a harmless flirtation had caused such havoc. Still, deep in her heart she was well aware that but for the havoc she had caused, she could never have confided to him her urgent need of the five hundred pounds which he had procured with such surprising ease.
Jack had been quite honest with the woman he loved. He had told her of his talk with Radmore, of Radmore's immediate, generous response, and the cheque he had given which he, Jack, handed to her as a free gift.
She had gone up to London fully intending to see the Pipers after she had cashed the cheque. But when it came to the point she had shirked the second half of her programme, telling herself, with perhaps a certain amount of truth, that by waiting till the last day of grace allowed her by that terrible old-clothes woman she would get better terms. Perhaps then they would be satisfied with three hundred pounds, or even less, and acting on that hope, she had expended a portion of the money in purchasing a few of the pretty dress etceteras which are so costly nowadays.
Apart from the time occupied by those pleasant purchases, she had spent every waking minute of the day with Harold Tremaine, lunching and dining at the big smart restaurants which both her soul and her body loved, going to the play, and listening in between to the most delightful love-making....
Small wonder that during that long, dull Sunday, spent perforce in her bedroom, Enid Crofton's mind often took refuge in the thought of the only man now in her life with whom all her memories and all her relations had been, and were, absolutely satisfactory. Captain Tremaine was a simple, happy, cheerful soul. Though he was always what he called "dashed short," when with a woman he flung about his money right royally. Also he was an expert, not a teasing, lover. He knew, so Enid reminded herself gratefully, when to stop, as well as when to begin, making love. How unlike inexpert, tiresome Jack Tosswill! And yet he also was in dead earnest. He knew exactly what he wanted, and more than once, in a chaffing, yet serious, fashion, he had assured her that she had best submit at once, as he always "got there in the end." What he wanted was that they should be married, by special license, within a week from now, so that they might go back to India, a happy, honeymooning couple, in a fortnight! And while he was with her, describing in eloquent, eager language what their life would be like and what a delightful, jolly time they would have, Enid had been sorely, sorely tempted to say "yes."
And yet? Though Tremaine was Enid Crofton's ideal of what a lover, even a husband, should be, and she had never liked any man as well, she knew with a painful, practical knowledge the meaning of the words "genteel poverty." Tremaine's regiment would not remain for ever in India, and then would begin the enforced economies, the weary struggle with an inadequate income she had known with Colonel Crofton. No, no—it wasn't good enough!—or at any rate not good enough as long as there was a hope of anything better. Even so, it was comfortable to know that Harold Tremaine would still be there, a second string to her bow, in six months' or a year's time.
It was of all this that she thought, a little despondently, as she settled herself down in the easy chair close to the little wood fire. In a few moments her supper would be brought in by her pleasant-faced, rosy-cheeked parlourmaid. Enid Crofton was dainty and particular as to her food. The bad cooking she had had to endure during those miserable months she had spent in Essex, after her husband had been demobilised, had proved a very real addition to her other troubles.
She had brought a nice sweetbread with her from London yesterday, and she was now looking forward to having it for her supper.
All at once there came a ring at the front door, and a feeling of keen, angry annoyance shot through her. Of course it was Jack—Jack again! He would ask tiresome, inconvenient questions about the mythical woman friend, the almost sister, for whom she had required the money, and she would have to make up tiresome, inconvenient lies. Also he would want to kiss her, and she did so want her dinner!
She stood up—and then the door opened and, instead of Jack, Timmy Tosswill came through it. For the first time in their acquaintance she was glad to see the boy, though she told herself that of course he had brought her a letter—another of those odious, reproachful letters from Jack.
"Good evening, Timmy," she spoke, as she always did speak, pleasantly. "Have you brought me a message from Rosamund? I hope she hasn't thrown me over? I'm expecting her to lunch to-morrow, you know."
"I didn't know," he said gravely, "and I've not brought a message from anyone, Mrs. Crofton. My coming is a secret."
"A secret?" Again she spoke easily, jokingly; but there came over her a strange, involuntary feeling of repulsion for the odd-looking child.
He came up close to her, and, putting his hands behind his back, began to stare fixedly beyond her, at the empty space between her chair and the white wall.
There crept over Enid Crofton a sensation of acute discomfort. She stepped back, and sat down in her low, easy-chair. What was Timmy looking at with that curious, fixed stare?
It was in vain that she reminded herself that no sensible person now believes in ghosts, and that she had but to press the bell on the other side of the fireplace to ensure the attendance of her cheerful servant. These comforting reflections availed her nothing, and a wave of fear advanced and threatened to engulf her.
After what seemed to her an interminable pause, but which was really less than a minute, Timmy's eyes met hers, and he said abruptly, "Is it true that someone has asked you to go to India? Rosamund says it is."
She gave a little gasp of relief. On her way home from the station in the Old Place pony-cart, she had told her companion that while in London she had met a man who had fallen in love with her in Egypt, during the War. Further, that this handsome, brilliant, rich young soldier had urged her to marry him and go off to India with him at once. She was surprised as well as dismayed by this quick betrayal of her confidence. What a goose Rosamund was!
"Yes, Timmy," she bent forward and smiled a little, "it is quite true that I have been asked to go to India, but that doesn't mean that I'm going."
"I would, if I were you," said the child gravely.
"Would you?" Again she smiled. "But I've only just come to Beechfield. I hope you're not in a hurry to get rid of me?"
"No," he said, "I'm not in a hurry, exactly. It's you who ought to be in a hurry, Mrs. Crofton." He waited a moment and then added: "India is a very nice place."
"Yes, indeed. Full of tigers and leopards!" she said playfully.
"I should go as soon as you can if I were you."
She looked at him distrustfully. What exactly did he mean?
"Someone we wot of got off very lightly at the inquest."
His voice sank almost to a whisper, but Enid Crofton felt as if the terrible sentence was being shouted for all the world to hear.
Timmy's eyes were now fixed on the gay-looking blue rug spread out before the fender to his right. He was remembering something he had done of which he was ashamed.
Then he lifted his head and began again staring at the space between Mrs. Crofton's chair and the wall.
Enid Crofton opened her mouth and then she shut it again. What did the boy know? What had he seen? What had he been told? She remembered that Mr. Tosswill was a magistrate. Had the Pipers been down to see him?
"There were some people," went on the boy, and again he spoke in that queer, muffled whisper, almost as if the words were being dragged out of him against his will, "who thought"—he stopped—"who thought," he repeated, "that Colonel Crofton did not take that poison knowingly."
She told herself desperately that she must say something—something ordinary, something of no account, before a power outside herself forced her to utter words which would lead to horror incalculable.
Speaking in such a loud discordant voice that Timmy quickly moved back a step or two, she exclaimed: "I was not going to tell anybody yet—but as you seem so anxious to know my plans, I will tell you a secret, Timmy. I am going to India after all! A splendid strong man, an officer and a gentleman who would have won the V.C. ten times over in any other war, and who would kill anyone who ever said a word against me, has asked me to be his wife, and to go out to India very, very soon."
"And have you said you will?" he asked.
"Of course I have."
"And will you be married soon?" went on her inquisitor.
"Yes, very soon," she cried hysterically. "As soon as possible!"
"Then you will have to leave Beechfield."
She told herself with a kind of passionate rage that the child had no right to ask her such a silly, obvious question, and yet she answered at once: "Of course I shall leave Beechfield."
"And you will never come back?"
"I shall never, never come back." And then she added, almost as if in spite of herself, and with a kind of strange, bitter truthfulness very foreign to her: "I don't like Beechfield—I don't agree that it's a pretty place—I think it's a hideous little village."
There was a pause. She was seeking for a phrase in which to say "Good-bye," not so much to Timmy as to all the others.
"Will you go away to-morrow?" he asked, this time boldly. And she answered, "Yes, to-morrow."
"Perhaps I'd better not tell any of them at Old Place?" It was as if he was speaking to himself.
She clutched at the words.
"I would far rather you did not tell them—I will write to them from London. Can I trust you not to tell them, Timmy?"
He looked at her oddly. "Jack and Rosamund will be sorry," he said slowly. And then he jerked his head—his usual way of signifying "Good-bye" when he did not care to shake hands.
Turning round he walked out of the room, and she heard the front door bang after him, as also, after a moment or two, the outside door set in the garden wall.
Enid Crofton got up. Though she was shaking—shaking all over—she walked swiftly across her little hall into the dining-room. There she sat down at the writing-table, and took up the telephone receiver. "9846 Regent."
It was the number of Harold Tremaine's club. She thought he would almost certainly be there just now.
She then hung up the receiver again, and, going to the door which led into the kitchen, she opened it: "Don't bring in my supper yet. I'll ring, when I'm ready for it." She then went back to the little writing-table and waited impatiently.
At last the bell rang.
"I want to speak to Captain Tremaine. Is he in the Club? Can you find him?"
She felt an intense thrill of almost superstitious relief when the answer came: "Yes, ma'am. He's in the Club. I'll go and fetch him."
She remembered with relief that Tremaine had told her that no one could overhear, at any rate at his end, what was being said or answered through the telephone—but she also remembered that it was not the same here, in The Trellis House.
Judging others by herself, as most of us do in this strange world, she felt sure that her two young servants were listening behind the door. Still, in a sense there was nothing Enid Crofton liked better than pitting her wits against other wits. So when she heard the question, "Who is it?" she simply answered, "Darling! Can't you guess?"
In answer to his rapturous assent, she said quietly, "I've made up my mind to do what you wish."
And then she drank in with intense delight the flood of eager, exultant words, uttered with such a rush of joy, and in so triumphant a tone, that for a moment she thought that they must be heard, if not here, then there, if not there, then here. But, after all, what did it matter? She would have left this hateful place for ever to-morrow!
And then came a rather difficult moment. She did not wish to tell her servants to-night that she was leaving The Trellis House to-morrow, and yet somehow she must convey that fact to Tremaine.
As if he could see into her mind, there came the eager question, "Can you come up to-morrow, darling? The sooner, the better, you know—"
She answered, "I will if you like—at the usual time."
He said eagerly, "You mean that train arriving at 12.30—the one I met you by the other day?"
And again she said, "Yes."
He asked a little anxiously, "How about money, my precious pet? Are you all right about money?"
For once her hard, selfish heart was touched and she answered truly: "You need not bother about that."
And then there came a whispered, "Call me darling again, darling."
And she just breathed the word "Darling" into the receiver, making a vague resolution as she did so that she would be, as far as would be possible to her, a good wife to this simple-hearted, big baby of a man who loved her so dearly.
Timmy went straight home. He entered the house by one of the back ways and crept upstairs. Late that afternoon he had gratified Nanna by sharing her high tea, and so he was not expected in the dining-room.
He felt intensely excited—what perhaps an older person would have called uplifted. He wandered about the corridors of the roomy old house, his hands clasped behind his back, thinking over and exulting in his great achievement. He felt just a little bit uneasy as to the contents of the letter Mrs. Crofton had said she would write explaining her departure. As to certain things, Timmy Tosswill was still very much of a child. He wondered why their enemy, for so he regarded her, should think it necessary to write to anyone, except perhaps to Rosamund, who, after all, had been her "pal." He was disagreeably aware that his mother would not have approved of the method he had used to carry out what he knew to be her ardent wish, and he wondered uncomfortably if Mrs. Crofton would "give him away."
At last he opened the door of what was now his godfather's bedroom, and walked across to the wide-open window. All at once there came over him a feeling of wondering joy. He seemed to see, as in a glass darkly, three figures pacing slowly along the path which bounded the wide lawn below. They were Godfrey Radmore, Betty, and with them another whom he knew was his dear brother, George. George, whom Timmy had never seen since the day, which to the child now seemed so very long ago, when, rather to his surprise, his eldest brother had lifted him up in his arms to kiss him before going out to France at the end of his last leave. And as he gazed down, tears began to run down his queer little face.
At last he turned away from the window, and as he went towards the door he saw the outline of a paper pad on the writing table which in old days George and Godfrey had shared between them.
Blinking away his tears, he took up the pad, and carried it down the lighted passage to his own room. There he sat down, and with a pencil stump extracted from his waistcoat pocket, he wrote:
This is from Timmy. I hope you don't still feel the pierce.
Your affectionate son, Timothy Godfrey Radmore Tosswill.
He put the bit of paper into a grubby envelope in which he had for some time kept some used French stamps; then, licking down the flap, he left his room and went into his mother's, where he propped up the envelope on the fat pin-cushion lying on her dressing-table, remembering the while that so had been propped an anonymous letter written many years before by a vengeful nursery maid, who had been dismissed at Nanna's wish.
* * * * *
Monday morning opened badly for more than one inmate of Old Place. Dolly and her lover had discovered with extreme surprise that one hundred pounds would only achieve about a fifth of that which they considered must be done before his vicarage would be fit for even the most reasonable of brides. With Dolly this had produced an extremely disagreeable fit of bad temper—of temper indeed so bad that it had been noticed by Godfrey Radmore, who had followed Janet into the drawing-room after breakfast to ask what was the matter.
Jack Tosswill had gone off as early as he felt he decently could go, to The Trellis House, only to find its mistress gone—and gone, which naturally much increased his disappointment and anger, only ten minutes before his arrival! He had interviewed both servants, they only too willing, for his infatuation was by now known to the whole village. But what they had to say gave him no comfort—indeed, it was almost exactly what the house-parlourmaid had said last week, when Enid had gone off to town, leaving no address behind her. This time, however, she had said she would telephone from town.
As he was turning away, feeling sick at heart, the cook suddenly vouchsafed the information that her mistress had left a letter for Mrs. Tosswill, and that The Trellis House odd man, on his way back from the station, where he had gone with Mrs. Crofton, for she had taken two large trunks this time, would deliver it at Old Place.
But when he reached home the letter had not yet been delivered, and Jack, half consciously desiring to visit his misery on someone else, hunted up Timmy in order to demand why Josephine and her kittens had not been sent back to Epsom ere now. There had followed a lively scrap, leaving them both in a bad mood; but at last it was arranged that Godfrey, Betty and Timmy should motor to Epsom with the cat and her kittens after luncheon.
The morning wore itself slowly away. Only two of the younger people were entirely happy—Betty, doing her usual work, and Godfrey Radmore. Even he was more restless than usual, and kept wandering in and out of the kitchen in a way which Rosamund, who was helping Betty, thought very tiresome. As for Timmy, his mother could not make him out. He seemed uncomfortable, and, to her practised eye, appeared to have something on his conscience.
Three times in one hour Jack came into the drawing-room and asked his step-mother whether she had not yet had a letter from The Trellis House. Now Jack Tosswill had always been reserved, absurdly sensitive to any kind of ridicule. Yet now he scarcely made an effort to conceal his unease and suspense. Indeed, the third time he had actually exclaimed, "Janet! Are you concealing anything from me?" And she had answered, honestly surprised, "I don't know what you mean, Jack. I've had no communication from Mrs. Crofton of any kind. Are you sure she wrote me a letter?" And he had answered in a wretched tone: "Quite sure."
And then, about five minutes before luncheon, and luncheon had to be a very punctual meal at Old Place, for it was the one thing about which its master was particular, Timmy came in with a letter in his hand, and sidling up to his mother, observed with rather elaborate unconcern: "A letter for you, Mum."
She looked at him quite straight. "Has this letter only just been left, my dear?"
He answered rather hurriedly: "It came a little while ago, but I put it in my pocket and forgot it."
Janet broke the seal, for the letter was sealed, and then she called out to her son, who was making for the door: "Don't go away, Timmy. Betty will ring the lunch bell in a moment."
Unwillingly he turned round and stood watching her while she read the four pages of closely written handwriting. But, rather to his relief, she made no remark, and the bell rang just as she put the letter back in its envelope. Then she slipped it in her pocket, for Janet Tosswill was one of the very few women in England who still had a pocket in her dress.
Giving him what he felt to be a condemnatory look, but in that he was wrong, for she was too surprised, relieved, and, yes, disturbed, to think of him at all, she motioned the boy to go before her into the dining-room.
As the Sunday joint was always served cold on Monday, they were all there, even Betty, but owing, as at any rate most of them believed, to the unfortunate discovery made by Dolly that the pre-war pound was now only worth about seven and six, it was rather a mournful meal.
At last Rosamund went out to get the coffee, and then Janet addressed her son: "Timmy," she observed, "I have something I wish to say to the others, so will you please go and have your orange with Nanna?"
Timmy obeyed his mother without a word, and then, after the coffee had come in and been poured out, Janet said slowly:
"I've had a letter from Mrs. Crofton, and as she asks me to tell you all what is in it, I think it will be simpler if I read it out now."
She waited a moment, gathering up her courage, wondering the while whether she was doing the best thing by Jack. On the whole she thought yes. There are blows which are far better borne among one's fellows than in solitude.
She wished to make her reading as colourless as possible, but she could not keep a certain touch of sarcasm out of her voice as she read aloud the first two sentences:
"Dearest Mrs. Tosswill,
"You have always been so kind to me that I feel I must write and tell you why I am leaving the dear Trellis House and delightful Beechfield."
She looked up, but no one spoke; Jack was staring straight before him, and she went on:
"To my utter surprise a very old friend of my late husband's and mine has asked me to be his wife. He is going back to India in a fortnight, and so, much as I shrink from the thought of all the bustle and hurry it will involve, I feel that as it must be now or never, it must be now, and the fact that I have a good offer for The Trellis House seemed to me a kind of sign-post.
"Though perhaps I ought not to say so, he is a splendid soldier and did extremely well in the war. He won a bar to his M.C., which my husband once told me would have won him a V.C. in any other war.
"He is anxious that I should not come down to Beechfield again. The time is so short, and there is so much to be done, that I fear I shall not see any of you before I leave for India. I would have liked Rosamund to come to my wedding, but we shall be married very quietly, and the day and hour will probably be fixed at the last minute.
"I am purposely not telling you where I am staying as I do not want to give you the bother of answering this rather unconventional letter. As for presents I have always hated them.
"All the business about The Trellis House is being done by a kind solicitor I know, who arranged about the lease for me.
"Might I ask you to remember me very kindly to everybody, and to give my special love to Rosamund and to sweet Miss Betty? I wish I had known her better.
"Again thanking you for your kindness, and assuring you I shall always look back to the happy days I spent at Beechfield,
"Believe me to remain, Yours very sincerely, Enid Crofton."
There was a long pause. Jack was now crumbling up his bread and then smoothing out the crumbs with a kind of mechanical, steam-roller movement of his right-hand forefinger.
Rosamund was the first to speak. "Why, she hasn't even told us his name!" she exclaimed. "How very funny of her!"
And then Godfrey Radmore spoke, just a thought more sharply than usual: "I'm not at all surprised at that. She wants to start quite clear again."
Betty said quietly: "That's natural enough, isn't it?" But her heart was full of aching sympathy for her brother. She felt, rather than saw, his rigid, mask-like face.
They all got up, and slowly began to disperse. After all, there was only one among them to whom this news was of any real moment.
Janet, feeling curiously tired, went into the drawing-room. The moment she had finished Enid Crofton's letter she had begun to torment herself as to whether she had done right or wrong after all?
To her relief Godfrey Radmore came into the drawing-room. "I want to put those two unfortunate people out of their misery, Janet. Shall I tell Dolly, or will you tell her, that I want to give her a thousand pounds as a wedding present?"
Janet had very strong ideas of what was right and wrong, or perhaps it would be better to say of what was meet and proper.
"I don't think they could take a present of that sort from you," she said very decidedly. "These are hard times, Godfrey, even for rich people. But you always talk as if you were made of money!"
He looked taken aback, and even hurt.
"No, no," she said, "I don't mean that, but I'm upset to-day. What with one thing and another, I hardly know what I'm saying." She caught herself up. "I'll tell you what I think would be reasonable. As you are so kind, give Dolly a hundred pounds. It will make a real difference."
"No," he said, "it's going to be a thousand."
"I'm quite sure that John would not allow Dolly to accept it."
Radmore knew that when Janet invoked John, it meant that she had made up her mind as to what must be.
He went to the door, opened it, and called out in what seemed to Janet a very imperious tone: "Betty?" And yet no glimmer of the truth came into Janet's mind.
"It's no good sending for Betty," she said sharply. "There are things that can be done, and things that can't be done."
As she uttered that very obvious remark, Betty appeared.
"Yes," she said a little breathlessly. "Yes, Godfrey, what is it? We have just started washing up—"
He took her hand and led her in front of Janet. "We have got to tell her now," he said. "We must do it for Dolly's sake; I never saw anyone looking so woe-begone as she has looked all the morning."
And then, at last, Janet began to understand.
"I don't think Mr. Tosswill will be able to object to Dolly's brother giving her a thousand pounds," he said, and then, very much to Janet's surprise, he suddenly threw his arms round her, and gave her a great hug.
* * * * *
By MRS. BELLOC LOWNDES
WHAT TIMMY DID FROM OUT THE VASTY DEEP THE LONELY HOUSE GOOD OLD ANNA LOVE AND HATRED LILLA: A PART OF HER LIFE THE RED CROSS BARGE