"I have something to tell you," said Martin. "But I have had no dinner, and am starving. I will tell you whilst I eat."
"Shall I fetch Joan down?" Millie Splay asked eagerly.
"Better to wait," said Martin. He imagined in what a fever of anxiety Joan would be. It would be time enough to lift her to hope when it was certain that the hope would not crumble away to dust.
Joan was at that moment lying on her bed in the darkness of her room, her face towards the moonlit garden, and such a terror of the ordeal to be faced the next Monday in her thoughts as turned her cold and sent her heart fluttering into her throat. Mario Escobar had been taken away that morning. The news had reached Rackham, as it had reached every other house in the country-side. Joan knew of it, and she felt soiled and humiliated beyond endurance as she thought upon her association with the spy.
The picture of the room crowded with witnesses, and people whom she knew, and strangers, whilst she gave the evidence which would turn their liking for her into contempt and suspicion would fade away from before her eyes, and the summer afternoon on Duncton Hill glow in its place. She had bidden Hillyard look at the Weald of Sussex, that he might carry the smell of its soil, the aspect of its blooms and dark woodlands and brown cottages away with him as a treasure to which he could secretly turn like a miser to his gold; and she herself, with them ever before her eyes, had forgotten them altogether. To sink back into the rank and file—how fine she had thought it, and how little she had heeded it! Now she had got to pay for her heedlessness, and she buried her face in her pillows and lay shivering.
Meanwhile, in the dining-room downstairs, Millie Splay, Sir Chichester and Harry Luttrell gathered about Martin at the table whilst he ate cold beef and drank a pint of champagne.
"I went up to London to see some one on the editorial staff of the Harpoon," Martin explained. "There were two questions I wanted answers for, if I could get them. You see, according to McKerrel—and you, Sir Chichester, say that he is a capable man—Stella Croyle died at one in the morning."
"Yes," Sir Chichester agreed.
"About one," Harry Luttrell corrected, with the exactness of the soldierly mind.
"'About' will do," Martin rejoined. "For newspapers go to press early nowadays. The Harpoon would have been made up, and most of the editorial staff would have gone home an hour—yes, actually an hour—before Mrs. Croyle died here at Rackham in Sussex. Yet the news is in that very issue. How did that happen? How did the news reach the office of the Harpoon an hour before the event occurred?"
"Yes, that is what has been bothering me," added Sir Chichester.
"Well, that was one question," Martin resumed. "Here's the other. How, when the news had reached the Harpoon office, did it get printed in the paper?"
Millie Splay found no difficulty in providing an explanation of that.
"It's sensational," she said disdainfully.
Martin shook his head.
"I don't think that's enough. The Harpoon, like lots of other newspapers, has its social column, and in that column, no doubt, a paragraph like this one about Stella would have a certain sensational value. But supposing it wasn't true! A libel action follows, follows inevitably. A great deal would be said about the unscrupulous recklessness involved; the judge would come down like a cartload of bricks and the paper would get badly stung. No editor of any reliable paper would run such a risk. No sub-editor, left behind with power to alter and insert, would have taken the responsibility. Before he printed that item of news he would want corroboration of its truth. That's certain. How did he get it? It was true news, and it was corroborated. But, again, it was corroborated before the event happened. How?"
"I haven't an idea," cried Sir Chichester. "I thought I knew something about getting things into the papers, but I see that I am a baby at it."
"It's much the more difficult question of the two," Hillyard agreed. "But we will go back to the first one. How did the news reach the Harpoon office yesterday night? Perhaps you can guess?" and he looked towards Harry Luttrell.
Luttrell, however, was at a loss.
"It's beyond me," he replied, and Martin Hillyard understood how that one morning at the little hotel under the Hog's Back had given to him and him alone the key by which the door upon these dark things might be unlocked.
"The news arrived in the form of a letter marked urgent, which was handed in by the chauffeur of a private motor-car just after midnight. Of the time there is no doubt. I saw the editor myself. The issue would already have gone to press, but late news was expected that night from France, and the paper was waiting for it. Instead this letter came."
A look of bewilderment crept into the faces of the group about the table.
"But who in the world could have written it?" cried Sir Chichester in exasperation.
"It was written over your name."
The bewilderment in Millie Splay's face deepened into anxiety. She looked at her husband with a sudden sinking of her heart. Had his foible developed into a madness? Such things had been. A little gasp broke from her lips.
"But not in your handwriting," Hillyard hastened to add.
"Whose then?" asked Harry Luttrell suddenly.
"Stella's," answered Hillyard.
A shiver ran from one to the other of that small company, and discomfort kept them silent. A vague dread stole in upon their minds. It was as though some uncanny presence were in the room. They had eaten with Stella Croyle in this room, played with her out there in the sunlit garden, and only one of them had suspected the overwhelming despair which had driven her so hard. They began to blame themselves. "Poor woman! Poor woman!" Millie Splay whispered in a moan.
Sir Chichester broke the silence.
"But we left Stella here when we went to Harrel," he began, and Hillyard interrupted him.
"There's no doubt that Stella sent the message," he said. "Your car, Mrs. Brown's and Luttrell's, were all used to take us to Harrel. One car remained in your garage—Stella's."
"But there wouldn't be time for that car to reach London." Sir Chichester fought against Hillyard's statement. He did not want to believe it. He did not want to think of it. It brought him within too near a view of that horrid brink where overtried nature grows dizzy and whirls down into blackness.
"Just time," Hillyard answered relentlessly, "if you will follow me. Joan certainly returned here last night—that I know, as you know. But she was back again in the ball-room at Harrel within a few minutes of ten o'clock. She must have left Mrs. Croyle a quarter before ten—that, at the latest."
"Yes," Millie Splay agreed.
"Well, I have myself crossed Putney Bridge after leaving here, within ten minutes under the two hours. And that in the daytime. Stella had time enough for her purpose. It was night and little traffic on the road. She writes her letter, sends Jenny with it to the garage, and the car reaches the Harpoon office by twelve."
"But its return?" asked Sir Chichester.
"Simpler still. Your gates were left open last night, and we returned from Harrel at four in the morning. Stella's chauffeur hands in his letter, comes back by the way he went and is home here at Rackham an hour and a half before we thought of saying good-bye to Mrs. Willoughby. That is the way it happened. That is the way it must have happened," Hillyard concluded energetically. "For it's the only way it could have happened."
Luttrell, though he had been a listener and nothing else throughout Martin's statement, had cherished a hope that somehow it might be discovered that Stella had died by an accident. That she should die by her own hand, in this house, under the same roof as Joan, and because of one year which had ended at Stockholm—oh, to him a generation back!—was an idea of irrepressible horror. He could not shake off some sense of guiltiness. He had argued with it all that day, discovering the most excellent contentions, but at the end, not one of them had succeeded in weakening in the least degree his inward conviction that he had his share in Stella's death. Unless her death was an accident, unless, using her drug, she fell asleep and so drifted unintentionally out of life! He still caught at that hope.
"Are you sure that the handwriting was Stella's?" he asked.
"Quite. I saw the letter."
"Did the editor give it to you?"
"No, he had to keep it for his own protection."
"That's a pity," said Harry. A pity—or a relief, since, without that evidence before his eyes, he could still insist upon his pretence.
"Not such a great pity," answered Martin, and taking a letter from his pocket he threw it down upon the table, with the ghost of a smile upon his face. "What do you think I have been doing during the last two years?" he asked drily.
Harry pounced upon the letter and his first glance dispelled his illusion—nay, proved to him that he had never had faith in it. For he saw, without surprise, the broad strokes and the straight up-and-down letters familiar to him of old. Stella had always written rather like a man, a man without character. He had made a joke of it to her in the time before the little jokes aimed by the one at the other had begun to rasp.
"Yes, she wrote the letter and signed it with Sir Chichester's name."
Millie Splay reached out for the letter.
"Stella took a big risk," she said. "I don't understand it. She must have foreseen that Chichester's hand was likely to be familiar in the office."
"No, Millie," said Sir Chichester suddenly, and he spurred his memory. "Of course! Of course! Stella helped me with the telephone one day this week in the library there. I told her that I was new to the Harpoon." He suddenly beat upon the table with his fist. "But why should she write the letter at all? Why should she want her death here, under these strange conditions, announced to the world? A little cruel I call it—yes, Millie, a little cruel."
"Stella wasn't cruel," said Lady Splay.
"She wasn't," Hillyard agreed. "I know why she wrote that. She wrote it to strengthen her hand and will at the last moment. The message was sent, the announcement of her death would be published in the morning, was already in print. Just that knowledge would serve as the final compulsion to do what she wished to do. She wrote lest her courage and nerve should at the last moment fail her, as to my knowledge they had failed her before."
"Before!" cried Millie. "She had tried before! Oh, poor woman!"
"Yes," said Hillyard, and he told them all of the vague but very real fear which had once driven him into Surrey in chase of her; of her bedroom with the bed unslept in and the lights still burning in the blaze of a summer morning; of herself sitting all night at her writing-table, making dashes and figures upon the notepaper and unable to steel herself to the last dreadful act.
Martin Hillyard gave no reason for her misery upon that occasion, nor did any one think to inquire. He just told the story from his heart, and therefore with a great simplicity of words. There was not one of those who heard him, but was moved.
"Yet there were perhaps a couple of hours in her life more grim and horrible than any in that long night," he went on, "the hours between ten o'clock and midnight yesterday."
"Ah, but we don't know how they were spent," began Sir Chichester.
"We know something," returned Martin gravely. "I told you that that letter was corroborated before the paragraph it contained was inserted in the paper."
"Yes," said Lady Splay.
"Whilst they were waiting for the news from France, which did not come, they rang you up from the Harpoon office. Yes: they rang up Rackham Park."
Harry Luttrell snatched up the letter once more from the table. Yes, there across the left-hand corner was printed Sir Chichester's telephone number and the district exchange.
"They were answered by a woman. Of that there's no doubt. And the woman assured them that Stella Croyle was dead. This was at a quarter-past twelve."
There was a movement of horror about the table, and then, with dry lips, Millie Splay whispered:
"Yes. It must have been," answered Hillyard. "Oh, she had thought out her plan to its last detail. She knew the letter might not be enough. So, whilst we were all dancing at Harrel, she sat alone from ten to midnight in that library, waiting for the telephone to ring, hoping perhaps—for all we know—at the bottom of her heart that it would not ring. But it did, and she answered."
The picture rose vividly before them all. Harrel, with its lighted ball-room and joyous dancers on the one side; the silent library on the other, with Stella herself in all her finery, sitting with her haggard eyes fixed upon the telephone, whilst the slow minutes passed.
"That's terrible," said Millie Splay in a low voice; and such a wave of pity swept over the four people that for a long while no further word was said. Joan upstairs in her room was forgotten. Any thought of resentment in that Stella had used Sir Chichester's name was overlooked by the revelation of the long travail of her soul.
"I remember that she once said to me, 'Women do get the worst of it when they kick over the traces,'" Hillyard resumed. "And undoubtedly they do. On the other hand you have McKerrel's hard-headed verdict, 'If these poor neurotic bodies had any work to do they wouldn't have so much time to worry about their troubles.' Who shall choose between them? And what does it matter now? Stella's gone. She will strain her poor little unhappy heart no more against the bars."
JENNY AND MILLIE SPLAY
After a time their thoughts reverted to the living.
"There's Joan," said Millie Splay. "Jenny Prask hates her. She means to drag her into some scandal."
"If she can," said Martin. He went out into the hall and returned with the key of Stella Croyle's room. He held it up before them all.
"This key was found on the lawn outside the library window this morning by Luttrell. Jenny has never referred to it since she ran downstairs this morning crying out that the key was not in the lock. It was lying on the hall table all through the time when Sir Chichester was questioning her, and she said never a word about it. She was much too clever. But she saw it. I was watching her when she did see it. There was no concealing the swift look of satisfaction which flashed across her face. I haven't a doubt that she herself dropped the key where it was found."
"Nor I," Luttrell agreed with a despairing vehemence, "but we can't prove it. Jenny Prask is going to know nothing of that key. 'No, no, no, no!' she is going to say, 'Ask Miss Whitworth! Miss Whitworth came back from Harrel. Miss Whitworth was the last person to see Mrs. Croyle alive. Ask her!' It is Jenny Prask or Miss Whitworth. We are up against that alternative all the time. And Jenny holds all the cards. For she knows, damn her, what happened here last night."
"She did hold all the cards this morning," Hillyard corrected. "She doesn't now. Look at this key! There was a heavy dew last night. It was wet underfoot in the garden at Harrel."
"Yes," said Millie.
"How is it then that there's no rust upon the key?" and as he asked the question he twirled the key so that the light flashed upon stem and wards until they shone like silver. "No, this key was placed where you found it, Luttrell, not last night, but this morning after the sun had dried the grass."
"But we came home by daylight," Sir Chichester interposed. "They might argue that Joan might have slipped downstairs before she went to bed, with the key in her hand."
"But she wouldn't have chosen that spot in front of the library window. She might have flung it from her window, she might conceivably have slipped round the house and laid it under Mrs. Croyle's window. But to place it in front of the library to which room she returned from Harrel—no."
"Yes," said Sir Chichester doubtfully. "I see. Joan can make good that point. Yes, she can explain that." And Millie Splay broke in with impatience:
"Explain it! Of course. But what we want is to avoid that she should have to explain anything, that she should be called as a witness at all!"
There lay the point of trouble. To it, they came ceaselessly back, revolving in the circle of their vain argument. Joan had something to conceal, and Jenny Prask was determined that she should disclose it, and Jenny Prask held the means by which to force her.
"But that's just what I am driving at," continued Martin. "We can't afford to be gentle here. There's no lie Jenny Prask wouldn't tell to force Joan into the witness box. We have got to deal relentlessly with Jenny Prask. A woman's voice spoke from this house over the telephone to London at a quarter-past twelve last night, and said that Stella was dead. Whose voice? Not Joan's. Joan was having supper with Luttrell at twelve o'clock. I saw her, others, too, saw her of course. Whose voice then? Stella's, as we say—as we know. But if not Stella's, as Jenny Prask says—why then there is only one other woman's voice which could have given the news."
"Jenny's," cried Millie with a sudden upspring of hope.
"Yes, Jenny Prask's."
Millie Splay rose from her chair swiftly and rang the bell; and when Harper answered it, she said:
"Will you ask Jenny to come here?"
"Now, my lady?"
Harper went out of the room and Millie turned again to her friends.
"Will you leave this to me?" she asked.
Sir Chichester was inclined to demur. A few deft and pointed questions, very clear, such as might naturally occur to Hillyard or Luttrell, or Sir Chichester himself might come in usefully to put the polish, as it were, on Millie's spade work. Harry Luttrell smiled grimly.
"We didn't exactly cover ourselves with glory this morning," he said. "I think that we had better leave it to Lady Splay."
Sir Chichester reluctantly consented, and they all waited anxiously for Jenny's appearance. That she would fight to the last no one doubted. Would she fight even to her own danger?
Jenny came into the room, quietly respectful, and without a trace of apprehension.
"You sent for me, my lady."
Jenny closed the door and came forward to the table.
"Do you still persist in your story of this morning?" Lady Splay asked.
"Yes, my lady."
"You did not see your mistress at all after Miss Whitworth had talked with her in the library?"
"No, my lady."
"Jenny, I advise you to be quite sure before you speak."
"I am not to be frightened, my lady," said Jenny Prask, with a spot of bright colour showing suddenly in her cheeks.
"I am not trying to frighten you," Millie Splay returned. "But some unexpected news has reached us which, if you persist, will place you in an awkward position."
Jenny Prask smiled. She turned again to the door.
"Is that all, my lady?"
"You had better hear what the news is."
"As you please, my lady."
Jenny stopped and resumed her position.
"The announcement of Mrs. Croyle's death appeared in the Harpoon this morning. The news was left at the Harpoon office by a chauffeur with a private car at midnight—Mrs. Croyle's car."
"It never left the garage last night," said Jenny fiercely.
"You know that for certain?"
"I am engaged to the chauffeur," she replied with a smile; and Millie Splay looked sharply up.
"Oh," she murmured slowly, after a pause. "Thank you, Jenny. Yes, thank you."
The quiet satisfaction of Millie Splay's voice puzzled Jenny and troubled her security. She watched Lady Splay warily. From that moment her assurance faltered, and with the loss of her ease, she lost something, too, of her respectful manner. A note of impertinence became audible.
"Very happy, I'm sure," she said.
"The motor-car delivered the message at midnight," Lady Splay resumed, "and—this is what I ask your attention to, Jenny—the editor, in order to obtain corroboration of the message before he inserted it in his paper, rang up Rackham Park."
Lady Splay paused for Jenny's comment, but none was uttered then. Jenny was listening with a concentration of all her thoughts. Here was a new fact of which she was ignorant, creeping into the affair. Whither did it lead? Did it strike her weapon from her hand? Upset her fine plan of avenging her dear mistress's most unhappy life? She would not believe it.
"He rang up Rackham Park—mark the time, Jenny—at a few minutes after twelve," said Lady Splay impressively, and Jenny's uneasiness was markedly increased.
"Fancy that!" she returned flippantly. "But I don't see, my lady, what that has to do with me."
"You will see, Jenny," Lady Splay continued with gentleness. "He got an answer."
Jenny turned that announcement over in her mind.
"An answer, did he?"
"Yes, Jenny, and an answer in a woman's voice."
A startled cry broke from the lips of Jenny Prask. Her cheeks blanched and horror stared suddenly from her eyes. She understood whose voice it must have been which answered the question from London. Before her, too, the pitiful vision of the lonely woman waiting for the shrill summons of the telephone bell to close the door of life upon her, rose clear; and such a flood of grief and compassion welled up in her as choked her utterance.
"Oh!" she whispered, moaning.
"Whose voice was it, Jenny?"
At the question Jenny rallied. All the more dearly because of that vision, should Joan Whitworth pay, the shining armour of her young beauty be pierced, her pride be humbled, her indifference turned to shame.
"I can't think, my lady—unless it was Miss Whitworth's."
"I asked you to mark the time, Jenny. A few minutes after midnight. Miss Whitworth was at that moment in the supper-room at Harrel. She was seen there. The woman's voice which answered was either Mrs. Croyle's or yours."
Nothing could have been quieter or gentler than Millie Splay's utterance. But it was like a searing iron to the shoulders of Jenny Prask.
"Mine!" The word was launched in a cry of incredulous anger. "It wasn't mine. Oh, as if I would do such a thing! The idea! Well, I never did!"
"I don't believe it was yours, Jenny," said Millie Splay.
"Granted, I'm sure," returned Jenny Prask, tossing her head.
"But how many people will agree with me?" Millie Splay went on.
"I don't care, my lady."
"Don't you? You will, Jenny," said Millie in a hard and biting tone which contrasted violently with the smoothness of her earlier questions. "You are trying, very maliciously, to do a great injury to a young girl who had never a thought of hurting your mistress, and you have only succeeded in placing yourself in real danger."
Jenny tried to laugh contemptuously.
"Me in danger! Goodness me, what next, I wonder?"
"Just listen how your story works out, Jenny," and Millie Splay set it out succinctly step by step.
"Mrs. Croyle never took chloroform as a drug. Mrs. Croyle had no troubles. Mrs. Croyle was quite gay this week. Yet she was found dead with a glass of chloroform arranged between her pillows, so that the fumes must kill her—and Jenny Prask was her maid. A motor-car took the news of Mrs. Croyle's death to London before it had occurred and took the news from Rackham Park. There was only one motor-car in the garage—Mrs. Croyle's—and Mrs. Croyle's chauffeur was engaged to Jenny Prask, Mrs. Croyle's maid. London then telephones to Rackham Park for corroboration of the news, and a woman's voice confirms it—an hour before it was true. There are only two women to choose from, Mrs. Croyle and Jenny Prask, her maid. But since Mrs. Croyle never took drugs, and had no troubles or thoughts of suicide and was quite gay, it follows that Jenny Prask——"
At this point Jenny interrupted in a voice in which fear was now very distinctly audible. "Why, you can't mean—Oh, my lady, you are telling me that—oh!"
"Yes, it begins to look black, Jenny, but I am not at the end," Millie Splay continued implacably. Jenny was not the only woman in that house who could fight if her darling was attacked. "You proceed to direct suspicion at a young girl with the statement that you never saw your mistress after half past nine that night or helped her to undress; and to complete your treachery, you take the key of Mrs. Croyle's door which you found inside her room this morning, and threw it where it may avert inquiry from you and point it against another."
Jenny Prask flinched. The conviction with which Lady Splay announced as a fact the opinion of the small conclave about the table quite deceived her.
"So you know about the key?" she said sullenly. And about the table ran a little quiver of relief. With that question, Jenny Prask had delivered herself into their hands.
Jenny stood with a mutinous face and silent lips. Lady Splay had marshalled in their order the items of the case which would be made against her, if she persisted in her lie. How would she receive them? Persist, reckless of her own overthrow, so long as she overthrew Joan Whitworth too? Or surrender angrily? The four people watched for her answer with anxiety; and it was given in a way which they least expected. For Jenny covered her face with her hands, her shoulders began to heave and great tears burst out between her fingers and trickled down the backs of her hands.
"It's unbearable," she sobbed. "I would have given my life for her—that's the truth. Oh, I know that most maids serve their mistresses for what they can get out of them. But she was so kind to me—wherever she went she was thoughtful of my comfort. Oh, if I had guessed what she meant to do! And I might have!"
The truth came out now. Stella Croyle had given the letter to Jenny, and Jenny herself had taken it to the garage and sent the chauffeur off upon his journey. She had no idea of what the letter contained. Stella was in the habit of inhaling chloroform; she carried a bottle of it in her dressing-case—a bottle which Jenny had taken secretly from the room and smashed into atoms after Doctor McKerrel's departure. She had already conceived her plan to involve Joan in so much suspicion that she must needs openly confess that she had returned from Harrel to meet Mario Escobar in the empty house.
"Mario Escobar!" Millie Splay exclaimed. "It was he." She turned pale. Sir Charles Hardiman had spoken frankly to her of Escobar. A creature of the shadows—it was rumored that he lived on the blackmailing of women. Joan was not out of the wood then! Martin Hillyard was quick to appease her fears.
"He will not trouble you," and when Jenny had gone from the room he added, "Mario Escobar was arrested this morning. He will be interned till the end of the war and deported afterwards."
Lady Splay rose, her face bright with relief.
"Thank you," she said warmly to Hillyard. "I am going up to Joan." At the door she stopped to add, "Now that it's over, I don't mind telling you that I admire Jenny Prask. Out-and-out loyalty like hers is not so common that we can think lightly of it."
Martin Hillyard turned to Sir Chichester.
"And now, if you will allow me, I will open my box of cigarettes."
Harry Luttrell went back to his depot the next morning, without seeing Joan again. Millicent Splay wrote to him during the next week. The inquest had been confined within its proper limits. Jenny Prask had spoken the truth in the witness box, and from beginning to end there had been no mention of Joan or Mario Escobar. A verdict of temporary insanity had been returned, and Stella now lay in the village churchyard. Harry Luttrell drew a breath of relief and turned to his work. For six weeks his days and nights were full; and then came twenty-four hours' leave and a swift journey into Sussex. He arrived at Rackham Park in the dusk of the evening. By a good chance he found Joan with Millie Splay and Sir Chichester alone.
Sir Chichester welcomed him with cordiality.
"My dear fellow, I am delighted to see you. You will stay the night, of course."
"No," Harry answered. "I must get back to London this evening."
He took a cup of tea, and Sir Chichester, obtuse to the warning glances of his wife, plunged into an account of the events which had followed his departure.
"I drew out a statement. Nothing could have been more concise, the coroner said. What's the matter, Millie? Why don't you leave me alone? Oh—ah—yes," and he hummed a little and spluttered a little, and then with an air of the subtlest craft he remarked, "There are those plans for the new pig-sties, Millie, which I am anxious to show you."
He was manoeuvred at last from the room. Harry Luttrell and Joan Whitworth were left standing opposite to one another in the room.
"Joan," Harry Luttrell said, "in ten days I go back to France."
With a queer little stumble and her hands fluttering out she went towards him blinded by a rush of tears.
"BUT STILL A RUBY KINDLES IN THE VINE"
Between the North and South Downs in the east of Sussex lies a wide tract of pleasant homely country which, during certain months of those years, was subject to a strange phenomenon. Listen on a still day when the clouds were low, or at night when the birds were all asleep, and you heard a faint, soft thud, so very faint that it was rather a convulsion of the air than an actual sound. Fancy might paint it as the tap of an enormous muffled drum beaten at a giant's funeral leagues and leagues away. It was not the roll of thunder. There was no crash, however distant, along the sky. It was just the one soft impact with a suggestion of earth-wide portentous force; and an interval followed; and the blurred sound again. The dwellers in those parts, who had sons and husbands at the war, made up no fancies to explain it. They listened with a sinking of the heart; for what they heard was the roar of the British guns at Ypres.
Into this country Martin Hillyard drove a small motor-car on a day of October two years afterwards. Until this week he had not set foot in his country of the soft grey skies since he had left Rackham Park. He had hurried down to Rackham as soon as he had reported to his Chief, but not with the high anticipation of old days. In what spirit would he find his friends? How would Joan meet him? For sorrow had marked her cross upon the door of that house as upon so many others in the land.
Martin had arrived before luncheon.
"Joan is hunting to-day," said Millie, "on the other side of the county. She will catch a train back."
"I can fetch her," Hillyard returned. "She is well?"
"Yes. She was overworked and ordered a rest. She has been with us a fortnight and is better. She was very grateful for your letters. She sent you a telegram because she could not bear to write."
Martin had understood that. He had had little news of her during the two years—a few lines about Harry in the crowded obituaries of the newspapers after the attack in 1917 on the Messines Ridge, where he met his death, and six months afterwards the announcement that a son was born.
"Joan's distress was terrible," said Millie. "At first she refused to believe that Harry was killed. He was reported as 'missing' for weeks; and during those weeks Joan, with a confident face—whatever failings of the heart beset her during the night vigils none ever knew—daily sought for news of him at the Red Cross office at Devonshire House. There had been the usual rumours. One officer in one prison camp had heard of Harry Luttrell in another. A sergeant had seen him wounded, not mortally. A bullet had struck him in the foot. Joan lived upon these rumours. Finally proof came—proof irrefutable.
"Joan collapsed then," said Millie Splay. "We brought her down here and put her to bed. She cried—oh, day and night!—she who never cried! We were afraid for her—afraid for the child that was coming."
Millie Splay smiled wistfully. "She had just two weeks with Harry. They were married before he left for France in 'sixteen, and then had another week together in the January of 'seventeen at his house in the Clayford country. That was all." Millie Splay was silent for a few minutes. Then she resumed cheerfully:
"But she is better now. She will talk of him, indeed, likes at times to talk of him; she is comforted by it, and the boy"—Millie's face became radiant—"the boy is splendid. You shall see him."
Martin was shown the boy. He seemed to him much like any other boy of his age, but such remarkable things in the way of avoirdupois poundage and teething, serenity of temper and quickness of apprehension were explained to him that he felt that he must be in the presence of a prodigy.
"Chichester will want to see you. He is in the library. He is Chairman of our Food Committee. You may have seen it in the papers," said Millie with a smile. "He is back in the papers again, you know."
"Good. Then he won't object to me smoking a cigarette," said Martin.
He motored over in the afternoon to the house on the other side of Sussex where he was to find Joan. He drove her away with him, and as they came to the top of a little crest in the flat country, Martin stopped the car and looked about him.
"I never cease to be surprised by the beauty of this country when I come home to it."
"Yes, but I wish that would stop."
That was the dull and muffled boom of the great guns across the sea. They sat and listened to it in silence.
"There it comes again!" said Joan in a quiet voice. "Oh, I do wish it would stop! What has happened to me, has happened to enough of us."
As Millie had said, she was glad to talk of Harry Luttrell to his friends; and she talked simply and naturally, with a little note of wistfulness heard in all the words.
"We were going to have a small house in London and spend our time between it and the old Manor at Clayford.... Harry had seen the house.... He was always writing that I must watch for it to come into the market.... It had a brass front door. There we should be. We could go out when we wished, and when we wished we could be snug behind our own brass door." Joan laughed simply and lovingly as she spoke. Hillyard had never seen her more beautiful than she was at this moment. If grief had taken from her just the high brilliancy of her beauty, it had added to it a most appealing tenderness.
"After all," she said again, "Harry fulfilled himself. I love to think of that. The ambition of his life—young as he was he saw it realised and helped—more than all others, except perhaps one old Colonel—to realise it. And he left me a son ... to carry on.... There will be no stigma on the Clayfords when my boy gets his commission. Won't I tell him why? Won't I just tell him!"
And the soft October evening closed in upon them as they drove.