The Summons (novel)/XXX

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The Summons by A. E. W. Mason
XXX: A Revolution in Sir Chichester

Upon that house which had yesterday rung with joyous life now fell gloom and sorrow and grave disquiet. Millie Splay drew Miranda, Dennis Brown and Harold Jupp aside.

"You three had better go," she said. "You have such a little time for holidays now; and I can always telegraph for you if you should be wanted."

Miranda bubbled into little sympathetic explosions.

"Oh, Millie, I'll stay, of course. These boys can go. But Joan will want some one."

Millie, however, would not hear of it.

"You're a brick, Miranda. But I have ordered the car for you all immediately after luncheon. Joan's in bed, and wants to see no one. She seems heartbroken. She will say nothing. I can't understand her."

There was only one at Rackham Park who did, and to him Millie Splay turned instinctively.

"I should like you to stay, if you will put up with us. I think Chichester feels at a loss, and he likes you very much."

"Of course I'll stay," replied Hillyard.

Mr. Albany Todd drifted away to the more congenial atmosphere of a dowager duchess's dower-house in the Highlands, where it is to be hoped that his conversational qualities were more brilliantly displayed than in the irreverent gaiety of Rackham. Millie Splay meant to keep Harry Luttrell too. She hoped against hope. This was the man for her Joan, and whether he was wasting his leave miserably in that melancholy house troubled her not one jot.

"It would be so welcome to me if you would put off your departure," she said. "I am sure there is some dreadful misunderstanding."

Luttrell consented willingly to stay, and they went into the library, where Sir Chichester was brooding over the catastrophe with his head in his hands and the copy of the Harpoon on the floor beside him.

"No, I can't make head or tail of it," he said, and Harper the butler came softly into the room, closing the door from the hall.

"There's a reporter from the West Sussex Advertiser, sir, asking to see you," he said, and Sir Chichester raised his head, like an old hunter which hears a pack of hounds giving tongue in the distance.

"Where is he?"

"In the hall, sir."

The baronet's head sank again between his shoulders.

"Tell him that I can't see him," he said in a dull voice.

The butler was the only man in the room who could hear that pronouncement with an unmoved face, and he owed his imperturbability merely to professional pride. Indeed, it was almost unthinkable that a couple of hours could produce so vast a revolution in a man. Here was a reporter who had come, without being asked, to interview Sir Chichester Splay, and the baronet would not see him! The incongruity struck Sir Chichester himself.

"Perhaps it will seem rather impolite, eh, Luttrell? Rather hard treatment on a man who has come so far? What do you think, Hillyard? I suppose I ought to see him for a moment—yes." Sir Chichester raised his voice in a sharp cry which contrasted vividly with the deliberative sentences preceding it. "Harper! Harper!" and Harper reappeared. "I have been thinking about it, Harper. The unfortunate man may lose his whole morning if I don't see him. We all agree that to send him away would be unkind."

"He has gone, sir."

"Gone?" exclaimed Sir Chichester testily. "God bless my soul! Did he seem disappointed, Harper?"

"Not so much disappointed, sir, as, if I may utilise a vulgarism, struck of all a heap, sir."

"That will do, Harper," said Millie Splay, and Harper again retired.

"Struck all of a heap!" said Sir Chichester sadly. "Well he might be!" He looked up and caught Harry's eye. "They say, Luttrell, that breaking a habit is only distressing during the first few days. With each refusal of the mind to yield, the temptation diminishes in strength. I believe that to be so, Luttrell."

"It is very likely, sir," Harry replied.

Harper seemed to be perpetually in and out of the library that morning. For he appeared with a little oblong parcel in his hand. Sir Chichester did not notice the parcel. He sprang up, and with a distinct note of eager pleasure in his voice, he cried:

"He has come back! Then I really think——"

"No, sir," Harper interrupted. "These are cigarettes."

"Oh, yes," Hillyard stepped forward and took the parcel from the table. "I had run out, so I sent to Midhurst for a box."

"Oh, cigarettes!" Sir Chichester's voice sagged again. He contemplated the little parcel swinging by a loop of string from Martin's finger. His face became a little stern. "That's a bad habit, Hillyard," he observed, shaking his head. "It will grow on you—nicotine poisoning may supervene at any moment. You had better begin to break yourself of it at once. I think so."

"Chichester!" cried Millie Splay. "What in the world are you doing?"

Sir Chichester was gently but firmly removing the parcel from Martin's hands, whilst Martin himself looked on, paralysed by the aggression.

"A little strength of character, Hillyard.... You saw me a minute ago.... The first few days, I believe, are trying."

Martin sought to retrieve his cigarettes, but Sir Chichester laid them aside upon a high mantelpiece, as if Hillyard were a child and could not reach them.

"No, don't disappoint me, Hillyard! I am sure that you, too, can rise above a temptation. Why should I be the only one?"

But Hillyard did not answer. Sir Chichester's desire that he should have a companion in sacrifice set a train of thought working in his mind. In the hurry and horror of that morning something had been forgotten—something of importance, something which perhaps, together with the key locked away in the hall table, might set free Joan's feet from the net in which they were entangled. He looked at his watch.

"Will you lend me your car, Harry, for a few hours?" he asked suddenly.

"Yes."

"Then I'll go," said Martin. "I will be back this afternoon or evening, Lady Splay." He went to the door, but was delayed by a box of Corona cigars upon a small table. "I'll take one of your cigars, Sir Chichester," he said drily.

"Anything in the house, of course, my boy," began the baronet hospitably, and pulled himself up. "A very bad habit, Hillyard. You disappoint me."

A trick of secrecy grows quickly upon men doing the work to which Martin Hillyard had been assigned during the last two years. Nothing is easier than to reach a frame of mind which drives you about with your finger to your lips, whispering "Hush! hush!" over the veriest trifles. Hillyard had not reached that point, but, like many other persons of his service, he was on the way to it. He gave no information now to any one of his purpose or destination, not even to Millie Splay, who came out with him alone into the hall, yearning for some crumb of hope. All that he said to her was:

"It is possible that I may be later than I think; but I shall certainly be back to-night." And he drove off in Luttrell's powerful small car.

It was, in fact, ten o'clock when Hillyard returned to Rackham Park. There was that in his manner which encouraged the inmates to hope some way out had been discovered. Questions were poured upon him, and some information given. The date of the inquest had been fixed for the next Monday, and meanwhile no statement of any kind had been put before the coroner. Jenny had not yielded by an inch. She would certainly tell her story with all the convincing force behind it of her respectful quiet manner and her love for her mistress.

"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."

"Mine?"

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:

"Stella!"

"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."