The Summons (novel)/XXII

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"I have put out the blue dress with the silver underskirt, madam," said Jenny Prask, knowing well that nothing in Stella Croyle's wardrobe set off so well her dark and fragile beauty.

"Very well, Jenny."

Stella Croyle answered listlessly. She was discouraged by her experience of that afternoon. She had come to Rackham Park, certain of one factor upon her side, but very certain of that. She would find no competitor, and lo! the invincible competitor, youth, had put on armour against her! Stella looked in the mirror. She was thirty, and in the circle within which she moved, thirty meant climbing reluctantly on to the shelf.

"Don't you think, Jenny, the blue frock makes me look old?"

Jenny Prask laughed scornfully.

"Old, madam! You! Just fancy!"

Stella Croyle, living much alone, had made a companion of her maid. There was nothing of Mrs. Croyle's history which Jenny Prask did not know, and very few of her hopes and sorrows were hidden from her.

"My gracious me, madam! There will be nobody to hold a candle to you here!" she said, with a sniff, as she helped Stella to undress.

Stella looked in the glass. Certainly there was not a line upon the smoothness of her cheeks; her dark hair had lost none of its gloss. She took her features one by one, and found no trace of change. Nor, indeed, scrutinised in that way did Stella show any change. It was when you saw her across a room that you recognised that girlhood had gone, and that there was a woman in the full ripeness of her beauty.

"Yes," she said, and her listlessness began to disappear. She turned away from the mirror. "Come, Jenny!" she cried, with a hopeful smile. She was saying to herself, "I have still a chance."

Jenny rattled on while she assisted her mistress. Stella's face changed with her mood, more than most faces. Disappointment and fatigue aged her beyond due measure. Jenny Prask was determined that she could go down to dinner to-night looking her youngest and best.

"I went for a walk this evening with Mr. Marvin. He's Colonel Luttrell's soldier-servant, and quite enthusiastic, he was, madam."

"Was he, Jenny?"

"Quite! The men in his company loved him—a captain he was then. He always looked after their dinner. A bit strict, too, but they don't mind that."

Jenny was busy with Stella Croyle's hair; and the result satisfied her.

"There won't be anybody else to-night, madam," she said.

"Won't there, Jenny?" said Mrs. Croyle, incredulously. "There'll be Miss Whitworth."

Jenny Prask sniffed disdainfully.

"Miss Whitworth! A fair sight I call her, madam, if I may say so. I never did see such clothes! And how she keeps a maid for more than a week beats me altogether. What I say, madam, is those who button in front when they should hook behind are a fair washout."

Stella laughed.

"I'm afraid that you'll find, Jenny, that Miss Whitworth will hook behind to-night."

Jenny went on unaffected by the rejoinder. She had her little item of news to contribute to the contentment of her mistress.

"Besides, Miss Whitworth is in love with the foreign gentleman. Oh, madam, if you turn as sharp as that, I can't but pull your hair."

"Which foreigner?"

"That Mario Escobar." Jenny looked over Stella's head and into the reflection of her eyes upon the mirror. "I don't hold with foreigners myself, madam. A little ridiculous they always seem to me, with their chatter and what not."

"And you believe Miss Whitworth's in love with him."

"Outrageous, Mr. Harper says. Quite the talk of the servants' hall, it is. Why, even this afternoon she wrote him a letter. Mr. Harper showed it me after he took it out of the letter-box to post it. 'That's her 'and,' says he—and there it was, Mario Escobar, Esquire, the Golden Sun Hotel, Midhurst——"

"Midhurst?" cried Stella with a start. She looked eagerly at the reflection of Jenny Prask. "Mr. Escobar is staying in an hotel at Midhurst?"

"Yes, madam."

"And Miss Whitworth wrote to him there this afternoon?"

"It's gospel truth, madam. May it be my last dying word, if it isn't!" said Jenny Prask.

The blood mounted into Stella Croyle's face. Since that was true—and she did not doubt Jenny Prask for a moment—Jenny would have given anything she had to save her mistress trouble, and Stella knew it. Since it was true, then, that Mario Escobar was staying hidden away in a country hotel five miles off, and that Joan was writing to him, why, after all, she had no rival.

Her spirits rose with a bound. She had a week, a whole week, in the company of Harry Luttrell; and what might she not do in a week if she used her wits and used her beauty! Stella Croyle ran down the stairs like a girl.

Jenny Prask shut the door, and, opening a wardrobe, took from a high shelf Mrs. Croyle's dressing-bag. She opened it, and from one of the fittings she lifted out a bottle. The bottle was quite full of a white, colourless liquid. Jenny Prask nodded to herself and carefully put the bottle back. There was very little she did not know about the proceedings of her mistress. Then she went out of the room into the gallery, and peeped down to watch the other guests assemble. She saw Miranda Brown, Stella, Sir Chichester Splay, Dennis and Harry Luttrell come from their different rooms and gather in the hall below. From a passage behind her, a girl, butterfly-bright, flashed out and danced joyously down the stairs. A new-comer, thought Jenny, with a pang of alarm for her mistress! But she heard the new-comer speak, and heard her spoken to. It was Joan Whitworth.

"Oh!" Jenny Prask gasped.

Undoubtedly Joan "hooked behind" to-night. What had come over her? Jenny asked. Her quick mind realised that Mario Escobar was not answerable for the change since Mario Escobar was miles away at Midhurst. Besides, according to Mr. Harper, this flirtation with Escobar had been going on a year and more.

Jenny Prask looked from Joan to Harry Luttrell. She saw them drawn to one another across the hall and move into the dining-room side by side. She turned back with a little moan of disappointment into Stella Croyle's bedroom; and whilst she tidied it, more than once she stopped to wring her hands.

Stella Croyle, however, kept her good spirits through the evening. For after dinner Harry Luttrell, of his own will, came straight to her in the drawing-room.

"Oh, Wub," she said in a whisper as she drew her skirt aside to make room for him upon the couch. "Oh, Wub, what years it is since I have seen you."

When the old nickname fell upon Harry's ears, he looked quickly about him to see where Joan Whitworth sat. But she was at the other end of the room.

"Yes, it is a long time."

"Stockholm!" said Stella, dwelling upon the name. She lowered her voice. "Wub, I suffered terribly after you went away. Oh, it wasn't a good time. No, it wasn't!"

"Stella, I am very sorry," he said gently. He knew himself this day the glories and the pangs of love. He was sunk ocean-deep one moment in the sense of his unworthiness, the next he knocked his head against the stars on the soaring billow of his pride. He could not but feel for Stella, who had passed through the same furnace. He could not but grieve that the wondrous book of which he was racing through the first pages had been closed for her by him. Might she not open it again, some time, with another at her side?

"Wub, tell me what you have been doing all these years," she said.

He began the tale of them in the short, reluctant, colloquial phrases which the English use to strip their achievements of any romantic semblance until Millicent Splay sailed across the room and claimed him for a table of bridge.

"He will be safer there," she said to herself.

"Yes, but she had to take him away," Stella's thoughts responded. She was dangerous then in Millie Splay's judgment. The sweet flattery set Stella smiling. She went up to her room rejoicing that she had chosen that week to visit Rackham Park. She was playing a losing game, but she did not know it.

Thus the very spirit of summer seemed to inform the gathering. Saturday brought up no clouds to darken the clear sky. Harold Jupp and Dennis Brown actually scored four nice wins at Gatwick on horses which, to celebrate the week, miraculously ran to form. Miranda under these conditions would have inevitably lost, but by another stroke of fortune no horse running had any special blemish, name, colour or trick calculated to inspire her. Sir Chichester was happy too, for he saw a lady reporter write down his name in her notebook. So was Mr. Albany Todd. For he met the Earl of Eltringham, with whom he had a passing acquaintance; and his lordship, being complimented upon his gardens, of which Country Life had published an account, was moved to say in the friendliest manner: "You must propose yourself for a week-end, Mr. Todd, and see them."

As for Joan and Harry Luttrell, it mattered little where they were, so that they were together. They walked in their own magical garden.

It fell to Martin Hillyard to look after Stella Croyle, and the task was not difficult. She kept her eyes blindfold to what she did not wish to see. She had a chance, she said to herself, recollecting her talk with Harry last night, and the news of Joan which Jenny Prask had given to her. She had a chance, if she walked delicately.

"Old associations—give them opportunity, and they renew their strength," she thought. "Harry is afraid of them—that's all."

On the Monday evening Jenny Prask brought a fresh piece of gossip which strengthened her hopes.

"Miss Whitworth had a letter from him this morning," said Jenny. "She wouldn't open it at the breakfast-table, Mr. Harper says. Quite upset she was, he says. She took it upstairs to her room just as it was."

"It might have been from some one else," answered Stella.

"Oh, no, madam," replied Jenny. "It had the Midhurst postmark, and Mr. Harper knows his handwriting besides. Mr. Harper's very observant."

"He seems to be," said Stella.

"Miss Whitworth answered the letter at once, and took it out to the village and posted it with her own hands," Jenny continued.

"Are you sure?" cried Mrs. Croyle.

"I saw her go with my own eyes, I did. She went in her own little runabout, and was back in a jiffy, with a sort of 'There-I've-done-it!' look about her. Oh, there's something going on there, madam—take my word for it! She's a deep one, Miss Whitworth is, and no mistake. Will you wear the smoke-grey to-night, madam? I am keeping the pink for the ball on Thursday."

Stella allowed a moment or two to pass before she answered.

"I shan't go to the Willoughbys' ball, Jenny."

Jenny Prask stared in dismay.

"You won't, madam!"

"No, Jenny. But I want you to be careful not to mention it to any one. I shall dress as if I was going, but at the last moment I shall plead a headache and stay behind."

"Very well, madam," said Jenny. But it seemed to her that Stella was throwing down her arms. Stella, however, had understood, upon hearing of the invitation for Lady Splay's party, that she could do nothing else. The Willoughbys were strict folk. Mrs. Croyle could hardly hope to go without some rumour of her history coming afterwards to the ears of that family; and the family would hold her presence as a reproach against Millie Splay. Stella had herself proposed her plan to Millie, and she noted the relief with which it was received.

"You will be careful not to mention it to a soul, Jenny," Stella insisted.

"My goodness me, madam, I never talk," replied Jenny. "I keep my ears open and let the others do that."

"I know, Jenny," said Stella, with a smile. "I can't imagine what I should do without you."

"And you never will, madam, unless it's your own wish and doin'," said Jenny heartily. "I have talked it over with Brown"—Brown was Mrs. Croyle's chauffeur—"and he's quite willin' that I should go on with you after we are married."

"Then, that's all right," said Stella.

Many a one looking backwards upon some terrible and unexpected tragedy will have noticed with what care the great dramaturgist so wove his play that every little unheeded event in the days before helped directly to create the final catastrophe. It happened on this evening that Stella went downstairs earlier than the other guests, and in going into the library in search of an evening paper, found Sir Chichester standing by the telephone instrument.

"Am I in your way?" she asked.

"Not a bit, Stella," he answered. "In fact, you might help me by looking up the number I want." He raised the instrument, and playing with the receiver as he stood erect, remarked, "Although I am happy to think that I shall not be called upon to deliver any observations on the occasion of the Chichester flower show next Thursday, I may as well ask one of the newspapers if their local correspondent would give the ceremony some little attention."

Stella Croyle took up the telephone book.

"Which newspaper is it to be, Sir Chichester?"

"The Harpoon, I think. Yes, I am sure. The Harpoon."

Stella Croyle looked up the number and read out:

"Gerrard, one, six, two, double three."

Sir Chichester accordingly called upon the trunk line and gave the number.

"You will ring me up? Thank you," he said, and replacing the receiver, stood in anxious expectancy.

"I thought that your favourite paper was the Daily Flashlight?" Stella observed.

"That's quite true, Stella. It was," Sir Chichester explained naïvely. "But I have noticed lately a regrettable tendency to indifference on the part of the Flashlight. The management is usually too occupied to converse with me when I ring it up. On the other hand, I am new to the Harpoon. Hallo! Hallo! This is Sir Christopher Splay speaking," and he delivered his message. "Thank you very much," said Sir Chichester as he hung up the receiver. "Really most courteous people. Yes, most courteous. What is their number, Stella? I must remember it."

Stella read it out again.

"Gerrard, one, six, two, double three," and thus she, too, committed the number to memory.