The Summons (novel)/XXIII

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The library at Rackham Park was a small, oblong room, with a big window upon the garden. It opened into the hall on the one side and into the dining-room on the other, and in one corner the telephone was installed. At half-past eight on the night of the dance at Harrel, this room was empty and in darkness. But a second afterwards the door from the hall was opened, and Joan stood in the doorway, the light shimmering upon her satin cloak and the silver embroidery of her frock. She cast an anxious look behind her and up the staircase. It seemed as if some movement at the angle made by the stairs and the gallery caught her eye, for she stepped back for a clearer view, and listened with a peculiar intentness. She saw nothing, however, and heard nothing. She entered the library swiftly and closed the door behind her, so that the room fell once more upon darkness save for a thread of gold at the bottom of the other door behind which the men of the party were still sitting over their wine. She crossed the room towards the window, stepping cautiously to avoid the furniture. She was quite invisible. But for a tiny rustle of the lace flounces on her dress one would have sworn the room was empty. But when she was half-way across a sudden burst of laughter from the dining-room brought her to a stop with her hand upon her heart and a little sob not altogether stifled in her throat. It meant so much to her that the desperate adventure of this night should be carried through! If all went well, as it must—oh, as it surely must!—by midnight she would be free of her terrors and distress.

The laughter in the dining room died down. Joan stole forward again. She drew away the heavy curtains from the long window, and the moonlight, clear and bright like silver, poured into the room and clothed her in its soft radiance. She drew back the bolts at the top and bottom of the glass door and turned the key in the lock. She touched the glass and the door swung open upon the garden, easily, noiselessly. She drew it close again and leaving it so, raised her hands to the curtains at the side. As she began carefully to draw them together, so that the rings should not rattle on the pole, the door from the hall was softly and quickly opened, and the switch of the electric lights by the side of the door pressed down. The room leapt into light.

Joan swung round, her face grown white, her eyes burning with fire. She saw only Jenny Prask.

"I hope I don't intrude, miss," said Jenny respectfully. "I came to find a book."

The blood flowed back into Joan's cheeks.

"Certainly, Jenny, take what you like," said Joan, and she draped the curtains across the window.

"Thank you, miss."

Jenny chose a book from the case upon the table and without a glance at Joan or at the window, went out of the room again. Joan watched her go. After all, what had Jenny seen? A girl whose home was there, drawing the curtains close. That was all. Joan shook her anxiety off. Jenny had left the door of the library open and some one came running down the stairs whistling as she ran. Miranda Brown dashed into the room struggling with a pair of gloves.

"Oh, how I hate gloves in this weather!" she cried. "Well, here I am, Joan. You wanted to speak to me before the others had finished powdering their noses. What is it?"

"I want you to help me."

"Of course I will," Miranda answered cheerily. "How?"

Joan closed the door and returned to Miranda, who, having drawn the gloves over her arm, was now struggling with the buttons.

"I want you, when we reach Harrel——"

"Yes."

"To lend me your motor-car for an hour."

Miranda turned in amazement towards her friend. But one glance at her face showed that the prayer was made in desperate earnest. Miranda Brown caught her friend by the arm.

"Joan!"

"Yes," Joan Whitworth answered, nodding her head miserably. "That's the help I want and I want it dreadfully. Just for an hour—no more."

"Joan, my dear—what's the matter?" asked Miranda gazing into Joan Whitworth's troubled face.

"I don't want you to ask me," the girl answered. "I want you to help me straight off without any questions. Otherwise——" and Joan's voice shook and broke, "otherwise—oh, I don't know what will happen to me!"

Miranda put her arm round Joan Whitworth's waist. "Joan! You are in real trouble!"

"For the first time!" said Joan.

"Can't I——?"

"No," Joan interrupted. "There's only the one way, Miranda."

She sat down upon a couch at Miranda's side and feverishly caught her hand. "Do help me! You can't tell what it means to me!... And I should hate telling you! Oh, I have been such a fool!"

Joan's face was quivering, and so deep a compunction was audible in her voice, so earnest a prayer was to be read in her troubled eyes, that Miranda's doubt and anxiety were doubled.

"I don't know what I shall do, if you don't help me," Joan said miserably as she let go of Miranda. Her hands fluttered helplessly in the air. "No, I don't know!"

Miranda was thoroughly disturbed. The contrast between the Joan she had known until this week, good-humoured, a little aloof, contented with herself and her ambitions, placid, self-contained, and this lovely girl, troubled to the heart's core, with her beseeching eyes and trembling lips touched her poignantly, meltingly.

"Oh, Joan, I don't like it!" she whispered. "What mad thing have you done?"

"Nothing that can't be put right! Nothing! Nothing!" Joan caught eagerly at the argument. "Oh, I was a fool! But if you'll only help me to-night, I am sure everything will be arranged."

The words were bold enough, but the girl's voice trailed off into a low, unsteady whisper, as terror at the rash plan which she had made and must now carry through caught at her heart. "Oh, Miranda, do be kind!"

"When do you want the car?" asked Miranda.

"Immediately after we get to Harrel."

"Joan!"

Miranda herself was growing frightened. She stood torn with indecision. Joan's distress pleaded on the one side, dread of some tragic mystery upon the other. For the first time in her life Joan was in some desperate crisis of destiny. Her feet and hands twitched as though she were bound fast in the coils of a net she could not break. What wisdom of experience could she bring to help her to escape? On what wild and hopeless venture might she not be set?

"Yes, yes," Joan urged eagerly. "I have thought it all out. I want you to tell your chauffeur privately to return along the avenue after he has set you down. There's a road on the right a few yards down. If he will turn into that and wait behind the big clump of rhododendrons I will join him immediately."

"But it will be noticed that you have gone. People will ask for you," Miranda objected.

"No, I shall be back again within the hour. There will be a crowd of people. And lots won't imagine that I should ever come to the dance at all." Even at that moment a little smile played about the lips. "And if the ball had been a week ago, I shouldn't have gone, should I? I should still be wearing sandals," she explained, as she looked down at the buckles of her trim satin slippers, "and haughtily wishing you all good night in the hall here. No, it will be easy enough. I shall just shake hands with Mrs. Willoughby, pass on with the rest of our party into the ball-room and then slip out by the corridor at the side of the park."

"It's dangerous, Joan!" said Miranda.

"Oh, I know, but——" Joan rose suddenly with her eyes upon the door. "The others are coming. Miranda, will you help me? I would have driven over to Harrel in my own little car. But it's open and I should have got blown about until everybody would have begun asking why in the world I used it. Oh, Miranda, quick!"

Her ears had heard the voices already in the hall. Miranda heard them too. In a moment the door would be thrown open. She must make up her mind now.

"Very well. The first turning to the right down the avenue and behind the rhododendrons. I'll tell the chauffeur."

"And no one else! Not even Dennis!"

"Joan!"

"No, not even Dennis! Promise me!"

Millie Splay was heard to be inquiring for them both.

"Very well. I promise!"

"Oh, thank you! Thank you."

The door from the hall was opened upon that cry of gratitude and Millie Splay looked in.

"Oh, there you are." A movement of chairs became audible in the dining-room. "And those men are still sitting over their miserable cigars."

"They are coming," said Joan, and the next moment the dining-room door was thrown open and Sir Chichester with his guests trooped out from it.

"Now then, you girls, we ought to be off," he cried as if he had been waiting with his coat on for half an hour. "This is none of your London dances. We are in the country. You won't any of you get any partners if you don't hurry."

"Well, I like that!" returned Millie Splay. "Here we all are, absolutely waiting for you!"

Mr. Albany Todd approached Joan.

"You will keep a dance for me?"

"Of course. The third before supper," answered Joan.

Already Sir Chichester was putting on his coat in the hall.

"Come on! Come on!" he cried impatiently, and then in quite another tone, "Oh!"

The evening papers had arrived late that evening. They now lay neatly folded on the hall table. Sir Chichester pounced upon them. The throbbing motor-cars at the door, the gay figures of his guests were all forgotten. He plumped down upon a couch.

"There!" cried Millie Splay in despair. "Now we can all sit down for half an hour."

"Nonsense, my dear, nonsense! I just want to see whether there is any report of my little speech at the Flower Show yesterday." He turned over the leaves. "Not a word apparently, here! And yet it was an occasion of some importance. I can't understand these fellows."

He tossed the paper aside and took up another. "Just a second, dear!"

Millie Splay looked around at her guests with much the same expression of helpless wonderment which was so often to be seen on the face of Dennis Brown, when Miranda went racing.

"It's the limit!" she declared.

There were two, however, of the party, who were not at all distressed by Sir Chichester's procrastination. When the others streamed into the hall, Joan lingered behind, sedulously buttoning her gloves which were buttoned before; and Harry Luttrell returned to assist her. The door was three-quarters closed. From the hall no one could see them.

"You are going to dance with me in the passage," he said.

Joan smiled at him and nodded. Now that Miranda had given way, Joan's spirits had revived. The colour was bright in her cheeks, her eyes were tender.

"Yes, but not at once."

"Why?"

"I'll finish my duty dances first," said Joan in a low voice. She did not take her eyes from his face. She let him read, she meant him to read, in her eyes what lay so close at her heart. Harry Luttrell read without an error, the print was so large, the type so clear. He took a step nearer to her.

"Joan!" he whispered; and at this, his first use of her Christian name, her face flowered like a rose.

"Thank you!" she said softly. "Oh, thank you!"

Harry Luttrell looked over his shoulder. They had the room to themselves, so long as they did not raise their voices.

"Joan," he began with a little falter in his voice. Could he have pleaded better in a thousand fine speeches, he who had seen his men wither about him on the Somme, than by that little timorous quaver in his voice? "Joan, I have something to ask of you to-night. I meant to ask it during a dance, when you couldn't run away. But I am going to ask it now."

Joan drew back sharply.

"No! Please wait!" and as she saw his face cloud, she hurried on. "Oh, don't be hurt! You misunderstand. How you misunderstand! Take me in to supper to-night, will you? And then you shall talk to me, and I'll listen." Her voice rose like clear sweet music in a lilt of joy. "I'll listen with all my heart, my hands openly in yours if you will, so that all may see and know my pride!"

"Joan!" he whispered.

"But not now! Not till then!"

Harry Luttrell did not consider what scruple in the girl's conscience held him off. The delay did not trouble him at all. She stood before him, radiant in her beauty, her happiness like an aura about her.

"Joan," he whispered again, and—how it happened who shall say?—in a second she was within his arms, her heart throbbing against his; her hands stole about his shoulders; their lips were pressed together.

"Harry! Oh, Harry!" she murmured. Then very gently she pushed him from her. She shook her head with a wistful little smile.

"I didn't mean you to do that," she said in self-reproach, "until after supper."

In the hall Sir Chichester threw down the last of the newspapers in a rage. "Not a word! Not one single miserable little word! I don't ask much, goodness knows, but——" and his voice went up in an angry incredulity. "Not one word! And I thought the Harpoon was such a good paper too!"

Sir Chichester sprang to his feet. He glanced at his guests. He turned upon his wife.

"God bless my soul, Millie, what are we waiting for? I'll tell you girls what it is. Unless we get off at once, we had better not go at all. Where's Joan? Where's Luttrell?"

"Here we are!" cried Luttrell from the library, and in a lower tone to Joan, he observed, "What a bore people are to be sure, aren't they?"

The guilty couple emerged into the hall. Sir Chichester surveyed them with severity.

"I don't know whether you have heard about it, Luttrell, but there's a ball to-night at Harrel, and we all rather thought of going to it," he remarked with crushing sarcasm.

"I am quite ready, sir," replied Harry humbly. Sir Chichester was mollified.

"Very well then. We'll go."

"But Mrs. Croyle isn't down yet," said Miranda.

"Stella isn't going, dear," answered Millie Splay; and a cry of dismay burst from Joan.

"Not going!"

The consternation in the girl's voice was so pronounced that every eye in that hall turned to her in astonishment. There was consternation, too, most legible in her widely-opened eyes. Her cheeks had lost their colour. She stood for a fleeting moment before them all, an image of terror. Then she caught at an excuse.

"Stella's ill then—since she's not going."

"It's not as bad as all that, dear," Lady Splay hastened to reassure her. "She complained of a racking headache at dinner. She has gone to bed."

The blood flowed back into Joan's cheeks.

"Oh, I see!" she observed slowly. "That is why her maid came to the library for a book!"

But she was very silent throughout the quarter of an hour, which it took them to drive to Harrel. There was somebody left behind at Rackham Park that night. Joan had overlooked one possibility in contriving her plan, and that possibility, now developed into fact, threatened to ruin all. One guest remained behind in the house, and that one Joan's rival.