The Summons (novel)/XXIX

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Stella, the undisciplined! She had flung out of the rank and file, as long ago Sir Charles Hardiman had put it, and to this end she had come, waywardness exacting its inexorable price. Harry Luttrell, however, was not able to lull his conscience with any such easy reflections. He walked with Martin Hillyard apart in the garden.

"I am to blame," he cried. "I took on a responsibility for Stella when I went out of my way to do one kind, foolish thing.... Yet, she would have killed herself if I hadn't—as she has done five years afterwards!... I couldn't leave her when I had brought her home ... she was in such misery!... and it couldn't have gone on.... Old Hardiman was right about that.... It would have ended in a quarrel when unforgivable words would have been used.... Yet, perhaps, if that had happened she wouldn't have killed herself.... Oh, I don't know!"

Martin Hillyard had never seen Harry Luttrell so moved or sunk in such remorse. He did not argue, lest he should but add fuel to this high flame of self-reproach. Life had become so much easier as a problem with him, so much inner probing and speculation and worry about small vanities had been smoothed away since he had been engaged day after day in a definite service which was building up by a law deduced here, an inspired formula there, a tradition for its servants. The service, the tradition, would dissolve and blow to nothing, when peace came again. Meanwhile there was the worth of traditional service made clear to him, in an indifference to the little enmities which before would have hurt and rankled, in a freedom from doubt when decision was needed, above all in a sort of underlying calm which strengthened as his life became more turbulently active.

"It's a clear principle of life which make the difference," he said, hesitating, because to say even so much made him feel a prig. "Stella just drifted from unhappiness to unhappiness——"

But Harry Luttrell had no attention to give to him.

"I simply couldn't have gone on," he cried. "It wasn't a question of my ruin or not.... It was simply beyond me to go on.... There were other things more powerful.... You know! I once told you on the river above Kennington Island.... Oh, my God, I am in such a tangle of argument—and there she is up there—only thirty, and beautiful—such a queer, wayward kid—'like a child sleeping.'"

He quoted Sir Chichester's phrase, and hurried away from his friend.

"I shall be back in a little while," he muttered. His bad hour was upon him, and he must wrestle with it alone.

Martin Hillyard returned to the hall, and found Sir Chichester with the doctor, a short, rugged Scotsman. Dr. McKerrel was saying:

"There's nothing whatever for me to do, Sir Chichester," he said. "The poor creature must have died somewhere about one o'clock of the morning." He saw Sir Chichester with a start fall once more to reading the paragraph in the Harpoon, and continued with a warmth of admiration, "Eh, but those newspaper fellows are quick! I saw the Harpoon this morning, and it was lucky I did. For I'd ha' been on my rounds otherwise when that young fellow called for me."

"It was good of you to come so quickly," said Sir Chichester.

"I shall charge for it," replied Dr. McKerrel. "I'll just step round to the Peace Officer at once, and I'll be obliged if you'll not have that glass with the chloroform touched again. I have put it aside."

Martin Hillyard was disturbed.

"There will have to be an inquest then?" he asked.

"Aye, but there wull."

"In a case of this kind," Sir Chichester suggested, "it would be better if it could be avoided."

"But it can't," answered Dr. McKerrel bluntly. "And for my part, I tell you frankly, Sir Chichester, I have no great pity for poor neurotic bodies like the young lady upstairs. If she had had a little of my work to do, she would have been too tired in the evening to think about her worries." He looked at the disconsolate Baronet with a sudden twinkle in his eye. "Eh, man, but you'll get all the publicity you want over this case."

Sir Chichester had no rejoinder to the quip; and his unwonted meekness caused McKerrel to relent. He stopped at the door, and said:

"I'll give you a hint. The coroner can cut the inquest down to the barest necessary limits, if he has got all the facts clear beforehand. If he has got to explore in the dark, he'll ask questions here and questions there, and you never know, nor does he, what he's going to drag out to light in the end. But let him have it all clear and straight first! There's only one character I know of, more free from regulations and limitations and red-tape than a coroner, and that's the police-sergeant who runs the coroner. Goodday to you."

A telegram was brought to Martin Hillyard whilst McKerrel was yet speaking; and Hillyard read it with relief. Mario Escobar had been taken that morning as he was leaving the hotel for the morning train to London. He was now on his way to an internment camp. So that complication was smoothed out at all events. He agreed with Sir Chichester Splay that it would be prudent to carry out McKerrel's suggestion at once.

"I will make the document out," said Sir Chichester importantly. Give him a little work which set him in the limelight as the leader of the Chorus, and nothing could keep down his spirits. He took a sheet of foolscap, a blotting pad, a heavy inkstand, and a quill pen—Sir Chichester never used anything but a quill pen—to the big table in the middle of the hall, and wrote in a fair, round hand:

"The case of Mrs. Croyle."

and looked at his work and thought it good.

"It looks quite like a cause célèbre, doesn't it?" he said buoyantly. But he caught Martin Hillyard's eye, and recovered his more becoming despondency. Harry Luttrell came in as the baronet settled once more to his task. He laid a shining key upon the table and said:

"I found this upon the lawn. It looked as if it might be the key of Mrs. Croyle's room."

It was undoubtedly the key of a door. "We'll find out," said the baronet. Harper was sent for and commissioned to inquire. He returned in a few minutes.

"Yes, sir, it is the key of Mrs. Croyle's room." He laid it upon the table and went out of the room.

"I suppose it is then," said Harry Luttrell. "But I am a little puzzled."

"Oh?"

"It wasn't lying beneath Mrs. Croyle's window as one might have expected. But at the east side of the house, below the corridor, and almost in front of the glass door of the library."

Both of his hearers were disturbed. Sir Chichester took up the key, and twisted it this way and that, till it flashed like a point of fire in the sunlight; as though under such giddy work it would yield up its secret for the sake of peace. He flung it on the table again, where it rattled and lay still.

"I can't make head or tail of it," Sir Chichester cried. Martin Hillyard opened his mouth to speak and thought better of it. He could not falter in his belief that Stella had destroyed herself. The picture of her that morning in Surrey, with the lamps burning in her room and the bed untouched, was too vivid in his memory. What she had tried to do two years ago, she had found the courage to do to-day.

That was sure. But it was not all. There was some one in the shadows who meant harm, more harm than was already accomplished. There was malevolence at work. The discovery of the key in that position far from Stella's window assured him of it. The aspect of the key itself as it lay upon the table made the assurance still more sure. But whom was this malevolence to hurt? And how? At what moment would the hand behind the curtain strike? And whose hand would it be? These were questions which locked his lips tight. It was for him to watch and discover, for he alone overlooked the battle-field, and if he failed, God help his friends at Rackham Park. Mario Escobar? Mario Escobar could at all events do no harm now.

Sir Chichester explained to Harry Luttrell Dr. McKerrel's suggestion.

"Just a clear, succinct statement of the facts. The witnesses, and what each one knows and is ready to depose. I shall put the statement before the coroner, who is a very good fellow, and we shall escape with as little scandal as possible. Now, let me see——" Sir Chichester put on his glasses. "The most important witness, of course, will be Stella's maid."

Sir Chichester rang the bell, and in answer to his summons Jenny came down the stairs. Her eyes were red with weeping and she was very pale. But she bore herself steadily.

"You wanted me, sir?" she asked. Her eyes travelled from one to the other of the three men in the hall. They rested for a little moment longer upon Harry Luttrell than upon the rest; and it seemed to Hillyard that as they rested there they glittered strangely, and that the ghost of a smile flickered about her mouth.

"Yes," said Sir Chichester, pompously. "You understand that there will have to be an inquiry into the cause of Mrs. Croyle's death; and one wants for the sake of everybody, your dead mistress more than any one, that there should be as little talk as possible."

Jenny's voice cut in like ice.

"Mrs. Croyle had no reason that I know of to fear the fullest inquiry."

"Quite so! Quite so!" returned Sir Chichester, shifting his ground. "But it will save time if we get the facts concisely together."

Jenny stepped forward, and stood at the end of the table opposite to the baronet.

"I am quite willing, sir," she said respectfully, "to answer any question now or at any time"; and throughout the little interrogatory which followed she never once changed from her attitude of respect.

"Your name first."

"Jenny Prask," and Sir Chichester wrote it down.

"You have been Mrs. Croyle's maid for some time."

"For three and a half years, sir."

"Good!" said Sir Chichester, with the air of one who by an artful question has elicited a most important piece of evidence.

"Now!" But now he fumbled. He had come to the real examination, and was at a loss how to begin. "Yes, now then, Jenny!" and again he came to a halt.

Whilst Jenny waited, her eyes once glittered strangely under their half-dropped lids; and Martin Hillyard followed the direction of their gaze to the door-key lying upon the table beside Sir Chichester's hand.

"Jenny," said Sir Chichester, who had at last formulated a question. "You informed us that Mrs. Croyle instructed you last night not to call her until she rang. That, no doubt, was an unusual order for her to give."

"No, sir."

Sir Chichester leaned back in his chair.

"Oh, it wasn't?"

"No, sir."

Sir Chichester looked a little blank. He cast about for another line of examination.

"You are aware, of course, Jenny, that your mistress was in the habit of taking drugs—chloroform especially."

"Never, sir," answered Jenny.

"You weren't aware of it?" exclaimed Sir Chichester.

"She never took them."

Harry Luttrell made a little movement. He stared in perplexity at Jenny Prask, who did not once remove her calm and respectful eyes from Sir Chichester Splay. She waited in absolute composure for the next question. But the question took a long time to formulate. Sir Chichester had framed no interrogatory in a sequence; whereas Jenny's answers were pat, as though, sitting by the bed whereon her dead mistress lay, she had thought out the questions which might be asked of her and got her answers ready. Sir Chichester began to get flurried. At every conjecture which he expressed, Jenny Prask slammed a door in his face.

"But you told me——" he cried, turning to Harry Luttrell and so broke off. "Are you speaking the truth, Jenny?"

Suddenly Jenny's composure broke up. The blood rushed into her face. She shouted violently:

"I swear it! If it was my last dying word, I do! Chloroform indeed!" She became sarcastic. "What an idea! Just fancy!"

Sir Chichester threw down his pen. He was aghast before the conclusion to which his examination was leading him.

"But, if Stella didn't put that glass of chloroform between her pillows—herself—of her own accord—why then, whilst she was asleep——" He would not utter the inevitable induction. But it was clear enough, hideous enough to all of them. Why then, whilst she was asleep, some one entered the room, placed the chloroform where its deadly fumes would do their work, locked her door upon her and tossed the key out on to the lawn. A charge of murder—nothing less.

"Don't you see what you are suggesting, Jenny," Sir Chichester spluttered helplessly.

"I am suggesting nothing, sir," the maid answered stolidly. "I am answering questions."

She was lying, of course! Hillyard had not a doubt of it. Jenny Prask was the malevolent force of which he was in search. So much had, at all events, sprung clear from Sir Chichester's blunderings. And some hint, too, of the plan which malevolence had formed—not more than a hint! That Jenny Prask intended to sustain a charge of murder Martin did not believe. She was of too strong a brain for that folly. But she had some clear purpose to harm somebody; and Martin's heart sank as he conjectured who that some one might, nay must, be. Meanwhile, he thought, let Sir Chichester pursue his questioning. He got glimpses through that clouded medium into Jenny Prask's mind.

"You must realise, Jenny, the unfortunate position into which your answers are leading you," said Sir Chichester with a trace of bluster.

Hillyard could have laughed. As if she didn't realise exactly the drift and meaning of every word which she uttered. Jenny was not at all perturbed by Sir Chichester's manner. Her face took on a puzzled look.

"I don't understand, sir."

"No? Let me make it clear! If your mistress never took drugs, if she did not place the glass of chloroform in the particular position which would ensure her death, then, since you, her maid, were alone in this part of the house with her and were the last person to see her alive——"

"No, sir," Jenny Prask interrupted.

Sir Chichester stared. He was more and more out of his depth, and these were waters in which expert swimming was required.

"I don't understand. Do you say that somebody saw Mrs. Croyle after she had dismissed you for the night?"

"Yes, sir."

"Will you please explain?"

The explanation was as simple as possible. Jenny had first fetched a book for her mistress from the library, before the house-party left for the ball. She then had supper and went to Mrs. Croyle's room. It was then about half-past nine, so far as she could conjecture. Her mistress, however, was not ready for bed, and dismissed Jenny, saying that she would look after herself. Jenny thereupon retired to her own bedroom and wrote a letter. After writing it, she remembered that she had not put out the distilled water which Mrs. Croyle was in the habit of using for her toilet. She accordingly returned to Mrs. Croyle's bedroom, and to her surprise found it empty. She waited for a quarter of an hour, and then becoming uneasy, went downstairs into the hall. She heard her mistress and some one else talking in the library. Their voices were raised a little as though they were quarrelling.

"Quarrelling!" Sir Chichester Splay cried out the word in dismay. His hand flapped feebly on the table. "I am afraid to go on.... What do you think, Hillyard? I am afraid to go on...."

"We must go on," said Luttrell quietly. He was very white. Did he guess what was coming, Hillyard wondered? At all events he did not falter. He took the business of putting questions altogether out of his host's hands.

"Was the somebody a man or a woman?"

"A woman, sir."

"Did you recognise her voice?"

"Yes, sir."

"Who was it?"

"Miss Whitworth."

Harry Luttrell nodded his head as if he had, during these last minutes, come to expect that answer and no other. But Sir Chichester rose up in wrath and, leaning forward over the table, shook his finger threateningly at the girl.

"Now you know you are not speaking the truth. Miss Whitworth was at Harrel last night with the rest of us."

"Yes, sir, but she came back to Rackham Park almost at once," said Jenny; and Harry Luttrell's face showed a sign of anxiety. After all, he hadn't seen Joan himself in the ball-room until well after ten o'clock. "I should have known that it was Miss Whitworth even if I had not heard her voice," and Jenny described how, on fetching Mrs. Croyle's book, she had seen Joan unlatch the glass door of the library.

Sir Chichester was shaken, but he pushed his blotting-paper here and his pen there, and pished and tushed like a refractory child.

"And how did she get back? I suppose she ran all the way in her satin shoes and back again, eh?"

"No, sir, she came back in Mrs. Brown's motor-car. I saw it from my bedroom window waiting in the drive."

"Ah! Now that we can put to the test, Jenny," cried Sir Chichester triumphantly. "And we will——" He caught Hillyard's eye as he moved towards the door in order to summon Miranda from the garden. Hillyard warned him with an almost imperceptible shake of the head. "Yes, we will, in our own time," he concluded lamely. His anger burst out again. "Joan, indeed! We won't have her mixed up in this sordid business, it's bad enough as it is. But Joan, no! To suggest that Joan came straight back from the Willoughbys' dance in order to quarrel with a woman whom she was seeing every day here, and, having quarrelled with her, afterwards—— No, I won't speak the word. It's preposterous!"

"But I don't suggest, sir, that Miss Whitworth came back in order to quarrel with my mistress," Jenny Prask returned, as soon as Sir Chichester's spate of words ran down. "I only give you the facts I know. I am quite sure that Miss Whitworth can quite easily explain why she came back to Rackham Park last night. There can't be any difficulty about that!"

Jenny Prask had kept every intonation of her voice under her control. There was no hint of irony or triumph. She was a respectful lady's maid, frankly answering questions about her dead mistress. But she did not so successfully keep sentinel over her looks. She could not but glance from time to time at Harry Luttrell savouring his trouble and anxiety; and when she expressed her conviction that Joan could so easily clear up these mysteries, such a flame of hatred burnt suddenly in her eyes that it lit Martin Hillyard straight to the heart of her purpose.

"So that's it," he thought, and was terrified as he grasped its reach. An accusation of murder! Oh, nothing so crude. But just enough suggestion of the possibility of murder to make it absolutely necessary that Joan Whitworth should go into the witness box at the coroner's inquest and acknowledge before the world that she had hurried secretly back from Harrel to meet Mario Escobar in an empty house. Mario Escobar too! Of all people, Mario Escobar! Jenny Prask had builded better than she knew. That telegram which Martin had welcomed with so much relief but an hour ago taunted him now. The scandal would have been bad enough if Mario Escobar were nothing more than the shady hunter of women he was supposed to be. It would be ten times louder now that Mario Escobar had been interned as a traitor within twelve hours of the secret meeting!

Some escape must be discovered from the peril. Else the mud of it would cling to Joan all her life. She would be spoilt. Harry Luttrell, too! If he married her, if he did not. But Martin could not think of a way out. The whole plan was an artful, devilish piece of hard-headed cunning. Martin fell to wondering where was Jenny Prask's weak joint. She certainly looked, with her quiet strength, as if she had not one at all.

To make matters worse, Miranda Brown chose this moment to re-enter the hall. Sir Chichester, warned already by Martin, threw the warning to the winds.

"Miranda, you are the very person to help us," he cried. "Now listen to me, my dear, and don't get flurried. Think carefully, for your answer may have illimitable consequences! After your arrival at Harrel last night, did Joan return here immediately in your car?"

Sir Chichester had never been so impressive. Miranda was frightened and changed colour. But she had given her promise and she kept it pluckily.

"No," she answered.

Jenny Prask permitted herself to smile her disbelief. Sir Chichester was triumphant.

"Well, there's an end of your pretty story, my girl," he said. "You wanted to do a little mischief, did you? Well, you haven't! And here, by a stroke of luck, is Joan herself to settle the matter."

He sat down and once more he drew his sheet of foolscap in front of him. He could write his clear succinct statement now, write it in "nervous prose." He was not quite sure what nervous prose actually was, but he knew it to be the correct medium to use on these occasions.

Meanwhile Joan ran down the stairs.

"I am afraid I have been very lazy this morning," she cried. She saw Harry Luttrell, she coloured to the eyes, she smiled doubtfully and said in a little whimsical voice, "We didn't after all, practise in the passage."

Then, and only then, did she realise that something was amiss. Millie Splay in her desire to spare her darling the sudden shock of learning what calamity had befallen the house that night had bidden Joan's maid keep silence. She herself would break the news. But Millie Splay was busy with telegrams to Robert Croyle and Stella's own friends, and all the sad little duties which wait on death; and Joan ran down into the midst of the debate without a warning.

Martin Hillyard would have given it to her, but Sir Chichester was hot upon his report.

"Joan, my dear," he said confidently. "There's a little point—not in dispute really—but—well there's a little point. It has been said that you came straight back here last night from Harrel?"

Joan's face turned slowly white. She stood with her great eyes fixed upon Sir Chichester, still as an image, and she did not answer a word. Harry Luttrell drew in a quick breath like a man in pain. Sir Chichester was selecting a new pen and noticed nothing.

"It's ridiculous, of course, my dear, but I must put to you the formal question. Did you?"

"Yes," answered Joan, and the pen fell from Sir Chichester's hand.

"But—but—how did you come back?"

"I borrowed Miranda's car."

Miranda's legs gave under her and she sank down with a moan in a chair.

"But Miranda denies that she lent it," said Sir Chichester in exasperation.

"I asked her to deny it."

"Why?"

Joan's eyes for one swift instant swept round to Harry Luttrell. She swayed. Then she answered:

"I can't tell you."

Sir Chichester rose to his feet and tore his sheet of foolscap across.

"God bless my soul!" he said to himself rather than to any of that company. "God bless my soul!" He moved away from the table. "I think I'll go and see Millie. Yes! I'll consult with Millie," and he ascended the stairs heavily, a very downcast and bewildered man. It seemed as though old age had suddenly found him out, and bowed his shoulders and taken the spring from his limbs. Something of this he felt himself, for he was heard to mutter as he passed along the landing to his wife's sitting-room:

"I am not the man I was. I feel difficulties more"; and so he passed from sight.

Harry Luttrell turned then to Joan.

"Miss Whitworth," he began and got no further. For the blood rushed up into the girl's face and she exclaimed in a trembling voice:

"Colonel Luttrell, I trust that you are not going to ask me any questions."

"Why?" he asked, taken aback by the little touch of violence in her manner.

"Because, at twelve o'clock last night, I refused you the right to ask them."

The words were not very generous. They were meant to hurt and they did. They were meant to put a sharp, quick end to any questioning; and in that, too, they succeeded. Harry Luttrell bowed his head in assent and went out into the garden. For a moment afterwards Martin Hillyard, Joan and Jenny Prask stood in silence; and in that silence once more Martin's eyes fell upon the key of Stella's room. The earth had moved since the interrogatory had begun and the sunlight now played upon the key and transmuted it into a bright jewel. Martin Hillyard stepped forward and lifted it up. A faint, a very faint light, as from the far end of a long tunnel began to glimmer in his mind.

"I must think it out," he whispered to himself; and at once the key filled all his thoughts. He turned to Joan:

"Will you watch, please?" He opened the drawer in the table and laid the key inside it. Then he closed the drawer and locked it and took the key of the drawer out of the lock.

"You see, Joan, what I have done? That key is locked in this drawer, and I hold the key of the drawer. It may be important."

Joan nodded.

"I see what you have done. And now, will you please leave me with Jenny Prask?"

The smile was very easy to read now in Jenny's face. She could ask nothing better than to be left alone with Joan.

Martin hesitated.

"I think, Joan, that you ought to see Lady Splay before you talk to any one," he counselled gently.

"Is everybody going to give me orders in this house?" Joan retorted with a quiet, dangerous calm.

Martin Hillyard turned and ran swiftly up the stairs. There was but one thing to do. Lady Splay must be fetched down. But hurry as he might, he was not in time. For a few seconds Joan and Jenny Prask were alone in the hall, and all Jenny's composure left her on the instant. She stepped quickly over to Joan, and in a voice vibrating with hatred and passion, she hissed:

"But you'll have to say why you came back. You'll have to say who you came back to see. You'll have to say it publicly too—right there in court. It'll be in all the papers. Won't you like it, Miss Whitworth? Just fancy!"

Joan was staggered by the attack. The sheer hatred of Jenny bewildered her.

"In court?" she faltered. "What do you mean?"

"That Mrs. Croyle died of poison last night in her room," answered Jenny.

Joan stared at her. "Last night, after we had talked—she killed herself—oh!" The truth reached her brain and laid a chill hand upon her heart. She rocked backwards and forwards as she stood, and with a gasping moan fell headlong to the ground. She had fainted. For a little while Jenny surveyed her handiwork with triumph. She bent down with a laugh.

"Yes, it's your turn, you pretty doll. You've got to go through it! You won't look so young and pretty when they have done with you in the witness-box. Bah!"

Jenny Prask was a strenuous hater. She drew back her foot to kick the unconscious girl as she lay at her feet upon the floor. But that insult Millie Splay was in time to prevent.

"Jenny," she cried sharply from the balustrade of the landing.

Jenny was once more the quiet, respectful maid.

"Yes, my lady. You want me? I am afraid that Miss Whitworth has fainted."