The Summons (novel)/XXV

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"You insisted that I should see you. You have something to say to me," said Joan. She was breathing more quickly than usual and the blood fluttered in her cheeks, but she faced Mario Escobar with level eyes, and spoke without a tremor in her voice. So far everything had happened just as she had planned. There were these few difficult minutes now to be grappled with, and afterwards the ordeal would be ended, that foolish chapter in her life altogether closed. "Will you please be quick?" she pleaded.

But Mario Escobar was in no hurry to answer. He had never imagined that Joan Whitworth could look so beautiful. He had never dreamed that she would take so much trouble. Mario Escobar understood women's clothes, and his eyes ran with a sensation of pleasure over her delicate frock with its shining bands, its embroidery of silver and flounces of fine lace, down to her slim brocaded shoes. He had not, indeed, thought very much of her in the days when Linda Spavinsky was queen. She had been a sort of challenge to him, because of her aloofness, her indifference. Women were his profession, and here was a queer outlandish one whom it would be amusing to parade as his. So he had set to work; he had a sense of art, he could talk with ingenuity on artistic matters, and he had flattered Joan by doing so; but always with a certain definite laughter and contempt for her. Now her beauty rather swept him off his feet. He looked at her in amazement. Why this change? And—the second question for ever in his mind—how could he profit by it?

"I don't understand," he said slowly, feeling his way. "We were good friends—very good friends." Joan neither denied nor agreed. "We had certain things in common, a love of art, of the finer things of life. I made enemies, of course, in consequence. Your racing friends——" He paused. "Milly Splay, who would have matched you with some dull, tiresome squire accustomed to sleep over his port after dinner, the sort of man you are drawing so brilliantly in your wonderful book." A movement of impatience on Joan's part perplexed him. Authors! You can generally lay your praise on with a trowel. What in the world was the matter with Joan? He hurried on. "I understood that I was making enemies. I understood, too, why I was no longer invited to Rackham Park. I was a foreigner. I would as soon visit a picture gallery as shoot a pheasant. I would as soon appreciate your old gates and houses in the country as gallop after a poor little fox on the downs. Oh, yes, I wasn't popular. That I understand. But you!" and his voice softened to a gentle reproach. "You were different! And you had the courage of your difference! Since I was not invited to Rackham Park, I was to come down to the inn at Midhurst. I was to drive over—publicly, most publicly—and ask for you. We would show them that there were finer things in the world than horse-racing and lawn tennis. Oh, yes. We arranged it all at that wonderful exhibition of the New School in Green Street."

Joan writhed a little at her recollection of the pictures of the rotundists and of the fatuous aphorisms to which she had given utterance.

"I come to Midhurst accordingly, and what happens? You scribble me out a curt little letter. I am not to come to Rackham Park. I am not to try to see you. And you are writing to-morrow. But to-morrow comes, and you don't write—no, not one line!"

"It was so difficult," Joan answered. She spoke diffidently. Some of her courage had gone from her; she was confronted with so direct, so unanswerable an accusation. "I thought that you would understand that I did not wish to see you again. I thought that you would accept my wish."

Mario Escobar laughed unpleasantly.

"Why should I?"

"Because most men have that chivalry," said Joan.

Mario Escobar only smiled this time. He smiled with narrowed eves and a gleam of white teeth behind his black moustache. He was amused, like a man who receives ridiculous answers from a child.

"It is easy to see that you have read the poets—Joan," he replied deliberately.

Joan's face flamed. Never had she been addressed with so much insolence. Chaff she was accustomed to, but it was always chaff mitigated by a tenderness of real affection. Insolence and disdain were quite new to her, and they hurt intolerably. Joan, however, was learning her lessons fairly quickly. She had to get this meeting over as swiftly and quietly as she could, and high words would not help.

"It's true," she admitted meekly. "I know very little."

Joan looked very lovely as she stood nervously drumming with her gloved fingers on a little table which stood between them, all her assurance gone.

Mario Escobar lived always on the whirling edge of passion. The least extra leap of the water caught him and drew him in. He gazed at Joan, and the computing look which cast up her charms made her suddenly hot from head to foot. The good-looking, pretentious fool whom it had been amusing to exhibit amidst the black frowns of her circle had suddenly become exquisitely desirable for herself as a prize, with her beauty, her dainty care to tend it, and her delicious clothes. She would now be a real credit! Escobar took a step towards her.

"After all," he said, "we were such good friends. We had little private interests which we did not share with other people. Surely it was natural that I should wish to see you again."

Mario was speaking smoothly enough now. His voice, his eyes actually caressed her. She was at pains to repress a shiver of physical repulsion. But she remembered his letter very clearly. It had expressed no mere wish to see her. It had claimed a right with a vague threat of making trouble if the right were not conceded. She had recognised the right, not out of the fear of the threat so much—although that weighed with her, as out of a longing to have done with him for good and all. Instinct had told her that this was the last type of man to find favour in Harry Luttrell's eyes, that she herself would be lowered from her high pedestal in his heart, if he knew of the false friendship.

"Well, I agreed to see you," she replied. "But I have to go back to the ball. Will you please to be quick?"

"The time and the place were of your own choice."

"My choice!" Joan answered. "I had no choice. A girl amongst visitors in a country house—when is she free? When is she alone? She can keep to her room—yes! But that's all her liberty. Let her go out, there will be some one at her side."

"If she is like you—no doubt," said Escobar, and again he smiled at her covetously. Joan shook the compliment off her with a hitch of her shoulders.

"We could have met in a hundred places," Mario continued.

"I could have come to call on you as we arranged."

"No!" cried Joan with more vigour than wisdom in her voice. She had a picture of him, of the embarrassment of the Splays and her friends, of the disapproval of Harry Luttrell.

Escobar was quick when he dealt with women, quick and sensitive. The passionate denial did not escape him. He began to divine the true cause of this swift upheaval and revolution in her.

"You could have sent me a card for the Willoughbys' dance. It would have been easy enough for us to meet there."

Again she replied, "No!" A note of obstinacy was audible.

"Why?"

Joan did not answer at all.

"I'll tell you," Escobar flashed out at her angrily. "You wouldn't be seen with me any more! Suddenly, you would not be seen with me—no, not for the world! That's the truth, isn't it? That's why you come secretly back and bid me meet you in an empty house."

"Hush!" pleaded Joan.

Mario Escobar's voice had risen as his own words flogged him to a keener indignation.

"Why should I care if all the world hears me?" he replied roughly. "Why should I consider you, who turn me down the moment it suits you, without a reason? It's fairly galling to me, I assure you."

Joan nodded her head. Mario Escobar had some right upon his side, she was ready to acknowledge.

"I beg your pardon," she said simply. "Won't you please be content with that and leave things as they are?"

"When you are a little older you will know that you can never leave things as they are," answered Mario. "I was looking forward to a week of happiness. I have had a week of torment. For lesser insults than yours, men kill in my country."

There were other differences, too, between her country and his. Joan did not cry out, or burst into tears or flinch in any way. She was alone in this room; there was no one, as far as she knew, within the reach of her voice. She had chosen this meeting-place, not altogether because the house would be empty, but because in this first serious difficulty of her life she would be amongst familiar things and draw from them confidence and strength, and a sense of security. With Mario Escobar in front of her, his face ablaze with passion, the security vanished altogether. Yet all the more she was raised to the top of her courage.

"Then I shall tell you the truth," she answered gently. "You speak to me of our friendship. It was never anything serious to me. It was a taunt—a foolish taunt to other people."

Mario Escobar flinched, as if she had struck him in the face.

"Yes, I hurt you," she went on in the same gentle voice, which was not the least element in Escobar's humiliation. "I am very sorry. I tried not to hurt you. I am very ignorant, as you have told me, but I wouldn't believe it till a week ago. I made it my pride to be different from anybody else. I believed that I was different. I was a fool. I wouldn't listen. Even during the war. I have shut myself up away from it, trying not to share in the effort, not to feel the pride and the sorrow, pretending that it was just a horrible, sordid business altogether beneath lofty minds! That's one of the reasons why I chose you for my friend! I was flinging my glove in the face of the little world I knew. I had got to be different. It's all very shameful to tell, and I am sorry. Oh, how I am sorry!"

Her sorrow was most evident. She had sunk down upon a couch, her fair head drooping and the tears now running down her cheeks in the bitterness of her shame. But Mario Escobar was untouched by any pity. If any thought occurred to him outside his burning humiliation, it was prompted by the economy of the Spaniard.

"She'll spoil that frock if she goes on crying," he said to himself, "and it was very expensive."

"I have nothing but remorse to offer in atonement," she went on. "But that remorse is very sincere——"

Mario Escobar swept her plea aside with a furious gesture.

"So that's it!" he cried. "You were just making a fool of me!" That she, this pretty pink and white girl, should have been making a show of him, parading him before her friends, exhibiting him, using him as a challenge—just as in fact he had been using her, and with more success! Only to think of it hurt him like a knife. "Your remorse!" he cried scornfully. "There's some one else, of course!"

Joan sat up straight and stiff. Escobar might have laid a lash across her delicate shoulders.

"Yes," she said defiantly.

"Some one who was not here a week ago?"

"Yes."

To Escobar's humiliation was now added a sudden fire of jealousy. For the first time to-night, as woman, as flesh and blood, she was adorable, and she owed this transformation, not to him, no, not in the tiniest fraction of a degree to him, but to some one else, some dull boor without niceties or deftness, who had stormed into her life within the week. Who was it? He had got to know. But Joan was hardly thinking of Escobar. Her eyes were turned from him.

"He has set me free from many vanities and follies. If I am grieved and ashamed now, I owe it thankfully to him. If my remorse is bitter, it is because through him I have a gleam of light which helps me to understand."

"And you have told him what you have told me?"

"No, but I shall to-night when all this is over, when I go back to Harrel."

Mario Escobar moved closer to her.

"Are you so sure that you are going back to Harrel to-night?" he asked in a low voice.

"Yes," she replied, and only after she had spoken did the menace of his voice force itself into her mind as something which she must take into account. She looked up at him startled, and as she looked her wonderment turned into stark fear. The cry that in his country men killed had left her unmoved. But she was afraid now, desperately afraid, all the more afraid because she thought of the man searching for her through the reception-rooms at Harrel.

"We are alone here in an empty quarter of the house. So you arranged it," he continued. "Good! Women do not amuse themselves at my expense without being paid for it."

Joan started up in a panic, but Escobar seized her shoulders and forced her down again.

"Sit still," he cried savagely. Then his face changed. For the first time for many minutes his lips parted in a smile of pleasure.

"You are very lovely, Joan. I love to see you like that—afraid—trembling. It is the beginning of recompense."

Joan had tumbled into a deeper pit than any she had dreamed of. In desperation she cast about for means to climb out of it. The secrecy of this meeting—that must go. But, even so, was there escape? The bell? Before she could be half-way across the room, he would be holding her in his arms. A cry? Before it was half uttered, he would have stifled her mouth. No, she must sit very still and provoke no movement by him.

Mario Escobar was a creature of unhealthy refinements. He wanted to know, first, who was the man who had touched this indifferent maiden into warm life. The knowledge would be an extra spice to his pleasure.

"Who are staying in the house?" he asked. It would be amusing to make his selection, and discover if he were right.

"Dennis Brown, Harold Jupp"—Joan began, puzzled by his question, yet welcoming it as so much delay.

"I don't want to hear about them," Mario Escobar replied. "Tell me of the new-comers!"

"Martin Hillyard——" Joan began again, and was aware that Mario Escobar made a quick startled movement and gasped. Martin Hillyard's name was a pail of cold water for Escobar.

"Does Hillyard know that I am at Midhurst?" he asked sharply.

"No," Joan answered.

There was something which Hillyard had told her about Mario Escobar, something which she had rejected and dismissed altogether from her thoughts. Then she remembered. Escobar was an enemy working in England against England. She had given the statement no weight whatever. It was the sort of thing people said of unconventional people they disliked in order to send them to Coventry. But Escobar's start and Escobar's question put a different value upon it. Joan caught at it. Of what use could it be to her? Of some use, surely, if only she had the wit to divine it. But she was in such a disorder of fear and doubt that every idea went whirling about and about in her mind. She raised her hand to her forehead, keeping her eyes upon Escobar. She felt as helpless as a child. Almost she regretted the love which had so violently mastered her. It had made clear to her her ignorance and so stripped her of all assurance and left her defenceless.

But even in the tumult of her thoughts, she began to recognise a change. The air was less charged with terror. There was less of passion and anger in Mario Escobar, and more of speculation. He watched her in a gloomy silence, and each moment she took fresh heart. With a swift movement he seated himself on the couch beside her.

Joan sprang up with a little cry, and her heart thumping in her breast.

"Hush!" said Escobar. Yes, it was now he who pleaded for secrecy and a quiet voice.

There was a stronger passion in Mario than the love of women, and that was the love of money. Women were to him mainly the means to money. They were easier to get, too, if you were not over particular. Money was a rare, shy thing, except to an amazing few who accumulated it by some obscure, magnetic attraction; and opportunities of acquisition were not to be missed.

"Hush!" he said. "You treated me badly, Joan. It was right that I should teach you a lesson—frighten you a little, eh?"

He smiled at her with eyes half closed and eyelids cunningly blinking. Now that her fears were weakening Joan found his impertinence almost insufferable. But she held her tongue and waited.

"But you owe me a return, don't you?"

Joan did not move.

"A little return—which will cost you nothing at all. You know that I represent a line of ships. You can help me. We have rivals, with active agents. You shall find out for me exactly what Martin Hillyard is doing in the Mediterranean, and why he visits in a yacht the ports of Spain. You will find this out for me, so that I may know whether he is acting for my rivals. Yes."

"He is not," answered Joan.

"You will find this out for me, so that I may know," Escobar repeated smoothly. "Exactly what he is doing in the Mediterranean, what special plans, and why he visits in a yacht the ports of Spain. You promise me that knowledge, and you can go straight back to your dancing."

"I have no knowledge," said Joan quietly.

"But you can obtain it," Escobar insisted. "He is a friend of yours. Exactly what he is doing—is it not so?"

So Martin's accusation was true. Joan nodded her head, and Escobar, with a smile of relief, took the gesture as a consent to his proposal.

"Good!" he said, rising from the couch. "Then all is forgiven! You will make some notes——"

"I will do nothing of the kind," said Joan quietly, but she was white to the edge of her lips, and she trembled from head to foot. But there was no room any more for fear in her. She was in a heat of anger which she had never known. "Oh, that you should dare!" and her words choked her.

Mario Escobar stared at her.

"You refuse?"

"With all my soul."

Escobar took a step towards her, but she did not move.

"You are alone with me, when you should be dancing at the ball. You made the appointment, chose the hour, the place ... even if you scream, there will be a scandal, a disgrace."

"I don't care."

"And the man you are in love with, eh? That makes a difference," he said, as he saw the girl falter. "Do we think of him?"

"No," said Joan. "We incur the disgrace."

She saw his eyes open wide with terror. He drew a step away from her. "Oh!" he exclaimed, in a long-drawn whisper; and he looked at Joan with incredulity and hatred. "You——" he used some Spanish word which Joan did not catch. It would have told her little if she had caught it. It was "Cabron," a harmless, inoffensive word which has become in Spain the ultimate low word of abuse. "You have laid a trap for me."

Joan answered him in a bewilderment. "I have laid no trap for you," and there was so much scorn and contempt in her voice that Escobar could hardly disbelieve her.

But he was shaken. He was in a panic. He was in a haste to go. Money—yes. But you must live in order to enjoy it.

"I will give you a day to think over my proposal," he said, stammering the words in his haste. And then, "Don't write to me! I will find a means," and, almost before she was aware of his movements, he had snatched up his cap, and the room was empty. The curtain was torn aside; the glass door stood open; beyond it the garden lay white in the light of the moon.

"A trap?" Joan repeated his accusation in a perplexity. She turned and she saw the door, the door behind her, which Escobar had faced, the door into the hall, slowly open. There had been no turning of the handle, it was unlatched before. Yet Joan had seen to it that it was shut before ever she beckoned Mario Escobar into the room. Some one, then, had been listening. Mario Escobar had seen the handle move, the door drawn ajar. Joan saw it open now to its full width, and in the entrance Stella Croyle.