The Summons (novel)/XXVI

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Joan picked up her cloak and arranged it upon her shoulders. She did not give one thought to Stella, or even hear the words which Stella began nervously to speak. Her secret appointment would come to light now in any case. It would very likely cost her—oh, all the gold and glamour of the world. It would be bandied about in gossip over the tea-tables, in the street, at the Clubs, in the Press. Sir Chichester ought to be happy, at all events. The thought struck her with a wry humour, and brought a smile to her lips. He would accomplish his dream. Without effort, without a letter or a telephone call, or a rebuff, he would have such publicity as he could hardly have hoped for. "Who is that?" Joan made up a little scene. "That? Oh, don't you know? That's Sir Chichester Splay. You must have heard of Sir Chichester! Why, it was in his house that the Whitworth girl, rather pretty but an awful fool, carried on with the spy-man."

Joan was a little overstrung. All the while she was powdering her nose in front of a mirror and removing as best she could the traces of tears, and all the while Mrs. Croyle was stammering words and words and words behind her. Joan regretted that Stella was not going to the Willoughbys' ball. If she had been, she would probably be carrying some rouge in her little hand-bag, and Joan might have borrowed some.

"Well, since you haven't got any with you, I must go," said Joan, bursting suddenly into Stella's monologue. But she had caught a name spoken just before Stella stopped in her perplexity at Joan's outbreak.

"Harry Luttrell!" Joan repeated. What in the world had Stella Croyle got to say to her about Harry Luttrell? But Stella resumed her faltering discourse and the sense of her words penetrated at last to Joan's brain and amazed her.

Joan was to leave Harry Luttrell alone.

"You are quite young," said Stella, "only twenty. What does he matter to you? You have everything in front of you. With your looks and your twenty years you can choose where you will. You have lovers already——"

"I?" Joan interrupted.

"Mario Escobar."

Joan repeated the name with such a violence of scorn that for a moment Stella Croyle was silenced.

"Mario Escobar!"

"He was here with you a moment ago."

Joan answered quietly and quite distinctly:

"I wish he were dead!"

Stella Croyle fell back upon her first declaration.

"You must leave my Wub alone."

Joan laughed aloud, harshly and without any merriment. She checked herself with an effort lest she should go on laughing, and her laughter turn uncontrollably into hysteria and tears. Here was Mrs. Croyle, a grown woman, standing in front of her like a mutinous obstinate child, looking like one too, talking like one and bidding Joan leave her Wub alone. Whence did she get that ridiculous name? It was all degrading and grotesque.

"Your Wub! Your Wub!" she cried in a heat. "Yes, I am only twenty, and probably I am quite wrong and stupid. But it seems to me horrible that we two women should be wrangling over a man neither of us had met a week ago. I'll have no more of it."

She flung towards the window, but Stella Croyle cried out, "A week ago!" and the cry brought her to a stop. Joan turned and looked doubtfully at Mrs. Croyle. After all, that ridiculous label had not been pasted on to Harry Luttrell as a result of a week's acquaintance. Harry Luttrell had certainly talked to Stella through the greater part of an evening, his first evening in the house, but they had hardly been together at all since then. Joan came back slowly into the room.

"So you knew Colonel Luttrell before this week?"

"We were great friends a few years ago."

It was disturbing to Joan that Harry Luttrell had never spoken to her of this friendship. Was it possible that Stella had a claim upon him of which she herself knew nothing? She sat down at a table in front of Mrs. Croyle.

"Tell me," she said.

Once, long ago, upon the deck of the Dragonfly at Stockholm, Stella had cried out to Harry Luttrell, "Oh, what a cruel mistake you made when you went out of your way to be kind!" Joan was now to hear how that cry had come to be uttered by a woman in the nethermost distress. She knew, of course, that Stella was married at the age of seventeen and had been divorced, but little more than that.

"There was a little girl," said Stella, "my baby. I lost her."

She spoke very simply. She had come to the end of efforts and schemes, and was very tired. Joan's anger died away altogether in her heart.

"Oh, I am very sorry," she replied. "I didn't know that you had a little girl."

"Yes. Look, here is her portrait." Stella Croyle drew out from her bosom a locket which hung night and day against her heart, and showed it to Joan across the table. "But I don't know whether she is little any more. She is thirteen now."

Joan gazed at the painted miniature of a lovely child with the eyes and the hair of Stella Croyle.

"And you lost her altogether?" she asked with a rising pity.

"Not at first," answered Stella. "I was allowed by the Court to have her with me for one month in every year. And I lived the other eleven months for the one, the wonderful one."

Stella's face softened indescribably. The memory of her child did for her what all her passion for Harry Luttrell could not do. It restored her youth. Her eyes grew tender, her mouth quivered, the look of conflict vanished altogether.

"We had good times together, my baby and I. I took her to the sea. It sounds foolish, but we were more like a couple of children together than mother and daughter"; and Joan, looking at the delicate, porcelain-like figure in front of her, smiled in response.

"Yes, I can understand that."

"She was with me every minute," Stella Croyle resumed. "I watched her so, I gave her so much of me that when I had seen her off at the station with her nurse at the end of the month, I was left behind, as weak and limp as an invalid. I lived for her, Joan, believe that at all events in my favour! There was no one else."

"I do believe it."

"Then one year in the winter she did not come to me."

"They kept her back!" cried Joan. "But you had the right to her."

"Yes. And I went down to Exeter to her father's house, to fetch her away."

It was curious that Stella Croyle, who was speaking of her own distressful life, told her story with a quiet simplicity of tone, as if she had bent her neck in submission to the hammer strokes of her destiny; whereas Joan, who was but listening to griefs of another, was stirred to a compassion which kindled her face and made her voice shake.

"Oh, they hadn't sent her away! She was waiting for you," she cried eagerly.

"She was waiting for me. Yes! But it was no longer my baby who was waiting. They had worked on her, Robert, my husband—and his sisters. They had told her—oh, more than they need! That I was bad."

"Oh!" breathed Joan.

"Yes, they were a little cruel. They had changed baby altogether. She was just eight at that time." Stella stopped for a moment or two. Her voice did not falter but her eyes suddenly swam with tears. "She used to adore me—she really and truly did. Now her little face and her eyes were like flint. And what do you think she said to me? Just this! 'Mummy, I don't want to go with you. If you take me with you, you'll spoil my holidays!'"

Joan shot back in her chair.

"But they had taught her to say that?"

Stella Croyle shook her head.

"They had taught her to dislike me. My little girl has character. She wouldn't have repeated the words, because she had been taught them. No, she meant them."

"But a day or two with you and she would have forgotten them. Oh, she did forget them!"

In her great longing to comfort the woman, whose deep anguish she divined beneath the quiet desolation of her voice, Joan overleapt her own knowledge. She was still young enough to will that past events had not occurred, and that things true were false.

"I didn't take her," replied Stella Croyle. "I wouldn't take her. I knew baby—besides she had struck me too hard."

"You came away alone!" whispered Joan.

"In the cab which I had kept waiting at the door to take us both away."

"That's terrible!" said Joan. The child with her lovely face set like flint in the room, the mother creeping out of the house and stumbling alone into the fly at the door—the picture was vivid before her eyes. Joan wrung her hands with a little helpless gesture, and a moan upon her lips. Almost it seemed that these sad things were actually happening to her; so poignantly she felt them.

"Oh, and you had all that long journey back to London, the journey you had dreamt of for eleven months with your baby at your side—you had now to take it alone."

Stella Croyle shook her head.

"No! There was just one and only one of my friends—and not at all a great friend—who had the imagination to understand, as you understand too, Joan, just what that journey would have meant to me, if anything had gone wrong, and the kindness to put himself out to make its endurance a little easier."

Joan drew back quickly.

"Harry Luttrell," she whispered.

"Yes. He had once been stationed at Exeter. He knew Robert Croyle and the sisters. He guessed what might happen to me. Perhaps he knew that it was going to happen."

So, when Stella, having pulled down her veil that none might see her face, was stumbling along the platform in search of an empty carriage, a hand was very gently laid upon her and Harry Luttrell was at her side. He had come all the way from London to befriend her, should she need it. If he had seen her with her little girl, he would have kept out of sight and himself have returned to London by a later train.

"That was fine," cried Joan.

"Fine, yes!" answered Stella. "You realise that, Joan, and you have never been in real trouble, or known what men are when kindness interferes with their comfort. I am not blaming people, but women do get the worst of it, if they are fools enough—wicked enough if you like, to do as I did. I knew men—lots of them. I was bound to. I was fair game, you see."

Joan's forehead wrinkled. The doors of knowledge had been opening very rapidly for her during the last few minutes. But she was still often at a loss.

"Fair game. Why? I don't understand."

"I had been divorced. Therefore I wasn't dangerous. Complications couldn't follow from a little affair with me." Stella explained bitterly. "I had men on my doorstep always. But not one of these men who protested and made love to me, would have put themselves out to do what Harry Luttrell did. It was fine—yes. But for three years I have been wondering whether Harry Luttrell would not really have been kinder if he had thought of his own comfort too, and had never travelled to Exeter to befriend me."

"Why?" asked Joan.

"I should have thrown myself out of the carriage and saved myself—oh, so much sorrow afterwards," Stella Croyle answered in so simple and natural a voice that Joan could not disbelieve her.

Joan clasped her hands before her eyes and then gazed again at Stella sitting in front of her, with pity and wonder. It was so hard for her to understand that this pretty woman, who made it her business to be gay, whom she had met from time to time in this house and had chatted with and forgotten, had passed through so dreadful an ordeal of suffering and humiliation. She was to look closer still into the mysteries which were being revealed to her.

Harry Luttrell had held Stella in his arms just as if she had been a child herself whilst the train rushed through the bleak winter country. Stella had behaved like a child, now sobbing in a passion of grief, now mutinous in a passion of rage, now silent and despairing under the weights that nothing, neither sympathy, nor grief, nor revolt, can lift.

"He took me home. He stayed with me. Oh, it wasn't love," cried Stella. "He was afraid."

"Afraid!" asked Joan. She wished to know every least detail of the story now.

"Afraid lest I should take—something ... as I wished to do ... as during the trouble of the divorce I learned to do."

She related little ridiculous incidents which Joan listened to with a breaking heart. Stella could not sleep at all after her return. She lived in a little house with a big garden on the northern edge of London, and all night she lay awake, listening to the patter of rain on melancholy trees, and thinking and thinking. Harry Luttrell kept her from the drugs in her dressing-case. She had no anodyne for her sorrows—but one.

"You will laugh," said Stella with a little wry smile of her own, "when I tell you what it was. It was a gramophone. I got Harry to set it going, whilst I lay in bed—to set it playing rag-time. While it was playing, I stopped thinking. For I had to keep time in my brain with the beat of the tune. And so, at last, since I couldn't think, or remember, I fell asleep. The gramophone saved me"; and again Joan was smitten by the incongruity of Stella with her life. She had eaten of all that nature allots to women—love, marriage, the birth of children, the loss of them—and there she was, to this day half-child, and quite incompatible with what she had suffered and endured.

"After a fortnight I got quieter of course," said Stella. "And suddenly a change sadder than anything I have told you took place in me. I suppose that I had gone through too much on baby's account for me. I lost something more than my baby, I lost my want to have her with me."

She remained silent for a little while reviewing the story which she had told.

"There, that's all," she said, rising suddenly. "It's no claim at all, of course. I know that very well. Harry left me at Stockholm four years ago;" and suddenly Joan's face flushed scarlet. She had been absorbed in Stella's sorrows, she had admired that kind action of Harry Luttrell's which had brought so much trouble in its train. It needed that reminder that Harry had only left Stella Croyle at Stockholm to bring home the whole part which Harry had taken in the affair. Now she understood; a flame of sudden jealousy confused her; and with it came a young girl's distaste as though some ugly reptile had raised its head amongst flowers.

"I never saw Harry again until this week, except for a minute outside a shop one morning in Piccadilly. But he hasn't married during those four years, so I always kept a hope that we should be somewhere together again for a few days, and that afterwards he would come back to me."

"That's why you chose this week to come to Rackham Park?"

"Yes," answered Stella Croyle; and she laughed harshly. "But I hadn't considered you."

Joan looked helplessly at her companion. Stella had not one small chance of the fulfilment of her hope—no, not one—even if she herself stood a million miles away. Of that Joan was sure. But how was she to say so to one who was blind and deaf to all but her hope, who would not listen, who would not see? Mario Escobar had left his gloves behind him on a couch. Joan saw them, and remembered to whom they belonged, and her thoughts took another complexion. Harry Luttrell! What share had she now in his life? She rose abruptly and pushed back her chair.

"Oh, I'll stand aside," she said, "never fear! We are to talk things over to-night. I shall say 'No.'"

She had turned again to the window, but a startled question from Stella Croyle stayed her feet.

"Harry has asked you to marry him?"

"He was going to," Joan faltered. The sense of her own loss returned upon her, she felt utterly alone, all the more alone because of the wondrous week which had come to so desolate an end to-night. "Here in this little room, not two hours ago. But I asked him to wait until supper time to-night. Here—it was here we stood!"

Joan looked down. Yes, she had been standing in this very spot, the table here upon her left, that chair upon her right, that trifolium in the pattern of the carpet under her feet, when Harry Luttrell had taken her in his arms. What foolish thing was Stella Croyle saying now?

"I take back all that I have said to you. If Harry has spoken to you already I have lost—that's all. I didn't know," she said. Her cheeks were white, her eyes suddenly grown large with a horror in them which Joan could not understand.

"Yes, it's all over. I have lost," she kept repeating in a dreadful whisper, moistening her dry lips with her tongue between her sentences.

"Oh, don't think that I am standing aside out of pity," Joan answered her. "To-morrow I shall be impossible as a wife for Harry Luttrell." The words fell upon ears which did not hear. It would not have mattered if Stella had heard. Since Harry Luttrell was that night asking Joan to marry him, the hopes upon which she had so long been building, which Jenny Prask had done so much to nurse and encourage, withered and crumbled in an instant.

"I must go back and dance," said Joan with a shiver.

She left Stella Croyle standing in the room like one possessed with visions of terrible things. Her tragic face and moving lips were to haunt Joan for many a month afterwards. She went out by the window and ran down the drive to the spot where she had left Miranda's car half-way between the lodge and the house. The gates had been set open that night against the return of the party from Harrel. Joan drove back again under the great over-arching trees of the road. It was just ten o'clock when she slipped into the ball-room and was claimed by a neighbour for a dance.