The Summons (novel)/XXVII

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Martin Hillyard crammed a year's enjoyment into the early hours of that night. He danced a great deal and had supper a good many times; and even the girl who had passed the season of 1914 in London and said languidly, "Tell me more," before he had opened his mouth, failed to ruffle his enjoyment.

"If I did, you would scream for your mother," he replied, "and I should be turned out of the house and Sir Chichester would lose his position in the county. No, I'll tell you less. That means we'll go and have some supper."

He led a subdued maiden into the supper-room and from that moment his enjoyment began to wane. For, at a little table near to hand, sat Joan Whitworth and Harry Luttrell, and it was clear to him from the distress upon their faces that their smooth courtship had encountered its obstacles. A spot of anger, indeed, seemed to burn in Joan's cheeks. They hardly spoke at all.

Half an hour later, he came face to face with Joan in a corridor.

"I have been looking for you for a long while," she cried in a quick, agitated voice. "Are you free for this dance?"

"Yes."

Martin Hillyard lied without compunction.

"Then will you take me into the garden?"

He found a couple of chairs in a corner of the terrace out of the hearing of the rest.

"We shall be quiet here," he said. He hoped that she would disclose the difficulty which had risen between herself and Harry, and seek his counsel as Harry's friend. It might be one of the little trifling discords which love magnifies until they blot out the skies and drape the earth in temporary mourning. But Joan began at once nervously upon a different topic.

"You made a charge against Mario Escobar the other day. I did not believe it. But you spoke the truth. I know that now."

She stopped and gazed woefully in front of her. Then she hurried on.

"I can prove it. He demands news of your movements in the Mediterranean. If it is necessary I must come forward publicly and prove it. It will be horrible, but of course I will."

Martin looked at her quickly. She kept her eyes averted from him. Her fingers plucked nervously at her dress. There was an aspect of shame in her attitude.

"It will not be necessary, Joan," he answered. "I have quite enough evidence already to put him away until the end of the war."

Joan turned to him with quivering lips.

"You are sure. It means so much to me to escape—what I have no right to escape, I can hardly believe it."

"I am quite sure," replied Martin Hillyard.

Joan breathed a long, fluttering sigh of relief. She sat up as though a weight had been loosed from her shoulders. The trouble lifted from her face.

"You need not call upon me at all?"

"No."

"I don't want to shirk—any more," she insisted. "I should not hesitate."

"I know that, Joan," he said with a smile. She looked out over the gardens to the great line of hills, dim and pleasant as fairyland in the silver haze of the moonlight. Her eyes travelled eastwards along the ridge and stopped at the clump of Bishop's Ring which marks the crest of Duncton Hill, and the dark fold below where the trees flow down to Graffham.

"You ask me no questions," she said in a low, warm voice. "I am very grateful."

"I ask you one. Where is Mario Escobar to-night?"

"At Midhurst," and she gave him the name of the hotel.

Martin Hillyard laughed. Whilst the police were inquiring here and searching there and watching the ports for him, he was lying almost within reach of his hand, snugly and peacefully at Midhurst.

"But I expect that he will go from Midhurst now," Joan added, remembering his snarl of fear when the door had opened behind her, and the haste with which he had fled.

Hillyard looked at his watch. It was one o'clock in the morning.

"You are in a hurry?" she asked.

"I ought to send a message." He turned to Joan. "You know this house, of course. Is there a telephone in a quiet room, where I shall not be interrupted or be drowned out, voice and ears by the music?"

"Yes, Mrs. Willoughby's sitting-room upstairs. Shall I ask her if you may use it?"

"If you please."

Joan left Martin standing in one of the corridors and rejoined him after a few minutes. "Come," she said, and led the way upstairs to the room. Martin called up the trunk line and gave a number.

"I shall have to wait a few minutes," he said.

"You want me to go," answered Joan, and she moved towards the door reluctantly.

"No. But you will be missing your dances."

Joan shook her head. She did not turn back to him, but stood facing the door as she replied; so that he could not see her face.

"I had kept all the dances after supper free. If I am not in the way I would rather wait with you."

"Of course."

He was careful to use the most commonplace tone with the thought that it would steady her. The trouble which this telephone message would finally dispel was clearly not all which distressed her. She needed companionship; her voice broke, as though her heart were breaking too. He saw her raise a wisp of handkerchief to her eyes; and then the telephone bell rang at his side. He was calling at a venture upon the number which Commodore Graham had rung up in the office above the old waterway of the Thames.

"Is that Scotland Yard?" he asked, and he gave the address at which Mario Escobar was to be found. "But he may be gone to-morrow," he added, and hearing a short "That's all right," he rang off.

"Now, if you will get your cloak, we might go back into the garden."

They found their corner of the terrace unoccupied and sat for a while in silence. Hillyard recognised that neither questions nor any conversation at all were required from him, but simply the sympathy of his companionship. He smoked a cigarette while Joan sat by his side.

She stretched out her hand towards the Bishop's Ring, small as a button upon the great shoulder of the Down.

"Do you remember the afternoon when I drove you back from Goodwood?"

"Yes."

"You said to me, 'If the great trial is coming, I want to fall back into the rank and file.' And I cried out, 'Oh, I understand that!'"

"I remember."

"What a fool I was!" said Joan. "I didn't understand at all. I thought that it sounded fine, and that was why I applauded. I am only beginning to understand now. Even after I had agreed with you, my one ambition was to be different."

Her voice died remorsefully away. From the window further down the terrace the yellow light poured from the windows and fought with the moonlight. The music of a waltz floated out upon the yearning of many violins. There was a ripple of distant voices.

"All this week," Joan began again, "I have found myself standing unexpectedly in a strong light before a mirror and utterly scared by the revelation of what I was ... by the memory of the foolish things which I had done. From one of the worst of them, you have saved me to-night. You are very kind to me, Martin."

It was the first time he had ever heard her use his Christian name.

"I should like to be kinder, if you'll let me," he said. "I am not blind. I was in the supper-room when you and Harry were there. It was for him that you had kept all the last dances free. And you are here, breaking your heart. Why?"

Joan shook her head. A little sob broke from her against her will. But this matter was between her and Harry Luttrell. She sought no counsel from any other.

"Then I am very grieved for both of you," said Hillyard. Joan made a movement as if she were about to rise. "Will you wait just a moment?" Martin asked.

He guessed that some hint of Stella Croyle's story had reached the girl's ears. He understood that she would be hurt, and affronted; that she would feel herself suddenly steeped in vulgarities; and that she would visit her resentment sharply upon her lover, and upon herself at the same time. And all this was true. But Martin was not sure of it. He meant to tread warily, lest if he stumbled, the harm should be the more complete.

"I have known Harry Luttrell a long while," he said. "No woman ever reached his heart until he came home from France this summer. No woman I believe, could have reached it—not even you, Joan, I believe, if you had met him a year ago. He was possessed by one great shame and one great longing—shame that the regiment with which he and his father were bound up, had once disgraced itself—longing for the day to come when it would recover its prestige. Those two emotions burnt in him like white flames. I believe no other could have lived beside them."

Joan would not speak, but she concentrated all her senses to listen. A phrase which Stella Croyle had used—Harry had feared to become "the slovenly soldier"—began to take on its meaning.

"On the Somme the shame was wiped out. Led by such men as Harry—well, you know what happened. Harry Luttrell came home freed at last from an overwhelming obsession. He looked about him with different eyes, and there you were! It seems to me a thing perfectly ordained, as so few things are. I brought him down here just for a pleasant week in the country—without another thought beyond that. All this week I have been coming to think of myself as an unconscious agent, who just at the right time is made to do the right thing. Here was the first possible moment for Harry Luttrell—and there you were in the path—just as if you without knowing it, had been set there to wait until he came over the fields to you."

He turned to her and took her hand in his. He had his sympathies for Stella Croyle, but her hopes held no positive promise of happiness for either her or Harry Luttrell—a mere flash and splutter of passion at the best, with all sorts of sordid disadvantages to follow, quarrels, the scorn of his equals, the loss of position, the check to advancement in his profession. Here, on the other hand, was the fitting match.

"It would be a great pity," he said gently, "if anything were now to interfere."

He stood up and after a moment Joan rose to her feet. There was a tender smile upon her lips and her eyes were shining. She laid a hand upon his arm.

"I shall have to get you a wife, Martin," she said, midway between laughter and tears. "It wouldn't be fair on us if you were to escape."

This was her way of thanking him.