The Summons (novel)/XXVIII

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The amazing incident which cut so sharply into these tangled lives occurred the next morning at Rackham Park. Some of the house party straggled down to a late breakfast, others did not descend at all. Harry Luttrell joined Millie Splay upon the stairs and stopped her before she entered the breakfast-room.

"I should like to slip away this morning, Lady Splay," he said. "My servant is packing now."

Millie Splay looked at him in dismay.

"Oh, I am so sorry," she said. "I was hoping that this morning you and Joan would have something to say to me."

"I did too," replied Harry with a wry smile. "But Joan turned me down with a bang last night."

Lady Splay plumped herself down on a chair in the hall.

"Oh, she is the most exasperating girl!" she cried. "Are you sure that you didn't misunderstand her?"

"Quite."

Lady Splay sat for a little while with her cheek propped upon her hand and her brows drawn together in a perplexity.

"It's very strange," she said at length. "For Joan meant you to ask her to marry you. She has been deliberately showing you that you weren't indifferent to her. Joan would never have done that if she hadn't meant you to ask her; or if she hadn't meant to accept you." She rose with a gesture of despair.

"I give it up. But oh, how I'd love to smack her!" and with that unrealisable desire burning furiously in her breast, Lady Splay marched into the breakfast-room. Dennis Brown and Jupp were already in their white flannels at the table. Miranda ran down into the room a moment afterwards.

"Joan's the lazy one," she said, looking round the table. She had got to bed at half-past four and looked as fresh as if she had slept the clock round. "What are you going to eat, Colonel Luttrell?"

Luttrell was standing by her at the side table, and as they inspected the dishes they were joined by Mr. Albany Todd.

"You were going it last night," Jupp called to him, with a note of respect in his voice. "For a top-weight you're the hottest thing I have seen in years. Stay another week in our academic company, and we shall discover so many excellent qualities in you that we shall be calling you Toddles."

"And then in the winter, I suppose, we'll go jumping together," said Mr. Albany Todd.

Like many another round and heavy man, Mr. Albany Todd was an exceptionally smooth dancer. His first dance on the night before he had owed to the consideration of his hostess. Sheer merit had filled the rest of his programme; and he sat down to breakfast now in a high good humour. Sir Chichester stumped into the room when the serious part of the meal was over, and all the newspapers already taken. He sat down in front of his kidney and bacon and grunted.

"Any news in The Times, Mr. Albany Todd?"

"No! No!" replied Mr. Albany Todd in an abstracted voice, with his head buried between the pages. "Would you like it, Sir Chichester?"

He showed no intention of handing it over; and Sir Chichester replied with as much indifference as he could assume,

"Oh, there's no hurry."

"No, we have all the morning, haven't we?" said Mr. Albany Todd pleasantly.

Sir Chichester ate some breakfast and drank some tea. "No news in your paper is there, Dennis, my boy?" he asked carelessly.

"Oh, isn't there just?" cried Dennis Brown. "Oppifex and Hampstead Darling are both running in the two-thirty at Windsor."

Sir Chichester grunted again.

"Racing! It's wonderful, Mr. Albany Todd, that you haven't got the disease during the week. There's a racing microbe at Rackham."

"But I am not so sure that I have escaped," returned Mr. Albany Todd. "I am tempted to go jumping in the winter."

"You must keep your old Lords out if you do," Harold Jupp urged earnestly. "Bring in your Dukes and your Marquises, and we poor men are all up the spout."

Thus they rattled on about the breakfast table; cigarettes were lighted, Miranda pushed back her chair; in a minute the room would be deserted. But Millie Splay uttered a little cry of horror, so sharp and startling that it froze each person into a sudden immobility. She dropped the newspaper upon her knees. Her hands flew to her face and covered it.

"What's the matter, Millie?" cried Sir Chichester, starting up in alarm. He hurried round the table. Some stab of physical pain had caused Millie's cry—he shared that conviction with every one else in the room. But Millie lifted her head quickly.

"Oh, it's intolerable!" she exclaimed. "Chichester, look at this!" She thrust the paper feverishly into his hands. Sir Chichester smoothed its crumpled leaves as he stood beside her.

"Ah, the Harpoon," he said, his fear quite allayed. He knew his wife to have a somewhat thinner skin than himself. "You are exaggerating no doubt, my dear. The Harpoon is a good paper and quite friendly."

But Millie Splay broke in upon his protestations in a voice as shrill as a scream.

"Oh, stop, Chichester, and look! There, in the third column! Just under your eyes!"

And Sir Chichester Splay read. As he read his face changed.

"Yes, that won't do," he said, very quietly. He carried the newspaper back with him to his chair and sat down again. He had the air of a man struck clean out of his wits. "That won't do," he repeated, and again, with a rush of angry blood into his face, "No, that won't do." It seemed that Sir Chichester's harmless little foible had suddenly received more than its due punishment.

The newspaper slipped from his fingers on to the floor, whilst he sat staring at the white tablecloth in front of him. But no sooner did Harold Jupp at his side make a movement to pick the paper up than Sir Chichester swooped down upon it in a flash.

"No!" he said. "No!" and he began to fold it up very carefully. "It's as Millie says, a rather intolerable invention which has crept into the social news. I must consider what steps we should take."

There was another at that table who was as disturbed as Sir Chichester and Lady Splay. Martin Hillyard knew nothing of the paragraph which had caused this consternation in his hosts; and he had asked no questions last night. But he remembered every word that Joan had said. She had seen Mario Escobar somewhere since leaving Rackham Park—that was certain; and Mario Escobar had demanded information. "Demanded" was the word which Joan had used. Mario Escobar was of the blackmailing type. Martin's heart was in his mouth.

"An invention about us here?" he asked.

"About one of us," answered Sir Chichester; and Martin dared ask no more.

Harry Luttrell, however, had none of Martin's knowledge to restrain him.

"In that case, sir, wouldn't it be wiser to read it now, aloud?" he suggested. "It can't be suppressed now. Sooner or later every one will hear of it."

Every one agreed except Hillyard. To him Harry Luttrell seemed wilfully to be rushing towards catastrophe.

"Yes ... yes," said Sir Chichester slowly. He unfolded his newspaper again and read; and of all those who listened no one was more amazed than Hillyard himself. Mario Escobar had no hand in this abominable work. For this is what Sir Chichester read:

"'A mysterious and tragic event has occurred at Rackham Park, where Sir Chichester Splay, the well-known Baronet——'" He broke off to observe, "Really, it's put quite civilly, Millie. It's a dreadful mistake, but so far as the wording of the Editor is concerned it's put really more considerately than I noticed at first."

"Oh, please go on," cried Millie.

"Very well, my dear," and he resumed—"where Sir Chichester Splay, the well-known Baronet is entertaining a small party. At an early hour this morning Mrs. Croyle, one of Sir Chichester's guests, died under strange circumstances."

Miranda uttered a little scream.

"Died!" she exclaimed.

"Yes, listen to this," said Sir Chichester. "Mrs. Croyle was discovered lying upon her side with her face bent above a glass of chloroform. The glass was supported between her pillows and Mrs. Croyle's fingers were still grasping it when she was discovered."

A gasp of indignation and horror ran round that breakfast table when Sir Chichester had finished.

"It's so atrociously circumstantial," said Mr. Albany Todd.

"Yes." Sir Chichester seized upon the point. "That's the really damnable point about it. That's real malice. This report will linger and live long after the denial and apology are published."

Lady Splay raised her head.

"I can't imagine who can have sent in such a cowardly lie. Enemies of us? Or enemies of Stella?"

"We can think that out afterwards, Lady Splay," said Harold Jupp. He was of a practical matter-of-fact mind and every one turned to listen to his suggestion. "The first thing to do is to get the report contradicted in the evening papers."

"Of course."

There was something to be done. All grasped at the doing of it in sheer relief—except one. For as the men rose, saying; one "I'll look after it"; and another "No, you'd better leave it to me," Luttrell's voice broke in upon them all, with a sort of dreadful fatality in the quiet sound of it.

"Where is Mrs. Croyle now?" he asked, and he was as white as the tablecloth in front of him.

There was no further movement towards the door. Slowly the men resumed their seats. A silence followed in which person after person looked at Stella's empty place as though an intensity of gaze would materialise her there. Miranda was the first bravely to break through it.

"She hasn't come down yet," she said, and Millie Splay seized upon the words.

"No, she never comes down for breakfast—never has all this week."

"Yes, that's true," returned Dennis Brown with an attempt at cheerfulness.

"Besides—what makes—the idea—impossible," said Sir Chichester, "is the publication this morning. There wouldn't have been time.... It's clearly an atrocious piece of malice." He was speaking with an obvious effort to convince himself that the monstrous thing was false. But he collapsed suddenly and once more discomfort and silence reigned in the room.

"Stella's not well," Millie Splay took up the tale. "That's why she is seldom seen before twelve. Those headaches of hers——" and suddenly she in her turn broke off. She leaned forward and pressed the electric bell upon the tablecloth beside her. That small trivial action brought its relief, lightened the vague cloud of misgiving which since Luttrell had spoken, had settled upon all.

"You rang, my lady," said Harper in the doorway.

"Yes, Harper. We were making some plans for a picnic to-day and we should like to know if Mrs. Croyle will join us. Can you find out from her maid whether she is awake?"

It was superbly done. There was not a quaver in Lady Splay's voice, not a sign of agitation in her manner.

"I'll inquire, my lady," replied Harper, and he left the room upon his errand.

"One thing is certain," Mr. Albany Todd broke in. "I was watching Harper over your shoulder, Lady Splay. He hasn't seen the paragraph. There's nothing known of it in the servants' hall."

Sir Chichester nodded, and Millie Splay observed:

"Harper's so imperturbable that he always inspires me with confidence. I feel that nothing out of the way could really happen whilst he was in the house." And her attitude of tension did greatly relax as she thought, illogically enough, of that stolid butler. A suggestion made by Martin Hillyard set them to work whilst they waited.

"Let us see if the report is in any of the other papers," and all immediately were busy with that examination—except one again. And that one again, Harry Luttrell. He sat in his place motionless, his eyes transfixed upon some vision of horror—as if he knew, Martin said to himself, yes, as if all these questions were futile, as if he knew.

But no other newspaper had printed the paragraph. They had hardly assured themselves of this fact, when Harper once more stood in the doorway.

"Mrs. Croyle gave orders last night to her maid that she was not to be disturbed until she rang, my lady," he said.

"And she has not rung?" Millie asked.

"No, my lady."

Miranda suddenly laughed in an odd fashion and swayed in her chair.

"Miranda!" Millie Splay brought her back to her self-control with a sharp cry of rebuke. Then she resumed to Harper.

"I will take the responsibility of waking Mrs. Croyle. Will you please, ask her maid to rouse Mrs. Croyle, and inquire whether she will join us this morning. We shall start at twelve."

"Very well, my lady."

There was no longer any pretence of ease amongst the people seated round the table. A queer panic passed from one to the other. They were awed by the imminence of dreadful uncomprehended things. They waited in silence, like people under a spell, and from somewhere in the house above their heads, there sounded a loud rapping upon a door. They held their breath, straining to hear the grate of a key in a lock, and the opening of that door. They heard only the knocking repeated and repeated again. It was followed by a sound of hurrying feet.

Jenny Prask ran down the great main staircase, and burst into the breakfast room, her face mottled with terror, her hand spread above her heart to still its wild beating.

"My lady! My lady! The door's locked. I can get no answer. I am afraid."

Sir Chichester rose abruptly from his chair. But Jenny Prask had more to say.

"The key had been removed. My lady, I looked through the keyhole. The lights are still burning in the room."

"Oh!"

Martin Hillyard had started to his feet. He remembered another time when the lights had been burning in Stella Croyle's room in the full blaze of a summer morning. She was sitting at the writing-table then. She had been sitting there all through the night making meaningless signs and figures upon the paper and the blotting-pad in front of her. The full significance of that flight of the unhappy Stella to the little hotel below the Hog's Back was now revealed to him. But between that morning and this, there was an enormous difference. She had opened her door then in answer to the knocking.

"We must get through that door, Lady Splay," he said. Sir Chichester was already up and about in a busy agitation.

"Yes, to be sure. It's just an ordinary lock. We shall easily find a key to fit it. I'll take Harper with me, and perhaps, Millie, you will come."

"Yes, I'll come," said Millie quietly. After her first shock of horror and surprise when she had first chanced upon the paragraph in the Harpoon, she had been completely, wonderfully, mistress of herself.

"The rest of you will please stay downstairs," said Sir Chichester, as he removed the key from the door of the room. Jenny Prask was not thus to be disposed of.

"Oh, my lady, I must go up too!" she cried, twisting her hands together. "Mrs. Croyle was always very kind to me, poor lady. I must come!"

"She won't keep her head," Sir Chichester objected, who was fast losing his. But Milly Splay laid her hand upon the girl's arm.

"Yes, you shall come with us, Jenny," she said gently, and the four of them moved out of the room.

The others followed them as far as the hall, and stood grouped at the foot of the staircase.

"Miranda, would you like to go out into the air?" Dennis Brown asked with solicitude of his wife.

"No, dear, I am all right. I—oh, poor woman!" and with a sob she dropped her face in her hands.

"Hush!" Luttrell called sharply for silence, and a moment afterwards, a loud shrill scream rent the air like lightning.

Miranda cowered from it.

"Jenny Prask!" said Hillyard.

"Then—then—the news is true," faltered Miranda, and she would have fallen but for the arm of her husband about her waist.

They waited until Sir Chichester came down the stairs to them. He was shaken and trembling. He, the spectator of dramas, was now a character in one most tragically enacted under his own roof.

"The report is true to the letter," he said in a low voice. "Dennis, will you go for McKerrel, the doctor. You know his house in Midhurst. Will you take your car, and bring him back. There is nothing more that we can do until he comes." He stood for a little while by the table in the hall, staring down at it, and taking particular note of its grain.

"A curious thing," he said. "The key of her room is missing altogether."

To no one did it come at this moment that the disappearance of the key was to prove a point of vast importance. No one made any comment, and Sir Chichester fell to silence again. "She looked like a child sleeping," he said at length, "a child without a care."

Then he sat down and took the newspaper from his pocket. Mr. Albany Todd suddenly advanced to Harry Luttrell. He had been no less observant than Martin Hillyard.

"You alone, Colonel Luttrell," he said, "were not surprised."

"I was not," answered Harry frankly. "I was shocked, but not surprised. For I knew Mrs. Croyle at a time when she was so tormented that she could not sleep at all. During that time she learnt to take drugs, and especially that drug in precisely that way that the newspaper described."

The men drifted out of the hall on to the lawn, leaving Sir Chichester brooding above the outspread sheets of the Harpoon. Here was the insoluble sinister question to which somehow he had to find an answer. Stella Croyle died late last night, in the country, at Rackham Park; and yet in this very morning's issue of the newspaper, her death with every circumstance and detail was truthfully recorded, hours before it was even known by anybody in the house itself.

"How can that be?" Sir Chichester exclaimed in despair. "How can it be?"