The Summons (novel)/XXXI

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After a time their thoughts reverted to the living.

"There's Joan," said Millie Splay. "Jenny Prask hates her. She means to drag her into some scandal."

"If she can," said Martin. He went out into the hall and returned with the key of Stella Croyle's room. He held it up before them all.

"This key was found on the lawn outside the library window this morning by Luttrell. Jenny has never referred to it since she ran downstairs this morning crying out that the key was not in the lock. It was lying on the hall table all through the time when Sir Chichester was questioning her, and she said never a word about it. She was much too clever. But she saw it. I was watching her when she did see it. There was no concealing the swift look of satisfaction which flashed across her face. I haven't a doubt that she herself dropped the key where it was found."

"Nor I," Luttrell agreed with a despairing vehemence, "but we can't prove it. Jenny Prask is going to know nothing of that key. 'No, no, no, no!' she is going to say, 'Ask Miss Whitworth! Miss Whitworth came back from Harrel. Miss Whitworth was the last person to see Mrs. Croyle alive. Ask her!' It is Jenny Prask or Miss Whitworth. We are up against that alternative all the time. And Jenny holds all the cards. For she knows, damn her, what happened here last night."

"She did hold all the cards this morning," Hillyard corrected. "She doesn't now. Look at this key! There was a heavy dew last night. It was wet underfoot in the garden at Harrel."

"Yes," said Millie.

"How is it then that there's no rust upon the key?" and as he asked the question he twirled the key so that the light flashed upon stem and wards until they shone like silver. "No, this key was placed where you found it, Luttrell, not last night, but this morning after the sun had dried the grass."

"But we came home by daylight," Sir Chichester interposed. "They might argue that Joan might have slipped downstairs before she went to bed, with the key in her hand."

"But she wouldn't have chosen that spot in front of the library window. She might have flung it from her window, she might conceivably have slipped round the house and laid it under Mrs. Croyle's window. But to place it in front of the library to which room she returned from Harrel—no."

"Yes," said Sir Chichester doubtfully. "I see. Joan can make good that point. Yes, she can explain that." And Millie Splay broke in with impatience:

"Explain it! Of course. But what we want is to avoid that she should have to explain anything, that she should be called as a witness at all!"

There lay the point of trouble. To it, they came ceaselessly back, revolving in the circle of their vain argument. Joan had something to conceal, and Jenny Prask was determined that she should disclose it, and Jenny Prask held the means by which to force her.

"But that's just what I am driving at," continued Martin. "We can't afford to be gentle here. There's no lie Jenny Prask wouldn't tell to force Joan into the witness box. We have got to deal relentlessly with Jenny Prask. A woman's voice spoke from this house over the telephone to London at a quarter-past twelve last night, and said that Stella was dead. Whose voice? Not Joan's. Joan was having supper with Luttrell at twelve o'clock. I saw her, others, too, saw her of course. Whose voice then? Stella's, as we say—as we know. But if not Stella's, as Jenny Prask says—why then there is only one other woman's voice which could have given the news."

"Jenny's," cried Millie with a sudden upspring of hope.

"Yes, Jenny Prask's."

Millie Splay rose from her chair swiftly and rang the bell; and when Harper answered it, she said:

"Will you ask Jenny to come here?"

"Now, my lady?"

"Now."

Harper went out of the room and Millie turned again to her friends.

"Will you leave this to me?" she asked.

Sir Chichester was inclined to demur. A few deft and pointed questions, very clear, such as might naturally occur to Hillyard or Luttrell, or Sir Chichester himself might come in usefully to put the polish, as it were, on Millie's spade work. Harry Luttrell smiled grimly.

"We didn't exactly cover ourselves with glory this morning," he said. "I think that we had better leave it to Lady Splay."

Sir Chichester reluctantly consented, and they all waited anxiously for Jenny's appearance. That she would fight to the last no one doubted. Would she fight even to her own danger?

Jenny came into the room, quietly respectful, and without a trace of apprehension.

"You sent for me, my lady."

"Yes, Jenny."

Jenny closed the door and came forward to the table.

"Do you still persist in your story of this morning?" Lady Splay asked.

"Yes, my lady."

"You did not see your mistress at all after Miss Whitworth had talked with her in the library?"

"No, my lady."

"Jenny, I advise you to be quite sure before you speak."

"I am not to be frightened, my lady," said Jenny Prask, with a spot of bright colour showing suddenly in her cheeks.

"I am not trying to frighten you," Millie Splay returned. "But some unexpected news has reached us which, if you persist, will place you in an awkward position."

Jenny Prask smiled. She turned again to the door.

"Is that all, my lady?"

"You had better hear what the news is."

"As you please, my lady."

Jenny stopped and resumed her position.

"The announcement of Mrs. Croyle's death appeared in the Harpoon this morning. The news was left at the Harpoon office by a chauffeur with a private car at midnight—Mrs. Croyle's car."

"It never left the garage last night," said Jenny fiercely.

"You know that for certain?"

"I am engaged to the chauffeur," she replied with a smile; and Millie Splay looked sharply up.

"Oh," she murmured slowly, after a pause. "Thank you, Jenny. Yes, thank you."

The quiet satisfaction of Millie Splay's voice puzzled Jenny and troubled her security. She watched Lady Splay warily. From that moment her assurance faltered, and with the loss of her ease, she lost something, too, of her respectful manner. A note of impertinence became audible.

"Very happy, I'm sure," she said.

"The motor-car delivered the message at midnight," Lady Splay resumed, "and—this is what I ask your attention to, Jenny—the editor, in order to obtain corroboration of the message before he inserted it in his paper, rang up Rackham Park."

Lady Splay paused for Jenny's comment, but none was uttered then. Jenny was listening with a concentration of all her thoughts. Here was a new fact of which she was ignorant, creeping into the affair. Whither did it lead? Did it strike her weapon from her hand? Upset her fine plan of avenging her dear mistress's most unhappy life? She would not believe it.

"He rang up Rackham Park—mark the time, Jenny—at a few minutes after twelve," said Lady Splay impressively, and Jenny's uneasiness was markedly increased.

"Fancy that!" she returned flippantly. "But I don't see, my lady, what that has to do with me."

"You will see, Jenny," Lady Splay continued with gentleness. "He got an answer."

Jenny turned that announcement over in her mind.

"An answer, did he?"

"Yes, Jenny, and an answer in a woman's voice."

A startled cry broke from the lips of Jenny Prask. Her cheeks blanched and horror stared suddenly from her eyes. She understood whose voice it must have been which answered the question from London. Before her, too, the pitiful vision of the lonely woman waiting for the shrill summons of the telephone bell to close the door of life upon her, rose clear; and such a flood of grief and compassion welled up in her as choked her utterance.

"Oh!" she whispered, moaning.

"Whose voice was it, Jenny?"

At the question Jenny rallied. All the more dearly because of that vision, should Joan Whitworth pay, the shining armour of her young beauty be pierced, her pride be humbled, her indifference turned to shame.

"I can't think, my lady—unless it was Miss Whitworth's."

"I asked you to mark the time, Jenny. A few minutes after midnight. Miss Whitworth was at that moment in the supper-room at Harrel. She was seen there. The woman's voice which answered was either Mrs. Croyle's or yours."

Nothing could have been quieter or gentler than Millie Splay's utterance. But it was like a searing iron to the shoulders of Jenny Prask.

"Mine!" The word was launched in a cry of incredulous anger. "It wasn't mine. Oh, as if I would do such a thing! The idea! Well, I never did!"

"I don't believe it was yours, Jenny," said Millie Splay.

"Granted, I'm sure," returned Jenny Prask, tossing her head.

"But how many people will agree with me?" Millie Splay went on.

"I don't care, my lady."

"Don't you? You will, Jenny," said Millie in a hard and biting tone which contrasted violently with the smoothness of her earlier questions. "You are trying, very maliciously, to do a great injury to a young girl who had never a thought of hurting your mistress, and you have only succeeded in placing yourself in real danger."

Jenny tried to laugh contemptuously.

"Me in danger! Goodness me, what next, I wonder?"

"Just listen how your story works out, Jenny," and Millie Splay set it out succinctly step by step.

"Mrs. Croyle never took chloroform as a drug. Mrs. Croyle had no troubles. Mrs. Croyle was quite gay this week. Yet she was found dead with a glass of chloroform arranged between her pillows, so that the fumes must kill her—and Jenny Prask was her maid. A motor-car took the news of Mrs. Croyle's death to London before it had occurred and took the news from Rackham Park. There was only one motor-car in the garage—Mrs. Croyle's—and Mrs. Croyle's chauffeur was engaged to Jenny Prask, Mrs. Croyle's maid. London then telephones to Rackham Park for corroboration of the news, and a woman's voice confirms it—an hour before it was true. There are only two women to choose from, Mrs. Croyle and Jenny Prask, her maid. But since Mrs. Croyle never took drugs, and had no troubles or thoughts of suicide and was quite gay, it follows that Jenny Prask——"

At this point Jenny interrupted in a voice in which fear was now very distinctly audible. "Why, you can't mean—Oh, my lady, you are telling me that—oh!"

"Yes, it begins to look black, Jenny, but I am not at the end," Millie Splay continued implacably. Jenny was not the only woman in that house who could fight if her darling was attacked. "You proceed to direct suspicion at a young girl with the statement that you never saw your mistress after half past nine that night or helped her to undress; and to complete your treachery, you take the key of Mrs. Croyle's door which you found inside her room this morning, and threw it where it may avert inquiry from you and point it against another."

Jenny Prask flinched. The conviction with which Lady Splay announced as a fact the opinion of the small conclave about the table quite deceived her.

"So you know about the key?" she said sullenly. And about the table ran a little quiver of relief. With that question, Jenny Prask had delivered herself into their hands.

"Yes."

Jenny stood with a mutinous face and silent lips. Lady Splay had marshalled in their order the items of the case which would be made against her, if she persisted in her lie. How would she receive them? Persist, reckless of her own overthrow, so long as she overthrew Joan Whitworth too? Or surrender angrily? The four people watched for her answer with anxiety; and it was given in a way which they least expected. For Jenny covered her face with her hands, her shoulders began to heave and great tears burst out between her fingers and trickled down the backs of her hands.

"It's unbearable," she sobbed. "I would have given my life for her—that's the truth. Oh, I know that most maids serve their mistresses for what they can get out of them. But she was so kind to me—wherever she went she was thoughtful of my comfort. Oh, if I had guessed what she meant to do! And I might have!"

The truth came out now. Stella Croyle had given the letter to Jenny, and Jenny herself had taken it to the garage and sent the chauffeur off upon his journey. She had no idea of what the letter contained. Stella was in the habit of inhaling chloroform; she carried a bottle of it in her dressing-case—a bottle which Jenny had taken secretly from the room and smashed into atoms after Doctor McKerrel's departure. She had already conceived her plan to involve Joan in so much suspicion that she must needs openly confess that she had returned from Harrel to meet Mario Escobar in the empty house.

"Mario Escobar!" Millie Splay exclaimed. "It was he." She turned pale. Sir Charles Hardiman had spoken frankly to her of Escobar. A creature of the shadows—it was rumored that he lived on the blackmailing of women. Joan was not out of the wood then! Martin Hillyard was quick to appease her fears.

"He will not trouble you," and when Jenny had gone from the room he added, "Mario Escobar was arrested this morning. He will be interned till the end of the war and deported afterwards."

Lady Splay rose, her face bright with relief.

"Thank you," she said warmly to Hillyard. "I am going up to Joan." At the door she stopped to add, "Now that it's over, I don't mind telling you that I admire Jenny Prask. Out-and-out loyalty like hers is not so common that we can think lightly of it."

Martin Hillyard turned to Sir Chichester.

"And now, if you will allow me, I will open my box of cigarettes."

Harry Luttrell went back to his depot the next morning, without seeing Joan again. Millicent Splay wrote to him during the next week. The inquest had been confined within its proper limits. Jenny Prask had spoken the truth in the witness box, and from beginning to end there had been no mention of Joan or Mario Escobar. A verdict of temporary insanity had been returned, and Stella now lay in the village churchyard. Harry Luttrell drew a breath of relief and turned to his work. For six weeks his days and nights were full; and then came twenty-four hours' leave and a swift journey into Sussex. He arrived at Rackham Park in the dusk of the evening. By a good chance he found Joan with Millie Splay and Sir Chichester alone.

Sir Chichester welcomed him with cordiality.

"My dear fellow, I am delighted to see you. You will stay the night, of course."

"No," Harry answered. "I must get back to London this evening."

He took a cup of tea, and Sir Chichester, obtuse to the warning glances of his wife, plunged into an account of the events which had followed his departure.

"I drew out a statement. Nothing could have been more concise, the coroner said. What's the matter, Millie? Why don't you leave me alone? Oh—ah—yes," and he hummed a little and spluttered a little, and then with an air of the subtlest craft he remarked, "There are those plans for the new pig-sties, Millie, which I am anxious to show you."

He was manœuvred at last from the room. Harry Luttrell and Joan Whitworth were left standing opposite to one another in the room.

"Joan," Harry Luttrell said, "in ten days I go back to France."

With a queer little stumble and her hands fluttering out she went towards him blinded by a rush of tears.