The Summons (novel)/XXXII

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Between the North and South Downs in the east of Sussex lies a wide tract of pleasant homely country which, during certain months of those years, was subject to a strange phenomenon. Listen on a still day when the clouds were low, or at night when the birds were all asleep, and you heard a faint, soft thud, so very faint that it was rather a convulsion of the air than an actual sound. Fancy might paint it as the tap of an enormous muffled drum beaten at a giant's funeral leagues and leagues away. It was not the roll of thunder. There was no crash, however distant, along the sky. It was just the one soft impact with a suggestion of earth-wide portentous force; and an interval followed; and the blurred sound again. The dwellers in those parts, who had sons and husbands at the war, made up no fancies to explain it. They listened with a sinking of the heart; for what they heard was the roar of the British guns at Ypres.

Into this country Martin Hillyard drove a small motor-car on a day of October two years afterwards. Until this week he had not set foot in his country of the soft grey skies since he had left Rackham Park. He had hurried down to Rackham as soon as he had reported to his Chief, but not with the high anticipation of old days. In what spirit would he find his friends? How would Joan meet him? For sorrow had marked her cross upon the door of that house as upon so many others in the land.

Martin had arrived before luncheon.

"Joan is hunting to-day," said Millie, "on the other side of the county. She will catch a train back."

"I can fetch her," Hillyard returned. "She is well?"

"Yes. She was overworked and ordered a rest. She has been with us a fortnight and is better. She was very grateful for your letters. She sent you a telegram because she could not bear to write."

Martin had understood that. He had had little news of her during the two years—a few lines about Harry in the crowded obituaries of the newspapers after the attack in 1917 on the Messines Ridge, where he met his death, and six months afterwards the announcement that a son was born.

"Joan's distress was terrible," said Millie. "At first she refused to believe that Harry was killed. He was reported as 'missing' for weeks; and during those weeks Joan, with a confident face—whatever failings of the heart beset her during the night vigils none ever knew—daily sought for news of him at the Red Cross office at Devonshire House. There had been the usual rumours. One officer in one prison camp had heard of Harry Luttrell in another. A sergeant had seen him wounded, not mortally. A bullet had struck him in the foot. Joan lived upon these rumours. Finally proof came—proof irrefutable.

"Joan collapsed then," said Millie Splay. "We brought her down here and put her to bed. She cried—oh, day and night!—she who never cried! We were afraid for her—afraid for the child that was coming."

Millie Splay smiled wistfully. "She had just two weeks with Harry. They were married before he left for France in 'sixteen, and then had another week together in the January of 'seventeen at his house in the Clayford country. That was all." Millie Splay was silent for a few minutes. Then she resumed cheerfully:

"But she is better now. She will talk of him, indeed, likes at times to talk of him; she is comforted by it, and the boy"—Millie's face became radiant—"the boy is splendid. You shall see him."

Martin was shown the boy. He seemed to him much like any other boy of his age, but such remarkable things in the way of avoirdupois poundage and teething, serenity of temper and quickness of apprehension were explained to him that he felt that he must be in the presence of a prodigy.

"Chichester will want to see you. He is in the library. He is Chairman of our Food Committee. You may have seen it in the papers," said Millie with a smile. "He is back in the papers again, you know."

"Good. Then he won't object to me smoking a cigarette," said Martin.

He motored over in the afternoon to the house on the other side of Sussex where he was to find Joan. He drove her away with him, and as they came to the top of a little crest in the flat country, Martin stopped the car and looked about him.

"I never cease to be surprised by the beauty of this country when I come home to it."

"Yes, but I wish that would stop."

That was the dull and muffled boom of the great guns across the sea. They sat and listened to it in silence.

"There it comes again!" said Joan in a quiet voice. "Oh, I do wish it would stop! What has happened to me, has happened to enough of us."

As Millie had said, she was glad to talk of Harry Luttrell to his friends; and she talked simply and naturally, with a little note of wistfulness heard in all the words.

"We were going to have a small house in London and spend our time between it and the old Manor at Clayford.... Harry had seen the house.... He was always writing that I must watch for it to come into the market.... It had a brass front door. There we should be. We could go out when we wished, and when we wished we could be snug behind our own brass door." Joan laughed simply and lovingly as she spoke. Hillyard had never seen her more beautiful than she was at this moment. If grief had taken from her just the high brilliancy of her beauty, it had added to it a most appealing tenderness.

"After all," she said again, "Harry fulfilled himself. I love to think of that. The ambition of his life—young as he was he saw it realized and helped—more than all others, except perhaps one old Colonel—to realise it. And he left me a son ... to carry on.... There will be no stigma on the Clayfords when my boy gets his commission. Won't I tell him why? Won't I just tell him!"

And the soft October evening closed in upon them as they drove.