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Title: Fear Stalks the Village Author: Ethel Lina White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402101h.html Language: English Date first posted: May 2014 Most recent update: Mar 2017 This eBook was produced by Colin Choat and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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THE village was beautiful. It was enfolded in a hollow of the Downs, and wrapped up snugly—first, in a floral shawl of gardens, and then, in a great green shawl of fields. Lilies and lavender grew in abundance. Bees clustered over sweet-scented herbs with the hum of a myriad spinning-wheels.
Although the cottages which lined the cobbled street were perfect specimens of Tudor architecture, the large houses on the green were, chiefly, of later date. The exception was a mellow Elizabethan mansion—'Spout Manor', on Miss Asprey's printed note-paper—but known locally by its original name of 'The Spout'. This was the residence of Miss Decima Asprey, the queen of the village—an elderly spinster of beautiful appearance and character, and possessed of the essential private means.
Miss Asprey's subjects were not only well-bred and charming, but endowed with such charity that there was no poverty or unemployment in the village. The ladies had not to grapple with a servant problem, which oiled the wheels of hospitality. If family feuds existed, they were not advertised, and private lives were shielded by drawn blinds. Consequently, the social tone was fragrant as rosemary, and scandal nearly as rare as a unicorn.
A perfect spot. Viewed from an airplane, by day, it resembled a black-and-white plaster model of a Tudor village, under a glass case. At night, however, when its lights began to glow faintly, it was like some ancient vessel, with barnacled hull and figure-head, riding in the peace of a forgotten port.
It was a spot which was rarely visited. There was no railway station, no floating population, and a stagnant birth-rate. Even Death seldom knocked at its doors, for the natives resented the mere idea of dying in such a delightful place.
But local prejudice, which had discouraged the Old Gentleman with the Scythe, was not strong enough to bar the triumphant progress of the motor-bus. Denied passage through its streets, the reeling green monster dropped its fares just outside the village, before it looped back to the London road.
One afternoon, in early summer, it brought a woman novelist from London—a thin, fashionable, attractive person, who wrote sensational serials, in order to live, although sometimes, when slumbering dreams stirred, she questioned their necessity. Although her high French heels seemed literally wrenched from city pavements, she had made the sacrifice in order to visit a friend, Joan Brook, who was companion to a local lady.
At the invitation of Lady d'Arcy—Joan's employer—the novelist had been entertained at the Court, a massive biscuit-hued Georgian pile, surrounded with lush parkland, and about a mile from the village. During their tea they had both been conscious of mangled strands of friendship, as they talked of impersonal matters.
Each viewed the other from the detached standard of criticism. Joan thought her friend's lips suggested that she had been affectionately kissing a freshly-painted pillar-box, while the novelist considered that the girl had run to seed badly. But when they walked back to the village they had been insensibly welded together in harmony, by the waving beauty of the fields, ripening for hay and steeped in the glow of sunset. Joan's sunburnt face proclaimed the fact that she never wore a hat, but the novelist, too, took off her tiny mesh of crocheted silk, without a thought of the set of her wave. Smoking as they sauntered, they entered the shady tunnel of the Quaker's Walk, half a mile of chestnut avenue.
"Like it?" asked the novelist.
"Love it." Joan's blue eyes glowed. "I know you think I'm buried. But this corpse hopes the Trump won't sound just yet. I've never been so happy."
"Pray it may last...Any social life?"
"Tennis and garden-parties, later on. The three big houses are the Hall, the Towers and the Court. The Court is ours. The Squire lives at the Hall. The rich people of the neighbourhood live at the Towers, but they're always away."
"Two. The parson and Major Blair. The Major's a manly man and he belongs to Vivian Sheriff, the Squire's daughter. Vivian and I are the only girls here."
The novelist raised her painted butterfly brows.
"Let me get this straight," she said. "There's the Vivian-girl and the biological specimen. That leaves you and the padre. What's he like?"
"Rather a thrill. Big and black, with a voice like a gong. You should hear him hammer and bellow on Sundays. But I believe he's the genuine thing."
"Going to marry him?"
Joan was conscious of a slight recoil, so that she had to remind herself of her former standard of modern frankness.
"If he doesn't break away, I may," she replied. "After all, I've had to submit meekly to employers all my life, and I'd like to do some bossing myself, for a change. Purely, can't you see me telling the cottagers to boil their potatoes in their skins, and not to have any more babies?"
"I'd believe anything of you, Brook," remarked her friend. "By the way, what's your Lady d'Arcy like?"
"Big and vague, and drifts about aimlessly. I've nothing to do but to act as some sort of anchor. I get a big salary which I can't spend here. But it's not wasted at home. They're nearly sunk, bless 'em."
The novelist's face was not painted to be revealing, but she nodded to show her sympathy with the prevailing economic depression as she studied Joan through her monocle. The girl was tall and strong, with a face expressive of character, and fearless eyes. She wore a sleeveless white tennis-frock and silver slave-bangles on her brown arms. Although she had grown more solid, she seemed to be of compact virtues and charm.
"Well? The verdict?" asked Joan.
"Guilty!" replied her friend. "You're a last year's model. You've put on weight. Your lips look indecently like lips. And—darling, I'm jealous as hell."
"I know I wouldn't swap jobs with you." Joan gave a contented laugh. "This is really a marvellous place, Purley. Everyone has a pedigree and a private income. Everyone's kind. And, my dear, everyone's married."
"I get it. No love-babies, no drains. Gosh, what a picture!" As the two women emerged from the gloom of the avenue they saw the village with its ancient cottages and choked flower-gardens, all steeped in the carnation glow of sunset. At each step they seemed to turn a fresh page of a fairy-tale, with illuminated borders jumbled with box-edging, sage, damson-trees, beehives and a patchwork quilt of peonies, pinks and pansies. Golden girls and boys skipped in the street, while cats were growing mysterious as they awaited the herald—twilight. Soon their real life would begin.
The novelist surrendered herself to the enchantment, although her lip curled at evidence of the survival of the Feudal System, for all the children bobbed to the 'quality'.
As they lingered on the green, Joan pointed to a solid house of buff stucco, adorned with a clock-tower.
"That's 'Clock House'," she said. "The Scudamores live there. I hope we'll meet them, for they're types. They're terribly nice and terribly happily-married. I call them 'The Spirit of the Village'. You'd find them 'Copy'."
The novelist stifled her groan, as Joan proceeded to do the honours of the village. She waved her cigarette towards a grey stone house which was backed by the Norman church.
"The Rectory. My future home." She forced the note of impudence. "Just behind us is the doctor's house, but the walls hide it. It's Queen Anne and rather sweet. He and his wife always play tennis after dinner. You can hear them."
As they stood, listening, the dull thuds behind the rose-red bricks mingled with the faint laughter of children and the cawing of rooks in the elms. Suddenly, the novelist fell prostrate before the cumulative spell of the village.
"It's perfect," she declared. "I wonder if I could rent a cottage for the summer."
"If you did you'd never go back to London," Joan told her. "Nobody ever goes away, not even for holidays. Look out. Here are the Scudamores."
She guiltily hid her cigarette behind her back, as a middle-aged couple advanced, arm-in-arm, over the cobbles. The man had a clean-shaven, long-lipped, legal face, to proclaim him a lawyer with the best County connection, together with a nose which had been in his family for centuries.
His wife was also tall, and possessed of bleached beauty and elegance. Her luxuriant fair hair was fast fading to grey, and her draperies were indefinitely grey-green in colour, like a glacier-fed river.
She greeted Lady d'Arcy's companion with a gracious bow, but did not even glance at her companion.
"She didn't really like me," murmured the novelist when the Scudamores had passed. "Do I look like a fallen woman? Tell her I'm respectable, if painted."
"My dear," gurgled Joan, "she's so charitable that she would not take a chance of disliking you. That's why she wouldn't look. She's a bit overwhelming, but a real Christian...I say, Purley."
As Joan paused and regarded her friend intently, the novelist braced herself to meet the inevitable question.
"Can't you make a story out of this village?"
"You would say that." The novelist's tone was acid. "But, my good woman, what possible copy could I find here? Jane Austen's beaten me to Cranford. The truth is, my child, if there'd been no Fall, there'd be no Publishers and no Lending Libraries."
"But there must be a story everywhere," persisted Joan.
"Not for me."
"Oh, come, Purley, have a shot at it. I want to be amused."
The novelist puckered up her painted lips in a whimsical smile.
"All right," she conceded. "But I'll have to follow my own special line. Something like this. This village seems an earthly paradise, with a population of kindly gracious souls. But the flowers are growing on slime. When twilight falls, they light their lamps and draw down their blinds. And then—when no one can see them they lead their real lives."
"For example?" urged Joan.
"Well, to begin with, that highly-respectable married couple, who disapproved of my lips, are not really married to each other, but are living in sin."
"You priceless chump. Tell me the story of their double life."
"No, I must outline my synopsis first and collect my characters...Hum. The Parsonage is hidden by those discreet yews, so the Rector hasn't got to wait until dark. I think, at this moment, he's throwing a bottle-and-pyjama party with some very hot ladies from town. As for your doctor, he's slowly poisoning his wife, and their tennis is his opportunity. When they've finished their game, she'll be thirsty, and her devoted husband will see to it that she gets the right quencher. Something safe, and very painful."
"Ugh," grimaced Joan. "When I'm Mrs. Padre, I'll ban your novels in our village library."
Once again she was urged to speak recklessly of her designs on the Rector, from a clouded feeling that she was protecting herself from the unforgivable charge of sentiment. Lighting another cigarette, she strolled after her friend, who was peering through the scrolls of lacey iron-work which ornamented the gates of 'The Spout'.
In the distance, against a background of laurels, the novelist saw an austere, silver-haired woman, seated on a bench beside a lily-pond. Her hands were clasped and her eyes raised as though in meditation. She held her pose so rigidly that the folds of her white gown appeared to be carven marble, creating the illusion of an enshrined saint.
But even as the novelist readjusted her monocle, the statue dissolved into life at a touch of warm humanity. Down the yew alley, pottered a little dumpy woman, carrying a glass of milk on a tray. The tall lady patted her shoulders, in thanks, and then drained the glass hastily, as though in obedience to the laws of nutrition, but with a supreme contempt for digestion.
When she walked towards the house, followed by her companion, the difference in their heights was ludicrous, for she was above the usual stature, while her employee was below the average.
"Miss Asprey and her companion, Miss Mack," whispered Joan. "She's an earthly saint, and so good she's not quite human. Miss Mack simply worships her, and runs after her like a little dog."
"Then they shall go into my serial," announced the novelist. "Listen. In reality, your pure, saintly Miss Asprey is a secret sadist. Directly the blinds are drawn, she will begin to torture her poor little companion."
"Can you help being a fool?" asked Joan unkindly.
"You asked for this story, didn't you? Now I'll outline the plot, while we're waiting to go to the bus."
Leaning against the white posts which ringed the green, Joan listened dreamily to her friend's sensational story, which foamed with melodramatic incidents. But even while she laughed at its utter absurdity, she resented it, subconsciously, as an outrage.
'What's the matter with me?' she wondered. 'Purley's really terribly funny. It's only a leg-pull. But—it's cheap.'
She was grateful when her friend grew tired, and glanced at her watch.
"Better be pushing on," she remarked. "Although I just hate to leave this."
The grass was like water-silk, mottled with bars of sunken gold and the cottages rocked through a lavender mist. Twilight was veiling the street as they walked towards the inn, but there were no lights in the village. People sat at open windows, or hung over gates, exchanging greetings and gossip with passers-by. Everyone seemed to be sharing the universal friendship of this interval 'between the lights'.
The moment of withdrawal was at hand.
Presently the novelist stopped, arrested by the sight of a dim, low, lath-and-plaster building, enclosed within a paved garden.
"Gosh, I can smell mildew," she said. "I take it, that is the oldest house in the village."
"I knew you'd make that mistake," exulted Joan. "Every tripper does. That's only a fake-antique, built from fragments of old barns, and it's got every sort of modern improvement. I love it, but the village resents it, especially as its owner is a newcomer. She's only been here eleven years."
"Who's the lucky woman?" sighed the novelist.
"Our local novelist—Miss Julia Corner."
Instantly the writer registered that automatic nonrecognition of her profession towards other members of the tribe.
"Never heard of her. What name does she write under?"
"Her own, and she does jolly well, too. She's a dear old Jumbo, with a perfectly grim sense of humour."
"Hum." The novelist thought of her own tiny mansion-flat. "Evidently, she makes virtue pay. Any special line?"
"Yes, she's the President of our local Temperance Society, and she makes the children sign the Pledge."
"Then, to pay her out for having a better house than me, I'll put her into my serial. She's a secret drinker and hides a bottle of whisky in her wardrobe. At this minute, she is lying under the bed, dead drunk."
Even as she spoke, the oaken door, white with age, was opened, and a massive figure blocked the entry, waving a teapot, in welcome.
"Come in for a cup of tea," she shouted.
"Sorry, but we're catching the bus," called Joan.
Instantly Miss Corner swayed down the flagged path to the garden gate, moving with the deceptive speed of an elephant. The writer from London saw a big red face, radiant with good-nature, bobbed iron-grey hair—cut in a fringe—and beaming eyes behind large horn-rimmed spectacles. Miss Corner wore an infantile Buster Brown blouse, adorned with wide collar and ribbon bow, and a grey tweed skirt.
"I'm just writing a short tale for the Christmas Number of a Boy's Annual," she announced proudly. "It's commissioned, of course. I take a generic interest in boys. Won't you come in and be introduced to my collaborator—Captain Kettle?"
She laughed heartily at her joke, but the source of her amusement was the stranger's painted lips and monocle. When Joan introduced her friend, she held out her big hand cordially.
"A fellow writer?" she exclaimed. "What name do you write under?"
"I'm sorry, but we mustn't stop," said Joan hastily.
"Pity," remarked Miss Corner. "I should love to talk shop. For instance, do you let yourself be grabbed by your characters, or do you go out deliberately to collect copy?"
"She's already found a story in this village," said Joan.
"Then I presume it's for your Parish Magazine," grinned Miss Corner. "Well, since you persist in going, I must return to my boys. Good-bye. Give my love to my special boy—Eros."
They heard her chuckle rumbling from behind the sweet-briar hedge as they walked away.
"What'd you think of her?" asked Joan.
The novelist did not reply, for she was suddenly gripped with overwhelming nostalgia. At that moment, London seemed so far away—a place to which she would never return. She felt as though she were being held by the village—no longer a sunset pool of beauty—but a witched, forgotten spot of whispers, and echoes, and old musty twilight stories.
"Are we far from the inn?" she asked wearily.
"No. Nearly there."
"Good. I could do with a gin-and-it."
The King's Head was a long, low, ancient building, with the faded oil-painting of some dead monarch pendant above its doorway. A faint glow from a hanging ironwork lantern flickered feebly on peeling plaster walls and tiny lattice windows. The writer flopped down on an old settle and stared out at the spread of dark silent country.
"Didn't you want a drink?" asked Joan hospitably.
"No. Desire is dead."
The friends sat in silence, which was presently broken by the novelist.
"Do people ever try to get away from here?" she asked.
"They don't want to," replied Joan. "Miss Asprey has a housemaid—Ada—who's the most beautiful girl I've seen. You'd think she'd want to go on the Stage or the Films, but her only ambition is to be Miss Asprey's parlourmaid. It would take about a ton of dynamite to shift her to Hollywood."
The writer made no comment, for her very mind seemed root-bound.
And then—suddenly—the miracle happened. Two golden sparks appeared in the distance, while a murmur vibrated through the darkness. As they watched, the lights grew brighter and larger, and then were lost in a dip of the landscape. But the hum deepened into a snarl, and round the bend of the road reeled a green monster motor-bus, with brilliant windows and the magic name 'LONDON' glowing in flaming letters.
It looked so utterly incongruous in that forsaken wilderness, as to appear unreal, like a vision of the Mechanical Age of the Future projected before the incredulous vision of some dreamer in the Past.
At the sight of it, the novelist's heart leaped in welcome. London. It reminded her that she was going back to grime and noise—to pavements and city lights. In her joy, she was swept away on a wave of insincere enthusiasm.
"I've loved every minute," she declared. "Good thing I'm going back, or the village might have got me, too."
"Too?" echoed Joan. "What d'you mean by that?"
The writer looked at her friend and was suddenly aware of the origin of her change.
"You're in love, Brooky," she said accusingly. "The village can't get you, because a man's got in first. Well, good-bye. Don't forget to tell me how my serial works out."
"I won't," promised Joan. "Shame you've got to go back."
"A shattering shame."
Joan was guiltily conscious of relief as she watched her friend climb briskly into the bus. In her turn, the novelist sank gratefully into her seat, and waved her hand in farewell. She was leaving peace and beauty, and she left them gladly. When the dark countryside began to slide slowly past the window, she watched it flow behind her, with a smile on her lips.
She was going back to London.
Joan stood before the inn and watched the motor-bus, until it had roared out of sight. Slowly the dust sifted down again, to mingle with the soil of its origin. The fumes of petrol rose higher and higher, until they were dissipated in the aether. The faint snarl of the engine sped on its journey to the last lone star.
'I'm glad old Purley's gone,' thought Joan, lighting another cigarette for company.
When she walked slowly through the village, the moon had risen and was silvering the old Tudor buildings, transforming them to ebon and ivory. Everyone had gone indoors; the lamps were lit and the blinds were drawn. Once again, the old ship rode at anchor in the dead port of Yesterday.
Joan was reminded of her friend's serial, by those screened windows, and her lip curled with derision. She knew each lighted interior so well, and was familiar with the evening's procedure. Miss Corner was tapping away at her incredible epic of how the Mile was won by the smallest boy in the school. The doctor and his wife were reading, for they subscribed to a London Library. In this big house they listened in to classical music on the air, and in that small one they drank cocoa and played Patience.
Everywhere was domestic drama, staged in the peace of Curfew. There were contented servants in comfortable kitchens; well-fed cats and dogs sleeping on rugs; clocks ticking away serene hours.
There was nothing to tell her that her friend's fantastic melodrama was justified by even one instance of insecurity and misery, or what was really happening behind drawn blinds. Only the walls heard—and they kept their secret.
TWO days had passed since the novelist's return to London, and nothing survived her visit but a few gnat-bites on her ankles and a filmy memory. The village retained even less of her personality; Joan washed her entirely from her mind, while no one mentioned the painted stranger with the monocle. The picture-paper which was printing her current serial was not in local circulation, so not even her work remained.
But, although life flowed on with the tranquillity of a brimful glassy river, the peace and security of the village was about to be shattered. Like a certain small animal which precedes a beast-of-prey, the novelist had been the herald of disaster. The communal harmony was static; but the first disrupting incident was timed for that evening.
Dr. Perry was late in coming home to dinner. He pushed open his garden-gate with his habitual sense of a mariner returning to port, as he saw the mellow red-brick front of the Queen Anne house. The shaven lawn was veined with evening sunlight, and the wide border of tall pink tulips and forget-me-nots—although imperceptibly past perfection—was still a cloud of shot azure and rose.
He was met on the steps of the porch by a reproachful wife. He had married his dispenser—the daughter of an impoverished Irish peer—and, therefore a stranger; but the village had accepted her on the credential of her husband.
At first sight, they appeared an ill-assorted couple. The doctor belonged to one of the oldest families, and was pale and thin, with a pleasant manner and a tired voice, while his wife was very dark and possessed a parched, passionate beauty.
The black rings around her eyes and her crumpled evening-gown of golden tissue gave her the appearance of a disreputable night-club hostess greeting the dawn; but a strong scent of violet-powder was a clue to a domestic occupation. She had just finished the job of bathing two resisting infants, and, as maternity was, to her, an emotional storm, she had exhausted herself with their wriggles and her own intense rapture.
"Well, Marianne," said her husband, kissing her lightly, "how's the family?"
"In bed," replied Marianne Perry, in her deep, throbbing voice, "I do wish you'd been here to see them in their bath. Micky nearly swam."
"Good. But you look a wet rag," remarked the doctor, as they walked through the wide, panelled hall. The western sun shone through delphinium-blue curtains, revealing an artistic interior, which was rather marred by scattered toys and two perambulators parked in corners.
"Got a pain." Marianne clasped the region of her waist. "Darling, are you poisoning me, so that you can marry my rival, Miss Corner?"
The doctor was false to the London novelist's conception of a double-character, for he displayed no anxiety.
"Too many green gooseberries," he said lightly. "Better take some bicarbonate of soda. It'll settle you, one way—or the other."
"Make me sick? I want my dinner, you brute." Marianne dragged the doctor away from the staircase. "No, you can't change. You're too late. Dinner's dished up."
Arm-in-arm, they entered the dining-room, a pleasant, well-proportioned apartment, hung with oatmeal linen and furnished with a walnut suite. The table-silver was tarnished and the service sketchy, but the meal was remarkably good. Apparently the doctor was not making a success of poisoning his wife, for she ate with a good appetite, in spite of her alleged pain.
"How's the practice?" she asked presently.
"As usual," replied the doctor. "Nothing revealing."
"Been to see Miss Corner?"
"Liar. Let me see your case-book."
The doctor laid it on the tablecloth without comment.
"I'm going to make up the books after dinner," announced his wife, flicking open the pages.
She spoke with relish, for this was a favourite occupation. The village took its health seriously, and was punctilious in its payments, so that she knew that she was not merely rolling up a paper income when she added up the columns.
"'J.C.', 'J.C.'," she murmured. "Miss Corner's as good as an annuity. What's the matter with her?"
"Suppose you ask her yourself?"
"I know. She's too fat. Is she rich?"
"I don't know."
"But, Horatio, that house cost thousands to build, and there is no money shortage there. She pays her cook seventy. She can't do it on her silly books."
"'No?'" Marianne parodied her husband's toneless voice. "My good man, are you ever interested in anything or anyone?"
"That's a curious charge to make." The doctor spoke with his usual inertia, but there was a fugitive gleam in his quiet eyes. "Actually, I endure a chronic condition of frustrate curiosity...I admit, I care nothing for anyone's income, so long as he pays my bill, and I can't get excited about common-or-garden ailments. But—I would like to know what is really at the back of anyone's mind."
"Does anyone?" asked Marianne. "Do you know me?"
"No." The doctor winced as his wife began to dismember a fowl with her usual furious energy. "I wish I did. I should know then why you insist on carving. You'd make a devastating surgeon."
"I carve, because I hate to see you with a knife. You're so deadly professional that I feel I'm watching an operation. And that's a true message from the Back of Beyond, Mr. Curious...By the way, Micky's got a new word. It sounded just like 'bloody'. But I'm waiting for him to say it again, and living in hope."
During the remainder of the meal, Marianne talked exclusively of her infants. Before it was actually finished, she sprang to her feet and again clasped her waist passionately.
"I was a fool to have any dinner," she exclaimed. "My inside's woke up and is swearing at me like mad."
"Bicarbonate," murmured her husband. "How about some tennis, later on?"
"No, my beloved, Momma's no time to play with her biggest baby, this evening. After I'm through with the dispensing I'm going to get busy on those books."
Her eyes glowed at the prospect, and she entirely forgot her interior grumbles.
"I just love it," she declared. "Figures are a real joy to me. I ought to have been a bookie. And all the time I'm jotting down items I'm saying, 'Here's a packet of rusks for baby', and 'Here's new woollen panties for Micky'. What are you going to do?"
"Finish my novel."
The doctor strolled into the drawing-room, which was a cool, pleasant place, of faint pastel-tints, and green from the shade of plane-trees. Stretched on the faded old-rose divan, with his boots wrinkling the silken spread, he lost himself in the translation of a Russian play. Presently, Marianne entered, loaded with stationery, which she dumped down on the bureau.
She gave a cry at the disorder of the couch.
"Curse you, darling. Those cushions are clean."
The doctor slipped guiltily off the divan.
"I think I'll go and smoke a pipe with the padre," he said.
"Do. Go before I slay you. Give my love to that young man and tell him to stop shouting in the pulpit. As a mother, I protest against his waking up all the babies in Australia. And you needn't hurry back, for you're not popular. Leave me your novel."
The doctor fished it up from the carpet.
"Better not," he advised. "Like a woman, you'll miss its philosophy, and pick out all the improper bits. And then you'll slang men, generally, for their filthy taste...Good-bye, Marianne."
He left his wife feverishly turning over the pages of a ledger, while he mounted the shallow wide oaken staircase, in order to wash and change his coat. When he had finished his toilet, he stole into the night-nursery, where the two babies lay asleep, each with doubled fists and damp, downy head.
Although one was ten months the elder, there was a strong likeness between them; both were palpable little doctors, and outwardly ignored relationship with their temperamental mother. They were luxuriant babies, too, in expensive sleeping-suits, and tucked up under delicately-hued, ribbon-bound, air-cell blankets. Opulent satin bows decorated their white enamelled cots, and they had huge furry animal-toys for bed-fellows.
As the doctor stood looking down at them, the door was softly opened, and Marianne entered. A strap of her golden gown had slipped from her shoulder, and a lock of dark hair fell over her cheek, giving her a semblance of utterly disreputable allure. She threw her bare arm around her husband's neck and completed a picture of domestic happiness.
"Aren't they beautiful—beautiful?" she crooned.
"They are," agreed the doctor.
Marianne's clasp on his shoulder tightened to a clutch, and she burst into tears.
"Ought we to have done it?" she cried. "They're so helpless—so entirely dependent on us. Suppose anything happened to you? Or to me? Strangers to care for them. Suppose the practice went down? What would become of them?"
Her husband instinctively shut his eyes as though blinded by the glare of tragedy. The next moment he had recovered his self-possession, as he patted his wife's arm, with a gentle laugh.
"You're morbid. It's probably due to acidity. You'd better go and take that bicarbonate."
TEN minutes later Dr. Perry lay stretched on a shabby 'Varsity chair on the Rector's yew-shaded lawn, while his host paced the daisied grass, waving his pipe, and declaiming as he tramped. In his character of a human dynamo, he was a source of interest to the doctor's curious mind; and, as he smoked, he studied him with cool detachment.
The Reverend Simon Blake was a tall, bull-necked man, of great muscular strength, with blunted, classic features, crisp coal-black hair, and flashing, arrogant eyes. He looked rather like the offspring of a union between a battered Roman emperor and an anonymous plebeian mother. His voice was strong and vibrant, and all his gestures expressed vehemence. He appeared never to have acquired the habit of sitting, and he talked continuously.
Dr. Perry knew that his display of overflowing vitality was misleading, and that he was only in the process of rekindling fires which had blazed too fiercely, and died. It was the last back-kick of nervous tension which made him such a restless planet of a fellow. He had worked himself out in a Dockside parish, sticking to his job long after he was beaten. Not until he had crashed, both mentally and physically, had he consented to accept this living in the country.
"Sit down, man," urged the doctor. "You're like the spirit of atomic energy."
The Rector obediently dropped down on his protesting chair, with the force of machinery, only to spring up again.
"This place, doctor," he said, "is perfect. I pray I may end my days here. Look at it, now."
He waved his pipe towards the village street, which staged the usual sunset pageant. Children skipped and played on the cobbles, exactly like golden girls and boys and little chimney-sweepers, long passed to dust. Women gossiped over their garden gates, just as they had gossiped in Tudor times, and they talked of much the same things. At a quarter-to-eight, Mr. and Mrs. Scudamore emerged from the gates of the Clock House for their evening stroll. The lady wore a feathered hat and a fichu of real lace, and all the village did homage to the Honiton point.
The doctor studied the Rector, and he—in his turn—watched the stately advance of the pair. The clergyman noticed how the lawyer's frost-bitten face thawed whenever he spoke to his wife, and he was delighted by her responsive smile. Yet they were not too engrossed in each other to pass a couple of sunburnt children, in old-fashioned lilac sun-bonnets. The little girl took a sugar almond out of her mouth, to prove that its colour had turned from pink to white, and the Scudamores rather overdid their pantomimic surprise at the miracle.
The doctor's lip curled slightly, but the Rector beamed.
"Lovers still," he said. "That's a perfect marriage."
"In the sight of God and the neighbours," murmured the doctor. He added with a bleak smile, "There is only one danger in this 'God save the Squire and his relations' attitude. The villagers would be too sunken in tradition to complain, in case of abuse. They know they wouldn't be believed."
"Abuse?" echoed the Rector. "Here? Are you mad?"
"Probably. Most of us are, if we're normal. By the way, when I get a free Sunday I'm coming to hear you preach, padre. You're the one man who can keep me awake."
The Rector grinned in a boyish, half-bashful manner.
"I know I'm a noisy fellow," he confessed, "but oratory is my talent. It's out of place here, but I dare not let it rust. Besides, it may do secret good. Who knows?"
He knew that his red-hot Gospel, with which he had blasted his old Parish to attention, was like a series of bombs exploding under the arches of the Norman church. But habit persisted, and he exhorted his hearers, every Sunday, to search their hearts for hidden sin. The congregation remained tranquil, while he liked the sound of his own organ-voice.
The Scudamores had disappeared round the bend when the delicately-wrought iron gates of 'The Spout' were opened to let out a girl. In the distance she looked like Joan Brook; and the doctor, who was also misled, watched the sudden flicker of interest in the Rector's face. When she drew nearer, however, it was evident that Joan was only her model, for she was far more beautiful than Lady d'Arcy's companion.
Her hair was red-gold, her eyes blue-green, and her complexion a compound of cherries and cream, while her features and her unwashed milky teeth were perfect. She wore a sleeveless white frock of cheap crÍpe-de-Chine, silk stockings of the shade known as 'muddy water', and silver slave-bangles on her shapely arms. Only her red hands betrayed her dedication to the tasks of domestic service.
It was Ada—Miss Asprey's famous housemaid, and the acknowledged beauty of the district. She crossed the green, and then lingered under the wall of the raised Rectory garden, in order to consult her wrist-watch, which, outwardly, was exactly like Joan Brook's. Directly she saw the two men smoking above her, she dropped as simple a curtsy as any of the village children.
"Good evening, Ada," beamed the Rector. "Finished with work?"
"Yes, sir," smiled Ada.
"What do you find to do on your evenings out?" asked the Rector.
"And you never get bored, or miss the Pictures?"
"Oh, no, sir." Ada's violet eyes were filled with reproach. "I'm going home, to see our mother's new baby."
"A new baby? Fine. What is it?"
"A boy, sir."
Glancing again at her watch, she dropped a second curtsy, and hurried in the direction of the Quakers' Walk.
"Now, isn't that refreshing?" demanded the Rector. "Compare it with stuffy cinemas, with their crime and sex pictures...By the way, I didn't know Mrs. Lee had a baby. How old is he?"
"About twenty-six," replied the doctor. "He's the Squire's new chauffeur."
The Rector laughed heartily at himself.
"Fell for it, didn't I? She took me up the garden. But after all, she's got the real thing, and that's better than watching canned love on a screen."
"Hum, in the one case, fourpence may be the extent of the damage. In my profession I've learned that tinned goods may be less harmful than in their original state."
"No." The Rector's eyes blazed. "Not here. There's no immorality in the village. And no class-hatred or modern unrest. They reflect the general tone of kindness and good breeding. I've never known a place with so little scandal. And the charity almost overlaps. No wretched slums, no leaky roofs or insanitary conditions."
"I agree," said the doctor in his tired voice. "But this fact remains. None of the local ladies use makeup, not even my own civilised wife, because Mrs. Scudamore has decreed that paint is an outrage on good taste. Yet, do you ever see cracked lips, or damaged skins?"
"What are you driving at?" asked the Rector.
"Merely that they must use vanishing-cream and colourless lip-salve...The moral is, padre, that human nature remains the same, everywhere, and dark places exist in every mind."
"Well, you probably know more about that than I do." The Rector's voice was regretful. "People no longer confide their difficulties and doubts to their parson. But, as a doctor, you must catch them off guard."
"Do I?" The doctor smiled as he tried, in vain, to catch a small white moth. "No, padre, they always put on clean pillow-slips for the doctor's visit."
The Rector made no comment; at last, even he was drugged to silence by the combined spell of twilight and tobacco. The purple and gold bars of sunset had faded from the sky—the voices of the gossiping women were stilled. People went indoors, to eat dinner or to prepare supper. The Scudamores made their stately re-entry of the Clock House—arm-in-arm, to the very last cobble-stone. In the gloom of the Quakers' Walk, Miss Asprey's beautiful Ada kissed and cuddled her mother's new baby, who had grown a Ronald Colman moustache.
Lights began to prick the gloom, while the first star trembled in the faint green sky. Across the green, little golden diamonds, like clustering bees, glowed through the lattice-panes of Miss Asprey's Elizabethan mansion.
The Rector was stirred, by the sight of them, to a revival of enthusiasm.
"As you say," he remarked, "no one can be perfect. Yet Miss Asprey is as nearly a saint as any woman can be. She has an influence on me which is almost spiritual. I go to see her whenever I'm worked-up and jumpy, and I come away with my prickles all smoothed down."
The doctor studied him, through his glasses, as though he were something on a microscope-slide.
"Do you? Interesting. As a matter-of-fact, I've also noticed that that good lady seems to possess some soothing quality. But it's disastrous to a man of my lethargic nature. After I've been at 'The Spout', I feel about as torpid as though I'd taken veronal. I used not to notice it, so I suppose I'm growing old, or extra slack."
Both men spoke casually, and their words were lost upon utterance. They could not tell, then, that when they were plunged, later, into the dark labyrinth of mystery, a gramophone record of the evening's conversation would hold a clue to one of the key-positions.
"You ought to take a holiday," advised the Rector.
"Too much fag."
The doctor's dragging voice was scarcely audible. Night was dropping on the village in veil upon veil of cloudy blue, citrine, and grey. The men sank lower in their chairs and sucked at their pipes, at peace with Nature and themselves. They might have been sunken in the subaqueous gloom of a fathomless sea—untroubled by the screws of steamers churning the waters above.
Yet, even then, the first blow was about to fall on the village. Far away, in the distance, sounded the postman's double-knock. Presently, he appeared in sight, a little globe of a man, with steel-rimmed spectacles. He rejected the Rectory, but entered the gates of 'The Spout'. They heard his familiar rat-tat, and then they saw him come out of the garden again, and go on his way—but they did not recognise him for the herald of disaster.
Presently the Rector stirred to life.
"Chilly," he remarked. "We'd better go in and have a whisky."
As the men rose stiffly from their low chairs, the Rectory gate creaked, and Rose—Miss Asprey's unhappily-named parlourmaid—stalked up the gravel drive. She was a gaunt, long-lipped dragoon of a woman, and had been in service at a Bishop's palace, so did not pay the local homage to the parson. Her voice was harsh as she gave her commands.
"Miss Asprey's compliments, and will you please to come over, at once."
"Is it urgent?" asked the Rector, not too pleased at the prospect, for his lighted study windows called him, and the whisky was waiting.
"The mistress says please come at once, as it's most important."
"Certainly, then, I'll be over directly."
Rose's tall, black-and-white figure led the way down the path, as the Rector turned to Dr. Perry.
"I suppose you won't wait for me?"
"Thanks, padre, I will," replied the doctor. "I believe Gillie Potter is on the air tonight, so I'll amuse myself with your Wireless."
As he looked after his host, his usually listless eyes were bright with interest, and he meant to wait until midnight, if necessary, for the Rector's return.
For he was positive that his famished curiosity was going to have a feast, and that—for the first time in the history of the village—there would be no clean pillow-slips.
WHEN the golden diamonds gleamed through the windowpanes of Miss Asprey's dining-room, she was seated at her evening meal, with her companion, little Miss Mack, and quite unconscious that, across an empty stretch of grass, two men were discussing her character.
As she sat in a high-backed carven chair, and mechanically ate what the parlourmaid had piled upon her plate, she seemed unaware of her surroundings, for she stared at the opposite wall, as though trying to pierce it with the intensity of her vision.
In the early sixties, she was slender and upright as a girl. Her face bore traces of former beauty, in spite of many lines, and a sharpening of nose and chin—forerunner of the fatal nutcracker. The tint of her complexion was pale ivory, and her expression both pure and austere. She wore a black velvet dinner gown, which suited the silver glory of her hair so well as to suggest that even saints have their share of vanity.
Although she looked so fragile, her appetite was enormous, but she appeared to eat without enjoyment—rather like a machine crushing fodder which was necessary for the repair of a body worn out by a consuming flame-like spirit. Not only was she a woman of tireless energy, broken by lapses into fierce concentrated meditation, but she adhered to the habits of her early life.
The only child of wealthy parents, Decima Asprey had been at the same school in Germany as Miss Julia Corner; but she was much older than the novelist, and had left to be presented at Court. After one Season only, she grew tired of leading the life of an average Society girl, and went into Retreat, with the idea of becoming a nun. Commonsense prevailed, however, so that she chose a career better suited to her temperament, becoming Matron of a Home for Fallen Women, in a large industrial city.
She did not spare herself in well-doing, and—like the Rector—she overworked and finally broke down. While she was only in the early thirties, she came to the village to recuperate, and stayed there for nearly thirty years. The Elizabethan mansion—Spout Manor—was then in the market, and after she had bought it she never slept under another roof, in contrast to Queen Elizabeth I's alleged habit for trying strange beds.
Very soon her gently dominant character asserted itself, and she became ruler of the village. Mr. Sheriff—as head of the oldest family—held the prestige of Squire; the Scudamores were self-appointed guardians of the public tone; but above them all, shone Miss Decima Asprey.
She sat at the head of the long dining-table, and the gaunt Rose waited on her assiduously, while little Miss Mack 'made a long arm', and helped herself. She was a stocky little woman, about twenty-five years younger than her employer, with a pale, clear, polished complexion, like a china doll's, light blue eyes, and faintly smiling lips. She looked rather stupid, through over-amiability, but serene and good.
Upstairs, in her bedroom, a half-finished letter lay inside her blotter. It was addressed to a certain Miss Smith, of London, and was filled with praise of Miss Asprey, and contentment with her happy lot.
'Miss Asprey is an Earthly Angel,' she had written. 'She took me in, when I was down and out, and I feel I can never do enough to repay her. She is so very kind and good, and gives me light work, which makes the time pass quickly and pleasantly. I look and feel much better. I am only living to repay her for what she has done to me. This house is beautiful, all wood, and everyone says it is like a Museum.'
Now this was rather noble of little Miss Mack, for 'the Spout' was not at all to her personal taste. She preferred rose-pink wall-paper, electric-light, and a nice clean white tablecloth. Visitors might praise the historic perfection of the Tudor mansion, and rave over its furniture, which were all genuine period pieces; but they sat, for a short time only, on its hard oaken chairs, and then rolled away, on cushioned seats, back into the Twentieth Century.
As she munched her bread-and-cheese Miss Mack's china-blue eyes roamed about the room, semi-lit by one hanging oil-lamp. The panelled walls—black with age—were rendered invisible by the shadows. The oaken table was bare, save for some mats of coarse hand-woven linen. The food was chiefly vegetarian—lentil-soup, salad, biscuits, butter, cheese and fruit. There was only barley-water to drink, although the temperature remained low at 'the Spout'.
Miss Mack looked distrustfully at the dish of green-stuff, for she did not like raw lettuce, which did not satisfy her appetite, and only gave her flatulence.
'If you're lucky, you get a rumble,' she thought. 'If you're unlucky, you get a slug.'
Then she remembered the beautiful food she had once enjoyed, when she stayed with a farmer uncle in the country. When they killed a pig, there was a feast of good things—faggots, brawn, chitterlings, and a delicious dish, called 'Black pudding'. She had been told that it was made from the blood of pigs—but that did not alter the fact that it was both filling and savoury.
In the distance, she could hear the postman's double-knock, but without interest, for few people wrote to the insignificant Miss Mack. Then her watchful eyes noticed that her idol, Miss Asprey, gave a slight shiver, and, instantly, she was on her stumpy feet, ready for service.
"May I fetch you a shawl, Miss Asprey?" she asked.
"No, thank you." Miss Asprey rose and walked to the door, followed by Miss Mack, whom she waved back to her chair. "Please sit down and finish your meal," she commanded.
When the door was closed behind her, Miss Mack spoke to Rose.
"What are you having for supper, in the kitchen?"
"Poached eggs and cocoa," was the reply.
Miss Mack smacked her lips.
"It's cold, this evening," she remarked. "And it smells dampish."
"That's the water," Rose told her. "The mistress told me that, in the old days, this was a farm, with a real water-spout. You may depend on it, the water is still hiding itself, somewhere. Water never goes."
She snapped her lips together and stood at attention, as Miss Asprey returned.
"Miss Mack," she asked, "did you empty my waste-paper basket, today?"
"Yes, Miss Asprey," replied Miss Mack, with conscious virtue. "I gave the bits to Ada, and she burned them with the other rubbish, in the garden incinerator."
Miss Asprey nodded without comment, and relapsed into silence. As the postman's knock sounded louder, Miss Mack took her courage in both hands.
"Miss Asprey, I wonder if I may have porridge for supper, please?"
Miss Asprey raised her brows in surprise, and waved her white hand over the salad.
"This is better for you. It supplies the Vitamin C which is necessary to your diet."
"Porridge is more filling, Miss Asprey."
"But you are getting too stout. Do you weigh, every morning, after your bath?"
Miss Mack blinked at the unexpected question. The bathroom was a primitive cell, and, as there was no gas on the premises, the hot-water supply was dependent on the kitchen fire, plus a defective system of pipes.
"Yes, Miss Asprey," said Miss Mack untruthfully, for she dared not confess that she bathed only on Saturday night, when the cook was out, so that she could stoke up the stove herself. "And, if you please, may I have porridge for my supper? It's quite cheap."
"If you really wish it, of course. And it's not a question of expense, but of your own good." Miss Asprey's voice was astringent, but her companion's china-blue eyes were serene.
'I'll ask for poached eggs, next,' she decided. 'And, after that, something that's really tasty.'
The postman's knock shook the house, and Rose stalked from the room. She returned, a minute later, with a letter on a pewter salver, which she offered to Miss Asprey.
Miss Mack was still dreaming of savoury pudding, made—perhaps—with blood, so that she was not watching Miss Asprey with her usual dog-like fidelity. But, at the sound of a sharply-drawn breath, she looked up, to see Miss Asprey staring at an open letter.
It was obvious that she was upset, for she waited to regain complete self-control before she spoke to the parlourmaid.
"Rose, go to the Rectory and tell the Rector I wish to see him immediately, please." Then she turned to Miss Mack with another request. "When the Rector comes, bring him to me, in the parlour, please."
Miss Mack obediently left her unfinished supper and waited in the dark porch, like a patient sentinel. When the Rector's huge figure loomed through the twilight, he was several paces in front of Rose, although that well-trained person was marching at the double.
As the Rector looked down into the perpetually smiling face of the little woman, she delivered her employer's message.
"Miss Asprey's expecting you in the parlour."
Like a cyclone, the Rector whirled into the living-room, which, like the dining-room, was panelled and dimly-lit. There were violet window-curtains, a few books and a bowl of white lilac—but not a single cushion, rug, or newspaper. Miss Asprey was seated on an oaken settle, with a high back; and, as he entered, the Rector received his impression of her as one whose heart had never been warmed at the fires of Life.
To his mind, she seemed to have withdrawn from grosser contact into the purity of her own soul. His surprise and shock was therefore the greater, when she spoke to him, without any greeting.
"I sent for you, Rector, because I have just received an anonymous letter. It is an attack on my moral character. Will you read it, please?"
He stared at her with incredulous horror, for once, at a loss for words.
"But—but—it's impossible," he said, at last.
Miss Asprey held out the letter, with fingers which trembled slightly.
"Read it," she repeated.
To his eternal credit—for he was consumed by curiosity—the Rector refused.
"No," he said. "You may wish me to read it tonight, but you'll probably think differently, tomorrow."
Miss Asprey shook her gleaming silver head.
"I've nothing to fear from tomorrow, and I fear no one," she told him. "But, after reading this, perhaps, I fear myself. It fills me with doubts—makes me wonder if I know my own heart—as it really is. If I were a Roman Catholic, I should unburden myself in the Confessional. As it is, I have no other course but to ask you to read this letter, and then—if you can—grant me Absolution."
"If that is really your wish, then I'll read it."
Having made his protest, the Rector picked up the letter briskly. It was printed, in block letters, on paper of excellent quality, and was correctly composed and spelt. It began with I the sentence—'You presumed to sit in judgment on unfortunate women whom you dragged out of the gutter, probably against their own wish, but are you, yourself better than the lowest of these?' It continued in the same strain, each line covered with the slime of insinuation, as though a slug had crawled over the pages.
The Rector exploded several times as he read it, and, at the end, he crushed it up angrily between his strong fingers and threw it on the floor.
"Foul," he declared. "Any anonymous letter is a knife in the back, but this one is specially outrageous...Can you tell me, Miss Asprey, if you have any—any suspicions as to the writer?"
"No," replied Miss Asprey. "Besides, the writer does not matter. I only want to know what you think of me."
True to his impulsive nature, the Rector acted without forethought. On this occasion, his muscles leaped to obey his instinct, before his mind creaked into motion, so that he was betrayed into a theatrical gesture. Stooping down, he kissed Miss Asprey's thin white hand, in silent homage.
Before he could feel ashamed, he was rewarded by the glitter of suppressed tears in her eyes.
"That's what I think," he told her. "But I also think that some evil-minded person is jealous of you."
As the door creaked slightly he looked up sharply, and then picked up the letter. Presently he glanced towards Miss Mack, who sat, watchfully, in the shadow of the wall, and pounced on her with a question.
"How do you spell 'judgment,' Miss Mack?"
As he had expected, she spelt it, 'judgement'.
"Exactly," he muttered. "Thank you." He turned to Miss Asprey. "This letter has been written by an educated person. Now, what, exactly, is your wish? Shall I try to trace it back to its source?"
"But can you do that? It is anonymous."
"I haven't the foggiest idea. But I have a friend—a chap with nothing to do, who's potty on puzzles. He'd enjoy getting his teeth into it."
Miss Asprey's answer was to replace the letter on the salver, and to apply a lighted match to one corner.
"That is what I'm going to do with the letter," she said. "My mind is now completely at rest again."
As she watched the paper blaze and then crumble into dust, her expression grew tranquil and the strain faded from her eyes.
But the Rector was suddenly rent with a vague foreboding of future evil. Acting on impulse, he picked up the envelope, which had begun to catch fire, and pinched out the charred patch.
"May I keep this?" he asked. "It may come in useful, supposing there's another letter."
Miss Asprey hesitated and then bowed her stately head.
"Certainly," she said. "But I am confident the matter is ended...Thank you for coming. Good night."
Miss Mack pattered across to the door, which she opened, to make the Rector understand that he was dismissed. He lingered, as he wondered whether he should try to repeat his success, and kiss the hand of the afflicted lady in farewell. But she seemed to have forgotten his existence, so he followed Miss Mack's hint, and left.
He carried away with him a memory of Miss Asprey's face glimmering whitely against the dark wood, as though she were already enshrined, and fading away to the bleak immortality of a saint.
He walked slowly back to the Rectory, in a depressed mood, and horrified at the mere idea that his perfect village sheltered a poisonous mind. But as he passed each person of the limited social circle in review, he was able to shake his head and brace his shoulders, as though he had shaken off a load.
No one he knew could have done this thing. To his mind, it was obvious that this letter had been written by some unbalanced person who had known Miss Asprey in the past, and who bore her a grudge. The fact that the envelope was stamped with the village post-mark was of small importance, as this subterfuge could be arranged.
When he entered his cheerful study, the whisky was on the table and the Wireless turned on. The essential parts of a fat spaniel—named 'Charles', after Dickens—were crowded on the doctor's lap, while the dog, from his intelligent look, was helping their guest to solve a chess-problem in the evening paper.
"Well?" asked Dr. Perry eagerly.
"Well," echoed the Rector, crossing to the table and juggling hospitably with the various bottles. "Soda or plain water, doctor? Say 'when'."
Dr. Perry bit his lip and pulled Charles' silky ears for moral support, before he repeated his question.
"Well? Was it so important?"
The Rector laughed as he hunted in a cupboard for the biscuit-barrel.
"It was nothing," he said. "She was just a bit upset. That's all."
"I see," said the doctor quietly. "That's all." He took his glass. "Thanks. Prosit."
The Rector felt sorry for his baffled curiosity, but he was guarding the secret of the Confessional. He turned to his dog, who was registering all the symptoms of acute starvation at the sight of the biscuits.
"Here you are, Charles," he said, tossing him a cracknel. "You're an overfed scoundrel, but you know your poor fish of a master can't resist a moist nose and swimmy eyes. But it's no good our friend the doctor looking pathetic, is it, Charles? We've nothing for him. By the way, doctor, please don't mention the fact that Miss Asprey sent over for me this evening."
"I quite understand." Dr. Perry laughed acidly. "You're giving me my own medicine—'Shall a doctor tell?'...My dear padre, not for worlds would I wish you to betray a confidence. There is no one I respect more than Miss Asprey, although there are many I like better. I am sorry she has suffered annoyance."
"How do you know she has?" asked the Rector.
"I don't, so, naturally, my mind is busy with every absurd impossibility...Well, I suppose I must go home and see if I still have the same wife."
Dr. Perry glanced at the clock, tossed off his whisky, and rose to go.
"Good-bye, padre," he said, patting Charles' head. "I admire you for your admirable policy of silence, and I bear you no ill-will."
The Rector's jaw dropped in surprise as the doctor added, "But I confess I should have liked your account of how the saintly Miss Asprey defended her honour."
WHEN Miss Asprey declared that the affair was ended she did not know that the parlourmaid was listening outside the door. Rose lingered in the hall, not only to satisfy her own curiosity, but to be forewarned of any annoyance which might threaten her mistress.
She possessed a testimonial from a Bishop's wife to prove her loyalty and discretion, and she did not repeat an actual word of what she overheard. But—like an unconscious germ-carrier—she liberated the poison in her system by gradual leakage. Somehow or other, she conveyed an impression to the cook, who transferred it to the beautiful Ada, in the form of a hint. Ada promptly elaborated this to a whisper, and then passed it on to the Squire's chauffeur.
Within twenty-four hours, through the Wireless of village communication, the rumour spread that Miss Asprey's moral character had been attacked in an anonymous letter from an evil-minded person, who was jealous of her.
Miss Corner was sitting cross-legged in her library, smoking and reading, when her cook-housekeeper told her about the letter. The novelist was on friendly terms with her staff, as she studied their comfort; in fact, it was rather a local grievance that their bathroom was far superior to Miss Asprey's.
The housekeeper's story fell rather flat, for Miss Corner was still bewitched by Edith Sitwell's Bath. She might sell cheap home-brew herself, with her insipid romances and absurd school-stories, but she could appreciate rare vintage—and her library-shelves testified to selective literary taste.
She puffed away grimly at her cigarette, as she mechanically listened to the tale, while the shrunken pupils of her eyes betrayed the fact that she was still marooned in the Eighteenth Century, and half-drunken from the savour of exquisite language.
'Russets, shalloons, rateens and salapeens.' The sentence swam through her brain, like an elusive gust of mignonette borne on a vanished summer breeze.
Her housekeeper—Mrs. Pike—became conscious that her story had fallen unaccountably flat, and began to apologise for it.
"Of course, madam, we don't know all that was in the letter. Depend on it, we've only been told the half."
"In every story," remarked Miss Corner, "there's the half we tell, and the half that others tell, and the half that's true. Add that up, Mrs. Pike, and see what it comes to."
Then, taking pity on the woman's bewilderment, she changed the subject.
"I'm throwing a little bun-fight this afternoon," she said. "You must provide a lavish tea, for the look of the thing, for it'll all be left. I'm expecting Mrs. Sheriff, Mrs. Scudamore, and Lady d'Arcy."
"Well, you'll have something to talk about, for a change," remarked Mrs. Pike, as she produced her housekeeping-tablet.
As a matter-of-fact, the incident of the anonymous letter only seemed to prove that the life-blood of the little community was too healthy to admit infection. It was received either with raised brows of polite incredulity, or with gusts of healing laughter. Yet, even at this early stage, certain events indicated that the village was not immune to poison, but only resistant.
Dr. Perry was motoring out to visit a country patient, when, at the cross-roads, he met Vivian Sheriff—the Squire's daughter—who was also driving a Baby Austin. They were not especially friendly, but their cars always insisted on stopping to fraternise with each other, so their owners had to make the best of it.
"I'm just cooling my engine," explained the doctor hastily. "We've been exceeding the speed-limit. How's your little car behaving?"
"Never better," boasted Vivian. "But my petrol's rather low." Then, as though dimly conscious that she was clutched in the grip of machinery, and had to await its Robot pleasure, she began to gossip.
"Heard about Miss Asprey's anonymous letter?" she asked.
The doctor had not heard; but, as he listened to Vivian, his eyes gleamed with interest, which gave way to resentment. This, then, was the origin of the Rector's secret mission. He, himself, had been present at the birth of an intriguing human development, and had been shut out in the cold.
But the Rector, apparently, had lost no time in spreading the story. In the doctor's eyes his admirable policy of silence was now revealed as pure pose.
'The fellow's nothing but a human gramophone,' he thought contemptuously, as the cars grew suddenly tired of each other and agreed to start.
An hour later, when Dr. Perry met the Rector trudging along the road with his fishing-tackle his greeting was rather cool. He still felt slightly disgusted, while the Rector was horrified by his own unworthy suspicion, as Dr. Perry's parting remark kept stirring in his mind. How did the doctor know that the letter attacked Miss Asprey's moral character?
Both men talked of fly-fishing, but did not refer to the letter. The doctor offered the Rector a lift, which was refused. A little of the poison had spread.
The subject was also raised at the Hall, where Lady d'Arcy was having lunch with the Squire's family. Mrs. Sheriff, who was a youthful, flaxen-haired little person—rather gummy, but with a sweet and self-sacrificing disposition—was human enough to be mildly excited.
"I wonder who wrote it," she exclaimed, with school-girlish interest.
Her husband pulled down his lip, and the vague Lady d'Arcy drifted up to the occasion, for the Rector had made no idle boast that the village was almost free from the vice of scandal.
"Not one of us," said Lady d'Arcy, in her lightest voice and changed the subject.
Her speech sounded above reproach, but the Squire frowned, pulled his lip again, and grew thoughtful. The village accepted no one who had not been a resident for fifteen years. Companions and governesses did not count, of course, while Mrs. Perry crept in under her husband's wing.
There remained only the Martins—the rich absentee owners of the Towers—and the local novelist.
Miss Julia Corner had entirely returned from Bath, and was her usual genial self when she acted as hostess at her tea-party. She wore a white muslin peasant blouse, with juvenile short sleeves and a round neck. A string of corals encircled her fat neck and her grey fringe was freshly-cut. She flourished her tea-pot dangerously as she beamed upon her guests, who were of the younger generation.
Owing to some curious run of bad-luck, both the Squire's wife and Lady d'Arcy had sent deputies. Kind little Mrs. Sheriff—when she pleaded a racking headache—had rebelled against her husband, and insisted that Vivian should take her place. The vague Lady d'Arcy, who was sufficiently practical to make use of others—merely told Joan to offer her apologies.
Joan's inventive powers proved equal to the strain, and she was only too glad to stay, for, although she had acquired a certain respect for Art, in Chelsea, she was a backslider where Miss Corner's comfortable home was concerned.
It had its own electric-plant, so that the novelist was able to indulge her passion for brilliant lighting, and it possessed a perfect system of central-heating. In spite of the scraps of Fourteenth-century barns which composed its outer walls, its interior was entirely modern, with built-in drawers and cupboards, amusing metal furniture, aluminium-sprayed rubber curtains and planet-lamps. In the place of pictures, there were numerous mirrors.
"I like to see a lot of Julias," explained Miss Corner. "Those fat girls are my company. You've heard, haven't you, how a fat girl can love, even if no one loves her?"
Vivian's smile was polite and non-committal, for she was not feeling entirely at her ease. She was a pretty girl—fair-haired and turquoise-eyed—with exquisite colouring. Like most of the local ladies, she had the delicate air of one reared entirely under glass, so that, in comparison with her, Joan looked like a rosy apple placed beside a hot-house peach.
They appeared to be the same age, although, in reality Vivian possessed only the sterilised youth of the village.
She raised her gossamer brows when Joan began to talk about the anonymous letter.
"What do you think about it, Miss Corner?" she asked.
"Thrilled," replied the novelist. "It's been said that the anonymous letter-writer is the only really interesting criminal."
"I think it's disgusting," said Vivian. "And to send it to Miss Asprey—of all people."
"Why should she be exempt?" demanded Miss Corner. "She's not sacred, is she?"
"No. But she's so—so spiritual. I've rather a passion for her. I think she must have an aura—a blue or violet one. Anyway, I'm sure she's an influence for good. Whenever I am at 'The Spout', I'm conscious of being in a state of perfect peace."
As it was difficult to connect Vivian with any emotion, neither Joan or Miss Corner were impressed.
"You're lucky," declared the novelist. "I wish I could say the same. She always seems to drain my brain dry of ideas, and she makes me feel like a wet rag. In fact, when I'm in process of literary gestation I don't dare go near her barn."
"Barn?" echoed Vivian reproachfully. "Miss Asprey's house and furniture are perfect Tudor period."
"Yes, and I don't sit down in the Sixteenth Century. It's true that Nature has thoughtfully provided me with padding—but it's not fair to count on guests bringing their own cushions...But Miss Brook has nothing to eat."
Miss Corner broke off to offer Joan a selection of cakes.
"Those flaky things are dee-licious," she said, "but they're not safe to be let loose without a plate. They're the underhand kind that spit cream in your eye. Here you are, my dear—plate and nappy. I'm not one of your Society sadists, who tempt pure young girls to eat oranges in public...Hum. Mrs. Scudamore's late."
The novelist glanced at the clock and poured herself another cup of tea, while her eyes grew speculative, with pin-prick pupils.
"Let's get back to Miss Asprey," she said. "Have you noticed that though she looks as if a puff of air would blow her away, she's unusually strong. And her brain still bites like a badger...Sometimes, I wonder if she draws her reserves from others, now that she's growing old. When I first came here I wasn't conscious of being affected by her, and it's odd the way her powers don't seem to fail with age. You know, my dears, there are people who sap your vitality."
"You mean—human vampires?" Vivian's flower-like face grew pink. "But that's a terrible thing to say of Miss Asprey."
Joan hastened to change the subject.
"I wonder you don't keep a pet, Miss Corner," she said. "Cats and dogs are better company than looking-glasses."
"I'd love to," replied the novelist wistfully. "But—I'm alone."
"That's what I meant."
"And that's what I meant, too. If anything happened to me, what about them? I'm too fond of animals to risk them."
Joan missed the hint of tragedy which clouded the novelist's eyes, for she was looking at the inch of Oxford-blue ribbon on Miss Corner's broad white chest.
"Is that your Temperance badge?" she asked.
"Yes," replied the novelist. "That is to show I drink nothing—in public."
Joan laughed with her hostess, because she remembered her friend's ridiculous serial.
"I think Miss Asprey's letter is nothing but a silly practical joke," she declared. "And if the joker follows it with a second, you will, probably, be accused of being a secret drinker."
"But I am," grinned Miss Corner. "Only, no one in the village possesses any sense of humour, except the doctor."
"Dr. Perry?" cried Vivian incredulously. "He's always so quiet."
"Exactly. Beware the dog that doesn't bark. Did you know he has a secret passion for me? There is someone who loves a fat girl...This is our guilty signal."
She picked up an empty black-and-gilt tea-cup, and, crossing to one of the small windows, balanced it on top of the open casement.
With the insolence of youth, Joan thought she was rather pathetic. And the novelist, from her safe vantage of experience, pitied Joan. 'No beauty, no money, no talent,' she reflected. 'If she grabs the parson, her market's made. If she doesn't, Heaven help her.'
She looked up with her usual beam of welcome, as her loyal, stupid maid—May—announced Mrs. Scudamore.
The important lady made her usual gracious entrance and created her special impression. She was wearing a last year's gown and coatee, of grey lace, and appeared, definitely, a middle-aged English-woman, of the type that is accepted as representative, on the Continent.
Her good features were just a shade too large; she displayed too much hair, and not enough style.
But everyone paid instinctive homage to the Spirit of the Village. Joan, who was lounging back in her chair, with outstretched feet, drew herself upright. Vivian looked relieved, as though welcoming moral support, while Miss Corner whispered to May, 'Fresh tea-pot.'
Mrs. Scudamore was very gracious to everyone. Presently, when she was sipping tea and subduing one of the treacherous cakes—after having declined a plate—she spoke, smilingly, to Joan.
"What were you laughing about when I came in? You sounded very merry."
"I expect we were talking about Miss Asprey's anonymous letter," replied Joan.
"An anonymous letter? Here?...Oh dear."
Mrs. Scudamore gave a faint scream. She—the exponent of perfect manners—had committed the unpardonable breach of spilling her tea. It was a complete catastrophe, for she dropped both the cup and saucer, smashing the china and drenching the beautiful gold-and-blue Persian carpet.
Miss Corner was entirely kind, and hid her natural feelings under a cover of good-natured laughter. Presently, when the mopping operations were over, Mrs. Scudamore recovered her poise and asked for further details about Miss Asprey's letter.
"How very unpleasant," she remarked. "It betrays an odious mind. But it is really too absurd. A charge of immorality against Miss Asprey—of all people. And at her age."
"Age has nothing to do with it," shouted Miss Corner. "I'm fifty-five, and I'd do anything for the sake of literary experience."
Joan saw the swift, involuntary glance which flashed between Mrs. Scudamore and Vivian.
'I wish you hadn't said that,' she thought.
Unaware of any need of caution, Miss Corner went from bad to worse.
"I simply can't understand all this silly worship of Miss Asprey," she said. "You see, I went to school with her. Of course, I was much younger, for she's sixty-four. But, even then, I was a little novelist, only my books were more mature than The Young Visitor. Decima was one of the big girls, with long, fair pigtails—but I took her measure, all right."
"Fair plaits. She must have looked like Marguerite," murmured Vivian.
"Marguerite, without the guts to go to hell. And I don't see she's made a success of her life. She chucked her job when she was still a young woman. After all, I've stuck to mine."
Annoyed by the lack of response from her guests—for even Joan looked thoughtful—Miss Corner began to brag.
"Perhaps I'm too proud about my work, but I've given—and I still give—a lot of happiness. All she did was to drag miserable girls into her Hostels, cram them with thick bread-and-butter, and set them to scrub floors and sing hymns."
She flashed her glasses aggressively at her guests.
"I don't suppose anyone has any notion of my huge fan-mail," she boasted. "Little boys—I love boys—write to me, begging for another of Joey's adventures. 'Dearest Miss Corner, I can hardly bear to wait for the next instalment. You don't know how thrilled I am by naughty Sam.' Or, 'Please, please, dear Miss Corner, tell me some more about Jimmy. I just adore him.' That's my reward, and please Heaven, I'll die in harness."
Joan thought that the letters sounded more like the effusions of little girls, and felt guilty of disloyalty, when—at the hoot of a motor-horn—Miss Corner gave her a conspiratorial wink. Unabashed by Mrs. Scudamore's surprised expression, she crossed to the window and removed the signal.
Two minutes later, when Dr. Perry entered the room, his hostess received him with a brimming cup.
"Here's your rotten weak China," she said. "Never mind. If I'm spared, I'll yet turn you into a strong Indian."
The doctor looked intently at Miss Corner, before he seated himself beside Joan, to the girl's secret satisfaction. Although she had chosen the Rector for her own, she considered Dr. Perry the most interesting man in the village. While there seemed nothing special in him to understand, she was aware that she did not understand him.
"We've been talking about it," she whispered.
"It?" He laughed slightly. "Oh, you mean the famous, or rather—infamous—letter...Who told you about it?"
"The padre, of course. The professional custodian of secrets. Ridiculous, isn't it?"
Joan noticed that he was only giving her a corner of his attention, for his eyes still lingered on Miss Corner. It was plain, from her understanding smile, that he was on terms of intimacy with the novelist. While Joan was sufficiently experienced to know that the laws of attraction are inexplicable, Miss Corner's grinning red face reminded her so strongly of the Leg of Mutton, in Alice Through the Looking-Glass, that she discarded the possibility of a romantic attachment for an uglier motive.
'Miss Corner's a rich spinster,' she thought. 'Suppose he is ingratiating himself with her, to get her to leave him her money. Mercy. I'm as bad as old Purley.'
But she knew that her friend would carry her lurid speculations a stage further, and she shuddered as her imagination suddenly shied at a gruesome reflection.
'A gentle smiling poisoner.'
She wrenched the idea from her mind.
'I'm a horror,' she thought contritely. 'It's Purley's fault. She started it, and now suspicion seems in the air.'
Restored to commonsense, she listened to Mrs. Scudamore, whose large, mild eyes were like searchlights, picking out the faces of her social disciples in order to secure their attention.
"Of course," she hinted gently, "I shall not allude to the letter when I next meet Miss Asprey. My silence will assure her of my entire sympathy. But I should only insult her if I let her think that I'd given even a minute's thought to such a wicked and ridiculous slander."
Her reassuring smile was the unspoken rider to her little speech. 'Now, you all know how to behave.'
"Yes." Vivian's fair face flushed, and she spoke too quickly. "Shall we all promise, that, whatever we may hear about each other, we won't believe it?"
At the unguarded request, everyone stared at her, aghast, for her words seemed to hint at the actual existence of secret swamps. In the silence that followed a dark flicker shook through the room.
It was the first warning of the approach of Fear.
THE next day was sultry, with blazing sunshine and a cloudless sky. Hot weather always filled Joan with extra energy, so that after she had safely settled Lady d'Arcy for the afternoon, she determined to walk to the top of the Downs, to get a breeze.
When she came out of the tenebrous Quakers' Walk, the thatched cottages of the village looked like golden bee-hives, and the old pump seemed to nod in the drowsy heat. Everyone seemed to be under the spell of the Sleeping Beauty, for Joan met no one in the cobbled street.
When she passed the picturesque water-fed garden of Spout Manor, however, she saw Miss Mack looking through the gate. Her placid face and smiling lips gave her an appearance of complete happiness; but there was a suggestion of bars about the ironwork through which she peered, which made the little woman seem vaguely pathetic.
"Hulloa," called Joan. "Glorious, isn't it?"
"Yes," smiled Miss Mack. "Are you going for a walk?"
"Rather. Right to the top of the Downs."
"How nice. I'd like to be a hiker—too."
"You mean—wear shorts and carry a rucksack?"
Joan glanced at the squat little figure and stilled her heartless grin.
"Where's Miss Asprey?" she asked, as she thought of the anonymous letter.
"Gardening, over there."
Miss Mack looked rather furtively to where a tall, thin form in a grey, knitted suit, stooped over a flower-border, in the distance. Then, as though eager to keep the girl a little longer, she touched Joan's safety-pin brooch.
"That's pretty," she said. "But it's not properly fastened. You'll lose it."
As her podgy fingers busied themselves with the pin, Joan—although not more tolerant of middle-aged society than the average girl—suddenly felt called upon to make a sacrifice.
"Why don't you come with me?" she asked.
"I'd like to," cried Miss Mack. "I've nothing to do for Miss Asprey."
"Fine. Now, I've got to drop some mags at St. James's House. Get ready—strong shoes and a stick—and never mind about shorts. I'll come back in a few minutes and collect you."
As the little woman pattered eagerly up the drive, Joan felt almost rewarded, even while she grumbled inwardly.
"What a fool. Dished my whole afternoon."
She carried a pile of magazines, which Dr. Perry had lent to his wealthy patient. Like most of the residents, Lady d'Arcy was meticulous in ordering only biographies and books of travel from her London Library; but she borrowed every novel and magazine that she saw in her friends' houses.
As the gates clanged behind Joan, Marianne Perry sauntered across the daisied lawn to meet her. She wore a green pyjama-suit and looked as though the doctor had blacked both her eyes; yet she managed to preserve her odd attraction.
"Oh, why did you fag with these?" she cried, as she took the magazines and threw them on the grass. "It's too marvellously hot."
"You look cool, anyway," Joan told her.
"Don't mention my pyjamas," implored Marianne. "They're my painful subject. When I first wore them I was fool enough to think I was going to shock the village; but Mrs. Scudamore merely said they were very decent and comfortable, if not exactly becoming."
"Like her," nodded Joan. "She's always on guard against any charge of prudery. But she really is terribly sensible. Where are the babes?"
"Having a sun-bath. Like to see my private Zoo? Can you stand indecent exposure?"
Marianne sauntered across the lawn to a distant corner, where two naked infants, crowned with enormous coolie straw hats, were staggering around their play-pen. Her black-ringed eyes were almost ravenous with maternal passion, but she spoke with affected detachment.
"Amusing brats, aren't they? Terribly out of proportion, although Micky's growing to his head and tummy."
Then she clasped her slim waist.
"I'm sun-bathing, too, for a cure," she explained. "I seem to have an everlasting pain. Nothing much, and the doctor will call it unripe fruit."
"It sounds rather like a grumbling appendix," declared Joan with the swift and sure touch of unprofessional diagnosis.
"Perhaps," agreed Marianne. "I accuse my husband of experimental poisoning, but I can't get him to come clean."
Although the words were intended for a joke, Joan did not feel amused. They seemed out of place on this day of burning summer, while the gracious Queen Anne house mellowed with the passing of yet another day, and babies gurgled and sprawled in the shade of pink horse-chestnuts.
She felt slightly out of tune with the glory of the year, when she reached the gates of 'The Spout'. To her surprise, Miss Mack was not ready for the walk, although she was waiting on the drive. Ada—her red-gold hair burnished by sunlight—was cutting the grass, while Miss Asprey, complete with shady hat and walking-stick, stood by the gate.
"Aren't you ready, Miss Mack?" asked Joan.
"No. I'm sorry, but I'm too busy to come this afternoon," was the placid reply.
"But I thought you said you had nothing to do," said Joan. Miss Asprey smiled in benign encouragement on her little companion.
"Miss Mack forgot she has to address envelopes for a Charity Appeal," she explained. "You like doing them, don't you, my dear?"
"Yes, indeed, I do," was the instant reply.
"Miss Mack tells me you want company on your walk," went on Miss Asprey, turning to Joan. "If I can fill the gap, I shall be very glad."
In spite of the rare fascination of her smile, Joan felt a prick of rebellion against the queen of the village.
"That's terribly nice of you," she said, without enthusiasm. "But I wanted to get up on the Downs. Won't it be too much for you in this heat?"
"I think not. Are you ready? Then shall we start?"
Joan still felt antagonistic to Miss Asprey; but they had barely gone a dozen yards before an incident occurred which made her veer round like a weathercock.
A little boy was dragging along a puppy, on a lead, with such careless jerks that a rare visitor stopped to reprove him. He merely stared at the stranger blankly, and pulled on the puppy again.
It was then that Miss Asprey commanded the situation.
"Bertie," she said, in her firm, pleasant voice, "you cannot keep that dog any longer without a licence. I promised I would buy one, if you were gentle with it. But, as you've been rough, it's going to be given to a kind little girl."
At her imperious wave, Ada ran out of the garden and listened to her instructions. Picking up the puppy, she carried it back to 'The Spout', laughing and ducking her head as the dog tried to lick her face. Miss Asprey looked down at the boy's quivering lips.
"Animals are not toys, Bertie," she said, "and you cannot treat them as such. But I am going to give you a toy dog, to teach you to be gentle with a real one, later on. I warn you that if you kick it, or throw it down, I shall take it away."
Miss Asprey walked away, having dispensed justice to the general happiness. Bertie was beaming with dumb pleasure, while Miss Mack waved a smiling farewell, from the gates. Ada made even the pup wag a paw to her mistress, and Joan repented her own disloyalty.
'She's really kind' she thought, 'but she's not sloppy. After all, Miss Mack must have known about those envelopes. I should have to stay in, to get out an Appeal. After all, we're paid to do our jobs.'
They soon passed through the sleepy village—gold-powdered, with dusty-blue shadows—and reached 'The King's Head', where the road looped to meet the highway to London. Here the rolling sea of green fields sloped, gently and imperceptibly, upwards to the low eminence of the Downs. Joan became conscious that she was leading, and fell back, with an apology.
"I'm so sorry. I'm afraid I am walking too fast for you."
"What is your usual pace?" asked Miss Asprey.
"The usual four miles an hour."
"The usual? Then I'm afraid I am a back-number. I follow the example of the Roman Legion. Their pace was three miles an hour, up hill and down dale, and they never hurried or slackened."
"That's all right for me," said Joan virtuously, conscious of the obligation of youth towards age. "I'll be a Roman Legion, too, for the afternoon."
"May I keep you to that?" asked Miss Asprey. "I hate to preach, but I always think discipline is good for us all. Especially myself."
Curbing her own impatience to push on towards the ridge of the Downs, Joan tried to surrender herself to the delights of the country. There was the hum of insects, the scent of hot grass, the singing of larks quivering in the blue air. Little yellow butterflies flitted across the path. The fields were ripe for hay, with coral and white flashes of sorrel and moon-daisies, and the hedges were laden with may, beginning to brown.
But it seemed to Joan that something was lacking. "Mind if I smoke?" she asked.
"My dear child, why ask? You are your own mistress."
Joan lit a cigarette, but Miss Asprey did not stop while she performed the usual business of shielding the flame. When the girl looked up, the grey figure was several paces ahead.
'The Roman Legion's not exactly matey,' thought Joan.
She smoked a couple of cigarettes, but the trend of the path was always upwards, and the sun blazed down fiercely on her uncovered head.
"If you don't mind, I'll take off my shoes and stockings," she said. "Don't stop. I'll soon catch you up."
"Certainly," agreed Miss Asprey, as she continued to walk.
Joan did not find her plan the anticipated success, for the ground proved too bumpy and stubbed her toes. When she had put on her shoes and stockings again Miss Asprey's tall grey figure was some distance away.
She enjoyed her run to catch up with her companion, for she worked off some of her steam of suppressed irritation; but the uphill sprint winded her, so that she was forced to appeal to the inexorable grey back.
"Do you mind—stopping for me to—get my breath?"
"Of course," was the gentle reply. "I'm sorry. But I thought you were a Roman legionary."
There was a flicker of mockery in her smile which put Joan on her mettle. She walked on instantly, without stopping to rest. But the ridge appeared as far off as before—a thin green line against the fierce blue sky.
Miss Asprey seemed unaffected either by heat or exertion. It was obvious that she was trying to find subjects which would interest Joan, for she broke off a lucid analysis of the International Debt problem, to talk about Swiss winter resorts. It was with mingled envy and surprise that Joan noticed that while she, herself, occasionally gasped for breath, Miss Asprey's voice was entirely under control.
'Is she trying to rub it in that I'm one of the rotten younger generation?' she thought. 'If so, I'll take her on, and walk her to a finish.'
She made a spectacular spurt, but Miss Asprey continued to walk at her usual pace, and Joan fell back again. In order to take her thoughts off her growing discomfort, she tried to lead the conversation to a subject of more human interest.
"I suppose your Rescue Work was frightfully interesting," she said.
"Frightfully," agreed Miss Asprey.
"Did you get many failures?"
"Yes. But one success redeemed fifty failures."
"Were the girls grateful?"
"We didn't expect gratitude."
Joan mopped her face and glanced at Miss Asprey. 'She's walking like a machine,' she thought. 'She's only a Robot.'
Some of her annoyance betrayed itself in her next sentence.
"Personally, I've a lot of sympathy with those wretched girls. It seems to me pretty damnable to dress them in hideous uniforms and set them to wash other people's pretty things."
Miss Asprey turned her silver head and regarded Joan with amused, tolerant eyes.
"Do you send your own lingerie to a laundry?" she asked.
"No," replied Joan. "I wash them, myself. But I'm a poor 'working goil'."
"Exactly. And rich women naturally expect their maids to do their private laundry. So, you see, our girls had not to undergo that special refined mental torture that you are inventing for them."
"I suppose you think me a fool," said Joan bluntly, as once again she was conscious that the village reservoir of cool commonsense was drawn through the channels of such antiseptic minds as Miss Asprey's and Mrs. Scudamore's.
The ground now rose before them at a sharp gradient, so that she was forced to stop talking, in order to reserve herself for the last stiff pull. When she reached the summit she threw herself, panting, down on the short turf, while Miss Asprey looked at her with a smile of gentle compassion.
"My dear child," she said, "why didn't you tell me you were exhausted? You should have rested."
"I'm all right, thanks. I simply loved it," declared Joan.
She shut her eyes and lay still, until Miss Asprey, who was standing like the statue of a saint erected to guard the encircling countryside, glanced at her watch.
"Time to go back," she said. "We must adhere to the timetable of the Roman Legion."
True to her declaration, she continued to walk at her three miles an hour, while Joan ran down the slopes with a sense of joyous freedom. It was good to feel that every step was taking her nearer home, for a walk in the company of a Roman legionary had proved only a penance. In the glow of her sudden warmth, she remembered poor little Miss Mack.
"Miss Asprey," she said, "will you let Miss Mack come with me next time?"
There was a perceptible pause before Miss Asprey spoke. Instead of replying to Joan's question, she, in her turn, asked another.
"Have you taken any special liking to Miss Mack?"
"No," replied Joan. "But I feel there should be some common bond between us." She laughed lightly. "We're both upper servants. And I'm so lucky. Lady d'Arcy gives me such a lot of freedom."
"So you contrast poor Miss Mack's lot with your own?"
"Of course not. I'm sure you're wonderfully good to her, too."
"Thank you. Do you consider her unhappy?"
Joan thought of Miss Mack's plump smiling face.
"Oh, no," she cried.
"I'm glad of that," said Miss Asprey quietly. "It would grieve me to think otherwise. And it would be a terrible reflection on myself...But I'm going to ask you not to invite her again to accompany you on any of your excursions...It's not good for her."
Joan felt as though she'd received a slap in the face.
"Oh—but why?" she cried.
"Because," Miss Asprey's voice was like tinkling ice—"she is of a different disposition to yourself. I don't want her to be over-excited—or grow restless. Believe me, I have her welfare at heart."
Joan gazed resentfully at the ivory profile against the burning blue sky. It was so bleak, so purged of human passion—that she was reminded of the mental detachment of the Inquisition, when it tortured bodies to gain souls.
"Oh, very well," she said coldly. "I won't ask her."
A few yards lower down, she gave a little cry.
"Hang. I've lost my brooch."
"I don't think so," said Miss Asprey. "You were not wearing a brooch."
"But I was," persisted Joan. "Miss Mack warned me that the pin wasn't too safe."
"In that case," remarked Miss Asprey, with a perceptible tightening of her well-cut lips, "you have probably lost it on your climb. It may be on the top, where you lay down. We'll go back and search for it."
"No, thanks," said Joan quickly. "It's worth twopence."
"But even a twopenny brooch has that value. As you're so tired, sit down, and I'll go back for it."
Joan bit her lip as she staggered to her feet.
'She only wants to humiliate me,' she thought. 'I'm going, too, if it kills me. She saw that I resented Miss Mack—and she is going to punish me. She's not a saint. She's cruel.'
AS Miss Corner had a sheltered garden, with a southern aspect, her strawberries were first in the neighbourhood to ripen. This was her signal to give the opening garden-party of the season. Directly she received her gardener's report, she sent out her invitations.
There were no refusals, and even the Squire did the novelist the rare honour to be present. He was a big, burly man, both blustering and sentimental, who advertised his loyalty, during the War, by decorating his car with the Union Jack, and who erected grave-stones over the pets whose death had not caused him a pang. He had the moral support of the entire male population, while there was a full muster of ladies.
Joan Brook stood by herself on the path beside the raised Kelway border, on purpose to watch the scene, for this form of typical country entertainment was new to her, and she wanted to see the village in its party frock. Everyone wore new summer finery, reserved for the occasion. The small tables dotted about the lawn displayed the dishes of strawberries, which gave the 'signature' to the party. An imported string-orchestra played 'Valses from Vienna', and the weather was perfect, with fountains of white cloud spouting up into a vivid blue sky.
Miss Julia Corner, in pale pink chiffon, stenciled with enormous roses, and a flopping crinoline hat, felt the thrill of a successful hostess as she beamed on her guests. As far as she could estimate from her rough count of heads, nearly everyone had arrived. Her loud laughter rang out and her petals seemed to expand visibly in the warm air, as she gave the signal for the tea to be carried out on the lawns.
The poor soul had no knowledge of an unbidden outsider—a dark, shapeless blur—which slunk outside the gate, awaiting its opportunity to steal inside.
Joan, too, was unconscious of any shadow, or threat of impending trouble, as she lingered by the delphiniums and columbines, for her attention was held by Mrs. Perry. Although the doctor's wife looked, as usual, beautiful wreckage, it was clear that she possessed the essential quality of attraction, for most of the men were clustered around her. Even the Squire was indulging in a heavy flirtation, for which, afterwards, he would be furiously angry with the lady.
Joan was disturbed by the approach of the doctor.
"Admiring us?" he asked lightly.
"I'm admiring your wife," replied Joan.
"That's nice of you. She always manages to convey the impression of an Evelyn Brent adventuress, which is quite clever of her. The sad truth is, she concentrates exclusively on her babies."
"Does she?" Joan's voice was so incredulous, as she remembered the sun-bathing episode, that she hastened to make amends. "No wonder," she added quickly. "They're perfect darlings. Aren't you lucky?"
"Are we? I wonder. Insecurity is every parent's nightmare. Doctors go out of fashion."
"But not here."
"No." The doctor smiled. "I think I'm fairly dug-in here. You know, my family has lived in this place for centuries...But why are you perched up here, alone?"
"I understand. I'm also a spectator of the Divine Comedy. But—I should place you on the stage."
Joan was slightly annoyed by the manner in which the doctor glanced across to the Rector, who—clad in clerical grey—was hurling himself through the different groups, rather like an animated version of Michelangelo's Sun being projected into Space.
"If it comes to that," she remarked, "I'm not so sure that you are as passive as you seem."
"Ah. I'm intelligent enough to recognise that for flattery. There is nothing so dull as a country G.P. He is only interesting when he stands in the Dock, on a capital charge."
His detachment was so stressed that Joan tried to startle him into interest.
"You mean murder?" she asked. "Of course, I don't want to boast, but I had a relative who was hanged. And not for something he didn't do, either. He murdered his wife."
"Let's be modern, and call it rather too strong a dose of human nature...Different to this village." Joan laughed. "It's nearly Heaven on earth. Take one example. I'm here. The best people have never asked me to their parties before."
"I'm glad you like us," said the doctor.
"I do. And yet—I've a feeling I'm not sure of—of one person."
Dr. Perry flashed her an interested glance.
"Who?" he asked.
Although indiscretion was Joan's special failing, instinct warned her it would be wiser not to utter a hint of treason against the queen of the village.
But the doctor's eyes had followed hers, and he noticed that she was glancing at a group of ladies gathered near the gates. Miss Asprey had just arrived.
"Who?" he repeated.
"No one," replied Joan, in an effort to confuse the trail. "I was only talking in a general sort of way. All the people here are so marvellously kind that I sometimes wonder if they could be cruel. For instance, there's—there's Mrs. Scudamore. Her own marriage is perfect. Well, suppose I was a tarnished heroine, how would she treat me?"
"She would be perfectly just."
"I'm sure of it. But would she understand? Would she feel we were both women who loved our men, and there was nothing between us, but five minutes in some dirty Register Office?"
"Perhaps not. Why should she understand the self-indulgence of a temptation to which she, herself, would never yield?"
In spite of the chill in Dr. Perry's voice, Joan was satisfied with the success of her ruse.
"Why, there's Miss Asprey," she cried innocently.
The queen of the village walked slowly across, the lawn, like an actress taking the stage. She wore a sober grey gown, with white collar and cuffs, which suggested a Quakeress, until the fact emerged that the materials were soft dull satin and exquisite lace. It was her first public appearance since the episode of the letter, and she moved with poise and dignity, although she leaned upon a silver-headed cane.
Her appearance was a signal for a demonstration of silent sympathy. There was a definite stir in her direction and she was overwhelmed with welcomes. Those who could not reach her, tried to catch her eye with their smiles. Only Joan, in her new spirit of criticism—stood outside the circle of her court.
"Does an attack on your moral character make you limp?" she asked the doctor.
"When you've lived here as long as Miss Asprey," replied the doctor, "you'll make the acquaintance of every drop of uric acid in your system. The 'Spout' is damp, and Miss Asprey suffers from sciatica. It's very brave of her to come...Shall we go and speak to her?"
Joan followed the doctor rather reluctantly, for she remembered certain painful and breathless hours in the company of a tireless walker. There was no hint of muscular trouble about Miss Asprey on that occasion. A confused memory of drawing-room gossip swam into her brain.
'I was whacked, while she was fresh. Did she suck my strength? Oh, idiot.'
Although she shook off her sensational suspicion, the late entrance still struck her as staged to attract attention.
But as she drew near enough to see Miss Asprey's face she was ashamed of her thoughts. The elderly woman's expression was stern with the bleak spiritualism of one who had burnt away all gross elements in the fires of martyrdom. Her response to the general homage was so gently indifferent that it was plain that she did not care a fig for popularity.
Then—once again—came the jar of an ugly little incident. Miss Corner, like an overblown pink rose, rushed across the lawn to speak to her guest.
"My goodness, Decima, I never noticed before that you've not brought Miss Mack? Where is she?"
"In bed, I hope," was the quiet reply. "I was going to make her apologies when you were called away. We are both of us so sorry that she is unable to come. But she has violent neuralgia."
Everyone accepted the explanation, with one exception. Although there was now a gap in the ranks of Miss Asprey's court, Joan turned away and stood gazing at the scene, as though it had suddenly grown unreal.
It was a charming spectacle of shaven lawns, roses, and the best people. The hired waiters rushed round with plates of strawberries and pitchers of cream. A trellis covered with clusters of mauve wistaria provided touches of tender colour on the soft prevailing green.
Everything was beautiful—yet what did it conceal? The novelist, Purley, had talked of flowers growing on slime. Joan remembered the smile as horribly apposite to her suspicion.
For she could not square Miss Asprey's excuse with her own knowledge of facts.
Only fifteen minutes previously, when she had passed the garden of 'The Spout', in Lady d'Arcy's car, she had waved to Miss Mack, who was standing behind the gate. There was no sign of pain or illness about the little companion's smiling face; yet, probably because of the iron bars, she again managed to convey a pathetic impression of a prisoner.
Joan was gritting her teeth—a survival of a bad nursery habit—when the Rector came up, balancing a plate of strawberries in either hand.
"Why aren't you mopping up strawberries?" he asked. "It's what we're here for. Come along with me. This looks like our table. Reserved for us, isn't it, John?"
The waiter beamed, for the Rector was the prince of good mixers, and Joan sat down, in the shade of a copper-beach, with a sense of relief. Unlike the doctor, the Rector had come to refresh her body, and not to pick her brain. He, too, was a comparative new-comer, so that she felt removed to a more familiar plane.
"Saw you talking to the doctor," remarked the Rector. "Nice fellow, but a bit precious."
The first drop of poison had established a small but definitely inflamed area, for the relationship of the two men was now on a different basis. They no longer smoked in the fraternal silence of Freemasons, but talked with the geniality of two men-of-the-world.
"My stock's down with him," confessed Joan. "Just because I tried to thrill him by telling him that we had a murderer in our family."
"You should have called him an assassin. That sounds historical. He'd have gone down all right as an ancestor."
It was the most uncharitable remark that Joan had heard from the Rector, but it made her feel at ease, so that she was betrayed to fresh indiscretion.
"The fact is," she said, "the doctor's family is older than the Peerage, and his stock must be played out. It's time it was extinct, in the cause of Progress. A real modernist would say that he ought to collect his entire family in the oven, and turn on the gas."
Her clear voice carried to the next table, where the Scudamores were presenting a Darby and Joan idyll, as they had tea together. Mrs. Scudamore, who was very impressive in purple, looked up and stared at Joan—her lips set and her eyes startled, as though she could not believe her ears. Even the Rector pulled down his mouth.
"Look here, my dear," he said, "I can understand your modern language, although I cannot speak it, but do remember that these people understand only King's English."
"I'll remember. Sorry."
As Joan gazed at the Rector, for the first time she believed the story of his crash. Usually, he looked as though he would be better for a little blood-letting, in order to drain off his surplus energy; but, today, his eyes were tired and his mouth sunken.
"You look rather dissipated about your eyes," she remarked.
"Poached eggs?" asked the Rector. "They come from a bad night. I still get them, sometimes. I had supper with the Jameses last night, at the Constabulary, and Mrs. James is a clinking cook. Sausages and mash—supreme. I gorged, so when I got to bed I had a sort of recurring dream, which took it out of me."
"One of the embarrassing kind?"
"No. I dreamed I was having a fight with someone—I used to be an amateur heavy-weight—and I was taking terrific punishment. I was furious at getting licked, but, what maddened me most, was the fact, that—somehow—I couldn't see whom I was fighting with. The chap kept ducking and dodging, to hide his face. Yet I had a feeling it was someone I knew, that made it seem rather horrible. Anyway, I got so worked up that I woke up in a shocking state."
"You still are," sad Joan. "You're holding your plate crooked."
The Rector absently wiped the trickle of cream from his coat, as he looked around him.
"Is it my fancy?" he asked. "Or is this party not quite a blazing success."
He did not know that the dark huddle outside the gate had now crashed the party. Hiding in its corner, it only waited a signal from the hostess, to mingle with her guests.
But it seemed to the Rector that there was a slight general atmosphere of constraint. Miss Asprey had reminded the company of the anonymous letter. While its authorship was still unknown, there was bound to be some uneasiness. So there occurred those little frosted pauses in the conversation which were heralds of the fatal ice-jam.
Miss Corner, however, was unaware of any blight. She was a dynamic hostess—rushing from group to group, with gales of laughter, and a balloon inflation of her rosy flounces—organising competitions, compelling people to play croquet, and lighting fresh cigarettes as fast as she threw them away.
Dr. Perry watched her, as the party wore on, and cup and ices succeeded tea. She called to the orchestra to play the waltz from 'Congress Dances', and executed a few steps of a solo, as she exhorted her guests to live, love, and laugh.
Finally, she threw herself down, panting, on a garden chair. It was the first time she had sat down, that afternoon, and Dr. Perry took the chance to bring her iced cider-cup.
She beamed on him as she wiped her heated face.
"Here comes my hero," she shouted. "Did you know that the doctor is the hero of every one of my novels?"
No one could possibly know, as Miss Corner's books were unread in the village, but she went on to explain.
"I've written twelve novels, and I've put an entirely different kind of hero in each. But it's always the doctor. For he's, really, a dozen different men, and he covers the lot with one hat."
Everyone laughed politely, while the doctor gave a deprecating smile.
"That should make me sound interesting, even to my wife," he sad.
At the sound of her name, Marianne Perry, who was re-fastening the Squire's buttonhole, suddenly jabbed in the pin, and turned away abruptly, to join another group. Her thin, scarlet lips were quivering and her eyes smouldering with rage, as she whispered huskily to the Squire's wife.
"How dare she say that of my husband?"
Kindly Mrs. Sheriff was surprised by her vehemence.
"But, my dear," she explained, "it was only a joke."
"A joke that goes too far," declared Marianne. "A doctor must inspire confidence, because he holds a position of trust. I don't call it a joke to imply that my husband isn't quite what he seems to be, but a bit more. We—we've babies to think of."
She added, "especially now."
"Oh, you know."
As Marianne bit her lip to regain her self-control, poor Miss Corner unconsciously applied the match which blew up her party. She flashed her glasses round the lawn and then crossed to Miss Asprey, speaking with the easy familiarity of one old school-mate to another.
"Well, Decima, anything fresh about your anonymous letter?"
Miss Asprey raised her heavy ivory lids.
"No," she replied. "It is best forgotten."
"No idea as to who wrote it?" went on Miss Corner, unabashed.
Miss Corner suddenly exploded into a fit of laughter. "Perhaps I could make a guess," she said.
As though her words were a signal, the dark blotch, huddled in a corner of the garden, quivered into hideous life and mingled with the other guests.
With the entry of Fear, Miss Corner's party was practically killed, for its spirit had soured and died. The continual hum of conversation was now broken by sudden awkward pauses. Immaculate men and elegant ladies stood in the usual little clusters, but each one gave the impression of whispering to his friend, while he tried to overhear his neighbour. For the same thought was in every mind.
'There is someone here who has slandered a good woman. I may be the next victim.'
Usually, the Squire was the first to leave any social function, for even Mrs. Scudamore waited for his signal. On this occasion, however, Miss Asprey made the important move. She rose unobtrusively and whispered to Miss Corner.
"Thank you, dear Julia. Let me slip away quietly. I don't want to break up your party, but I feel I must return to my poor Miss Mack."
But the queen of the village could not leave without the notice of her subjects. The Squire was next to react to the moral rot. He looked at his watch, caught his wife's eyes, and asked her to collect Vivian, who was playing clock-golf with the manly Major Blair.
Immediately his car rolled away there was a general departure, which was swift and concentrated. Miss Corner—her red face perplexed, but smiling—stood and shook hands, while she listened to a collection of assorted compliments and excuses. Within ten minutes, she was left alone in her garden, amid a desert of empty chairs, drained tea-cups and strawberry-hulls.
"Well, I'm damned," she remarked, as she lit a fresh cigarette and sat down to think.
Presently, Mrs. Pike came out on the lawn, although not quite certain of her reception.
"It's over a bit early, isn't it, madam?" she asked doubtfully.
"Well, that's nothing for us to complain of," said Miss Corner briskly. "You can get cleared away. And I can return to the excellent company of Mr. Strachey. You really ought to read him, Mrs. Pike."
But Mrs. Pike knew that the most detached hostess must feel the failure of an expensive entertainment, and she showed her sympathy.
"It's a shame...I wonder why."
Miss Corner winked at a bed of flamingo-red sweet-Williams.
"Perhaps, Mrs. Pike," she said, "that is the half of your story which we do not know."
BY the next day, Fear had slunk back to its lair, so that the social life of the village again flowed on tranquilly. The Scudamores' evening parade was punctual and affectionate as usual. But there was one difference.
Miss Corner was not met casually in any drawing-room. It was true that her name was not left out of invitation-lists purposely; but it was not included. And nobody knew exactly why—or could be prevailed on to discuss the situation. It was just an instinctive matter of sensitive feelers.
Miss Corner was not affected by the social frost, for it gave her more time for her new school-serial—all about a boy who topped the Examinations, in spite of the fact that his rival cheated—which was rather an indictment on the accuracy of the text-books from which he cribbed.
She had to break off, however, when the bills for the garden-party came in. Her brow puckered as she wrote cheques for the orchestra, the waiters, hired chairs, cream and ices. Then, as the acid of the situation bit home to her practical nature, she exploded into a heart-felt 'Damn'.
Presently, she took up a blank engagement-book.
"Lady d'Arcy's At Home," she murmured. "Too fine a day to waste on shoddy minds, when I could meet Maurois. But the walk will be good for my overweight."
Joan Brook also disliked the prospect of giving up her afternoon of precious liberty, while Lady d'Arcy was equally depressed.
"You must stay in, Brooky," she said. "An appalling sacrifice. Just asking to be bored—and my garden calling."
The kindly lady did not know that boredom was not to be her portion, or that she was destined to make local history. As she sat in front of the tea-tray, and murmured the platitudes of a hostess, her big, grey-green eyes were mournfully fixed on her sheets of irises, while her thoughts hovered, like butterflies, over her flowers.
To Joan, also, the scene had the blurred quality of a dream. The vast drawing-room, with its dark polished surfaces and rippling reflections of greenery, seemed a shady cavern from which she, too, looked out wistfully into the quivering heat. She could hear the hum of bees beating on the warm air, like a myriad invisible spinning-wheels, as she fixed her eyes on a distant streak of brilliant yellow, which marked the union of the gardens with the buttercup-pastures.
It was the static At Home, with its familiar guests, tea equipment, and refreshment; everything was as usual—polite boredom, corpulent silver, and a smother of cream. Joan dutifully shouted down a dowager's ear-trumpet, and listened to an interchange of political views, drawn from the same source—the leader of the only newspaper read by the best people.
She looked up with a sense of relief when the footman announced Mrs. Perry, for the doctor's wife was always an irritant quality. On this occasion, Marianne did not fail Joan. She swooped in, dressed in amber, and heavily scented with some Oriental attar of geraniums. Soon, without warning, she threw a smoking bomb into the drowsy drawing-room.
"Well," she said, sweeping the politicians off the board, "what do you think about Miss Corner's confession?"
"Confession?" echoed Lady d'Arcy. "What has Miss Corner confessed to?"
"Writing the anonymous letter to Miss Asprey. She practically admitted it at her garden-party."
"But that was only her nonsense. Why should she give herself away?"
"To throw dust in our eyes, of course. Besides, who else could have written it? She's always been jealous of Miss Asprey. And she lives alone, and very likely, broods. My husband says that every anonymous letter-writer is a pathological case."
There was a painful pause, for all present were of kindly disposition, and scandal was almost an unknown quality. Although they were aware of an undercurrent of throbbing interest, they were relieved when Lady d'Arcy, so to speak, re-spread the smother of cream over the conversation.
"We have no actual proof," she said blandly.
"What proof can you have?" persisted Marianne. "An anonymous letter is not witnessed, like a legal document."
Pent up in one corner, fluid Lady d'Arcy overflowed in another.
"But is it English to suspect someone who's not been proved guilty?" she asked.
The doctor's wife drew up a corner of her scarlet lip, exposing a tooth, almost in a snarl.
"It's rather a personal matter with me," she said, "as, naturally, I objected to a remark she made about my husband. I may ask you, Lady d'Arcy, is it English to say anything that might discredit a professional man, who has two little children dependent on him?"
Joan had ceased to shout down the ear-trumpet, for this was not the static At Home. Thrilled with excitement, she looked around her, at the guests, from Mrs. Scudamore—wrapped in the non-committal calm of 'good form'—to Vivian Sheriff, who was sitting in the window.
Under the brim of her mushroom hat, Vivian's face looked pinkly infantile, and her frock was frilled baby-blue. But her eyes held almost painful tension, as she spoke.
"Perhaps, it's as well, for us to be on our guard."
"Guard against what?" asked Mrs. Scudamore, speaking for the first time. "No harm has been done."
"Not yet. But this may be only the beginning."
As Vivian spoke, once again a black flicker quivered across the sun-drenched garden.
Marianne was first to respond to the toxic quality of Fear. Her voice was sharp as she broke into a nervous tirade.
"I think anyone who writes an anonymous letter is a real danger. Whenever there's been some terrible crime—a little child murdered—there's always a pest of these letters. I suppose it's some warped sense of humour—Heaven help them—but they all add to the mental torture of the parents. I—I speak as a mother. Besides, they confuse the real clues and hinder the Police. Personally I should have no mercy on an anonymous letter-writer."
"I agree." Mrs. Scudamore's voice was so low as to be almost inaudible. "The idea of any kind of cruelty repels me. But—in such a case—I should be ruthless, so that good might result."
Everyone gasped, for the social oracle had spoken. Then Vivian broke the pause, with a nervous giggle.
"Miss Corner's coming up the drive."
Instantly, Lady d'Arcy gave Joan the first direct order she had received.
"Miss Brook, will you please tell William I am not at home?"
Hardly able to credit her ears, Joan slipped out into the hall, paved like a chess-board, with black-and-white marble flags. Unfortunately, the front door was open, so that she could see Miss Corner—red and beaming—wiping her heated face, as she waited in the porch. But she was too short sighted to recognise the girl, who kept in the shadow of the wall, as she whispered Lady d'Arcy's instruction to the footman.
Joan returned to the drawing-room, just as the bell pealed through the hall. She heard a murmur of voices, followed by an ominous silence. And then the gravel crunched once more under Miss Corner's footsteps.
Looking through the window, Joan saw the back of her broad figure trudging down the drive.
Perhaps a front view of the lady might have salved Joan's troubled mind, for Miss Corner's face was still red and beaming.
"Fools," she remarked to a passing bumble-bee. "But it's typical of a mentality that accepts her."
The sun beat down fiercely, but she deliberately rejected the shade-dappled park for the long tramp through the fields. Swinging her arms, she pounded along the ribbon of bumpy path, inhaling the scents of hot pollen and dog-roses. Beads of moisture gathered on her forehead, and trickled down her neck and cheeks, but she did not wipe them away, when she reached the dark tunnel of the Quaker's Walk.
The cooler temperature made her shiver slightly, so that she walked still faster, until a familiar voice behind her caused her to stop.
"Is this a dirt-track? I've had to run to catch you up."
In spite of his statement, Dr. Perry looked cool and composed, as usual, in his light summer suit. As he remarked Miss Corner's distressed condition, his expression was both pained and pleased, for, allied with his compassionate nature, was the zeal of the collector who spikes his bug.
"You've got too hot," he said reproachfully.
"I've been trying to disperse my atoms," explained Miss Corner. "But they're the most faithful ever. I lose them, only to find them somewhere else. I'm told I'm composed of a pound of chemical dirt and a pail of water. Well, I find it hard to believe."
"But you should really keep in the shade," persisted the doctor.
"I hate the shade. This avenue gives me a churchyard chill. And I hate to think of death."
Her loud laugh rolled down the avenue.
"The people here take that as proof that I'm not sure of my future abode. But I don't go to church, because I can't stand the rubbish that young man preaches. He's all delivery—and not one original idea."
Dr. Perry did not hide his pleasure.
"You—and I—are in the minority," he smiled.
"Very much so. Of course the village raves about him. All the same, when they go to book the best seats I think they'll be rather surprised to find there's no Box-Office in Heaven. Blow them."
"Anything special the matter?" asked the doctor curiously.
"Nothing. Only, tell me a funny story. A pathological one, all about things not mentioned in polite society."
"Medical facts are never gross, Julia. But you sound as if you'd been having an overdose of refinement. My Marianne suffers from the same complaint. She was groaning all through lunch. I suppose you've just come away from Lady d'Arcy's At Home?"
"Yes, come away, but I never went to it. I was informed, at the door, that Lady d'Arcy was not at home."
For once Dr. Perry was startled out of his composure.
"Well, well, Julia," he said, gently patting her big shoulder. "You had all the luck."
"Don't I know it?... Horatio, you really are a friend. I want you to know something...I've left you all my money."
EVEN though the lethal quality was absent, there was fresh evidence that the poison of the anonymous letter had spread, when Dr. Perry and his wife decided to give their bi-seasonal tennis-party. It was always the second event on the social programme, according to precedent.
When they discussed their list of names, Marianne mutinied against Miss Corner's name being included, but—rather to her surprise—Dr. Perry made no protest.
"Leave her out, certainly," he said, "if you think it wise."
As he spoke, he looked down at the tow head of the elder baby, Micky, who was frogging round the dining-room. Even his blue rompers bore traces of Marianne's maternal devotion, in their small sprays of hand-embroidery; and, as her black-ringed eyes followed his course, which jagged like a temperature-chart, her expression changed.
"No," she said. "She's as good as an annuity to us. We can't risk offending her."
"I don't think there's any real risk of that," said the doctor quietly. "Julia's too big to nurse a grudge."
The invitations were finally sent out, after several unimportant names had been struck off the list; for the doctor's wife was selective, and also an alien, so had not acquired that spirit of wholesale kindliness which animated village hospitality.
But, when the acceptance came in, she was aghast by one important refusal. Miss Asprey regretted being unable to attend, as she had arranged a picnic on the Downs, as a little treat for Miss Mack.
"That's a dig at me," declared Marianne, "just because I didn't invite her companion. Hang it, why should I? Miss Mack doesn't play tennis. I don't want any paper at my shows."
The doctor went on tying flies, in silence, but his wife knew what was in his mind. Miss Asprey's absence would be noticed.
"They'll think she wouldn't come because of Miss Corner," she said. "It'll look as if we were taking sides—and a doctor's position should be impersonal. The truth is, there's not room here for both of those good women. One of them ought to be painlessly bumped off."
The second refusal was a sharper shock, for Mrs. Sheriff wrote, expressing regret that no one from the Hall could come, owing to indisposition. Even the doctor's composure was shattered.
"Who's ill?" he asked sharply.
"She doesn't say," replied Marianne. "Well, that's done us in. It's going to be a flop."
"Extraordinary," muttered the doctor, reading the note. "Mrs. Sheriff doesn't seem to realize that it's adding insult to injury to plead illness of which I've no official knowledge. I wonder who's been called in."
"Oh, darling"—Marianne's voice was impatient—"no one's ill. That's only an excuse, because they don't want to meet your special friend—the famous authoress who nobody's ever heard of."
As a matter-of-fact, the Squire's refusal was a gesture of self-respect. He did not like to remember that he had made himself cheap with an odd-looking woman like Mrs. Perry.
"I don't play tennis," he barked, when the invitation-card was received at the Hall.
"You can watch," suggested Mrs. Sheriff.
"Watch rabbits? If I want to watch tennis, I'll go up to Wimbledon."
"Then shall I refuse for you, and accept for Vivian and myself?" asked his wife.
"No, refuse for the lot...There's been some gossip about a letter. I don't want to get mixed up with village scandal."
Mrs. Sheriff was sorry, for the opportunities for Vivian to meet Major Blair were limited; but the Squire had the satisfaction of knowing that he had put Mrs. Perry in her place. She would understand that he was not her spaniel, to come when she whistled. A man had to be careful with a woman of her type; he could still remember the glint of her eyes through her lashes, and the stirring of her hair on his cheek, when she whispered to him.
Even as Marianne anticipated, her party was not a success, although she, herself, was partly to blame. She was too self-centred and restless to make a good hostess; when she talked to a guest, her eyes were elsewhere, and she rarely listened to what was said.
The weather, also, was close, with a hot grey-blue sky, so that the ices melted on their plates before they were served. But the real reason for the social blight was the absence of Miss Asprey and the party from the Hall.
It was an inexplicable double which made the guests look thoughtful. They had to supply the answer to their own question, and, apparently, reached the same conclusion, for when Miss Corner arrived there was not the usual eagerness to secure her as a partner.
In spite of her short sight, the novelist was the best tennis player in the neighbourhood, with a forehand drive like the kick of a horse. She carried four racquets under her arm, and was complete in a short, white, sleeveless tennis frock, and eye-shade.
Her jolly red face beamed over the courts as she waited for the play to begin.
"Enter Helen," she said, bowing to the circle of chairs. "Wonder what my form's like. Well, anyhow, you'll know I shan't try to hit two balls."
Her loud laughter rolled, as she pointed to her scrap of Oxford blue ribbon pinned to her snowy chest. But, presently, she grew impatient of the delay.
"Are we waiting for the Queen to come? What's keeping us? Shall we spin for the shady side? Where's my partner?"
Before the pause became awkward, Joan Brook rushed into the breach.
"Would you like a real handicap, Miss Corner?" she asked. "I'm only a rabbit."
"You can't be bad enough for me," shouted Miss Corner. "I love a fight to the finish—with all the odds against me. Lead on, Macduff."
The novelist gave no sign of feeling any loss of popularity, but there was a glint behind her glasses which told that she was on her mettle. Although it was her first game of the season, she gave a great demonstration of strength and agility. Joan had no chance to show what she could do, for Miss Corner poached every ball.
She went up to the net and smashed, like Horatius defending the bridge, and she gambolled and leaped, like some infuriated seal. When the set was won—on her play alone—she shook hands with her opponents, and then with herself.
"Give you your revenge, later," she remarked "Won't we, Miss Brook?"
She beamed on Joan, but the Rector had recognised the fighting spirit, and was anxious to prove that he belonged to the Church Militant.
"I wish you'd partner me, later," he pleaded.
"You'll learn more by playing against me, padre," she told him. "Put me in a tight corner, with my back against the wall, and I can rise to the occasion."
Although Dr. Perry, Joan and the Rector accompanied her, like a body-guard, with a tacit understanding to protect her from that indefinite withdrawal, which indicated the general feeling, Miss Corner did not require their services.
"Party's hanging fire a bit," she whispered to Dr. Perry. "Leave it to me, Horatio. I'll pull it round."
The pitifully poor quality of her humour was evident, during tea, when she played practical jokes, asked ancient riddles, and told bewhiskered jokes. The fact that her audience did not appear amused, was accepted by her as their own deficiency.
As a matter-of-fact, most of the guests were bewildered and uneasy. The story that Lady d'Arcy had refused to receive the novelist, had gone round the village, and everyone was startled and shocked, for it was an offence against the general charity.
Gentle Mrs. Scudamore—with the self-deception that is part of human nature—forget that she, herself, had initiated the persecution, and was pained by the hostile atmosphere. Later on, when she reviewed the party, she congratulated herself on the good-fortune which seemed to shield her from any direct contact with Miss Corner.
On the one occasion when the novelist had blundered to her side, she had been giving her famous recipe for mint-jelly, to another guest, so, naturally, had to look into vacancy, in order to concentrate on the exact quantities.
Lady d'Arcy, having made her gesture, was not guilty of the discourtesy of the cut direct; but she drifted aimlessly before Miss Corner's approach, like a captive balloon bumping over the grass.
Apparently impervious to social chill and torrid atmosphere alike, Miss Corner put up a spectacular effort during her return match, working at the game with electric energy. But, from the nature of her remarks, when she hit a ball which was 'out', it was obvious that she was playing to the gallery.
"Oh, go to—Bath," she shouted. "I mean—'Go to Coventry'. That's more topical."
The spectators were careful not to look at each other, while they politely applauded Miss Corner's next brilliant shot.
When the set was won, Dr. Perry congratulated the panting champion.
"Not another stroke," he said. "As usual, you've overdone it."
She slapped his shoulder, with the familiarity which always enraged his wife.
"Don't you worry over me, Horatio. My troubles will be over before yours have begun."
He did not smile, as he looked at her intently.
"When are you going away?" he asked.
"Are you telling me to go home?"
"Of course not. But when are you going for that holiday?"
"Day after tomorrow, Grandpa."
"Oh, where are you going?" asked Joan enviously.
"Austrian Tyrol," replied Miss Corner. "I'm going to wear little trousies, and a hat with a feather, and blow a horn, and run up and down mountains, all day."
"Are you shutting up your house?"
"Yes. It's a general exodus. Mrs. Pike is going on a conducted tour to Belgium, and May is going to Ramsgate. I'm taking them both, by bus, to Cheltenham, tomorrow, and seeing them into their right trains. And then I shall come back, and have one blessed night on my lonesome. Next afternoon, I shut up the house and catch the evening boat-train from Victoria."
The doctor mopped his face, as though he suddenly felt the heat.
"Good," he said. "Keep to that programme."
"I will," promised Miss Corner, collecting her racquets. "Where's my bag? Which of you has stolen it?"
When the Rector had found it, lying under a chair, she held it up, and broke into a recitation.
"'Who steals my purse, steals trash...
But he, that filches from me my good name,
Robs me of that, which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.'"
Clowning to the last, she snatched up the Rector's hat, and handed it round the circle, with gales of laughter.
As the Rector contrasted her self-abandon and high spirits with the timid restraint of the polite guests, she seemed—to him—the only vital person in a company of ghosts.
But the doctor saw her as a shade, herself, fading away on an empty stage, after the curtain had fallen and the last note of the orchestra died into silence.
THE next day was overcast and sultry, with the sputter and grumble of a distant thunderstorm. Apparently, the weather affected Dr. Perry, for he was silent and preoccupied, during dinner. Presently he spoke to his wife, who was eating raw cabbage and carrots.
"Expect a pain, Mary Ann."
"Spoken like a doctor," said Marianne. "You're all archaic about food. Uncooked vegetables are marvellous for the complexion."
"If you can digest them. But you're no ostrich."
"I'm certainly not." Marianne's voice was meaning. "I see all there is to be seen."
Dr. Perry raised his pale face from his plate.
"In that case," he said, "have you seen Miss Corner today?"
"I have...This afternoon...By the King's Head...She'd just come off the bus."
Dr. Perry drummed on the table cloth.
"I've worried about her," he said. "Rushing over to Cheltenham, today, with a long journey, and a night in the train, before her. She's asking for it. But she's stubborn as a mule. And she has hardly slept this week."
"How do you know that?"
"By her light. I wish I could persuade her to take a sleeping-draught tonight."
Marianne sprang to her feet, anxious to work off her nervous energy.
"The usual?" she asked. "I'll toss one together now, on spec. It'll be ready, when you are."
"No." Dr. Perry frowned thoughtfully at a bowl of floating pansies. "I'll mix it myself. I'm not sure what she'll best respond to—and I want it to be effective."
Later in the evening, when his wife was in the night-nursery, indulging in a rapture of idolatry, Dr. Perry came out of the dispensary, a small dark-blue bottle in his hand. As he crossed the green, it was growing dusk; a red line, searing the sky, was all that remained of a spectacular sunset. The Scudamores had returned to the Clock House, and the street was deserted.
In the distance sounded the postman's faint double-knock. Miss Corner was leaning over her garden-gate. She wore a drill coat and smelt of the good red earth, with which she was plastered.
"Well, Horatio," she boomed, "I'm working off the effects of your party."
"You ought to be resting," he said reproachfully.
"I thought it was you," she told him. "That remark gives you away. I've just smashed my glasses—but it's no use your trying on your wife's fur, and pretending you're little Esau. It is the voice of Horatio Perry."
"Smashed your glasses?" The doctor spoke sympathetically. "But, surely, you've an extra pair?"
"Left them at the optician's, when I was in Cheltenham this morning. But I've just got through to them, on the phone, and they have promised to rush them over, by special messenger, before I start. Bless them...And you, too, my friend, shall have my blessing."
"I'll accept it, if you will take something of mine, in exchange," said the doctor persuasively, as he held out the small bottle. "I know you hate them but I specially want you to take this draught, tonight."
"Filthy stuff," grimaced Miss Corner. "I'd rather try the hat-cure for toothache. Know it? You go to bed with a hat and a bottle of whisky. You hang up the hat on your bed-knob, and drink the whisky. When you can see three hats, your toothache's cured."
The doctor listened patiently to the familiar joke, and gave a passable imitation of joining in her laughter. But he returned to his point.
"Gardening, on top of yesterday's tennis, is altogether too much for your blood-pressure, Julia. You worry me. I speak as a friend. I want you to consider me, for a change. A good night will help you through tomorrow. Promise me to take a draught."
"All right, hand it over," said Miss Corner. "Is it the usual poison?"
"No, it's extra-strong, so be careful of your quantities. Shall I come in now, and pour out the exact dose?"
"No. I've still two hands. And two eyes. I may be blind as a bat, but I saw all there was to be seen, yesterday...Well, if the cap fits me, I'll wear it, provided it's a becoming shape."
She laughed loudly, but her face grew so crimson that Dr. Perry looked grave.
"Don't let this silly business keep you awake tonight," he urged.
"I give you my word, it shan't, Horatio," promised Miss Corner. "Honestly, it's nothing to me. I get nothing out of the people here. Their minds are like dried mustard...Anything for me, Mr. Postman?"
She broke off to beam at the globular little postman, who had just rolled up to the gate.
"Yes, one, mum," he replied.
Miss Corner glanced at the envelope, and then raised her bushy eyebrows.
"The address is printed. It must be some youthful fan-mail. I just love my little boys...Do you mind?"
In spite of her explanation, Dr. Perry's eyes glinted behind his glasses, as he watched Miss Corner scan the letter. Then, her mouth puckered, her jovial face creased, and she shook in an explosion of laughter.
"Well," she gasped. "Well. It's anonymous, and I'm accused of being a secret soaker. Me—a pillar of Temperance. I—I keep a bottle of whisky in my wardrobe...Oh dear, oh dear...here, read it for yourself."
Since Miss Corner had given him the gist of the letter, Dr. Perry felt protest was unnecessary. A little thrill of triumph ran through him as he thought of the Rector. This time he was privileged to receive a lady's confidence.
He noticed that the note, which was brief, was printed, in Roman characters, on paper of a good quality. It contained the word, 'decrescent', and was correctly spelt.
"Am I to take this seriously?" he asked. "It's really too absurd. Of course, it's meant as a joke."
"Self-evident," agreed Miss Corner. "It must be from Miss Asprey's secret admirer. Joan Brook warned me I should probably be the next victim."
"Oh, did she?" The doctor's voice was interested. "That is an intelligent young lady...Well, what are you going to do about it?"
"Can I do better than follow Miss Asprey? I shall burn it."
"But—is that wise?"
"Why not? The cases are identical. Miss Asprey's letter didn't do her a ha'porth of harm, because it accused her of the one thing no one could believe, past, present or future. Mine is the same."
Dr. Perry looked dubious as he remembered the sympathy with which the first victim had been overwhelmed, and contrasted it with Miss Corner's present unpopularity.
"Then—you want me to be silent about this?" he asked.
"Miss Asprey did," said Miss Corner. "It seems the most effective way of spreading it abroad."
"Exactly. I'll say nothing. But—may I tell my wife?"
"You may, doctor. Only warn her it's a secret."
Miss Corner burst into a shout of laughter. After she had said 'Good-bye', her broad shoulders continued to shake, and she rocked with merriment as she walked back up the flagged path. At her door, she turned to wave, and her voice floated out into the quiet night.
"Laugh, clown, laugh."
When Dr. Perry told his wife about the anonymous letter, she was thrilled by the new excitement. Possessed of quick sympathy, and a warm, generous disposition, allied to blazing indiscretion of speech and conduct, she was filled with remorse for her own suspicion, together with a wish to make instant atonement.
"I'll go straight over to Mrs. Scudamore, and tell her how terribly we've misjudged her," she declared, springing from the divan. "And I'll ask her to come over with me, to Miss Corner's, and put it right with her."
"Sit down," urged her husband. "You're not the Town Crier. It's too late to go to the Clock House."
"But I shan't sleep. I'll be thinking, all night, of that poor plucky soul, eating out her heart, and pretending it was all a joke. 'Laugh, clown, laugh'. It's tragic."
In spite of her dismal prophecy, Marianne was asleep long before her husband. He tossed for hours, continually snapping on his torch, to see his watch. About two o'clock he got up and stole to the spare room, from whose windows was a view of Miss Corner's house.
For the first time, for nearly a week, no light gleamed through the darkness, to tell him that the novelist was sitting at her typewriter. Dr. Perry drew a deep breath, shivered slightly, and went back to his room.
Miss Corner was still in bed when the milkman made his first delivery. As there was no maid to answer the door, he left a bottle of milk upon the back door-step.
It was there, unopened, when the baker's boy called about noon. Mrs. Pike had cancelled the daily orders, but he obeyed some mental urge of his own, and put a small cottage loaf on the step, just to keep the milk company.
Miss Corner was due to catch the two-thirty bus; but the house remained silent as the morning slipped into afternoon. Only the clock ticked, and, sometimes, a bee buzzed in through the open landing windows.
About half-past one the optician's assistant, from Cheltenham, pealed the front-door bell; but no one answered him, although he rang and knocked repeatedly. As his orders were explicit that he must deliver the glasses, personally, he decided to ask for information about Miss Corner's movements.
He had barely closed the garden gate, when he met Mrs. Scudamore, with Marianne Perry, to whom he confided his difficulty.
"She has probably overslept," said Mrs. Scudamore.
"Yes," agreed Marianne, "my husband gave her a draught last night."
"Well," remarked the youth, glancing at his watch, "she'll lose her bus, and so will I, at this rate."
"Give me the glasses," said Mrs. Scudamore. "You needn't wait. I will be responsible for their delivery."
She signed the form, and then joined Marianne, who was hammering on the white oaken door of Miss Corner's house.
"I've rung and rung," she declared, her voice breathless from excitement.
"Come round to the back," said Mrs. Scudamore.
The sight of the milk-bottle and loaf upon the door-step made them look at each other, with an unspoken question in their eyes. But Mrs. Scudamore remained mistress of the situation.
"Shall we see if it is possible to get inside?" she asked.
They went around the house, only to discover each door and window fastened, although the upper casements were open. Marianne looked at the flagged pathway, in vain hope to find some gravel. Presently, she scooped a handful of earth, knotted it inside her handkerchief, and hurled it through Miss Corner's bedroom window.
"Miss Cor—ner," she shouted.
No familiar red face, with beaming eyes and grey fringe, was pushed between the curtains. The silence fell, and seemed to spread out over the garden.
"She's sleeping like a log," murmured Mrs. Scudamore.
Marianne said nothing, but the same poisonous suggestion slid into her mind.
"Can she—is she—drunk?"
Marianne shook away the thought impatiently.
"Let's do something," she cried. "Let's smash a pane."
But, as the wife of a lawyer, Mrs. Scudamore knew the procedure.
"That's against the law," she said. "We must get a policeman to do it. Your husband is her doctor. I think we had better consult him about it."
The doctor was standing on the drive of St. James' House, for he had only just returned from visiting a case in the country. He was not too pleased to see Mrs. Scudamore, as he wanted his lunch; but directly he had grasped the drift of his wife's story he jumped back into the dust-filmed car.
"I'll get Sergeant James, at once," he said. "Don't trouble any more, Mrs. Scudamore. I'll call at the Clock House with the news. Mary Ann, you'd better have your lunch."
But the doctor only fought the air when he tried to stem the powerful tide of Marianne's curiosity. When he returned from the Village Constabulary—Sergeant James seated beside him—his wife was waiting outside the locked door of Miss Corner's house.
"Silent as the grave," she declared.
As they watched the policeman smash a small diamond pane, in order to undo the catch of the casement, Miss Asprey's housemaid, Ada, in her attractive grey and white livery, ran across the green.
"The mistress would like to hear if Miss Corner is ill," she said breathlessly.
The message was obviously her own inspiration, for, after she had been ordered to return, she hung about the garden. She approved of us, however, for when the policeman looked rather doubtfully at the small Tudor window, she volunteered to open the door to them.
There was a touch of farce about the episode, as she dived through the narrow aperture, like a harlequin, and her legs kicked in the air. Marianne gave an hysterical giggle, which made the doctor silence her sharply.
"Nerves," she whispered. "I'm scared stiff."
Her dread was shared by the three of them, as they waited outside the mouldered door. Dr. Perry thought of the last time it was shut by the mistress of the house, and of her dynamic personality—too vibrant with life, for safety, like an overdriven engine. He heard again her laughter and her parting shout—'Laugh, clown, laugh' before the curtain fell.
When the door was opened by Ada, in her livery, the touch of formality struck a bizarre note, which, somehow, added to the horror.
Sergeant James was first to enter, but the doctor led the way up the shallow oaken stairs. They all felt the silence of the house, even as they shattered it by the crash of their entrance.
The atmosphere had been sealed.
The afternoon sun was streaming into the big, comfortable bedroom, with its furniture of unpolished Italian walnut. By the window was the typewriter, to which Miss Corner talked, and on the walls were the mirrors, which supplied her with company.
The novelist was in bed, her face turned to the wall, so that only her grey hair was visible. The table, by her side, held a small dark-blue bottle and an empty tumbler. There was also an old-fashioned silver candle-stick, whose saucer was full of flakey ash and spent matches.
Sergeant James glanced significantly at the electric bed-lamp, while Dr. Perry bent over the pillow, in order to see Miss Corner's face. When he raised his head again, his expression made the official question unnecessary.
"Is the deceased cold?" asked the policeman.
"Yes," replied the doctor. "She's been dead for hours." He added, as he took up the bottle, and smelt the glass, "apparently she's taken an overdose of veronal by accident."
"How d'you know it was an accident?"
"Because she was short-sighted, and she smashed her glasses, last night. There they are, on the toilet-table."
Sergeant James nodded as he picked up the pair of broken spectacles. But his eyes snapped, as he asked another question.
"What's this letter she's been burning? Looks rather fishy." He picked up a scrap of charred envelope, which retained traces of ink. "The address is printed."
"Then it must be the anonymous letter she got last night," burst out Marianne.
Her white lips testified to the severity of her shock, but her self-control was so complete that the doctor knew that, later, he would have to cope with an emotional reaction.
Sergeant James looked from husband to wife, and then quickly blocked Marianne's view of the doctor so that she could not be influenced by any warning signal.
"Do you happen to know, mum, if there was anything special in the letter, to upset her?" he asked.
"No," cried Marianne. "Oh, no. It was all too absurd; too futile for words. It accused her of drinking, when she's a total abstainer. It only made her laugh."
"Anything else, mum?"
"Yes, it said she always kept a bottle of whisky inside her wardrobe."
Before the doctor could make a movement to stop him the policeman crossed to the big wardrobe, and threw open the doors, revealing a row of gowns on hangers.
Then Marianne gave a horrified gasp, and Ada's eyes grew bigger, as he plucked aside the garments, and drew out a bottle of whisky.
SUICIDE is an ugly word. Everyone shied from it, so that it remained unspoken. But, before nightfall, the village was stiff with conflicting rumours. It was whispered that Miss Corner had been the victim of a baseless suspicion—since the anonymous letter-writer had proved her innocence—in primitive fashion—with a lethal puncture of toxin.
Everyone was overcome with pity and remorse. The doctor had said that she had taken, in error, an overdose of sleeping-mixture. This story was accepted, as coming from an official source, especially as Miss Corner's slap-dash methods were well-known, and the episode of the smashed glasses was authentic.
Besides, everyone wanted to believe it. Because the village feared she might have been driven to take her own life, it was the more determined to prove to itself that such an extreme course was an impossibility.
Yet, underneath the stream of foaming excitement, stole the poisoned undertow. Ada had been warned by both Sergeant James and Dr. Perry, not to talk about the discovery of the whisky-bottle. But, unfortunately, she was in no awe of the police, as she happened to be closely related to it, and had seen it eat with its mouth full. Also, she was an adept in dropping a hint, and had a wide circle of friends.
The whisper spread, from house to house, about the secret of the wardrobe; and every repetition held its tincture of horror. While the stimulant, itself, could be accepted on medical grounds, everyone asked the same question.
'Who was the unknown enemy, who had exact knowledge of a lady's privacy, and who used it, as a weapon, to stab her in the back?'
Fear—no longer a formless huddle, or a black flicker—stalked the village that night; like a garrotter, it lurked in the shadows, only to mark its prey before it leaped. The blinds were drawn earlier than usual, and, for the first time, four walls heard the circulation of scandal.
When—true to his promise—Dr. Perry called at the Clock House, he was cheered by a sane and wholesome atmosphere.
Mrs. Scudamore had proved her quality by remaining mistress of the situation. There was no reflection of social disorder in the peace and comfort of her drawing-room, with its soft neutral tints, its collection of miniatures, and its great bow-fronted cabinets of family glass and silver. The air was fragrant with bowls of forced sweet-peas, and a small wood fire burned in the old-fashioned steel grate.
Mrs. Scudamore wore a high-necked evening-gown of black lace and ornaments of old silver and jade. Her well-dressed crown of hair gleamed in the shaded lamp-light, as she read aloud to her husband, who was pasting stamps into his album. It was a picture of domestic bliss, which was anodyne to the doctor's nerves.
Mrs. Scudamore thanked him for calling, and the lawyer said the whole thing was distressing. Both accepted the doctor's explanation of an overdose, taken by mistake, and hoped that the sad affair would soon be forgotten.
But Mr. Scudamore betrayed the fact that Fear had, at least, flicked a single seam of his dinner jacket, in one cautious question.
"What about this anonymous letter? Is the writer anyone we know—should you think?"
The doctor's reassurance restored Darby and Joan to their former fireside peace.
"As a medical man," he told them, "I take a pathological view of the writer. It's probably some hysterical woman, who is working off suppressed steam. It may do her good, and it will do us no harm. As for the bull's eye she scored, that was purely a lucky shot in the dark."
But when Dr. Perry reached his home he had to face a more difficult task. The gracious old hall was unlighted, and looked cheerless and untidy with its clutter of forgotten toys. As he anticipated, he found Marianne in the night-nursery. She had not changed for dinner, and was still dressed in the creased suit of strawberry silk she had worn in Miss Corner's bedroom.
Her face looked green with worry as she spoke in a husky whisper.
"Horatio, she's dead...I didn't realise it at the time."
"Yes," nodded the doctor. "I feel it, too."
"No, I won't be a hypocrite," declared Marianne passionately. "I'm thinking of them."
She glanced at the babies, sleeping in their opulent cots. "D'you know what I've been doing?" she asked. "I got out your Pass-Book and I've been adding up all the cheques from her that we've paid in this year...It's awful...We've lost our best patient."
"Nonsense. We don't live by Miss Corner alone. What concerns me most is that I've lost a friend."
Marianne did not notice her husband's drawn face as she began to pace the room.
"I know, I know," she declared. "But it's been such a terrible day, and I'm frightened tonight. It seems to me—somehow—that this is the beginning of the end. And baby held on to my finger with his little fist. Just as if he was asking me to take care of him."
As he listened to her, Dr. Perry lost his patience to the extent of wishing to strike a woman—a delicate attention which Marianne might have appreciated, as showing understanding of her special temperament. But he was too civilised to understand such subtleties, so he lost his opportunity.
"You're exaggerating to a ridiculous degree," he said coldly. "When you consider our own favoured conditions and compare them with those Outside"—the whole of England was 'Outside,' to the village—"it amounts to sheer wicked ingratitude. Marianne, I'm ashamed of you. If everyone was like you no one would have the courage to have children at all."
Then he looked into her tortured eyes and realised that she was grilling in her own special hell. Unable to bear the thought of the agony of her sleepless night, he was goaded into indiscretion.
"Don't worry, Marianne," he said. "I don't. But then I know Julia's death won't affect us financially. Don't mention it to anyone—but she's left all her money to me."
The violence of Marianne's relief took the form of a tempest of tears, while she hugged her husband and her sleeping babies. After she had awakened them, the doctor left her to her just business of putting them to sleep again, and went downstairs to his novel.
He had not been reading for long, when the door opened and Marianne stood looking at him, with a strange, withdrawn expression in her eyes.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
"Nothing." She shut the door. "Horatio, I've been in the dispensary. I've measured up...That was a very strong draught you gave Miss Corner."
"Of course it was," he replied lightly. "She's taken so many that she complained they had lost their effect. I specially wanted her to have a good night. Besides, you could see, for yourself, she'd poured out a double-dose."
"I know...Will there be a post-mortem?"
Dr. Perry stared back at his wife.
"My evidence would make it unnecessary, as I've been attending her constantly. Besides Scudamore, as Coroner, will want the minimum of fuss."
"Of course. He'll be all for hush-hush."
"But," went on the doctor, "in my own interest, I shall insist on one."
"Ah!" Marianne's sharply released breath was almost a sob. "Will you do it yourself?"
"In the circumstances, no. I shall get Rawlings to do it. He's a police-surgeon, so it should be his natural job."
"Oh, darling, darling." Marianne nearly strangled him with the vehemence of her hug. "God alone knows how much I love my babies—and you. I shall sleep soundly tonight."
And—behind drawn blinds—someone else looked through the darkness, as though it were a lighted mesh, and broke the silence with a laugh...Someone else—someone anonymous—passed a good night, cheered with the prospect of a crop of future developments...
True to Dr. Perry's prediction, the inquest on Miss Corner was an affair of taste and discretion. As there was no unpleasant Public Institution in the village, it was held in the old Tithe-Barn—a beautiful Elizabethan building. Mr. Scudamore, as Miss Corner's solicitor, had charge of her legal affairs; her only two relatives—male cousins—had expressed regret, and the information that they would attend the funeral, presumably as the preliminary to the reading of her Will.
Mrs. Pike, recalled from her first Continental holiday, was back at Miss Corner's house, getting things ready for the funeral, and later, for the Sale. Although overcome with sorrow, she was glad to be back in England, although she had only got as far as Ostend, which she disliked intensely.
She never went abroad again, but she continued to judge the whole of the Continent from her personal experience of eight homesick hours at a Belgian seaport. For thus are racial prejudices implanted.
Both she and May gave evidence at the inquest. May proved loyal, and stupid to the verge of dumbness; but the Coroner framed his questions that she might mutter the requisite 'yes' or 'no', which satisfied everyone.
The formal identification had been followed by Dr. Perry's evidence. He stated that he had attended Miss Corner, who, ever since he knew her, had lived, practically, under sentence of death, owing to advanced heart-disease and high blood-pressure. He added that she would not follow medical advice and indulged in dangerous over-exertion. She had been engaged in strenuous gardening, on the evening of her death, so, had been pre-disposed to succumb to an overdose of veronal, which she had poured out, in error.
Prominence was given to the accident of the smashed glasses, but the anonymous letter was touched on but lightly. Dr. Rawlings—a police-surgeon from a neighbouring town, gave corroborative evidence as to Miss Corner's state of health—a jury-man asked a question about the anonymous charge of intemperance brought against the local Temperance leader.
And then—when everything was practically over Dr. Rawlings—recalled—-stated that the post-mortem had revealed the deceased to be of entirely abstemious habit. Dr. Perry bolstered up his testimony, while Mrs. Pike swore that her mistress drank only water, but was a terror for tea.
Both she and May declared that there was never a drop of intoxicant kept in the house, even for visitors. Mrs. Pike stated that, in her opinion, the bottle of whisky which was concealed in the wardrobe, had probably been bought, by Miss Corner, in Cheltenham, in order to try a cure for insomnia, as her mistress hated drugs and threw most of the doctor's draughts down the sink.
No one raised any more awkward facts, or asked tactless questions—and the Jury brought in a verdict of 'Death from Misadventure.'
The funeral took place the next day, and was strictly private. Dr. Perry, Mr. Scudamore, Mrs. Pike and the two relatives were the only official mourners, although the church and graveyard were crowded. Many people sent their cars, and there was a large display of floral tributes.
One of the cousins had obviously attended solely to mark his respect, so brought no flowers; but the other, who was an optimist, carried a wreath, and remarked that 'blood was thicker than water'—a tactless and slighting reference to Miss Corner's preferential campaign.
The optimist's hope was slaughtered directly they returned to the house, and listened, in the library, to Miss Corner's Will. It was short and to the point. Mrs. Pike received an annuity of two pounds a week, and May a legacy of a hundred pounds. The residue of the estate, after payment of all debts, was bequeathed to Dr. Horatio Perry.
Dr. Perry kept his eyes fixed on a dark-blue cube on the Persian carpet, so that no one might read their expression. Although he had buoyed up Marianne with hope, he, himself, had questioned whether Miss Corner had actually carried out her promise.
Surcharged with relief, he asked no question as to the amount he might expect to receive; but Mr. Scudamore recognised the delicacy of his position, and whispered, "details later."
The relatives consulted their watches, and Mrs. Pike served the Madeira and rich biscuits she considered proper to the occasion. Shortly afterwards the cousins left to catch their train, via the bus.
When they had gone, the lawyer lit his cigar, and enlightened Dr. Perry with a slow and deliberate explanation of Miss Corner's financial position. He remarked that she had played for safety, so had invested her small private fortune in an annuity. In addition to this income, she made considerable sums of money from her writing, so that she was able to afford a lavish and luxurious scale of living. She also gave large contributions to charity and had many pensioners. It was true that there was a mortgage on the house, which cost many thousands to build, but her assets would exceed her liabilities.
"All things considered, she will 'cut up' very creditably," said the lawyer. "She spent well, and no one will be poorer for her death. Of course, Perry, from your point of view, she died a few years too soon. When she made this Will in your favour, only four months ago, she told me that she was going to pay off the mortgage on the house, out of income, in order to leave the property clear. Still—you will receive the residue."
Dr. Perry smiled and thanked the lawyer for his precise information.
"I leave this house a richer man than I entered it," he said. "I am very grateful to my friend."
On his homeward way, he looked rather depressed; but, in the end, his philosophy prevailed. It was true that he had lost his most lucrative patient; but, all the same, he retained the best practice in the district.
What he dreaded most was Marianne's reception of his news. For a few days, she had soared in a riot of imagination. Miss Corner's death was nothing to her, for she had never liked the novelist. In her mind, she was nothing but an old stump which should be uprooted to make room for her two young saplings.
The doctor found her in the Dispensary, engaged in counting out liver-pills and placing them in a small cardboard box for Miss Asprey's gaunt parlourmaid—Rose.
She wheeled round, like a flaming comet.
"How much?" she cried. "Quick, quick."
"Mr. Scudamore thinks I may count on something in the neighbourhood of about two hundred pounds," he said. "Of course, it may even be a little more. It all depends on how much the house may fetch and on her few remaining Royalties."
Marianne's lips gaped apart and she stared at her husband in frozen silence.
Through the window of the dining-room the housemaid saw two ladies coming up the drive. She met them at the open front door. They stated their errand, and—at their request—she led them across the hall, to the Dispensary.
Dr. Perry saw the crack of the opening door, too late to stem his wife's fury of disappointment.
"Only two hundred," she screamed. "It would have paid you better to keep her alive."
"Hush," whispered the doctor, just as Miss Asprey entered, followed by the faithful Miss Mack.
THE inquest was followed by a complete dislocation of the social life of the village. As Miss Corner was not popular, besides being—according to the local standard—a new-comer, her death should have been only a slight interference. But no one liked to issue invitations from fear of refusals; so strawberries ripened to be made into jam, and roses bloomed only for their owners' admiration.
When Miss Asprey realised that the steady stream of friendship was restricted to trickles—where two or three gathered together over private tea-tables—she made a move, for the general good. When she met Mrs. Scudamore, on the green, she asked her a pointed question about her garden. Mrs. Scudamore's reply showed understanding, for when gardens attained perfection, they were, so to speak, thrown open to the public.
"It should be perfect next week. I suppose, Miss Asprey, yours will soon reach its peak?"
"Yes, very soon it will be at its best. I have a new variety of water-iris, which I hope you will see when it blooms."
"I hope so. Life must go on." Mrs. Scudamore took the plunge. "I intend to give a garden-party, next week."
"Then we must discuss our dates, so that they do not clash," remarked Miss Asprey, with a smile. "I agree with you. Life must go on."
The Rector welcomed his card of invitation to Miss Asprey's party as a hopeful sign that the village life was becoming normal. He was acutely worried over the business of the second letter, and was beginning to show signs of his old enemy, nerves. He was a man who never thought about health, and who did not recognise illness; but his crash had been so catastrophic that he shrank from the evidence of familiar symptoms.
Miss Asprey's party really seemed an omen of happier days. There were no refusals, and even the Squire's tall white hat might be seen, through the gates, as the distinctive seal of success. It was a hot day, so that the ferny dampness of the garden was most acceptable. Everyone admired the new water-irises—a few clumps—and congratulated Miss Asprey on their creation.
Joan Brook, who welcomed every distraction, was in excellent spirits as she walked perilously on the narrow rims of the small water-maze. The original vulgar spout of Tudor times had undergone many changes, but it remained faithful to the garden, either in the form of small, natural streams, or confined in shallow stone culverts.
She looked up at the approach of little Miss Mack, in her best frock—printed reseda-green foulard.
"Oh, Miss Brook," she asked, "when are we going to have our picnic on the Downs?"
Joan remembered her promise to Miss Asprey, as she looked down into the expectant face.
"Oh, I don't know when I'll be free," she said, after an awkward pause. "You must remember, Miss Mack, that you and I are 'Servants of the Private'."
Miss Mack showed no sign of disappointment.
"Do you call it 'servitude', when you love the person who employs you?" she asked.
"But I don't love Lady d'Arcy," said Joan.
"Don't you? She's very good to you."
"What of it? I'm good to her."
"Are you?" Miss Mack spoke with the simplicity of a child.
"Miss Asprey's very good to me—but I'm not always good to her...But I love her very much."
Joan played with the idea of arrested development, only to dismiss it as she looked again at Miss Mack. Apparently, she was responsible for the practical management of the party, and she displayed cool competency, which could not be reconciled with mental deficiency.
Miss Asprey merely posed on a stone settle, in the shade of ancient mulberry trees, like an antique, but still beautiful, piece of statuary. Yet she was not too detached to keep her companion under constant observation. Joan, who was on the watch for sinister developments, ever since her walk, noticed this fact with a sense of discomfort.
'There's something queer between those two women,' she thought.
Still playing her favourite part of spectator, she remarked that this party seemed a complete success, although on a simpler scale than Miss Corner's. Vivian Sheriff, in pale pink, had annexed Major Blair, to his apparent content. Dr. and Mrs. Perry made a friendly quartette with the lawyer and his wife, as they drank tea at the same table. Even the Rector's face had lost some of its strain.
When Ada brought her cucumber sandwiches, she welcomed her with a friendly smile, for Joan was fortunate in having no sense of social values.
"Ada," she said, "I dare you to copy my new dress. I don't want to be wiped out by you again."
Ada did not attempt to contradict the obvious fact of her superior beauty, but she did her best to make her voice sound convincing.
"Well, miss, they do say there's some that prefer dark girls."
"I'm not one of them," said Joan. "If I were you, Ada, I'd go straight to Hollywood."
"All the visitors tell me that; but my girl-friend says there's a catch in these big wages. A lot of these film stars get about one week's work in the year, and all the rest of the time they've got to stick on their own Insurance stamps."
"Your girl-friend comes from London, doesn't he?" asked Joan, who knew all about the Squire's chauffeur.
"Yes, miss. Pimlico." Ada lowered her voice. "Have you heard about the doctor coming into all Miss Corner's money? Thousands and thousands of pounds. My girl-friend says he's been lucky, both ways."
"Both ways? What d'you mean, Ada?"
"Well, he was lucky she poured out that big overdose. Because my girl-friend says the proper dose would have bumped her off. You see, she's been sloshing his stuff down the drain, instead of drinking it, and he said, at the inquest, that he'd made this one extra strong."
Joan looked thoughtful as Ada passed on with her tray.
'So that's what they're saying in the village,' she thought. 'A sharp lot, these rustics. I wonder what our lot thinks...Poor Miss Corner.'
It was odd how much she missed and regretted the noisy, good-natured woman. In spite of her overdone laughter and her under-exposed jokes, she was bracing as the East wind in her fearless contempt of local prejudice.
Joan actually found herself resenting Vivian's pale pink frills, because they reminded her of poor Miss Corner's party frock. She was gazing, quite mournfully, at the grating through which the brown brook-water was pouring, under a low arch hung with dripping hart's tongues, when the Rector spoke to her.
"What are you watching so intently?"
"Nothing," said Joan. "I'm just fascinated by the idea of the underground stream which must be flowing somewhere under the garden. You see, it disappears through this grating and it doesn't come up again until it reaches the pool. Hidden things are so thrilling. I do wonder just exactly where it is."
"The doctor could tell you. He claims to be a water diviner."
"That would appeal to him," said Joan.
"It doesn't to me," snorted the Rector. "I hate all underground things."
Joan noticed that since his face had grown thin, his nose appeared beakier and his nostrils more arrogant. With the first signs of ill health, the Roman Emperor was more in evidence, while the anonymous plebeian lady was retiring into the background.
"I've seen you looking fitter," she remarked, with typical British understatement. "Been dreaming again?"
"Surely I've never bored you with my dreams? What a rotten cad to victimise a poor helpless girl."
"Well, have you been fighting again with your unknown man?" persisted Joan.
"I have," admitted the Rector. "Several times, in fact. Only—I'm not quite certain that it is a man."
He was led on, by the interest in Joan's eyes, to further confidence.
"Of course, there's a simple explanation of every dream. When I woke up last night I was wound up in the sheets, like a cocoon. So, naturally, when I dreamed I was struggling with this unseen lady—or gentleman—I felt a sensation of ghastly pressure, as though I were being slowly coiled to death."
Joan burst out laughing.
"Well, don't let it get you down," she said. "You only want your dream explained in a scientific way. Why don't you ask the saintly Miss Asprey to tackle the job?"
To her surprise and annoyance, the Rector turned away.
"If you don't mind, I will go and talk to her," he said.
Joan bit her lip as she watched his tall figure bent in homage over Miss Asprey's seat. It seemed incredible—but she thought she detected that glint in the mystic's eyes which is always present when one woman takes another woman's man.
Like the most successful diplomatists of history, the Rector had discovered that a queen likes to be treated as a woman; his voice was deferential, but his eyes were more independent, as he sank by her side.
"At last," he said. "I've been waiting for a chance to find you alone."
Miss Asprey's smile accepted his tribute; and, as she talked to him of her water-irises, Helen Wills-Moody, the Gold Standard, the souls of animals, and how to steam peas in lettuce leaves, he insensibly lost his gloom. Presently Miss Asprey commented on his looks with the sympathy which Joan had denied him.
"You're worried," she said. "Why?"
"I'm in a funk." The big man spoke like a schoolboy. "A man of my weight, with nerves. I'm terribly ashamed. But—the truth is—I'm positively dreading another anonymous letter."
Miss Asprey was looking at the place where the stream reappeared after looking through the darkness of its underground channel. Although actually the same dark-brown current that had stolen through the grating, it now spouted out, in silver spray, into a shallow flower-ringed pool.
Unlike Joan, who found mystery in its unknown course, she welcomed it back to the light. To the Rector there was something symbolic about the different mental attitudes.
"You need not fear another letter," said Miss Asprey. "I am certain there will never be one."
"What makes you think that?" asked the Rector eagerly.
"Because—the writer is dead."
Her reply gave the Rector a shock of surprise.
"You mean," he asked, "that Miss Corner wrote that letter to herself?"
"That is my conviction."
"But why? Why?"
"Because it was obvious to her that she was suspected of writing the first letter. My wretched letter...It was most regrettable that the secret ever leaked out. Of course, I don't suspect you of breach of faith—but someone overheard us...The effects were fatal to her. But it was all sheer bad luck. For, if she had not poured out that overdose, it would have all blown over, with time."
The Rector was impatient at being side-tracked.
"Do you believe," he asked, "that she thought it would draw suspicion off herself, if she, in turn, was a supposed victim of this anonymous pest?"
"I am certain of it. She did not have a high opinion of the local intellects."
"But have you grounds for your belief?"
"Naturally. I was at school with Julia Corner. An intelligent child, in eternal gym tunic, with fat, black-stockinged legs. Even then, she was proud of using words not in general circulation. 'Decrescent' was one of her favourites, then, and it has remained so ever since."
"I see." The Rector lowered his voice, as he instinctively raised his arm to prevent a money-spider, which was running over his sleeve, from deserting him. "But whatever induced her to mention the—whisky?"
"Ah, poor Julia." Miss Asprey's voice was compassionate. "That was her fatal sense of humour. We both know she never drank spirits. She bought that bottle, secretly, purely as a medicine for insomnia. But I can imagine how it appealed to her sense of the ridiculous when she hid it in her wardrobe. Of course, she never counted on its being discovered after her death. Because—she never expected to die."
"I'm sure of that," declared the Rector. "Miss Corner loved life too well to commit suicide."
Both became silent, lest one thought should seem to suggest another; for, although Dr. Perry's legacy—of unknown value—was the chief topic of conversation in the village, neither would mention it, from some remote fear that it might appear too apposite.
For this was not the usual sleepy-pear conversation of social convention, but the friction of two keen minds, when the unspoken word is more significant than speech. The money-spider ran on to Miss Asprey's dress, and the Rector let it go, unnoticed, as he frowned in the garden.
"Unconvinced?" asked Miss Asprey.
"I'm weighing it up," replied the Rector. "You see, I want to accept your theory. That puts me on my guard."
"I understand. And something else." Miss Asprey gave a wintry smile. "Naturally, you think of me as an old woman, who has grown mentally lazy, in retreat. But, like yourself, I've stood in the thick of the fight, when I was up against every kind of character—weak, warped, or vicious. I had to be prepared for emergencies, and make lightning decisions. So my mind was always just one leap ahead of the person I was dealing with. You may not believe it, my friend, but I retain that mental habit."
The Rector shed the scepticism with which he had first listened to her gentle boasting as he realised that during their conversation, she had really anticipated his own thoughts. Had she greeted him with sympathy, he would have assured her of his complete fitness, and changed the subject. But her trivial gossip had paved the way for his confidence.
However, he would not give in to her, altogether.
"There is one flaw in your argument," he said. "If Miss Corner was known to be fond of the word 'decrescent', others, besides yourself, must have noticed the fact."
He was startled by Miss Asprey's reaction to his theory. The calm of her face was shattered by unfamiliar distorting lines, and a dusky red stained the ivory of her skin.
"No." Her voice rang with suppressed passion. "That would be too horrible. It would mean that one of our friends is a—a maggot in our minds, eating our thoughts—boring into our intimate secrets, just to betray them out of sheer mental cruelty."
"Please, please," urged the Rector. "Of course, I meant nothing of the kind."
He sank his voice as Joan Brook strolled across the lawn. Apparently she was not within earshot of the pair, but her hearing was remarkably keen, so that she managed to catch a sentence uttered by Miss Asprey.
"I would mean that someone here is a secret sadist."
Joan's face lit up with interest, for the words awoke a memory of a fairy-tale Tudor village, flushed in sunset afterglow, and an incredible serial told upon a green, of lurid lantern-slides thrown on the screen behind drawn blinds.
AS Miss Asprey's garden-party had been a success, Mrs. Scudamore was the more surprised and upset when the answers to her own invitations began to arrive at the Clock House. Among the acceptances were so many important refusals that she consulted her lawyer, who was, incidentally, her husband.
Mr. Scudamore, who felt the situation as keenly as herself, told her what she must do.
"But, love," she said, "we've never put off a party before."
"Then, we must create a precedent, my sweetheart," her husband told her. "If we don't, we risk a failure. That would be a new experience for us, too."
"You're right, as always, love. But I insist on this. The cards must be printed."
It was thus that Mrs. Scudamore formalised her panic policy, when she sent out her printed regrets, cancelling her party, owing to a family bereavement.
The Rector was not sorry when he received his intimation, since entertainments at the Clock House were rather formal. He did not know that the card he tossed so gladly into the waste-paper basket, signified the last nail in the coffin of village hospitality, for he had regained his former good spirits.
Since his sub-conscious mind had ceased to harry him, he was no longer plagued with his recurrent dream. After he had thought 'all round' Miss Asprey's theory, he accepted it. Because she had to wear the halo which the village had hung over her, it did not alter the fact that she was the same woman who had held, for years, a post which called for both administrative and executive powers. Time had not clouded her brain nor diminished her energy.
It was certain that poor Miss Corner had written her own anonymous letter, so, with her death, the visitation was at an end. At its worst, it was but the flicker of a slightly disordered mind. And yet the Rector felt as though some unclean thing had been buried at the crossroads, with a stake driven through its heart.
The weather continued perfect, so he worked off his surplus energy on the links, and in digging up a crippled parishioner's garden. After a happy and sweaty afternoon of planting, in the cool of the evening he walked across the wide waving fields, to have dinner at the Hall.
Life seemed specially good to him, just then, and he was in excellent spirits during the meal, for he liked the Squire and his family, and also his guests, who told smoking-room stories before him, and took his amusement for granted. He had often played golf with Major Blair—who was a man of typical sporting cut, and usually accepted as handsome, on account of a good build.
His small, good-natured eyes were slightly piggy, and they puckered into slits when he laughed. About half-way through the meal he began to twinkle with amusement.
"Oh, before I forget it," he said, "did any of you get letters, too?"
The Rector's heart gave a sharp knock as Major Blair went on to explain.
"I mean, an anonymous letter. I got mine, yesterday, printed like a kid's writing, warning me that my awful past was known and that I'd soon be for it."
"Bless my soul," rapped out the Squire. "What are you doing about it?"
"Nothing. Tore it up. Of course, I've done all the usual things. I should hope so, indeed. But no one would blackmail me, and get away with it. I'm not that sort of ruddy fool."
"Quite right," remarked the Squire. "Treat these pests with contempt."
"I always think," said a lady, who claimed to have original opinions, "that if you don't think of unpleasant things, you can make yourself think they've not happened. And then, they haven't."
"Then you've got that fiver I refused you today," said her husband.
A wave of laughter rippled round the table. The arrival of gooseberry-fool reminded Mrs. Sheriff of a local lady who had worn gooseberry-green at a wedding, and she asked if anyone had seen the social page of a certain newspaper. The episode was over.
But it left the Rector badly shaken. Miss Corner was dead. He, himself, had consigned her body to dust. Yet the evil lived on.
Suddenly, he remembered Mrs. Scudamore's cancelled party, and he wondered if there was any connection between it and Major Blair's anonymous letter. His heart hammered, and his head began to swim at a new and horrible possibility.
He asked himself whether others in the village had also received poison-letters, but had kept their own secrets. As he looked round the dinner-table, he fancied that some of the faces appeared self-conscious, or too composed, as though they were on their guard.
Then he shook off his suspicion. This was a typical dinner-party, of the more jovial brand. When the meal was over they played idiotic balancing-games in the drawing-room, so that the Rector shed his morbid fancies in his own, and his neighbours', undignified sprawls on the carpet.
He walked home under the starlight, smoking the Squire's excellent cigar; and he felt at peace with the world, until he passed the churchyard, where Fear was lurking behind the stones. That cold breath upon his cheek reminded him that it was characteristic of the village not to ventilate any personal unpleasantness.
'The only way to fight this evil is to come out into the open,' he thought. 'But, if they refuse to talk we're beaten.'
His housekeeper had lit his lamps in the study and put out the tantalus, ready for his return. The faithful spaniel, Charles, guarded the biscuit-barrel with his last drop of blood. The Rector fed him, and exchanged gossip, while he reached for a letter upon the mantel-piece.
The next second, he felt winded, as though someone had hit him a violent blow below the belt. The address was printed in the familiar Roman characters, and, as he tore open the envelope, he noticed the characteristic good quality of the paper. The letter consisted of two short sentences.
'Your turn will come. I know all your past life.'
The Rector sank back in his chair and poured himself out a stiff drink. Not until he had actually experienced it for himself had he realised the demoralising effect of an anonymous letter.
Since houses are not made of glass, nearly every life must hold a few shaded episodes—indiscretions, or occasions for remorse, in the absence of actual sin. Once in a lifetime even the mildest parish-worker will flame with the fires of some primitive lust, and the eyes of the primmest curate's wife betray their memories of Babylon.
The letter made the Rector supremely uncomfortable, and it also made him think furiously, as he raked among the ashes of his past. He had entered the Church after a conversion which had run on parallel lines with St. Paul's. During his 'Saul' phase, he had had a good time, which had been very bad, and which had helped him, later, to his complete understanding and success with prostitutes and drunks.
But although he alternatively grinned and sweated, as he resurrected each discreditable incident—reviving the memory of his hefty spade-work while digging a merry pathway to hell—in the end, he wiped his face with a sigh of relief.
Like Major Blair, he had done only 'the usual things', so did not fear blackmail. And, like the Major, he tore up the letter and threw the scraps into the grate.
The Rector spent the next few days in a round of parochial visits. He did not call on his poor parishioners, whose society he really enjoyed, but rang the bells of only the big houses. In nearly every case, his hostess was at home to him; but his worst suspicions were confirmed.
There was a complete stoppage of all social intercourse. He met no other casual caller in any drawing room. The village was dead, with the paralysis which follows the generation of poison.
Very soon, he found that he was growing affected by the general complaint. In the middle of some friendly chat, he would suddenly remember his anonymous letter, look up into a smiling face, and wonder 'Is it you?'
His chance came on Sunday, when he literally thundered from his pulpit. It must be confessed he rather enjoyed himself, as he denounced, in particular, the secret enemy, who exuded venom, and the congregation, in general, for being accessories after the fact.
His fine organ voice rose up to the Norman arches and sank down to the vaults; he begged for a confidential visit, in his vestry, or a letter giving an instance of personal attack.
Except for a liberal collection in aid of something with a lot of initials, his sermon had no effect. The clot in the village circulation refused, obstinately, to be dislodged.
In despair, the Rector decided to call on the Squire, as his most important parishioner, and to ask his advice. When he reached the Hall, he found the great man in the library, very sorry for himself, with a bright blue patch on his cheek.
"Bee," he said, regrettably repeating his explanation. "A bee bee. Stung me, when my wife was taking the swarm. I was only looking on, too. Odd. My wife would run from a rabbit, yet she's got those confounded bees eating out of her hand."
He was still talking of his wife's freak courage, when the sandy little lady, herself, entered, to enquire about her husband's stung cheek.
She greeted the Rector with rather a scared expression in her pale blue eyes, for she had heard his last sermon.
"Any fresh trouble?" she asked.
"What trouble?" boomed the Squire.
The Rector explained the general situation and appealed to the Squire.
"My feeling is," he said, "that this thing must be stopped. So I came to consult you."
"Quite right," declared the Squire. "It's a matter for the police. I'll put Sergeant James on the job. He will watch the pillar-boxes and all that."
"Yes, the police are up to all the dodges. But I was just wondering. Suppose the writer is a woman?"
"Probably is. The place is stiff with them."
"Exactly." The Rector still looked doubtful. "But do you like the idea of arresting a woman? I don't. May I suggest an alternative?"
"I have a friend, Ignatius Brown, one of the idle rich. He rather fancies himself as Sherlock Holmes. He's not so clever as he thinks he is, but he's keen, and he should be more than a match for anyone here. Shall I ask him down."
"No," said the Squire. "We don't want any amateurs. I'll instruct James."
As he spoke, he caught his wife's eye. Her lips were pursed and she first nodded violently and then shook her head vehemently.
The Squire knew, from experience, how to interpret these conflicting signals, for, suddenly, he changed his mind.
"All right, then," he said. "Suppose you write to your friend?"
When the Rector had gone, the Squire turned to his wife. Although he usually bullied her, there were times when he followed her advice; for, if the Squire had no positive virtues, he had some rather good faults.
"What the hell did you butt in for, Katie?" he asked pleasantly.
Little Miss Sheriff caught hold of her big husband by the buttonhole, as unceremoniously as though he were one of her bees.
"Osbert," she said, "whatever you do, don't call in the police."
"Because, dear, I'm not sure it would be wise...I don't understand these things, myself, but poor Miss Corner used to talk to me about inhibitions. Some times, they may take very funny forms."
The Squire's blue patch looked purple as his face grew red with anger.
"What the dickens are you driving at?" he shouted. "Who suffers from inhibitions?"
"I—I'm sure I don't know."
"Yes, you do. You're hiding something. Is it anyone in this house?"
"No one. No one."
Little Mrs. Sheriff's eyes were suffused with tears, and she almost screamed her denial. But the poison of the letters had spread, for she looked around her, and then lowered her voice.
"Osbert, I sometimes wonder if we were wise when we wouldn't let Vivian marry young Belson. After all, he was killed in the War, so we shouldn't have been drawn in with his family."
"Stop hinting," roared the Squire, "and tell me what you really think."
To his surprise, Mrs. Sheriff stooped down and kissed a roll of her husband's red neck.
"Dear," she whispered, "I don't know what to think. But, please, please, don't call in the police. I'm afraid of what mud they might stir up."
AS the Rector had anticipated, Ignatius was prompt to accept his invitation. He arrived, in his Lanchester, about noon, when the thatched cottages were stewing in sunshine and the honeybees sipping from clove-pinks and monkey-musk. He viewed the vista of Tudor architecture from the study window, and expressed approval.
"A beautiful spot. I may come here to live, when I retire from the complicated business of doing nothing...In fact, by merely looking out of this window, I rather think I've solved part of your little problem."
The Rector smiled at the familiar adjective, 'little', which Ignatius always applied to the concerns of others.
His friend was very short and slight; at a distance, his insignificant figure suggested a schoolboy—but this impression was dispelled by a first glance at his face, which was lined, and acutely intelligent. Also—to put it mildly—he did not suffer from any inferiority complex.
The Rector agreed with his praise of the village, even while he sighed.
"Yes, it's perfect. No one leaves the village, except to die."
Ignatius glanced at his friend's troubled face. Then he used the old College name, as he patted the big man's shoulder with mingled affection and patronage.
"Cheer up, Tigger. Suppose you tell me all about your little trouble."
"Little?" The Rector exploded. "Man, it's not little. It's like some canker eating at the roots of a healthy organism."
"Fear. Everyone suspects his neighbour. Social intercourse is being destroyed."
"Good thing too. That's just another name for scandal."
"No, Ignatius, not here. This is—this was—a perfect place." The Rector began to pace the study as he burst into a vehement tirade.
"I want you to try to realise what this village means to me. I used to be a materialist. For years I worked in a sink of iniquity where both men and women appeared vile. Oh, I know a finer spirit would have seen flashes of the Light. But I saw none. I just plugged away at the evil. Then, after I crashed, I came here...And I received new vision. An Ideal. I found regeneration."
He broke off with a shame-faced laugh.
"Sorry. I forgot I'm not in my pulpit. But I'm really in great trouble."
"A few harmless unsigned letters. Tut-tut. Suppose you give me their full history."
Ignatius did not appear to listen while the Rector was talking. Apparently he was more interested in blowing smoke-rings. But at the end of the tale he nodded.
"Good. I have the facts. I gather this village has a stagnant population of life-residents. But I suppose you get occasional new-comers? Who's the latest?"
The Rector bit his lip.
"A Miss Brook," he replied. "She's companion to Lady d'Arcy, and she's been here for a few months only."
"And the letters have been written since her arrival?"
"Yes. But she's a charming girl—nice and clean-minded. No one could suspect her."
"Of course not. It's obvious that she is the last person to be suspected."
"Why?" asked the Rector, in surprise, although his face cleared.
"Didn't you attach any significance to my remark that, by merely looking out of the window, I'd solved half your problem?" Ignatius spoke in an acid voice. "I don't talk for effect. Directly I realised the beauty of the village, I knew that it was a partner in crime with your anonymous letter-writer. For it is so lovely that, as you remarked—you see, I remember—no one voluntarily leaves it."
"But is that harmful? Our ancestors didn't travel, and they did very well."
"Who told you that? You only know they're dead. Keep fowls too long on the same bit of soil, and it sours. The same applies to human beings. It's not good to become root-bound."
"I don't agree. I could give you instances of people who have never left their homes, and who lead happy, useful lives."
"I grant you that," said Ignatius. "But you, in turn, must concede to me the exception, who would be adversely affected. Remember, I'm here to deal with an exceptional case. Suppose you tell me—if you can—who has lived longest here, without going away?"
The Rector thought for a minute.
"When I said people never go away, I meant very rarely," he explained. "One family—the Martins of the Towers—have been away nearly two years, globe-trotting."
He spoke casually, little dreaming the importance of the return of the absentee family, as he answered his friend's question.
"Only the other day someone remarked to me that she's not slept under a strange roof for nearly thirty years."
"Then, that's your suspect." The little man's voice was triumphant. "Who is she?"
"Miss Asprey. The first person to receive an anonymous letter. And, certainly, the last person in the world, to write one."
"I must be judge of that," said Ignatius. "I shall have the lady under special observation."
He drew out his note-book and screwed his monocle tighter.
"You've stated, that from the evidence of good-quality paper, correct spelling, and accurate intimate knowledge, that this pest must belong to your own little social circle," he said. "Now I want to know their names, and all the information you can give me about them, especially about Miss Asprey."
The Rector—who did not know shorthand—was impressed by the dots and dashes with which his friend covered pages of his note-book. Ignatius—who did not know shorthand, either—had counted on making this effect. He guessed accurately that the Rector would rank an ordinary Commercial-College accomplishment higher than his own exceptional memory.
"I want to meet all these people as soon as possible," he said. "You must give a party."
"No one would come."
"Well, then, some typical country entertainment." Ignatius shut his eyes and snapped his fingers, as though summoning some elusive memory. "Wait. A dim shaded light. The temperature of a furnace. Smell of hot mashed grass and peaches. Dahlias stuck into squares of cardboard. Give it a name."
"You mean a flower-show." The Rector shook his head. "Too early."
"Then there's no help for it. I must go to church. Draw me a diagram of the important pews and name them, like a theatre-plan."
The Rector obediently sketched a rough plan, although he disliked the secular comparison.
"I usually have a full muster," he said. "So you'll see most of my parishioners before the Service begins."
"All of them," corrected Ignatius. "They'll come to see me."
The Rector grinned, and then his eyes grew grave. "Ignatius," he said, "this thing's far worse than you suspect. May I rely on your help?"
"No. Help implies a division of labour. But—you can leave it all to me."
Stooping to pat the dog, Ignatius addressed it in a humbler voice.
"Charles Dickens, I'm only a little man. But don't they ever give you lunch?"
The Rector leaped to the bell, full of regrets for his lack of hospitality. Although his friend was accustomed to the cookery of expert chefs, he thoroughly enjoyed the simple meal. At the end of it he insisted on sending for the housekeeper, to offer his congratulations. A little later, he fell asleep, on the lawn.
When tea was finished, he re-opened his campaign.
"I propose a tour of the village. You must stop everyone we meet. Introduce them to me, but do the talking, so that I shall be free to observe."
The Rector's eye lit up at a sudden memory.
"Just come and see the church, first," he said.
As he had expected, Joan Brook was doing the Altar flowers, for Lady d'Arcy. He noticed, at once, that Ignatius and Joan were mutually impressed; their eyes met in a long intent look, as though each were appraising the other.
Then Joan, with characteristic rashness, spoke too quickly. "You've come down about the letters?"
Ignatius threw the Rector a reproachful look.
"Did you tell her that?" he asked.
"He didn't," said Joan hastily. "Only, a long time ago, he told me about you."
"You see, someone else has a memory besides yourself," remarked the Rector, who was obviously proud of Joan's penetration.
"I see that someone has a memory for your remarks," said Ignatius. "How far back does your memory go, Miss Brook?"
"Goodness knows. My most vivid memory is pinching money from my mummy's purse."
"Mine is of fighting a baby smaller than myself," said Ignatius. "I suppose I was about eleven months old, but it was a gorgeous sensation. I lost sight of that infant, so I go through life, looking for someone smaller than myself, to lick."
Joan's laugh rang out too loudly, considering that she was in church, so the Rector did his best about it.
"My earliest memory," he said gravely, "is of sitting on my dad's knee, in the firelight, while he told me stories."
"But he wouldn't be old then," remarked Joan. "Were they angel stories?"
"No. The Dick Turpin kind. I suppose they came under the category of crime."
Even as the Rector smiled, he stiffened again. Ignatius, who responded to a mental atmosphere, was conscious of a slight recoil, like a sensitive plant which has been touched by a rough finger.
He watched, with interest, as Dr. Perry walked up the aisle to be introduced, in his turn, to the visitor.
"Here's the lucky man," said the Rector, literally scooping up heartiness. "He's just come into a fortune."
"So I'm told," remarked Dr. Perry, almost inaudibly.
"Are you going all round the world?" asked Joan enviously. "I would."
"I may pass from this world to the next, but, at present, I don't contemplate going round it."
"But, aren't you terribly excited?" persisted Joan.
"Too soon. The estate will take a long time to wind up. Probably, the house won't sell. Property's a drug in the market."
"When it does," said the Rector, "I want a new peal of bells from you."
"I'll remember, padre." The doctor's professional glance marked the Rector's bagged eyes and sunken face. "Still fussing over this absurd letter-business?"
"Yes, I admit, I'm worried."
"Don't. Remember the Arab proverb—'It is but for a night, oh Muleteer'."
For a man who had just come into a fortune, the doctor's smile was strangely wistful.
"I want to consult you about a convalescent case in the village, padre," he said. "I think, between us, we ought to manage a change to the seaside."
As the doctor and Rector drew apart, Ignatius, who was examining a mural tablet, spoke in an undertone to Joan.
"That doctor has an arresting face. It's almost spiritual. That is how our husky friend, the padre, should look."
His comparison did not make him popular with Joan, who glared at him.
"I don't agree. I like a man to look like a man."
"Do you estimate manhood in terms of stones and inches?" asked Ignatius bleakly.
Joan's slip was unintentional, for she bit her lip and began to talk too quickly.
"I love the doctor. I'm never ill, but he gave me gas when I had a tooth out. I swore horribly, and kicked him in the face. He was really sweet about it. He said I was only a bit amusing...I think it's foul the way people are putting the letter on him."
Ignatius' alert expression was like that of a pointing dog.
"So he's the latest suspect?" he murmured. "I wonder why?"
"I should say it was obvious," said Joan. "People say the letters—all except Miss Asprey's—show intimate personal knowledge. And, you see, a doctor's got a sort of privileged position."
"Only, there's another man who has better—and more numerous—opportunities to watch people's houses, and their owners, when they're off guard," observed Ignatius.
"But there's not one in the village. The gardeners or chauffeurs clean the windows."
"In that case," said Ignatius, "I suppose I mustn't deprive you of the doctor."
Joan resented the slight inflection of scorn in his voice.
"Not me," she said. "Not I, or whatever it is. Dr. Perry is far too fine for that sort of thing. An anonymous letter-writer must have a mind like mud."
Because contradiction was second nature to Ignatius, he had to put Joan in her place.
"Not necessarily," he told her. "I know a very nice man whose employer kept his dog on the chain. Now this man dared not make an open complaint, as he had a wife and family dependent on him. So he wrote, anonymously, to his employer, telling him that his conduct was the scandal of the neighbourhood—with no detriment to himself, and excellent results for the dog."
Joan merely smiled as she collected her belongings.
"Say 'good-bye', for me, to the padre," she said, glancing towards the west door, where the Rector was parting from the doctor.
The Rector waited until they reached the green before he spoke to his friend about Joan.
"What d'you think of her?" he asked casually.
"She's interesting," was the reply. "Although she doesn't pluck her brows, her eyes have that slightly Oriental look. She'd go straight up—or down—as the case may be. No half measures about that young lady."
"You mean, she has both courage and character?"
"Yes." Ignatius changed the subject. "I'm grateful to you, Tigger, for putting me on to your little problem. I'm in the position of a water-diviner. I hold my twig over buried human nature. And I never know when it is going to twitch."
He stopped, arrested by the sight of the beautiful Elizabethan manor—'The Spout'. The tall iron-work gates were open, so that they had a clear view of a tall, gracious lady, with a strip of white Spanish lace over her silver hair, and a little dumpy woman—who—in spite of the heat—wore a grey woollen jersey.
"Miss Asprey and her companion," whispered the Rector.
"A charming picture," said Ignatius. "Things are often not what they seem on the surface. So, I'm going to presume, that the tall patrician lady is the companion, and the little plebeian the mistress of the house."
"Wrong," the Rector told him. "In my perfect village, appearances are not deceptive. Come on."
But Ignatius lingered, to gaze at the garden.
"So that is Miss Asprey," he murmured. "To my mind, Tigger, that is a situation ripe with possibilities. Two women living together—one on top, the other below. One rich, the other poor. One in the power of the other."
"What d'you mean?" asked the Rector irritably. "Are you referring to the fact that Miss Asprey pays Miss Mack a salary?"
"Yes. She pays her to be bullied."
"Rubbish. Miss Asprey's a delightful and considerate employer. And even supposing—for the sake of argument—that she was not, Miss Mack is a free agent. At a moment's notice she could pack up and go."
Ignatius walked on, frowning at the vista of Tudor cottages.
"Yes," he said, "she could leave, provided that her willpower was not sapped. Sometimes, the prisoner will stay in his cell, after the door is unlocked, because the wish to escape is dead."
"Ignatius," remarked the Rector, "for a clever man, you are talking like a fool."
"Perhaps," said Ignatius. "But remember, I have to consider every likely—and unlikely—contingency. And I want you to remember what I say now. If the key to your problem lies in that special house, then the situation is very grim indeed."
IGNATIUS proved a true prophet, for curiosity drew the village, in bulk, to church, the next morning. The important visitor proved a disappointing spectacle, looking more insignificant than usual, as he slumped down in his seat, in an apparent wish to escape notice.
As the Service proceeded, however, the frostbitten little man thawed visibly, and he began to display interest in Miss Asprey's pew. Some among the congregation noticed, with amusement, that his attention had been attracted by Miss Asprey's housemaid.
Ada looked beautiful in the plain white dress which her mistress decreed as the correct wear for Church; moreover, she had no competition, for she sat between Miss Asprey and Miss Mack.
Although her sea-blue eyes looked demure, she was up to every move of the game, and knew exactly when to drop her prayer-book, and where to pitch it. Ignatius gave himself away completely, for he leaped instantly across the aisle, to pick it up.
In order to return it, he had to stretch across Miss Mack; but she appeared unconscious of the incident, while Miss Asprey never relaxed a muscle. She sat, rigid as a statue, with her hands tightly clasped and her austere lips set in concentrated meditation.
The Rector's sermon was both dramatic and sincere, but Ignatius was unmoved by its appeal and deaf to his friend's elocution, as he sat, looking at Ada, as though thanking Heaven for the gift of a beautiful face.
He was abstracted and silent during lunch, and, after the meal was over, he went out to walk on the village green. As he stood by the gates of 'The Spout', Ada appeared, in her legitimate Sunday finery—a long frilled frock of yellow floral voile, printed with marigolds and a large flopping hat—both copied from an Ascot photograph in the Daily Mail.
She did not seem surprised to see Ignatius, who made the conventional opening gambit.
"Haven't we met before?"
"I wasn't born yesterday," remarked Ada instantly.
"I see that you are as sensible as you are pretty," said Ignatius. "As a sensible man, myself, I dislike the company of fools."
"Well, if you're so sensible, you'll know you haven't an earthly chance with me," was Ada's pert comment.
Ignatius did his best to appear humble, but failed.
"I admit I'm not much to look at," he told her, "but I have quite an impressive car."
"I know. Lanchester." Ada's eyes sparkled. "Shall we go for a ride?"
"No. I want exercise. I'm afraid of getting fat...But, if you come for a walk, you shall have the use of the car tonight, without me. And you can choose your chauffeur."
Ada was impressed by the stranger's hint, but she hid her surprise so successfully, that Ignatius glanced at her with new respect.
"All right, then, it's a snip," she said, steering, from instinct, towards the shade of the Quakers' Walk.
They had not gone far under the chestnuts when she knew that this was not going to be the usual walk. Contrary to her experience the gentleman from London did not advise her to train for the Pictures. Instead, he talked to her of Paris and New York, which she knew more than he did, for she had seen them, in the pictorial Press.
Soon, however, she found that she was back at 'The Spout', although she could not remember how the return journey had been accomplished.
"Does Miss Asprey give you every Sunday afternoon?" asked Ignatius.
"I take it," replied Ada.
"Is Miss Mack also free?"
"But what work has she to do on a Sunday?"
"Her usual work. Nothing," replied Ada tartly.
"Lucky Miss Mack. Don't you envy her?"
"No, that I don't."
Ada's voice was so emphatic that Ignatius dared to question her further.
"Why not?" he asked.
"Ask her yourself," replied Ada.
As she was plainly on her guard, Ignatius tried another line of attack.
"Poor Miss Mack," he said. "I thought she looked such a pathetic soul. So plain. So hopeless."
"Don't you pity her," advised Ada. "She made her own bed when she put herself up. Now, she's neither flesh, fowl, or good red herring."
"Oh. So she's been promoted recently?"
"Yes. She used to do house-work, like us. But she smarmed Miss Asprey, so now she's a sekkertary. She sits, all day, with Miss Asprey, and hardly speaks to us."
"And how do you know that she smarmed to get the delightful job of being shut up continually with an old woman? Miss Asprey might have advanced her, on her merits."
"I never said I knew that," corrected Ada. "I said she smarms Miss Asprey. I've heard her, over food."
"What food?" asked Ignatius sharply.
"Things for supper. She wants the same as we get in the kitchen?"
"And she gets it?"
"Yes, after a bit. Miss Asprey's very kind."
Ignatius began to walk quicker, unconsciously tapping the trunks of each tree, with his stick.
"Is Miss Mack never free to go out?" he asked.
"She's too fat and lazy," explained Ada. "She used to have a bit of colour, but now she's gone white and waxy. I believe she eats starch."
"There may be another explanation," said Ignatius. "There seems to be rather a gulf between Miss Mack and yourself. Does she try to give you orders?"
"Yes, she tries it on, but we just laugh at her, to her face. You ought to hear her. 'I'm mistress here'."
Ada tossed her head so violently that her light crinoline hat was dislodged, so that the breeze blew it to the ground. She did not notice her loss, as she went on with her boast.
"If I was to give notice, Miss Asprey would have to train another housemaid. But if Miss Mack was to give notice, there'd be a hundred letters begging for her job."
"You've a retentive memory for what you overhear, Ada," said Ignatius. "Is Miss Asprey fond of Miss Mack?"
"She's a kind mistress, to us all," was the cautious reply.
"Does she scold?"
"No. She just says, 'You've had your warning. I shall not speak twice. Next time, you'll go'."
"Has she ever warned you, Ada?"
"Not she. She knows experienced housemaids are rare."
"And has she warned Miss Mack?"
"What would be the use?" Ada laughed. "She'd never get her to go. Put her out at the front door, and she'd come in, at the back, like a little dog. I heard Miss Asprey tell her to go, with my own ears. But she stayed on."
Ada tossed her bead again, and apparently missed something, for she gave a faint scream.
"I never. I've lost my hat."
"Here it is," said Ignatius, giving her the crinoline straw shape he was hiding behind his back. "You'll be losing your head next."
"Not me," boasted Ada. "It's screwed on too tight...Well, well, I'm always losing little things, but I've never lost my hat before."
In spite of her hint, Ignatius made another attempt to pump her.
"Things are very uneven," he said. "It's a shame a pretty girl like you has to do the work, while a lump like Miss Mack leads a lady's life. Wouldn't you like to change places with her?"
"Not me, thanks."
Ignatius had worked back to his original point, but this time Ada was forewarned and ready with her answer, before he put his inevitable question.
"Because I wouldn't change faces with her," was her official reason.
Then she looked at her watch and screamed.
"Time to turn. I've got the tea to get."
On the way back, Ignatius deserted 'The Spout' and began to talk generally about the village. Ada, who was now in her element, did not need prompting, as she reeled off spool after spool of local gossip. But, presently, both grew silent, as each reviewed the conversation. When they parted at the gate of 'The Spout', Ada was quick to notice that Ignatius made no reference to a future meeting.
'Trying to get me to miss-call the mistress, you poor sap,' she thought scornfully, as she walked up the drive. 'Well, my lord, you got nothing out of me but what I wanted you to know.'
But Ignatius—strolling across the green—also claimed a victory, on points.
'Shot her to bits, like a clay pigeon. Poor Ada...Bit of luck her hat blowing off. It gave me a pointer as to which way the wind might blow.'
Ignatius did not attend Evening Service, although he asked tenderly after the different members of the congregation, when he met the Rector, at supper.
"Mrs. Sheriff felt faint, and left before the sermon," the Rector told him.
"Oh, yes. Squire's wife. Sandy hair. Weighs about seven stone. Probably eats too much. This is an example of Pelmanism, Tigger, and not an attempt to emulate S.H."
At that moment, up at the Hall, Mrs. Sheriff was making the most of her indisposition, as she lay on a divan, while Vivian anointed her forehead with lavender-water.
"It's that palpitation again," she complained. "I know it's heart—although Dr. Perry will call it stomach."
No one contradicted her, although it was well-known that she was too optimistic over the strength of her digestion to act as a buffer between over-eating and pain.
"He's a terrible man," she said. "But you'd better send for him, Vivian."
"No." The Squire's voice was aggressive. "If you must see a doctor, ring up Rawlings."
"Drag a strange doctor all the way from Cheltenham?" cried his wife. "Whatever for?"
"Because I don't want Perry called in here again."
Both Mrs. Sheriff and her daughter stared at the Squire. Had Ignatius been present, he would have noticed that, while the elder woman was merely astonished, Vivian's eyes showed fear.
She seemed terrified of what her father was about to say; for, directly he spoke, her face grew tranquil again.
"I don't like this legacy business," roared the Squire. "I've no use for a man who takes money from a woman. A spinster, too."
"But, Osbert," argued Mrs. Sheriff, "poor Miss Corner's dead."
"Makes no difference."
"But you inherited money from an unmarried woman."
"She was my god-mother. My old dad chose her, on purpose, because she was rich. Don't be a fool. He must have sucked up to her, while she was alive."
Vivian thought it time to intervene.
"If you sent for him, Dr. Rawlings wouldn't come, Father. Professional etiquette. He knows Dr. Perry's our doctor."
"He's not. I won't have him in the house. Besides, he wouldn't come out on a Sunday. He doesn't want the money. The fellow's a rich man now."
To quote from the B.B.C., 'the debate continued.'
Whatever the outcome, when darkness had fallen Dr. Perry had received no welcome summons to the Hall.
Lit by the silver lamp of the moon, Ignatius Brown and the Rector strolled through the village. The night was warm and still, and the street was deserted. The last courting-couple had returned from the gloom of honeysuckle-twined lanes. Bats blundered low, and owls hooted from an oak mentioned in the Domesday Book. Bowers of jessamine glimmered like small white stars, and the air was heavy with their fragrance.
The wide spread of empty fields blurred to the semblance of a grey tideless sea, and, once again—as the faint lights crept out to starboard and port—the village seemed to ride at anchor, like a gracious derelict three-decker, in the forgotten harbour.
Ignatius fell under its familiar spell.
"I don't want to call any man a liar, Tigger," he said. "But I must confess to being sceptical about any secret evil here."
"All the same, I hold you to your promise," remarked the Rector.
Everyone was indoors; behind each lighted blind or curtain they could see the concealed glow of lamp-light. Sometimes they heard music, or snatches of talk and laughter. For the windows were open, although the tradition of the screened interior was unviolated.
Suddenly the Rector was goaded to betray his sense of blindfold impotence.
"I wish to Heaven," he burst out, "I could draw up every blind, and see for myself what's inside."
As though some night-fairy waited on his wish it was immediately granted. Someone crossed to the window, at which they gazed, and drew aside the curtain, revealing a charming domestic interior, of chintz wall-paper, old china and pink-shaded lamps. By the door, one middle-aged gentlewoman kissed a middle-aged brother good night.
The next minute she put out the light and the house shrank back into the prevailing darkness.
"Apparently," gloated Ignatius, "the village heard you. So it showed you a sample room in a model village."
His words were true. The parlour of Rose Cottage was typical of other drawing-rooms in its light, comfort, and peace.
In one house a woman rose from her chair, where she sat reading. She, too, kissed her company, and—at the door—looked back into the cheerful room, with a smile.
But once outside, her face was that of a dead woman, as she drew from her bag a bit of crumpled paper, covered with printed letters.
Someone knew. The years of false security and happiness were over. She groped her way up the stairs through the dense blackness of fear.
"I can't face it," she whispered. "Never. Never. I'll die first... I'll—die."
THE Rector returned from matins, the next morning, 'with a message from Miss Asprey, for Ignatius.
"She is full up with engagements, but will see you at three-thirty, today. She can spare you about fifteen minutes only, so I would advise you to be punctual."
In his anxiety not to be late, Ignatius ignored the advice; for he rang the bell of the Tudor mansion at twenty minutes past three. Rose, the gaunt parlour-maid looked rather grave when he mentioned the time of his appointment, but showed him into the empty library.
His lined face lit with enthusiasm at the beauty of the panelling and ancient furniture; but, after glancing at the wooden seats, he decided not to sit down. It was natural, therefore, as he paced the room, to glance casually at the bureau, which held nothing more private than unopened letters and circulars.
He did not pry or do anything which he would not have done in the presence of the mistress of the house. When he crossed over to the shelves, he merely read the titles of some of the oldest books—relics of a little Victorian girl's school days.
He opened some of these, at random, and restored them almost directly; but his conscience was so clear that he retained the copy of Alice in Wonderland, although he heard Miss Asprey's step in the hall.
"Forgive me for looking at the date of your edition," he said, holding up the battered volume. "But 'Alice' is our common talisman. I'm horribly envious. Your edition is earlier than my own."
"That is one of the rewards of age," remarked Miss Asprey, with her special gracious smile.
She waved Ignatius to a carved chair, and sat down herself, as a signal that the interview had begun.
"I understand, from our Rector," she said, "that you wished to see me on the subject of my anonymous letter. If you will listen to me, I think you are making a great mistake."
"I should be very glad to hear your views," Ignatius assured her. "I know, from what I've heard of your former work and experience, that your advice will be valuable."
Miss Asprey's austere face softened slightly at the flattery.
"As you say," she remarked, "I probably know more about the seamy side of life than you do. And I know that it is unwise to stir up mud. At the very beginning I wished to suppress the miserable letter. It was nothing. It did no harm to me, or anyone else...Nothing that has happened since has made me change my original view. The letter is still nothing."
"But there have been other letters," Ignatius reminded her.
"So I hear. But have they caused any harm?"
"Not to those who received them. But they've certainly created an unpleasant and harmful atmosphere."
Miss Asprey waved her thin white hand.
"Give it time," she said. "It will all pass."
In her bleak purity she reminded Ignatius of her own Madonna lilies which filled a tall jar on the window-seat. But the saint possessed the business virtue of punctuality, for she glanced rather pointedly at the grandfather's clock in the corner.
Taking the hint, Ignatius drew out an envelope from his note-case.
"I understand your letter was enclosed in this," he said. "Now, are you certain you cannot detect the slightest sign of a familiar handwriting? So many people use Roman capitals."
Miss Asprey shook her head, after a perfunctory glance. "No," she replied. "And, please, burn that envelope. The episode is best forgotten."
Without undue haste, Ignatius tactfully relieved her of it.
"You are beginning to convert me to your views," he said. "The letters seem harmless, since there is no suggestion of blackmail. But that may follow. That is why we want to find out who wrote them."
Miss Asprey opened her lips, as though to speak, and then closed them again. She was obviously impatient when Ignatius asked an irrelevant question.
"What pious initials, you have," he remarked. "'D.V.' I know your name is Decima' because it is my favourite name. What does 'V.' stand for?"
"A ridiculous name, which I discarded a long time ago," snapped Miss Asprey.
She rose, to end the interview, and then, after a slight hesitation, spoke to Ignatius.
"As you are a stranger here, you cannot understand the attitude of the village. But I assure you that to meddle is no kindness. I think most of us would prefer to pay some small sum—which we could well afford—rather than ventilate our grievance. Privacy means everything to us. And everything that's worth having must be paid for."
"I understand," said Ignatius. "You would rather bleed inwardly than expose your wound. But doesn't it depend on where you're shot?"
"I don't understand you."
"A soldier running from the battle-field might be reluctant to show his wound; but he couldn't disguise the fact if he'd been peppered in the face."
"Then you mean to go on until you find someone who is lost to all sense of dignity?" asked Miss Asprey coldly.
"For the sake of the general good, I must find someone who will talk," translated Ignatius. "Good afternoon, and thank you for seeing me."
Miss Asprey stood like a statue as she waited for Rose to answer the bell. Her parting bow was stiff as he was shown from her presence.
It was a relief to exchange the chill of the house for the sunshine of the drive, so Ignatius lingered to admire the water-fed garden. Ada—looking her best in her blue sweeping overall—shook her duster ostentatiously from a window overhead, but he did not glance in her direction.
He did his best to dim the intelligence of his eyes as a little dumpy woman pattered out of the house. It was Miss Mack.
With a memory of Ada's criticism, he studied her keenly, for signs of illness or unhappiness. But her face, though pale, was firm and tranquil, her smile was serene, and her blue eyes clear as those of a china doll.
"Lovely day," he observed. "I suppose you're going for a walk?"
"No," replied Miss Mack, "I'm going to weed the garden."
"And do you prefer that?"
"Oh, I don't mind."
Ignatius glanced up at the floating fluff from Ada's duster, and then lowered his voice.
"Can we talk somewhere without being overheard."
Miss Mack's face seemed incapable of showing surprise, but she displayed her grip of the situation.
"Would you like to see our new water-irises?" she asked, leading the way across the lawn, to the pool. Her eyes were smiling blue crescents as she looked up at him.
"Do you want me to insure?" she asked.
"No, not in your sense," replied Ignatius. "Indeed, it is rather difficult to explain my impulse. But I'm an idle chap myself, so I'm rather sorry for workers—or rather, those who cannot choose their work...Will you make me a promise?"
"What kind of promise?" asked Miss Mack.
"Nothing alarming. But, if you should be in trouble, at any time, will you let me know? Here's my card. I may be able to help you."
Miss Mack did not lose her smile, but she accepted the card.
"Thank you," she said. "But if I was in trouble, of course, I should go to Miss Asprey for help."
"That means one of two things," remarked Ignatius. "Either you will not be in trouble, or that you are very loyal. Good-bye."
As he walked down the drive, he had the feeling that Miss Asprey was looking at him from the window of the library, and that she had been a spectator of the scene.
'Good work,' he chuckled as he shut the gates.
During tea, the Rector tried to pump him about his visit to Miss Asprey.
"Did you find out anything new?" he asked.
"I didn't expect to," replied Ignatius. "I merely called on her, to check up on the facts."
"In that case, I don't know why you bothered her at all. She couldn't tell you what she doesn't know herself."
"No, but she could tell me something she does know. And that's her second name."
"She hasn't one." The Rector spoke with authority. "She has shown me the testimonial and presentation plate she received when she gave up her Rescue work. I distinctly remember the name in the inscription was 'Decima', only."
"In that case, she has been known by the one initial for at least thirty years, and before she came here to live. So no local person could possibly have known she possessed a second."
"No," agreed the Rector.
He looked rather surprised when Ignatius showed him a creased envelope.
"Where are your eyes, Tigger? Didn't you notice the address on the envelope you've been treasuring as a proof?" The Rector shook his head.
"At the time, I was too staggered to be observant," he explained. "Afterwards, I just chucked it inside a drawer and locked it up. But, anyway, it's complete vindication of the village. The letters come from Outside."
Ignatius did not confirm his comforting theory. He rose to his feet and threw his cake to Charles.
"I'm off to see the doctor," he said.
"These mysterious comings and goings seem hopeful," remarked the Rector. "Have you some definite theory?"
"I have a definite theory and an indefinite one. I prefer the second, which suggests a daisy of a problem. This may prove merely a dislocation, or it may be a complicated compound fracture. I shall have to follow up the commonplace solution, for want of an adequate finger-post...Oh, curse the woman."
"I mean the one person who could clear up a small, but vital point, always supposing she told the truth."
"And won't she speak?"
The Rector was properly shocked at such lack of public spirit.
"But cannot she be induced to be open?" he asked. "Can't you appeal to her sense of fair play?"
"She hasn't any. That line of talk gets you no further with the dead. My missing witness is Julia Corner."
THE beautiful old rose brick walls hid all but the roof of St. James' House. As Ignatius crossed the lawn, he noticed the plentiful crop of daisies, and a large canvas swimming-bath, brimful with water, which was warming in the sunshine. At the front door, two white nurses were removing two white babies from snowy perambulators.
Hearing the children's voices, Marianne came rushing out, to smother them in maternal passion; but she restrained herself, as she saw Ignatius.
"Do you want to see the doctor?" she asked.
"Regretfully, yes," he replied, accepting the invitation of her eyes. "But not professionally."
"Of course not. You're staying at the Rectory. I saw you in church."
"And I saw you."
In regarding the baby's mother, Ignatius appeared blind to the fact that a baby was waving a hand in languid welcome. In spite of her pose of detachment, Marianne had to call his attention to this rare honour.
"The family has just returned. Isn't it a collection? But I suppose we must consider Posterity."
"Why?" Ignatius formally saluted the baby and then turned his back on it. "Nothing annoys me more than to be called on to make sacrifices for a lot of unknown people who'll enjoy all those discoveries of the future, which are denied to me. I wrote a poem on the subject, for our School Magazine. It began, 'Posterity, Posterity, It isn't you—it isn't me, then why the Dickens should we be The victims of Posterity?'"
His face relaxed at Marianne's tribute of laughter, so that he began to overlook her flamingo-red frock and haggard charm. Vivid colour always disturbed him, and he classified her among the man-eating species.
"Could I see the doctor?" he reminded her.
"I'm terribly sorry." Marianne shook her head with a violent sway of coral earrings. "He went up to London by the early train, and won't be back until dinnertime."
"Then, may I call later?"
"Do." She hesitated and then spoke on impulse. "And, if it's anything to do with these blasted letters, good luck to you. They've simply shot the village to bits."
Ignatius—who felt the pull of her attraction even under his tough rind, walked hastily towards the gates. He wanted to be removed from the radius of such dangerous magnetism.
After dinner, when he was about to start on his second visit, he enlisted the aid of the Rector.
"Stroll over with me, Tigger, and keep Mrs. Perry out of the way. It's always sound policy to break up the combination of husband and wife. They kick each other during Contract Bridge."
Dr. Perry and his wife were just finishing their coffee when the two men were announced. But the Rector proved a spare part, for, apparently, the doctor had anticipated the need for privacy. After a few minutes' chat, he rose to his feet.
"Shall we come to my study?" he asked.
He gave the impression of an exhausted man, although, according to his story, his visit to London had been a pleasure-jaunt.
The evening was rather gloomy, so a small fire was burning in the grate. Ignatius sat looking at the leaping flames as he mentally reviewed his impressions. He had noticed that the furniture and decorations of the house showed extravagant expenditure, which had not been maintained. Even the sun had entered into the conspiracy to impair credit, for the brocade curtains, as well as the carpet, were faded and slightly shabby.
Money was being spent like water, but it was the waste of a leaky tap, which did not make the grass grow. Ignatius remembered the absurd ostentation of the nursery parade, and he laid the blame on Marianne.
"That lady's a cash-register, which gives no change. I should say the poor devil could do with his legacy."
As the doctor remained silent, he produced an old copy of the local newspaper.
"I've read the report of the inquest on Miss Corner," he said. "It's very long and seems to cover the ground. But can you tell me of any additional details which have been left out of this account?"
The doctor was slow in skimming the newspaper.
"No," he said, at last, "you have all the facts here."
"Then I must congratulate all of you on your loyal discretion."
"I don't understand," said the doctor quietly.
"I think you do," insisted Ignatius. "It is obvious to the meanest intelligence that the most significant fact was ignored. The Coroner must have noticed it, besides yourself, and, probably, everyone in the Court."
The doctor smiled faintly.
"You're being rather unusual, Mr. Brown," he said. "Most clever people under-rate the intelligence of others. You go to the other extreme. But we stagnate here. You must not expect too much from us."
"On the contrary, I am sure that your intelligence is acute."
"In that case, why should I tell you what you profess to know already?"
"Only to save time," replied Ignatius. "I hope you will forgive my discourtesy when I say I did not wish your charming wife to be present at what I want to be a secret interview."
"Yes," agreed the doctor, "Marianne is indiscreet. It is unfortunate that she mentioned the anonymous letter to Sergeant James."
"My point of view exactly. For she established the fact that you knew the contents of the letter on the evening it was received."
"Of course. I mentioned, in my evidence, that she first read the letter, and was merely amused by it. So she gave it to me to read."
"Yet, although every intelligent person in the Court knew that it was nearly dark when the last post was delivered, no one expressed surprise that the short-sighted Miss Corner should be able to read the letter without her glasses, which were previously smashed?"
The doctor said nothing, so Ignatius continued.
"Since it was obvious that Miss Corner knew the contents of that letter, by heart, it also follows that she wrote that letter to herself."
"That might be the inference," said the doctor. "After all, there is no harm in her wishing to clear herself of a false suspicion. Perhaps her method was a bit childish and ingenuous, but she was rather fond of the bludgeon."
Ignatius noticed that the doctor had quite recovered from his attack of reticence, and seemed anxious to talk about Miss Corner.
"She under-rated the local intelligence," he said. "Really, she was an extraordinary mixture of simplicity and acuteness. But she had a fund of good nature and courage and was the most vital person I knew. I cannot tell you how much I miss her."
The doctor's listless eyelids drooped no longer and his voice was animated. Ignatius, who was watching him closely, believed that his regret was genuine.
"People played her too low," continued the doctor, "because she believed in her own literary trash. But was her attitude so absurd? She made money by her writing, and she always declared that no fiction could be a financial success if written with the tongue in the cheek. It seems to me a sign of brain-power that she willed herself to believe in her own poor stuff. Besides, it gave her pleasure and that, in itself, was a tonic for her."
Ignatius made an admirable listener, while the doctor continued to talk in the same strain, in a post-mortem oration to his friend. But, at its end, he harked back to an original remark.
"You spoke, just now, of a 'false' suspicion. But I possess evidence that Miss Corner did write that letter to Miss Asprey."
"No," declared the doctor. "She was incapable of such poisonous spite."
"We'll soon clear up that point," said Ignatius. "Can you tell me the initial of Miss Asprey's second Christian name?"
"She hasn't a second name," declared the doctor. "On one or two occasions, I've required her signature on certificates."
"Apparently, she hasn't had one for about forty-five years," said Ignatius. "Names go through cycles of unpopularity or ridicule, and, as a child, she took a violent dislike to her second name. It was 'Victoria'. Please keep it a secret, for her sake...But although no one here knows that fact, the envelope which contained the anonymous letter was addressed to 'Miss D. V. Asprey'."
In the pause which followed, the postman's double-knock shook the hall. Then Ignatius became aware, from the fixity of the doctor's expression, and the flicker of his eyes behind his glasses, that he was really thinking rapidly, while he affected to register shocked surprise.
Although he disliked to rush a dramatic situation, he hastened to make his point.
"That letter was written by someone who knew Miss Asprey in her youth. She and Miss Corner were old school-fellows. Now what is the obvious inference?"
He was too late, for the doctor had reached his mental goal.
"Nothing," he said. "Miss Corner's non-complicity is proved by the fact that two other anonymous letters have been received after her death."
"Exactly." Ignatius made the catch for which he had bowled. "Innocuous affairs, to the padre and Blair, both containing a vague childish threat, which the writer has never followed up. Don't they rather give the show away?"
"What show?" asked the doctor.
"That they were written by a loyal friend of Miss Corner's, in order to prove her innocent of writing the first letter to Miss Asprey."
Dr. Perry bit his lip.
"If you mean that I wrote those letters," he said, "I absolutely deny it."
"That settles it," he said. "I can only thank you for wasting your time over our little problem."
As, in his turn, the doctor got up, the door of the study was thrown open, and Mrs. Perry rushed in, followed by the Rector.
"Horatio," she cried, "do look at this letter. It's printed. I believe it's one of them."
In tense silence, Dr. Perry tore open the envelope and crossed to the window, in order to read what was written on the sheet of paper.
While he frowned, in hesitation, unable to decide the wiser course—whether to show the letter which vindicated him from Ignatius' charge, or to keep its contents a secret—Marianne, who was looking over his shoulder, put an end to his difficulty.
One bare arm thrown around her husband's neck, she read it aloud, in triumphant tones:
"'Every one in the village knows that you poisoned Miss Corner for her money'."
The words had scarcely left her lips, when she realised her mistake. The swirl of her orange gown was like a flame licking the dust, as she spun round and held the letter in the fire. Then she caught her husband's arm.
"Well, darling," she cried, "that lets you out. You were in London, today, so you couldn't have written this letter...Oh, don't flutter at me. We know, and they know what they've been hinting in the village."
Her voice suddenly shook with fury, as she turned to Ignatius with a choked command.
"Stop suspecting my husband and find out who wrote this cruel, wicked lie."
"I WAS wrong to distrust a matrimonial alliance," chuckled Ignatius, when he and the Rector had returned to the study, where the faithful Charles was guarding the biscuits. "Mrs. Perry spilled the beans most effectively. I like the doctor. Poor devil, I wonder he has a patient left, or a shilling in his pocket."
"But she's really kind-hearted," said the Rector. "She sits up with the doctor's poor patients, and is always first with beef-tea."
"Made from the best cut," remarked Ignatius acidly. Then he filled his glass and held it up. "Here's to our anonymous friend. He's finding his range."
"How? That letter was an infamous lie."
"Yes, but it was a definite charge, and not a vague warning. What we have to do is to try and wander in the labyrinth of a chocked mind. If he aims to create an atmosphere of general fear and suspicion, he has spread some useful poison this time."
"'He'?" repeated the Rector. "Then you think it's a man?"
"I do not. On a numerical basis, the chances are the writer is a woman. I use the masculine pronoun solely for convenience...What a confounded nuisance that woman is."
"Remember she's dead, Ignatius."
"Dead or alive, she's nothing but a name, to me. Hang it, I can't be sentimental over your excellent Miss Corner. If she hadn't blundered it, and confused the issues, I could have easily solved your little problem."
It was plain to the Rector that his friend was in excellent spirits; his peaked face wore an elfin grin as he waved his cigarette.
"Your mystery," he said, "is a snake, which I'm out to scotch. But the miserable Miss Corner has chopped it in two, and the halves go wriggling off in opposite directions. I don't know whether to follow the harmless tail, or the poisonous head."
"Then it may be harmless?" asked the Rector eagerly.
"My dear fellow, all the facts point to a mere village storm in a teacup. Jealousy between two single women. One writes the other a spite-letter—gets suspected—so writes one to herself. Then, most unfortunately dies. So a loyal friend writes two foolish anonymous letters, to clear her name."
"We'll give them their names," said the Rector. "Miss Asprey, Miss Corner and the doctor. How have you established your facts?"
As he listened to Ignatius, he kept rubbing his eyeballs and pulling his lids, in the way of a man troubled with nerves.
"Well," he said. "It seems to be Q.E.D. Only Miss Corner could have known Miss Asprey's second name."
"That is the assumption," agreed Ignatius. "But I must know it for a fact. The full name was written in the fly-leaf of all Miss Asprey's old books that I had time to examine. I wanted to find out about what period she suppressed the second. If she was then in her teens, it is unlikely Miss Corner would know it, for Miss Asprey was a senior girl when they first met, and she left the school soon afterwards."
He hit the arm of his chair.
"Confound the Corner woman. Why did she go and die? If I'd a monkey's paw, and could bring her back from the grave, to speak, I wouldn't weaken."
The Rector could believe the boast as he looked at the little man's grim lips.
"But why is all this so important?" he asked.
"Because," declared Ignatius, "everything hinges on the fact as to who wrote that first letter."
He stopped to point to the moths winging around the lamp.
"I'm like one of them—attracted by a lurid possibility. Your little problem may take the wrong turning, and develop into a sinister plot of a malignant personality."
"And you want it to be the poison-head?"
"Heaven forbid." Ignatius spoke piously, but insincerely. "But, if it is, I should count it rare luck to be on the spot, to help."
Although he stressed the last word, the Rector appeared lost to a sense of gratitude.
"It seems commonsense to concentrate on the tail-end," he said. "If you're right about Miss Corner, I suppose the letters will cease, and the village will slowly return to normal."
Ignatius gave a gleeful chuckle.
"That was the position, until tonight," he reminded his friend. "But we have evidence that the anonymous letter-writer is still active. You see, Perry couldn't have written his own letter, because he was in London today. And only a lunatic would have entrusted anyone else to post a printed envelope."
"How about his wife?"
"No, you can leave her out. It was a bad shock to her. Neither of them would have brought such a dangerous charge."
"Then, where, exactly, do we stand now?"
"In No-man's-land. I propose, for the present, to keep a tab on both ends of our snake, and await developments."
"As regards the poison-end, I'm going to instruct a private enquiry agent to make a few investigations as to the past history of two selected persons. As regards the tail-end—if the writer is just a harmless joker—I'm going to lay a little trap for him."
At the ominous word, the Rector looked up with a startled expression, as though he actually heard the clang of steel jaws.
"Just a crude sort of booby-trap," explained Ignatius, "I've been often to the Post Office and established friendly relations with your post-mistress. She strikes me as intelligent and discreet. So, I'm going to enter into partnership with her, and get out a new issue of stamps."
The Rector pulled Charles' silky ears. Presently, he spoke.
"I don't like it. I'd rather leave things as they are."
"In that case," said Ignatius, "I'll go back to London."
"No." The Rector spoke to his dog. "We can't let him do that, after dragging him down. Can we, Charles?"
"Don't appeal to Charles," said Ignatius stiffly. "He's a gentleman and wouldn't hurt my feelings."
The gentlemanly Charles instantly gave a most vulgar display of slobber to prove that he was friendly to both the opposing parties. Presently Ignatius relaxed sufficiently to explain.
"You see, this trap may not work, or prove too slow in action. But I'd like to be on the spot, in case something turned up. So I propose to put up at the inn. I'm making too much work for your housekeeper."
"You old hypocrite, you know Mrs. Wells adores you—help her taste."
"I only know she looks on me as a slum-product, to be fattened," said Ignatius. "What does Charles say?...Thank you, Charles, quite enough. I'll stay."
The next morning, before the Post Office was officially open, Ignatius called upon Miss Cassie Reed, the postmistress. She came originally from Peckham, and was sharp as a needle. She was further, grey-haired, spectacled, fresh-coloured and cropped; and, in her youth it must have been rather difficult to distinguish her from a boy.
Ignatius found her a refreshing change from the Rector, for she grasped the salient points of his proposal almost before they were explained, and became saturated with the spirit of intrigue.
"I'll help you gladly," she said. "Anonymous letters are pesty things. It won't be difficult, since it's only gentry."
"In what way?" asked Ignatius.
"Well, the gentry never buy single stamps, only books, unless it's for Charity appeals, when they want whole sheets. Now, suppose I make out a secret list of names of those who always buy books, and number them. Like this. 'Miss Asprey, 1. Lady d'Arcy, 2.' And so on. And then I'll lightly pencil all the books with a corresponding number."
She proceeded to explain, as though Ignatius were one of the village lads.
"If Miss Asprey comes in to get stamps, I'll sell her No. 1 book."
"But wouldn't Miss Mack buy Miss Asprey's stamps for her?" asked Ignatius.
"Quite likely. Miss Brook always buys stamps for Lady d'Arcy. But we can't help that."
"No," agreed Ignatius. "That's snag number one. The second snag is, we don't know whether they'll ask for a two-shilling book, or a three-shilling."
"We'll only number the two-shilling books," decided Miss Reed, "I'll tell them we're out of threes."
"Good," approved Ignatius. "If you'll let me have the books, I'll mark them. It'll be a dreary business. Every stamp in each book must be lightly pricked in its distinctive position."
"I'll help you," offered Miss Cassie Reed.
"No thank you," declined Ignatius. "I must keep the key to them in my own head."
"As you wish."
It was clear that Miss Reed considered that she was not being trusted, for she pencilled the books in silence, which she broke only to introduce the subject of finance.
"If you leave enough money to cover these," she said, in a thorny voice, "you will have it back when you return the books to stock, unused. Two pounds will do."
Ignatius took out a ten-pound note.
"There are certain things which money cannot buy," he told her. "Discretion, secrecy, tact, rare intelligence. So you'll understand I'm not trying to make a sale, when I say, I hope you won't bother about change."
Miss Cassie Reed proved his equal in summing up the situation.
"You're right," she said. "There are things money can't buy, so I won't try to buy your own silence. Eight pounds won't go far, if this leaks out, and I lose my job. But it will help towards my holiday. It seems to me we're in the same boat."
"Then we must trust each other," said Ignatius.
They shook hands on their bargain and he left the Post Office with his bait.
As he anticipated, marking all the stamps proved a monotonous occupation, but he would entrust it to no one else.
"A prick ever so lightly out of its correct position might fasten suspicion on an innocent person," he said. "But don't look so black, Tigger. I doubt if we shall get a single bite."
"Then why all this fag?" asked the Rector.
"Because we can neglect nothing. A child may get a bite with his bent pin, while the expert angler catches nothing. All the same, this scheme is full of holes...Look out, you clown."
The Rector had dropped a newspaper over the rows of open stamp-books, disturbing their correct positions.
Looking up for some explanation, Ignatius saw Dr. Perry standing at the open French window.
AS the days slipped placidly away, it really seemed as if the Rector was justified in his hopes of the innocuous tail. On the surface, village life appeared to be normal, and the social tone to be still fragrant as lavender. Lilies bloomed in profusion, fruit ripened, and gardens achieved new beauty. The weather, too, was perfect, for, while it was fine by day, some rain usually fell in the night.
Now that his subconscious self had ceased to pluck at his memory—jangling the chords to nightmare confusion—the Rector was no longer plagued by his recurrent dream of fighting an unseen enemy. He had quite accepted the theory that poor Miss Corner was responsible for the first two letters, and that some brainless person had carried on the poor joke.
"It all fits in with your own reasoning," he told Ignatius. "All these letters were mainly harmless, even the last. It is just as absurd to accuse Perry of medical mal-practice as it is to accuse Miss Asprey of having a past."
"Murder," corrected Ignatius.
"Still more absurd...At the time it left a nasty taste, but that was because Mrs. Perry threw a scene."
"Um. Seen Perry lately?"
"No, he's always busy."
"Interesting chap. By the way, you seem to have ruled out the possibility of there being a poison-head to our snake."
As he spoke, Ignatius looked through the window out at the drowsy golden street, steeped in the noon-tide glow. Two local ladies, with shady mushroom hats and white sunshades, lined with green, were exchanging garden bulletins and recipes for gooseberry-jelly. A sandy kitten in the gutter chased a white butterfly.
"I admit," he said, "that everyone seems very pleasant, and on friendly terms with each other. But what's under the surface? People don't mix."
"You mean, entertain? Give them time," urged the Rector. "With the end of the letters, things will slowly return to normal."
Ignatius smiled impishly and rubbed his hands.
"But how do you know the letters have stopped?" he asked. "My twig still twitches—and over the most unlikely people. Feebly, I admit. But there's something underneath all this."
He broke off, to stare, as Dr. Perry's Baby Austin, grey with dust, slowly plugged up the street.
The doctor had spent most of the morning motoring over impossible lanes and cart-ruts, out to a case in the country. The man was a panel-patient, so it was not a profitable morning, although satisfactory from a medical standpoint.
But although Dr. Perry's calls kept him busy, the health of the village was unusually good. His wealthy patients suffered chiefly from synthetic illness. They knew enough about certain ailments to recognise symptoms, which were the prelude to pain or discomfort, when they immediately sent for the doctor, who did the rest.
At present, there was only one authentic case of illness, and that was at the Hall. But the seasonal hay fever and rheumatism had sent out their usual preliminary notices. Two wealthy maiden-ladies walked in their garden, in the cool of evening and admired their flowers.
As the elder straightened herself from stooping over a bed of pansies, she clasped her hands over the small of her back.
"I felt a slight twinge," she told her sister. "My Enemy is near."
"Yes," nodded the younger lady. "I sneezed, this morning, passing a field. It's time to send for the doctor."
The elder sister looked thoughtful.
"Mrs. Sheriff tells me the Squire is delighted with the doctor from Cheltenham," she said. "He probably knows the latest theories about rheumatism. Dr. Perry never varies his treatment. I think it's enterprising to seek fresh advice. Especially when it's recommended."
The younger sister looked defiant.
"I shan't see him," she declared. "I'm faithful to my dear Dr. Perry."
As her loyalty took the form of ignoring her hay fever—which ran its usual course—Dr. Perry did not reap any real benefit.
Although he professed pleasure at the general good health of the community, there were times when he wondered if there were smuts floating in the atmosphere which were not washed away by the nightly rains. Both the Rector and Ignatius had been present during the reading of the unlucky letter, and—in his opinion—the Rector was a windbag. But he said nothing of his suspicion to his wife, who, with the babies, spent most of her time lying in the sun, like lizards.
Another person who did not revel in the present idyllic conditions was Joan Brook. With the sudden jam of social life, she had few opportunities of seeing the Rector. Since the country appealed to her more than ever, she traced her restlessness back to its right cause.
She was a resolute girl who did not shirk issues. Because she could not meet the Rector at tennis-parties, she set out on a definite hunting-campaign.
'Man-fever,' she told herself defiantly. 'I don't care, when it's only one. I'm young—and we like each other. So why not?'
But the spirit of perversity entered into the game; in the days when she was merely interested, their paths were always crossing. But now that she cared, the Rector seemed always just round the corner.
About this time, she began to dread the nights. Her bedroom in the huge biscuit-stucco house was small, and faced West, so that it was well-baked in the evening, while the trees, which made the park look so cool, blocked any current of air.
Joan always woke up to be haunted by a dread of her future. In those hours of thick blackness, she saw herself as a bit of stale, realistic fiction. It might have been Miss Corner, turning in her grave, to sum up the familiar position.
'No looks—no money—no talent. If I don't marry him, Heaven help me'.
But she always rose with the lark, ready for cereals, as well as fruit, with her breakfast, and eager to go on with her campaign.
Every evening, after dinner, she strolled over the fields, to the village, in the hope of a casual encounter. On her way, she crossed the glorified lane which led to the Hall—a long, low building, which had been restored after fire, but which possessed one original Tudor wing.
The drive and formal entrance was reached by the main road; but, on this side of the house, part of the grounds stretched down to the hedge. Nearly every evening Joan caught a glimpse of Vivian Sheriff and Major Blair, playing tennis or strolling in the rose-garden.
Their friendship was now losing its blurred outlines of casual comradeship, and sharpening into a definite affair.
When Joan watched them, she knew that she was jealous of Vivian's security.
At the worst, she was provided for—at the best, she would step with the triumphant thump of the Wedding March. It was no wonder that her smoke-blue eyes held no depth, and there was no undertone beneath her light prattle. Vivian was safe.
The mere fact that a girl, possessed of the gay, reckless spirit of the buccaneer, should envy the prospect of being merely settled, proved that Joan had a sharp attack of her special man-fever.
She looked up at the sound of a motor-horn, and saw Ignatius, more insignificant than ever, lost in the interior of his impressive car.
"Like a ride?" he asked. "Wherever you choose."
"All right. Take me to Babylon, and back again."
Joan was not often subtle, so she felt rather proud of herself when Ignatius caught her mood.
"No," he said. "Candlelight is too compromising. But I will take you around England, and return you here, before it is dark."
"Thanks, no." Joan shook her head. "Too tame."
He sighed, as though he, too, at some time, had maddened to the faint, far-away drum of the age-old call. Then his voice grew acid.
"If you come for a ride, at least, you won't be afraid of having to walk home. According to a former remark of yours, you can hardly confuse me with a cave-man."
Joan bit her lip.
"I know I'd rather go for a ride with you than a walk with Miss Asprey," she said quickly.
Her imprudent speech made Ignatius forget a rankling memory.
"Why?" he asked.
With spirited exaggeration, in which she forgot her antipathy to Ignatius, she told him the story of her painful experience.
"There was I, my dear, blown, panting, winded, dead to the world—my knees giving, my tongue hanging, my back cracking—while she just rolled on, like an oiled devil-on-wheels—at exactly three miles an hour. And all for a wretched twopenny-halfpenny brooch...But she had to get even with me for something else."
"And what was that?" asked Ignatius curiously.
Conscious that the Major and Vivian had strolled down to the white gate which opened out to the lane, Joan confided the story of little Miss Mack's disappointment and her promise to Miss Asprey.
"I couldn't have told that to anyone but you," she said. "Everyone here worships her for a saint. But I'm a newcomer, so I see things as they are."
Ignatius looked at her intently.
"I wish I'd been able to talk to you before," he said. "You interest me very much. It's evident that you believe that one's own original impression—however bizarre—should be accepted before the general attitude."
"I do," said Joan. "I know I'm a horn blunderer. I've dropped more bricks than any other girl of my weight in England. But the whole trouble is—I usually hand round the truth."
"I'm sure of it. You've got breadth between your eyes. I shouldn't think you could tell a lie."
"No, I'm not a liar. I was brought up by a grandmother, who was a queer old character, but pretty fine in her way. She had some grim ethics, but they seemed to work out all right. She used to say, 'Never tell a lie. Lies are miserable, petty things that brand you a coward. But, if you ever have to tell one, tell a big lie and stick to it.'"
"Now I know that, you may have me guessing, one day. But it's fine."
In spite of his praise, Joan knew that she was sharing his attention with the postman, who was trudging through the wild parsley which bordered the lane.
"The last post," said Ignatius. "That postman is the hero of our scenario. I wonder what he is bringing Miss Sheriff."
Vivian—slim as a crescent moon in her white frock—slipped out of the garden and took a letter from the postman. They heard the glassy tinkle of her laugh as she rejoined the Major.
"He's brought her no thrill, anyway," said Joan.
"Don't believe it," Ignatius told her. "Like all of us, she has her secret life."
Suddenly Joan thought of her novelist-friend as she stared at him.
"Odd you should say that," she remarked. "But I have to go. I'm paid for my company. Give my love to the little Rector."
"Yes. I always call people 'little' when I like them."
Ignatius accepted the oblique compliment, and—as Joan had anticipated—recalled her to the Rector's memory, by praising her, at dinner.
When the sunset glow was drowning in the violet sea of twilight, they strolled over the green. The Rector glanced at the tower of the Clock House, and suddenly felt sociable.
"The Scudamores will be back from their walk. Let's go in. They're so normal, they always do me good."
The lawyer and his wife had proved their moral superiority to the new conditions. Although they did not give any formal entertainment, after their one experience of refusals, they continued to invite other couples to dine, while Mrs. Scudamore rarely drank her afternoon tea without the company of a picked acquaintance or friend.
Directly the two men were inside, they felt the formal atmosphere of the house; even the cat dressed for dinner, for his shift-front was immediately white against his black coat.
Mr. and Mrs. Scudamore were in the pleasant drawing-room, drinking barley-water, which they invited their guests to drink, on the score of health. From health, it was a natural step to illness.
"Heard how the Squire is today?" asked the lawyer.
"Is he ill?" asked the Rector. "Perry's never mentioned going to the Hall."
The lawyer and his wife exchanged glances.
"Probably he was taken ill, when he was in Cheltenham, so saw a local doctor," said Mrs. Scudamore. "I know it was sudden."
"That sounds probable," agreed the Rector, shying from the same unpleasant possibility which was troubling the lawyer. "What's the matter with him?"
"Blood-poisoning. Sharp attack, which might have proved fatal, only it was taken in time...No, they wouldn't have had time to wait to get Perry...But this is the funny part about it."
Mr. Scudamore was glad to get away from the doctor, for he stressed his account of the illness. Ignatius listened with boredom, which suddenly sharpened to attention.
"He had some fish at a restaurant, in Cheltenham, which was tainted. He only swallowed enough to taste it, and then sent it away and ordered something else—cold meat in jelly. And that was where he went wrong. The Squire told me that the doctor explained to him, that, as he'd eaten so little fish, and was in very good shape, it would have passed harmlessly through his system...But he chose a second dish which had jelly; and the gelatine proved the right medium to incubate the poison-germs."
They all agreed it was tough luck. And then Ignatius looked around the discreetly tinted room, with its stiff arrangement of good furniture, its family treasures and shaded lamps, and deliberately asked an inapposite question.
"Have you received an anonymous letter, Mr. Scudamore?"
"Certainly not," replied the lawyer. "In my opinion the whole unsavoury nonsense is ended."
"I agree with my husband," said Mrs. Scudamore.
"My wife should be in a position to judge," said the lawyer proudly. "She probably meets more people socially, than anyone else in the village, although she never listens to gossip."
Ignatius saw that their assurance was, to the Rector, as drink to a droughty man. He bowed his head in his old grand manner, like a Roman Emperor accepting tribute, as Mrs. Scudamore gazed at him with her large mild eyes.
"I think your attitude is the only right one, Rector. We must go on as usual, and forget. A sore cannot heal if it is perpetually rubbed."
Ignatius felt that she was trying to say, in a lady-like manner, 'For Heaven's sake, padre, get rid of that little brute, who will keep stirring a wasp's nest, in the hope of gingering up a last stinger'.
While they sat and smoked—with the exception of their hostess—the last post was brought in to Mrs. Scudamore. It was one letter in a thick white envelope, with a crest, and the lawyer could not resist the temptation of a comment.
"That looks like Mrs. Bevan's handwriting."
"Yes," smiled his wife, "that must be the invitation to the wedding." She added, in explanation, "The Bishop's eldest daughter is being married next month. I promised to be present."
Ignatius saw the pleasure that the Rector received from this item of social intelligence. The mere name of 'Bishop' seemed a spell to exorcise the spirit of malicious slander.
Ignatius was so silent on their homeward walk that the Rector began to exult.
"You're sulking," he declared, "because you don't want to be cheated out of your puzzle. But Scudamore is the most level-headed lawyer in the district, and he held the same view as myself."
Ignatius shook his head.
"I was thinking about the Squire's illness," he said. "It gave me a useful pointer. Suppose the original poison was present in the village, lying dormant, probably harmless, until the chance introduction of the innocent gelatine. But what, exactly, is our gelatine? I should know if I could make certain who wrote that first letter...And, when I try to solve that problem, I find myself blocked by another."
"And what is that?" asked the Rector indulgently.
"The problem of a woman," replied Ignatius. "A woman who never smiles."
AS the days merged into each other, without jar or incident, even Ignatius seemed to accept his status in the village as a summer guest. The Rector was glad of his company, for he was an easy visitor, and his own car provided his entertainment. Insignificant as a monkey on a milk-float, he steered his glittering monster through the winding lanes, with Charles Dickens—who had acquired a luxury complex—for passenger.
He developed one habit, however, which gradually got on the Rector's nerves. Every evening, when the first distant knock sounded down the street, he used to go to the gate and watch the postman's tubby figure, rolling from door to door.
"What's he bringing?" he used to ask. "Which of them is going to get theirs tonight?"
One morning he announced his intention of paying a visit to the Post Office.
"I must find out if any of our new issue of stamps is in circulation," he said.
The Rector suddenly became preoccupied with his dog. "Charles, you're getting fat. Too many rides...I never thought much of that idea of yours, old man."
"Neither did I," agreed Ignatius. "I confess I know nothing about setting traps. It is the business of the police. If you had given them the job they would know how to tackle it, from A to Z...But you must admit, I am specially in the dark, as everyone has thoughtfully destroyed all the evidence. I have only one envelope to work on."
"One for me," said the Rector. "Of course, I tore up mine. It's a natural recoil."
"Never mind. My mind is still working on remote possibilities. For your sake, I'm not neglecting sidelines. Miss Reed's trap seemed clumsy and creaky, but it may catch something. I'm off to see."
Ignatius drew on his hat, which shaded his face, so that he looked like a slim school-boy, and strolled into the garden. The Rector shouted after him a piece of news.
"I've a visitor coming for lunch. Another parson. One sharp."
Unaware of future benefits, Ignatius pulled a face at the prospect, while, behind his back, the Rector grimaced like a culprit expectant of blame.
Directly Ignatius entered the Post Office—a floral bower of white Seven Sisters rose-clusters—he learned the secret of the Rector's uneasy conscience. Miss Cassie Reed nodded to him coldly, and held out a ten-pound note.
"I've been expecting you," she said. "Please to take this back. I'm not going on with it."
In spite of his former pose, Ignatius was staggered by the check.
"Haven't you sold any of the books of stamps?" he asked.
"Yes, one, I'm sorry to say. To Lady d'Arcy."
Ignatius recalled a vast vague lady to his memory.
"Why have you changed your mind?" he asked.
"I never liked it, from the first," declared Miss Reed. "But I thought that as you were staying with the Rector, he wanted it. I remembered his sermons. And I was carried away, to help. I slept on it, but still I didn't like it, one little bit. After I sold the first book to Lady d'Arcy I felt a traitor to my position of trust."
"And then, I suppose, you tackled the parson?" asked Ignatius.
"Yes, I spoke to the Rector, and told him that it was a sacrifice of all my principles. And when he said that he had nothing to do with it, himself, I destroyed the list of names and took all the marked books of stamps out of the drawer."
"But you mustn't be put to any loss," declared Ignatius.
"That's all right. The stamps have their face-value. I can dispose of them to friends in London, and elsewhere...But not one shall be sold in this district, where they might do harm."
"I'm glad of that," said Ignatius. "But I'm exceedingly sorry to have given any pain to a lady of your high principle."
Miss Reed made her swift mental comment. 'Soft soap. He wants something else.'
But although Ignatius made his request, he had no real hope.
"I suppose it's no good asking you if any more printed envelopes have been delivered in this village?"
"That's right," agreed Miss Reed. "It isn't. And it's no use trying to bribe the postman. I knew we're supposed to read all the postcards, in the country, but that's only comic-paper stuff. You'll get nothing out of Tomlinson, but what he wants you to know—and that's not enough to spread on the head of a pin."
"Oh, I wouldn't dream of bribing a Post Office official," protested Ignatius.
"And why not indeed? You tried to bribe me."
Ignatius looked at her, marking her neat grey crop, her tight, shrimp-pink face, her spikey blue eyes. At that moment he knew why crimes were committed. This hostile little woman could tell him what—at that stage, he wanted to know most.
He had that object only in view when he proposed the stupid issue of marked stamps. It was merely a Knight's move—an oblique approach to his objective. He had hoped to establish a partnership between them, in order to gain her confidence, and, gradually, to pave the way to a betrayal of official confidence.
He looked so small and dejected, as he turned to go, that Miss Reed, who was, herself, as light as a sparrow, felt sorry for him.
"I can never forgive myself," he told her. "I hope you will bear me no ill-will."
"Now that I'm straight with myself, I've nothing against you," she said. "But I stand for the Government of England."
When Ignatius walked out of the Post Office he almost expected to see the Union Jack floating from the small building, and to hear the strains of the National Anthem.
It was not until his stratagem had failed that he knew how much he had counted on it. He strolled through the village, glancing at the passers-by, with baffled curiosity. They all wore their masks—or were they their usual morning faces? Not a single person looked short of a night's rest, except the Rector.
'Of course,' he argued, 'an anonymous letter would be merely an annoyance, until it went near the bone. No one here may have walked in the mud, or been out in the rain.'
On the green, he was accosted by Marianne Perry, rather to his annoyance. She looked a beautiful wanton, in a transparent frock, although its colour—a deep coffee cream—could not irritate his fastidious taste.
"Will you have lunch with a murderer's wife?" she asked lightly.
He did not smile as he answered her in his most formal manner.
"I should be delighted. Only I have to return to a clerical lunch-party."
"I know," she nodded. "Roast saddle of mutton and onion-sauce. I make you a better offer. Come in, and have one on the house. No? What can I do for you? You look lost. Shall I tell you the way to the Rectory?"
"Thanks, no. I have no wish to be led up the garden."
Marianne nodded and left him. A laughing lady, of fluid lines and fleet feet, she skimmed over the Green, and ran into her garden.
There was the usual nursery festival on the lawn, where the babies, with a nurse and nursemaid in attendance, were splashing about in the canvas swimming-bath.
As Marianne lingered to admire Mickey, who was 'almost' swimming, her smile faded, and a horseshoe of worry appeared between her eyes.
"Isn't he rather pale, Nurse?" she asked. "You don't think he's anaemic?"
The nurse pursed up her lips. Marianne paid her the high salary she had demanded on the strength of her short engagement by a titled lady; but the woman was a born bluffer, and chiefly justified her wages by her extravagant suggestions.
As Marianne possessed the mentality which despised Jordan, her confidence in her expensive nurse was absolute. She waited anxiously while the woman thought of a new way to waste the doctor's money.
"The children ought to go to the sea," she declared. "It is too relaxing here. They want salt water to strengthen their bones."
"Then they must go," declared Marianne.
Whistling like a blackbird, she ran into the study, where the doctor, in a shabby alpaca coat, was raking through the pigeon-holes of his desk to find a formula.
"Horatio," she chanted, "you've got to send the family to the sea."
"No," said the doctor. "The change of food and habits will do more harm than good. Babies are best in the country."
"But Nurse says they must go."
"Then that settles it. I suppose Nurse will pay?"
"Aha, I'm glad you mentioned payment. Her wages are due tomorrow. Write me out a nice big cheque, darling."
The doctor shook his head.
"Waste of time," he drawled. "It wouldn't be met."
"For the usual reason. No money in the bank."
His wife stared at him with startled eyes.
"But what am I to do about Nurse?" she asked.
"Fire her, and look after the babes yourself."
Instantly Marianne's overstrung temperament galloped away with her.
"I couldn't," she stormed. "I'd be lost without her. What would my babies do?"
"They will do very well if you will follow my instructions."
"You. You're only a doctor. What do you know about children? It needs a woman to understand them. Nurse can't go."
In order to soothe her, the doctor desperately suggested her favourite occupation.
"Instead of working yourself up over nothing, suppose you rake in a little money? Send out your bills."
Marianne's face smoothed at the idea.
"It's a bit early," she said, "but I'm on to it. Your bookkeeper will now carry on."
The doctor returned to his search. After about fifteen minutes he found the missing paper, and went into the dispensary, to find his wife standing at the window. She was watching the children on the lawn, and there was something so rigid about her pose that his attention was attracted.
"When are you going to begin your bills?" he asked.
"I've finished them," she replied.
"Yes. There wasn't much."
As they stared at each other, she tried to smile stiffly. Her husband saw that she was now completely steadied by the severity of the shock. It was also a bad blow to him, for he had been in constant demand, owing to a slight epidemic of measles. Always a dreamer, he had not realised the non-profitable nature of his work.
"It's the slack season," said Marianne. "You'll have to sack your book-keeper."
Even as she made her poor joke, her face suddenly contorted, and she ran out of the room.
Meanwhile, unconscious of any local thunder, in the midst of prevailing fine weather, Ignatius had returned—against the collar—to the Rectory. When he was introduced to the guest, things appeared to be even worse than he had feared. The clergyman was not their contemporary, but the father of one of the Rector's college friends, and was well over seventy.
He was a stout little man, silver-haired and florid, and with a great store of enthusiasm. In fact, he used so many adjectives to describe the charm of the village that the Rector, touched on his vulnerable spot, impulsively invited him to stay to tea.
"I shall be only too charmed," said Mr. Jenkins. "My inspection was too hurried to do the church real justice."
Ignatius grew still more bored, as lunch dragged on, and the Reverend Jenkins wandered in the mist of the past. The old man's voice droned on incessantly, as he revived ancient recollections and memories, and told stories about dead men and demolished buildings. But presently, at the mention of a chance date, Ignatius sat up, alert and bristling with interest.
"You had the living of St. Giles forty years ago?" he asked.
"No, thirty-five. I was there for six years."
"I wonder if you came across a Miss Asprey, who was Lady Superintendent of a Rescue Home in your Parish?"
"Miss Asprey?" repeated Mr. Jenkins. "Yes. Yes, indeed. I knew her well."
"What was she like?"
"A beautiful woman."
"I mean—in character?"
As the old clergyman paused before answering him, Ignatius glanced at the Rector, and saw that his expression was slightly resentful, as well as anxious. Then the reply came.
"She was one of the best women I've been privileged to meet. In fact, she was almost a saint. She seemed to have no faults. She did noble, self-sacrificing work, which sometimes puzzled her, by its seeming futility. But, as she was frail, she is, probably, now in Heaven, and understands all that was obscure."
"Oh, no, she's not in Heaven," chipped in Ignatius. "She lives here, in a fine old Elizabethan house, and does herself well."
"In-deed?" Mr. Jenkins looked taken aback. "You don't say so? Well, well. How time flies."
But the Rector, who rather regretted his afternoon of boredom, suddenly saw a way out.
"When we've finished doing the church," he said, "we'll go and call on Miss Asprey. You'll both enjoy talking over old days."
"Charmed," his guest assured him. "It will be most delightful, I am sure. It is thoughtful of you to suggest such a pleasure."
But he looked so reflective that Ignatius guessed the origin of his eclipse. With his habitual malice, he could tell exactly when the excuse put in its opportune appearance, for the old clergyman suddenly became his old bright and voluble self.
He praised the village even more than before, and waited until coffee before he glanced at his watch, and groaned.
"I'm so truly grieved, but I shall not be able to accept your kind invitation to stay, after all. I have an engagement which I cannot break. What time does the next bus start?"
"I'll drive you back, if you like," suggested Ignatius spitefully.
"Not for worlds," protested the old clergyman, hurriedly putting on his soft hat, and toddling to the door. As he said 'Good-bye' he renewed his thanks, and also added a message for Miss Asprey.
"Will you tell her how sorry I was not to have the opportunity of renewing our old friendship? Please remember me to her, and say how glad I am that she's been spared to continue her useful, happy life?"
When their guest had gone, the Rector was triumphant.
"I hope you are satisfied now," he said. "You have a genuine testimonial of Miss Asprey's character from one who knew her in her work, which is a different thing from knowing her socially, as we do. The truth about people comes bursting out, when you're both in daily contact, on the same job."
"Yes," admitted Ignatius, "I am sure that old apple-woman told the truth. A bit too much of it, in fact."
"Then I hope you'll no longer see anything grim in the situation, when two women live together, on unequal terms?"
An elfin grin flickered over Ignatius' face.
"Your old friend." he remarked, "praised Miss Asprey to the skies, so long as he thought she was a bit of still-life. But he was definitely anxious to avoid meeting her in the flesh. That is why I regard the situation as even grimmer than before."
A WEEK later, Ignatius decided to go back to London.
"It seems futile to stay here, waiting for nothing to happen," he told the Rector. "All I've learned, from recent observation, is that Vivian Sheriff and Joan Brook don't like each other, and that the doctor is not in love with his wife. Sorry not to have been more helpful."
"But you've been of enormous use," declared the Rector, who hailed his friend's departure as an omen of peace. "It was you who pointed out that Miss Corner wrote the first two letters, and that those written after her death, were just practical jokes."
"No. I pointed out that Miss Corner certainly wrote her own letter, and might have written the first, to Miss Asprey. If she didn't, then you're only beginning your troubles."
The Rector changed the subject.
"I shall miss you," he said, "and Charles will miss the car. I'm afraid his pride will have a nasty knock when it goes. He thinks I've bought it for his special use."
He was now drifting on with the imperceptible flow of village life, where the salient incidents were sunrise and sunset, and the rest, only the hours between. All in his circle seemed to have forgotten the unpleasant episode of Miss Corner's death, and their subsequent scare. It was as though they knew subconsciously that so long as they did not gather together in numbers they were safe from the herd-instinct to panic at a chance shot.
But, though Fear was no longer apparent, as a black shapeless terror, hiding in the shadows, the Rector sometimes wondered if he had really gone. A nasty little doubt persisted that, perhaps, the grim visitor was invisible to him, because he stalked boldly in the daylight.
It might even be that the local ladies and gentlemen had grown so accustomed to him that they found a strange and perverse pleasure in his company, and enjoyed furtive talks with him, in secret holes and corners, when no one was near to see.
Then he remembered the doctor's Arab proverb, 'It is but for a night, oh Muleteer', and he told himself that he must be patient and wait. The trouble would pass.
Two nights before Ignatius was due to return, he and the Rector went to the Clock House for dinner. It was the Scudamores' usual formal meal, with iced drinks and conventional talk, which acted as a sedative on the Rector's twitching mind. Presently Mr. Scudamore mentioned a hopeful piece of local news which seemed to hint at a social revival.
"I hear the Towers is to be opened again."
Ignatius looked up from his asparagus.
"Is that the big nightmare of pepper-pot turrets, on the London road?" he asked. "Who lives there?"
"The Martins. A very wealthy family. They have been abroad, travelling, for two years."
Mrs. Scudamore—a real helpmate—supplemented her husband's information.
"They have four unmarried daughters—charming, unaffected girls—but one has recently become engaged to an Italian count. The two eldest girls—Miss Martin and Constance—are coming first, and the others will follow."
"I think I've heard about them," remarked Ignatius drily. "Aren't they the people, who remember nothing of the places they've visited, except the shops?"
But the lawyer and his wife strangled this sort of conversation at its birth.
"I don't think that is correct," said Mr. Scudamore. "The Martins are so accustomed to travel that they probably accept their own experiences as common knowledge."
"I'm sure that is so," agreed Mrs. Scudamore. "I always think it is rather sweet the way they try to find topics of everyday interest when they meet their stay-at-home friends."
Ignatius thought wistfully of a certain gossip at his Club—a man notorious for his barbed tongue—and he longed for his bitterness, as an antidote to the Scudamores' syrup.
As he looked around the discreetly-lit table, with the symmetrical lace mats on the polished mahogany, and the light arrangement of Iceland poppies, to tone with the amber shades of the candles, he had no premonition how fantastic this memory would appear in the light of a certain unborn event.
The evening was hot, so their coffee was served on the verandah. They were drinking it—still on their best behaviour—when the garden gate was burst open and a girl swung through. It was Joan Brook—flushed with exercise, bare-headed, and wearing a short cape of its own material over her white dinner-frock.
Her eyes sparkled at the sight of the Rector, and his own heavy face lit up in response.
Joan explained to Mrs. Scudamore that she had brought her an invitation to have tea with Lady d'Arcy, the following afternoon.
"Of course, it was my job to write you a note," she laughed. "But I'm often restless in the evening, so I made it an excuse for a walk."
"My wife couldn't wish for a more attractive letter," the lawyer assured her, while his wife made a mild attempt at a joke.
"I shall ask Lady d'Arcy for my stamp...Won't you have some coffee, Miss Brook? Will you sit here?"
She led Joan to a chair, at the extreme end of the line, where she was separated from the Rector by two places. But the girl, with customary directness of purpose, talked to him, across Ignatius.
"I haven't seen you for ages."
"No," agreed the Rector. "I don't know how it is. We always seem to miss each other, these days."
"No parties," exclaimed Joan. "I don't know what's come to the village. It doesn't seem the same place."
Ignatius was amused to notice how quickly Mrs. Scudamore changed the subject.
"Is Vivian Sheriff's engagement announced yet?" she asked.
"Is she engaged?" asked Joan rather sharply.
"That is what I wish to know. Of course, there will be an engagement. Major Blair goes to the Hall, every day: and Vivian is not the girl to make herself cheap with a man whose intentions are not serious."
"But what about his?" asked Joan.
She was so accustomed to modern casual intercourse that she could not understand that she had dropped her usual brick.
"Nice chap, Blair," said the Rector hastily. "I like him, because he's the only player on the links I can lick."
"Yes," agreed the lawyer, "Blair's a man."
As he made the inevitable classification, Ignatius caught Joan's eye, and a smile flickered between them. He lowered his voice.
"I wonder why women never marry the men who understand them."
"I wonder too," said Joan.
"We're a case in point," continued Ignatius. "Our minds march, or, rather, limp together. Yet you wouldn't marry me if I was the last man alive; and I'm a born celibate."
"You were born one," said Joan flippantly, "but you may die double."
Ignatius stuck to his point.
"I do understand you. I saw that you were annoyed to hear of Vivian Sheriff's engagement."
Joan glared at him, and then relaxed to confidence.
"It seemed rather unfair," she admitted.
"Because she has what you want most. Security."
"How did you know that?... But my mother has only got my father's pension, so we have to help. And both my brothers are out of jobs."
She bit her lip and broke off.
"What made me tell you that? I must be mad. I never talk of my family to anyone."
"But I understand you. And that is more than our friend, the padre, ever will."
Mrs. Scudamore—a gracious hostess in her second-best dinner gown—silver-grey brocade—came forward.
"We would like to keep you, Miss Brook," she said sweetly, "but you must get back to the Hall, before it is dark."
Against her will, Joan glanced at Ignatius and caught his responsive grin. Although she was completely fearless, she knew that it was useless to protest.
"I suppose I may send a verbal reply to a verbal invitation," went on Mrs. Scudamore. "Will you tell Lady d'Arcy that I am sorry, but I have a previous engagement."
Formal words—which Joan was to remember later.
She walked back to the Court, feeling disappointed and resentful. She had scarcely exchanged a dozen words with the Rector, and Vivian Sheriff was nearly engaged. Because she was unhappy, she increased her own misery by jealous comparison and an orgy of self-pity.
'She's got everything. He's with her now, and, perhaps, they're kissing...And I'm alone. It's a waste of life. I'm missing everything, buried here in the country. Yet I must stay, because of the salary. I'm sacrificed to my family.'
Her guess about the lovers was fairly near the mark. As she lingered near the white gate of the Hall, on the other side of the fence, Major Blair was holding Vivian in his arms. But, when he tried to kiss her, she pushed him away.
"I'm not that sort of girl," she said.
As a matter-of-fact, although Vivian had accepted casual kisses as incidental to flirtations, she was timid and conventional by nature. Women have always been the same throughout the Ages, when every girl becomes, in her turn, the modern girl. Her conduct is not dependent on any period, but on her disposition. It is only the popular definition of morality, and the general acceptance or rejection of any breach, which is topical.
At present Vivian was on her guard against any familiarity. She meant to marry Major Blair, and she knew that he was staggering on the brink of a proposal. But until the announcement was sent to the Times and Morning Post, she could not feel sure of her man.
Her tactics met with success, for the Major looked at her with admiration, as she smoothed her fair sleek hair back into its line.
"I know you've not that sort of girl," he said.
"Not very modern, I'm afraid," shrugged Vivian. "It's living in the country, I suppose."
"I'm glad you're not that sort of girl," went on the Major, stressing the point. "I've no use for equal standards of morality or mucking about with experimental marriage. A man will always be a man, but a woman will find that falling off the bus doesn't pay."
Vivian knew of girls who extracted every advantage by sitting on both sides of the fence, but she remained discreetly silent.
"I'd never marry any woman with a past," declared the Major. "Marriage is too big a risk, unless you know all about the girl—who her people are—and all that."
Vivian turned her face away and looked reflectively down the vista of a sweet-briar pergola, grey-green in the twilight. A rabbit ran across the distant tennis court, showing its white scut. The harsh note of the corncrake sounded from the hedge and the scent of honeysuckle hung over all.
It was an ideal pastoral setting for a proposal, and she waited, in happy expectation. She could tell, by his heavy silence, that the Major was thinking of her.
But while he was making up his mind to take the plunge, Joan Brook called to Vivian, from the gate.
"What luck finding you here. It'll save a walk up to the Hall. I've a message from Lady d'Arcy. Can Mrs. Sheriff come to tea to-morrow?"
"I don't know," replied Vivian astringently. "I'm not her secretary, and I don't keep a tab on her engagements."
She regretted her lapse immediately, and summoned up her usual sweetness.
"Shall I run up to the house and find out if she is free for tomorrow? Thanks so much for coming."
As she spoke, she gently disconnected the Major, whose arm was still in hers.
Joan looked from her slim white figure to the Major, who towered above her. His face—burned to the hue of port wine—was a blotch in the dusk, and his teeth were a flash of white over shadow, as he smiled at Vivian. In her present mood of discontent, born of frustrate destiny, she resented the couple.
They were so patently County people, who understood each other. Secure people, with plenty of War Loan, reared in the same traditions, and adherents to the same social code. She felt the gulf between herself and them, and was urged, by savage irony, to speak to them in their language.
"I wonder if your mother would ring up Lady d'Arcy? If I wait for an answer it will be dark before I get back to the Court."
The Major understood this kind of speech, for he opened the gate.
"I'm just pushing off," he said, "so I'll walk back with you. You mustn't go up that drive alone...See you tomorrow, Vivian."
His voice was casual, but his smile conveyed meaning. Then he set off briskly, as if, in his opinion, Lady d'Arcy's companion was a fine girl, and could last the pace.
Unconscious that she had dropped her most devastating brick, and wrecked a proposal, Joan nodded back to Vivian, and increased the pace to five miles an hour, certain that, whenever she stopped, the Major would not walk on alone.
Vivian sauntered back slowly through the rose-garden, past the tennis court and the fish-pond, and up the triple terraces, to the house. Her thoughts were tinged with triumph, for she was positive that the Major was going to propose, although she also knew that it would take very little to put him off.
But for the War, she would probably have been a matron of many years' standing. The Squire and his wife believed in early marriage and had paired off the rest of the clutch. Each girl got engaged automatically during her first Season and each boy had his own home, while still in the twenties.
Vivian, the youngest, was almost engaged to Dr. Perry, in the summer of 1914. But while she was a V.A.D. in the local hospital she fell in love with a Second Lieutenant. It was the most hopeless, inarticulate affair, for, in spite of the crash of social barriers, young Belson was too shy and dazed by Vivian, to do more than worship her, as a miner might stare up his shaft at the evening star.
When the War was over, one flaming memory was left to Vivian, when she and Belson, chaperoned by an officer and his wife, had spent a week-end at a bungalow in the country.
After a blissful interlude of peace and perfect companionship the senior officer was recalled from leave by a telegram. He and his wife rushed off immediately, leaving the others to catch a later train.
They lost it instead. Yielding to the temptation, they called it Fate, and spent their precious respite in the bungalow. Time was so short for lovers, and each knew that their parting was near. It was a completely proper episode, for, in the absence of any chaperonage, they were on their best behaviour.
It was enough for them to feel that they slept under the same roof, and met at breakfast, as though they were actually married.
Only one unlucky incident blotted a perfect holiday. Near midnight, as they sat together in the lounge, someone knocked at the front door. Yielding to panic, they turned out the light, and waited in the dark. But, instead of going away, the intruder hung about the garden. When young Belson thought it was safe to light the lamp again, they had a snapshot glimpse of a face looking at them, through the window.
The man instantly grasped the delicacy of the situation, for he melted discreetly into the night.
That was a long time ago. Young Belson was shot in Flanders and was duly forgotten. Mrs. Sheriff's two young boys were killed at Jutland, and she became a semi-invalid for years. Dr. Perry did not propose, so Vivian became her mother's companion, which justified her spinster status.
But she was tired of being at home and wanted to be her own mistress. Besides, she was really fond of Major Blair. As she undressed in her bedroom, that night, she examined her small flower face closely in the glass. It had fewer lines than Joan's, yet the fact remained that she was in the thirties, and beginning to sag. It was high time she was married.
Suddenly, a dark shadow shook through the cheerful little room, and Fear tapped her on the shoulder.
"The Major is yours," it whispered, "if nothing puts him off. Suppose he knows that you spent a night alone with a man. What would he think of you then? Remember, somebody knows."
Although it was a hot summer night, Vivian felt herself grow cold. In the same period which had succeeded War-madness, she never thought of her indiscretion without a shudder. But she knew that, even though she was merely thoughtless, appearances were against her.
"What would my people say, if they knew?" she asked herself. "Or Mrs. Scudamore?"
It was the thought of Mrs. Scudamore which really made her sweat. She could imagine how those large, mild eyes would film with the frost of incredulous horror if ever she heard the story. For no one who knew the circumstances could believe in her innocence.
At that moment, Mrs. Scudamore's self-control was being severely tested in her own drawing-room, where she partnered Ignatius in a game of Contract Bridge. Although Ignatius was a brilliant player, his thoughts had strayed so completely that he had forgotten what was trumps—an incident which lost them the rubber.
Even he had to admire the lady's assumed unconsciousness of his mistake, and the gracious smile with which she paid her score. But when the Rector took him to task for his play, on their homeward walk, he only laughed heartlessly.
"I've given her something to remember me by. What does it matter? They'll square up together, after we're gone. Their sort always does."
"Their marriage is certainly a splendid partnership," said the Rector stiffly.
"Is it? I don't like them. They're self-righteous humbugs."
The Rector was horrified.
"You can't get away with that," he declared. "They're pleasant, well-bred people, and the soul of hospitality."
"You mean, they invite you to the Clock House. But they don't make you feel at home."
"They always make me feel at home," said the Rector. "And I specially liked Mrs. Scudamore's manner to Joan Brook tonight. She was as considerate as if she was her own daughter."
"That's because Miss Brook is a nice girl. But if she came to the Clock House, one snowy night, with a baby in her arms, and asked for a night's lodging, it would be a different affair."
Ignatius broke off to chuckle.
"I can see old Scudamore," he continued, "in correct dinner kit, explaining that he could not admit her, because of consideration and respect for his wife. And Mrs. Scudamore would agree, by dignified nods, while she shut the door, so that the servants should not hear. Afterwards they would go back to their Patience."
"You fatuous idiot," said the Rector patiently. "I suppose you can't help it."
"That's right. Put up with me, as I'll soon be gone. Only Charles will regret me and my car. But, remember this...Mrs. Scudamore may go to church, but she does not worship God. She worships only the opinion of the neighbours. You'll find her out, one day."
The Rector laughed as he opened the Rectory gate. On the other side of the green, the Clock House still glowed with hospitable light. Behind those drawn blinds a charming domestic episode was taking place, as the lawyer divided his winnings with his wife.
"I could hardly keep silent," he declared. "That miserable little man would be rightly punished if everyone refused to play Bridge with him. It was most ungentlemanly to penalise a lady in such a disgraceful manner."
"I could hardly believe my eyes, when he led that club," said Mrs. Scudamore, gathering up her share. "Thank you, love. By the way, I hope I did not show my annoyance."
"No, my dear one, you were wonderful. I noticed that the padre was impressed. Past midnight, my dear. Time for bed."
The servants had gone upstairs long before, and the Scudamores never left a room in disorder. They emptied ash-trays, put away the cards, plumped up the cushions. Then, together, they went the round of the ground-floor, shutting windows and extinguishing the lights.
Jeremy, the cat, was visited, to see that he occupied his basket, and was not creating a scandal by joining the communal concert on the green. Finally, the Scudamores, arm-in-arm, went up to bed.
The shallow steps of the mahogany staircase were thickly covered with blue-and-red Turkey carpet. On the square landing, a marble lady, with a very good figure, which was completely draped, held up a cluster of lamps with rosy shades, so that the polar-bear rug was dyed pink. There was also a tall mirror, a palm—its shining fronds free from dust—and a marble console table, which held a jug of barley-water and two glasses.
The lawyer smiled appreciatively as he poured out their customary night-cap.
"Bar one slight episode, a very pleasant evening," he said, as he clinked his glass against his wife's. "My love to you. Happy days."
Mrs. Scudamore sipped daintily and echoed his Toast.
"My love to you. And Happy Days."
THE next morning Mr. and Mrs. Scudamore were having breakfast in the prim morning-room of the Clock House. The sunlight streamed in through the east window, drawing sweetness from the mauve and white stocks on the table, and gleaming on the silver coffee-pot. The lawyer and his wife were finishing their conventional meal of ham-and-eggs, with marmalade and toast. He had extracted the essential parts of the Morning Post, and she had read the Births, Deaths and Marriages in the Times. Afterwards, they would exchange papers, and he would take away the Times, leaving her the Post.
On this special morning, Mr. Scudamore was going up to London for the day, on business.
"I hope to be back by seven, by the latest," he said. "Perhaps, and even probably, I shall be earlier. It all depends on which motor-bus I catch. They don't connect rigidly with the trains."
"Then, dearest, shall we say seven-fifteen for dinner?" asked his wife. "You will be hungry and not want to wait."
"Excellent, love. What are you doing today?"
"I think I shall stay at home and finish off stray ends of work. I want to let the maids go to the Durley Dairy Show this afternoon, and I don't like to leave the house empty."
"No, it is unwise."
The lawyer accepted the current fiction that any unprotected woman could foil the felony of the most brutal tramp, by merely sitting in her own drawing room. But, since burglary was unknown in the village, she was safe enough.
She looked up in faint surprise as the front-door bell rang. A minute later, a maid told the lawyer that Dr. Perry wished to see him.
Husband and wife exchanged glances, their brows slightly raised; then the lawyer wiped his mouth, carefully avoiding treading a crumb into the carpet and crossed to the door.
"Rather an unusual time for a visit," he observed. "It may be urgent. Will you excuse me, my dear?"
Dr. Perry was standing in the study, examining a photograph of Lucerne, with a hint of that glazed and desperate resignation which is present in a dentist's waiting-room. His shabby, well-cut suit hung loosely on him, giving an impression of thinness, but his pale face was tranquil.
"I'm sorry to disturb you at breakfast, Scudamore," he said. "But I wanted to know how Miss Corner's Sale went. When can I expect my legacy?"
"Impossible to say," replied the lawyer. "The house will have to be disposed of by private treaty. All the bids were under the reserve."
"Tiresome." The doctor's voice was light. "I rather want some ready money. My wife tells me my family needs a change of air."
"But they are looking extremely well."
"They are well. But my wife seems to think that sea air is indicated."
From its immobility, the lawyer's shaven face might have been composed of grey asbestos; his long upper lip was grim in his effort not to betray understanding of a friend's financial need.
"I can advance the money out of my own account," he said, "if that is more convenient to you."
"Thanks. It would he rather useful."
"Will tonight do? I'm catching the London train, at Cheltenham. Or shall I write a cheque now?"
"Tomorrow will do excellently. You won't want to bother with business tonight. It's not so urgent. Thanks very much."
Mr. Scudamore returned to the morning-room, where he reported every word of the conversation to his lady. Husband and wife shared each other's secrets, and Mrs. Scudamore never betrayed a business confidence.
"It's that woman," declared the lawyer. "She's draining him for the children."
"I agree, my love," said his wife. "Marianne is to blame. It is terrible when a woman thinks more of her children than of her husband."
"Very terrible," agreed the lawyer, who had no children. His face expressed concern, for although he was many years the doctor's senior, both belonged to old local families. When Perry was a charming, quiet young man, he inherited St. James' House, together with a small private income and an excellent practice.
At that time, everyone expected him to marry Vivian—the Squire's youngest daughter; but the War and sundry romantic complications intervened.
Marianne Perry was always on her best behaviour at the Clock House, and the Scudamores accepted her for her husband's sake; but both resented her unbridled temperament and extravagance which had turned the gracious Queen Anne house into a nursery Bedlam.
"He ought to have married Vivian," sighed Mrs. Scudamore.
"You're right, my love," said the lawyer. "Mrs. Perry is doing his practice no good. The wife of a professional man should be a real help, in every way. Especially in a neighbourhood where an unblemished reputation is essential, in order to create and hold confidence."
"Yes, my love. But I am proud that our standard is so high."
"I feel the same." The lawyer looked at his wife with a fond smile. "Dearest, you are looking blooming. But, in the communal interest, don't you think you might have a neuralgic headache, or a touch of rheumatism? Nothing painful, but something which requires medical attention."
"Dearest, you are always so thoughtful for others. I don't like false pretences, even in small things, but I promise you that the doctor shall soon pay a professional visit to the Clock House."
She glanced at the clock.
"And now, sweetheart, it is time for you to go," she said.
The maid was waiting in the hall, with the lawyer's hat, umbrella and brief-case; but it was Mrs. Scudamore who flicked his coat-collar with a clothes-brush and checked his belongings. She also made sure that his buttonhole—a mauve carnation, flecked with crimson—was secure.
Arm-in-arm, they strolled across the shaven lawn. At the gate, the lawyer raised his tall silk hat and kissed his wife, while she looked up at him with proud eyes.
"Do you realise you are out of fashion?" she asked with gentle irony. "Mrs. Perry tells me that spats are no longer worn. The smartest men wear patent leather boots with grey suede tops, and stiffened collars, of the same material as their shirts."
The lawyer clicked.
"Dear, dear. I'm afraid you will have to put up with me, as I am. Didn't I put up with a wife who always looks a gracious gentlewoman, while fashionable women cropped their heads and cut their skirts to their knees?"
They made a charming study in mutual admiration. The lawyer was spruce in grey striped trousers, a black morning-coat, white slip and linen spats, and a tall hat. His wife wore a dark-prune silk dress, relieved with muslin collars and cuffs. A black velvet band encircled her throat, to hide the strings of her neck.
Then Mr. Scudamore looked at his watch, and kissed his wife again. That was their private farewell, but the neighbours were given the benefit of their public parting. Holding her husband's arm, Mrs. Scudamore walked with him across the green, as far as the pond, where she remained standing—watching him until he had disappeared around the angle of the wall of St. James' House.
He turned and raised his hat before he passed out of sight, while she waved to him. She saw him go, with the usual pang, as though he had passed out of her life, for ever, and she walked slowly home, with a sense of desolation in her heart.
So, true lovers part.
But when she had entered the gates of the Clock House, she reacted to the charm and order of the garden. Life swung her up again in the daily routine, and her step was as light as a girl's as she went to inspect an experimental bed of zinnias.
While she stood, the sun streaming down on the coronet of her graying hair, she turned at the sound of hurrying footsteps, to see Mrs. Perry running up the drive, and committing the unforgivable sin kicking gravel over the grass in her haste.
Mrs. Scudamore thought she must be the herald of disaster, until she saw that Marianne's eyes were brilliant and her teeth flashing in the sunlight.
"I've news for you," she cried. "Marvellous—shattering—news. Another baby."
"Another?" Mrs. Scudamore literally gasped, as she remembered the doctor's financial strait. "Congratulations," she added, with an effort. "What does your husband think of—of the increase?"
"He hasn't had time to think. I stunned him with the glad tidings, half a minute ago. You've got the news red-hot. I just managed to scream it out to Nurse, and told her to spread it around the house."
Mrs. Scudamore felt herself stiffening at this violation of reserve, which outraged every tradition of her code.
"Isn't this announcement rather premature?" she asked.
"You can't get glorious news too soon," declared Marianne. "Think of it. It's too marvellous. New life. Life is the only thing that matters and death the only tragedy."
"I don't hold that view," said Mrs. Scudamore. "When we die, our real life may begin."
Mrs. Perry burst into a shriek of laughter.
"Aren't you cheerful? But I must fly back. Meals must be ordered, if the house fall."
Mrs. Scudamore, who never neglected the obligation of a hostess, walked with her to the gate.
"Of course, you want me to keep it private that you expect a visit from the stork," she said.
Marianne grimaced at the allusion to the conventional medium.
"Don't," she groaned. "No damned bird shall steal my thunder. And spread it all you can. I want the world to know."
A faint smile touched Mrs. Scudamore's withered, but well-cut lips.
"You should keep calm," she said. "There's nothing to get excited about. Babies are merely incidental to marriage."
"How do you know?" flashed Marianne. "You've never had one. Life is the greatest thing of all."
Mrs. Scudamore shook her head.
"When you've been married as long as I have," she said, "you will know that the greatest thing is love."
As Marianne rushed across the green, back to St. James' House, she felt a certain contemptuous pity for Mrs. Scudamore.
'Poor old thing, all dolled up, for nothing to happen. No children. That beautiful house and garden wasted on one lousy cat.'
Mrs. Scudamore walked into her spacious hall, scented with a bowl of freshly-cut mignonette, and contrasted the delight and security of a well-run house and a balanced budget with the leaky finances and slip-shod management of the doctor's home.
'Poor Horatio. Why didn't he marry Vivian? He didn't know, when he called, this morning, of the ultimate tragedy.' She stooped, to encourage her cat, who was washing vigorously, in order to satisfy the high standard of cleanliness which prevailed at the Clock House.
"Good Jeremy. Such a lot of shirt-front to wash. Good cat."
Then she went into the kitchen to order the dinner, for, as Marianne had declared, meals must be ordered, whatever the cosmic conditions.
"Make it seven-fifteen," she said. "The master will be tired. Give me something that is easily prepared for my own lunch. Directly you've washed up, you can all go to the Dairy Show."
"What about your own tea?" asked the cook dutifully.
"I'll get it myself."
"Thank you, madam. Suppose there should be visitors?"
"I shall not be at home to anyone."
Mrs. Scudamore went through her usual morning routine. She put on her thick gloves and a shady hat and did a little ladylike gardening. After she had washed her hands, she drank a glass of buttermilk, and went into the drawing-room, to write letters.
She sat longer than usual at the bureau; one letter in particular, was difficult to compose, besides which she had to plan a list of dinners for the week. There was also some printing to be done, chiefly labels for jam; as she was noted for neat handiwork.
Just as she finished declining the invitation to the wedding of the Bishop's daughter, owing to a previous engagement, lunch was announced. As she ate, she finished a novel, the end of which she was anxious to know. It proved satisfactory, for everyone got married.
At intervals, she raised her eyes from the pages, to look through the window at St. James' House. Life was rioting through that house. She could almost see it quiver, like the jags of summer lightning, electric with creative force.
Then she gazed around the order of her prim room, and shook her head. Love was best.
A maid brought her coffee out to her, on the verandah, and announced that the kitchen regions were left in order. A little later, she heard discreetly lowered voices and the crunching of gravel, as the entire domestic staff crossed the drive, on its way to the trades-people's entrance. Slightly self-conscious in their best finery, the girls pretended to be oblivious of their mistress, who passed them in review.
"Parker," she called.
The kitchen-maid, unfamiliar in a yellow hat, stepped bashfully forward.
"Parker," said her mistress quietly, "have you ever seen me wearing a yellow hat?"
"No, mum," murmured the girl.
"Well, then, if you want to look like a lady, you must dress like one."
"Go up and put on your white hat," commanded the cook. "And be sharp."
But Mrs. Scudamore—always considerate of her staff—intervened.
"No, she mustn't make the rest of you late for the bus. Go as you are, Parker. Only, I want you to count how many ladies wear yellow hats at the Show."
The domestic staff went on its way, and silence fell on the Clock House. Mrs. Scudamore sat and looked at the lawn, mottled with shade and sunlight. Presently, she went into the kitchen and poured out a saucer of milk, which she placed in the corner of the verandah, where the cat—who was settled in his ways—would expect to find it, at four o'clock.
Afterwards, she went all over the house, going to every room, from attic to cellar. There is a certain fascination in roaming through an empty dwelling, which was felt by Mrs. Scudamore.
The order and cleanliness which was evident in the unused attics pleased her sense of housewifery. One was full of empty cardboard dress-boxes, all neatly piled, and shelves of jam-pots, which showed no trace of dust.
When she descended to a lower floor, she ran her finger over the enamel ledges in the White Room, to see if it lived up to the alleged purity of its name, while her heart swelled with the pride of a hostess at her own little arrangements for the comfort of her guests.
On the writing-table of her husband's study, was placed the latest portrait of himself. It was there as a companion to her own photograph, for she insisted that she could not be separated from him, even in pictorial form.
It presented him at his grimmest phase, but she looked at it intently, before she kissed the glass of its frame. Then she placed the copy of the Morning Post, together with the letter, on the blotter, tore a forgotten leaf from the calendar, and went out.
The end of her journey was in the small tiled scullery.
Opening a drawer, she found a pile of cloths, with which she sandbagged the window. After fastening a label—written that morning—to the outside of the door, with drawing-pins, she shut herself inside the scullery.
A warning was printed on the paper in large letters.
'BEWARE OF THE GAS'.
AT four o'clock, Jeremy—the cat—who was punctual as the Greenwich Time Signal, drank his milk and washed his shirt-front, in readiness for dinner. Two hours later, the servants, excited and happy, returned from the Dairy Show, to discover the tragedy of a dead mistress.
It was Parker of the yellow hat, who heroically stormed the gas-filled scullery, to open the windows and drag out the lifeless body, while the distracted cook telephoned for Dr. Perry.
Mrs. Scudamore—although punctilious in the fulfillment of promises—was unable to keep her word to her husband, that the doctor should pay an early professional visit to the Clock House. Dr. Perry had just been called away to a case in the country. However, the voice at the other end of the wire added that the Cheltenham doctor's car had been seen to pass through the village, on its way to the Hall.
Not long afterwards, the Squire's new doctor arrived at the Clock House, only to tell them what they already knew. Mrs. Scudamore had been dead for several hours. Efficient in all things, she had made a neat and thorough job of her exit.
But, although he could not restore her to life, the doctor proved of use, for he met Mr. Scudamore on his return from London, and told him the tragic news.
The lawyer, although plainly stunned, did not break down. He read the letter, addressed to himself, which lay on his study table, and then went upstairs to his wife's room, where he remained for a little time. Afterwards, he asked the doctor to send for the Rector.
When he heard the news over the telephone, the Rector was not only shocked, but cold with uncomprehended fear.
"Suicide?" he repeated blankly.
"I'm afraid there's no doubt about it," replied the doctor.
"Horrible. How's Scudamore?"
"Bearing up wonderfully. He has iron self-control. Can you come over soon? I don't want to leave him alone."
"I'll be across in five minutes," promised the Rector.
He was surprised to find everything apparently normal at the Clock House, for he had vaguely expected to see visible signs of disruption. The cat, with one green eye fixed on his invisible watch, had changed for dinner, and sat waiting on the verandah, a patient gentleman in correct black-and-white.
When the front door was opened by the cook, the Rector had a glimpse, through an open door, of the dining-table ready laid for dinner, with all the usual flower-vases and candle-sticks.
"The master's bearing up wonderfully," she said. "The doctor's just gone. I'm glad you've come, parson. Perhaps you'll stay to dinner and get him to eat something, to keep up his strength."
"I'll do my best," promised the Rector.
The lawyer was pacing the drawing-room when he entered. His face looked grey as an extinct volcano, but his voice was under complete control.
"Good of you to come," he said, as the Rector, unable to speak, gripped his hand. "You have heard my wife has committed suicide. There will be an Inquest. I want you to hear the true facts from me."
The muscles of his face worked painfully, like machinery which is wrenched the wrong way, in his effort to keep his tone steady, as he dropped his bombshell.
"My wife and I were not married, to each other."
The Rector stared in incredulous horror around the prim drawing-room, which to him had been the typical apartment of a decorous married couple, and which now, was bracketed with a love-nest. He stared from the family miniatures on the wall to the lawyer's white linen spats.
Then the unconscious actor within him arose to meet the drama of the situation. His voice throbbed with feeling as he spoke.
"Tell me what you like. It will make no difference. I have always admired Mrs. Scudamore."
The lawyer did not respond to his emotion, for he began to speak in dry precise phrases.
"I want you to understand it was entirely my fault, not hers. It was generally believed I married a widow. But she is legally married to a drunken brute, who is now an incurable, in a Mental Home. We fell in love—and I swept her off her feet. I literally wrenched her from her moorings of innocence. When she came away with me, she went against the whole grain of her nature."
"I understand," murmured the Rector, as the lawyer paused.
When he went on speaking, he used the present tense, a significant symptom of a mind still too jammed by shock, for realisation.
"My wife comes of a clerical family, with rather a rigid outlook. Her father was a Dean and she moved in an exclusive social circle. Her nature is strictly conventional. She has no imagination and little sympathy. She is censorious towards others and very sensitive to any outside criticism of herself...I tell you this, because of my love for her. It may help you to realise something else."
For a moment, he was overcome, for he covered his eyes with his hand. The Rector waited, in silent sympathy, for him to regain mastery over his voice.
"Now that you know what her nature was, don't you see that it would have been easier for her to have felt remorse for her conduct? It would have salved her conscience to be miserable. She would have looked upon her suffering in the light of expiation...But she loved me so entirely that she insisted that we must be happy in our love. She said it was my due, and that there must be no question of sacrifice. She often said that she never wished the past undone, and that we must justify our love by a life of perfect happiness and understanding."
As the lawyer paused for breath, the Rector thought of those evening walks, which advertised the Scudamores' wedded companionship, and the conventional atmosphere of the Clock House, which had hall-stamped it as the home of a happily-married professional couple.
And he understood. It was in this happiness that Mrs. Scudamore had made the supreme sacrifice to love.
"I think she was wonderful," he said.
"I see. You do understand," remarked the lawyer. "Thank you. Now I have something else to say."
His voice grew stronger with his anger.
"I want you to know that my wife was hounded to her death by poisonous anonymous letters. She had been receiving them for some time past, but she said nothing of them to me. They contained vague, cowardly charges, saying her secret life of hypocrisy was known, and that she would be exposed in her true light. The last one warned her that the end was near."
The Rector listened, aghast and cold with horror. It was what he had feared when he first heard of Mrs. Scudamore's suicide, but he had forgotten his premonition.
"She left me a letter," went on the lawyer, "saying she could not bring disgrace on me, or ruin my professional career...And, all this time, she has been her usual self—serene, sensible, gay. She has never given one sign of any secret trouble. But, at the end, she lost her grip. Those damnable letters got her down."
The lawyer crossed to the door.
"Will you see her?" he asked, taking the Rector's assent for granted, and leading the way.
In the hall, he stopped to speak to the cook, who still waited, expectant of orders, outside the dining-room door.
"Give the cat his dinner."
The Scudamores' bedroom was so plainly the room of a married couple who believed in perpetual companionship, that the Rector almost felt he ought to apologise for his presence there, to the lady lying on the big double bed. It was a huge apartment, handsomely furnished, and not crowded, although every bit of solid furniture was duplicated. Mr. Scudamore's dressing-room was evidently only a store-room for his spare clothes.
Mrs. Scudamore was wearing her prune silk dress, and looked darkly composed, and ladylike, even in death. There was no sign of being reduced to the common level of mortality, for she faintly preserved an illusion of superiority. Her hair was still in perfect order. Apparently, no essential hairpin had fallen from its place, in the struggle to recall her to life.
The Rector bent over her and impulsively kissed a cold hand. As he did so, he had a confused memory of a similar homage paid to Miss Asprey.
'Who had stabbed her so cruelly in the back?' he asked himself fearfully.
As the lawyer looked at his wife, he nearly broke down.
"If she had only told me," he muttered. "I should have known how to deal with those letters. If there had been any scandal to face, we'd have faced it together. It was such an unnecessary sacrifice."
Regaining his self-control, he walked from the room, followed by the Rector. When the two men reached the hall, the Rector was reminded of his promise to the cook, by another glimpse of the dining-table.
"Have you had dinner?" he asked.
"Presently," was the vague reply.
"Well—what about a stiff shot of whisky?"
"No, no. The doctor gave me something to brace me."
Although Mr. Scudamore was plainly anxious to be alone, the Rector made another effort.
"I don't want to be a nuisance," he said, "but might I stay with you? Just for company. I wouldn't say one word. But you would know someone was there."
Mr. Scudamore tried to smile as he shook his head. "Very kind of you, Rector, but I'm all right. I have some important writing to do."
As he spoke, he opened the front door. Then his eye fell on the prosperous cat, who was washing after a good dinner.
"There is something you can do for me," he said. "Could you get the cat a good home? It belonged to my wife. I couldn't bear to see it round."
That speech should have warned the Rector. But the lawyer's face was so calm, and his voice so dry and precise, that he was fooled into believing that all was well.
"I'll have him at the Rectory," he promised eagerly. "My dog's a sociable beggar. They won't fight."
"Thank you," said Mr. Scudamore.
The two men shook hands and the Rector went out of the open door.
When he had gone a few yards down the drive, he stopped to light a cigarette, in order to soothe his jangled nerves. As he did so, he heard the report of the shot with which the lawyer blew out his brains.
THE Rector got away from the Clock House as soon as he could, having left Dr. Perry in charge. When he returned to the Rectory, he appeared so broken by the double tragedy that Ignatius confined his comments to practical sympathy.
But, as he watched the Rector swallow that stiff shot of whisky which he had recommended to the lawyer, his own interest boiled over.
"This is a really extraordinary twist." he said. "Especially after our dinner at the Clock House, and my remarks to you afterwards."
"I remember them. Don't rub them in now," groaned the Rector.
"I'm not gloating. The fact is, for the first time, I am moved to admire the Scudamores. They actually star in Love's Register with Paul and Virginia."
A whimsical grin touched his lips.
"It's curious to picture an elderly, respectable solicitor, complete with spats, being whirled through Eternity, clasped to his paramour. But I can't imagine the stately Mrs. Scudamore without any clothes...What's angel-skin?"
"Neither do I. But I was once privileged to pay a lady's bills, in return for the freedom of her murky mind. As my interest in her was purely metaphysical, I had no knowledge of her wardrobe. But I remember the item—'angel-skin'."
He broke off to speak to the dog.
"Charles Dickens, don't you agree with me that, at this minute, Mr. and Mrs. Scudamore are defying the whirlwind in bath-sheets of angel-skin?"
"Shut up," growled the Rector.
"Good. I've got you roused. My object is achieved."
The Rector, who was holding his head in his hands, looked up, and smiled faintly.
"It's decent of you not to crow," he said. "Especially as it has turned out to be your snake-head."
"Did you see any of the anonymous letters?" asked Ignatius.
"No. Mrs. Scudamore destroyed them all before her—her murder."
"Now, Tigger, don't overdo it and sanctify her. I told you I didn't like her, because I thought her a humbug. That holds still. The whole truth is that she killed herself because she couldn't endure the thought of exposure. She hadn't the guts to sit tight, and she left the poor old boy to face the music...Can you imagine Joan Brook throwing in her hand before her bluff was called?"
"They're different generations," said the Rector. "Still, I agree it was an unnecessary sacrifice. Poor Scudamore called it that."
He rubbed his eyes wearily, and then bounded to his feet with his old energy.
"I clean forgot. This will be an awful shock to Miss Asprey. I'll go over now, and break it gently, before she hears it from one of her maids."
The vivid interest which licked Ignatius' face was like a white tongue of lightning.
"I'll come, too," he said eagerly. "I suppose it's not too late?"
"No, they'll still be up."
But when the two men had passed through the gates of The Spout', no light shone through the diamond-paned windows. As they walked through the gurgling darkness of the garden, they were conscious of a damp desolation, as though an ancient house had lived too long.
The lantern glowed in the porch, so the Rector knocked on the old oak door.
"They must be sitting in the study," he whispered.
To their surprise, Ada—whose sleepy eyes brightened at the sight of Ignatius—showed them into the front panelled parlour, where Miss Asprey, seated in a high-backed carven chair, was reading by the light of a single lamp. Miss Mack sat somewhere in the shadow, and was knitting.
Miss Asprey raised her silver head, and looked at the Rector with faint surprise. Ignatius, who lingered in the background, admired the butterfly touch with which the Rector broke the news to the frail lady.
"Sorry to call so late, but I have some dreadful news for you. Mr. and Mrs. Scudamore are both dead. A double suicide."
Although she looked so ethereal, Miss Asprey proved resistant to the shock. She maintained her self-control, and gave no sign of nervous tension. Her lips did not quiver, and the thin white hands, which held a heavy book, did not tremble. As she listened, the lines of her face were rigid, as though carven in marble.
Only Ignatius noticed that first swift interchange of glances between her and Miss Mack.
"This is a terrible shock," said Miss Asprey. "Terrible. I can hardly realise it. It was thoughtful of you to come, Rector."
"My first thought was for you," he assured her. "I knew what a blow it would be."
"It is indeed. If it is not too painful for you, may I hear the details?"
She listened to the story with a certain detached compassion.
"But why did they do this dreadful thing?" she asked.
"He followed her. And she was driven to it by poisonous anonymous letters," declared the Rector, his voice shaking with anger.
"Still, I don't understand? What had she to fear?"
"Exposure. I suppose it's all over the village, by now. She wasn't married to Scudamore."
"Oh!" Miss Asprey's strangled exclamation was almost a sob. But Ignatius noticed a faint flush of human interest on her cheek. He also remarked the tonic effect of the tragedy upon another life of dull routine, for the little companion's smiling face held suppressed excitement.
When Miss Asprey spoke, her voice was wrung with pity.
"Poor souls. We must not judge them. Sorrow expiates sin, and they must have suffered, every hour of their lives."
The Rector thought of Mr. Scudamore's final speech for the defence.
"There were condoning circumstances—" he began, but Miss Asprey stopped him.
"Nothing can condone sin, but suffering may help to atone." She glanced at the antique clock, which was still patiently carrying on with its job of chopping up time. "Thank you for coming. I appreciate your thought deeply."
The Rector moved to the door.
"It's late," he said, "and you'll both want to go to bed."
Miss Asprey shook her head.
"I think," she murmured, "that they will sleep better to-night than any of us."
The Rector was silent on the homeward way. When they reached the study, Charles met them, and plainly indicated that, while they were welcome to the worthless whisky, he was guarding the precious biscuits with his life. The Rector fed him, and then glanced at Ignatius, who had sunk into a chair.
"You look peaked, Ignatius. I've ridden you too hard with my parochial worries."
"No," replied Ignatius, "it was the atmosphere of Miss Asprey's room. Although it was raw, it was also close—and I respond like a pimpernel, to atmosphere."
"That's queer," remarked the Rector. "Miss Asprey is the sort of Spartan who lives in a perpetual draught."
"Then she's had a change of heart. Didn't you notice that every window was shuttered?"
"No. Then that explains why we didn't see any light."
"We haven't seen it for several nights...Where are your eyes?...Directly I entered the room, I was vaguely reminded, by those bars, of a prison-house."
But the Rector's thoughts were elsewhere.
"Ignatius," he appealed, "you won't go back now?"
"Aha. Ignatius Stock is booming," gloated the bitter little man. "But I'll see you through, padre. Sit down, and let me think."
The Rector dropped heavily into a chair, while Ignatius smoked in silence. Presently he spoke, out of a blue haze.
"Those letters contain no suggestion of blackmail. That is unusual. But they threaten. So they would appear to be actuated by some disordered mind, which craves to make others suffer...And yet, I have a strong suspicion that there is a purpose behind them, and an ugly purpose, too. What? I shall know when I find out why a certain woman never smiles."
But the Rector—worn out—had dropped off to sleep.
Across the Green, Dr. Perry was still at his post, and too stimulated by the double tragedy to feel weariness. True to his character of spectator, he had forgotten his own worries in the human problem of the Scudamores.
He remained for some time at the Clock House, for he had to send for the woman who acted as professional layer-out in the village, and also to interview the police, in the person of Sergeant James.
When, at last, he returned home, his wife's reception was like a blow in the face.
"Horatio. Have you got the cheque?"
"No," he replied, staring at her blankly. "He was going to write it, tomorrow." He glanced at the bedroom clock, and added, with a strained laugh, "it's tomorrow now."
"Then he's let you down. Damn him."
"For Heaven's sake, Marianne, don't."
"I will. I'm thinking of my babies. My babies."
"They'll be all right, if you'll only listen to reason and sack the nurse."
"I won't. They shan't be sacrificed. I'll starve first."
St. James' House was almost hidden from the green, by those tall, rose-brick walls; but the bedroom windows were visible to passers by. They glowed in mellow yellow squares, symbolic of the golden life of a happy marriage.
Behind the drawn blinds were a distracted woman and an exasperated man. Angry faces—raised voices. An unfamiliar couple, unknown to their own social circle. Then the doctor made an effort to calm his wife.
"Things will be better soon."
"They won't," declared Marianne. "They'll be worse. Everyone will say you wrote those letters."
"Why should they? I received one myself."
"But nobody knows that."
"The padre and his friend know. You thoughtfully read the letter out to them."
Shaken by the gales of inconsistency, Marianne shifted her position.
"And they talked about it. They spread it all over the village that you poisoned Miss Corner, to get her money. I know it...Why doesn't the Squire send for you any more? If he did, all the others would. They follow him, like a flock of sheep...Horatio, you've got to get him back, or my babies will starve."
As she threw herself across the bed, in a passion of tears, the doctor crossed to the door. She raised herself and stared at him, through the black cowlicks of her hair.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
"To another woman."
With a sudden change of mood, Marianne began to laugh. "That—anyway—is a lie."
But her husband kept his word. He hurried blindly out of the house, crossed the green, and entered the churchyard, through a small iron side-gate. Threading his familiar way between the sunken graves of the poor and the railed vaults of the wealthy, he stopped before a mound which was still raw.
He had come, for consolation, to his friend, Julia Corner.
THE next day the village hummed with the news. Everyone was shocked and filled with pity, but the chief emotion was excitement. The local ladies and gentlemen were all kindly, charitable souls, but each, in turn, had chafed under Mrs. Scudamore's mild, reproachful gaze and lifted brow.
While Miss Asprey ruled by sweet saintliness, she stood as guardian of the conventional law. It was only human nature to be intrigued by the fact that she had actually filled a position which she would have been first to condemn in another.
When Vivian Sheriff heard of the suicides she was almost stunned with shock. Obedient and law-abiding, she had faithfully observed the traffic signals of Mrs. Scudamore's uplifted hand. The fact of her violent death filled her with horror, but the story of her double life was a heavier blow.
Her mother was twittering about the tragedy, all over the morning-room. To get out of range of her squeaks and moans, Vivian lit a cigarette and went into the rose-garden.
She rarely smoked, so the tobacco soon soothed her nerves. It was a brilliant morning—blue and windy—with dew still sparkling in pockets on the rose-walk, where the ramblers hung in scarlet clusters.
In spite of the tragic news, Vivian was light-hearted, that day, for she was expecting a letter from Major Blair. She had not seen him since Joan intervened, at a critical moment, as he had gone to London, on business. But he had rung her up to say he would write to her.
Vivian knew that he never sent a letter, if he could use the telephone or telegraph-wire, so she could gauge the significance of his promise. Her hopes were high as she waited for the postman, who was late in reaching the Hall.
But, although she tried to concentrate on brides-maids and engagement-rings, her thoughts persisted in returning to Mrs. Scudamore.
'I was so afraid of her. And all the time...It doesn't bear thinking of.'
The postman appeared round the bend of the lane, and she ran to the gate to receive the letters. There was a large number, and she carried the pile to a rustic table, to sort them out.
Almost the first one she picked up was addressed to her, in Major Blair's thick, black handwriting. Her fingers trembled slightly as she tore it open. It was written from his Club, and began with the most effective opening gambit for holding interest.
Will you marry me?'
Vivian's heart beat very little faster, for she was not emotional; but her small pink face was wreathed in smiles as she read the letter through to its satisfactory end. Then she let it slip to the ground, while her imagination ran riot.
'Diamonds,' she decided.
Presently, she looked at the rest of the letters, to find, at the bottom of the pile, one envelope addressed to herself, in printed characters. With a nasty little sinking feeling, she tore it open, and stared at the roughly-blocked message.
'You are not married yet. Remember, there's many a slip. Wait until the Major knows all about you. I will show you up next.'
Vivian pushed her fingers distractedly through her hair and tried to think, only to be horrified by her first coherent thought.
'Thank Heaven, Mrs. Scudamore can't know.'
Then, as the situation began to be revealed in a stronger light, she relieved her feelings with an hysterical laugh.
'It would come, just now. But who sent it? The only person who knows, doesn't care any more. Suppose he does, and is jealous. But that's absurd. If I tax him with this, I shall only be giving myself away to him. Or even putting ideas into his head...No, I must take no notice. This is one of those letters that are going about, at present. Just a lucky shot in the dark.'
Vivian was a cool-headed little person, and not liable to panic. Because her conscience was clear on the main issue, she was able to sum up the position better than Mrs. Scudamore.
But, as she walked slowly back to the house, the poison began to seep slowly through her system, numbing the pleasure of anticipation. Little black threads of doubt swam before her mental vision.
'Suppose Fred gets a letter about me. He'd be too angry to treat it like his own. He has two standards, one for himself and one for women. He'd ask questions, and I might give myself away...Or this might be a genuine letter about the bungalow. If so, I'm sunk. Fred would shy at the least hint of scandal.'
Fear stalked her through the garden and up the shallow steps of the terrace.
As she lingered in the hall, she could hear her parents' voices in the morning-room. But, instead of telling them of the Major's letter, she left the post in the hall while she put through a long-distance call to London.
It was not until she had accepted the Major's proposal of marriage, over the telephone, that she felt a shade more secure. Smoothing back the sleek wave of her fair hair, with a slightly self-conscious gesture, she walked into the morning-room and made her welcome announcement.
"I thought you were going to be left on the shelf," roared the Squire.
"Vivian didn't want to leave her mother," said Mrs. Sheriff. She added hastily, "I'll send the announcement to the Times, today."
"No," suggested Vivian. "Better wire it over the phone. It's quicker."
"I will. And I must let Lady d'Arcy know at once. I'll ring her up—and Mrs. Scudamore."
"You'll have trouble in getting through to Mrs. Scudamore," remarked the Squire grimly. "Her line's permanently out of order."
"Oh dear, I forgot. How dreadful of me." Mrs. Sheriff lowered her voice. "Vivian, I want to send flowers. But is it the usual funeral?"
"They're burying the usual body," grunted the Squire.
"You don't understand, Osbert. This is suicide. There are probably differences. Flowers may be in bad taste...I do wish someone could tell me."
She knew that she was missing Mrs. Scudamore, who would have known exactly how to behave in such a case. Even now, she vaguely feared to offend the guardian of public taste by outraging her funeral.
"Anyway," she said, blinking away a tear, "I shall go and see her, and strew some of my own lilies inside her coffin, where no one will see them. But I should like her to have known about Vivian. She'd have been most interested."
The postman proved the bearer of other important news that morning. Among the letters which he brought for Ignatius, was one that the little man read with keen interest.
He looked up from the flimsy, typed pages with a chuckle.
"I've just got the reports in from my confidential enquiry agent. In view of the latest development they're invaluable. They prove that I am on the right track."
The Rector frowned.
"Are you burrowing into the private affairs of my parishioners?" he asked.
"I told you I had done so. Don't you ever listen to me? I say nothing that is irrelevant."
"Well—what have you discovered?"
"A little back-history of two ladies. Don't worry. It is all very discreet."
"No, they'll never know. I keep within limits. I would like to question the old clergyman who lunched here the other day; but I knew that it would be an outrage, and that he would refuse—and properly so—to tell me anything."
The Rector sighed heavily.
"When will all this end?" he asked.
"Soon, I hope," replied Ignatius. "But it is essential to get a specimen of the handwriting—or rather, the printing—of our anonymous friend. We have only Miss Asprey's envelope. That's where you can be useful."
"Preach on the tragedy, and make it one of your special efforts. Heavy guns. Don't ask your congregation for their secrets—for you won't get them. But appeal for the envelope in which any letter has been sent. Someone might have kept theirs."
"Do you mean to tell me that there have been other letters, besides Mrs. Scudamore's?" asked the Rector, aghast.
"My good man, they've been broadcast over the village. Everyone knows about them—except you."
The Rector took the taunt in silence. He was horrified to learn that, all this time, a poisonous sewer had been flowing just under the surface of his clear, sparkling river. The village was tainted by an undertow.
"Very well," he said. "I will do my best to induce someone to speak."
Even though the world in general had to wait twenty-four hours for the formal announcement of Vivian's engagement, the news was soon known locally, through the usual village wireless. It was a pleasant antidote to the Scudamore tragedy. Only one person—Joan Brook—was not moved to unselfish pleasure.
She was still restless and unhappy on her own account, and was too honest to force jubilation over the good-fortune of a girl she did not like.
That evening, after sunset, Ignatius met her, drooping on the green.
"So you've overcome your fear of the dark?" he asked.
She smiled back, glad, for once, of his spiteful company.
"Amusing fiction, isn't it? I've got two fists and a complete set of finger-nails, besides a kick like a kangaroo...Hulloa, Edie."
She broke off to greet a tall, overgrown girl of about sixteen, who had just emerged from the shadow of the chestnut avenue. She was walking quickly while she finished eating a wedge of Cornish pasty, cramming the crust inside her mouth, in her haste to swallow it.
"Eating as usual?" went on Joan. "You'll lose your waistline. Anyone would think you were kept short."
"Oh, no, miss," protested Edie. "I get plenty to eat in my place. But mother's baking, and she gave me this, just to try."
Joan looked after her retreating figure.
"That girl worries me," she said. "She goes home, every evening, to see her mother, and I meet her coming back, always eating. But she is growing thinner. What d'you make of it?"
It was Ignatius' chance, and he took it.
"It is evident that she doesn't get enough to eat at her employer's and dare not complain, because of local prejudice. Probably her mother is in poor circumstances and is supported by charity."
"Good shot. That girl's mistress is a philanthropist and does an awful lot of good. But she's terribly refined, and thinks it's gross to eat too much. She and her daughter divide an egg between them for their lunch, and their old cook-housekeeper is a shrivelled mummy, and does the same...It's not meanness. They simply don't understand a growing girl has an appetite. I expect there's a regular allowance for food and it's never been altered. But isn't it hopeless?"
"It illustrates an abuse of the Feudal System, which seems to work so excellently here. I've no doubt that girl's family is much better off than most families on the Dole. So, naturally, her mother would forbid her to say a word."
"If she did, she wouldn't be believed," declared Joan. "Suppose, for instance, I tackled her mistress, she would merely suspect Edie of telling lies, and me of being a mischief-maker. She could only be influenced by the pressure of public opinion. And there's no one here—not even the Rector—who would attack a pillar of all the charitable societies."
She shook back her mane of hair impatiently.
"What's the use of talking when you can't do anything? I am going to stroll through the village before I get back. I love it when it's lit up and everyone indoors."
Ignatius walked with her to the end of the village. Joan was silent, most of the time, as she gazed into shadowy gardens, choked with flowers and lumpy with bee-hives, or lingered to stare at lighted windows.
They turned back when they reached the dark stretch of country, outside the 'King's Head'. On their return journey, Joan was moved to another confidence.
"I'm always fascinated by this night-scene. It reminds me of something out of a play. I have a friend who writes, and she once turned it all into a sensational serial. According to her, everyone here led a double life. The extraordinary part is, she was right about the Scudamores."
"Did she say they were not married?" asked Ignatius.
"She said they were living in sin, and she made up an idiotic yarn, describing Mrs. Scudamore's absurd French farce pyjamas and the bucket of champagne, tied up with a pink ribbon bow."
"What else did she say?"
"I forget. Oh, she pretended Miss Corner was a secret drinker. That was rather odd, too, for I heard they found a bottle of whisky inside her wardrobe. She said, too, that the doctor was poisoning his wife."
"I wish he would. But he won't. Anything else?"
"You are interested," laughed Joan. "Let me think. Yes, this really will amuse you. She declared that Miss Asprey was a monster of cruelty and that she ill-treated her poor little companion."
"Aha. Suppose we investigate."
Ignatius halted outside the delicately-wrought iron gates of 'The Spout', and looked through the bars at clumps of spectral lilies in the distance. The faint glug of water only was audible. Not a light glimmered through the darkness.
"The stream flows right under the house," whispered Joan. "The scullery floor is always damp. Isn't it odd to think of it creeping through the darkness?"
"To my mind, it's odder why the windows should be closed, on such a hot night," said Ignatius. "I can only think of one reason for it."
"Someone doesn't want to be overheard. Sound travels far, at night."
Even as he spoke, Joan gripped his wrist. He could barely see the white oval of her face as she stared fearfully at him, through the gloom.
"Hush," she whispered.
"Come away," said Ignatius, pulling her across the green. He paused at the entrance to the Quakers' Walk. "I'll walk back with you to the Court," he said.
"No." Joan shook her head. "I want to run. And run."
"I understand. Good night. And don't dream."
Ignatius turned to go, and then suddenly wheeled round.
"Joan," he said, "I am going to say to you what I said to Miss Mack. If ever you should be in trouble, will you come to me? I may be able to help."
The girl caught her lip with her teeth.
"Why should you bracket me with Miss Mack?" she asked. "I'm sure I don't know. But there it is. Absurd. Good night."
"No, wait. I want to ask you something."
Joan looked around the empty twilight-smudged green, before she spoke.
"What did you hear, just now?"
"The same as you," replied Ignatius. "The voice of a woman—brutal and unfamiliar. And then a low whimper, as though another woman cried out in pain."
THE Rector's sermon, the following Sunday, was memorable. It was not only an example of fine oratory, but was imprinted with sincerity. Ignatius, who listened in a spirit of detached criticism, could detect no note which did not ring true.
The Rector spoke with such subdued intensity that it was clear he was taxing his self-control to the utmost. He pointed out that the recent tragedy was a crime in which some of those present had an indirect share. If not actually guilty, they were accessories after the fact, by their obstinate silence.
The beautiful spirit of the village was being eaten away by hidden corruption, which could only be destroyed if everyone shared the responsibility. He had been shown the first letter by one whose self-sacrifice was stronger than her personal repugnance of publicity. Unfortunately, no one else was sufficiently unselfish and brave to follow this example. He asked now for so little—merely the envelope in which any letter had been enclosed.
Ignatius sidled crabwise in his chancel pew, in order to study the bulk of the congregation which filled the nave. He noticed that their faces did not show their usual blank serenity, as though they were encased in protecting cellophane. But, while they were obviously grave and troubled, it appeared that each person was concerned with the responsibility of his neighbour.
It seemed to him that the volume of communal thought arising from the congregation was so compelling as to reach him, almost in the form of words.
'Surely, after this, someone will do something.'
The Rector had himself well in hand until the end of his sermon, when his pent-up fires suddenly burst through their thin crust in an eruption of molten heat. Unconscious of his congregation, unconscious of himself, he was carried away to say more than he had ever intended, when he had roughed out the skeleton outline of his sermon.
He told them that, while they were to blame, he, himself, was equally guilty. He had failed them, because he had not been able to win their confidence. Although he loved the village—almost more than life itself—if he could not induce them to speak, he must leave them and go out into the wilderness.
"The cup will be almost too bitter for me to drain," he said. "I am in your hands."
Ignatius—swift as a ferret on the trail—studied the general reaction to the sermon. For the first time in his experience, the congregation forgot its well-bred passivity. It had been severely shocked, and it showed it.
Little Mrs. Sheriff appeared on the point of tears. The Squire looked grimly Napoleonic, as though he were willing the congregation to a general confession. Miss Asprey's great grey eyes glowed with the flame of martyrdom, as befitted one who had already made her sacrifice.
Ignatius had many other fleeting impressions before he remembered to observe a certain young lady in whom he was interested. He noticed that little Miss Mack smiled up at her employer, as though seeking guidance for her own emotions. But when he looked at Joan Brook he was too late to trap the message of her eyes. She sat, looking down at her clasped hands, with lowered lids.
He remained in his pew after the rest of the congregation had filed out into the sunlit churchyard. Presently the choir joined them, and the organist—a girl from the village—finished putting away her music. She and the sexton were the last to leave the building.
The Rector had remained in the vestry for some time; but there was no murmur of voices to tell Ignatius that any member of the parochial flock had lingered behind to confess. After glancing at his watch, he resolved to walk back to the Rectory alone.
He was about to leave the shelter of the porch, when he heard the sound of footsteps on the paved path outside. Acting on impulse, he slipped back into the church, and hid behind a pillar.
Someone entered the dim building and lingered in the doorway. It was Miss Asprey. She advanced a few paces down the aisle, her eyes still glowing and her lips sternly compressed.
Ignatius thought that she was on her way to the vestry. Instead, she paused beside her pew and then entered it, to kneel in prayer.
Engrossed in watching her, he did not hear the door being opened again; but the patter of footsteps caused him to turn so sharply that he almost collided with Miss Mack.
She uttered a faint squeak, and then held out an ivory-covered Church Service, as though in explanation.
"Is Miss Asprey inside?" she whispered. "I think she must have missed her prayer-book and gone back to find it. I carried it back, with my own."
"Yes," said Ignatius, "she is looking for it now...But I hoped that you were making this opportunity to see me alone."
"I don't understand," murmured Miss Mack.
"Yes, you do. Don't you remember I once offered to help you?"
"Yes, yes. You were very kind. I don't know why. Please let me find Miss Asprey."
Ignatius barred her way.
"Don't be afraid to speak," he whispered. "She doesn't know you are here. Come outside."
Miss Mack opened her lips dumbly and shut them again. At the same moment, Miss Asprey turned her head and saw them standing in the doorway. As she rose from her knees, her tall black figure looked grim and commanding in the dim light from the old stained-glass windows. She advanced in their direction so silently and swiftly, that her thin cloak blew out, like a cloud, about to envelop them.
"Miss Mack." Her voice held reproof. "I did not expect you to follow me here."
"I'm sorry," said the little companion humbly. "I thought you were looking for your prayer-book."
"I see. That was kind. Thank you." Miss Asprey turned to Ignatius. "I was going to see the Rector in the vestry," she told him "Will you ask him, from me, not to carry out his threat to leave us."
"A conditional threat," Ignatius reminded her.
"Yes. I cannot imagine how anyone could listen to such an appeal and not respond. Will you implore him not to punish the many for the sin of one?"
"But don't you think you could tell him what is in your mind much better than I can? Miss Mack and I will wait for you here."
Miss Asprey shook her head and gave him her rare smile.
"I can trust my message to your memory. And tell him also, not to punish himself for the sin of us all. I know what it would mean to him to leave the village. For I, too, love it. Come, Miss Mack."
Ignatius watched the grotesque contrast of the two figures—one, tall and thin, the other short and broad, as they walked under the lime avenue to the churchyard gate. Then he pulled, a grimace as though in mockery, at their retreating backs, before he followed a path overgrown with ivy and grass, which led round to the vestry.
The Rector was still inside—waiting. He looked up eagerly as the door opened to admit Ignatius. His face grew heavy with disappointment and his shoulders sagged again.
"Yes, I." Ignatius spoke briskly. "You've taken too much out of yourself. Still—a fine sermon. Let me congratulate you."
"Why?" asked the Rector. "It has met with no response."
"Give it time. Besides, it has. Miss Asprey was coming to see you, but was frightened away."
"Miss Asprey. But I don't want the sheep that is already saved. I want the sinner that repenteth...What was she coming for?"
The Rector was slightly affected when Ignatius delivered Miss Asprey's message with the fidelity of a dictaphone.
"By the way," remarked Ignatius, "you rather sprung your decision upon all of us. Is it a sudden one?"
"So sudden that I did not know it myself when I mounted the steps of the pulpit. But—the words came...I must stand by them."
"It might be a good forcing move," decided Ignatius.
"No, no. You don't understand. A Power outside my own will compelled me to speak."
The Rector was exalted still by his recent inspiration. But he was soon overtaken by reaction, and sunken in a trough of depression. The shadow of his renunciation hung heavy over him.
He had been pained by the sequel to the Scudamore tragedy. A strange Coroner had held the inquest on them, and he had conducted it without that tact and discretion which had been a feature of the dead Coroner's enquiries at Miss Corner's inquest. Every fact regarding their private lives had been dragged into the daylight, and duly recorded in cold print.
The Rector was also vaguely worried because the Scudamores' cat, Jeremy, refused to stay with him. Although it was absurd, he felt that he had broken faith with the dead lawyer.
But the cat was troubled with no inhibitions, and knew exactly what it wanted. It had never settled in the Rectory, although the housekeeper had made valiant efforts to 'feed it in'. It spent the first few days in canvassing the district, always returning punctually for its meals. Then, having ascertained that the Clock House was permanently shut up, it took up its abode with a wealthy spinster.
The Rectory had not proved to Jeremy's taste. He had another objection, besides the dog, and the irregularity of the time-table. He had come from a respectable house, and could not be sure that the Rector was married to the housekeeper.
When the bell had ceased to clang for Children's Service, Ignatius, who was alone in the Rectory, pulled himself out of his old 'Varsity chair, and strolled on the green.
The peace of the Day of Rest hung over the village. The children were inside the church—the parents rested after their heavy midday meal. Ignatius exchanged the blazing sunshine for the green shadows of a lane, dark and fragrant with lime-trees, and wandered past secluded gardens, until he reached a small gate, set in a clipped laurel-hedge.
It was the side-entrance to 'The Spout'. He stood there, admiring the picturesque medley of vegetables, fruit-bushes and flowers when he heard the slide of high heels. Ada—the apple-bloom tints of her face deepened to damask-roses—was running down the path, perilously greened with moss. She wore the long flounced frock which showed that she was off-duty, and her best crinoline straw hat.
When she saw Ignatius she forgot to dip in the regulation curtsy, which was her mark of respect to one of the Rector's household. Instead, she spoke to him in the independent manner which had marked their walk, when he was only a casual visitor, who was, presumably, interested in her beauty.
"Have you seen her?"
"Who?" asked Ignatius.
"No, I've met nobody."
"Then she didn't come in this way. Blessed if I can make it out."
"What's the mystery?" asked Ignatius.
"Well," explained Ada, "everyone's out. I seen them all go, with my own eyes, the mistress and all. The mistress said no one need come back until time to get tea. But I forgot my gloves, and I came back...And I'm sure I heard footsteps moving about overhead."
"Well, why didn't you go upstairs to investigate, instead of coming out into the garden?"
"I was scared, because they were such funny footsteps. They were creaky ones—not like anyone walking about...They say the house is haunted...So I just ran. Then, it came over me, all of a sudden, that perhaps Miss Mack had crept in, the back way. But if she had, you'd have seen her."
"Why should it be Miss Mack?" asked Ignatius.
"Because the steps seemed to come from her room."
"But why should she creep?"
Ada suddenly awoke from her trance of bewilderment, and her blue eyes became positively fierce.
"Now you're asking," she cried. "I've got my suspicions. And I'm going to find out. I'll only say this. Things disappear, and they don't walk off alone."
"May I come too?" asked Ignatius eagerly. "Just in case, it should be the ghost."
Ada remembered her fear of the empty house, and nodded. She blazed out a discreet track through overgrown raspberry-canes and filbert-clumps, in order to keep out of sight of the windows. When they reached the cobbled pathway before the house, she opened a small door, which led to a lobby.
"We'll listen at the top of the back-stairs," she said.
Ignatius followed her up the narrow, twisty steps to a baize-covered door, which Ada cautiously pushed ajar. Before them stretched the length of a passage, lit by one small window at its end. Its bare, waxed oaken boards were uneven with age, and it was broken into different levels by an occasional step.
"Hush," said Ada, holding up a warning finger.
A dead, heavy silence invaded the whole house. But, as they strained their ears, faint sounds carne from one of the rooms, as of a creaking floor. Someone was inside, stealing about on a furtive quest.
"It's old Mack," whispered Ada. "I've waked up at night, and thought I've heard someone snooping all round the house. Then I said 'Mice'. But I've lost my new pearls...You see? She's crept back, when everyone was out, to see what she could find lying about. But we'll cop her...Look."
Ada pointed to an old oaken door, where the iron latch was being slowly raised, as though by an invisible hand.
"Whose room?" asked Ignatius, as the latch remained stationary, at half-cock.
"Mack's. She's hiding what she's took. But I'll tax her and make her turn out her drawers, before me...Oh."
She gasped as the door silently opened and Miss Asprey appeared in the entrance. There was something so furtive in her crouching attitude, as she stood, listening, that Ignatius felt his pulse hammer with excitement.
And then, suddenly, the silence of the old house was shattered by a hail of footsteps running up the central well-staircase. Ada had closed the door, so that they could see the passage no longer, but they heard Miss Mack's voice raised in a shrill scream, like a rabbit mad with terror of a stoat.
"Get out of my room. You'll never find it. It's mine."
Ada quickly crabbed down the stairs, followed by Ignatius. She did not speak as they hurried through the garden. When, however, they reached the gate, cut in the laurel-hedge, her voice was cool.
"Good afternoon, sir. I'm going home now, to see my mother. I'm sorry to have troubled you about nothing."
"Nothing, Ada?" repeated Ignatius.
"Nothing, sir." Ada's blue eyes were blank. "I'm going to be married soon, and Miss Asprey had promised to give me my wedding dress and all my linen."
"I understand. You have a kind mistress."
"A good, kind mistress, sir. If she's a bit rough on Miss Mack sometimes, it's no more than she deserves, setting herself up to be better than others, until she's got to be no use to no one."
Ignatius raised his hat and made a sweeping bow.
"I do homage to the Spirit of the Village. Ada, I admire you. You have seen nothing—heard nothing. Neither have I."
THE Rector hardly slept that night, for his heart was heavy and his brain over-stimulated. Whenever he dozed, it was only to experience the horrors of nightmare, when he imagined he was in conflict with an invisible foe.
He had grown to regard this dream as symbolic of his struggle with the anonymous letter-writer, although he knew it was but the reflection of his own thoughts.
"Am I never going to lick—You?" he muttered, as he scraped the lather from a jaded face.
When he walked down the shallow stairs, covered with worn Brussels, the hall was flooded with light streaming in through the open garden door. Charles was chasing a ball on the lawn. In the kitchen, the cook was boiling eggs to the gramophone record of "The sun has got his hat on."
It was all typical of a homely and cheerful life which the Rector had grown to love. Still oppressed by the threat of leaving it, he found it difficult to summon up his usual smile when he met the postman at the front door.
But it was good news that he carried into the dining-room, with his letters. Fate had rejected his sacrifice, and had regarded it as a 'Gentleman's Offer', for immediate settlement.
The Rector opened a bulky letter, addressed in a spidery handwriting, and drew out a printed envelope, which was folded inside.
"I've got it," he shouted joyously, as he threw it across to Ignatius, while he read the covering letter.
It was from a Mrs. Pomfret—an elderly lady of piety and pedigree. She explained that she had just received an anonymous letter, containing so foul and baseless an accusation that no Power on Earth could induce her to show it to anyone.
'I feel degraded by being even a recipient of such filth,' she wrote. 'But I regard you as a Roman Catholic regards the Confessional. I received the letter late on Saturday night, and as we have no kitchen fire during the summer, I immediately locked it away, until I could conveniently burn it. The next morning, after I listened to your wonderful sermon, I had a hard battle with my conscience, and, I am thankful to say, it prevailed. I could never forgive myself if our dear Rector had been driven from us by my silence. But no one will ever know the cost to my own feelings.'
The Rector looked up to see Ignatius holding the envelope in the jet of steam from the spirit kettle.
"I want to have a look at the stamp," he explained. "It's a long shot, but it may be marked."
"I wouldn't disturb any child at its play," remarked the Rector. "I only want to impress on you the need for absolute secrecy over this letter. Mrs. Pomfret has made a real sacrifice, and I would rather cut off my right hand than cause her pain."
"I don't mind your first insult, but I resent your second," snapped Ignatius, as he peeled off the stamp, and pressed it against the window-pane.
Then he gave a thin high cry.
"It is marked. Can't you see a pin-prick of light in one corner?"
"But I understood none of the marked stamps were sold," said the Rector.
"One book was sold, to Lady d'Arcy. She was No. 3 on our list. And this stamp is pricked in No. 3 position."
The Rector pressed his eyes in bewilderment.
"But surely you don't accuse Lady d'Arcy of writing an abominable letter to Mrs. Pomfret?"
"I do not. She isn't capable of two consecutive thoughts."
"Then who do you suspect?"
As Ignatius remained silent, the Rector stared at him, and then averted his eyes.
"You mean—Joan Brook?" he asked dully.
"It can be no one else," agreed Ignatius, sitting down again, and beginning to butter toast. "She's not the sort of secretary who spends her spare time up in her own room, scribbling letters. No, our Joan is a rambler-rose. She wanders here, there, and everywhere. So she's not likely to buy stamps for her own use. She's the kind who would nip one, when wanted, from Lady d'Arcy's book."
The Rector began to pace the room.
"Surely," he said distractedly, "you cannot think that Joan has been writing these letters? It's unthinkable that she hounded the Scudamores to their death. She couldn't."
"She could. But I don't say she has. Sit down and finish your breakfast."
The Rector sat down and mechanically crammed his pipe, while Ignatius went on talking.
"I have to consider possibilities. Miss Brook is one. She is a girl of strong character, with unusual determination and a love of excitement. Depend on it, she knows her own attraction, and thinks she's entitled to a better deal from Life than she's got. So she may break out, like this, in a general attack on fortunate people, who have what's been denied to her. The very danger of it would appeal to her, for she's no coward."
He looked at the Rector in a meaning manner as he added, "Remember, she's leading an unnatural life."
"She's not," declared the Rector indignantly. "She is self-supporting and has an excellent post. There are hundreds of girls in the same position who are leading useful, happy lives."
"True. But Miss Brook has just that tincture of the unknown quantity which differentiates her from the herd. She is wasting her life dry-nursing a woman with mental palsy...She ought to be married."
Glancing sideways, like a malicious elf, he grinned at the Rector.
"Lucky man," he said. "You won't have to leave the village now."
"No," agreed the Rector. "But—after this—it doesn't matter much...You told me you wanted a specimen of printing. You've got it...Where do we stand now?"
"We don't stand. We balance. I must have positive proof before I make any charge. This stamp might have been given to some other person, who chanced to borrow one. I should like to get another envelope, for purposes of comparison."
The Rector drew a deep breath at the reprieve.
"Meantime, you leave Joan under a cloud," he said.
"No, she is assumed innocent, until she is proved guilty. You've had so quick a response to your appeal, that we may expect some more luck. Mrs. Pomfret can't possess the only sensitive conscience."
The Rector continued to frown.
"I can't leave things like this," he declared. "The suspense is torture. I must tackle Joan about it. I know I can believe her."
"No, you must leave that part to me," commanded Ignatius. "You'd only wreck the whole thing. Remember, you're under a pledge of secrecy to Mrs. Pomfret...How can we get hold of Miss Brook in a natural way?"
"We might call on Lady d'Arcy this afternoon," suggested the Rector. "I'll talk to her and give you your chance to sound Joan. I shall have to trust you. Don't frighten her. Give her every loophole to clear herself, and don't judge by the surface."
Ignatius merely smiled in an acid manner. He drove the Rector, and his inevitable dog, over to the Court, that afternoon, when his car covered the distance so quickly that Charles—who expected an outing—was plainly disgusted at this misuse of his property.
It was a still hot day, when the trees in the park hung motionless, in dark-green umbrellas of shade, and clouds of gnats danced in the sunshine, like quivering sheets of bronze gauze.
When they reached the pillared portico of the vast biscuit Georgian erection, they were disappointed to see another car waiting on the drive. Blind to the workings of Destiny, they could not tell that Lady d'Arcy's visitors were to be instrumental in clearing up their mystery.
These turned out to be the Misses Martin, of the Towers; and both the Rector and Ignatius heard them before they actually entered the drawing-room. Lady d'Arcy, looking utterly lost, was being battered by the barrage of conversation; while Joan—cool and attractively sunburnt in white—did her best to reassemble her, and to shield her from direct hits.
Even after the interruption of the two men's arrival, Miss Martin held the general attention, by sheer determination and powerful lungs. She and her sister were exactly what Ignatius had expected from Mrs. Scudamore's description of 'unaffected', as applied to wealth; for both were good natured and frank to rudeness.
They talked exclusively of their travels, or rather, of a special topic incidental to their travels.
"The Arabs are terrible thieves. They stick up the price of everything. Cairo's quite played-out. It's lousy with tourists, and there's not even the smell of a bargain. But the Chinese are a shade more honest. We got some gorgeous shawls dirt-cheap in Canton, didn't we, Con?...Italy, now that's a beautiful country. Real blue sky, not like this. We nearly bought up one village shop. They didn't know the value of their goods. But there's nothing in Rome—except the sights."
Constance Martin agreed with everything her sister said, and added some specialised information on the subject of securing a bargain.
"We want to see the gardens," declared Miss Martin, "and then we must push off. We're doing all our return-calls in one day, so as to get them over."
"Yes, we've just come from 'The Spout,'" said Constance. "The old lady looks as if she was cracking at last."
Everyone looked slightly startled at this description of the immortal Saint Asprey. Then Joan intercepted a glance which flashed between Ignatius and the Rector. As the men rose to go, she asked a question.
"Oh, padre, how are my Altar flowers standing the heat?"
"Dropping all over the place," answered Ignatius quickly.
"I was rather doubtful of that white campanula. I'll bring down some fresh flowers this evening."
"A wasted afternoon," complained the Rector as they drove back through the park.
"I'm not so sure," said Ignatius. "I am interested in Miss Brook's personality. Exactly how astute is she? Was that a clever move of hers to secure sanctuary?"
"How could she tell we were going to ask her anything?"
"She'd only to look at you, to know something was on your mind. And she's familiar with your special obsession. She's cleverer than you. The question is—Is she cleverer than I?"
Ignatius stood, as sentry, at the Rectory gate that evening, when he reported Joan's arrival at the church, to the Rector. A few minutes later, the two men entered the ancient building, through the West door. Directly she saw them, Joan left her station on the Altar-steps and went to meet them.
"I've tidied up," she said, nodding towards the vases. Then she turned directly to the Rector. "You're not really going, are you?"
"Not now," he replied gravely.
"Oh...Then someone sent you something? What is it? An anonymous letter, or only the envelope?"
"The envelope...Do you know anything about it?"
Joan shook her head, with a light laugh.
"How should I? Who was this letter sent to?"
"That I cannot say."
"I see. You're to do all the asking, and I'm to do all the telling. Sorry. It doesn't appeal."
Ignatius saw that the Rector was helpless before the mockery of her smile. When he intervened, his own eyes were inquisitorial, and his lips hard as twisted wire. They compelled Joan to be serious, and she looked at the ruthless face. "Miss Brook"—his voice cut like a whip—"the letter has been traced to you."
"To me?" Joan's voice was light, but she was plainly on guard. "How is that possible?"
"By the stamp."
"Still, I don't understand? Did it tell you?"
"Yes. It was marked."
"That's interesting, because I haven't bought any stamps since I've come here. I never write letters."
"Then how do you communicate with your family and your friends?"
"I ring them up and talk to them over the phone."
"Oh, come, Miss Brook," said Ignatius impatiently. "Surely you cannot expect me to believe that you never write even a note?"
"If I do, it's only an occasional one. So I take one of Lady d'Arcy's stamps. A secretary's perks, you know. Isn't there a proverb about not muzzling the ox that treads out the corn, or something?"
As Joan made her fatal admission, Ignatius glanced at the Rector, and saw that the blow had been a heavy one. At that moment, he was almost sorry for the girl, because of the airy triumph with which she believed she had proved her innocence. He was about to question her further, when the Rector intervened.
"That's enough. You're not the Counsel for the Prosecution."
His voice softened as he turned to Joan.
"Joan, I wonder if you'd be very angry if I asked you a question. Whatever your answer is, I shall believe you. And the matter will be closed for ever."
Joan opened her lips impulsively, and then hesitated. Ignatius guessed at the swift chase of her thoughts as she first pressed her finger against her teeth, and then glanced at her watch.
"I'll answer anything, of course," she declared, "as long as it's not my real age. But you'll have to cut it short for I'm due back at the Court, to make up a four at Bridge, after dinner. So I've got to hurry. If you'll come outside with me, while I throw these in the stoke-hole, it will save time."
As the Rector picked up her empty basket, she snatched up the bundle of dead flowers and ran from the church, towards the furnace-house. Ignatius followed her, with an offer to help; but she almost thrust him aside, as she mounted the tiny flight of steps and faced the Rector.
"What is your question?" she asked.
He looked closely into her clear eyes.
"Have you written an anonymous letter?" he asked.
She looked back at him with a steady, unfaltering gaze. "No," she replied. "Never."
"Thank you." The Rector caught his breath. "Will you forgive me?"
"There's nothing to forgive. Don't be sorry about nothing. My basket. Thanks. Good-bye, padre. I'm glad you're not going."
She took not the slightest notice of Ignatius, who was regarding her with a twisted grin.
"I admire that girl," he said, after she had swung out of the churchyard. "I've never heard a more convincing lie."
"Lie?" repeated the Rector.
"Of course it was. Didn't you notice a significant fact? Directly she realised she was for it, she wouldn't let you ask that question inside the church? Some spiritual repulsion, or superstitious fear of being struck dead for perjury."
"I won't listen to such a slander," declared the Rector hotly.
"Oh, all right. But she invented that excuse about the stokehole. There's not been a fire there for a long time, and it's not been used as a receptacle for rubbish."
There was a long silence, as the truth bit home to the Rector.
"What am I to do?" he asked in a low voice.
"Nothing. After that lie I reserve judgment on Miss Brook. I want more evidence to hang her—another specimen of printing from the anonymous one."
The sudden lightening of the big man's face showed how much he hung on the words of his puny friend.
"Do you believe her?" asked Ignatius. "Or is the dream ended?"
"It doesn't matter. I believe in her."
The Rector scarcely spoke during dinner. Half-way through the meal, he suddenly leaped to his feet, and put down his plate on the carpet.
"Charles," he called, "dinner. Ignatius, may I borrow your car?"
IGNATIUS did not see the Rector again until the next morning, when he appeared at breakfast still sodden with sleep.
"When did you get home?" asked Ignatius curiously.
"Very late," was the reply. "Thanks for the car. I went night-riding."
"I thought you were going to the Court?"
"Then—am I to congratulate you?"
The Rector glared at the question.
"Aren't you going rather too far?" he asked.
"Probably. I don't ask for confidence—only marmalade...Thanks...Please yourself."
The Rector smiled drearily.
"I suppose," he said, "you're being logical. I said I had faith in Joan, so it naturally followed that I had to prove it, in the only way. But—it's deadlock."
Ignatius was not often surprised, but the Rector had secured his interest. As he considered Joan's longing for security, and her strong feeling for the Rector, he could not credit the news that she had refused his offer of marriage.
"These wretched letters are stopping the way," declared the Rector. "I don't wish to discuss my private affairs, even with you, but one thing hangs on another. I asked Joan to marry me, last night, and I thought she was going to accept me. And then, quite suddenly, she changed her mind."
"How?" asked Ignatius eagerly.
"She said that, until it was discovered who was writing the letters, everyone in the village was under a cloud, and that she, apparently, was under special suspicion. It was no use my swearing I believed in her innocence—it had to be proved. She said that, after we were married, if anything went wrong I might remember, and doubt her."
Ignatius' peaked face was kindled to enthusiasm.
"What a girl," he declared. "She means to have the whole of you, not a part. She's out to get you, hook, line, and sinker."
"If she is, she shows it in a curious way."
"No, Tigger, she's right. That black day is bound to come, when the devil would make you distrust her. Well, to reward her for her courage and acquisitive instinct, I suppose I must get this cleared up."
"I confess I don't know where we are at all, now," said the Rector dully. "Ought we to call in the police, after all?"
"You'd better consult the Squire. But I warn you it might prove dangerous. The police would know how to set a more effective trap than your little Postmistress."
The old startled expression shot into the Rector's eyes at the mention of a snare.
"Do come out into the open yourself," he urged. "Whom do you suspect?"
"Two persons—and one of them is Miss Brook. I confess I incline to my second choice, from a point of psychological interest. But I'm still in need of a second specimen of printing, in order to prove my theory."
The Rector's heart was very heavy when he walked through his loved village. It was a crystal day, when he seemed to be gazing through water at the sharp green outlines of the distant Downs. The cottage gardens were crammed with flowers. Summer was holding out her hands to touch Autumn's fingertips, so that both Seasons contributed their offerings. Dahlias, sunflowers, hollyhocks and phlox grew beside pansies, pinks, marigolds and snapdragons.
In his mood of depression all this profusion of beauty made the contrast of the reality more poignant. In the old days, even Death respected the village's leisurely procedure, for he never paid a professional visit without the preliminary of warning taps on each door.
But, within three months, three prominent lives had been ruthlessly cut short. Who would be next to go?
As the thought flashed through the Rector's mind, a familiar figure, who was standing by the War Memorial, crossed the sun-speckled Green, and began to walk by his side.
The Rector accepted his company, as a matter-of-course, and with none of the shrinking horror with which he first glimpsed a black shape, which hid in corners, and stalked footsteps.
Although he did not know that he walked with Fear, the current of his thoughts was directed into dark channels. He thought of the three new graves in the churchyard, and wondered when there would be another.
Underneath its beauty, the village was soaked with intrigue.
A secret chain of letters was passing from door to door, yet he had been able to see only an occasional broken link. Everyone was in the conspiracy, either as active agents or passive pawns.
The place itself had changed. Lawns were shaven and flower-borders prolific; but there was no bi-weekly garden-party, while tennis-racquets and croquet-mallets were used only in family games.
Who was responsible for it? Even as he asked the question, Fear whispered several selected names into his ear.
Vivian Sheriff hooted him out of her way, as she drove Major Blair back with her, to the Hall. The Rector broadened his smile of greeting, in order to make it include congratulations, and was chilled by her perfunctory response.
The girl had none of the radiance he had expected to see in a future bride. She wore a white knitted cap, and her flower-face—unshaded by the customary brim—looked smaller, as though shrunken by worry.
'Remorse?' he wondered. 'Is it you?'
The doctor had declared the writer to be a pathological case, and Fear reminded him that all the ingredients for such a condition could be found at the Hall. The Squire dominated both his wife and his daughter, so that either might be driven to find some crooked vent for self-expression.
Then Fear switched off to another more interesting theory.
After all, the Squire was an honest John Bull, with all the national virtues, while the Hall was typical of English family life. It was likelier that the Sheriffs' happiness and prosperity had roused the envy of one who was not so fortunately-placed. One whose personal attractions entitled her to expect a better deal from Life.
Since her engagement, Vivian would be doubly an object of jealousy. If, instead of being a suspect, she were another victim, her dimmed radiance would be explained.
'But I believe in Joan,' declared the Rector. 'Besides, why should she envy Vivian when she refused to wear my ring?'
Fear explained exactly why she had made her gesture. It was a bold move to avert suspicion. For she was in a tight corner. The stamp had been traced to her, and she had told a deliberate lie.
That had not been explained away. Probably it was part of Ignatius' policy to let her think she was safe, so that she might be lured on to further indiscretion. Another false step might plunge her in the morass.
He could not trust Ignatius. After all, he only knew him as a little eccentric, whose wealth had made him a useful friend in their College days. What did one man know of an-other's heart? It was conceivable that he was spiteful and bored by a thwarted existence.
Fear filled the Rector with the impulse to strike blindly at friend and foe. He could not distinguish between them in this blindfold nightmare. He was utterly baffled and lost.
If he invited the Squire to call in the police, he would set in motion a machine that operated with relentless precision. Should Joan get in its way, she would be caught up and effectively dealt with. It was hopeless to expostulate with metal, or to appeal for mercy to a Robot.
In spite of the sun, the Rector grew cold. He shivered, when Fear poked him in the ribs with a chill finger-tip, just to show the world they were on familiar terms.
'If I do nothing,' thought the Rector, 'the Enemy will soon strike again. Another tragedy. Another grave.'
He stopped before a Tudor cottage, as Miss Asprey walked grandly down its garden-path. Before he could introduce his interesting Companion, Fear—after a glance of recognition at Miss Asprey—espied a dark lady on the green, and hastened off, to act as cavalier to Marianne Perry.
The Rector looked at the worn, ivory features of Miss Asprey, with a sense of sudden release from oppression.
"Have you been visiting Harper?" he asked.
"Yes," replied Miss Asprey. "Dr. Perry is with him now, so I left. We met over his bed, and had our usual argument. A charming man, but, like most doctors, a materialist. He will not admit the importance of the spiritual issue in physical illness."
"I suppose that would depend on what's the matter," said the Rector.
"That is my own point of view. Of course, I have explained the principles of diet and ventilation to Mrs. Harper, and I insist that she carries out my instructions. But Harper's spirit is sick, and he needs healing by prayer."
The Rector could not disagree, for his wide experience had introduced him to cases of special sickness which had not responded to drugs.
"There's no one who can give him spiritual treatment better than you," he said. "You always make me feel refreshed."
"Do I?" Miss Asprey did not smile. "Lately, I've wondered if my powers are beginning to dim. My will does not dominate in the old way."
"You can always dominate me," said the Rector.
He was rewarded by the radiance of her face. With a stately inclination of her graceful neck, she left him before Dr. Perry could reach the gate.
"Confound that saintly woman," he remarked, lightly. "She's won another round. The Harpers have been pouring my medicine down the sink."
"What's the matter with Harper?" asked the Rector.
"Aha, padre, now you're trespassing on my preserves. I'll only say he is in good company, for his complaint is the same as the Squire's. I give it different names, just to mark the difference in their bills."
"How is the Squire getting on?" he asked unthinkingly.
"How should I know? He's not my patient."
"Sorry, Perry, I forgot. But he's not looking in good shape. He's missing you."
"On the contrary, his own doctor probably knows more about the treatment of his complaint than I do. What he doesn't know is how to humour him."
In spite of the breach between them, the Rector felt the old tug of attraction. The doctor's composure was soothing and static. He was under vague suspicion of having ingratiated himself with a woman patient in order to get her money, and was generally suspected of carelessness in his administration of a sleeping-drug. The results had been excellent for him, and, in view of his increase of inherited income, the village felt slightly apprehensive of his professional services.
Yet, when they met him personally, the old loyalties persisted. Impulsively, the Rector held out the olive-branch.
"Why do you never come over in the evenings?" he asked.
"My dear padre," replied the doctor, "you have your private detective. I might interrupt delicate operations."
The Rector had a fleeting memory of the episode of the marked stamps. Apparently, he had not been quick enough in his efforts to hide them.
"Oh, you mean Ignatius Brown," he said. "But he likes you."
"Thanks for the hint. Now, I'll be on my guard."
"Well, even if you won't come over, it's good to have a chat again," said the Rector. "I wish you'd tell me if you think Miss Asprey is losing her grip."
"Not she." The doctor shrugged. "She will live for ever."
"Good. How are things with you, doctor?"
"Excellent, thanks. Family flourishing—and nothing could be better."
"Then you're lucky...Do you remember warning me that there were dark places, even here? I didn't believe you. But since then—"
As his voice broke, the doctor finished his sentence.
"Since then, things have been rather interesting. By the way, what does Miss Brook think of Vivian's engagement? Personally, I'm rather amused by it. She looks so pensive, now she's reached the peak of her ambition."
"You don't like her, do you?" ventured the Rector.
"It's common history I once liked her rather too well. So I may be in the second stage of friendship. But I must be getting along. Good-bye, padre."
The doctor walked home slowly. As he passed the blank windows of the Clock House he looked up at them with a speculative expression.
'I wonder if their way out has been the anticipated success,' he reflected. 'Annihilation should be restful. Well, they, at least, have solved their problem.'
He pushed open the gate, and then recoiled slightly, as his wife flew to meet him. He had learned, from painful experience, to associate these tempestuous rushes of welcome with fresh demands.
His first glance showed him that Marianne was in a state of agitation, as the result of ten minutes spent in the company of a dark Stranger. Fear had been in a sociable mood that day, for he had insisted in accompanying the lady home, in order to see her charming and beautiful children. And he had made the most of his opportunity.
Marianne had pounced down on the elder baby, and discovered that he was suffering from septic blood-poisoning. At least, that was what the superior nurse had hinted, as she stressed, once more, the advantages of a visit to the seaside.
What had really happened was that Mickey had been stung by an insect, who, in harmony with the prevailing tone of the village—chose to remain anonymous. He knew he was only a humble bug, and that his bite could do no mischief.
But Mickey was of an industrious nature, and had lost no time in getting to work. He had a pale, sensitive skin, which responded immediately to vigorous rubbing, so that he got excellent results. His mother became almost hysterical at the sight of the patch of inflammation.
"He's been stung by a mosquito," declared the nurse. "A naughty fly stung you, didn't it, darling?"
"No," corrected Mickey. "Rat."
He had just learned the word, and was practising it. Marianne screamed, and then caught side of her husband, opening the gate.
"Horatio," she screamed. "Come to Mickey, at once."
In his usual leisurely manner, Dr. Perry examined the child's arm, and then carried him, in silence, into the surgery.
"Get me two large surgical bandages," he said gravely to his wife.
"You—you're not going to operate," she asked faintly.
"You will see what I'm going to do to save life."
Smiling faintly, the doctor applied witch-hazel to Mickey's arm, before he bandaged both his hands, to the baby's delight.
"Keep those on, until the irritation is gone," he said. "It will soon die down, now that he is unable to scratch...And Nurse, you might see that his nails are kept shorter. I don't propose to make a mandarin of my son."
When the shocked woman had carried Mickey away, Marianne turned on her husband.
"Why did you speak to her like that? It was positively an insult."
"It was—but will she recognise it? Can you give me any hope?"
His words were the signal for the storm to break, as Marianne overwhelmed him with reproaches and abuse. The doctor made no attempt to listen or to argue, he was only conscious of irritation and noise.
In the same detached spirit, he looked at her, and was aware that—devoid of her exotic allure and poise—she was merely a gesticulating skinny woman, with outstretched hollow palms.
He was fond of his children, and very fond of his wife; but peace was essential to his happiness. He could have found entire satisfaction with a milk-veined wife like Vivian, or accepted second-best, in a well-ordered celibate existence.
"You've no right to be a father," stormed Marianne.
By his silence the doctor seemed to agree with her. In reality, he was seeing a jovial red face, and beaming eyes under a shock of iron-grey hair. His whole heart was wrung with longing for his friend, Julia Corner.
She would have helped him through this crisis, not only with her cheque-book—for she turned borrowing into just another link of friendship—but with her good-nature and understanding, and the stimulus of her excellent brain, of which, he—alone—had knowledge.
But Julia was in her grave. Lucky woman.
As he thought wistfully of the blessed blank of annihilation, a chance remark recalled him back to the surgery, with the shower of sunlight falling through its glass roof.
"Horatio," said Marianne vehemently, "do answer. Let me borrow the money for a seaside holiday for my babies, from Mrs. Sheriff. She's so kind, she'll lend it, when she knows the circumstances."
The doctor's eyes glittered in his pale face and his low voice suddenly vibrated with passion.
"Marianne," he said, "I forbid you to talk about my private affairs to anyone in the village."
"But you borrowed from Mr. Scudamore."
"Strongly against my own wish. But he was my solicitor, and a very old friend. Besides, I was only forestalling my legacy...But I will not tolerate my financial troubles being made public property. Do you understand?"
"Yes. I understand that you'd sacrifice your children to your ridiculous pride. And I'll promise nothing. I don't care if you leave me and go to your other woman."
She spoke in mockery, and was utterly confounded when he repeated her words.
"My 'other' woman. Be careful. I may take you at your word."
Marianne tried to laugh, but was startled by the fixity of her husband's eyes.
"Horatio," she implored, "don't look like that. You frighten me. I won't say one word, I promise you...You almost make me believe—. Kiss me, darling. Tell me there's no one else."
Her arms were around his neck, almost strangling him with their pressure; but he did not see the lips he kissed.
His view of them was blocked by a raw grave.
"If there is another woman," he said, "remember this: Should you drive me to her bed I shall never leave it."
AS the days passed without further proof of confidence from his parishioners, the Rector's unhappiness grew acute. It seemed to him that everyone in the village was either leaving the sacrifice to his neighbour, or preferred to lose the Rector sooner than violate his essential reserve.
There was nothing to be done, but wait, and cheer himself with the reflection that Ignatius was mistaken in his theory of a wholesale broadcast of anonymous letters.
Ignatius also chafed at the check. One morning he startled the Rector with a new idea.
"Has Miss Mack ever travelled?" he asked.
"How should I know?" replied the Rector.
"Do you think she would like a short Continental holiday?"
"I should imagine so."
"Then, suppose we invite her to take one? I'm in the mood for philanthropy."
The Rector looked at his friend's bleak face, but saw only the birth of malice in his eyes.
"What are you driving at now?" he asked suspiciously.
"Nothing. I merely wish to find out if I'm still on the right track. So far, I have only my theory, but everything is beginning to dovetail so neatly that it needs but one specimen of printing for me to lay down my hand. Meantime, I cannot be too certain of my thesis."
He broke off, to glance through the window, between the sweeping boughs of the cedar trees which shaded the lawn. Outside the gate was a small car, which its owner was on the point of leaving.
"It's that Martin girl," groaned Ignatius. "She met me yesterday, and took an interest in my car. Refuse all invitations for me."
The Rector grinned, for he knew that the Miss Martins would regard a wealthy bachelor as natural quarry. He stepped through the French window and met Constance Martin on the drive.
"I want you and your friend to come to lunch today," she shouted.
The Rector did his best in the matter, but, as he refused to tell lies on behalf of his Ignatius, he ended by promising to come.
The bitter little man came out of his ambush, when he returned to the dining-room, and was furious to hear of the arrangement.
"At least, I shall have an interesting memory to sustain me during the ordeal," he said. "I expect some entertainment at 'The Spout'."
"What will this freak of philanthropy cost you?" asked the Rector.
"About fifty pounds, I suppose. But I do not anticipate being called on to pay. Miss Mack will refuse my offer."
"Don't be too sure."
"Don't you think Miss Asprey will prevent her from going?"
"I'm certain she will do nothing of the kind."
When the two men reached the front door of 'The Spout', the Rector looked at Ignatius, before he knocked.
"Am I to ask for Miss Mack?" he enquired.
"No, Miss Asprey. Miss Mack will be with her."
He proved a true prophet, for when Rose showed them into the study the ladies were together. Miss Asprey stood at the window, while Miss Mack sat at the desk, dutifully opening envelopes.
"Shall I go?" she asked in an undertone, humbly eager to efface herself.
"No," commanded Miss Asprey, "please stay. I shall want you later."
She welcomed the Rector with her gracious smile, which, to Ignatius, appeared forced. Even the Rector thought there was an element of gloom about the dim ancient room, for the casement window was unusually small and looked onto a sunless lawn, where the brook—brown and turgid—flowed between stone copings.
He dutifully talked to Miss Asprey about the usual things, in order to pave the way to his friend's offer. While he did so, he was conscious of the soothing atmosphere which seemed to radiate from Miss Asprey. His worries were insensibly dulled and his brain ceased its restless spin.
Ignatius broke the peace with an abrupt question.
"Have you travelled much, Miss Asprey?"
She looked at him in faint surprise.
"In my youth," she replied.
"Have you, Miss Mack?"
In her turn, Miss Mack stared at him with round china-blue eyes.
"No," she replied.
"Would you like to?"
"Good. Then you have your chance to do a good turn to some friends of mine. That is, if Miss Asprey sanctions the scheme."
Ignatius went on to embellish his lie with the natural gusto which accompanies such flights of fancy.
"These are the facts. These friends—four ladies—have planned a short holiday to Switzerland and—the Italian Lakes. Unfortunately, one of their number has been obliged to fall out, at the last moment, and three is an awkward number. So they have appealed to me to fill the gap."
"Are you going?" asked Miss Mack. "How nice."
"I'm afraid my sex debars me from the pleasure. But, as the reservations are made and paid for, my friends have asked me to find them a congenial fourth. Someone who is well-bred, even-tempered, discreet, appreciative, tranquil—in fact—the perfect companion. Naturally, my thoughts flew to Miss Mack."
Ignatius turned to Miss Asprey.
"Could you spare her for a fortnight?" he asked.
"Certainly," replied Miss Asprey, without a second's pause. Ignatius looked at Miss Mack, who was smiling uncertainly. "Then will you come?" he asked. "May I write to my friends and tell them I have been successful?"
The little woman's eyes were eager, but she hesitated as she glanced at Miss Asprey.
"I—I don't quite know," she said.
"Doesn't it appeal to you? There will be no pecuniary obligation and you will place my friends under a debt of gratitude. By the way, they believe in comfort. No climbing or walking. They will motor, by easy stages, and stay at the best hotels. The food will be excellent."
Miss Mack licked her pale pink lips with the tip of her tongue
"It sounds very tempting," she said. "You're sure there will be nothing to pay?"
"Not one penny."
"You're all very kind to me. I think I would like to come."
The Rector's heavy face beamed with pleasure, but he also seemed to find humour in the situation as he glanced at Ignatius.
"When do your friends leave England?" asked Miss Asprey. "We must lose no time in getting Miss Mack's things ready."
She appeared so genuinely pleased at the prospect of the holiday for her companion that Ignatius said 'Good-bye', not only to his fifty pounds, but to a similar amount; for he would be pledged to find someone to accompany Miss Mack.
"About a fortnight hence," he replied. "I've forgotten the exact date, but I'll look up their letter directly I get back to the Rectory."
"No, please don't trouble to do that," said Miss Mack. "I find I shall not be able to come, after all."
"Why not?" asked Miss Asprey peremptorily.
"I don't want to leave you, Miss Asprey."
The Rector felt almost stunned with the shock of her refusal, especially as Ignatius shot him a glance of triumph. Miss Asprey's composed expression gave no clue to her real feelings, as she began to expostulate with her companion, in the quiet authoritative tones which are used to influence a child.
"But, Miss Mack, this is an opportunity which must not be lost. I can do without you perfectly well. Indeed, it is my wish that you go."
"I'm sorry, Miss Asprey," murmured Miss Mack.
"Don't you want to travel?" asked Ignatius.
The eager glitter of the little woman's eyes answered his question.
"Yes," she replied, "indeed I do. But my place is with dear Miss Asprey. I'm happiest here, doing my duty. I know what is best for me. And no one can make me change my mind."
She got up from her desk and crossed to the door.
"Will you please excuse me, Miss Asprey?" she asked, as she went out of the room.
The Rector turned to Miss Asprey, who sat as still as a woman carved in stone.
"What marvelous loyalty you inspire," he said impulsively.
As Miss Asprey smiled faintly at the compliment, Ignatius spoke with a tinge of irony.
"In that case, Miss Asprey should have a corresponding influence on one of Miss Mack's pliant disposition. Can I rely on you, to talk her round?"
"I'm afraid I can promise to do nothing of the kind," was the cold reply. "Miss Mack is a free agent. I do not believe in coercion. You have heard she has my permission to go."
As Ignatius made no comment, but continued to hold her with his eye, her expression changed from saintliness to faint arrogance. When she spoke, she conveyed the impression of accepting a challenge.
"Sometimes a stranger will succeed, where a friend will fail. Suppose, Mr. Brown, you try the experiment of making a woman change her mind? I sincerely wish her to go...It might be wiser if you interviewed her alone. As I am her employer, she may be unconsciously influenced by my presence."
Nothing could have been fairer than her offer. Yet each one knew instinctively the issue. No power on earth could shift Miss Mack from her allegiance to her employer.
"You'll have a shot at it, won't you?" whispered the Rector, as the men walked down the drive.
"Yes, I'll play the game. But my cheque-book's saved." Ignatius chuckled gleefully as he slapped his pocket. "Have I made my point?"
"What point?" asked the Rector defensively.
"That a prisoner may cling to his cell after the door is open."
The Rector made no comment. He was once again a victim to depression, while Ignatius was in high spirits. He even forgot to grumble as they drove to the Towers.
"As my car is so obviously the attraction, and not myself," he remarked, "I suppose there will be a place laid for it at the luncheon-table."
When they reached the huge house, bristling with turrets and flashing with glass, he disliked its crowded luxury and restless atmosphere. The Martin girls were too hearty, and confused him with their constant chatter. He endured the long, heavy meal, by reminding himself that there was a time-limit to his discomfort.
When he was smoking a cigarette, after lunch, the moment of release was so near that he managed to be agreeable to Constance Martin, who had attached herself to him.
"Are you quite settled in?" he asked benevolently.
"Yes," replied Constance, "we're old inhabitants. I've even had one of the blinking anonymous letters, to make me feel at home."
"Where is it?" asked Ignatius quickly.
"Burned, of course. I don't keep that sort of muck lying round, for my maid to read."
"Yes. But I can tell you what was in it, if it amuses you. It was a lot of bilge about the wonderful bargains we'd got abroad, and it hinted that we'd got some better bargains which we did not talk about. I can't remember the exact words, but the letter practically accused us of shop-lifting."
Ignatius bit his lip with disappointment, as he thought of another lost opportunity.
"Damnable," he said, with such feeling that Constance mistook it for sympathy with herself.
"Pretty foul," she agreed. "I opened the letter, but, after all, it might have been meant for anyone of us. It was addressed to 'Miss C. Martin', and we all have the same initial. My eldest sister is 'Cathleen', and the two youngsters that you haven't met, are 'Carol' and 'Cherry'."
It was plain that Constance wanted him to have the freedom of her family, for she spoke of future introductions.
"The others will be soon here, and we're going to dig in, for a bit. After all, we've been on the move for two years, so it's about time."
Ignatius assured her of his anticipatory pleasure; but he was silent and snappy on their homeward journey. Only the dog was privileged to receive his confidence, as he sank into a chair and whispered in Charles' silky ear:
"It's the one we both suspected. But we have to prove it to meaner intelligences."
A WEEK later, when Vivian Sheriff received her third anonymous letter, she took counsel with her familiar companion—Fear.
He had attached himself to her, probably from an impulse of loyalty—since it was she who was responsible for his introduction to the village, where he had enjoyed such marvellous social success.
The spirit of self-confident levity which had prevailed at Miss Corner's tea-party was akin to a new broom, chasing every shadow from the corners. It was only after Vivian had suddenly quailed at her memory of an old indiscretion—so that she tried to establish a pact of self-protection—that the black flicker had shot through the sunlit room.
As Vivian sat at the breakfast-table, biting her lips over the letter, Mrs. Sheriff looked at her anxiously. She noticed that her daughter had lost some of her colour, and that there were violet shadows under her eyes.
Although excitement might be responsible for her washed-out appearance, there was no doubt that Vivian had lost her spring. Her engagement represented the peak of her ambition, and yet she was unable to find pleasure in answering the crop of congratulatory letters which had poured in since the formal announcements to the Press.
As a matter-of-fact, she was worried to death. Fear had become the mainspring of the daily round. She was not so much afraid for her own future, since her commonsense refused to submit to panic. But she was overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility.
Although she was of somewhat shallow disposition, she was both conscientious and serious. Mrs. Scudamore's death had been a bad blow to her, for she had always preferred the company of older women, partly because of the lack of competition, and partly because her mind was less flexible than that of the average girl.
The lawyer's wife had been her model and inspiration; and after the first shock of the exposure, she felt a sense of personal loss.
Although she was then guiltless of keeping back important evidence, the arrival of the first letter had changed the position. She believed that she—alone—had a clue as to the writer. But while she would not hesitate to sun-bathe publicly, in the penultimate shred, she shrank from any advertisement of her private affairs.
Fear sat beside her as she read the printed warning, and looked over her shoulder.
"There may be someone else in the village who has received a letter, today," it hinted. "If you don't speak, someone else may turn on the gas."
Give the devil his due—Fear worked to good purpose that day; for even while he achieved his own object of making Vivian's heart flutter and her lips pale, she suddenly sprang to her feet—her blue eyes glazed with desperate resolution.
Her mother looked at her with rather a scared expression; Fear was wholesale in his attentions to ladies, and had spent some of his time in the company of Mrs. Sheriff. She could not forget those terrible inhibitions of which Miss Corner had hinted.
"Where are you going, Vivian?" she asked.
"To see the Rector, Mother."
"I wouldn't tell him too much."
As Vivian stared at her in surprise, she attempted a confused explanation.
"I thought, perhaps, you wanted some spiritual advice about marriage. I don't think that part of it should be neglected. And when you talk to a clergyman, you're led on to say more than you mean."
"Thank you for the hint," smiled Vivian. "I'm only going to stagger him with my guilty Past."
Leaving her mother reassured by her statement, Vivian drove her car under the flickering green shadow of the lane, until she reached the mouth of the chestnut tunnel, which she used as her parking-station. By means of this precaution, she took the Rector and Ignatius, by surprise, as they sat and smoked the first pipe of the day under the cedar.
As the Rector went to meet her, she looked up at him in helpless appeal.
"I'm frightfully early. But I couldn't help it. I—"
He tried to encourage her with his smile.
"Have you come about the Banns? Or do you want a Special Licence?"
"No, no, nothing like that. It's private."
The Rector's face changed.
"Shall we come to my study?" he asked, glancing at Ignatius.
"No. Mr. Brown can hear what I have to say."
Ignatius, who was studying her, rather admired her self-control. Her small white form was lost in the depths of the big 'Varsity chair; but although she looked fragile as a convolvulus, her face was composed and her hands were still.
"It's not easy to explain," she said. "But I've had three anonymous letters."
"And, of course, you've burned them all?" broke in Ignatius venomously.
"Of course...The awful part is that I'm afraid I know who wrote them. Naturally, I don't like even to think it, much less tell anyone else."
"But it is your duty," said the Rector gravely. "We have had one tragedy. At all costs, we must prevent another."
"I know. That's what frightens me. If I don't speak, it might be murder."
Vivian clasped her hands tightly and apparently went off at a tangent.
"You remember the War? When sometimes there wasn't time to get married, so one got carried away...Well, it didn't happen to me. I want you to remember that. After he was killed, I was sorry I hadn't the same pluck other girls had. It was wicked of me, but I was...But now, everything's different. Supposing I had. You can imagine what my feelings would be now. I should be mad with fear of exposure. But, because I nearly did, I can understand why Mrs. Scudamore killed herself...So I know what these letters would mean to someone who had."
"One minute, Miss Sheriff," broke in Ignatius. "Are we to understand that you are threatened with exposure of some trifling indiscretion?"
"Yes, an indiscretion." Vivian clutched at the word. "I'll tell you everything."
She took rather a long time to tell them about the visits to the bungalow, and its sequel, because of her insistence on the frigidly correct behaviour of young Belson and herself.
"We were not even friendly friends, if you know what I mean. Just friends. That's what makes it so unjust—so scandalous, that he thought the worst."
"How do you know he did?" asked Ignatius.
"Because he changed completely. He's never been the same to me since."
As the Rector appeared confused, Ignatius enlightened him tactfully.
"You're talking of the man who rang the bell and then looked through the window of the bungalow, aren't you?" he asked. "Do you suspect him of writing these letters?"
"Who else can it be? He's the only one who knows about me. And he must know a lot of secrets about his patients." The Rector raised his heavy brows significantly. "Are you accusing Dr. Perry?" he asked sternly. Vivian did not answer the question.
"I have told you all I know," she said. "I must go now. Good-bye."
The Rector's face was shadowed with gloom, but he forced a smile.
"All this has been very painful for you," he said. "Thank you sincerely. You've been very brave."
"I've only done my duty."
Vivian glanced at Ignatius, but he had no compliments to offer her, as he thought of the burned evidence.
"Please don't come with me to the gate," she said. "One can slip out so much easier alone. I don't want the doctor to know I've been here. He may suspect."
She fluttered a few paces down the drive, like a white butterfly, and then flitted back, holding something which she offered to the Rector.
"I nearly forgot. Here's your envelope you asked for...And please remember. I never did."
The Rector was not aware that his face expressed doubt, until Ignatius spoke, as though in answer to some question.
"No, Tigger, she didn't. She hasn't the guts. But if Miss Brook ever spins you that yarn, you'd better investigate." With a sudden change of mood, he kissed his hand to the white figure just slipping through the gate.
"Our thanks are due to that delicate and protesting lady," he said. "May I trouble you for that envelope? And now I must ring up the garage for my car. I'm going up to London immediately. Back tonight."
"What are you going to do?" asked the Rector.
"In London? I'll tell you later. At present, I'm going into the study, to write a note to Dr. Perry. It's a bit premature, but it may be important. Will you see that it is sent to him, by hand, and without delay?"
The Rector gazed at his remorseless face with troubled eyes. "Must you?" he muttered. "In spite of everything, I always like the fellow."
Ignatius merely smiled. Without meaning to do so, Vivian had placed him on the rack of suspense, by withholding the important envelope until the last moment. In unconscious imitation, he remained silent, until just as his car was moving.
"That was a lucky lunch at the Towers," he remarked. "It was then that Miss Martin told me that our anonymous friend had made the inevitable false step."
IN spite of the ferment of his mind, the Rector was faithful in the commission of his trust. His house-keeper delivered the note into the doctor's hands not more than ten minutes later than Ignatius' departure to London.
The doctor, who was in his surgery, looked at the word 'Urgent' on the envelope with dull eyes. Nothing was of importance to him that day, least of all the stringency of another person's business.
During the past week he had lost his curiosity—or rather, his curiosity was focused exclusively on one subject. As a matter of purely academic interest, he wondered which was the most effective method of committing suicide.
Of course he had not the least intention of taking his own life. He assured himself of that repeatedly. The present offered too many problems, the chief of which was the adjustment of expenditure with income.
This should have been easy, for, as Joan had once declared, the favoured families of the village all possessed pedigrees and private incomes. She had also stated that everyone was married—and therein lay the rub.
Had the doctor remained a bachelor, he could have lived in comfort at St. James' House, without the aid of any tributaries to swell the main stream of his dividends. But, since his marriage, he had converted Stock repeatedly, in order to meet Marianne's constant demands.
Even so, Life had been a pleasant jumble, in the days before the first anonymous letter. He thought wistfully of that vanished Past, which held the Scudamores and Julia Corner.
Perhaps the village had not been Life itself—but merely its reflection in the magic mirror of a crystal pool. There was no ugliness or turbulence to make it real—only the beauty and fantasy of a dream.
But a wind had blown over the water, and flawed the surface to a distorting-glass. Nothing remained the same.
The sun shone through the glass roof of the surgery striking through the rows of bottles and sprinkling the walls and ceiling with rainbow reflections. When the wind shook the trees outside, these luminous spots danced like fairies. The doctor watched them, half mesmerised by the quivering colours, as he sighed for that vanished tranquillity, when his leisurely days had been filled with professional visits, which differed from a social call, principally by the fact that he was paid to drink tea.
Gone were the wealthy spinsters and comfortable widows, with their prudent avoidance of illness and their punctual cheques. Even although they still resided in the village, in reality, they were living in a different planet.
But the doctor did not contemplate suicide. Nothing was further from his thoughts. On the whole, he found the situation rather amusing. For all these pleasant people were still his friends. Had anyone of them a hint as to the actual state of his finances there would have been a run on his professional services.
Only, a whisper had stolen abroad, which vaguely connected him with the poison-letters. No one believed the rumour, but each person waited on his neighbour. It was herd-instinct, which caused them to stampede in a huddle, and then, immediately afterwards, to fall apart, in distrustful clusters.
'They're not cruel,' reflected the doctor. 'They're afraid.'
His eyes fell on the note in his limp hand. Although he was incurious, he was on the point of opening it when he heard his wife's steps in the hall—now sharp on the parquet, now dull, over a rug.
At this minute he did not wish to see her. She had been in an especially perverse mood at breakfast, not leaving him in peace, and stinging his brain, like a mosquito, so that it still felt swollen and incapable of consecutive thought.
She burst into the surgery, electric with energy which shamed his own sluggishness.
"Who's that note from?" she asked instantly.
The doctor instinctively put it in his pocket.
"No one in particular. From the Rectory," he replied.
"How explicit." Marianne looked at him with a spice of mockery. "Horatio, did you wake up this morning?"
"I'm not sure. I feel rather stagnant."
"Then why on earth don't you do something?"
"Nothing to do."
"Then I'll tell you something I want done," said Marianne briskly. "Nurse says that if the babies are not to go to the sea, the best thing to do is to rig up a sun-shelter on the roof, where they'll be out of the way of mosquitoes."
"Brilliant woman. Her obvious deduction is that mosquitoes cannot walk upstairs."
Marianne flamed at the hint of satire in the doctor's quiet voice.
"At least she takes an interest in my babies' welfare which is more than their father does," she said angrily. "Oh, don't look at me in that doped way...Do wake up."
"The last thing I wish to do."
"Well, then, go to sleep again and make a thorough job of it."
"Strange you should say that." The doctor's voice was almost inaudible. "But, unfortunately, one always wakes up again." Marianne turned towards the door.
"I can make nothing of you, in this mood," she told him. "If I were you I should take a cold bath."
"I've had one."
"A hot one, then. It might stimulate you to some sort of action."
She spoke with contempt, which melted in a sudden change of mood. In one lightning swoop, she was on her knees beside him, and holding him close.
"Darling, think of me," she said, as she kissed him vehemently.
"Strange you should do that," murmured the doctor.
The slam of the door woke him partially, so that he began to think of Marianne's suggestion. A hot bath? It was really rather curious that she should have given such topical advice.
While he had been dreamily thinking of the different methods of committing suicide, the one which appealed most was opening a vein. He had evidence that the lawyer had made a shockingly messy business of his exodus, while Mrs. Scudamore's end was a trifle ignominious. She seemed to him rather too stately a lady to finish up adequately in a scullery.
He again assured himself that he had no intention of committing suicide. It was merely an interesting speculation. His ears began to burn, and he remembered the old superstition.
At that moment, two persons were speaking of him In a beautiful old-world garden, two ladies, with flat heels and high insteps, reviewed their flower-borders and talked of those preliminary aches which heralded the Enemy.
"I don't care," declared the younger sister, who was still defiant, "I shall not call in a strange doctor. I shall remain faithful to my dear Dr. Perry."
Her nose was dominant, since it was an heirloom, but her mouth was gentle. The corners turned up as her elder sister made a suggestion.
"In that case, why don't you send for him?"
"Can we?" queried the younger lady. "The Squire never calls him in now. I never enquired the reason, for I refuse to talk scandal about my dear doctor. But men understand these things better than we do."
"The Squire blows his own nose—not yours," said her sister bluntly. "You have to do that for yourself. You know your late summer hay fever is near. Better tell Markham to ring up Dr. Perry."
The debate continued...Meanwhile, with the letter, still unopened, in his pocket, the doctor forced himself to mount the shallow stairs to the bathroom.
He paused on the square landing, to look down at the hall, as though he was viewing a scene from some play. Through the open front door, was a slice of sunlit turf, the brilliance of flowers, the drip of windy shadows. Doves cooed and babies laughed and shouted. A red reflection from the stained glass window lay on the oaken floor like a crimson rose.
Still heavy as a log, the doctor entered the bathroom and turned on the hot-water tap. The floor was sloppy, but he did not notice it. The disorder which seemed to be the logical result of the babies' baths, failed to rouse him to distaste.
He took off his coat and threw it on a chair, where it hung upside down, so that the note slipped from the pocket to the floor. The doctor looked at it, but made no effort to pick it up, as he again thought of the village.
'A beautiful dream. No one here is really alive except the Rector and Joan Brook, who don't belong. The Squire, for all his noise, is only a bit of tradition. Most of the people are descendants of their ancestors. In fact, we are all characters from some book, with a pleasant plot.'
Even Julia Corner, now that her bright colours were dimmed and her loud laughter withdrawn into the eternal silence, seemed to him a creation of her own fiction. Then he remembered the exception—his own wife, with her passion for life, which projected her—like a flaming comet—into the future.
She wanted no compromise, but welcomed the rack and the turn of the screw; the ecstasy of the wind; the joy of waking to each fresh day, because of the next leaf, still untorn from the calendar. Passion, pain, unrest—all that was life; her hands were greedily opened to clutch at the whole of it.
The doctor suddenly felt a wave of tenderness for Marianne. As he thought of her, Fear, who was still her faithful cavalier, left her, to act as valet-de-chambre to her husband.
"You love your wife and your children," it whispered. "You want to make them secure, don't you? Listen. You have only begun to nibble at your capital. A good lump remains, which would he increased by your Insurances. If your wife had to depend on herself, she would be forced to economise for the sake of her babies. Her income, though small, would be certain. She would not starve."
The doctor shivered slightly as he acknowledged the inexorable logic. He could see no flaw in it.
The bath was full and he tested its temperature with his elbow. It felt soothingly hot, so that he could imagine the pleasure of lying in it, as in some warm embrace in which he could sleep for ever.
"You have a corn," whispered Fear. "Hadn't you better fetch your case of instruments?"
The doctor slipped on his dressing-gown, but was too torpid to tie the girdle. When he reached the hall, the sunny stretch of boards was warm to his feet. A kitten stopped chasing a ball to run after his dangling tails. It followed him to the surgery and stalked him up the stairs.
But when it reached the bathroom it spied the letter lying on the floor, and began to kill it. As it lay on its back, holding the letter in its front paws and kicking it furiously with its back legs, the doctor smiled faintly. Obedient to the natural instinct to prevent destruction, he languidly plucked the note from the kitten's mouth.
"Want to know what's in it?" he asked. "All right, Kitty, I'll read it to you."
As he tore open the envelope the expression of his face changed to intent surprise. The note was from Ignatius.
'You may be interested to know,' it ran, 'that I have positive proof of the identity of the person who has been circulating the anonymous letters. Before night she will have left the village, and tomorrow everyone will know her name. This is a premature announcement, so you must regard it as confidential. But I have reason to believe that you have suffered some personal annoyance, so I wish you to be first to hear. In short, to quote your own Arab proverb: 'The night is over, oh Muleteer.'
As he read, the blood rushed to the doctor's brain, flooding him with new life. Hope was in the air, whispering to him that the Old Order would soon return. He had forgotten about his corn as he sang in his bath.
When he came out of the bathroom, the kitten perched on his shoulder, Marianne met him on the landing.
"Had a good soak?" she asked. "You seem to be awake, at last."
"I'm feeling rather cheerful," he told her. "We've both been too depressed to remember that there is always the Swing of the Pendulum."
As he spoke, the telephone-bell rang loudly. Marianne, who dashed to answer it, beckoned to her husband, as she listened to the message.
"The Laurels speaking. It's Miss Featherstone's parlour-maid. Is the doctor at home?"
THE Rector hardly knew how to get through the day until Ignatius returned. His mind spurt in circles of suspense, hope and fear. When he hurried out to meet the car his first glance told him that his friend had returned in triumph.
He spoke to his chauffeur and then leaped to the ground.
"Burgess and I want a quick sandwich and a long drink," he said, "before we start off again. Leave her there, Burgess. The housekeeper will find you something."
The little man led the way to the dining-room, where he sank into a chair.
"I drove coming back," he told the Rector. "Exhausting. Well, Padre, very soon I shall clear the village of an undesirable alien."
"Alien?" repeated the Rector dully. "Then—it's not the doctor."
"Heavens, no. It's a woman, of course...How long have you been here, Tigger?"
"Nearly three years."
"Good. I suppose, when you have to write to one of the Miss Martins, you would put her Christian name on the envelope, to save confusion?"
"Of course. Everyone calls them by their Christian names. They're nice, informal girls."
"That's all." Ignatius sprang to his feet, and went out of the dining-room, munching a sandwich. "Want to know where I've been?"
"Well, you'll soon know."
The Rector remained silent, partly from fear of what he might learn, and also, from some confused wish to test his strength of character. He told himself that if he could not suffer the torture of suspense for a limited period he was a spineless coward.
Moreover, he could see that Ignatius was in his unhuman mood, when he seemed akin to an elemental, and older than the hills.
Unresponsive to any touch of nature, he wanted to lead up to his efforts, after the manner of a show-man. Cramming another sandwich into his mouth, he led the way to the waiting car, where he gave an order to the chauffeur.
The Rector sat silent and sweating during the short drive. When they reached the house, Ignatius asked to see Miss Brook. They waited in the drawing-room, from whose vast windows they looked out at parterres of gladioli, instead of irises. Two minutes later, Joan—radiant with expectation—ran into the room.
"You want to see me?" she asked eagerly, glancing at the Rector.
"I did," said Ignatius. "Have you a portable typewriter?"
"Then will you bring it over to the Rectory tomorrow morning to do some private and confidential secretarial work?" Joan stared at him in surprise.
"I should hardly like to ask Lady d'Arcy's permission," she said.
"She'll spare you, when she knows the circumstances," Ignatius told her. "I want you—with the help of the Rector—to make copies of the confession of the person who has been writing these anonymous letters, and send one to everyone in the village."
Joan's mouth, as well as her eyes, opened in amazement. "You know?" she gasped. "Oh, who is it?"
Ignatius looked at her with his ancient wizened grin.
"You'll know that tomorrow. If it's any consolation to you, you will get the early edition of the news, before the rest of the village."
Joan made a gesture of exasperation.
"But I can't wait." She nodded towards the Rector. "Does he know?"
"No, so you needn't hope to get it out of him. But, very soon, he is coming with me to interview the lady in the case."
"Lady? Oh!" Joan gazed intently at Ignatius, a dawning horror in her eyes. "I believe I can guess where you're going," she said.
"Yes, I think you can," he replied.
"It's terrible...But I seem to have known it all along."
"Ah, you've been behind the scenes. Do you remember that night when we strolled through the village? By the way, you gave me a useful hint."
"When you pointed out the importance of a first impression."
"I'm glad I was of some use." Joan looked at the Rector with glowing eyes. "But I can't believe that the village will really return to normal again."
"In a week your broken social round will be in full circle again," declared Ignatius.
"It's too wonderful. The old times back again. And we have to thank you for it all."
The Rector knew what she meant. The barrier between them was lowered. Her smile was not only happy, but possessive. It made him feel confused and overwhelmed before this sudden rush of good fortune.
Ignatius' acid voice recalled the lovers to earth.
"I've not so much to thank you for, after all, Miss Brook. Miss Corner fouled the trail once, and you might have done so, for the second time. Your lie was both stupid and dangerous. It might have involved you in a serious tangle. Of course, you were afraid of losing your post. Weren't you?"
As Joan bit her lip in uncertainty, Ignatius assured her.
"There is no danger of that now, for nothing will go further than this room. Besides, your grandmother has been dead for a long time...Why did you write that anonymous letter to Mrs. Pomfret?"
Joan's smile became suddenly audacious.
"I thought your memory would explain that," she said. "Don't you remember, the first time we met, telling me a tale about a dog?"
"Yes. I invented it."
"Did you? That's amusing, for it gave me a useful pointer. Mrs. Pomfret was half-starving her little servant. I told you about it, when we met her, that evening."
Ignatius hid his annoyance.
"You did. Mrs. Pomfret spoke of a foul and baseless accusation. Was your letter abusive?"
"Of course not. I wrote as one lady to another. I pretended I was one of her friends. I said I was distressed by the outrageous and untruthful whispers which were circulated through the village, about Edie looking so pale and thin. I didn't believe one word of them, myself, but I thought it was my duty to let her know."
"But, Joan," broke in the Rector, "you're making a terrible accusation. Mrs. Pomfret would be the very last person to be cruel to a girl."
Joan grimaced expressively at Ignatius.
"What did I tell you?" she asked. "No one would believe it. But it's all right now. It was a mistake and it's been put right. She was horrified, too...That was a lucky lie of yours, Mr. Brown."
"Yours, too," said Ignatius. "It's given me an opportunity of appreciating your true character. Good evening, Miss Brook."
He walked from the room, so that the Rector was able to say 'good-bye' to Joan, in private. When he came down the steps of the portico—his face and heart on fire—he was chilled by Ignatius' direction to the chauffeur.
The drive seemed a fantastic nightmare to the Rector, so terrible and incredible was the implication of the address. Old hints returned to his mind with hideous meaning. Joan's wide eyes and parting lips, which showed that she shared the knowledge, was the bitterest memory.
He told himself that he had lost so many ideals—suffered so much disillusionment. He could not bear to witness a saint crash down from her pedestal.
It was growing dark, and the day was drowning in a downfall of fine rain. They reached the 'Spout', in a raw twilight. The ancient house showed a blank face with no glimmer of light; and, as they waited for the door to be opened, they heard, all around them, the gurgles of imprisoned water.
The place seemed haunted with sin and suffering. When the gaunt parlourmaid opened the door, the Rector—who was worked up to the limit of his endurance—shrank back, as though the atmosphere of the interior was tainted.
He felt that the old house was unhappy, and sick unto death. Its peace had fled, and—like him—it could dream no more of the past.
Rose showed them into the panelled parlour, which was close from lack of air, and dampy warm. All the shutters were fastened, and a choked fire smouldered in the dog-grate.
The two women sat in their usual places—Miss Asprey in the pool of lamp-light, and Miss Mack in the shadows. Both looked up as the men entered, but, before Miss Asprey could speak, Ignatius crossed to Miss Mack, and held out the envelope which Vivian Sheriff had given him.
"Yours," he said.
She looked at him with her placid smile. Her glossy face and serene light-blue eyes reminded the Rector of a china doll. Then he glanced at Miss Asprey and noticed how the veins of her hands stood out in swollen cords, as she gripped the arms of her chair.
Her tense attitude and frozen expression testified to the extremity of fear. She was waiting for a thunderbolt to crash down and destroy her.
Miss Mack took the envelope, glanced at it, and then walked to Miss Asprey's chair.
"Yours," she said.
A violent shudder ran through Miss Asprey, leaving her so still and rigid that it might have been a current of electrocution which had blasted her life.
Ignatius' acid voice bit the silence.
"I've been waiting for you to make your false step, Miss Mack. You made it when you addressed that letter to 'Miss C. Martin'. As the four sisters all possess the same initial, no resident would have made that slip."
As Miss Mack's face remained blank, he went on to explain. "Since the Martins have been abroad for two years, it is conclusive that the person who addressed that envelope, has been in the neighbourhood for less than two years. That person would naturally take it for granted that the two ladies, who are at present at the Towers, were 'Miss Martin' and 'Miss C. Martin', respectively—especially as she was not formally introduced to them."
"The letter might have been intended for anyone of them," said Miss Mack coolly. "They all brag of their bargains."
"A shrewd hit," commented Ignatius. "But—how did you know what was in their anonymous letter?"
Miss Mack made no attempt to clear herself; her calm smile proclaimed her mistress of the situation.
"Why do you come to me?" she asked. "Miss Brook is more of a stranger than me."
"Another shrewd hit. Only I happen to possess a specimen of her printing. I have just returned from London, where I submitted Miss Brook's envelope, and this one, to an expert in handwriting. He has stated definitely that Miss Brook did not address this envelope."
"Of course not," said Miss Mack, wriggling again out of the net. "She did."
She pointed to Miss Asprey, who sat in her chair, white and stiff as a dead woman.
"Can you prove this?" asked Ignatius softly.
"I can prove that she wrote the first letter—the one to herself. She started the game with herself, so that no one should suspect her. But I've got the copy of that letter in her own writing. When the people here see that, they'll know who's been sending these letters, and driving the poor Scudamores and Miss Corner to their deaths."
Again the spasm rent Miss Asprey's frozen calm. Miss Mack glanced at her employer, as she went on speaking.
"She'll be driven from the village. Everyone knows that nobody writes a letter to herself, saying she's no better than she ought to be, unless there's something underneath."
The Rector looked at Miss Asprey, expectant of her denial. To his dismay, she presented a pitiful spectacle of guilty shame. Her ivory face was crimson, her eyes were downcast, and her fingers shook as they tried to clasp the arms of her chair.
Ignatius, too, looked at her, as he spoke in a voice tinged with respect.
"As you say, Miss Mack, no one could write such a letter but Miss Asprey. It would be hopeless to try to make you understand the almost terrifying purity of a nature which holds so little of earth that she seems to belong to the Company of Angels and Archangels. Miss Asprey cannot be satisfied with less than perfection, which is impossible to human nature. She has no faults of her own, so she has burdened herself with the reflections of other people's sins."
As he listened, the Rector feared that Ignatius had exceeded the limits of credulity; no one could possibly swallow such gross flattery.
To his astonishment, however, Miss Asprey's response to the overdose was almost instantaneous. Within two sentences, she changed from a shamed culprit to her familiar composed and magnificent self.
It was so plain to him that Ignatius knew exactly how to handle the delicate situation that he gave up worrying over the outcome, and followed, with keen interest, the duel between Ignatius and Miss Mack. There was no doubt that she would be exceedingly difficult to corner, for her smiling indifference was akin to a coating of grease. She made no attempt to proclaim her innocence, but—confident that she could slip out of any grasp—she merely challenged Ignatius to prove her guilt.
"I'm glad you mentioned the draft of that first letter," said Ignatius. "I was just going to bring up the matter myself. Of course, I knew you had it...I want it, please."
"So do I," smiled Miss Mack. "Are you making me an offer?"
"What's your price?"
"Miss Asprey's promise not to prosecute."
"Prosecute?" Miss Mack elevated her fair brows.
"How do you know that? Miss Asprey has never written me any cheques, except for my salary."
The Rector feared that Ignatius had, himself, received a check. He was up against an intangible adversity he could not fight—the Spirit of the Village, which resented any advertisement of private business. The little man knew it, and his air of confidence was a shade overdone, as he appealed to Miss Asprey.
"I shall have Miss Asprey's evidence," he said, "that she has paid you sums of money, from time to time, for your silence. Her word will be taken before yours."
Miss Asprey shook her head with cold dignity.
"I'm sorry," she said, "but I prefer to do nothing in the matter."
Ignatius was silent for a minute, before he turned to Miss Mack with fresh assurance.
"In that case, Miss Mack, it rests with you to clear yourself. You can show us your Post Office Savings Book, and let us see if your deposits correspond with your salary."
Miss Mack grasped the point, for, in her turn, she shook her head.
"No," she said. "Besides, it doesn't matter. I have the copy of her letter. She doesn't want her friends to know she wrote that."
Once again the convulsive quiver tore Miss Asprey's frame. To calm her, Ignatius spoke with quiet authority.
"No one will ever know. Miss Asprey appealed to the Confessional. It should not fail her."
He turned to Miss Mack.
"This is my offer. From that tacit admission that your Bank is the Post Office, the sums that Miss Asprey has already paid you cannot exceed a certain figure. I imagine that she would prefer to write off her loss, rather than be exposed to annoyance."
Miss Asprey inclined her stately head.
"So," went on Ignatius, "she will not prosecute you. My car will take you to London tonight, and leave you at the Saint Monica Hostel for Women, where you are expected. Another good and easy situation will be found for you. We are taking into consideration the rather peculiar circumstances of your case. So Miss Asprey will continue her interest in you, but it will be passive, and not active. I warn you that there will be a certain supervision of your actions, so it will be wiser for you to be more circumspect, in the future...Isn't that a good and generous offer?"
"Yes," replied Miss Mack.
"Then, consider the alternative. Your money will soon be spent. What will be your future, without friends, without work, without a reference? You are not attractive enough for night-life, and not clever enough for crime. You will be where you were before Miss Asprey befriended you—down and out."
"Yes," agreed Miss Mack.
"I'm glad you are sensible. In return, I will only ask for that draft of Miss Asprey's letter, together with your signature to this confession...Would you like to read it first?"
"Yes, please," replied Miss Mack.
She took the typewritten sheet, and scanned it with deliberation, before she returned it.
"You want something for nothing," she said. "No, thank you. I'm not going. I can show that draft to the Squire. I'm sure Miss Asprey would rather I stayed with her, instead. Wouldn't you, Miss Asprey?"
"Yes," was the low reply.
The Rector, who was ignorant of what cards were held, thought that Ignatius was beaten. But the little man had kept his trump for the end of the game.
"No," he said, "you will go tonight. There is still one point I have not mentioned. Miss Asprey, out of mistaken nobility, has concealed your past career. So you will be a discredited witness and a target for reproach. No one would believe your word, then, before Miss Asprey's."
Miss Asprey made a vehement gesture of dissent.
"No, Mr. Brown, I will not permit this. It is against my principles to trample on the fallen. That is my own secret—and hers."
"You can please yourself, so long as it was your secret, only," Ignatius reminded her. "But I made it my business to find out this interesting lady's past. For the sake of public morality I shall make it known, if Miss Mack doesn't listen to reason."
Miss Mack's china-blue eyes retained their tranquillity as she sat in thought. Presently she smiled at Ignatius.
"You asked me to go abroad," she said. "I would prefer to oblige you by joining those ladies."
Ignatius was so amused by her sheer impudence, that, for a moment, the Rector thought he would weaken. But such gestures were not part of his mental outfit.
"I remember," he said, turning the knife with conscious cruelty. "Easy motoring and excellent food. I'm sorry, Miss Mack, but Opportunity does not knock twice...Let it be a warning to you not to refuse my second offer."
"I'll sign," said Miss Mack calmly.
Ignatius produced his fountain-pen, and he stood over her, watching the firm, deliberate strokes, as she signed her name to the confession.
"Thank you," he said. "How long will it take for you to pack?"
"I have allowed you half an hour, when the car will be round."
"All right...Is your chauffeur married?"
Another flicker touched Ignatius' lips at this touch of ultra-respectability.
"No," he replied, "but he's very respectable. You can trust him...Please bring the draft with you when you come down."
He glanced at his watch, when Miss Mack had pattered obediently from the room.
"If you will put up with me, I should like to see her off the premises," he said. "I'm afraid the ethics of strict justice and morality are not satisfied by my compromise—but, in the circumstances, it is the best I can do."
"I am grateful," said Miss Asprey, "for your tact and forbearance."
"Then that's all right. Shall I open the windows?"
"Please do. Wide."
Ignatius waited for the Rector to unfasten the shutters. Miss Asprey drew a deep breath of relief as the night-air swept into the room, in a rainy gust of wind.
"Have you been to Palestine?" asked Ignatius, breaking an awkward pause.
Miss Asprey told him that she had visited the Holy Land, in her youth, and the period of waiting was bridged by mutual comparisons of travel. Presently, Miss Mack returned, buttoned into a tweed coat, and looking a pleasant, homely little woman.
"Here it is," she said, giving Ignatius a sealed envelope. "Good-bye, Miss Asprey. Thank you for all your kindness."
Before she could reach the door, Ignatius called her back.
"One minute, please, Miss Mack," he said smoothly, holding out the paper he had just ripped from the envelope. "There seems to be a little mistake. This is only a copy of the draft. A very creditable copy, I admit, only I seem to recognise certain slight characteristics, which I noticed, just now, in your signature...I want the original, please."
Still smiling, Miss Mack opened her large hand-bag, and gave him a second paper—dirty and creased—which, after a close scrutiny, he accepted.
"Your property," he said, as he handed it to Miss Asprey. Then he turned to Miss Mack.
"Allow me to see you to your car," he said, opening the door for her, and following her from the room.
When they were alone, the Rector spoke to Miss Asprey. "May I burn it?" he asked eagerly.
With shaking fingers, he stuffed the paper into the dying fire. As he watched it blaze up, and then crumble to ash, he heard a sigh tremble through the room.
A saint was secure on her pedestal.
IT was pouring when the two men returned from Spout Manor, and the study looked so cheerless that the Rector put a match to the fire. He was about to light the lamp, when Ignatius stopped him.
"No. I have a story to tell. All good stories should be told by firelight."
The little man was wrought up to a pitch of jubilant vanity, when he was alive to every dramatic effect. As he sat hunched up in his big chair, hugging his knees on which he rested his pointed chin, he looked like a gnome, peeping out from the roots of a hollow oak.
The glow from the fire flickered on his lined face, accentuating its hollows and exaggerating the malice of his grin. He clawed in the air, to demand silence.
"No questions, please, unless absolutely necessary to your understanding."
He paused, to create the necessary suspense, before he began.
"You remember the Squire's illness, and how the poison in his system was liberated by its unlucky combination with gelatine. At the time I remarked that there might be a parallel between his case and your little problem. And I was right.
"Miss Mack was our poison; yet, although she had been in the village for nearly two years, she had been a negative quantity. Her nature is cruel, unscrupulous, ungrateful, and treacherous; she has no moral sense and is dead to any feeling of shame.
"But, fortunately, she is stupid, so she did not know how to liberate—or shall we say, commercialise—her power for evil." Ignatius broke off his story to digress.
"That was why, later on, she did indulge in general blackmail. It would have been a dangerous policy, of course, and what I should have expected of Miss Brook, if she had chosen the wrong turning, instead of being an exceedingly nice girl. But she has the character which Miss Mack does not possess.
"To resume my tale, she remained—a dormant toxin—in the village system; yet, even in her turgid phase, she displayed her force. She has a will, which operates, not by pressure, but by suction. I believe that some of you had experience of her draining powers, although they were naturally attributed to Miss Asprey, as the mistress of Spout Manor. Who would dream of connecting healing—or morphine—properties, as the case might be, to the humble little companion, sitting meekly in her corner?
"But, all the time she was living with Miss Asprey her stronger will was gradually giving her the mastery over her employer, although, owing to her lack of brain, she only made use of her power by asking for small favours—such as special food-fancies and getting her work reduced to a minimum. Later on, she went to more extreme lengths when her hatred of fresh air forced Miss Asprey to submit to closed windows. But I believe, in the beginning, Miss Asprey was unconscious of the true position.
"Now, I must enlighten you as to Miss Asprey's real character. Everyone believes her to be a saint. She is very nearly one—unselfish, charitable, religious, and singularly free from faults...But she has one human failing, and that is vanity. She likes the homage she receives. Exposure, or ridicule, would be more than she could bear.
"From childhood, she has suffered from a handicap which she has concealed under a show of icy austerity, and fine self-control. She is a victim to acute emotionalism. She had a bad break-down, at school, and another when she was obliged to give up her Rescue work.
"In spite of her forced withdrawal, she continued her efforts to help others. Out of charity, she gave a home to Gertrude Mack, who had just served a term of imprisonment for shop-lifting. She was very kind to her, but, perhaps, was a shade too official. I am inferring this. She'd been used to deal with some very loose characters. There is no doubt that Miss Mack resented her treatment. But—all the time—while she was apparently supine, she was slowly sapping Miss Asprey's mental strength, until she had reduced her to so much pulp.
"But still—the poison remained latent.
"Presently, Miss Mack began to break out again. She pilfered from the maids, and, on one occasion, she took a brooch from Miss Brook. Miss Asprey would not give her away, for she evidently feared that exposure would destroy any chance Miss Mack had of a resurrection. So, in order to protect her friends from her attentions, she had to curtail Miss Mack's liberty. Then, she began to hate her employer...And, at this point, you come in, my friend."
"I?" cried the Rector.
"I asked you not to interrupt...Yes, you, my husky friend—a black bull of a fellow, with a hypnotic finger and chest-notes like thunder. I'm not blaming you, of course. If Miss Mack had not paved the way for you, and left poor Miss Asprey scooped out like a hollow nut, she would have got spiritual pleasure and profit from your red-hot Gospel.
"But, as things were, your words fell on a hot-bed of hysteria. You goaded the poor, overwrought soul to the point of convicting herself of non-existent sin. Perhaps, also, she was worried by inhibitions; or you might have stirred up some residue from the mud of her Rescue Work.
"Anyway, there she was, a damned miserable sinner, with no way of getting it out of her system. She wanted the relief of the Confessional...So she adopted the singular course of writing herself an anonymous letter, convicting herself of imaginary sin, which she showed to you. When you, so to speak, gave her Absolution, the crisis was past. She had worked the poison out of her system—so her scheme was, after all, a success.
"Unluckily, someone gossiped, and the thing got about. Miss Corner got suspected—so wrote herself a letter also, to prove that she was a victim, and not the culprit. Then she, most unfortunately, passed out, for she was a valuable witness. After her death, the trouble began, for there was a general nasty feeling, and the rumour of suicide.
"This was the signal for Miss Mack's sluggish brain to wake up. Directly after Miss Asprey had written her letter, the companion found a rough draft of it in the waste-paper-basket. Although she did not realise its value, she kept it. After Miss Corner's death, she saw its significance. That draft was proof that Miss Asprey had written the first letter, so would be under suspicion of having written others.
"In fact, I don't see how any ordinary person could believe her innocence in the face of such damning evidence. Who—but myself—would accept a fantastic tale of her wanting her parson to know of her self-alleged moral depravity?
"Well, Miss Mack now put her suckers into action. She realised that Miss Asprey would have to face the stigma of forcing Miss Corner to commit suicide—for that was the vague general notion. So she skilfully spread lying rumours, and began her anonymous letter campaign.
"Her idea was to create a general atmosphere of fear and suspicion which would be attributed to Miss Asprey. Of course, she struck blindly, in the dark. She hated all the people who had money and security, but she was rather like a vicious child, hitting an adult below the belt. She believed these superior people immune to her attacks.
"I can guess, therefore, at her reaction to the Scudamore suicides. I had one glimpse of her eyes when she heard the news. It's my belief, it made her drunk with power. After that, she must have got hold of some secret information, for she began a specially cruel persecution of Dr. Perry, which did him a lot of harm.
"All the time, she was safe as a sharp-shooter who uses another body for his screen. Miss Asprey would receive the blame for whatever she did. She began to bleed her, as the price of her silence. Then, she spread her net a bit too wide, to include Miss Martin. You know the result."
Ignatius stopped talking. In the leaping firelight, his eyes seemed sunken into pits above his pre-historic smile.
"Now do you understand," he asked, "how that first innocent letter, written by poor Miss Asprey, proved the harmless gelatine which inoculated the poison?"
He waited in vain for applause. Charles yawned, and walked pointedly to the biscuit-barrel. The Rector sighed deeply and lit the lamp.
"Better have some light," he said dully. "And I think we'll both be better for a spot of Johnny Walker. You've certainly earned your drink, Ignatius. How long have you been talking?...But it's a terrible tale."
"Ah!" smiled Ignatius, "I'm used to groping in the labyrinths of choked and distorted minds. It's exhilarating to follow the thread and prove myself right. Before I'd slept one night in the village, I had suspected the truth."
The Rector and Charles exchanged sceptical glances, but Ignatius continued to gloat.
"That first evening we went for a walk, and saw two women in the garden of Spout Manor. Instantly, I concluded, by her slight undefinable air of mastery, that Miss Mack was the mistress. My first impression is never wrong. After you told me of my mistake, I continued to linger on the possibility of strange relations between those two women, shut up together in that old house...Besides, you had already warned me to distrust Miss Asprey's air of ineffability."
"I did not," declared the Rector.
"Not in so many words," said Ignatius. "But, surely, you, yourself, must have been astonished when she insisted on your reading the alleged attack on her moral character? How did that square up with her character for dignity and austere reserve?"
"I suppose so," admitted the Rector.
"You see, therefore, I attended church, with some foreknowledge of Miss Asprey's hysteria. I studied her reaction to your sermon, while I was apparently, admiring her maid. Again, I was right, for I detected all the signs of suppressed neurosis. After that, it was a logical conclusion to see her in the character of a possible victim. And I began to concentrate on Miss Mack."
"How?" asked the Rector.
"I lost no time," explained Ignatius. "The same afternoon, I took Ada for a walk, and picked her brains. She was sharp, and suspected that I wanted to find out if Miss Asprey was severe to Miss Mack—a fact, which—if it was noticed—would have been approved by the servants."
Ignatius broke off to chuckle.
"Poor Ada. I learned that, firstly, Miss Mack had boasted of being mistress of the house; secondly, that the two women were always shut up together; and, lastly, that Ada had been losing personal trifles.
"That evening, you showed me the envelope which had contained Miss Asprey's letter. As I was looking out for any trifle which might be helpful, I remarked the two initials. 'Miss Asprey' would have been the natural address, unless she habitually signed her initials, or unless the letter was written by someone who knew her very well.
"The next morning, I made discreet enquiries of the Postmistress, and a few others, and established the fact that the lady was known, locally, as 'Miss Asprey', although everyone knew her Christian name—'Decima'. But no one could tell me of a second Christian name—"
"Was that why you called on her?" asked the Rector.
"Yes, and I went early, purposely, to get a peep at her old books. I wanted to find out when the second initial was dropped. I failed in my design, but Miss Asprey confirmed my guess at the dropped second name. She also revealed herself to me as a preordained victim for blackmail, owing to her sensitive vanity. Like a soldier who has been shot in rather a ridiculous place, she would rather suffer anything than admit that she had accused herself of having a Past."
Ignatius stopped to smile at a recollection.
"Wait," he said, "I must be fair to her. Once, she was on the point of confession. It was after your historical sermon, when you threatened your flock with desertion. She came back to the church, but Miss Mack followed her, and headed her off. She could not screw up her courage for a second effort. I realised, then, the strength of Miss Mack's hypnotic hold over her."
"Go on," said the Rector, with his first show of real interest.
"Miss Mack seemed to suspect me, for she followed me into the garden, when I visited Miss Asprey. To throw her off the scent, I pretended to believe she was the victim of Miss Asprey's secret cruelty, and offered my help...Then, I reviewed the situation.
"As I told you, there were two explanations. The obvious was that Miss Corner had written both letters. But—if she did not know Miss Asprey had a second Christian name, the only other person who could conceivably have written it, was Miss Asprey herself."
The little man's face radiated joy in his acuteness.
"The one explanation seemed to entail another. I was perplexed as to the hold Miss Mack had over her employer, and guessed there must be some evidence. I remembered, too, that Miss Mack was the natural custodian of the waste-paper-basket. It seemed probable that Miss Asprey would not write her anonymous letter without first making some sort of rough draft, in her own writing. It was evident that, when she made her printed copy, the mere repetition of the charges had inflamed her to such a state of emotional frenzy that she unconsciously used her discarded initial when she addressed the envelope.
"She would not, therefore, realise the importance of the draft, which she presumably threw away."
Ignatius crowed with triumph, as he waved a long finger at the Rector.
"You see, Tigger? I knew there must be a draft, which Miss Mack had got hold of, and which was proof of authorship of the letters. When I had established this probability, I instructed a private enquiry agent to find out something about Miss Asprey and Miss Mack. He had no trouble in verifying Miss Mack's past, as a thief. He also got in touch with a contemporary of Miss Asprey's, who was at her last school, with her, and she told him of her hysteria.
"I had further proof of this, when that old clergyman came to lunch. Of course, decency forbade me to ask questions of him, and he would have told me nothing, if I had. But it seemed evident, from his reluctance to meet Miss Asprey again, that he wished to spare her a painful and embarrassing memory. So I was sure that she had given way to a violent fit of hysteria, when she crashed, and gave up her work, and that he had been a witness of it."
"I see now," said the Rector, "why it all hinged on who wrote that first letter."
"At last," sighed Ignatius. "I don't think there is much more to add. I kept my eye on that poison-head. The Scudamore tragedy proved that letters were being received, while, in the absence of general blackmail, Miss Asprey appeared to be the natural victim. I also discovered that Miss Asprey searched the house, to discover the draft, and, on one occasion, obtained it, for there was a struggle, when Miss Asprey was hurt. Joan Brook was with me when we heard her cry out in pain."
"Horrible," shuddered the Rector.
"It was. To my mind, there was something hideously grim in the way those two women clung to each other, like vines. In order to protect her guests, Miss Asprey did not dare let Miss Mack out of her sight, while even my offer of travel would not tempt the leech to leave her victim...Of course, I had to await developments and definite proof. And that is all."
The Rector stopped rubbing his eyeballs.
"I know I should thank you, Ignatius," he said. "But I'm thinking of my beautiful village. It stood for so much. What is left to me?"
"Everything," declared Ignatius. "All this should confirm your belief in human nature. To begin with, I expect nearly everyone here has received an anonymous letter; but they only reacted to the general uneasiness, and certainly did not lose their sleep. All this proves a marvellously healthy moral record, and sound consciences.
"Miss Asprey shows up well, too. Although she worshiped popularity, she laid herself under suspicion of bullying her companion, rather than expose Miss Mack in her true character of a shop-lifter.
"Even my old enemy, Miss Corner, was rather decent, for, although she didn't care specially for Miss Asprey, she never gossiped about old school-days.
"The Scudamore tragedy was nothing but a triumph of false social values. And the whole wretched business has served to rid Miss Asprey of a dangerous parasite, who would not have been satisfied until she drained her dry."
The Rector's face was a study in conflicting emotions, as he listened to the long speech. Presently, the light returned to his eye, as he felt a gush of his old joy of life. He wanted to thank his friend for his deliverance, but found himself suddenly tongue-tied. Therefore, although he did not know it, he showed his gratitude to Ignatius in the way most calculated to please him. He asked him a last question.
"You spoke of a woman who never smiled. Who is she?"
"Miss Mack, of course," replied Ignatius.
"But she is always smiling," said the Rector.
Ignatius was in his element, as he explained.
"That is exactly why I said she never smiles. A person will smile to express certain pleasant emotions—kindness, joy, amusement, and so on. But, as no one can experience perpetual happiness, a perpetual smile cancels itself out. I was on my guard directly I realised that Miss Mack's smile was no clue to her nature, but was worn as a mask."
A little later, Ignatius took his last walk through the village, accompanied by the Rector. The rain had ceased and the air was washed and fragrant. The black-and-white Tudor cottages gleamed under the starlight, like models of ebon and ivory. Every window was screened with its glowing blind of rose or orange.
Each house preserved its privacy, even while it had nothing to hide. There were no sinister secrets. Inside was domestic peace—contented maids in the kitchen, well-fed cats on the rug. Clocks ticked serenely, and music was drawn from the air.
The postman's knock sounded faintly in the distance. He was bringing the last post—family news, invitations, Charity appeals, receipted bills.
That was all. For nothing had happened here. Nothing would ever happen.
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