THE LOUDWATER MYSTERY
BY EDGAR JEPSON
Lord Loudwater was paying attention neither to his breakfast nor to the cat Melchisidec. Absorbed in a leader in The Times newspaper, now and again he tugged at his red-brown beard in order to quicken his comprehension of the weighty phrases of the leader-writer; now and again he made noises, chiefly with his nose, expressive of disgust. Lady Loudwater paid no attention to these noises. She did not even raise her eyes to her husband's face. She ate her breakfast with a thoughtful air, her brow puckered by a faint frown.
She also paid no attention to her favourite, Melchisidec. Melchisidec, unduly excited by the smell of grilled sole, came to Lord Loudwater, rose on his hind legs, laid his paws on his trousers, and stuck some claws into his thigh. It was no more than gentle, arresting pricks; but the tender nobleman sprang from his chair with a short howl, kicked with futile violence a portion of the empty air which Melchisidec had just vacated, staggered, and nearly fell.
Lady Loudwater did not laugh; but she did cough.
Her husband, his face a furious crimson, glared at her with reddish eyes, and swore violently at her and the cat.
Lady Loudwater rose, her face flushed, her lips trembling, picked up Melchisidec, and walked out of the room. Lord Loudwater scowled at the closed door, sat down, and went on with his breakfast.
James Hutchings, the butler, came quietly into the room, took one of the smaller dishes from the sideboard and Lady Loudwater's teapot from the table. He went quietly out of the room, pausing at the door to scowl at his master's back. Lady Loudwater finished her breakfast in the sitting-room of her suite of rooms on the first floor. She was no longer inattentive to Melchisidec.
During her breakfast she put all consideration of her husband's behaviour out of her mind. As she smoked a cigarette after breakfast she considered it for a little while. She often had to consider it. She came to the conclusion to which she had often come before: that she owed him nothing whatever. She came to the further conclusion that she detested him. She had far too good a brow not to be able to see a fact clearly. She wished more heartily than ever that she had never married him. It had been a grievous mistake; and it seemed likely to last a life-time—her life-time. The last five ancestors of her husband had lived to be eighty. His father would doubtless have lived to be eighty too, had he not broken his neck in the hunting-field at the age of fifty-four. On the other hand, none of the Quaintons, her own family, had reached the age of sixty. Lord Loudwater was thirty-five; she was twenty-two; he would therefore survive her by at least seven years. She would certainly be bowed down all her life under this grievous burden.
It was an odd calculation for a young married woman to make; but Lady Loudwater came of an uncommon family, which had produced more brilliant, irresponsible, and passably unscrupulous men than any other of the leading families in England. Her father had been one of them. She took after him. Moreover, Lord Loudwater would have induced odd reveries in any wife. He had been intolerable since the second week of their honeymoon. Wholly without power of self-restraint, the furious outbursts of his vile temper had been consistently revolting. She once more told herself that something would have to be done about it—not on the instant, however. At the moment there appeared to her to be months to do it in. She dropped her cigarette end into the ash-tray, and with it any further consideration of the manners and disposition of Lord Loudwater.
She lit another cigarette and let her thoughts turn to that far more appealing subject, Colonel Antony Grey. They turned to him readily and wholly. In less than three minutes she was seeing his face and hearing certain tones in his voice with amazing clearness. Once she looked at the clock impatiently. It was half-past ten. She would not see him till three—four and a half hours. It seemed a long while to her. However, she could go on thinking about him. She did.
While she considered her ill-tempered husband her eyes had been hard and almost shallow. While she considered Colonel Grey, they grew soft and deep. Her lips had been set and almost thin; now they grew most kissable.
Lord Loudwater finished his breakfast, the scowl on his face fading slowly to a frown. He lit a cigar and with a moody air went to his smoking-room. The criminal carelessness of the cat Melchisidec still rankled.
As he entered the room, half office and half smoking-room, Mr. Herbert Manley, his secretary, bade him good morning. Lord Loudwater returned his greeting with a scowl.
Mr. Herbert Manley had one of those faces which begin well and end badly. He had a fine forehead, lofty and broad, a well-cut, gently-curving-nose, a slack, thick-lipped mouth, always a little open, a heavy, animal jaw, and the chin of an eagle. His fine, black hair was thin on the temples. His moustache was thin and straggled. His black eyes were as good as his brow, intelligent, observant, and alert. It was plain that had his lips been thinner and his chin larger he would not have been the secretary of Lord Loudwater—or of any one else. He would have been a masterless man. The success of two one-act plays on the stage of the music-halls had given him the firm hope of one day becoming a masterless man as a successful dramatist. His post gave him the leisure to write plays. But for the fact that it brought him into such frequent contact with the Lord Loudwater it would have been a really pleasant post: the food was excellent; the wine was good; the library was passable; and the servants, with the exception of James Hutchings, liked and respected him. He had the art of making himself valued (at far more than his real worth, said his enemies), and his air of importance continuously impressed them.
With a patient air he began to discuss the morning's letters, and ask for instructions. Lord Loudwater was, as often happened, uncommonly captious about the letters. He had not recovered from the shock the inconsiderate Melchisidec had given his nerves. The instructions he gave were somewhat muddled; and when Mr. Manley tried to get them clearer, his employer swore at him for an idiot. Mr. Manley persisted firmly through much abuse till he did get them clear. He had come to consider his employer's furies an unfortunate weakness which had to be endured by the holder of the post he found so advantageous. He endured them with what stoicism he might.
Lord Loudwater in a bad temper always produced a strong impression of redness for a man whose colouring was merely red-brown. Owing to the fact that his fierce, protruding blue eyes were red-rimmed and somewhat bloodshot, in moments of emotion they shone with a curious red glint, and his florid face flushed a deeper red. In these moments Mr. Manley had a feeling that he was dealing with a bad-tempered red bull. His employer made very much the same impression on other people, but few of them had the impression of bullness so clear and so complete as did Mr. Manley. Lady Loudwater, on the other hand, felt always, whether her husband was ramping or quiet, that she was dealing with a bad-tempered bull.
Presently they came to the end of the letters. Lord Loudwater lit another cigar, and scowled thoughtfully. Mr. Manley gazed at his scowling face and wondered idly whether he would ever light on another human being whom he would detest so heartily as he detested his employer. He thought it indeed unlikely. Still, when he became a successful dramatist there might be an actor-manager—
Then Lord Loudwater said: "Did you tell Mrs. Truslove that after September her allowance would be reduced to three hundred a year?"
"Yes," said Mr. Manley.
"What did she say?"
Mr. Manley hesitated; then he said diplomatically: "She did not seem to like it."
"What did she say?" cried Lord Loudwater in a sudden, startling bellow, and his eyes shone red.
Mr. Manley winced and said quickly: "She said it was just like you."
"Just like me? Hey? And what did she mean by that?" cried Lord Loudwater loudly and angrily.
Mr. Manley expressed utter ignorance by looking blank and shrugging his shoulders.
"The jade! She's had six hundred a year for more than two years. Did she think it would go on for ever?" cried his employer.
"No," said Mr. Manley.
"And why didn't she think it would go on for ever? Hey?" said Lord Loudwater in a challenging tone.
"Because there wasn't an actual deed of settlement," said Mr. Manley.
"The ungrateful jade! I've a good mind to stop it altogether!" cried his employer.
Mr. Manley said nothing. His face was blank; it neither approved nor disapproved the suggestion.
Lord Loudwater scowled at him and said: "I expect she said she wished she'd never had anything to do with me."
"No," said Mr. Manley.
"I'll bet that's what she thinks," growled Lord Loudwater.
Mr. Manley let the suggestion pass without comment. His face was blank.
"And what's she going to do about it?" said Lord Loudwater in a tone of challenge.
"She's going to see you about it."
"I'm damned if she is!" cried Lord Loudwater hastily, in a much less assured tone.
Mr. Manley permitted a faint, sceptical smile to wreathe his lips.
"What are you grinning at? If you think she'll gain anything by doing that, she won't," said Lord Loudwater, with a blustering truculence.
Mr. Manley wondered. Helena Truslove was a lady of considerable force of character. He suspected that if Lord Loudwater had ever been afraid of a fellow-creature, he must at times have been afraid of Helena Truslove. He fancied that now he was not nearly as fearless as he sounded. He did not say so.
His employer was silent, buried in scowling reflection. Mr. Manley gazed at him without any great intentness, and came to the conclusion that he did not merely detest him, he loathed him.
Presently he said: "There's a cheque from Hanbury and Johnson for twelve thousand and forty-six pounds for the rubber shares your lordship sold. It wants endorsing."
He handed the cheque across the table to Lord Loudwater. Lord Loudwater dipped his pen in the ink, transfixed a struggling bluebottle, and drew it out.
"Why the devil don't you see that the ink is fresh?" he roared.
"It is fresh. The bluebottle must have just fallen into it," said Mr. Manley in an unruffled tone.
Lord Loudwater cursed the bluebottle, restored it to the ink-pot, endorsed the cheque, and tossed it across the table to Mr. Manley.
"By the way," said Mr. Manley, with some hesitation, "there's another anonymous letter."
"Why didn't you burn it? I told you to burn 'em all," snapped his employer.
"This one is not about you. It's about Hutchings," said Mr. Manley in an explanatory tone.
"Hutchings? What about Hutchings?"
"You'd better read it," said Mr. Manley, handing him the letter. "It seems to be from some spiteful woman."
The letter was indeed written in female handwriting, and it accused the butler, wordily enough, of having received a commission from Lord Loudwater's wine merchants on a purchase of fifty dozen of champagne which he had bought from them a month before. It further stated that he had received a like commission on many other such purchases.
Lord Loudwater read it, scowling, sprang up from his chair with his eyes protruding further than usual, and cried: "The scoundrel! The blackguard! I'll teach him! I'll gaol him!"
He dashed at the electric bell by the fireplace, set his thumb on it, and kept it there.
Holloway, the second footman, came running. The servants knew their master's ring. They always ran to answer it, after some discussion as to which of them should go.
He entered and said: "Yes, m'lord?"
"Send that scoundrel Hutchings to me! Send him at once!" roared his master.
"Yes, m'lord," said Holloway, and hurried away.
He found James Hutchings in his pantry, told him that their master wanted him, and added that he was in a tearing rage.
Hutchings, who never expected his sanguine and irascible master to be in any other mood, finished the paragraph of the article in the Daily Telegraph he was reading, put on his coat, and went to the study. His delay gave Lord Loudwater's wrath full time to mature.
When the butler entered his master shook his fist at him and roared: "You scoundrel! You infernal scoundrel! You've been robbing me! You've been robbing me for years, you blackguard!"
James Hutchings met the charge with complete calm. He shook his head and said in a surly tone: "No; I haven't done anything of the kind, m'lord."
The flat denial infuriated his master yet more. He spluttered and was for a while incoherent. Then he became again articulate and said: "You have, you rogue! You took a commission—a secret commission on that fifty dozen of champagne I bought last month. You've been doing it for years."
James Hutchings' surly face was transformed. It grew malignant; his fierce, protruding, red-rimmed blue eyes sparkled balefully, and he flushed to a redness as deep as that of his master. He knew at once who had betrayed him, and he was furious—at the betrayal. At the same time, he was not greatly alarmed; he had never received a cheque from the wine merchants; all their payments to him had been in cash, and he had always cherished a warm contempt for his master.
"I haven't," he said fiercely. "And if I had it would be quite regular—only a perquisite."
For the hundredth time Mr. Manley remarked the likeness between Lord Loudwater and his butler. They had the same fierce, protruding, red-rimmed blue eyes, the same narrow, low forehead, the same large ears. Hutchings' hair was a darker brown than Lord Loudwater's, and his lips were thinner. But Mr. Manley was sure that, had he worn a beard instead of whiskers, it would have been difficult for many people to be sure which was Lord Loudwater and which his butler.
Lord Loudwater again spluttered; then he roared: "A perquisite! What about the Corrupt Practices Act? It was passed for rogues like you! I'll show you all about perquisites! You'll find yourself in gaol inside of a month."
"I shan't. There isn't a word of truth in it, or a scrap of evidence," said Hutchings fiercely.
"Evidence? I'll find evidence all right!" cried his master. "And if I don't, I'll, anyhow, discharge you without a character. I'll get you one way or another, my fine fellow! I'll teach you to rob me!"
"I haven't robbed your lordship," said Hutchings in a less surly tone.
He was much more moved by the threat of discharge than the threat of prosecution.
"I tell you you have. And you can clear out of this. I'll wire to town at once for another butler—an honest butler. You'll clear out the moment he comes. Pack up and be ready to go. And when you do go, I'll give you twenty-four hours to clear out of the country before I put the police on your track," cried Lord Loudwater.
Mr. Manley observed that it was exactly like him to take no risk, in spite of his fury, of any loss of comfort from the lack of a butler. The instinct of self-protection was indeed strong in him.
"Not a bit of it. You've told me to go, and I'm going at once—this very day. The police will find me at my father's for the next fortnight," said Hutchings with a sneer. "And when I go to London I'll leave my address."
"A lot of good your going to London will do you. I'll see you never get another place in this country," snarled Lord Loudwater.
Hutchings gave him a look of vindictive malignity so intense that it made Mr. Manley quite uncomfortable, turned, and went out of the room.
Lord Loudwater said: "I'll teach the scoundrel to rob me! Write at once for a new butler."
He took some lumps of sugar from a jar on the mantelpiece, and went through the door which opened into the library.
In the library he stopped and shouted back: "If Morton comes about the timber, I shall be in the stables."
Then he went through one of the long windows of the library into the garden and took his way to the stables. As he drew near them the scowl cleared from his face. But it remained a formidable face; it did not grow pleasant. None the less, he spent a pleasant hour in the stables, petting his horses. He was fond of horses, not of cats, and he never bullied and seldom abused his horses as he abused and bullied his fellow men and women. This was the result of his experience. He had learnt from it that he might bully and abuse his human dependents with impunity. As a boy he had also bullied and abused his horses. But in his eighteenth year he had been savaged by a young horse he had maltreated, and the lesson had stuck in his mind. It was a simple, obtuse mind, but it had formed the theory that he got more out of human beings, more deference and service, by bullying them and more out of horses by treating them kindly. Besides, he liked horses.
Mr. Manley did not set about answering the letters at once. He reflected for a while on the likeness between Hutchings and his master. He thought the physical likeness of little interest. There was a whole clan of Hutchingses in the villages and woods round the castle, the bulk of them gamekeepers; and there had been for generations. Mr. Manley was much more interested in the resemblance in character between Hutchings and Lord Loudwater. Hutchings, probably under the pressure of circumstances, was much less of a bore than his master, but quite as much of a bully. Also, he was more intelligent, and consequently more dangerous. Mr. Manley would on no account have had him look at him with the intense malignity with which he had looked at his master. Doubtless the butler had far greater self-control than Lord Loudwater; but if ever he did lose it it would be uncommonly bad for Lord Loudwater.
It would be interesting to find in the Loudwater archives the common ancestor to whom they both cast so directly back. He fancied that it must be the third Baron. At any rate, both had his protruding blue eyes, softened in his portrait doubtless by the natural politeness of the fashionable painter. Was it worth his while to look up the record of the third Lord Loudwater? He decided that, if he found himself at sufficient leisure, he would. Then he decided that he was glad that Hutchins was going; the butler had shown him but little civility. Then he set about answering the letters.
When he had finished them he took up the stockbroker's cheque and considered it with a thoughtful frown. He had never before seen a cheque for so large a sum; and it interested him. Then he wrote a short note of instructions to Lord Loudwater's bankers. The ink in his fountain-pen ran out as he came to the end of it, and he signed it with the pen with which Lord Loudwater had endorsed the cheque. He put the cheque into the envelope he had already addressed, put stamps on all the letters, carried them to the post-box on a table in the hall, went through the library out into the garden, and smoked a cigarette with a somewhat languid air. Then he went into the library and took up his task of cataloguing the books at the point at which he had stopped the day before. He often paused to dip at length into a book before entering it in the catalogue. He did not believe in hasty work.
Lord Loudwater came to lunch in a better temper than that in which he had left the breakfast-table. He had ridden eight miles round and about his estate, and the ride had soothed that seat of the evil humours—his liver. Lady Loudwater had been careful to shut Melchisidec in her boudoir; James Hutchings had no desire in the world to see his master's florid face or square back, and had instructed Wilkins and Holloway, the first and second footmen, to wait at table. Lord Loudwater therefore could, without any ruffling of his sensibilities, give all his thought to his food, and he did. The cooking at the castle was always excellent. If it was not, he sent for the chef and spoke to him about it.
There was little conversation at lunch. Lady Loudwater never spoke to her husband first, save on rare occasions about a matter of importance. It was not that she perceived any glamour of royalty about him; she did not wish to hear his voice. Besides, she had never found a conversational opening so harmless that he could not contrive, were it his whim, to be offensive about it. Besides, she had at the moment nothing to say to him.
In truth, owing to the fact that she took so many practically silent meals with him, she was becoming rather a gourmet. The food, naturally the most important fact, had become really the most important fact at the meals they took together. She had come to realize this. It was the only advantage she had ever derived from her intercourse with her husband.
At this lunch, however, she did not pay as much attention to the food as usual, not indeed as much as it deserved. Her mind would stray from it to Colonel Grey. She wondered what he would tell her about herself that afternoon. He was always discovering possibilities in her which she had never discovered for herself. She only perceived their existence when he pointed them out to her. Then they became obvious. Also, he was always discovering fresh facts, attractive facts, about her—about her eyes and lips and hair and figure. He imparted each discovery to her as he made it, without delay, and with the genuine enthusiasm of a discoverer. Of course, he should not have done this. It was, indeed, wrong. But he had assured her that he could not help it, that he was always blurting things out. Since it was a habit of long standing, now probably ingrained, it was useless to reproach him with any great severity for his frankness. She did not do so.
For his part, the Lord Loudwater had but little to say to his wife. She was fond of Melchisidec and indifferent to horses. For the greater part of the meal he was hardly aware that she was at the other end of the table. Immersed in his food and its deglutition, he was hardly sensible of the outside world at all. Once, disturbed by Holloway's removing his empty plate, he told her that he had seen a dog-fox on Windy Ridge; again, when Holloway handed the cheese-straws to him, he told her that Merry Belle's black colt had a cold. Her two replies, "Oh, did you?" and "Has he?" appeared to fall on deaf ears. He did not continue either conversation.
Then Lord Loudwater broke into an eloquent monologue. Wilkins had poured out a glass of port for both of them to drink with their cheese-straws. Lord Loudwater finished his cheese-straws, took a long sip from his glass, rolled it lovingly over his tongue, gulped it down with a hideous grimace, banged down his fist on the table, and roared in a terrible, anguished voice:
"It's corked! It's corked! It's that scoundrel Hutchings! This is his way of taking it out of me for sacking him. He's done it on purpose, the scoundrel! Now I will gaol him! Hanged if I don't!"
"I'll get another bottle, m'lord," said Wilkins, catching up the decanter, and hurrying towards the door.
"Get it! And be quick about it! And tell that scoundrel I'll gaol him!" cried Lord Loudwater.
Wilkins rushed from the room bearing in his hand the decanter of offending port; Holloway followed him to help.
Lady Loudwater sipped a little port from her glass. She was rather inclined to take no one's word for anything which she could herself verify. Then she took another sip.
Then she said; "Are you sure this wine's corked?"
Corked wine at the end of a really good meal is a bitter blow to any man, an exceedingly bitter blow to a man of Lord Loudwater's sensitiveness in such matters.
"Am I sure? Hey? Am I sure? Yes! I am sure, you little fool!" he bellowed. "What do you know about wine? Talk about things you understand!"
Lady Loudwater's face was twisted by a faint spasm of hate which left it flushed. She would never grow used to being bellowed at for a fool. Once more her husband's refusal to let her take her meals apart from him seemed monstrous. Hardly ever did she rise from one at which she had not been abused and insulted. She realized indeed that she had been foolish to ask the question. But why should she sit tongue-tied before the brute?
She took another sip and said quietly: "It isn't corked."
Then she turned cold with fright.
Lord Loudwater could not believe his ears. It could not be that his wife had contradicted him flatly. It—could—not—be.
He was still incredulous, breathing heavily, when the door opened and James Hutchings appeared on the threshold. In his right hand he held the decanter of offending port, in his left a sound cork.
He said firmly: "This wine isn't corked, m'lord. Its flavour is perfect. Besides, a cork like this couldn't cork it."
A less sensitive man than Lord Loudwater might have risen to the double emergency. Lord Loudwater could not. He sat perfectly still. But his eyes rolled so horribly that the Lady Loudwater started from her chair, uttered a faint scream, and fairly ran through the long window into the garden.
James Hutchings advanced to the table, thumped the decanter down on it—no way to treat an old vintage port—at Lord Loudwater's right hand, walked out of the room, and shut the door firmly behind him.
In the great hall he smiled a triumphant, malevolent smile. Then he called Wilkins and Holloway, who stood together in the middle of it, cowardly dogs and shirkers, and strode past them to the door to the servants' quarters.
A few moments later Lord Loudwater rose to his feet and staggered dizzily along to the other end of the table. He picked up his wife's half-emptied glass and sipped the port. It was not corked. It was incredible! He would never forgive her!
He rang the bell. Both Wilkins and Holloway answered it. He bade them tell Hutchings to pack his belongings and go at once. If he were not out of the castle by four o'clock, they were to kick him out. Then he went, still scowling, to the stables.
Mr. Manley had already finished his lunch. Halfway through his after-lunch pipe he rose, took his hat and stick, and set out to pay a visit to Mrs. Truslove.
As he came out of the park gates he came upon the Rev. George Stebbing, the locum tenens in charge of the parish, for the vicar was away on a holiday, enjoying a respite from his perpetual struggle with the patron of the living, Lord Loudwater.
They fell into step and for a while discussed the local weather and local affairs. Then Mr. Manley, who had been gifted by Heaven with a lively imagination wholly untrammelled by any straining passion for exactitude, entertained Mr. Stebbing with a vivid account of his experiences as leader of the first Great Push. Mr. Manley was one of the many rather stout, soft men who in different parts of Great Britain will till their dying days entertain acquaintances with vivid accounts of their experiences as leaders of the Great Pushes. Like that of most of them, his war experience, before his weak heart had procured him his discharge from the army, had consisted wholly of office work in England. His account of his strenuous fighting lacked nothing of fire or picturesqueness on that account. He was too modest to say in so many words that but for his martial qualities there would have been no Great Push at all, and that any success it had had was due to those martial qualities, but that was the impression he left on Mr. Stebbing's simple and rather plastic mind. When therefore they parted at the crossroads, Mr. Manley went on his way in a pleasant content at having once more made himself valued; and Mr. Stebbing went on his way feeling thankful that he had been brought into friendly contact with a really able hero. Both of them were the happier for their chance meeting.
Mr. Manley found Helena Truslove in her drawing-room, and when the door closed behind the maid who had ushered him into it, he embraced her with affectionate warmth. Then he held her out at arm's-length, and for the several hundredth time admired her handsome, clear-skinned, high-coloured, gipsy face, her black, rather wild eyes, and the black hair wreathed round her head in so heavy a mass.
"It has been an awful long time between the kisses," he said.
She sighed a sigh of content and laughed softly. Then she said: "I sometimes think that you must have had a great deal of practice."
"No," said Mr. Manley firmly. "I have never had occasion to be in love before."
He put her back into the chair from which he had lifted her, sat down facing her, and gazed at her with adoring eyes. He was truly very much in love with her.
They were excellent complements the one of the other. If Mr. Manley had the brains for two—indeed, he had the brains for half a dozen—she had the character for two. Her chin was very unlike the chin of an eagle. She was not, indeed, lacking in brains. Her brow forbade the supposition. But hers was rather the practical intelligence, his the creative. That she had the force of character, on occasion the fierceness, which he lacked, was no small source of her attraction for him.
"And how was the hog this morning?" she said, ready to be soothing.
"The hog" was their pet name for Lord Loudwater.
"Beastly. He's an utterly loathsome fellow," said Mr. Manley with conviction.
"Oh, no; not utterly—at any rate, not if you're independent of him," she protested.
"Does he ever come into contact with any one who is not dependent on him? I believe he shuns them like the pest."
"Not into close contact," she said—"at any rate, nowadays. But I've known him to do good-natured things; and then he's very fond of his horses."
"That makes the way he treats every human being who is in any way dependent on him all the more disgusting," said Mr. Manley firmly.
"Oh, I don't know. It's something to be fond of animals," she said tolerantly.
"This morning he had a devil of a row with Hutchings, the butler, you know, and discharged him."
"That was a silly thing to do. Hutchings is not at all a good person to have a row with," she said quickly. "I should say that he was a far more dangerous brute than Loudwater and much more intelligent. Still, I don't know what he could do. What was the row about?"
"Some woman sent Loudwater an anonymous letter accusing Hutchings of having received commissions from the wine merchants."
"That would be Elizabeth Twitcher's mother. Elizabeth and Hutchings were engaged, and about ten days ago he jilted her," said Mrs. Truslove. "I suppose that when he was in love with her he bragged about these commissions to her and she told her mother."
"Her mother has certainly taken it out of him for jilting her daughter. But what an unsavoury place the castle is!" said Mr. Manley.
"With such a master—what can you expect?" said Mrs. Truslove. "Did the hog say anything more about halving my allowance?"
Mr. Manley frowned. A few days before he had been greatly surprised to learn from Lord Loudwater that the bulk of Helena Truslove's income was an allowance from him. The matter had greatly exercised his mind. Why should his employer allow her six hundred a year? It was a matter which should be cleared up.
He said slowly: "Yes, he did. He asked what you said when I told you that he was going to halve it, and he did not seem to like the idea of your seeing him about it."
"He'll like my seeing him about it even less than the idea of it," said Mrs. Truslove firmly, and there was a sudden gleam in her wild black eyes.
Mr. Manley looked at her, frowning faintly. Then he said in a rather hesitating manner: "I've never asked you about it. But why does the hog make you this allowance?"
"That's my dark past," she said in a teasing tone, smiling at him. "I suppose that as we're going to be married so soon I ought to make a clean breast of it, if you really want to know."
"Just as you like," said Mr. Manley, his face clearing a little at her careless tone.
"Well, the hog treated me badly—not really badly, because I didn't care enough about him to make it possible for him to treat me really badly, but just as badly as he could. For when he and I first met I was on the way to get engaged to a man, named Hardwicke—a rich city man, rather a bore, but a man who would make an excellent husband. Loudwater knew that Hardwicke was ready and eager to marry me, and I suppose that that helped to make him keen on me. At any rate, he made love to me, not nearly so badly as you'd think, and persuaded me to promise to marry him."
"I can't think how you could have done it!" cried Mr. Manley.
"How was I to know what a hog he was at home? At Trouville he was quite nice, as I tell you. Besides, there was the title—I thought I should like to be Lady Loudwater. You know, I do have strong impulses, and I act on them."
"Well, after all, you didn't marry him," said Mr. Manley in a tone of relief. "What did happen?"
"We were engaged for about two months. Then, about a month before the date fixed for our marriage, he met Olivia Quainton, fell in love with her, and broke off our engagement a week before our wedding-day."
"Well, of all the caddish tricks!" cried Mr. Manley.
"You can imagine how furious I was. And I wasn't going to stand it—not from Loudwater, at any rate. I had learnt a good deal more about him in the eleven weeks we were engaged, and, naturally, I wasn't pleased with what I had learnt. I set out to make myself very disagreeable. I saw him and did make myself very disagreeable. I told him a good many unpleasant things about himself which made him much more furious than I was myself."
"I'm glad some of it got through his thick skin," said Mr. Manley.
"A good deal of it did. Then I made it clear to him that he had robbed me of John Hardwicke and an excellent settlement in life, and told him that I was going to bring an action for breach of promise against him. That certainly got through his thick skin, for it's very painful to him to spend money on any one but himself. But he made terms at once, gave me this house furnished, and promised to allow me six hundred a year for life. You don't think I was wrong to take it?" she added anxiously.
"Certainly not," said Mr. Manley quickly and firmly.
Her face cleared and she said: "So many people would say that it was not nice my taking money for an injury like that."
"Rubbish! It wasn't as if you'd been in love with him," said Mr. Manley with the firmest conviction.
"That's the exact point. You do see things," she said, smiling at him gratefully. "If I had been, it would have been quite different."
"And how else were you to score off him except by hitting him in the pocket? That and his stomach are his only vulnerable points," said Mr. Manley viciously.
He was ignorant of Melchisidec's discovery of another.
"They are. And he certainly had robbed me of an income. It was only fair that he should make up for it," she said rather plaintively.
"Well, those were the terms. The house is mine all right; it was properly made over to me. But, stupidly, I didn't have a proper deed drawn up about the money. I had his promise. One supposes that one can take the word of an English Peer. But I think that it's really all right. I have his letters about it."
"There's no saying. You'd better see a lawyer about it and find out. But this isn't a very dark past," he said, and rose and came to her and kissed her.
He was, indeed, relieved and reassured. In these circumstances the six hundred a year was not an allowance at all. It was merely the payment of a debt—a just debt.
"But it won't be nearly so nice for us, if the hog does manage to cut the six hundred down to three hundred. My husband only left me a hundred a year," she said, frowning.
"To be with you will be perfection, whatever our income is," said Mr. Manley, with ringing conviction, and he kissed her again.
She smiled happily and said: "He shan't cut it down. I'll see that he doesn't. When I've had a talk with him, he'll be glad enough to leave it as it is."
"It's very likely that he's only trying it on. It's the kind of thing he would do. But you'll find it difficult to get that talk. He's bent on shirking it," said Mr. Manley.
"I'll see that he doesn't get the chance of shirking it," she said, and her eyes gleamed again.
"I believe you're the only person in the world he's afraid of," he said in a tone of admiration.
"I shouldn't wonder," she said. "At any rate, I seem to be the only person in the world to whom he's always been civil. At least, I've never heard of any one else."
"I'm afraid he won't be civil when you get that talk with him—if ever you do get it," said Mr. Manley, frowning rather anxiously.
"That'll be all the worse for him," she said dauntlessly. "But, after all, if I did fail to make him leave my income at six hundred, we should still have this house and four hundred a year. We should still be quite comfortable. Besides, you could keep on as his secretary, and that would be another two hundred a year."
"I can't do that! It's out of the question!" cried Mr. Manley. "I'm getting so to loathe the brute that I shall soon be quite unable to stand him. As it is, I sometimes have a violent desire to wring his neck. Now that I know that he played this measly trick on you, it will be more violent than ever. Besides, we must have a flat in town. It's really necessary to my work! I can do my actual writing down here fairly well. But what I really need is to get in touch with the right people, with the people who are really stimulating. Besides, I'm gregarious; I like mixing with people."
"Yes. You're right. We must have a flat in town. Therefore, I must make the hog keep to his bargain, and I will," she said firmly.
"I believe you may," he said, gazing at her determined face with admiring eyes.
There was a pause. Then she said carelessly: "When are we going to tell people that we're engaged?"
"Not yet awhile," said Mr. Manley quickly. "At least I don't want the people about here to know about it. And if you come to think of it, things being as they are, Loudwater would probably make himself more infernally disagreeable to me than he does at present. He'd not only try to take it out of me to annoy you, but it's just as likely as not that he would consider my getting engaged to you as poaching on his preserves—infernal cheek. He's the most hopelessly vain and unreasonable sweep in the British Isles."
"I shouldn't be a bit surprised if he did. He couldn't possibly help being a dog in the manger," she said thoughtfully. "And there's another thing. It has just occurred to me that if he tries to halve my income for nothing at all, he might try to stop it altogether if I got married. No; I must get that matter settled for good and all. I'll have that talk with him at once."
"If you can get it," said Mr. Manley doubtfully.
"I can get it," she said confidently. "You must remember that, having lived here for nearly two years, I know all about his habits. I shall take him by surprise. But we've talked enough about these dull things; let's talk about something interesting. How's the play going?"
They talked about the play he was writing, and then they talked about one another. They had their afternoon tea soon after four, for Mr. Manley had to return to the Castle to deal with any letters that the five o'clock post might bring.
At twenty minutes to five he left Mrs. Truslove and walked back to the Castle. He was truly in love with Helena. She was intelligent and appreciative. She was of his own class, with his own practical outlook on life, born of having belonged to a middle-class family of moderate means like himself. She was the daughter of a country architect. He could nowhere have found a more suitable wife. He was relieved about the matter of the reason why she received an allowance from Lord Loudwater; but he was not relieved about the matter of its being halved. Seven hundred a year had been an excellent income for the wife of a struggling playwright to enjoy. It had promised him the full social life in which his genius would most rapidly develop. He had regarded that income with great pleasure. Ever since Lord Loudwater had bidden him inform Helena of his intention of halving her allowance he had been bitterly angered by this barefaced attempt to rob her and consequently her future husband. In the light of her story the attempt had grown yet more disgraceful, and he resented it yet more bitterly.
The further danger that Lord Loudwater might attempt to stop her income altogether if she married, though he perceived that it was a real, even imminent danger, did not greatly trouble him. He was full of resentment, not fear. He felt that he loathed his employer more than ever and with more reason.
Holloway brought the post-bag to the library, and waited while Mr. Manley sorted the letters, that he might take those addressed to Lady Loudwater to her rooms and those addressed to the servants to the housekeeper's room.
As Mr. Manley inverted the bag and poured its contents on to the table, the footman said: "'Utchings 'as gone, sir."
"We must bear up," said Mr. Manley, in a tone wholly void of any sympathy with Hutchings in his misfortune.
"He was that furious. The things 'e said 'e'd do to his lordship!" said Holloway in a deeply-impressed tone.
"Threatened men live long," said Mr. Manley carelessly.
There is in the collection of the Earl of Ellesmere a picture of the head of a girl which the connoisseurs of the nineteenth century ascribed to Leonardo da Vinci. The connoisseurs of the twentieth century ascribe it to Luini. But for the colour of the hair it might have been a portrait of Lady Loudwater, a faded portrait. It might also very well be a portrait of one of her actual ancestresses, for her grandmother was a lady of an old Tuscan family.
Be that as it may, Lady Loudwater had the soft, dark, dreamy eyes, set rather wide apart, the straight, delicate nose, the alluring lips, promising all the kisses, the broad, well-moulded forehead, and the faint, exactly curving eyebrows of the girl in the picture. Above all, when Lord Loudwater was not present, the mysterious, enchanting, lingering smile, which is perhaps the chief charm of Luini's women, rested nearly always on her face. But while the hair of the girl in the picture is a deep, dull red, the hair of Olivia was dark brown with glimmers of gold in it. Also, her colouring was warmer than that of the girl in the picture, and her alluring charm stronger.
At a quarter to three that afternoon she came out on to the East lawn in a silk frock and hat of a green rather sombre for the summer day. She had been bidden by a fashionable fortune-teller never to wear green, for it was her unlucky colour. But that tint had so given her colouring its full values and her dark, liquid eyes so deep a depth, that she had paid no heed to the warning. There was a bright light of expectation in her eyes, and the alluring smile lingered on her face.
She walked quickly across the lawn with the easy, graceful gait proper to the accomplished golfer she was, into the shrubbery on the other side of it. A few feet along the path through it she looked sharply back over her shoulder. She saw no one at those windows of the East wing which looked on to the lawn and shrubbery, but a movement on the lawn itself caught her eye. The cat Melchisidec was following her. She did not slacken her pace, but for a moment the smile faded from her face at the remembrance of her husband's outburst at breakfast. Then the smile returned, subtile and expectant.
She did not wait for Melchisidec. She knew his way of pretending to follow her like a dog; she knew that if she displayed any interest in him, even showed that she was aware of his presence, he would probably come no further. She went on at the same brisk pace till she came to the gate in the East wood. She went through it, shut it gently, paused, and again looked back. All of the path through the shrubbery that she could see was empty. She turned and walked briskly along the narrow path through the wood, and came into the long, turf-paved aisle which ran at right angles to it.
The middle of the aisle was deeply rutted by the wheels of the carts which had carried away the timber from the spring thinning of the wood. She turned to the left and sauntered slowly up the smooth turf along the side of the aisle, a brighter light of expectation in her eyes, her smile even more mysterious and alluring.
She had not gone fifty yards up the aisle when Colonel Grey came limping out of the entrance of a path on the other side of it, and quickened his pace as he crossed it.
She stood still, flushing faintly, gazing at him with her lips parted a little. He looked, as he was, very young to be a Lieutenant-Colonel, and uncommonly fragile for a V. C. At any time he would look delicate, and he was the paler for the fact that at times he still suffered considerable pain from his wound. But there was force in his delicate, distinguished face. His sensitive lips could set very firm; his chin was square; his nose had a rather heavy bridge, and usually his grey eyes were cold and very keen. He gave the impression of being wrought of finely-tempered steel.
His eyes were shining so brightly at the moment that they had lost their keenness with their coldness. He marked joyfully the flush on her face, and did not know that he was flushing himself.
About five feet away he stopped, gazing, or rather staring, at her, and said in a tone of fervent conviction: "Heavens, Olivia! What a beautiful and entrancing creature you are!"
She smiled, flushing more deeply. He stepped forward, took her hand, and held it very tightly.
"Goodness! But I have been impatient for you to come!" he cried.
"I'm not late," she said in her low, sweet, rather drawling voice.
He let go of her hand and said: "I don't know how it is, but I've been as restless as a cat all the morning. I'm never sure that you will be able to come; and the uncertainty worries me."
"But you saw me for three hours yesterday," she said, moving forward.
"Yesterday?" he said, falling into step with her. "Yesterday is a thousand years away. I wasn't sure that you'd come today."
"Why shouldn't I come?" she said.
"Loudwater might have got to know of it and stopped you coming."
"Fortunately he doesn't take enough interest in my doings. Of course, if I didn't turn up at a meal, he'd make a fuss, though why he should make such a point of our having all our meals together I can't conceive. I should certainly enjoy mine much more if I had them in my sitting-room," she said in a dispassionate tone, for all the world as if she were discussing the case of some one else.
"I am so worried about you," he said with a harassed air. "Ever since that evening I heard him bullying you I've been simply worried to death about it."
"It was nice of you to interfere, but it was a pity," she said gently. "It didn't do any good as far as his behaviour is concerned, and we saw so much more of one another when you could come to the Castle."
"Then you do want to see more of me?" he said eagerly.
Lady Loudwater lost her smiling air; she became demureness itself, and she said: "Well, you see—thanks to Egbert's vile temper—we have so few friends."
Grey frowned; she was always quick to elude him. Then he growled: "What a name! Egbert!"
"He can't help that. It was given him. Besides, it's a family name," she said in a tone of fine impartiality.
"It would be. Hogbert!" said Grey contemptuously.
Mrs. Truslove and Mr. Manley were not the only people to ignore the essential bullness of Lord Loudwater.
They went on a few steps in silence; then she said: "Besides, I don't mind his outbursts. I'm used to them."
"I don't believe it! You're much too delicate and sensitive!" he cried.
"But I am getting used to them," she protested.
"You never will. Has he been bullying you again?" he said, looking anxiously into her eyes.
"Not more than usual," she said in a wholly indifferent tone.
"Then it is usual! I was afraid it was," he said in a miserable voice. "What on earth is to be done about it?"
"Why, there's nothing to be done, except just grin and bear it," she said bravely enough, and with the conviction of one who has thought a matter out thoroughly.
"Then it's monstrous! Just monstrous, that the most charming and loveliest creature in the world should be bullied by that infernal brute!" he cried, and put his arm around her.
The Countess was on the very point of slipping out of it when the cat Melchisidec came out of the bushes a dozen yards ahead of them, and with Melchisidec came a very distinct vision of Lord Loudwater's flushed, distorted, and revolting face as he swore at her at breakfast that morning.
She did not slip out of the encircling arm, and Grey bent his head and kissed her lightly on the lips.
It was the gentlest, lightest kiss, the kiss he might have given a pretty child, just a natural tribute to beauty and charm.
But the harm was done. The population of Great Britain cannot really be more than one and a half persons to the acre, and the great majority of them live, thousands to the acre, in towns; yet it is indeed difficult to kiss a girl during the daytime in any given acre, however thickly wooded, without being seen by some superfluous sojourner on that acre; and whether, or no, it was that the green frock and hat brought the Countess the bad luck the fortuneteller had foretold, there was a witness to that kiss.
Undoubtedly, too, it was not the right kind of witness. If it had been an indulgent elder not given to gossip, or a chivalrous young man not averse himself from kisses, all might have been well. But William Roper, under-gamekeeper, was a young man without a spark of chivalry in him, and he had been soured in the matter of kisses by the steadfast resolve of the young women of the village to suffer none from him. He was an unattractive young man, not unlike the ferrets he kept at his cottage. He was the last young man in the world, or at any rate in the neighbourhood, to keep silent about what he had seen.
Even so, no great harm might have been done. He might have blabbed about the matter in the village, and the whole village and the servants of the Castle might have talked about it for weeks and months, or even years, without it reaching the ears of Lord Loudwater. But William Roper saw in that kiss his royal road to Fortune. Ambitious in the grain, he was not content with his post of under-gamekeeper; he desired to oust William Hutchings from the post of head-gamekeeper, and though there were two under-gamekeepers senior to him with a greater claim on that post, occupy it himself. Here was the way to it; his lordship could not but be grateful to the man who informed him of such goings-on; he could not but promote him to the post of his desire.
He wholly misjudged his lordship. Ordinary gratitude was not one of his attributes.
Olivia slipped out of Grey's arm, and they walked on up the aisle. But they walked on, changed creatures—trembling, a little bemused.
William Roper, the ill-favoured minister of Nemesis, followed them.
At the top of the aisle they came to the pavilion, a small white marble building in the Classic style, standing in the middle of a broad glade.
As they went into it, Olivia said wistfully: "It's a pity I couldn't have tea sent here."
"I did. At least I brought it," said Grey, waving his hand towards a basket which stood on the table. "I knew you'd be happier for tea."
"No one has ever been so thoughtful of me as you are," she said, gazing at him with grateful, troubled eyes.
"Let's hope that your luck is changing," he said gravely, gazing at her with eyes no less troubled.
Then Melchisidec scratched at the door and mewed. Olivia let him in. Purring in the friendliest way, he rubbed his head against Grey's leg. He never treated Lord Loudwater with such friendliness.
William Roper chose a tree about forty yards from the pavilion and set his gun against the trunk. Then he filled and lit his pipe, leaned back comfortably against the trunk, hidden by the fringe of undergrowth, and, with his eyes on the door of the pavilion, waited. For Grey and Olivia, never dreaming of this patient watcher, the minutes flew; they had so many things to tell one another, so many questions to ask. At least Grey had; Olivia, for the most part, listened without comment, unless the flush which waxed and waned should be considered comment, to the things he told her about herself and the many ways in which she affected him. For William Roper the minutes dragged; he was eager to start briskly up the royal road to Fortune. He was a slow smoker and he smoked a strong, slow-burning twist; but he had nearly emptied the screw of paper which held it before they came out of the door of the pavilion.
It was a still evening, but some drift of air had carried the rank smoke from William Roper's pipe into the glade, and it hung there. Colonel Grey had not taken five steps before his nostrils were assailed by it.
"Damn!" he said softly.
"What's the matter?" said Olivia.
She was too deeply absorbed in Grey for her senses to be alert, and the reek of William Roper's twist had reached her nostrils, but not her brain.
"There's some one about," he said. "Can't you smell his vile tobacco?"
"Bother!" said Olivia softly, and she frowned. They walked quietly on. Grey was careful not to look about him with any show of earnestness, for there was nothing to be gained by letting the watcher know that they had perceived his presence. Indeed, he would have seen nothing, for the undergrowth between him and the glade was too thin to form a good screen, and William Roper was now behind the tree-trunk.
Thirty yards down the broad aisle Grey said in a low voice: "This is an infernal nuisance!"
"Why?" said Olivia.
"If it comes to Loudwater's ears, he'll make himself devilishly unpleasant to you."
"He can't make himself more unpleasant than he does," she said, in a tone of quiet certitude and utter indifference. "But why shouldn't I have tea with you in the pavilion? It's what it's there for."
"All the same, Loudwater will make an infernal fuss about it, if it gets to his ears. He'll bully you worse than ever," he said in an unhappy tone, frowning heavily.
"What do I care about Loudwater—now?" she said, smiling at him, and she brushed her fingertips across the back of his hand.
He caught her fingers and held them for a moment, but the frown did not lift.
"The nuisance is that, whoever it was, he had been there a long time," he said gravely. "The glade was full of the reek of his vile tobacco. Suppose he saw me kiss you in the drive here and then followed us?"
"Well, if you will do such wicked things in the open air—" she said, smiling.
"It isn't a laughing matter, I'm afraid," he said rather heavily, and frowning.
"Well, I should have to consider your reputation and say that you didn't. It would be very bad for your career if it became known that you did such things, and Egbert would never rest till he had done everything he could do to injure you. I should certainly declare that you didn't, and you'd have to do the same."
"Oh, leave me out of it! Hogbert can't touch me. It's you I'm thinking about," he said.
"But there's no need to worry about me. I'm not afraid of Egbert any longer," she said, and her eyes, full of confidence and courage, met his steadily. Then, resolved to clear the anxiety away from his mind, she went on: "It's no use meeting trouble half-way. If some one did see us, Egbert may not get to hear of it for days, or weeks—perhaps never."
She did not know that they had to reckon with the ambition of William Roper.
"Lord, how I want to kiss you again!" he cried.
"You'll have to wait till tomorrow," she said.
It was as well that he did not kiss her again, for fifty yards behind them, stealing through the wood, came William Roper, all eyes. And he had already quite enough to tell.
Grey walked with her through the rest of the wood and nearly to the end of the path through the shrubbery. She spared no effort to set his mind at ease, protesting that she did not care a rap how furiously her husband abused her. A few yards from the edge of the East lawn they stopped, but they lingered over their parting. She promised to meet him in the East wood at three on the morrow.
She walked slowly across the lawn and up to her suite of rooms, thinking of Grey. She changed into a peignoir, lit a cigarette, lay down on a couch, and went on thinking about him. She gave no thought to the matter of whether they had been watched. Lord Loudwater had become of less interest than ever to her; his furies seemed trivial. She had a feeling that he had become a mere shadow in her life.
As she lay smoking that cigarette William Roper was telling his story to Lord Loudwater. He had waited in the wood till Colonel Grey had gone back through it; then he had walked briskly to the back door of the Castle and asked to see his lordship. Mary Hutchings, the second housemaid, who had answered his knock, took him to the servants' hall, and told Holloway what he asked. Both of them regarded him curiously; they themselves never wanted to see his lordship, though seeing him was part of their jobs, and one who could go out of his way to see him must indeed be remarkable. William Roper was hardly remarkable. He was merely somewhat repulsive. Holloway said that he would inquire whether his lordship would see him, and went.
As he went out of the door William Roper said, with an air of great importance: "Tell 'is lordship as it's very partic'ler."
Mary Hutchings' curiosity was aroused, and she tried to discover what it was. All she gained by doing so was an acute irritation of her curiosity. William Roper grew mysterious to the very limits of aggravation, but he told her nothing.
Her irritation was not alleviated when he said darkly: "You'll 'ear all about these goings-on in time."
She wished to hear all about them then and there.
Holloway came back presently, looking rather sulky, and said that his lordship would see William Roper.
"Though why 'e should curse me because you want to see 'im very partic'ler, I can't see," he added, with an aggrieved air.
He led the way, and for the first time in his life William Roper found himself entering the presence of the head of the House of Loudwater without any sense of trepidation. He carried himself unusually upright with an air of conscious rectitude.
Lord Loudwater was in the smoking-room in which he had that morning dealt with his letters with Mr. Manley. It was his favourite room, his smoking-room, his reading-room, and his office. He had been for a long ride, and was now lying back in an easy chair, with a long whisky-and-soda by his side, reading the Pall Mall Gazette. In literature his taste was blameless.
Holloway, ushering William Roper into the room, said: "William Roper, m'lord," and withdrew.
Lord Loudwater went on reading the paragraph he had just begun. William Roper gazed at him without any weakening of his courage, so strong was his conviction of the nobility of the duty he was discharging, and cleared his throat.
Lord Loudwater finished the paragraph, scowled at the interrupter, and said: "Well, what is it? Hey? What do you want?"
"It's about 'er ladyship, your lordship. I thought your lordship oughter be told about it—its not being at all the sort of thing as your lordship would be likely to 'old with."
There are noblemen who would, on the instant, have bidden William Roper go to the devil. Lord Loudwater was not of these. He set the newspaper down beside the whisky-and-soda, leaned forward, and said in a hushed voice: "What the devil are you talking about? Hey?"
"I seed Colonel Grey—the gentleman as is staying at the 'Cart and 'Orses'—kiss 'er in the East wood," said William Roper.
The first emotion of Lord Loudwater was incredulous amazement. It was his very strong conviction that his wife was a cold-blooded, passionless creature, incapable of inspiring or feeling any warm emotion. He had forgotten that he had married her for love—violent love.
"You infernal liar!" he said in a rather breathless voice.
"It ain't no lie, your lordship. What for should I go telling lies about 'er?" said William Roper in an injured tone.
Lord Loudwater stared at him. The fellow was telling the truth.
"And what did she do? Hey? Did she smack his face for him?" he cried.
"No. She let 'im do it, your lordship."
"She did?" bellowed his lordship.
"Yes. She didn't seem a bit put out, your lordship," said William Roper simply.
"And what happened then?" bellowed Lord Loudwater, and he got to his feet.
"They walked on to the pavilion, your lordship. An' they had their tea there. Leastways, I seed'er ladyship come to the door an' empty hot water out of a tea-pot."
"Tea? Tea?" said Lord Loudwater in the tone of one saying: "Arson! Arson!"
Then, in all his black wrath, he perceived that he must have himself in hand to deal with the matter. He took a long draught of whisky-and-soda, rose, walked across the room and back again, grinding his teeth, rolling his eyes, and snapping the middle finger and thumb of his right hand. Never had the flush of rage been so deep in his face. It was almost purple. Never had his eyes protruded so far from his head.
He stopped and said thickly: "How long were they in the pavilion?"
"In the pavilion, your lordship? They were there a longish while—an hour and a half maybe," said William Roper, with quiet pride in the impression his information had made on his employer.
His employer looked at him as if it was the dearest wish of his heart to shake the life out of him then and there. It was the dearest wish of his heart. But he refrained. It would be a senseless act to slay the goose which lay these golden eggs of information.
"All right. Get out! And keep your tongue between your teeth, or I'll cut it out for you! Do you understand? Hey?" he roared, approaching William Roper with an air so menacing that the conscientious fellow backed against the door with his arm up to shield his face.
"I ain't a-going to say a word to no one!" he cried.
"You'd better not! Get out!" snarled his employer.
William Roper got out. Trembling and perspiring freely, he walked straight through the Castle and out of the back door without pausing to say a word to any one, though he heard the voice of Holloway discussing his mysterious errand with Mary Hutchings in the servants' hall. He had walked nearly a mile before he succeeded in convincing himself that his feet were firmly set on the royal road to Fortune. His conviction was ill-founded.
For a good three minutes after the departure of William Roper the Lord Loudwater walked up and down the smoking-room. His redly-glinting eyes still rolled in a terrifying fashion, and still every few seconds he snapped his fingers in the throes of an effort to make up his raging mind whether to begin by an attack on his wife or on Colonel Grey. He could not remember ever having been so angry in his life; now and again his red eyes saw red.
Then of a sudden he made up his mind that he was at the moment angrier with Colonel Grey. He would deal with him first. Olivia could wait. He hurried out to the stables and bellowed for a horse with such violence that two startled grooms saddled one for him in little more than a minute.
He made no attempt to think what he would say to Colonel Grey. He was too angry. He galloped the two miles to the "Cart and Horses" at Bellingham, where Colonel Grey was staying, in order to restore his health and to fish.
At the door of the inn he bellowed: "Ostler! Ostler!" Then without waiting to see whether an ostler came, he threw the reins on his horse's neck, left it to its own devices, strode into the tap-room, and bellowed to the affrighted landlady, Mrs. Turnbull, to take him straight to Colonel Grey. Trembling, she led him upstairs to Grey's sitting-room on the first floor. Before she could knock, he opened the door, bounced through it, and slammed it.
Grey was sitting at the other side of the table, looking through a book of flies. He appeared to be quite unmoved by the sudden entry of the infuriated nobleman, or by his raucous bellow:
"So here you are, you infernal scoundrel!"
He looked at him with a cold, distasteful eye, and said in a clear, very unpleasant voice: "Another time knock before you come into my room."
Lord Loudwater had not expected to be received in this fashion; dimly he had seen Grey cowering.
He paused, then said less loudly: "Knock? Hey? Knock? Knock at the door of an infernal scoundrel like you?" His voice began to gather volume again. "Likely I should take the trouble! I know all about your scoundrelly game."
Colonel Grey remembered that Olivia had said that she proposed to deny the kiss, and his course was quite clear to him.
"I don't know whether you're drunk, or mad," he said in a quiet, contemptuous voice.
This again was not what Lord Loudwater had expected. But Grey was a strong believer in the theory that the attacker has the advantage, and he had an even stronger belief that an enemy in a fury is far less dangerous than an enemy calm.
"You're lying! You know I'm neither!" bellowed Lord Loudwater. "You kissed Olivia—Lady Loudwater—in the East wood. You know you did. You were seen doing it."
"You're raving, man," said Colonel Grey quietly, in a yet more unpleasant tone.
The interview was not going as Lord Loudwater had seen it. He had to swallow violently before he could say: "You were seen doing it! Seen! By one of my gamekeepers!"
"You must have paid him to say so," said Colonel Grey with quiet conviction.
Lord Loudwater was a little staggered by the accusation. He gasped and stuttered: "D-D-Damn your impudence! P-P-Paid to say it!"
"Yes, paid," said Colonel Grey, without raising his voice. "You happened to hear that we had tea in the pavilion in the wood—probably from Lady Loudwater herself—and you made up this stupid lie and paid your gamekeeper to tell it in order to score off her. It's exactly the dog's trick a bullying ruffian like you would play a woman."
"D-D-Dog's trick? Me?" stammered Lord Loudwater, gasping.
He was used to saying things of this kind to other people; not to have them said to him.
"Yes, you. You know that you're a wretched bully and cad," said Colonel Grey, with just a little more warmth in his tone.
Had Lord Loudwater's belief that William Roper had told him the truth about the kiss been weaker, it might have been shaken by the whole-hearted thoroughness of Grey's attack. But William Roper had impressed that belief on him deeply. He was sure that Grey had kissed Lady Loudwater.
The certainty spurred him to a fresh effort, and he cried: "It's no good your trying to humbug me—none at all. I've got evidence—plenty of evidence! And I'm going to act on it, too. I'm going to hound you out of the Army and that jade of a wife of mine out of decent society. Do you think, because I don't spend four or five months every year in that rotten hole, London, I haven't got any influence? Hey? If you do, you're damn well wrong. I've got more than enough twice over to clear a scoundrel like you out of the Army."
"Don't talk absurd nonsense!" said Grey calmly.
"Nonsense? Hey? Absurd nonsense?" howled Lord Loudwater on a new note of exasperation.
"Yes, nonsense. A disreputable cad like you can't hurt me in any way, and well you know it," said Grey with painstaking distinctness.
"Not hurt you? Hey? I can't hurt the corespondent in a divorce case? Hey?" said Lord Loudwater rather breathlessly.
"As if a man who has abused and bullied his wife as you have could get a divorce!" said Grey, and he laughed a gentle, contemptuous laugh, galling beyond words.
It galled Lord Loudwater surely enough; he snapped his fingers four times and gibbered.
"I tell you what it is: I've had enough of your manners," said Grey. "What you want is a lesson. And if I hear that you've been bullying Lady Loudwater about this simple matter of my having had tea with her, I'll give it you—with a horsewhip."
"You'll give me a lesson? You?" whispered Lord Loudwater, and he danced a little frantically.
"Yes. I'll give you the soundest thrashing any man hereabouts has had for the last twenty years, if I have to begin by knocking your ugly head off your shoulders," said Grey, raising his clear voice, so that for the first time Mrs. Turnbull, trembling, but thrilled, on the landing, heard what was being said.
The enunciation of Lord Loudwater had been thick, his words had been slurred.
"You? You thrash me?" he howled.
"Yes, me. Now get out!"
Lord Loudwater gnashed his teeth at him and again snapped his fingers. He burned to rush round the table and hammer the life out of Grey, but he could not do it; violent words, not violent deeds, were his accomplishment. Moreover, there was something daunting in Grey's cold and steady eye. He snapped his fingers again, and, pouring out a stream of furious abuse, turned to the door and flung out of it. Mrs. Turnbull scuttled aside into Grey's bedroom.
Half-way down the stairs Lord Loudwater paused to bellow: "I'll ruin you yet, you scoundrel! Mark my word! I will hound you out of the Army!"
He flung out of the house and found that the ostler had taken his horse round to the stable, removed its bridle, and given it a feed of corn. He cursed him heartily.
Grey rose, shut the door, and laughed gently. Then he frowned. Of a sudden he perceived that, natural as had been his manner of dealing with Lord Loudwater, he had handled him badly. At least, it was possible that he had handled him badly. It would have been wiser, perhaps, to have been suave and firm rather than firm and provoking. But it was not likely that suavity would have been of much use; the brute would probably have regarded it as weakness. But for Olivia's sake he ought probably to have tried to soothe him. As it was, the brute had gone raging off and would vent his fury on her.
What had he better do?
He was not long perceiving that there was nothing that he could do. The natural thing was to go to the Castle and prevent her husband—by force, if need be—from abusing and bullying Olivia. That was what his strongest instincts bade him do. It was quite impossible. It would compromise her beyond repair. He had done her harm enough by his impulsive indiscretion in the wood. His face slowly settled into a set scowl as he cudgelled his brains to find a way of coming effectually to her help. It seemed a vain effort, but a way had to be found.
Lord Loudwater galloped half-way to the Castle in a furious haste to punish Olivia for allowing Grey to make love to her, and even more for the contemptuous way in which Grey had treated him. He had hopes also of bullying her into a confession of the truth of William Roper's story. But Grey had excited him to a height of fury at which not even he could remain without exhaustion. In a reaction he reined in his horse to a canter, then to a trot, and then to a walk. He found that he was feeling tired.
He continued, however, to chafe at his injuries, but with less vehemence, and he was still resolved to make a strong effort to draw the confession from Olivia. On reaching the Castle, he did not go to her at once. He sat down in an easy chair in his smoking-room and drank two whiskies-and-sodas.
In the background of Olivia's mind, meditating pleasantly on her pleasant afternoon, there had been a patient and resigned expectation that presently her conscience would begin to reproach her for allowing Grey to make love to her. But the minutes slipped by, and she did not begin to feel that she had been wicked. The meditation remained pleasant. At last she realized suddenly that she was not going to feel wicked. She was surprised and even a trifle horror-stricken by her insensibility. Then, fairly faced by it, she came to the conclusion that, in a woman cursed with such a brute of a husband, such insensibility was not only natural, it was even proper.
Her woman's craving to be loved and to love was the strongest of her emotions, and it had gone unsatisfied for so long. Her husband had killed, or rather extirpated, her fondness for him before they had been married a month. She was inclined to believe that she had never really loved him at all. He had certainly ceased to love her before they had been married a fortnight, if, indeed, he had ever loved her at all. She had no child; she was an orphan without sisters or brothers. Her husband let her see but little of the friends who were fond of her. She began to suspect that her conscience did not reproach her because she had merely acted on her natural right to love and be loved. This conclusion brought her mind again to the consideration of Antony Grey, and again she let her thoughts dwell on him.
The gong, informing her that it was time to dress for dinner, interrupted this pleasant occupation. She had her bath, put herself into the hands of her maid, Elizabeth Twitcher, and resumed her meditation. She was at once so deeply absorbed in it that she did not observe her maid's sullen and depressed air.
She was presently interrupted again, and in a manner far more violent and startling than the summons of the gong. The door was jerked open, and her refreshed husband strode into the room.
"I know all about your little game, madam!" he cried. "You've been letting that blackguard Grey make love to you! You kissed him in the East wood this afternoon!"
The mysterious smile faded from the face of Olivia, and an expression of the most natural astonishment took its place.
"I sometimes think that you are quite mad, Egbert," she said in her slow, musical voice.
Elizabeth Twitcher continued her deft manipulation of a thick strand of hair without any change in her sullen and depressed air. To all seeming, she was uninterested, or deaf.
Lord Loudwater had expected, in the face of Olivia's gentleness, to have to work himself up to a proper height of indignant fury by degrees. The echo of Grey's accusation from the mouth of his wife raised him to it on the instant and without an effort.
"Don't lie to me!" he bellowed. "It's no good whatever! I tell you, I know!"
Olivia was surprised to find herself wholly free from her old fear of him. The fact that she was in love with Grey and he with her had already worked a change in her. These were the only things in the world of any real importance. That clear knowledge gave her a new confidence and a new strength. Her husband had been able to frighten her nearly out of her wits. Now he could not; and she could use them.
"I'm not lying at all. I really do believe you're mad—often," she said very distinctly.
Once more Lord Loudwater was compelled to grind his teeth. Then he laughed a harsh, barking laugh, and cried: "It's no good! I've just had a short interview with that scoundrel Grey. And I put the fear of God into him, I can tell you. I made him admit that you'd kissed him in the East wood."
For a breath Olivia was taken aback. Then she perceived clearly that it was a lie. He could not put the fear of God into Grey. Besides, Grey had kissed her, not she him.
"It's you who are lying," she said quickly and with spirit. "How could Colonel Grey admit a thing that never happened?"
Lord Loudwater perceived that it was going to be harder to wring the confession from her than he had expected. Checked, he paused. Then Elizabeth Twitcher caught his attention.
"Here: you—clear out!" he said.
Elizabeth Twitcher caught her mistress's eye in the glass. Olivia made no sign.
"I can't leave her ladyship's hair in this state, your lordship," said Elizabeth Twitcher with sullen firmness.
"You do as you're told and clear out!" bellowed his lordship.
"I don't want to be half an hour late for dinner," said Olivia, accepting the diversion and ready to make the most of it.
Elizabeth Twitcher looked at Lord Loudwater, saw more clearly than ever his likeness to the loathed James Hutchings, and made up her mind to do nothing that he bade her do. She went on dressing her mistress's hair sullenly.
"Are you going? Or am I to throw you out of the room?" cried Lord Loudwater in a blustering voice.
"Don't be silly, Egbert!" said Olivia sharply.
From the height of her new emotional experience she felt that her husband was merely a noisy and obnoxious boy. This was, indeed, quite plain to her. She felt years older than he and very much wiser.
Lord Loudwater, with a quite unusual glimmer of intelligence, perceived that bringing Elizabeth Twitcher into the matter had been a mistake. It had weakened his main action. In a less violent but more malevolent voice he said:
"Silly? Hey? I'll show you all about that, you little jade! You clear out of this first thing to-morrow morning. My lawyers will settle your hash for you. I'll deal with that blackguard Grey myself. I'll hound him out of the Army inside of a month. Perhaps it'll be a consolation to you to know that you've done him in as well as yourself."
He turned on his heel, left the room with a positively melodramatic stride, and slammed the door behind him.
Olivia was stricken by a sudden panic. She had lost all fear of her husband as far as she herself was concerned. He had become a mere offensive windbag. She did not care whether he did, or did not, try to divorce her. Even on the terms of so great a scandal it would be a cheap deliverance. But Antony was another matter.... She could not bear that he should be ruined on her account.... It was intolerable ... not to be thought of.... She must find some way of preventing it.
She began to cudgel her brains for that way of preventing it, but in vain. She could devise no plan. The more she considered the matter, the worse it grew. She could not bear to be associated in Antony's mind with disaster; she desired most keenly to stand for everything that was pleasant and delightful in his life. She would not let her brute of a husband spoil both their lives. He had already spoiled enough of hers.
After his injunction to her to leave the Castle first thing next morning, she took it that they would hardly dine together, and told Elizabeth Twitcher to tell Wilkins to serve her dinner in her boudoir. Also, she refused to put on an evening gown, saying that the peignoir she was wearing was more comfortable on such a hot night. Last of all, she told her to pack some of her clothes that night.
Elizabeth Twitcher, stirred somewhat out of her brooding on her own troubles by this trouble of her mistress, looked at her thoughtfully and said: "I shouldn't go, m'lady. It'll look as if you agreed with what his lordship said. And it's only William Roper as has been telling these lies. He asked to see his lordship about something very partic'ler before his lordship went out. And who's going to pay any heed to William Roper?"
"William Roper? Who is William Roper? What kind of a man is he?" said Olivia quickly.
"He's an under-gamekeeper, m'lady, and the biggest little beast on the estate. Everybody hates William Roper," said Elizabeth with conviction.
This was satisfactory as far as it went. The worse her husband's evidence was the freer it left her to take her own course of action. But it was no great comfort, for she was but little concerned about the harm he could do her. Indeed, she was only concerned about the harm he could do Antony. She returned to her search for a method of preventing that harm during her dinner, and after her dinner she continued that search without any success. This injury to Antony, for her the central fact of the situation, weighed on her spirit more and more heavily.
The longer she pondered it the more harassed she grew. The most fantastic schemes for baulking her husband and saving Antony came thronging into her mind. She rose and walked restlessly up and down the room, working herself up into a veritable fever.
Mr. Manley, having dealt with the letters which had come by the five-o'clock post, read half a dozen chapters of the last published novel of Artzybachev with the pleasure he never failed to draw from the works of that author. Then he dressed and set forth, in a very cheerful spirit, to dine with Helena Truslove. His cheerful expectations were wholly fulfilled. She had divined that he was endowed, not only with a romantic spirit, but with a hearty and discriminating appetite, and was careful to give him good food and wine and plenty of both. With his coffee he smoked one of Lord Loudwater's favourite cigars. Expanding naturally, he talked with spirit and intelligence during dinner, and made love to her after dinner with even more spirit and intelligence. As a rule, he stayed on the nights he dined with her till a quarter to eleven. But that night she dismissed him at ten o'clock, saying that she was feeling tired and wished to go to bed early. Smoking another of Lord Loudwater's favourite cigars, he walked briskly back to the Castle, more firmly convinced than ever that every possible step must be taken to prevent any diminution of the income of a woman of such excellent taste in food and wine. It would be little short of a crime to discourage the exercise of her fine natural gift for stimulating the genius of a promising dramatist.
He was not in the habit of going to bed early, and having put on slippers and an old and comfortable coat, he once more turned to the novel by Artzybachev. He read two more chapters, smoking a pipe, and then he became aware that he was thirsty.
He could have mixed himself a whisky and soda then and there, for he had both in the cupboard, in his sitting-room. But he was a stickler for the proprieties: he had drunk red wine, Burgundy with his dinner and port after it, and after red wine brandy is the proper spirit. There would be brandy in the tantalus in the small dining-room.
He went quietly down the stairs. The big hall, lighted by a single electric bulb, was very dim, and he took it that, as was their habit, the servants had already gone to bed. As he came to the bottom of the stairs the door at the back of the hall opened; James Hutchings came through the doorway and shut the door quietly behind him.
Mr. Manley stood still. James Hutchings came very quietly down the hall, saw him, and started.
"Good evening, Hutchings. I thought you'd left us," said Mr. Manley, in a rather unpleasant tone.
"You may take your oath to it!" said James Hutchings truculently, in a much more unpleasant tone than Mr. Manley had used. "I just came back to get a box of cigarettes I left in the cupboard of my pantry. I don't want any help in smoking them from any one here."
He opened the library door gently, went quietly through it, and drew it to behind him, leaving Mr. Manley frowning at it. It was a fact that Hutchings carried a packet, which might very well have been cigarettes; but Mr. Manley did not believe his story of his errand. He took it that he was leaving the Castle by one of the library windows. Well, it was no business of his.
At a few minutes past eight the next morning he was roused from the deep dreamless sleep which follows good food and good wine well digested, by a loud knocking on his door. It was not the loud, steady and prolonged knocking which the third housemaid found necessary to wake him. It was more vigorous and more staccato and jerkier. Also, a voice was calling loudly:
"Mr. Manley, sir! Mr. Manley! Mr. Manley!"
For all the noise and insistence of the calling Mr. Manley did not awake quickly. It took him a good minute to realize that he was Herbert Manley and in bed, and half a minute longer to gather that the knocking and calling were unusual and uncommonly urgent. He sat up in bed and yawned terrifically.
Then he slipped out of bed—the knocking and calling still continued—unlocked the door, and found Holloway, the second footman, on the threshold looking scared and horror-stricken.
"Please, sir, his lordship's dead!" he cried. "He's bin murdered! Stabbed through the 'eart!"
"Murdered? Lord Loudwater?" said Mr. Manley with another terrific yawn, and he rubbed his eyes. Then he awoke completely and said: "Send a groom for Black the constable at once. Yes—and tell Wilkins to telephone the news to the Chief Inspector at Low Wycombe. Hurry up! I'll get dressed and be down in a few minutes. Hurry up!"
Holloway turned to go.
"Stop!" said Mr. Manley. "Tell Wilkins to see that no one disturbs Lady Loudwater. I'll break the news myself when she is dressed."
"Yes, sir," said Holloway, and ran down the corridor.
Mr. Manley was much quicker than usual making his toilet, but thorough. He foresaw a hard and trying day before him, and he wished to start it fresh and clean. He would come into contact with new people; he saw himself playing an important role in a most important affair; he would naturally and as usual make himself valued. A slovenly air did not conduce to that. It seemed fitting to put on his darkest tweed suit and a black necktie.
When he came—briskly for him—downstairs he found a group of women servants in the hall, outside the door of the smoking-room, three of them snivelling, and Wilkins and Holloway in the smoking-room itself, standing and staring with a wholly helpless air at the body of Lord Loudwater, huddled in the easy chair in which he had been wont to sleep after dinner every evening.
"He's been stabbed, sir. There's that knife which was in the inkstand on the library table stickin' in 'is 'eart," said Wilkins in a dismal voice.
Mr. Manley glanced at the dead man. He looked to have been stabbed as he slept. His body had sagged down in the chair, and his head was sunk between his shoulders, so that he appeared almost neckless. His once so florid face was of an even, dead, yellowish pallor.
Mr. Manley's glance at the dead man was brief. Then he saw that the door between the smoking-room and the library was ajar. He could not see the library windows without crossing the smoking-room. That he would not do. He was a stickler for correctness in all matters, and he knew that the scene of a crime must be left untrampled.
He turned and said: "We will leave everything just as it is till the police come. And telephone at once to Doctor Thornhill, and ask him to come. If he is out, tell them to get word to him, Wilkins."
Wilkins and Holloway filed out of the room before him; he followed them out, locked the door and put the key in his pocket. Then he opened the door from the hall into the library. The long window nearest the smoking-room door was open.
The group of servants were all watching him; never had he moved or acted with an air of graver or greater importance. His portliness gave it weight.