The Yellow Streak by Valentine Williams
Chapter II. At Twilight
There is a delicious snugness, a charming lack of formality, about the ceremony of afternoon tea in an English country-house--it is much too indefinite a rite to dignify it by the name of meal--which makes it the most pleasant reunion of the day. For English country-house parties consist, for the most part, of a succession of meals to which the guests flock the more congenially as, in the interval, they have contrived to avoid one another's companionship.
And so, scarcely had the last reverberation of Bude's measured gonging died away than the French window leading from the lounge-hall on to the terrace was pushed open and two of Hartley Parrish's guests emerged from the falling darkness without into the pleasant comfort of the firelit room.
They were an oddly matched pair. The one was a tubby little man with short bristly grey hair and a short bristly grey moustache to match. His stumpy legs looked ridiculous in his baggy golf knickers of rough tweed, which he wore with gaiters extending half-way up his short, stout calves. As he came in, he slung off the heavy tweed shooting-cloak he had been wearing and placed it with his Homburg hat on a chair.
This was Dr. Romain, whose name thus written seems indecently naked without the string of complementary initials indicative of the honours and degrees which years of bacteriological research had heaped upon him. His companion was a tall, slim, fair-haired young man, about as good a specimen of the young Englishman turned out by the English public school as one could find. He was extremely good-looking with a proud eye and finely chiselled features, but the suggestion of youth in his face and figure was countered by a certain poise, a kind of latent seriousness which contrasted strangely with the general cheery insouciance of his type.
A soldier would have spotted the symptoms at once, "Five years of war!" would have been his verdict--that long and strange entry into life of so many thousands of England's manhood which impressed the stamp of premature seriousness on all those who came through. And Captain Sir Horace Trevert, Bart., D.S.O., had gone from his famous school straight into a famous regiment, had won his decoration before he was twenty-one, and been twice wounded into the bargain.
"Where's everybody?" queried the doctor, rubbing his hands at the blazing log-fire.
"Robin and Mary went off to play billiards," said the young man, "and I left old Parrish after lunch settling down for an afternoon's work in the library ..."
He crossed the room to the fire and stood with his back to the flame.
"What a worker that man is!" ejaculated the doctor. "He had one of his secretaries down this morning with a car full of portfolios, blue-prints, specifications, and God knows what else. Parrish polished the whole lot off and packed the fellow back to London before mid-day. Some of Hornaway's people who were waiting went in next, and he was through with them by lunch-time!"
Trevert wagged his head in admiration.
"And he told me he wanted to have a quiet week-end!" he said. "That's why he has no secretary living in the house."
"A quiet week-end!" repeated Romain drily. "Ye gods!"
"He's a marvel for work," said the young man.
"He certainly is," replied the doctor. "He's done wonders with Hornaway's. When he took the place over at the beginning of the war, they were telling me, it was a little potty concern making toy air guns or lead soldiers or something of the sort. And they never stop coining money now, it seems. Parrish must be worth millions ..."
"Lucky devil!" said Trevert genially.
"Ah!" observed the doctor sententiously, "but he's had to work for it, mark you! He's had the most extraordinary life, they tell me. He was at one period of his career a bartender on the Rand, a man was saying at the club the other day. But most of his life he's lived in Canada, I gather. He was telling us the other evening, before you and Mary came down, that he was once a brakeman on the Canadian Pacific Railway. He said he invested all his savings in books on engineering and read them in his brakeman's van on his trips across the Dominion. Ah! he's a fine fellow!"
He lowered his voice discreetly.
"And a devilish good match, eh, Horace?"
The young man flushed slightly.
"Yes," he said unwillingly.
"A dam' good match for somebody," urged the doctor with a malicious twinkle in his eye.
"Here, Doc," said Horace, suddenly turning on him, "you stick to your bugs and germs. What do you know about matchmaking, anyway?"
Dr. Romain chuckled.
"We bacteriologists are trained observers. One learns a lot watching the life and habits of the bacillus, Horace, my boy. And between ourselves, Parrish would be a lucky fellow if ..."
Trevert turned to him. His face was quite serious, and there was a little touch of hauteur in his voice. He was the 17th Baronet.
"My dear Doc," he said, "aren't you going a bit fast? Parrish is a very good chap, but one knows nothing about him ..."
Sagely the doctor nodded his grizzled head.
"That's true," he agreed. "He appears to have no relatives and nobody over here seems to have heard of him before the war. A man was saying at the Athenaeum the other day ..."
Trevert touched his elbow. Bude had appeared, portly, imperturbable, bearing a silver tray set out with the appliances for tea.
"Bude," cried Trevert, "don't tell me there are no tea-cakes again!"
"On the contrairey, sir," answered the butler in the richly sonorous voice pitched a little below the normal register which he employed abovestairs, "the cook has had her attention drawn to it. There are tea-cakes, sir!"
With a certain dramatic effect--for Bude was a trifle theatrical in everything he did--he whipped the cover off a dish and displayed a smoking pile of deliciously browned scones.
"Bude," said Trevert, "when I'm a Field Marshal, I'll see you get the O.B.E. for this!"
The butler smiled a nicely regulated three-by-one smile, a little deprecatory as was his wont. Then, like a tank taking a corner, he wheeled majestically and turned to cross the lounge. To reach the green baize door leading to the servants' quarters he had to cross the outer hall from which led corridors on the right and left. That on the right led to the billiard-room; that on the left to the big drawing-room with the library beyond.
As Bude reached the great screen of tooled Spanish leather which separated a corner of the lounge from the outer hall, Robin Greve came hastily through the glass door of the corridor leading from the billiard-room. The butler with a pleasant smile drew back a little to allow the young man to pass, thinking he was going into the lounge for tea.
"Tea is ..." he began, but abruptly ended the sentence on catching sight of the young man's face. For Robin, habitually so self-possessed, looked positively haggard. His face was set and there was a weary look in his eyes. The young man appeared so utterly different from his wonted self that Bude fairly stared at him.
But Robin, without paying the least attention either to the butler or to the sound of voices in the lounge, strode across the outer hall and disappeared through the glass door of the corridor leading to the great drawing-room and the library.
Bude stood an instant gazing after him in perplexity, then moved across the hall to the servants' quarters.
In the meantime in the lounge the little doctor snapped the case of his watch and opined that he wanted his tea.
"Where on earth has everybody got to? What's become of Lady Margaret? I haven't seen her since lunch...."
That lady answered his question by appearing in person.
Lady Margaret was tall and hard and glittering. Like so many Englishwomen of good family, she was so saturated with the traditions of her class that her manner was almost indistinguishable from that of a man. Well-mannered, broadminded, wholly cynical, and absolutely fearless, she went through life exactly as though she were following a path carefully taped out for her by a suitably instructed Providence. Somewhere beneath the mask of smiling indifference she presented so bravely to a difficult world, she had a heart, but so carefully did she hide it that Horace had only discovered it on a certain grey November morning when he had started out for the first time on active service. For ever afterwards a certain weighing-machine at Waterloo Station, by which he had had a startling vision of his mother standing with heaving bosom and tear-stained face, possessed in his mind the attributes of some secret and sacred shrine.
But now she was cool and well-gowned and self-contained as ever.
"What a perfectly dreadful day!" she exclaimed in her pleasant, well-bred voice. "Horace, you must positively go and see Henry What's-his-name in the Foreign Office and get me a passport for Cannes. The weather in England in the winter is incredibly exaggerated!"
"At least," said the doctor, rubbing his back as he warmed himself at the fire, "we have fuel in England. Give me England, climate and all, but don't take away my fire. The sun doesn't shine on the Riviera at night, you know!"
Lady Margaret busied herself at the tea-table with its fine Queen Anne silver and dainty yellow cups. It was the custom at Harkings to serve tea in the winter without other illumination than the light of the great log-fire that spat and leaped in the open hearth. Beyond the semi-circle of ruddy light the great lounge was all in darkness, and beyond that again was the absolute stillness of the English country on a winter's evening.
And so with a gentle clatter of teacups and the accompaniment of pleasantly modulated voices they sat and chatted--Lady Margaret, who was always surprising in what she said, the doctor who was incredibly opinionated, and young Trevert, who like all of the younger generation was daringly flippant. He was airing his views on what he called "Boche music" when he broke off and cried:
"Hullo, here's Mary! Mary, you owe me half a crown. Bude has come up to scratch and there are tea-cakes after ... but, I say, what on earth's the matter?"
The girl had come into the room and was standing in the centre of the lounge in the ruddy glow of the fire. Her face was deathly pale and she was shuddering violently. She held her little cambric handkerchief crushed up into a ball to her lips. Her eyes were fixed, almost glazed, like one who walks in a trance.
She stood like that for an instant surveying the group--Lady Margaret, a silver tea-pot in one hand, looking at her with uplifted brows. Horace, who in his amazement had taken a step forward, and the doctor at his side scrutinizing her beneath his shaggy eyebrows.
"My dear Mary "--it was Lady Margaret's smooth and pleasant voice which broke the silence--"whatever is the matter? Have you seen a ghost!"
The girl swayed a little and opened her lips as if to speak. A log, crashing from the fire into the grate, fell upon the silence of the darkening room. It seemed to break the spell.
The name came hoarsely from the girl. Everybody, except Lady Margaret, sprang to his feet It was the doctor who spoke first.
"Miss Mary," he said, "you seem frightened, what ..."
His voice was very soothing.
Mary Trevert made a vague gesture towards the shadows about the staircase.
"There ... in the library ... he's got the door locked ... there was a shot ..."
Then she suddenly screamed aloud.
In a stride both the doctor and her brother were by her side. But she motioned them away.
"I'm frightened about Hartley," she said in a low voice, "please go at once and see what ... that shot ... and he doesn't answer!"
"Come on, Doctor!"
Horace Trevert was halfway to the big screen separating the lounge from the outer hall. As he passed the bell, he pressed it.
"Send Bude to us, Mother, when he comes, please!" he called as he and the doctor hurried away.
Lady Margaret had risen and stood, one arm about her daughter, on the Persian rug spread out before the cheerful fire. So the women stood in the firelight in Hartley Parrish's house, surrounded by all the treasures which his wealth had bought, and listened to the footsteps clattering away through the silence.