The Vanity Box/Chapter 13
Terry's examination by the coroner began exactly as she had reason to expect that it would begin. But by and by fell the blow she had been dreading since she had recognized Major Smedley.
It fell in the form of a question, following upon one which concerned her early acquaintance with Lady Hereward, then Miss Millicent Latham.
"Did Miss Latham introduce Captain Hereward to you?"
"No," said Terry. "But the first time I ever met him I happened to find out that he was a very distant cousin of my friend Miss Latham."
"Did you correspond with her about him?"
"I wrote that I had met a cousin of hers whom she hadn't seen since they were children."
"How long did your acquaintance with Captain Hereward last before he left India?"
"Only a few weeks."
"Is it true that Captain Hereward wished to marry you?"
Now Terry could guess very well what had been written on that bit of paper which the coroner had read and discussed with the chief constable and the detective-inspector from Scotland Yard. She bad known, the moment she saw Major Smedley, what would happen. "How like him," she thought, "to come here and mix himself up in this awful business, just because of the prominence it will give him in his clubs! He has volunteered to come and bear witness and he has put them up to ask me things that without some horrid hint from him wouldn't even have seemed of importance."
Suddenly, in her disgustful anger against the man, she ceased to be afraid. She knew that when Major Smedley had a grudge against people he made a boast of "paying them out," if it took half his life; and he had had a grudge against her for thirteen years. She had been a very popular girl in Indian society, and had snubbed him with all the frankness of youth, when he tried to be "nice to her." Many women would have liked to do the same, but did not dare. He knew too much about them, and to have a weapon was to use it, with Major Smedley. But there was nothing which a girl of eighteen need fear to have known about herself; and hating the character of a malicious male gossip more than most others, she had taken some pleasure in being disagreeable to the "horrid old tabby." Ian had snubbed him, too; for Captain Hereward had little more to hide from the world in those days than had Miss Teresina Ricardo, the débutante; and even if he had secrets to keep, he was not the sort of man to keep them at the price of a cowardly civility to a person he detested. Now after all these years, evidently, it had seemed to Major Smedley that his time had come at last to scratch in good earnest. Nothing on earth would delight such a creature more than a chance to throw suspicion on Sir Ian Hereward through Miss Ricardo.
But Miss Ricardo determined that he should not succeed. She would not let Ian be hurt through her. No matter what she might have to say, she would not hurt Ian.
The calmness that blew like a cooling breeze upon the heat of her excitement was strange to Terry, but she was thankful for it.
After a scarcely perceptible pause, she said in response to the coroner's question: "I do not think that Captain Hereward ever wished to marry me." And almost she would have been glad if Ian had been there to hear her answer. "Within three months after our first meeting," she went on, without waiting for another question to come, "he had fallen desperately in love with my friend Miss Latham, and was engaged to her."
As she spoke, she allowed her eyes to move about the room and rest for an instant on Major Smedley's face. She hoped that she could read disappointment upon it, and a catty annoyance that the question had been put in a way to give her this chance of wriggling out. If he had been the coroner, it would have been different. He would have known exactly what to say.
"Was there never anything serious between you and Sir Ian, then Captain Hereward?" the coroner went on, looking relieved.
"Captain Hereward never thought of me at all seriously," Terry returned courageously. "Never. We saw just enough of each other for some people to fancy there was a flirtation, I suppose."
Again a cold glance at Major Smedley. He looked, she thought, like an ugly Burmese idol.
"You never met Sir Ian Hereward again till the day before yesterday ?"
Terry replied that she had not.
"Did you correspond with him in the interval?"
"Oh, no. Miss Latham—Lady Hereward and I wrote to each other occasionally. Not very often." Miss Ricardo did not think it necessary to state that the letters had ceased after Milly Latham's marriage.
"You were always on good terms then, with Lady Hereward?"
"Of course. She had been very kind to me when I was an insignificant little girl, and she was a charming young woman, with hosts of important and interesting friends."
Miss Ricardo was doing her very best for Sir Ian Hereward, though never had that mysterious cry of his—"Oh, God, Terry!"—rung more confusingly in her ears. And whatever came, she meant to go on doing her best.
"Did you expect Lady Hereward to be at home to receive you the day before yesterday, when you called at Friars' Moat?"
Terry's raised eyebrows expressed precisely what she wished them to express. "I really wasn't sure whether she knew that we—my cousin Mrs. Ricardo and I—meant to call or not. I thought Mrs. Forestier might tell her. But I wasn't surprised not to find her at home."
"You didn't take that for a sign that—er—a visit would not be welcome to her?"
"Oh, not at all. We had been far too good friends for that, in the past. And there can never be a past in real friendship."
"Were you going away when the footman told you Lady Hereward was out?"
"Did Sir Ian's arrival stop you?"
"Did he seem to you to be perfectly calm when he appeared?"
Terry's face did not change at all as she answered; "Perfectly." But her heart gave a great throb. It was fortunate for her, again, that the question had shaped itself so, for it would have been harder to answer, except for the last three words "when he appeared." It was true that he had seemed calm then. If not, she knew she would have perjured herself and become a false witness rather than bring a new trouble worse than the first upon him. Terry Ricardo, whose father had been half Italian, half English, had had a wholly American mother, and she was loyal in every beat of her blood, but she could not help remembering several things. She remembered how Ian had stammered when he spoke of parting from his wife in the woods. Not only had he betrayed painful embarrassment, but a deep distress. She had then attributed it to some kind of late-springing remorse for the past, though it had seemed intense beyond all reason, but now—why, still she attributed it to that!
"Oh, God, Terry!" he had cried to her; and she had hushed him back to conventionality. If only she could stop seeing his eyes as they had looked then, hearing his voice as it had sounded then!
But her thoughts would escape control and buzz round the forbidden subject as moths rush to the flame of a lighted candle.
"How did Sir Ian explain his wife's absence?"
This was a little harder, but Terry did not flinch.
"I believe he said that she wanted to linger in the woods for a little while, but he thought she wouldn't be long; and I had the impression that he fancied she might have gone to the village, when in the end she didn't come home."
So it went on; question after question; answer after answer; pens scratching; notes going down on paper at the coroner's table, and journalists writing swiftly, perhaps some of them secretly sketching. But the worst was over. Terry felt that she had acquitted herself well; that if suspicion had been creeping into people's minds, she had perhaps been able to catch the ugly little snake by its tail, and crush it before it could grow to formidable size.
"I am glad—glad—glad," she said to herself, "if I have been able to help Ian."
She believed in him; believed him to be honourable as he was brave (though once long ago he had failed in highest honour to her); believed that he had adored his wife. And yet—Terry had grown in the last two days to hate these words "and yet."
She walked quietly and steadily back to her place beside Maud; but no sooner had she sat down than she began to feel sick and faint. The room whirled before her eyes. The coroner's table and the men seated on either side seemed to rise from the ground and float up toward the ceiling, in a bluish haze. Major Smedley's face turned into that of a Cheshire cat, with great cold eyes like enormous agates looking at her, staring at her.
If it had not been for those eyes and their stare she probably would have fainted; but the malice in them was like a douche of cold water. If she fainted, all she had said might go for nothing. People, seeing her emotion, would misread it. They would think she had lied to save Sir Ian. And she hadn't lied, hadn't lied. She would have lied, perhaps, but it hadn't been necessary.
Maud slipped a tiny bottle of smelling salts into Terry's hand, but she would not use it. By and by she grew better. Some one came to ask, politely, if she and all the other women witnesses would prefer to go out before the farmer, Thomas Barnard, and the doctors, should be called, for details unpleasant to the fastidious feminine ear were apparently expected to come out. There would be talk of blood and other disagreeables.
Suddenly it occurred to Miss Ricardo that Miss Verney had not yet been called; and this somewhat surprised her.