The Vanity Box/Chapter 5
Rose Barnard and Poppet had finished their tea, and Rose was washing up the dishes, when a cry from the child who had gone to the arbour, startled her so that she dropped a cup.
The farmer's wife was not nervous, or easily startled, but she had never heard a cry like that from the reserved and dreamy little girl. It was a cry of terror such as no child should have to utter; and the responsive jump of her own nerves, with the simultaneous crash of the breaking cup, increased the horror of the shrill sound tenfold. Rose flew from the kitchen through the living-room toward the arbour, and met Poppet running to her.
The mother s first thought was one of thanksgiving that the child was alive and apparently unhurt, for in the few seconds which had followed the cry, unspeakable fears had darted like forked lightning across the confused darkness of her brain. Her imagination had pictured Poppet attacked by a mad bull, or a desperate tramp, perhaps a lunatic.
"My baby—my baby—what is it?" she stammered, to the pale child, giving the little form haven in her arms.
Poppet's scream of terror seemed to have exhausted her powers of expression. She could only gasp and, trembling against her mother's heart, point to the door. Rose put the child behind her, and, throbbing with all the fierce courage of a tigress in defence of her young, went to confront the thing which had drawn that shriek of fear from Poppet.
In the arbour stood Sir Ian Hereward, ashen gray, and aged by ten years since Rose had seen him last. With one hand he grasped a vine-draped support of the arbour, and his weight seemed to hang from it, as if it alone kept him from falling. He was staring straight ahead like a person who walks in his sleep, and sees only the passing of his own dream. There was blood on the hand which clutched the rustic pole, and blood on the hand that crumpled, unconsciously, his red-stained Panama hat. He did not appear to see Mrs. Barnard, until she gasped out, "Good heavens, sir, what's happened?" Then his eyes seemed to come to life, from their dead stare, and found the woman's wholesome face, like a light in darkness.
"Tom—where's Tom?" he asked.
The fancy came to Rose that his voice sounded like a voice from a tomb, and a great pity for the man overwhelmed her. He had been stricken by some appalling blow, she saw. Probably there had been an accident, but no physical hurt which had befallen him could have made the hero of many battles look like a galvanized corpse, and speak with the voice of a lost spirit. He might be wounded—he must be wounded, since blood-stains were on his hands and clothes, but no pain could have changed him as he was changed, this soldier whom her soldier-husband loved.
"Oh, sir, my poor Colonel!" she exclaimed, going back to the old name she had known so well when she had been only Tom's sweetheart. "If only Tom were here to help you. He's gone to London, on business for Mrs. Forestier, but he'll be back—he may be back almost any minute now. Tell me what I can do, till he comes. Tell me what's the matter."
Sir Ian grew more calm, though the sunken eyes in the ashen face looked no less like the eyes of a dead man.
"Send little Poppet away," he said. "I—I'm sorry I frightened her. I didn't mean——"
"Oh, sir, it's nothing. She's so sensitive. She'll be all right. Run, darling, into the kitchen, and wait there till Mummy comes. Sir Ian's in great trouble. Run; and you may get yourself a ginger-nut out of the stone jar."
"I don't want ginger-nut," whimpered the child. And then, bursting into loud sobbing, she darted away toward the kitchen, like one of the rabbits she loved, released from a trap.
"My wife—dead. Killed." The words came jerkily from lips stiff as if frozen.
"Oh!" gasped Rose. "Her Ladyship! It can't be true. Perhaps she's only fainted. Was it a motor accident?"
"No," said Sir Ian. "I want Tom to go back with me. Back—to the Tower. I think—I'm a little dazed. A doctor must come. And—the police."
Sick and tremulous as she was, the farmer's wife had not lost her wholesome good sense. She saw that, whatever the dreadful thing which had happened her husband's old Colonel was in no fit state to answer questions, and she determined to ask no more.
"If I could leave you here, sir, for a minute," she said trying to speak quietly, "I'd go call Jimmy Russell, and send him on my bicycle like a flash into Riding St. Mary, to fetch Doctor Unwin. Then—then on the way back, he could run out to the Police Station. Tom's got his bicycle with him, and won't be long getting home from the station. The train's due now, but you know it's generally a bit late."
"The doctor and the—police must come to the Tower," said Sir Ian, with the same somnambulist look in his eyes again.
"Yes, Sir Ian; I'll tell Jimmy. You'll stop here till I get back, won't you?"
"I don't know," the dreary voice answered, and the eyes that saw a nightmare turned toward the woods where, far away, the crown of the Tower rose among dark pine trees.
Rose guessed what was in his mind. "No, no, sir," she said firmly. "You mustn't go back there alone, whatever it is. It wouldn't do, on any account, especially if—if it's an affair for the police."
"What does it matter!" he murmured, as though to himself. "I can't leave her there alone—any longer. Go send the man to Riding St. Mary."
Mrs. Barnard went; and when she came back, Sir Ian Hereward had gone.
It was not until she stood in the arbour, gazing down the path toward the open gate, wishing with all her soul for Tom to come, that she remembered the two shots in the woods which Kate Craigie had said "sounded queer."
What if——But no, such things did not happen in this sweet, quiet country which she loved. Such things could not happen to a great lady, a good lady, like Lady Hereward.
And then she saw Tom stopping his bicycle at the gate.