A LETTER FROM ENGLAND
The postman, entering through the garden gate which opened on to the street, found Ann busily engaged in cutting flowers. He greeted her with a smile, pleased to be saved the remainder of the distance to the house.
"Bonjour, mademoiselle. Only one letter for the villa this morning." He handed her the solitary missive which the mail had brought and departed, whistling cheerfully, on his way down the street.
Ann fingered the bulky envelope with satisfaction. It was addressed in Robin's handwriting, and she carried it off to a sunny corner of the garden to enjoy its contents at leisure.
"Dear Little Ann"--ran the letter. "Here, at last is the good news we have both been waiting for! I have been offered exactly the kind of billet I wanted--that of estate-agent to a big land-owner. The salary is a really generous one, and there's a jolly little cottage goes with it, so that you'll be able to chuck free-lancing and come and keep house for me as we've always planned. Needless to say, I've accepted the job!
"And now to give you all details. My future employer is one, Eliot Coventry. We've had several interviews and I liked him very much, although he struck me as rather a queer sort of chap. I should put him down as dead straight and thoroughly dissatisfied with life! Heronsmere, the Coventry place, is a fine old house--one of those old Elizabethan houses you're so cracked on. It reminds me a bit of Lovell Court. There'll be a lot to see to on the estate, as the bailiff in charge has just let things rip, and Coventry himself has been out of England for some years. In fact, he has never lived at Heronsmere. He's a distant cousin of the late owner and only inherited owing to a succession of deaths. He was abroad at the time and never even troubled to come home and have a look at his inheritance.
"One thing I know will please you, and that is that we shall be near the sea. Silverquay is the name of the village, which is really a part of the Heronsmere property. It's comparatively small, not much more than a little fishing village, but the town of Ferribridge is only about ten miles distant, so you'll be able to obtain the necessities of civilised existence, I expect.
"Coventry wants me to take up the work straight away, so I should like to move into Oldstone Cottage--our future place of abode--as soon as possible. How soon do you think Lady Susan would spare you? By the way, you won't need to exercise your mind over the servant question. Knowing you were fixed out in Switzerland, I wrote off at once to Maria Coombe to ask her if she knew of any one suitable, and she promptly suggested herself! So she goes to Oldstone Cottage to-morrow to get things in order for us.
"I think I've told you everything. I've tried to imagine all the questions you would want to ask--and to supply the answers!
"Ever your affectionate brother,
Ann laid the letter down on her knee and sat looking out across the lake with eyes which held a curious mixture of pleasure and regret. The idea of sharing life once more with Robin filled her with undiluted joy, but she was conscious that the thought of leaving Lady Susan and dear, gunny Switzerland created an actual little ache in her heart. She could quite imagine feeling rather homesick for Lady Susan's kindly presence, and for the Swiss mountains and the blue lake which lay smiling and dimpling at her now in the brilliant sunlight.
Her glance lingered on the lake. She had not been on the water since the Venetian fÍte, nearly three weeks ago, owing primarily to the destruction of the RÍve, and secondly to Lady Susan's incurable aversion to a hired boat. "They roll, my dear," she asserted, when Ann vainly tried to tempt her into giving the hireling a chance. "And the cushions have villainous lumps in sundry places. No, I'll stay on shore till we have a new boat of our own."
So they had stayed on shore, but in spite of herself, Ann's thoughts often travelled back to the occasion of that last journey she had made on the lake--with the purr of the motor-boat's engine in her ears and the odd, unnerving consciousness of the Englishman's close proximity. She would have liked to forget him, but there was something about the man which made this impossible. Ann admitted it to herself with an annoyed sense of the unreasonableness of it. He was nothing to her--not even an acquaintance, according to the canons of social convention--and in all human probability they would never meet again.
Yet, try as she might, she had been unable to dismiss him altogether from her thoughts, and since his departure she had several times caught herself wondering, with a fugitive emotion of odd trepidation, whether he would ever return. Once she had even thought she descried him coming towards her along the Grand' Rue, and when the figure which she had supposed was his resolved itself, upon closer inspection, into that of a total stranger, bearing only the most superficial resemblance to the man for whom she had mistaken him, she experienced a totally disproportionate sense of disappointment.
The news contained in Robin's letter promised, at any rate, to end all likelihood of any further meeting. Even if, later on, the unknown Englishman should return to Montricheux, it would only be to find her gone. She derived a certain feeling of relief from this thought. There was something disquieting about the man. He made you like and dislike him almost in the same breath. On the whole, Ann felt she would be glad to be in England, freed from the rather disturbing uncertainty as to whether they might or might not meet again. People so often came back to Montricheux.
She folded up Robin's letter, and, slinging her basket of flowers over her arm, returned to the house, somewhat troubled in mind as to how she should break the news of her impending departure to Lady Susan. The difficulty solved itself, however, more easily than she had anticipated.
"At Silverquay!" exclaimed Lady Susan, when Ann had explained matters. "Now, how charming! I do think Fate is a good-natured old thing sometimes. I shall lose you and yet still keep you, Ann. You'll be living quite near me."
Ann looked up in surprise.
"But you don't live at Silverquay!" she said.
"Almost next door, though. My home, White Windows, is in the neighbouring parish--Heronsfoot--about five miles away, three if you cut across the fields."
"Then of course you know this Mr. Coventry?"
"No, I've never met him. I knew Rackham Coventry, from whom your man inherited, and I've heard him speak of his cousin Eliot. They were on very bad terms with each other, so that Eliot never came near the place in poor old Rack's time, and, as your brother tells you, he was abroad when the property fell in to him. Heronsmere is a lovely old house, by the way."
"I wonder Mr. Coventry never came back until now," said Ann. "He must take very little interest in the place."
"He's lived abroad for years, I believe. I remember Rack's telling me he had been crossed in love, and he cut himself adrift from England afterwards. I think the girl threw him over because in those days he wasn't rich enough. She must feel rather a fool now, if she knows how things have fallen out. The Heronsmere rent-roll is enormous."
"It rather serves her right, doesn't it?" commented Ann, with a feeling that for once poetic justice had been meted out.
Lady Susan smiled.
"Yes. Though I always feel a bit sorry for people who get their deserts. You never realise how heavy the bill is going to be when you're running it up." She fell silent a moment, then went on: "The pity of it is that I suppose Eliot Coventry will never marry now, and so Heronsmere will ultimately go to a very distant branch of the family. He tried to get himself killed out of the way during the war, I heard. I knew a man in the same regiment, and he told me Eliot didn't seem to know what the word fear meant--'Mad Coventry,' they called him. He took the most amazing risks, and came through without a scratch."
"While poor Robin got badly wounded and gassed into the bargain," said Ann. "That's why I'm so glad he's got this post. The doctors told him that an out-door job was his one chance of getting really strong again."
"Yes, I'm very glad--for you," answered Lady Susan ruefully. "But I shall miss you badly, child. However, if Robin wants you he must have you, and as he wants you to go as soon as possible I should think the best plan is for you to travel back to England with Philip and Tony next week."
It was typical of Lady Susan that she wasted no time in repining, but promptly proceeded to sketch out a definite plan of action.
"But what about you?" asked Ann with some concern.
"I'll come with you all as far as Paris, and there you can drop me to do some stopping. I shall stay two or three weeks, I expect."
Ann's face still remained clouded. She felt that it was hardly fair to desert Lady Susan so suddenly, much as she longed to join Robin as speedily as possible.
"Are you sure you wouldn't rather I stayed with you a little longer?" she suggested earnestly. "I'm sure Robin could manage for a few weeks--especially as he will have Maria Coombe."
Lady Susan's quick dark eyes flashed over her.
"Who is Maria Coombe?" she demanded.
"Maria Coombe is a host in herself," she answered. "She's an old Devonshire servant who was with my mother originally. I believe she came to Lovell when she was about eighteen as kitchen-maid. Then, when Robin and I were kiddies she was our nurse, and after we grew too old to need one she stayed on in a sort of general capacity. I never remember life without Maria until she got married. Her husband was killed in the war, and now she's coming to Oldstone Cottage to look after us. I'm so delighted about it," she added. "It will be like old times having Maria around again."
"That's really nice for you," agreed Lady Susan heartily. "Still, I think"--smiling--"Robin will be glad to have his sister, too. And you needn't worry about me in the least. I've heaps of friends in Paris. Besides, Brett Forrester--my scapegrace nephew--is there now, and he and I always amuse each other."
"Tony knows him, doesn't he? He mentioned having met him in London, I remember."
"Yes. I believe they both belong to the same gambling set in town--more's the pity!" replied Lady Susan, with grim disapproval. "The only difference between them being that Brett gambles and can afford to do it, while Tony gambles--and can't. I haven't seen Brett for a long time now," she went on musingly. "Not since last August, when he was yachting and put in at Silverquay Bay for a few days. He's always tearing about the world, though he rarely troubles to keep me informed of his whereabouts. I wish to goodness he'd marry and settle down!"
A sudden puff of wind blew in through the open window, disarranging the grouping of a vaseful of flowers, and Ann crossed the room to rectify the damage. Lady Susan's eyes followed her meditatively. She liked the girl's supple ease of movement, the clean-cut lines of her small, pointed face. There was something very distinctive about her, she reflected, and she had to the full that odd charm of elusive, latent femininity which is so essentially the attribute of the modern girl with her boyish lines and angles.
"I shall miss you dreadfully, Ann!" she exclaimed impulsively. "I wish you belonged to me."
She was hardly conscious of the line of thought which had prompted the spontaneous speech. Ann turned round smilingly.
"It's dear of you to say so," she replied. "I shall insist on Robin's letting me come over to White Windows as often as I like--and as you will have me!"
Lady Susan laughed and kissed her.
"You'd better not promise too much--or I shall want to abduct you altogether!" she declared. "I think Robin's a very lucky young man."
Once the date of her departure for England was actually fixed, it seemed to Ann as though the days positively flew by. There were a hundred and one things requiring attention. Sleeping-berths must be booked on board the train, last visits paid to various friends and acquaintances, and final arrangements made with regard to the shutting up of Mon RÍve. Last, but not least, there was the packing up of Ann's own personal belongings, which, in the course of the last six months, seemed to have strayed away into various odd corners of the villa, as is the way of things.
But it was all accomplished at last, and close on midnight the little party of four travellers stood on the deserted platform at Montricheux, watching the great Orient Express thunder up alongside. Followed a hurried gathering together of hand-baggage, a scramble up the steep steps of the railway coach, a piercing whistle, and the train pulled out of the station and went rocking on its way through the starry darkness of the night.
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