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Sixteen Bells by A. E. W. Mason

 

SYLVIA STRODE threw a party on New Year's Eve at the Semiramis Hotel. She summoned to it the young and lovely as the groundwork, then the lame ducks, the old friends who were getting a little sere at the edges, and the new ones with the fresh glister of their youth—the medley, in fact, in which her wise warm heart delighted. One of the lame ducks had refused her invitation, and as she looked about the big long table, his absence threatened to spoil the perfection of her pleasure. But after all he came, and the odd circumstances of his coming made that evening specially memorable to her. Some amongst her guests afterwards, when the facts were known, pretended some uneasiness, and shivered. But Sylvia Strode knew better, and she marked the night in the Roman style, with a white stone.

There were still a few minutes to run before midnight; the lights throughout the restaurant were already being dimmed; on ships at sea quartermasters were getting ready to strike on this one occasion in the twelvemonth sixteen bells; and Michael Croyle made his way between the tables as quickly as the crowded room allowed. Sylvia caught sight of him, stood up, and called him to her side.

"Michael! You wrote to me that you couldn't come!"

"I found to my surprise that I could," he answered, laughing. "So I ran. I am nearly out of breath."

Sylvia made room for him at her side and ordered a waiter to bring up a chair. "You complete my party," she said.

"You make mine perfect," he said, as he sat down.

Michael Croyle was a man of middle age, thin, grey, and worn, with, as a rule, the haggard look of a man waiting for something to happen which wouldn't and didn't happen. But to-night the haggard look had gone. Michael's eyes were bright and untired; his manner was at last at ease; he was secure; and a smile promising good news teased Sylvia.

"Tell me," she said; and as she bent her head towards him, she noticed in the dim light that with the contentment and the ease, a new spirituality like a quality of someone borne on wings was luminous behind the mask of his face. She looked round upon her guests. They were talking and laughing at the tops of their voices with ridiculous caps of tinsel and tissue-paper perched above their gay, flushed faces. Some were exploding crackers with their eyes closed and their foreheads knit, and their heads averted, as though they expected to be blown to the skies. Others were making noises with little mouth-organs and, marvellous to relate, no one was laying down any law upon any subject. Sylvia turned comfortably to the middle-aged man at her side.

"Tell me! You have till midnight."

"Have I?" he asked, and he looked behind him to the white face of the clock glimmering upon the wall. "I want no more time, but I do want that much. I want you to know. For you were very good to me a year or so ago."

Sylvia shrugged her young shoulders.

"I did nothing—"

"Except make me perpetually aware that in the midst of your own happiness you had thought and time to spare for the distress I was—what shall I say?—wilting—yes, wilting under." He spoke with a smile upon his lips, as though he was contemplating with a trifle of pity and a good deal more of amusement, some foolish child who had mistaken a slight wound for a mortal hurt. Michael Croyle had no need to be precise about his dates nor to re-tell his story to Sylvia.

"That wasn't very much for me to do," she put in, "since it was at my house that you first met Joan Ferrers and came in for all this trouble."

"My dear," Croyle answered, "you gave me five years of wonder. Joan, twenty-three, lovely with her brown-black hair with the glinting lights in it, her enormous dark eyes, and the throb of colour in her cheeks, and I, a battered thirty-five with a wife who didn't want me and wouldn't divorce me. Had I been able to marry Joan—there would have been Heaven already. But we had five years—such fun, too," and he nodded his head with a wistful laugh at his recollections. "Fun—the little silly jokes in common—Lord! don't they make the passionate side twice as glorious. You laugh, and you slip an arm under hers, and you feel it answer to yours, and you don't laugh any more, but you pity the world, and everyone who passes you. What a shame that they too can't feel just a little of your thrill and delight! But there it is, poor dears, they can't."

Sylvia looked at the clock, and significantly. Here were the minutes running on to midnight when the lights would go out and up again and there would be Auld Lang Synes and seasonable greetings and all the rest of the paraphernalia of the New Year, and what had happened to Michael Croyle on this wonderful evening would be hidden for ever from her knowledge. For he would never tell her unless he told her to-night—of that she felt sure—he was really in a hurry to tell it—in his own phrase, almost out of breath to tell it.

"You must get along, Michael," she warned him.

All that he had said so far, Sylvia knew already. She knew, too, of the toss which Joan Ferrers had taken when she was hunting in the New Forest; of her removal to a nursing home pitched on a high stretch of moor above that sea of trees; and of her long waiting with a broken spine.

"Joan put up a great fight, didn't she, Sylvia? She wouldn't give in, would she? Only every now and then a little word when she wasn't watching slipped past her tongue. Once, on an evening when her fever abated, she said with a laugh of delight, 'I'm cool. Think of it!' and she drew a breath—enough to shiver your heart, eh? But she was going to mend—surely she would—and then everything came with a rush. The Powers which fix the dates—Joan was weakened down to her date. A fortnight and she drifted out in her sleep."

Thus Michael Croyle, and Sylvia answered, "Yes?" in a question which she made as patient as she could. For this too she knew. But there were certainly strange things which she did not know and must know—before the clock struck—things which had metamorphosed Croyle from a solitary and guarded man, standing sentinel over himself, into this rather commonplace new Ovid platitudinizing upon the delights of Love. Sylvia urged him on with an excitement which, even so, was a little unaccountable to herself.

"He has some odd secret to share with me," Sylvia reflected. "My reward for a little sympathy and good fellowship."

And since in her curiosity for the experiences outside the normal horizon she went far beyond her fellows, she was to hold herself on this night richly rewarded.

"The afternoon when I was told that a fortnight would end everything, I came up from Hampshire by train," Croyle continued. "I did not pay much attention to the places we passed. I had the carriage to myself. But just at one place by chance I looked out of the window. I saw a stretch of heath, a white tavern at a corner and a broad strip of road—just a few yards of it—and for the first time I realized the dreadful thing which was going to happen. Joan used to drive down that road in my great car to join me when I had a house by the sea. She was like a child with a magnificent new toy, except that besides enjoying the toy she saw the fun of herself enjoying her toy. She used to sit forward and take the salutes of the A.A. and R.A.C. men stationed at the cross-ways. She loved and laughed at any sort of magnificence. And as I looked suddenly out of the window of the railway carriage at a point in the road where—always on race days and often on others a man would be standing with his hand to the peak of his cap as she passed—I knew—oh, not in words, but in terms of months and years—that she would never drive down that road again until the end of time, and chuckle at herself acting the great lady in her fine big car." He stopped and smiled as his memories painted the lively picture on the air in front of him.

"So I have never driven down that road again," he added simply, "and when I have had to pass in the train that corner with the white public- house—the Duke of Cornwall I think it's called—I've sat at the window on the other side of the carriage. See?"

"Yes. I can follow that," said Sylvia.

"Until this week," he continued; and Sylvia looked at him sharply. "When for no reason whatever my whole point of view changed."

Sylvia was startled. Had he gone the way of all men? Mended a despair with the splints of a new passion? Repaired his wound with the poultice of a few years? Well, it was usual enough, but she had not expected it. Also, she was a trifle hurt.

"So you went on a visit, and you refused to come to my party, Michael," she said. A man might go setting up new gods and even new goddesses, but need he throw down old friends? She didn't.

Michael Croyle laid his hand on her arm and gave it a little shake.

"You've got it all wrong, Sylvia," he said, with a quiet laugh of enjoyment. "I didn't go on any visit. But I did make a visit with the strangest and most glorious experience."

"How?" asked Sylvia, not yet reassured. "In London?"

"No! Just listen! You know, or rather you don't know, that I have kept up writing letters."

"To Joan?"

"Yes."

Sylvia stared at him.

"Just the same sort of letters which I used to write when she was lying in her nursing-home—telling her everything, what I was doing and thinking, and discussing things we were both interested in, and asking what she thought about this and that. The sort of long letters lovers can write—putting down anything which might amuse the other."

"But what in the world," Sylvia exclaimed, "did you do with the letters when you had written them?"

Michael Croyle laughed.

"I didn't post them, you may be sure. But I didn't have to. I had an idea—no, a conviction, that Joan read them over my shoulder as I wrote them. Sylvia, I have felt the touch of her hand upon my shoulder as she leaned forward to read the word I had not yet finished writing. I have heard a faint gurgle of laughter at something which I knew would amuse her. I never dared turn round—that way Eurydice was lost. I just went on. Well, I was writing to her on the day before your invitation came, and right in the middle of the letter I understood that I needn't write any more—that letter-writing was at an end."

Sylvia, though fantasy and imagination played their parts, and great parts too, in her life, had a sound practical foundation on which she stood firm. She could vibrate like a well-built lighthouse, but she remained on her rock. She asked now:

"But something must have happened? Something which you have forgotten?"

Croyle shook his head.

"No, my dear. Letter-writing had come definitely to an end. That was all."

"Something took its place?"

And Croyle laughed and agreed.

"But not immediately. I am bound to say that I did expect something."

"A message?" Sylvia asked, and she, following unconsciously in his humour, spoke as if Joan was living next door in a London street and might be expected to send round a note at any moment.

"But it didn't come," Croyle answered. "You are right, however. I expected it enough to feel that I must say no to your invitation, Sylvia; I had to hold myself ready."

"For what.'"

"Honestly, I don't know. For everything—for nothing. It was nothing, you see, and since it was nothing, I thought that I had better write to you and ask whether it was too late for me to come to your party after all."

"Why didn't you?" Sylvia asked.

"I began to," said Croyle, "in fact, I was actually writing when it occurred to me that the time had come for me to revisit all the places which were associated with Joan in my mind. I had fought shy of them. But I've never believed in making a luxury of one's troubles—that was never my line nor Joan's—and I had always known that sooner or later I should see them again—and indeed be pleased to see them. Well, here was the opportunity quite naturally presented to me! I had said that I couldn't come to you. Nothing that I had expected had materialized. I was free. So I telegraphed to an hotel in the New Forest, to which I used to go from Friday to Monday whilst Joan was lying ill. You remember the nursing-home? It was a big square house built, I think, upon the highest point of the Forest. The main road to Southampton passed it and was joined below the house by the side road from Brockenhurst. You dipped down from this fortress of a house through Burling and came to my hotel—a long red house on the road with a big garden and orchard behind it. I telegraphed for the suite of rooms I used to have, looking out on to the garden, and when I had secured them I went down by train on the last day of the year!"

"To-day!" Sylvia cried.

"Yes, to-day," answered Michael.

Then how was it that he was back again and so soon? Sylvia was puzzled, but she kept her perplexities to herself. The moving fingers of the clock were writing off the minutes and would not wait for questions.

"Do you know," Michael continued, "that I sat close by the window I used to avoid, and that I waited impatiently for the glimpse of the dark road by the Duke of Cornwall public-house at the corner? There's a miserable little triangle of bare grass and sand between the railway and the road which is a golf-course—and I should think the only golf-course where the members still go proudly out in red jackets. I looked out for the flashes of red, oddly excited. I laughed when I saw two of them between the sparse bushes, and then the Duke's white inn flew by and vanished—but not before I had seen a Rolls Royce skimming along the tarmac and an A.A. man with his hand to the peak of his cap in a military salute."

Sylvia leaned forward. Her imagination was provoked by the picture of the man in the train and the great car upon the road—and perhaps—perhaps—a girl sitting a little forward in the car, alight from her dark starry eyes to her red lips with amusement and delight.

"A tryst, then!" she whispered; and Michael Croyle sat back, he in his turn surprised.

"That never occurred to me," he cried. "I never dreamed of it."

He sat in silence for a little while and then, with a shake of the head:

"No, my dear. It would have been amusing."

"Amusing?"

Could there be, Sylvia thought, a word more odd to use in such a connexion? But Michael was amused.

"Yes. But if it had been Joan in that car, I should have known, shouldn't I? Oh, yes, I must have known. It was the merest coincidence," and he shook his head. "I reached the Forest Hotel," he continued, "late in the afternoon. A good many people had come there, either for a change or more probably to escape the festivities of the season. For they were most of them rather old, solitary people, a retired General from the Punjab, a couple of those elderly spinsters who tramp the world with Baedekers under their arms, a pensioned governess, a man who had given his life to watching birds, a middle-aged couple without children—that sort of visitor. All of them friendly, making the best of things, achieving a kind of gaiety—but on the whole a rather pathetic gathering. There was, however, one young couple, recently married, which gave us a real lustre. They were both young, he a Civil Servant of the Straits Settlements on leave, she a girl from the hill country of Dorsetshire, both good looking and both tremendously in love, but decently in love. There was a touch of Millamant in their behaviour. They were reserved and very private with each other, though every now and then they broke down over some little joke of their own and gave themselves away."

Sylvia laughed. Michael might have been describing Joan and himself in the days when she had lived.

"They were charming to us," Michael continued. "If they thought us the waifs and strays of the world, they gave not a sign of it, unless their consideration was a sign. We met in the lounge for a cocktail before dinner; we dined at small tables in the dining-room looking on the garden, talking to each other across the room, and after dinner we played a game."

He dwelled for a moment upon the phrase. "Yes, we played a game, the sort of simple round game, suitable to the gathering and the occasion. Someone had to go out of the room. The rest of us had to agree upon some object in the room upon which we were to concentrate our thoughts. Then the person outside the room was to be called back into it and find out by asking questions, or watching the direction of our eyes, what it was we were thinking about."

"Wasn't that all rather commonplace?" Sylvia asked. She had been expecting something more timely and dramatic than this very conventional and tedious evening.

"It was very commonplace," Croyle agreed. "That's what makes the whole affair to me so true and natural. There was nothing odd or significant in any of the preliminaries. Everything, even to the last lovely incident, came in a simple sequence of everyday things. There was, therefore, no doubting it. There was no drama. The evening flowed, just flowed, to its end, like a quiet river to the sea."

"The evening?" Sylvia stammered. "This evening? To-night?"

"Yes, to-night," Michael answered, wondering apparently what puzzled her.

But how in the world, since he was here in London and the time still short of twelve, could he have spent that evening a hundred miles away in Hampshire? Sylvia drew away from him as if she was afraid that his mind had gone, but she saw that he noticed her movement, and that a shadow darkened his face. She leaned forward at once.

"To-night, yes. I see, my dear. You poor derelicts were playing animal, vegetable, mineral in the drawing-room of your hotel."

"Yes. The drawing-room was a little-used room in the front of the house overlooking the road. My sitting-room was behind it and opened on to the garden and had a door into the drawing-room. It was, therefore, the natural room to be used as the waiting-room whilst the thing to be guessed was decided upon. Of course, the young wife, Cynthia Stile, was chosen to go out of the room. She was a tallish slim girl with hair the colour of corn and grey eyes, and she was dressed in a blue frock which set off her white throat and shoulders perfectly. I remember that one of the travelling spinsters cried out in a burst of enthusiasm as soon as the door of my sitting-room was closed upon Cynthia, 'Oh, I do hope she guesses it quickly.'

"We all laughed, but I think that at the back of our minds we all had the same wish. We wanted no crumpled rose-leaves to ruffle the contentment of our lovers—we had almost a proprietary interest in their happiness during this New Year season. Mark Stile, the husband, laughed confidently. 'I don't think Cynthia will be long,' he said, and we set ourselves to agreeing upon some object in the room. We chose in the end a rose in a bunch of flowers which stood in a glass vase upon a mat on the grand piano; and we made up our minds not to look at it definitely, not to look away from it definitely, but just to keep it in mind. Then the General, who was appointed master of ceremonies, rose and went to the door of my sitting-room. He opened it.

"'Mrs. Stile. We are ready.'

"Then he closed the door again and resumed his seat and, stroking his grey moustache, put on as vacant and indifferent an air as he could. So we all sat posed rather like figures in Madame Tussaud's, and waiting for Cynthia Stile to appear and question us.

"But she didn't appear. We waited, thinking that she had snatched the occasion to run off to her room, repair the vermilion of her lips and powder her nose. We weren't impatient. No; we rather liked her for it. We thought these pretty attentions to her looks were a pretty compliment to us, the derelicts. But still she didn't appear. Someone shifted his feet and composed them again quickly. Someone coughed. The General from the Punjab went HRRHM-HaHa, like an elephant and relapsed into a sense of guilt—and still Cynthia didn't appear. I don't pretend to be more sensitive than another to the vibrations and reactions of the people about me, but I became conscious of a gradual and extraordinary change in the mood of all of us. Perhaps the silence we kept uneasily had as much to do with it as any other reason, and the carefully careless poses we were at pains to assume and retain. But—something was growing in the room. That's the truth. Something strange and new was growing in the room. A few minutes ago we were playing with the semi-serious attention of grown-ups in such circumstances, an after-dinner game which should carry us comfortably on to the moment when we would turn out the lights, fling open the windows and hear the church bells pealing across the glades of the New Forest messages and messages and messages!

"But now the idea of the New Year imminent was being wiped out of our minds. Something was going to happen—here and now. Something was happening—here and now. That's how I read the new conviction which was creeping from guest to guest in the silent room of the Forest Hotel, dominating us, binding us in the very spells of expectation.

"It needed one of the travelling ladies to break a silence which was intolerable and seemed unbreakable. I suppose she was of a firmer mould than the rest of us.

"'I wish Cynthia would come,' she said fretfully. Yes, we already, even on so slight an acquaintance, thought of her as Cynthia. But her voice was not quite under control. It rose and quavered, almost with a hint of hysteria—certainly with a note of fear. It was the note of fear, calling to the same unacknowledged feeling in all of us which brought Mark Stile to his feet.

"'I'll fetch her,' he said, and he hurried to the door. Just for the fraction of a second he hesitated and the handle of the door rattled in his grasp. Then he turned it. As the door opened, we saw through the opening that the room was in darkness. Mark Stile slipped in.

"'Cynthia!' he called in a panic. Then the alarm was drowned in laughter. 'Oh!' he added, and he shut the door behind him.

"His burst of laughter set us all at ease. The old General growled and twisted his moustache, and said good-humouredly: 'The young monkey. She's up to some mischief.'

"We were delighted that she was. Cynthia Stile was going to play some pleasant and unexpected trick upon us. We waited for it patiently. Yes, we could wait at our ease now. She had enlisted her husband. Very well! Then it needed a little preparation. We must give them time and, meanwhile, we might guess as cleverly as our brains could manage it what entertainment the lovers were plotting for us. From a charade to a seance, from a duologue to a dance, we ranged through the possibilities, and then the man whose life was given to watching birds said suddenly:

"'They are a long time, aren't they?' They had been a long time. And all our unstable fears began to crowd and gibber at us again. But we wouldn't have their company. We shouted down that watcher of birds. How dare he, who should have been the most patient of us all, show such perturbation? The retired governess hurried to the rescue, as she must often have done to appease a panic in the school-room.

"'Oh, I expect they are really going to astonish us. Dressing up takes a lot of time. Ask the General.'

"A little joke can go a long way, and the General took it with an excellent spirit.

"'But, my dear lady, you don't know me,' he replied fiercely, twirling his moustache. 'Within ten minutes of stepping out of my bath you couldn't have found a button of my tunic out of place.'

"But the little chorus of laughter which sprang up died away quickly. There had come a fresh development in our suspense. We began to watch the door now, dreading lest it should open rather than wishing that it would. I should have said, Sylvia, 'They began to watch the door. They were afraid.' I could feel their fear, throbbing about me, attacking me."

"But you weren't afraid," said Sylvia.

"I hadn't room for fear," Michael Croyle answered. "I was simply conscious that it was my turn now to go into that room. This certainty filled me and I got up from the chair.

"'Oh, you're not going to follow them?' cried one of the ladies in a voice of agitation—I think that it was the middle-aged, stoutish wife.

"'It's time that I did,' I answered, and the husband grumbled a protest against my folly.

"'Not a bit of it, Mr. Croyle,' he said. 'There's heaps of time. You'll probably just spoil their game when they've just got it ready for us. Have a heart and give them a chance! There's still an hour to go before midnight.'

"He was right, for I looked at my watch. The hands pointed exactly to eleven o'clock. But the time mentioned was merely an excuse to stop me from doing the thing which it was ordained that I should do. An earthquake would not have stopped me at that moment.

"'It's my turn,' I said. 'I am called,' and I walked to the door rather stiffly, like a man walking along a narrow board.

"'You're coming back, of course?' the General said gruffly.

"'Of course,' I answered. I turned the handle and went into the room. I heard the governess say, as the door was closing softly behind me, 'I heard nobody call him. He's as white as a ghost.'

"That, of course, was the merest piece of imagination. They were all, I think, worked up to expect that some startling and dreadful catastrophe was hidden in my sitting-room. What I was expecting, frankly, I cannot tell you. During the last few minutes I had been moving without volition like an automaton on a string, but an automaton with his senses alert. The room in which I stood was dark, but outside the moon was riding high behind a fleece of white cloud and all the garden was bathed in a wan and vaporous light. The long windows stood open, and the freshness of the dew filled the air. It was very still. Occasionally a bird rustled on a branch and far away an owl hooted softly; and on the lawn in front of me Mark Stile was walking with his wife, his arm about her shoulders. That was what the catastrophe amounted to, Sylvia. Cynthia Stile, by the simple device of not answering the summons to the drawing-room, had lured her husband to join her in the glamour of that forest garden. Once he had joined her the magic of the night, something mystical in the pale radiance which lit it up, and the amazing riddle to them of their love, obliterated from their minds the drawing-room and our commonplace little company. They were deep in talk and we had ceased to be. Yes, but it couldn't go on. They weren't playing fair. We were a little community gathered up by chance into this space amongst the trees and united by certain needs most acutely felt at this one season of the year—children, relations, love, all of which we were without. And the two lovers, because they had everything they wanted, were a real solace to each one of us. They couldn't be allowed to get away by themselves on this night of all nights. They were a ministration to us, the derelicts. So they must minister. I had to see to it that these lucky people did their duty by the waifs and strays.

"I moved towards the window, but before I could open my mouth, I heard a whisper behind me:

"'Don't call, my dear!'

"The whisper was low and clear and—you won't think me a fool, Sylvia?—in a moment the tears were running down my cheeks. You know how impossible it is to hear again by memory, however much you ply your imagination, a voice which once played upon your heart the loveliest music in the world. How often I had tried to recapture it! But it is just as impossible to mistake it when it falls actually upon your ears. Joan! Of course it was Joan who was speaking, and at once everything was explained to me. Why my letter-writing had come to an end, why I could watch the stretch of road with the white tavern at the corner without distress, why I had come back to the hotel in the forest which I had looked upon as forbidden land for me. I cried without shame, and I felt Joan's hand upon my shoulder.

"I turned round—or rather she turned me round. There was nothing strange or new in her. She was wearing a white velvet dress which she had bought in London just before her accident and had, I remembered, once worn. She glimmered white against the black of the room, her eyes darkly shining, her lips lovely with a smile. I think I babbled some excuse for my tears. I know that she was in my arms. The last time I had seen her, I had stooped and kissed her forehead—and it had been cold as marble. I remembered at this moment that I had not been sorry, for the coldness was a sign that the long days and nights of pain were over. I could afford to remember it, for now her lips were warm and tender and she lay in my arms pulsing with blood and life.

"'Dearest and dearest, I have wanted you' I said.

"Joan stroked her hand down my cheek.

"'I know, darling. I read your letters.'

"'You did?'

"'Yes. Over your shoulder as you wrote them.'

"'I thought you did.'

"'Had you once faltered in your need of me,' she said with loving pride, 'I could not have come to you tonight,' and her arms clung to me. 'As it is—' and such a sigh of happiness broke from her lips as made all my sorrows of no account.

"'You are here,' I said, and I laughed."

Joan laid a finger on my lips.

"'Hush!' and she pointed to the lovers deep in talk upon the lawn. I had forgotten them as completely as they had forgotten us. 'We owe them a great deal,' said Joan, with a laugh in her eyes. 'Don't let us bring them to earth before we need.'

"'What do we owe them?' I asked in a low voice.

"'But for them I couldn't have come to you, my dear. To come to you there was a bridge needed for me to cross—and the only one bridge by which I could cross was the bridge of a perfect love. That is the law."

"I looked out through the windows to where the two lovers waited in the silver grey and misty light for the chimes to break upon the stillness of the night. They seemed to me further away than they had been, ever so much further. The air about them was more vaporous, but it made a sort of archway in which they stood quite clearly, bathed in a lovely silver radiance. And all the time Joan was at my side, her hand clasping mine, her breath upon my cheek...I wanted you to know, Sylvia, for I am going to skip out when the lights go down."

Michael had hardly finished speaking when the lights went out in the great restaurant and every ship flying the Red Ensign between Pole and Pole struck sixteen bells. When the lights went up again, and the band broke into Auld Lang Syne, and Sylvia reached out a crossed hand to Michael Croyle, he had gone.

"You saw him go?" she asked quietly to her neighbour as she closed up the gap.

"Yes. He whispered good night and went away."

And with that answer Sylvia was contented, but only for a little while. Michael Croyle had spoken of New Year's Eve as of a time long since past. But it was this New Year's Eve, nevertheless, the New Year's Eve which only five minutes ago was still to-night. He had told her a story of events not an hour old—events which had happened to him a hundred miles away in the depths of the New Forest. But he had not finished his story. Sylvia sat back in her chair startled and for a moment dismayed. It was she who had to finish it. She was sure of that just as Michael had been sure that it was his turn to go into the room which opened on to the garden.

"I shan't be a moment," she said to the man who sat next to her. "Will you come with me to the telephone?"

She tried to call up Croyle's house in Deanery Street, but she could not get on. She rang up the supervisor and was told that the line was occupied by a trunk call from the New Forest, where Michael Croyle had just died in a room opening upon the garden.

 
 
 

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