A Summons in the Night
It all seemed so real that I could hardly imagine that it had everoccurred before; and yet each episode came, not as a fresh step in thelogic of things, but as something expected. It is in such a wise thatmemory plays its pranks for good or ill; for pleasure or pain; for wealor woe. It is thus that life is bittersweet, and that which has beendone becomes eternal.
Again, the light skiff, ceasing to shoot through the lazy water as whenthe oars flashed and dripped, glided out of the fierce July sunlightinto the cool shade of the great drooping willow branches--I standingup in the swaying boat, she sitting still and with deft fingersguarding herself from stray twigs or the freedom of the resilience ofmoving boughs. Again, the water looked golden-brown under the canopyof translucent green; and the grassy bank was of emerald hue. Again,we sat in the cool shade, with the myriad noises of nature both withoutand within our bower merging into that drowsy hum in whose sufficingenvironment the great world with its disturbing trouble, and its moredisturbing joys, can be effectually forgotten. Again, in that blissfulsolitude the young girl lost the convention of her prim, narrowupbringing, and told me in a natural, dreamy way of the loneliness ofher new life. With an undertone of sadness she made me feel how in thatspacious home each one of the household was isolated by the personalmagnificence of her father and herself; that there confidence had noaltar, and sympathy no shrine; and that there even her father's facewas as distant as the old country life seemed now. Once more, thewisdom of my manhood and the experience of my years laid themselves atthe girl's feet. It was seemingly their own doing; for the individual"I" had no say in the matter, but only just obeyed imperative orders.And once again the flying seconds multiplied themselves endlessly. Forit is in the arcana of dreams that existences merge and renewthemselves, change and yet keep the same--like the soul of a musicianin a fugue. And so memory swooned, again and again, in sleep.
It seems that there is never to be any perfect rest. Even in Eden thesnake rears its head among the laden boughs of the Tree of Knowledge.The silence of the dreamless night is broken by the roar of theavalanche; the hissing of sudden floods; the clanging of the enginebell marking its sweep through a sleeping American town; the clankingof distant paddles over the sea.... Whatever it is, it is breaking thecharm of my Eden. The canopy of greenery above us, starred withdiamond-points of light, seems to quiver in the ceaseless beat ofpaddles; and the restless bell seems as though it would never cease....
All at once the gates of Sleep were thrown wide open, and my wakingears took in the cause of the disturbing sounds. Waking existence isprosaic enough--there was somebody knocking and ringing at someone'sstreet door.
I was pretty well accustomed in my Jermyn Street chambers to passingsounds; usually I did not concern myself, sleeping or waking, with thedoings, however noisy, of my neighbours. But this noise was toocontinuous, too insistent, too imperative to be ignored. There wassome active intelligence behind that ceaseless sound; and some stressor need behind the intelligence. I was not altogether selfish, and atthe thought of someone's need I was, without premeditation, out of bed.Instinctively I looked at my watch. It was just three o'clock; therewas a faint edging of grey round the green blind which darkened myroom. It was evident that the knocking and ringing were at the door ofour own house; and it was evident, too, that there was no one awake toanswer the call. I slipped on my dressing-gown and slippers, and wentdown to the hall door. When I opened it there stood a dapper groom,with one hand pressed unflinchingly on the electric bell whilst withthe other he raised a ceaseless clangour with the knocker. The instanthe saw me the noise ceased; one hand went up instinctively to the brimof his hat, and the other produced a letter from his pocket. A neatbrougham was opposite the door, the horses were breathing heavily asthough they had come fast. A policeman, with his night lantern stillalight at his belt, stood by, attracted to the spot by the noise.
"Beg pardon, sir, I'm sorry for disturbing you, but my orders wasimperative; I was not to lose a moment, but to knock and ring tillsomeone came. May I ask you, sir, if Mr. Malcolm Ross lives here?"
"I am Mr. Malcolm Ross."
"Then this letter is for you, sir, and the bro'am is for you too, sir!"
I took, with a strange curiosity, the letter which he handed to me. Asa barrister I had had, of course, odd experiences now and then,including sudden demands upon my time; but never anything like this. Istepped back into the hall, closing the door to, but leaving it ajar;then I switched on the electric light. The letter was directed in astrange hand, a woman's. It began at once without "dear sir" or anysuch address:
"You said you would like to help me if I needed it; and I believe youmeant what you said. The time has come sooner than I expected. I amin dreadful trouble, and do not know where to turn, or to whom toapply. An attempt has, I fear, been made to murder my Father; though,thank God, he still lives. But he is quite unconscious. The doctorsand police have been sent for; but there is no one here whom I candepend on. Come at once if you are able to; and forgive me if you can.I suppose I shall realise later what I have done in asking such afavour; but at present I cannot think. Come! Come at once! MARGARETTRELAWNY."
Pain and exultation struggled in my mind as I read; but the masteringthought was that she was in trouble and had called on me--me! Mydreaming of her, then, was not altogether without a cause. I calledout to the groom:
"Wait! I shall be with you in a minute!" Then I flew upstairs.
A very few minutes sufficed to wash and dress; and we were soon drivingthrough the streets as fast as the horses could go. It was marketmorning, and when we got out on Piccadilly there was an endless streamof carts coming from the west; but for the rest the roadway was clear,and we went quickly. I had told the groom to come into the broughamwith me so that he could tell me what had happened as we went along.He sat awkwardly, with his hat on his knees as he spoke.
"Miss Trelawny, sir, sent a man to tell us to get out a carriage atonce; and when we was ready she come herself and gave me the letter andtold Morgan--the coachman, sir--to fly. She said as I was to lose nota second, but to keep knocking till someone come."
"Yes, I know, I know--you told me! What I want to know is, why shesent for me. What happened in the house?"
"I don't quite know myself, sir; except that master was found in hisroom senseless, with the sheets all bloody, and a wound on his head. Hecouldn't be waked nohow. Twas Miss Trelawny herself as found him."
"How did she come to find him at such an hour? It was late in thenight, I suppose?"
"I don't know, sir; I didn't hear nothing at all of the details."
As he could tell me no more, I stopped the carriage for a moment to lethim get out on the box; then I turned the matter over in my mind as Isat alone. There were many things which I could have asked theservant; and for a few moments after he had gone I was angry withmyself for not having used my opportunity. On second thought, however,I was glad the temptation was gone. I felt that it would be morede
licate to learn what I wanted to know of Miss Trelawny's surroundingsfrom herself, rather than from her servants.
We bowled swiftly along Knightsbridge, the small noise of ourwell-appointed vehicle sounding hollowly in the morning air. We turnedup the Kensington Palace Road and presently stopped opposite a greathouse on the left-hand side, nearer, so far as I could judge, theNotting Hill than the Kensington end of the avenue. It was a trulyfine house, not only with regard to size but to architecture. Even inthe dim grey light of the morning, which tends to diminish the size ofthings, it looked big.