Duncombe drew a little sigh of relief. At last then he was to know something. He was very English, a bad amateur detective, and very weary of his task. Nothing but his intense interest in the girl herself—an interest which seemed to have upset the whole tenor of his life—would have kept him here plodding so relentlessly away at a task which seemed daily to present more difficulties and complications. Yet so absorbed had he become that the ordinary duties and pleasures which made up the routine of his life scarcely ever entered into his mind. There had been men coming down to shoot, whom in an ordinary way he would not have dreamed of putting off—a cricket match which had been postponed until his return, and which he had completely forgotten. Paris had nothing in the shape of amusement to offer him in place of these things, yet in his own mind these things were as if they had not been. Every interest and energy of his life was concentrated upon the one simple object of his search.
He gave the man half a crown, and walked to the lift whistling. The porter shook his head, and Duncombe receded considerably in his estimation, notwithstanding the tip. He considered Mademoiselle Flossie a little obvious for a gentleman of Duncombe's class. Duncombe treated himself to a cocktail and a cigarette as he changed his clothes. It was positively the first gleam of hope he had had. And then suddenly he remembered Spencer's warning, and he became grave.
He was at the Cafe Sylvain early. He ordered dinner, gave elaborate instructions about a young lady when she arrived, and with a glass of absinthe and another cigarette sat down to wait. At a quarter to eight he began to get restless. He summoned the waiter again, and gave a more detailed description of Mademoiselle Flossie. The waiter was regretful but positive. No young lady of any description had arrived expecting to meet a gentleman in a private room. Duncombe tried him with her name. But yes, Mademoiselle Mermillon was exceedingly well known there! He would give orders that she should be shown up immediately she arrived. It would be soon, without doubt.
At a quarter-past eight Duncombe dined alone, too disappointed to resent the waiter's sympathetic attitude. At nine o'clock he returned to the hotel on the chance that a message might have been sent there. He read the English newspapers, and wrote letters until midnight. Then he ordered a carriage and drove to the Cafe Montmartre.
He mounted the stairs and passed through the little bar which led into the supper-room. Monsieur Albert came forward with a low bow.
"You can find me a table, I suppose?" Duncombe remarked, looking round. "Where shall I sit?"
Monsieur Albert shook his head slowly. His hands were outstretched, his manner sad, but resigned.
"I am very sorry, Monsieur, but to-night every place is taken. I have had to turn others away already," he declared. "A thousand regrets."
Duncombe looked at him astonished. The place was more than half empty.
"Surely you can find me a small table somewhere," he said. "I was here last evening, you know. If it is because I am alone I will order supper for two and a magnum of wine."
Monsieur Albert was immovable. He remembered Duncombe well, and he was proud of his patronage, but to-night it was impossible to offer him a table. Duncombe began to be annoyed.
"Very well," he said, "I will stay in the bar. You can't turn me out of there, can you?"
Monsieur Albert was evasive. He desired Monsieur Duncombe to be amused, and the people who remained in the bar—well, it was not possible to get rid of them, but they were not fitting company for him.
"There is the Cafe Mazarin," he added confidentially, "a few steps only from here—a most amusing place. The most wonderful ladies there, too, very chic, and crowded every night! Monsieur should really try it. The commissionaire would direct him—a few yards only."
"Much obliged to you," Duncombe answered, turning on his heel. "I may look in there presently."
He seated himself at a small round table and ordered a drink. The people here were of a slightly different class from those who had the entree to the supper-room and were mostly crowded round the bar itself. At a small desk within a few feet of him a middle-aged woman with a cold, hard face sat with a book of account before her and a pile of bills. There was something almost Sphynx-like about her appearance. She never spoke. Her expression never changed. Once their eyes met. She looked at him steadfastly, but said nothing. The girl behind the bar also took note of him. She was very tall and slim, absolutely colorless, and with coils of fair hair drawn tightly back from her forehead. She was never without a cigarette, lighting a fresh one always from its predecessor, talking all the while unceasingly, but without the slightest change of expression. Once she waved the men and girls who stood talking to her on one side, and Duncombe fancied that it was because she desired a better view of him.
Suddenly he was startled by a voice close at hand. He looked up. The woman at the desk was speaking to him.
"Monsieur would be well advised," she said, "if he departed."
Duncombe looked at her in amazement. She was writing rapidly in her book, and her eyes were fixed upon her work. If he had not actually heard her, it would have been hard to believe that she had spoken.
"But why, Madame?" he asked. "Why should I go? I am in no one's way. I can pay for what I have."
She dipped her pen in the ink.
"I know nothing of Monsieur or his business," she said, still without even glancing towards him, "but I know that Monsieur Albert does not wish him to remain."
"The devil take Monsieur Albert!" Duncombe answered angrily. "I am waiting to speak to some one who comes here regularly, and I shall stay until she comes."
The woman wrote steadily for a moment. Then she blotted the page on which she had been writing, and raising her head, looked at him.
"It is no affair of mine," she said, "but Monsieur Albert has sent for the police. They may say that you have had too much wine, or that you owe money. In either case you will be removed. The police will not listen to you. Monsieur Albert has special discretion. It is no affair of mine," she repeated, "but if I were Monsieur I would go."
Duncombe rose slowly to his feet, and summoning a waiter paid his bill. The man produced a second one, dated a few days back, for a large amount.
"What is the meaning of this?" he asked. "I do not owe you anything."
"Monsieur was here with a party last Thursday night," he said glibly. "He promised to pay the next time. I will call the manager."
Duncombe tore the bill in half and turned away. He bowed to the lady at the desk.
"I see that you were right," he said. "I will leave."
"Monsieur is wise," she answered without looking up.
He left the cafe without speaking to any one further. When he reached the pavement he slipped a five-franc piece into the hand of the tall commissionaire.
"You know most of the young ladies who come here, I suppose?" he asked.
"But certainly!" the man answered with a smile, "Monsieur desires?"
"I want the address of a young lady named Mermillon—Flossie, I think they call her," Duncombe said.
"Thirty-one, Rue Pigalle," the man answered promptly. "But she should be here within an hour. She never misses."
Duncombe thanked him, and hailed a carriage.
"Shall I give Mademoiselle any message?" the man asked confidentially.
"I am going to call for her," Duncombe answered. "If I do not find her I will return."
To drive to the Rue Pigalle was an affair of five minutes only. Duncombe climbed a couple of flights of narrow stairs, pushed open a swing gate, and found himself in front of an office, in which an elderly woman sat reading.
"Can you tell me where to find Mademoiselle Mermillon?" Duncombe asked.
"Next floor; first door on the left," the woman answered. "Mademoiselle is not often in at this hour, though."
Duncombe thanked her, and climbed another flight of stairs. He had to strike a match to look for a bell or knocker, and then found neither. He knocked on the door with his knuckles. There was no reply. He was on the point of departure, when he noticed that the door was ajar. After a moment's hesitation he pushed it open.
He found himself in a narrow passage, with dresses and other articles of apparel hanging from a row of pegs on the wall. The place was in complete darkness. He struck another match. At the end of the passage was an inner door, also ajar. He rapped upon it, and finally pushed it open. Just then his match went out!
Duncombe had the nerves and temperament of the young Englishman of his class, whose life is mostly spent out of doors, and who has been an athlete all his days. But nevertheless at that moment he was afraid. Something in the stillness of the room oppressed him. He could see nothing, hear nothing except the clock ticking upon the mantlepiece. And yet he was afraid.
He fumbled desperately in his pocket for his matchbox. When he had found it he discovered that it was empty. With a sense of positive relief he backed out of the room and hastily descended the stairs. The old lady was still in her sitting-room reading the paper. She set it down at his entrance, and looked at him over the top of her spectacles.
"Pardon, Madame," he said, removing his hat, "I find the rooms of Mademoiselle are open, but all is in darkness. I cannot make any one hear."
Madame took up her paper.
"Then Mademoiselle is probably out," she declared. "It is generally so at this hour. Monsieur can leave his name."
"But the doors are all open!" Duncombe said.
"I go presently and close them," Madame answered. "The careless hussy!"
Duncombe produced a small piece of gold. Madame laid down the paper at once. She looked at it as though ready to snatch it from his hand.
"Madame would oblige me very much if she would ascend with me at once," Duncombe said. "I should like to make quite sure whether the young lady is there or not."
Madame was on her feet with remarkable celerity. She accepted the coin and carefully placed it in a purse drawn from somewhere amongst the folds of her voluminous skirts.
"We shall need a candle," Duncombe reminded her.
She lit a lamp, talking all the while.
"Monsieur is very generous," she declared. "Mademoiselle Flossie is a charming young lady. No wonder she has many friends. There was one," she continued, "who came here with her this afternoon—but he left almost at once," she added hastily, aware of her indiscretion. "Ah, these stairs! They grow steeper for one so corpulent. At last!"
She pushed open the door and went sideways down the narrow passage. Directly they had entered it they had a view of the room beyond. Madame cried out, and Duncombe felt all his vague fears spring into a terrified apprehension of actual evil.
The curtain before the window had been hastily drawn, but the lamp which the portress carried was sufficient feebly to illuminate the room. The table-cloth and a broken vase lay upon the floor. A few feet off was an overturned chair. Upon the canopied bed lay a prostrate figure, the head thrown back at an unnatural angle, the eyes open but glazed. Duncombe dared do no more than cast one single horrified glance at it. Madame set down the lamp upon the table, and made the room hideous with shrieks.
"Good God!" she cried. "It is the little one who is dead!"
Duncombe himself fetched in the gendarmes, and waited whilst they took voluminous notes of the occurrence. The murder seemed to them and to Madame to be one of a very common class. The assassin had left no clue whatever behind him. The poor girl's rings had been torn from her fingers, her little stock of jewellery ransacked, her purse was empty, everything of value had been taken. There was not a shred of evidence against any one. Madame, who had seen the man upon the stairs, could only say that he was short, and wore a black felt hat. The officer who took down what they had to say shrugged his shoulders as he replaced the book in his pocket. The affair would pass most certainly, he feared, into the long list of undiscoverable crimes.
Duncombe left his name and address, and enough money for the funeral. Then he returned to his hotel. This was the end, then, of the clue from which he had hoped so much. Spencer's warning as to what would surely happen to those whom he might succeed in bribing came back into his mind with sickening insistence. In a measure he was responsible for the girl's death. After all, what chance had he? He was fighting against powers which, moving always in the darkness, seemed able with the most ridiculous ease to frustrate his every move. He re-entered the hotel in a state of complete nervous depression. For the first time he had forebodings on his own account. What had happened to Mademoiselle Flossie might happen so easily to himself.
A man rose quickly from the lounge in the hotel as he entered. Duncombe greeted him with a little expression of wonder.
"Spencer!" he exclaimed. "Were you waiting to see me?"
The journalist nodded. He was not in evening dress, and he too had the appearance of a man who has received something of a shock.
"Yes. The cafe is closed, I suppose. Let us go down into the smoke-room. I want to talk to you."
Duncombe led the way. They found two easy-chairs, and despatched a waiter for whiskies and soda. Then Spencer turned to his friend.
"Have you met," he asked, "with any success?"
"None!" Duncombe answered gloomily.
"I have something to tell you," Spencer continued. "No, it is not good news," he added hastily. "It is more a personal matter. It is of something which has happened to myself."
"Go on!" he said.
"For twenty-two and a half years," Spencer said, "I have lived in Paris as the correspondent to various English journals. I have made many friends, and it has been considered amongst all my fellow journalists that I had the ear of more influential people in politics and society here than any other writer. To-day I have resigned my position!"
Duncombe managed to summon up enough interest to be surprised.
"I had no idea," he said, "that you were contemplating anything of the sort."
"I was not!" Spencer answered grimly. "I am as much surprised myself as all my friends will be."
Duncombe was puzzled.
"I am afraid I don't quite understand," he said. "You can't mean that your people——"
"No! My people have nothing to do with it," Spencer answered. "I have had the sack, but not from them. It is Paris which will have no more of me. I live here, of course, on my faculties for obtaining information, and my entree into political and social life. To-day the Minister of Police has declined to receive me, or at any future time—my cards of entry into the chamber and half a dozen places have been revoked, my name has been expunged from the visiting list of the President, and practically of every other person of importance. All that I may see of Paris now is from the outside. And there is no appeal!"
"But what is the reason of it, Spencer? What have you done? How have you offended all these people?"
"I don't want you to blame yourself in any way, Duncombe," he said. "You could not possibly have guessed the sort of thing you were up against. But the fact remains that my offence is in having sent my friends to the Cafe Montmartre on your account, and in being suspected of rendering you further assistance in your search for those two marvellous young English people!"
"You are not joking by any chance, are you?" Duncombe asked gravely.
"The matter," Spencer replied, "does not appear to me to lend itself to anything of the sort."
Duncombe buried his head in his hands for several moments.
"Great Heavens!" he murmured. "Let me think! I can't tell you how sorry I am, old chap. Can't the thing be explained? As a matter of fact, you were discretion itself."
"I don't want it explained," Spencer said, "even if it would do any good—which it wouldn't! I should have retired in any case in less than a year, and, as it is, I believe my successor is on his way over already. Now would you like to know why I have come here at this hour of the night to tell you this?"
"Go on!" he said. "Afterwards I've something to tell you."
"I've come," Spencer said, "because I'm free now, if you like, to help you. I was interested in your story before. I am ten times more interested in it now. If you still want me I'll do what I can for you."
"Want you! Spencer, do you mean it?" Duncombe exclaimed. "Want you! Why, there's no one I'd rather interest in the affair than you."
"Well, I can promise you my interest is pretty well excited already," Spencer answered. "I'm with you right along. Now tell me where you've been this evening, and what's happened."
Duncombe recounted the evening's events. His new ally listened and afterwards smoked for a moment or two in silence.
"It is simply wonderful," he declared. "The whole secret-service system of Paris is working to cover up the traces of this boy and girl. Their spies, of course, are everywhere, and their organization perfect. The first one of their creatures who tries to break away is Mademoiselle Flossie. The poor little fool lived for only a few hours afterwards. Your bribe was high, but she ought to have known better."
"Why, of course! The theft of her poor little jewels was only a blind. It was to deceive the public, for, as a matter of fact, her murderer would have been perfectly safe if he had strolled into the nearest police station and made his report. She was killed because she was going to give you certain information."
"Great Heaven!" he exclaimed. "Tell me, Spencer, who or what can be at the back of all this? Guy Poynton was simply a healthy-minded, not over-intelligent, young Saxon, unambitious, and passionately fond of his home and his country life. He had no friends over here, no interests, no ties of any sort. He was abroad for the first time of his life. He regarded foreign countries and people simply with the tolerant curiosity of the untravelled Britisher. He appears in Paris for one night and disappears, and forthwith all the genius of French espionage seems to have combined to cover up his traces. It is the same with his sister, only as she came afterwards it was evidently on his account that she also is drawn into the mystery. What can be the meaning of it, Spencer?"
"My young friend," Spencer said, "I will be frank with you. I have not the least idea! I only know that somehow or other you're up against a big thing. In a week—perhaps a day—I may know more. Meanwhile I want you to go on your way precisely as though you and I had not discussed this matter."
"We may not work together then?" Duncombe asked.
"Certainly not! You are a marked man everywhere. Every door is closed to you. I shall nominally stick to my post. You must be content to be the actual looker-on, though you had better not abandon your inquiries altogether. I will put you up at the Cercle Anglais. It will serve to pass the time, and you may gain information at the most unlikely places. And now good-bye."
The liftman thrust a pencilled note into Duncombe's hand as he ascended to his room.
"From I do not know whom, Monsieur," he announced. "It was left here by some one! Whom I cannot say."
Duncombe opened it in his dressing-room. There was only one sentence:—
"Monsieur would be well advised to leave Paris to-night."
A WORD OF WARNING
"In the most unlikely places!" Duncombe murmured to himself as he bowed to the Frenchman, whose name his friend had mentioned. "I am very glad to meet you again, Monsieur le Baron!" he said, aloud.
They were in the covered garden at the Ritz. Duncombe had accepted the pressing invitation of an old college friend, whom he had met on the boulevards to drop in and be introduced to his wife. And the third at the tea-table was Monsieur Louis, known in society apparently as Monsieur le Baron de Seurs.
Lady Hadley, his friend's wife, smiled languidly upon them both. She was a frail pink and white little woman, with the reputation of a beauty to sustain, wherein lay her life's work.
"You two know one another, of course!" she remarked. "Paris is no larger than London, after all."
"Sir George and I have met once at least," the Baron said, smiling. "I am glad that he does me the honor of remembering the occasion."
Duncombe felt himself no match for his companion with the foils. He let the conversation drift, and waited for his opportunity. Presently some more guests arrived, and Duncombe drew his host on one side.
"Hadley," he said, "how long have you known the Baron?"
"Met him at Dorset House about two years ago, I think," Hadley answered. "He was doing a round of country-houses. I'm not sure that he didn't stay at Sandringham. One of the real old French families, you know, De Seurs."
Duncombe nodded. There did not seem to be much that he could say. He mingled with the other guests, and observed his social duties. But he watched the Baron, and he took care that they left together.
"Are you going my way, Baron?" he asked, as they stepped into the Place Vendome.
"I was going to the Cercle Anglais," the Baron answered. "Do you belong?"
"I am up for a month's membership, but I am not elected yet," Duncombe answered.
"Then you shall come in as my guest," the Baron declared.
"You are exceedingly kind," Duncombe answered. "I wonder whether I might presume still further upon your good nature and ask you a question."
"The asking," the Baron murmured, "involves nothing."
"You bear, I am told, an honored name, and you are well received in society. Why do you associate with murderers and thieves in that hell of a cafe where I saw you first?"
The Baron smiled.
"My friend," he said, "I seek always the life amusing, and I find it there."
"I was robbed before your eyes, Baron."
The Frenchman sighed.
"I am so sorry," he said, "that I did not see it. That indeed would have been amusing."
"You know that the young lady who sat with us is dead?"
"A most bizarre happening," the Baron assented with a little sigh. "I cannot imagine how it occurred. The newspaper reports are not convincing. One would like to reconstruct the story. Poor little Flossie! She was most amusing, but just a little, a very little, too fond of flourishing her jewellery. One will miss her, though."
"Referring for one moment to our meeting at the cafe. You told me a story there—you and your friend Madame—of a young English lady—which the facts seem scarcely to sustain."
The Baron sighed.
"My friend," he said, "we did the best we could at a moment's notice. I rather fancied the story myself. As to facts—what have they to do with it? You demanded a story, and you got it. I rather flattered myself that under the circumstances it was not bad."
"You admit now, then, that it was not the truth!"
"The truth! My dear Sir George! Supposing that the whereabouts of your charming young friend had been known to me, do you suppose that I should have permitted myself to be bullied into disclosing it? Forgive me if I speak plainly, but if you really wished for information which you supposed that I had, your method of seeking it put you at once out of court. A French gentleman does not permit himself to be bullied."
Duncombe was silent for several moments. There were many things which he could have said, but where was the use?
"As a French gentleman, then," he said at last, "will you permit me to make a personal appeal to you? Miss Phyllis Poynton is a young lady in whom I am deeply interested. She was last seen at the Cafe Montmartre, from which place she disappeared. I am an Englishman of your own station. Tell me where I can find her, or what has become of her."
"My dear Sir George," the Baron said, "you might have saved yourself a great deal of trouble if you had spoken like this to me at the first. Frankly, then, I have not the least idea. Young English ladies come and go every evening at the Cafe Montmartre, and such places. One remembers only those who happen to have amused one, and not always those. Forgive me if I speak plainly. A young lady who had visited the Cafe Montmartre alone—well, you might look for her anywhere, but most assuredly in that case if your anxiety was to induce her to return to her friends, you would be a little too late. Ah! We have arrived. Now, my friend, I must make you free of the place."
Duncombe was fuming with anger, but he had discretion enough to remain silent.
"Do you play Bridge?" the Baron asked, as they entered the card-room.
"Occasionally," Duncombe assented.
"I will go and see if I can find any men," the Baron remarked. "I will leave my young friend De Bergillac to entertain you. The Vicomte de Bergillac—Sir George Duncombe."
Duncombe shook hands with a pale, weary-looking youth, whose whole appearance was distinguished by marked symptoms of lassitude and ill-health. They sat in easy-chairs almost opposite to one another, and Duncombe found the other's scrutiny almost embarrassing.
"You speak French, perhaps—yes?" the young man asked at length.
"Yes! I speak French," Duncombe admitted.
"Then listen to me," the Vicomte said slowly. "I speak as one man of honor to another. Do not play cards in this club!"
"Not play cards? Why not?" Duncombe asked, amazed.
"You can take my advice or leave it," the Vicomte answered calmly. "I have no explanation to offer you. If you chose to repeat my remark you would place me in an exceedingly awkward position. You see, I rely upon you as a man of honor."
"I am only too much obliged to you for the hint," Duncombe declared. "But this club—the Cercle Anglais——"
"The club is all right," the Vicomte admitted calmly. "Unfortunately there is no place in Paris which would be entirely safe for you. You have the misfortune, you see, to be in opposition to some of my friends, who have really unlimited opportunities for making things disagreeable for you. Now I am beginning to talk, and it is very foolish of me. Why don't you leave Paris, Sir George?"
"Why should I?" Duncombe asked, a little sharply. "I break no laws here, I wrong no one. I am here on my own business, and I only ask to be let alone."
The Vicomte regarded him as one might look at a spoilt child whom it was yet advisable to humor.
"Ah," he said, "they will not let you alone. You are so obstinate, like all your country-people, or you would recognize it without my risking so much by speaking. You will have to leave Paris, and very soon. It is so easily to be managed. A dispute at cards here—you would certainly be in the wrong, and an ugly scandal if you were not away in twenty-four hours. It is one method of a thousand."
"You know so much," Duncombe said. "I have no doubt that you know the one thing which I would give years of my life to be satisfied about."
The boy's dark eyes were fixed steadily upon his.
"Sir George," he said, "there is nothing which I can possibly say to you. My warning has been exceeding foolish, but after all if I can persuade you to leave Paris I shall have done no great harm. As for the cards—well, I must plead guilty to weakness there. I have not the slightest objection to taking the life of a man who is making a nuisance of himself, but his honor I think one should not tamper with. May I offer you a cigarette? Well, Louis, what luck?"
The Baron had strolled back into the room, and was sitting on the arm of a chair.
"It will be all right directly," the Baron answered. "We have three, and old D'Arcon has telephoned that he will be here in five minutes."
Duncombe rose to his feet.
"It was really very careless of me," he said, "but I completely forgot that I had an engagement at the hotel at six o'clock. I am afraid that I shall not be able to stop."
The Baron glanced quickly at his young friend. There was nothing whatever to be learnt, though, from his pale, boyish face. His own countenance had darkened for the moment, but he recovered his composure immediately.
"As you will," he answered carelessly. "Perhaps you can drop in later. Come and dine, will you, at half-past eight?"
"I am much obliged to you, Baron," Duncombe said, "but I cannot accept your invitation. I am a lover of plain speaking, so I will not plead a previous engagement. But the one thing I want from you, the thing which I have almost a right to demand, you will not give. I do not feel, therefore, that any more than ordinary intercourse is possible between us."
The Baron bowed gravely.
"My dear Sir George," he said, "I am answered. I wish I could drive out of your mind that extraordinary hallucination relative to my supposed knowledge of your young English friend. It is impossible! Very good! I shall look forward to a time, Sir George, when we may meet on a better footing."
Duncombe left the hotel with the recollection of that curiously ironic smile fresh in his mind.
THE SHADOWING OF DUNCOMBE
For three days Duncombe saw nothing of Spencer. Three long days devoid of incident, hopelessly dull, aimless, and uninteresting. On the fourth the only change in the situation was scarcely a reassuring one. He became aware that he was being watched.
There was no particular secrecy about it. Even in the hotel itself some one was always on his heels. The absence of any attempt at concealment convinced him that it was the authorized police who had thus suddenly showed their interest in him. The suspicion was soon to be confirmed. The manager called him on the fourth morning into his private office.
"Monsieur will pardon me, I trust," he said, "if I take the liberty of asking him a question."
"Certainly!" Duncombe answered. "Go ahead!"
"Monsieur is aware that he has been placed under the surveillance of the police?"
"The fact," Duncombe said, "has been borne in upon me during the last few hours. What of it?"
The manager coughed.
"This is a cosmopolitan hotel, Sir George," he said, "and we make no pretence at ultra-exclusiveness, but we do not care to see the police on the premises."
"Neither do I," Duncombe answered. "Can you suggest how we may get rid of them?"
"Monsieur does not quite understand," the manager said smoothly. "Clearly he has done something to bring him under the suspicion of the law. Under these circumstances it would be more agreeable to the management of the hotel if Monsieur would depart."
Duncombe did not wish to depart. The hotel at which Phyllis Poynton's trunks were still awaiting her return was the hotel at which he wished to stay.
"Look here, Monsieur Huber," he said. "I give you my word of honor that I have broken no law, nor engaged in any criminal action whatever since I came to Paris. This game of having me watched is simply a piece of bluff. I have done nothing except make inquiries in different quarters respecting those two young English people who are still missing. In doing this I seem to have run up against what is nothing more nor less than a disgraceful conspiracy. Every hand is against me. Instead of helping me to discover them, the police seem only anxious to cover up the tracks of those young people."
The manager looked down at his desk.
"We hotel-keepers," he said, "are very much in the hands of the police. We cannot judge between them and the people whom they treat as suspected persons. I know very well, Sir George, that you are a person of respectability and character, but if the police choose to think otherwise I must adapt my views to theirs. I am sorry, but we must really ask you to leave."
Sir George turned on his heel.
"Very good!" he said. "I will go and take rooms elsewhere."
He left the hotel, and walked towards the Ritz. At the corner of the Place Vendome an automobile was pulled up with a jerk within a few feet of him. A tired-looking boy leaned over wearily towards him from the front seat.
"Sir George," he said, "can you give me five minutes?"
"With pleasure!" he answered. "I was going into the Ritz. Come and have something."
"To Maxim's, if you don't mind," the Vicomte said. "It will take us only a moment."
Sir George stepped in. The Vicomte, in whose fingers the wheel seemed scarcely to rest, so light and apparently careless was his touch, touched a lever by his side, released the clutch, and swung the great car round the corner at a speed which made Duncombe grasp the sides. At a pace which seemed to him most ridiculous, they dashed into the Rue de Rivoli, and with another sharp turn pulled up before Maxim's. The Vicomte rose with a yawn as though he had just awoke from a refreshing dream. His servant slipped off his fur coat, and he descended to the pavement faultlessly dressed and quite unruffled. The commissionaire preceded them, hat in hand, to the door. A couple of waiters ushered them to the table which the Vicomte intimated by a gesture.
"I myself," he remarked, drawing off his gloves, "take nothing but absinthe. What may I have the pleasure of ordering for you?"
Duncombe ordered a whisky and soda.
"I think," he said, "there is one thing which I ought to tell you at once. I am being shadowed by the police. The man who has just arrived, and who seems a little breathless, is, I believe, the person whose duty it is to dog my footsteps in the daytime."
"What a pity!" the Vicomte murmured. "I would at least have taken you a mile or so round the boulevards if I had known. But wait! You are sure—that it is the police by whom you are being watched?"
"Quite," Duncombe answered. "The manager of the hotel has spoken to me about it. He has asked me, in fact, to leave."
"To leave the hotel?"
"Yes! I was on my way to the Ritz to secure rooms when I met you."
The Vicomte sipped his absinthe gravely.
"I should not take those rooms," he said. "You will in all probability not occupy them."
"It has been decided," the Vicomte said, "that you are to be driven out of Paris. In the end you will have to go. I think if I were you I would not wait. The train de luxe to Calais is more comfortable than a wet bench in the Morgue or a French prison."
"Who has decided this?" Duncombe asked. "What Emperor has signed the decree of my banishment?"
"There have been worse served Emperors," the Vicomte remarked, "than the, shall we say person, who bids you go!"
"What is my offence?" Duncombe asked.
"I know nothing," the Vicomte answered slowly, pouring himself out some absinthe.
"Who are my judges, then? What secret authorities have I incensed? I am an honest man, engaged in an honest mission. Why should I not be allowed to execute it?"
The Vicomte half closed his eyes. Duncombe was a little angry. The Vicomte regarded him with reproachful wonder.
"You ask me so many questions," he murmured, "and I tell you that I know nothing. I have asked you to come here with me because I had just this to say. I can answer no questions, offer no explanations. I have no particular liking for you, but I am afflicted with a cursedly sensitive disposition, and—there are things which I find it hard to watch with equanimity. There is a train for England at nine o'clock this evening, Sir George. Take it!"
Duncombe rose from his seat.
"I am very much obliged to you," he said. "I believe that you are giving me what you believe to be good advice. Whether I can follow it or not is a different matter."
The Vicomte sighed.
"You Englishmen," he said, "are so obstinate. It is the anxiety concerning your friends, I suppose, which keeps you here?"
The Vicomte hesitated. He looked up and down the room, and especially at the man whom Duncombe had pointed out to him. He had edged nearer and nearer till he was almost within earshot. The Vicomte's voice, always low, became a whisper.
"I can tell you this much, at any rate," he said. "Whatever their present condition may be, it is more likely to be improved than made worse by your departure. You are a well-meaning person, Monsieur, but you do nobody any good here, and you risk—more than I dare tell you."
The Vicomte turned away to greet a little party of friends who had just entered. Duncombe strolled back to the hotel, and found Spencer walking restlessly up and down the hall waiting for him.
"At last!" he exclaimed, with a sigh of relief. "Come up into my room, Spencer. We can talk there."
He rang for the lift, and as they ascended he watched the other anxiously. Spencer was looking pale and disturbed. His eyes showed signs of sleeplessness, and he had not the air of a man who has good news to impart. As soon as they were inside the room he locked the door.
"Duncombe," he said, "there is a train which leaves Paris for London at four o'clock. You must catch it—if you are allowed to. Don't look like that, man. I tell you you've got to do it. If you are in Paris to-night you will be in prison."
"For what offence?" Duncombe asked.
"For the murder of Mademoiselle Flossie. They are training the witnesses now. The whole thing is as easy as A B C. They can prove you so guilty that not even your best friend would doubt it. Pack your clothes, man, or ring for the valet."
Duncombe hesitated, but he, too, was pale.
"Are you serious, Spencer?" he asked.
"I am so serious," Spencer answered, "that unless you obey me I will not move another finger in this matter. You lose nothing by going. All that a human being can do I will do! But you lose your life, or, at any rate, your liberty if you stay."
Duncombe bowed his head to fate.
"Very well!" he said. "I will go!"
"You have heard now," Duncombe said, finally, "the whole history of my wanderings. I feel like a man who has been beating the air, who has been at war with unseen and irresistible forces. I never seemed to have a chance. In plain words, I have failed utterly!"
The two men were sitting in a room impossible of classification. It might have been a study, smoking-room, or gun-room. The walls were adorned with stags' heads and various trophies of the chase. There were guns and rifles in plenty in a rack by the chimney-piece, a row of bookcases along the north wall, golf clubs, cricket bats, and foils everywhere. A pile of logs ready for burning stood in the open grate, and magnificent rugs were spread about the floor. Nowhere was there the slightest trace of a woman's presence, for Duncombe had no sisters, and his was entirely a bachelor household.
Duncombe himself and Andrew Pelham were seated in great easy-chairs in front of the open window. It was his first fine evening at home, and he was drinking in great draughts of the fresh pure air, fragrant with the perfume of roses and huge clusters of wallflowers. Paris had seemed to him like a great oven. All the time he had been half stifled, and yet he knew very well that at a word from Spencer he would have returned there at an hour's notice. He knew, too, that the home which he had loved all his days could never be quite the same place to him again.
Andrew roused himself from rather a prolonged silence.
"You were a brick to go, George," he said. "It is more than any one else in the world would have done for me."
Duncombe laughed a little uneasily. He knocked the ashes from his pipe and refilled it slowly.
"Andrew," he said, "I don't want to seem a fraud. I dare say that I might have gone for you alone—but I didn't."
His friend smiled faintly.
"Ah!" he remarked. "I had forgotten your little infatuation. It hasn't worn off yet, then?"
"No, nor any signs of it," Duncombe answered bluntly. "It's an odd position for a matter-of-fact person like myself, isn't it? I tell you, Andrew, I've really tried to care for some of the girls about here. The place wants a mistress, and I'm the tenth baronet in the direct line. One's got to think about these things, you know. I've tried hard, and I've never even come near it."
"It will wear off," Andrew said. "It is a very charming little fancy, a most delightful bit of sentiment, George, but with nothing behind it it can't last."
"Perhaps not," Duncombe answered quietly. "All that I know is that it has shown no signs of wearing off up to now. It was in Paris exactly as it is here. And I know very well that if I thought it would do her the least bit of good I would start back to Paris or to the end of the world to-night."
"I must readjust my views of you, George," his friend said with mild satire. "I always looked upon you as fair game for the Norfolk dowagers with their broods of daughters, but I never contemplated your fixing your affections upon a little piece of paste-board."
"Rot! It is the girl herself," Duncombe declared.
"But you have never seen her."
Duncombe shrugged his shoulders. He said nothing. What was the use? Never seen her! Had she not found her way into every beautiful place his life had knowledge of?
"If you had," Andrew murmured—"ah, well, the picture is like her. I remember when she was a child. She was always fascinating, always delightful to watch."
Duncombe looked out upon the gardens which he loved, and sighed.
"If only Spencer would send for me to go back to Paris," he said with a sigh.
Andrew turned his head.
"You can imagine now," he said, "what I have been suffering. The desire for action sometimes is almost maddening. I think that the man who sits and waits has the hardest task."
They were silent for some time, smoking steadily. Then Duncombe reverted once more to his wanderings.
"You remember the story they told me at the Cafe, Andrew," he said. "It was a lie, of course, but was Miss Poynton anything of an artist?"
"To the best of my belief," Andrew answered, "she has never touched a brush or a pencil since she left school."
Duncombe looked out into the gathering twilight.
"It is a devil's riddle, this!" he said slowly. "Why did she go to that place at all?"
"God only knows!" Andrew murmured.
Duncombe's teeth were hard set. A paper-knife, which he had caught up from the table, snapped in his fingers. There was something in his throat which nearly choked him.
"Phyllis Poynton," Andrew continued, "was as sweet and pure a woman as ever breathed. She must have loathed that place. She could only have gone there to seek for her brother, or——"
"Or for whom?"
"For those who knew where he was."
Duncombe turned his head.
"Yes, old chap!"
"Let me look at her photograph again."
Andrew drew it from his pocket and passed it over. Duncombe studied it for several moments under the lamplight.
"You are right, Andrew," he said slowly. "For her the other things would not be possible. I wonder——"
His fingers clung to the photograph. He looked across at his friend. There was a slight flush in his face. He spoke nervously.
"Andrew," he said, "I'm afraid it sounds a bit brutal, but—this photograph is no use to you just now, is it, until your eyes get better. Will you lend it me?"
"I couldn't," Andrew answered quietly. "I can't see it now of course, but I like to feel it in my pocket, and it will be the first thing I shall look at when the doctor lets me take off these beastly glasses—if ever he does. Until then—well, I like to feel I've got it. That's all!"
They both smoked furiously for several moments without looking at one another. Duncombe spoke first.
"If she comes back—shall you ever ask her to marry you?"
"I don't know, George. I'm poor, and I'm twelve years older than she is. I don't know."
There was another silence. Then the conversation drifted back once more to the one subject which was monopolizing the thought of both of them.
"I tell you what seems to me to be the most extraordinary part of the whole business," Duncombe said. "First the brother disappears. Then without a word to any one the sister also rushes off to Paris, and vanishes from the face of the earth after a series of extraordinary proceedings. One supposes naturally that if they have come to harm anywhere—if there has been a crime—there must have been a motive. What is it? You say that their banking account has been undisturbed?"
"It was last week. I should hear if any cheques were presented."
"And the boy's letter of credit even has never been drawn upon!"
"No! Not since he left Vienna."
"Then the motive cannot be robbery. Thank Heaven," Duncombe added, with a little shudder, "that it was the boy who went first."
A great winged insect came buzzing into the room. Duncombe struck viciously at it with the palm of his hand.
"Lord!" he muttered, "what a fool I am! I've never been away from home before, Andrew, without longing to get back, and here I am, just back from Paris in August, from turning night into day, from living just the sort of life I hate, and I'd give anything to be going back there to-morrow. I'm a haunted man, Andrew. I got up last night simply because I couldn't sleep, and walked down as far as the paddock. I seemed to see her face in all the shadowy corners, to see her moving towards me from amongst the trees. And I'm not an imaginative person, Andrew, and I've got no nerves. Look!"
He held out his hand, strong and firm and brown. It was as steady as a rock.
"I can't sleep," he continued, "I can't rest. Is there witchcraft in this thing, Andrew?"
Andrew Pelham laughed shortly. It was a laugh which had no kinship to mirth.
"And I," he said, "have seen her grow up. We were boy and girl together. I stole apples for her. I have watched her grow from girlhood into womanhood. I have known flesh and blood, and you a cardboard image. I too am a strong man, and I am helpless. I lie awake at night and I think. It is as though the red flames of hell were curling up around me. George, if she has come to any evil, whether I am blind or whether I can see, I'll grope my way from country to country till my hand is upon the throat of the beast who has harmed her."
The man's voice shook with passion. Duncombe was awed into silence. He had known Andrew Pelham always as a good-natured, good-hearted giant, beloved of children and animals, deeply religious, a man whose temper, if he possessed such a thing, was always strictly under control. Such an outburst as this was a revelation. Duncombe understood then how slight a thing his own suffering was.
"You shall not go alone, Andrew," he said softly. "But for the present we must wait. If any one can help us, Spencer will."
A servant came in with the whisky and glasses, and silently arranged them upon the table. Duncombe rose and attended to his duties as host.
"Can I get you anything further, sir?" the man asked.
"Nothing, thanks," Duncombe answered. "Tell the servants to go to bed. We will lock up. Say when, Andrew!"
Andrew took his glass mechanically. Out in the lane the silence of the summer night was suddenly broken by the regular tread of horses' feet and the rumbling of vehicles. Duncombe Hall was built like many of the old-fashioned houses in the country, with its back to the road, and the window at which they were sitting looked out upon it. Duncombe leaned forward in his chair.
"Visitors by the last train going up to Runton Place," he remarked. "Runton has quite a large party for the first. Hullo! They're stopping. I'd better go out."
He rose from his chair. The omnibus had stopped in the lane, and they could hear the voices of the occupants clearly through the soft darkness. Some one was apparently getting out, and stumbled. A girl's soft laugh rang out distinctly above the man's exclamation. Duncombe was already stepping over the window-sill when he felt a clutch like iron upon his shoulder. He looked round in amazement. Andrew's face was transformed. He was struggling for words.
"Her voice!" he exclaimed hoarsely. "Am I dreaming, George? It was her voice!"
LAUGHTER OF WOMEN
The door of the omnibus was opened as Duncombe stepped over the low wall into the road. A tall man in a long light Inverness descended.
"Hullo, Duncombe!" he exclaimed, holding out his hand; "I was coming in to see you for a moment."
"Good man!" Duncombe answered. "Bring your friends, won't you?"
He held open the gate hospitably, but Lord Runton shook his head.
"I only wanted a word with you," he said. "We're all starving, and if you don't mind we'll get on as quickly as we can. About to-morrow. You shoot with us, of course?"
"Delighted!" Duncombe answered.
"Cresswell met me at the station," Lord Runton continued. "I'd drawn out a plan for the shoot, but it seems that Cresswell—old fool—hasn't got his harvest in from the two fields by Ketton's Gorse. What I wanted to ask you was if we might take your turnips up from Mile's bottom to the north end of the gorse. We can make our circuit then without a break."
"My dear fellow!" Duncombe protested, "was it worth while asking me such a thing? Of course you can."
"That's settled, then," Lord Runton declared, turning back towards the omnibus. "Let me introduce you to my friends," he added, resting his hand upon the other's shoulder, "and then we'll be off."
Duncombe, in whose ears his friend's cry was still ringing, pressed eagerly forward.
"This is my neighbor, Sir George Duncombe," Lord Runton said, looking into the carriage, "who will shoot with us to-morrow. Miss Fielding and Mr. Fielding, Lady Angrave and the Baron Von Rothe."
Lady Angrave held out her hand.
"Sir George and I are almost old friends," she said, with a somewhat languid smile. "We were both at Castle Holkham last autumn."
Duncombe murmured something conventional as he bowed over her fingers. His whole attention was riveted upon the tall, pale girl in the further corner of the omnibus. Her acknowledgment of his introduction had been of the slightest, and her features were obscured by a white veil. She looked away from him at once and continued a whispered conversation with the white-haired gentleman at her side. Duncombe could think of no excuse for addressing her.
"I shall have the pleasure of meeting you all again to-morrow," he said, closing the door after Lord Runton. "I won't keep you now. I know what the journey is down from town. Good night, Runton!"
"Good night, George. Ten o'clock sharp!"
The carriage rolled off, and Duncombe returned to his own domain. Andrew was waiting for him impatiently by the gate.
"Well!" he exclaimed eagerly, "you have seen her. Well?"
The man was trembling with excitement. There were drops of perspiration upon his forehead. His voice sounded unnatural.
"I saw a young lady in the carriage," Duncombe answered, "or rather I did not see her, for she wore a veil, and she scarcely looked at me. But she was introduced to me as Miss Fielding, and her father was with her."
"Fielding! Fielding!" Andrew repeated. "Never mind that. What was she like! What colored hair had she?"
"I told you that she kept her veil down," Duncombe repeated. "Her hair was a sort of deep, red-brown—what I could see of it. But, seriously, Andrew, what is the use of discussing her? One might as soon expect one of my housemaids to change into Phyllis Poynton, as to discover her with a brand-new father, a brand-new name, and a guest at Runton Place."
Andrew was silent for a moment. He touched his spectacles with a weary gesture, and covered his eyes with his hand.
"Yes," he said, "I suppose you are right. I suppose I am a fool. But—the voice!"
"The laughter of women," said Duncombe, "is music all the world over. One cannot differ very much from the other."
"You are quite wrong, George," Andrew said. "The voices of women vary like the thumb-marks of criminals. There are no two attuned exactly alike. It is the receptive organs that are at fault. We, who have lost one sense, find the others a little keener. The laughter of that girl—George, will you keep me a few days longer? Somehow I cannot bring myself to leave until I have heard her voice once more."
Duncombe laughed heartily.
"My dear fellow," he said, "I shall bless your uncommonly sensitive ears if they keep you here with me even for an extra few days. You shall have your opportunity, too. I always dine at Runton Place after our first shoot, and I know Runton quite well enough to take you. You shall sit at the same table. Hullo, what's this light wobbling up the drive?"
He strolled a yard or so away, and returned.
"A bicycle," he remarked. "One of the grooms has been down to the village. I shall have to speak to Burdett in the morning. I will not have these fellows coming home at all sorts of times in the morning. Come along in, Andrew. Just a drain, eh? And a cigarette—and then to bed. Runton's keen on his bag, and they say that German, Von Rothe, is a fine shot. Can't let them have it all their own way."
"No fear of that," Andrew answered, stepping through the window. "I'll have the cigarette, please, but I don't care about any more whisky. The 'Field' mentioned your name only a few weeks ago as one of the finest shots at rising birds in the country, so I don't think you need fear the German."
"I ought to hold my own with the partridges," Duncombe admitted, helping himself from the siphon, "but come in, come in!"
A servant entered with a telegram upon a silver salver.
"A boy has just brought this from Runton, sir," he said.
Duncombe tore it open. He was expecting a message from his gun-maker, and he opened it without any particular interest, but as he read, his whole manner changed. He held the sheet in front of him long enough to have read it a dozen times. He could not restrain the slight start—a half exclamation. Then his teeth came together. He remembered the servant and looked up.
"There will be no answer to-night, Murray," he said. "Give the boy a shilling and some supper. If he goes home by the Runton gates, tell him to be sure and close them, because of the deer."
"Very good, sir!"
The man departed. Duncombe laid the telegram upon the table. He felt that Andrew was waiting impatiently for him to speak.
"The telegram is from Spencer," Duncombe said.
"He has discovered something?"
"On the contrary," Duncombe answered, "he is asking me for information, and very curious information, too."
"What does he want to know?"
"The telegram," Duncombe said slowly, "is in French. He asks me to wire him at once the names of all the guests at Runton Place."
Andrew struck the table a mighty blow with his clenched fist.
"I knew it!" he cried. "It was her laugh, her voice. Phyllis Poynton is there!"
Duncombe looked at his friend incredulously.
"My dear Andrew," he said, "be reasonable. The young lady and her father in that omnibus were introduced to me by Runton himself as Mr. and Miss Fielding. They are going to his house as his guests. Naturally, therefore, he knows all about them. Miss Poynton, as you have told me more than once, is an orphan."
"Common-sense won't even admit it as a matter of argument," Andrew said. "I know that quite well. But how do you account for Spencer's telegram?"
"Remember that he is a newspaper correspondent," Duncombe said. "He has many interests and many friends with whom he is constantly exchanging information. It is a coincidence, I admit. But the wildest flight of imagination could not make any more of it."
"You must be right," Andrew said quietly. "It all sounds, and is, so convincing. But I wish that I had not heard that laugh!"
MISS FIELDING FROM AMERICA
Duncombe leaned his gun up against a gate. A few yards away his host was talking to the servants who had brought down luncheon. The rest of the party were only just in sight a field or two off.
"Have a glass of sherry before lunch, George?" his host asked, strolling towards him.
"Nothing to drink, thanks! I'd like a cigarette, if you have one."
Lord Runton produced his case, and a servant brought them matches. They both leaned over the gate, and watched the scattered little party slowly coming towards them.
"Who is your friend Fielding?" Duncombe asked, a little bluntly.
"Fellow from New York," Lord Runton answered. "He's been very decent to my brother out there, and Archibald wrote and asked me to do all we could for them. The girl is very handsome. You'll see her at dinner to-night."
"Here for long?"
"No, unfortunately," Lord Runton answered. "I had very hard work to get them to come at all. Cicely has written them three or four times, I think, but they've always had engagements. They're only staying till Monday, I think. Very quiet, inoffensive sort of chap, Fielding, but the girl's a ripper! Hullo! Here they are. I'll introduce you."
A groom had thrown open the gate of the field across which they were looking, and Lady Runton from the box seat of a small mail phaeton waved her whip. She drove straight across the furrows towards them a little recklessly, the groom running behind. By her side was a girl with coils of deep brown hair, and a thick black veil worn after the fashion of the travelling American.
"Just in time, aren't we?" Lady Runton remarked, as she brought the horses to a standstill. "Help me down, Jack, and look after Miss Fielding, Sir George. By the bye, have you two met yet?"
Duncombe bowed—he was bareheaded—and held out his hands.
"I saw Miss Fielding for a moment last night," he said, "or rather I didn't see her. We were introduced, however. What do you think of our maligned English weather, Miss Fielding?" he asked.
She raised her veil and looked at him deliberately. He had been prepared for this meeting, and yet it was with difficulty that he refrained from a start. The likeness of the photograph (it was even at that moment in his pocket) was wonderful. She looked a little older, perhaps. There were shadows in her face of which there were no traces in the picture. And yet the likeness was wonderful.
"To-day at least is charming," she said. "But then I am quite used to your climate, you know. I have lived in Europe almost as much as in America."
She certainly had no trace of any accent. She spoke a little more slowly, perhaps, than most young Englishwomen, but there was nothing whatever in her words or in her pronunciation of them to suggest a transatlantic origin. She stood by his side looking about her with an air of interest, and Duncombe began to wonder whether after all she was not more beautiful than the photograph which he had treasured so jealously. He became conscious of a desire to keep her by his side.
"Is your father shooting, Miss Fielding?"
She laughed softly.
"You don't know my father, Sir George," she answered. "He hates exercise, detests being out of doors, and his idea of Paradise when he is away from business is to be in a large hotel where every one speaks English, where there are tapes and special editions and an American bar."
"Then I am afraid Mr. Fielding will find it rather hard to amuse himself down here."
"Well, he's discovered the telephone," she said. "He's spending the morning ringing up people all over the country. He was talking to his bankers when we came out. Oh, here come the rest of them. How tired they look, poor things—especially the Baron! Nature never meant him to tramp over ploughed fields, I am sure. Baron, I was just saying how warm you look."
The Baron took off his cap, gave up his gun to a keeper, and turned a glowing face towards them.
"My dear young lady," he declared, "I am warm. I admit it, but it is good for me. Very good indeed. I tried to make your father walk with us. He will be sure to suffer some day if he takes no exercise."
"Oh, father's never ill," the girl answered. "But then he eats nothing, Sir George, I hope you're going to devote yourself to me at luncheon. I'm terribly hungry."
"So we all are," Lady Runton declared. "Come along, every one."
Luncheon was served in a large open barn, pleasantly fragrant of dried hay, and with a delightful view of the sea far away in the distance. Miss Fielding chattered to every one, was amusing and amused. The Baron gave her as much of his attention as he was ever disposed to bestow upon any one at meal-times, and Duncombe almost forgot that he had breakfasted at eight o'clock.
"Charming young person, that!" said Lady Runton's neighbor to her. "One of our future Duchesses, I suppose?"
Lady Runton smiled.
"Lots of money, Teddy," she answered. "What a pity you haven't a title!"
The young man—he was in the Foreign Office—sighed, and shook his head.
"Such things are not for me," he declared sententiously. "My affections are engaged."
"That isn't the least reason why you shouldn't marry money," her ladyship declared, lighting a cigarette. "Go and talk to her!"
"Can't spoil sport!" he answered, shaking his head. "By Jove! Duncombe is making the running, though, isn't he?"
Her ladyship raised her glasses. Duncombe and Miss Fielding had strolled outside the barn. He was showing her his house—a very picturesque old place it looked, down in the valley.
"It's nothing but a farmhouse, of course," he said. "No pretensions to architecture or anything of that sort, of course, but it's rather a comfortable old place."
"I think it is perfectly charming," the girl said. "Do you live there all alone? You have sisters perhaps?"
He shook his head.
"No such luck!" he answered. "Mine is entirely a bachelor establishment. A great part of the time I am alone. Just now I have a pal staying with me—awfully decent chap, from Devonshire."
She was certainly silent for a moment. He fancied too that there was a change in her face.
"From Devonshire!" she repeated, with a carelessness which, if it was not natural, was exceedingly well assumed. "I believe I knew some people once who came from there. What is your friend's name, Sir George?"
He turned slowly towards her.
"Andrew Pelham!" he said quietly. "He comes from a place called Raynesworth."
"He is staying here now—with you?"
"Yes," he answered gravely.
It was not his fancy this time. Of that he felt sure. Her face for the moment had been the color of chalk—a little exclamation had been strangled upon her lips. She shot a quick glance at him. He met it steadily.
"You know the name?" he asked.
She shook her head.
"The name—yes," she answered, "but not the person. A very old friend of mine was called Andrew Pelham, but he was an American, and he has never been in England. It startled me, though, to hear the exact name from you."
She was herself again. Her explanation was carelessly given. It sounded even convincing, but Duncombe himself was not convinced. He knew that she wanted him to be. He felt her eyes seeking his, studying his face. Perhaps she was only anxious that he should not misunderstand.
"George, are you ready?" his host called out. "We're going to take Smith's pastures."
"Quite!" Duncombe answered. "Until this evening, Miss Fielding."
"You are dining at Runton Place?" she asked quietly.
"Yes," he answered. "Will you tell me all about your Andrew Pelham?"
She raised her eyes to his and smiled.
"Do you think that you would be interested?" she asked.
"You know that I should," he answered quietly.
For a time he shot badly. Then he felt that his host's eye was upon him, and pulled himself together. But he was never at his best. He felt that the whole world of his sensations had been suddenly disturbed. It was impossible that there could be any connection between this girl and the photograph which had first fired him with the impulse to undertake that most extraordinary and quixotic mission. Yet the fact remained that the girl herself had had very much the same effect upon him as his first sight of the photograph. It was a coincidence, of course. Miss Fielding was charming. There was no reason why he should not indulge to the full his admiration of her. She had affected him in a most curious manner. Another man would have declared himself in love with her. It was not possible that she could be any one but Miss Fielding. That start which he had fancied that he had noticed, the sudden aging of her face, the look almost of fear! Absurd! He was losing his nerves. It was not possible, he told himself steadfastly. And yet——
Some of the women were following them in a leisurely sort of way behind. Miss Fielding was there, walking a little apart. She carried her hat in her hand. The wind, which was blowing the skirts of her white cloth dress about her, was making havoc in her glorious hair. She walked with her head thrown back, with all the effortless grace of youth—a light heart, an easy conscience. He deliberately left his place and walked back to meet her. She waved her hand gayly. There was color in her cheeks now, and her eyes laughed into his. The shadows were gone. He felt that this was madness, and yet he said what he had come back to say.
"I thought that you might be interested to know, Miss Fielding, that you will meet the gentleman—with the same name as your friend—this evening. Lord Runton has been good enough to ask him to come up and dine."
She nodded gayly.
"What a crowd of sentimental memories his coming will evoke!" she declared. "Be nice to me, won't you, and help me dispel them?"
"Perhaps," he said, smiling with a great relief; "I might prefer to try to construct a few on my own account."
"Go and do your duty," she commanded, laughing.
Duncombe hastened to his place. His eyes were bright. He felt that he was walking upon air.
"What a double distilled ass I nearly made of myself!" he muttered.
MISS FIELDING ASKS A QUESTION
She came into the room a little late, and her entrance created almost a sensation. Duncombe only knew that she wore a black gown and looked divine. Lady Runton murmured "Paquin" with a sigh and frown.
"These girls might at least leave us black," she murmured to her neighbor. "What pearls!"
Duncombe stepped forward to meet her. He could not keep the admiration from his eyes. Her shoulders and slim graceful neck were as white as alabaster, her hair was a gorgeous brown kissed into fine gold glimmering as though with a touch of some hidden fire. She moved with the delightful freedom of absolute naturalness. He murmured something which sounded ridiculously commonplace, and she laughed at him.
"Do you know that you are going to take me in?" she said. "I hope that you are prepared to be very amusing. Do tell me which is your friend."
Then Duncombe remembered Andrew, who was standing by his side. He turned towards him, and the words suddenly died away upon his lips. Andrew's tall frame was shaking as though with some powerful emotion. He was standing with his head thrust forward as though listening intently. Duncombe set his teeth.
"Will you allow me to present my friend Miss Fielding?" he said. "Andrew, this is Miss Fielding. Mr. Pelham, Miss Fielding."
She held out her hand and took his passive fingers.
"I am so glad to know you, Mr. Pelham," she said pleasantly. "Sir George gave me quite a shock to-day when he spoke of you. I was once very nearly engaged to an Andrew Pelham in Baltimore, and I had most distressing visions of all my old sweethearts turning up to spoil my good time here."
Andrew's voice sounded odd and restrained.
"I have never been in America," he said.
"You need not be afraid that I am going to claim you," she declared. "You are at least a foot taller than my Andrew. You don't even inspire me with any tender recollections of him. Baron, I do hope that you have not taken too much exercise."
"My dear young lady," he answered, bowing, "I never felt better in my life! Be thankful that it is not your hard fate to be my dinner companion. I am so hungry I should have no time for conversation."
"On the contrary," she declared, "I—almost regret it! I much prefer to do some of the talking myself, but I seldom get a chance. Will you promise to give me a show to-night, Sir George?"
"As long as you permit me to say two or three things which are in my mind," he answered, lowering his voice a little, "you may do all the rest of the talking."
"Dear me, I am curious already," she exclaimed. "What are the two or three things, Sir George? Why! Do you see—nearly every one has gone," she added suddenly. "Come along!"
She laid her hand upon his arm and led him away. Soon he was by her side at the table. Their companions were uninteresting. Andrew was out of sight. Duncombe forgot everything else in the world except that he was with her.
Their conversation was of trifles, yet intimate trifles. The general talk buzzed all round them. Neither made any effort to arrest it. To Duncombe she seemed simply the image he had created and worshipped suddenly come to life. That it was not in fact her picture went for nothing. There was no infidelity. The girl who had existed in his dreams was here. It was for her that he had departed from the even tenor of his ways, for her he had searched in Paris, for her he had braved the horrors of that unhappy week. Already he felt that she belonged to him, and in a vague sort of way she, too, seemed to be letting herself drift, to be giving color to his unconscious assumption by her lowered tone, by the light in her eyes which answered his, by all those little nameless trifles which go to the sealing of unwritten compacts.
Once her manner changed. Her father, who was on the opposite side of the table a little way off, leaned forward and addressed her.
"Say, Sybil, where did we stay in Paris? I've forgotten the name of the place."
"L'hotel d'Athenes," she answered, and at once resumed her conversation with Duncombe.
But somehow the thread was broken. Duncombe found himself watching the little gray man opposite, who ate and drank so sparingly, who talked only when he was spoken to, and yet who seemed to be taking a keen but covert interest in everything that went on about him. Her father! There was no likeness, no shadow of a likeness. Yet Duncombe felt almost a personal interest in him. They would know one another better some day, he felt.
"So you've been in Paris lately?" he asked her suddenly.
"For a few days."
"I arrived from there barely a week ago," he remarked.
"I hate the place!" she answered. "Talk of something else."
And he obeyed.
The second interruption came from Andrew. During a momentary lull in the conversation they heard his firm clear voice talking.
"My time was up yesterday, but I find so much to interest me down here that I think I shall stay on for a few more days, if my host remains as hospitable as ever."
"So much to interest him," she murmured. "Are not all places the same to the blind? What does he mean?"
"He is not really blind!" Duncombe answered, lowering his voice. "He can see things very dimly. The doctor has told him that if he wears those glasses for a few more months he may be able to preserve some measure of eyesight. Poor chap!"
"He does not attract me—your friend," she said a little coldly. "What can he find to interest him so much here? Do you see how he keeps his head turned this way? It is almost as though he wished to listen to what we were saying."
"There is a sort of reason for that," Duncombe answered. "Shall I explain it?"
"Pelham lives, as I think I told you, in a small country-house near Raynesworth," Duncombe began. "The hall in his village was occupied by a young man—a boy, really—and his sister. Early in the year the boy, who had never been abroad, thought that he would like to travel a little in Europe. He wandered about some time in Germany and Austria, and was coming home by Paris. Suddenly all letters from him ceased. He did not return. He did not write. He drew no money from his letter of credit. He simply disappeared."
The girl was proceeding tranquilly with her dinner. The story so far did not seem to interest her.
"His sister, who went over to Paris to meet him, found herself quite alone there, and we supposed that she devoted herself to searching for him. And then curiously enough she, too, disappeared. Letters from her suddenly ceased. No one knew what had become of her."
She looked at him with a faint smile.
"Now," she said, "your story is becoming interesting. Do go on. I want to know where you and Mr. Pelham come in."
"Pelham, I think," he continued gravely, "was their oldest friend. He sent for me. We were old college chums, and I went. This trouble with his eyes had only just come on, and he was practically helpless—much more helpless than the ordinary blind person, because it was all new to him. This boy and girl were his old and dear friends. He was longing to be off to Paris to search for them himself, and yet he knew that so far as he was concerned it would be simply wasted time. He showed me the girl's photograph."
"I went in his place."
"And did you find either of them?"
"I wonder," she said, "why you have told me this story?"
"I am going to tell you why," he answered. "Because when Pelham heard you laugh last night he was like a madman. He believed that it was the voice of Phyllis Poynton. And I—I—when I saw you, I also felt that miracles were at hand. Look here!"
He drew a photograph from his pocket and showed it to her. She looked at it long and earnestly.
"Yes," she admitted, "there is a likeness. It is like what I might have been years ago. But will you tell me something?"
"Why do you carry the picture of that girl about with you?"
He leaned towards her, and at that moment Lady Runton rose from her place.
"In the winter garden afterwards," he whispered. "You have asked me the very question that I wanted to answer!"
GEORGE DUNCOMBE'S LIE
There was something strange about Andrew's manner as he moved up to Duncombe's side. The latter, who was in curiously high spirits, talked incessantly for several minutes. Then he came to a dead stop. He was aware that his friend was not listening.
"What is the matter with you, old chap?" he asked abruptly. "You are positively glum."
Andrew Pelham shook his head.
"Nothing much!" he said.
"Rubbish! What is it?"
Andrew dropped his voice almost to a whisper. The words came hoarsely. He seemed scarcely master of himself.
"The girl's voice tortures me," he declared. "It doesn't seem possible that there can be two so much alike. And then Spencer's telegram. What does it mean?"
"Be reasonable, old fellow!" Duncombe answered. "You knew Phyllis Poynton well. Do you believe that she would be content to masquerade under a false name, invent a father, be received here—Heaven knows how—and meet you, an old friend, as a stranger? The thing's absurd, isn't it?"
"Granted. But what about Spencer's telegram?"
"It is an enigma, of course. We can only wait for his solution. I have wired him the information he asked for. In the meantime——"
"Well, in the meantime?"
"There is nothing to be gained by framing absurd hypotheses. I don't mind telling you, Andrew, that I find Miss Fielding the most delightful girl I ever met in my life."
"Tell me exactly, George, how she compares with the photograph you have of Phyllis Poynton."
Duncombe sipped his wine slowly.
"She is very like it," he said, "and yet there are differences. She is certainly a little thinner and taller. The features are similar, but the hair is quite differently arranged. I should say that Miss Fielding is two or three years older than Phyllis Poynton, and she has the air of having travelled and been about more."
"A few months of events," Andrew murmured, "might account for all those differences."
Duncombe laughed as he followed his host's lead and rose.
"Get that maggot out of your brain, Andrew," he exclaimed, "as quickly as possible. Will you take my arm? Mind the corner."
They found the drawing-room almost deserted. Runton raised his eyeglass and looked around.
"I bet those women have collared the billiard table," he remarked. "Come along, you fellows."
They re-crossed the hall and entered the billiard-room. Lady Runton was playing with the Lord Lieutenant's wife, the Countess of Appleton. The others were all sitting about, either on the lounge or in the winter garden beyond. Miss Fielding was standing on the threshold, and Duncombe advanced eagerly towards her. On the way, however, he was buttonholed by an acquaintance, and the master of the hounds had something to say to him afterwards about one of his covers. When he was free, Miss Fielding had disappeared. He made his way into the winter garden, only to find her sitting in a secluded corner with the Baron. She looked up at his entrance, but made no sign. Duncombe reluctantly re-entered the billiard-room, and was captured by his host for a rubber of bridge.
The rubber was a long one. Duncombe played badly and lost his money. Declining to cut in again, he returned to the winter garden. Miss Fielding and the Baron were still together, only they had now pushed their chairs a little further back, and were apparently engaged in a very confidential conversation. Duncombe turned on his heel and re-entered the billiard-room.
It was not until the party broke up that he found a chance of speaking to her. He was sensible at once of a change in her manner. She would have passed him with a little nod, but he barred her way.
"You have treated me shockingly," he declared, with a smile which was a little forced. "You promised to let me show you the winter garden."
"Did I?" she answered. "I am so sorry. I must have forgotten all about it. The Baron has been entertaining me delightfully. Good night!"
He half stood aside.
"I haven't by any chance offended you, have I?" he asked in a low tone.
She raised her eyebrows.
"Certainly not!" she answered. "Excuse me, won't you? I want to speak to Lady Runton before she goes upstairs."
Duncombe stood on one side and let her pass with a stiff bow. As he raised his eyes he saw that Mr. Fielding was standing within a few feet of him, smoking a cigarette. He might almost have overheard their conversation.
"Good night, Mr. Fielding," he said, holding out his hand. "Are you staying down here for long?"
"For two days, I believe," Mr. Fielding answered. "My daughter makes our plans."
He spoke very slowly, but without any accent. Nothing in his appearance, except perhaps the fact that he wore a black evening tie, accorded with the popular ideas of the travelling American.
"If you have an hour to spare," Duncombe said, "it would give me a great deal of pleasure if you and your daughter would walk down and have a look over my place. Part of the hall is Elizabethan, and I have some relics which might interest Miss Fielding."
Mr. Fielding removed the cigarette from his mouth.
"I thank you very much, sir," he said. "We are Lord Runton's guests, and our stay is so short that we could scarcely make any arrangements to visit elsewhere. Glad to have had the pleasure of meeting you all the same."
Duncombe sought out his host.
"Runton, old chap," he said, "do me a favor. Bring that fellow Fielding and his daughter round to my place before they go."
Lord Runton laughed heartily.
"Is it a case?" he exclaimed. "And you, our show bachelor, too! Never mind my chaff, old chap. She's a ripping good-looking girl, and money enough to buy the country."
"I don't mind your chaff," Duncombe answered, "but will you bring her?"
Lord Runton looked thoughtful.
"How the dickens can I? We are all shooting at the Duke's to-morrow, and I believe they're off on Saturday. You're not in earnest by any chance, are you, George?"
"Damnably!" he answered.
Lord Runton whistled softly.
"Fielding doesn't shoot," he remarked, "but they're going with us to Beaumanor. Shall I drop him a hint? He might stay a day longer—just to make a few inquiries about you on the spot, you know."
"Get him to stay a day longer, if you can," Duncombe answered, "but don't give me away. The old chap's none too cordial as it is."
"I must talk to him," Runton said. "Your Baronetcy is a thundering sight better than any of these mushroom peerages. He probably doesn't understand that sort of thing. But what about the girl? Old Von Rothe has been making the running pretty strong, you know."
"We all have to take our chance in that sort of thing," Duncombe said quietly. "I am not afraid of Von Rothe!"
"I'll do what I can for you," Runton promised. "Good night!"
Andrew, who had left an hour or so earlier, was sitting in the library smoking a pipe when his host returned.
"Not gone to bed yet, then?" Duncombe remarked. "Let me make you a whisky and soda, old chap. You look a bit tired."
"Very good of you—I think I will," Andrew answered. "And, George, are you sure that I should not be putting you out at all if I were to stay—say another couple of days with you?"
Duncombe wheeled round and faced his friend. His reply was not immediate.
"Andrew," he said, "you know very well that I haven't a pal in the world I'd sooner have here than you for just as long as you choose to stay, but—forgive me if I ask you one question. Is it because you want to watch Miss Fielding that you have changed your mind?"
"That has a good deal to do with it, George," Andrew said quietly. "If I left without meeting that young lady again I should be miserable. I want to hear her speak when she does not know that any one is listening."
Duncombe crossed the room and laid his hand upon the other's shoulder.
"Andrew, old fellow," he said, "I can't have it. I can't allow even my best friend to spy upon Miss Fielding. You see—I've come a bit of a cropper. Quick work, I suppose, you'd say. But I'm there all the same."
"Who wants to spy upon Miss Fielding?" Andrew exclaimed hoarsely. "She can be the daughter of a multi-millionaire or a penniless adventurer for all I care. All I want is to be sure that she isn't Phyllis Poynton."
"You are not yet convinced?"
There was a moment's silence. Duncombe walked to the window and returned.
"Andrew," he said, "doesn't what I told you just now make a difference?"
"Of course it would," he answered, "but—I'm fool enough to feel the same about Phyllis Poynton."
Duncombe, in the full glow of sensations which seemed to him to give a larger and more wonderful outlook on life, felt his sympathies suddenly awakened. Andrew Pelham, his old chum, sitting there with his huge, disfiguring glasses and bowed head, was surely the type of all that was pathetic. He forgot all his small irritation at the other's obstinacy. He remembered only their long years of comradeship and the tragedy which loomed over the life of his chosen friend. Once more his arm rested upon his shoulder.
"I'm a selfish brute, Andrew!" he said. "Stay as long as you please, and get this idea out of your brain. I'm trying to get Miss Fielding and her father down here, and if I can manage it anyhow I'll leave you two alone, and you shall talk as long as you like. Come, we'll have a drink together now and a pipe afterwards."
He walked across to the sideboard, where the glasses and decanters were arranged. Then for the first time he saw upon the tray awaiting him a telegram. He gave a little exclamation as he tore it open.
Andrew looked up.
"What is it, George?" he asked. "A telegram?"
Duncombe stood with his eyes glued upon the oblong strip of paper. A curious pallor had crept into his face from underneath the healthy tan of his complexion. Andrew, sightless though he was, seemed to feel the presence in the room of some exciting influence. He rose to his feet and moved softly across to the sideboard.
"Is it a telegram, George?" he whispered hoarsely. "Read it to me. Is it from Spencer?"
Duncombe collected himself with an effort.
"It's nothing," he answered with a little laugh, in which all the elements of mirth were lacking, "nothing at all! A note from Heggs, my head-keeper—about some poachers. Confound the fellow!"
Andrew's hand was suddenly upon the sideboard, travelling furtively across its shining surface. Duncombe watched it with a curious sense of fascination. He felt altogether powerless to interfere. He was simply wondering how long it would be before those long, powerful fingers seized upon what they sought. He might even then have swept aside the envelope, but he felt no inclination to do so. The fingers were moving slowly but surely. Finally, with a little grab, they seized upon it. Then there was another moment of suspense.
Slowly the hand was withdrawn. Without a second's warning Duncombe felt himself held in the grip of a giant. Andrew had him by the throat.
"You have lied to me, George!" he cried. "There was a telegram!"
"WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?"
It seemed to Duncombe that time stood still. Andrew's face, wholly disfigured by the hideous dark spectacles, unrecognizable, threatening, was within a few inches of his own. He felt the other's hot breath upon his cheek. For a moment there stole through his numbed senses the fear of more terrible things. And then the grip which held him relaxed. Andrew stood away gasping. The crisis was over.
"You lied to me, George. Why?"
Duncombe did not answer. He could not. It was as though his body had been emptied of all breath.
"You meant to keep the contents of that telegram a secret from me. Why? Was I right after all? Read me that telegram, George. Read it me truthfully."
"The telegram is from Spencer," Duncombe said. "He is coming here."
"Here? Is he giving up the search? Has he failed, then?"
"He does not say," Duncombe answered. "He says simply that he is coming here. He has wired for a motor to meet him at Lynn. He may be here to-night."
A discordant laugh broke from Pelham's lips.
"What about your Miss Fielding, now?" he exclaimed. "Why do you suppose that he is leaving Paris, and coming here? I was right. I knew that I was right."
Duncombe stood up. His expanse of shirt-front was crumpled and battered. His white tie was hanging down in ribbons.
"Listen, Andrew!" he exclaimed. "I am speaking of the girl by whose side I sat to-night at dinner, who calls herself Miss Fielding, who has—in plain words—denied that she knows anything of Phyllis Poynton. I want you to understand this. Whatever she may choose to call herself that shall be her name. I will not have her questioned or bullied or watched. If Spencer comes here to do either I have finished with him. I elect myself her protector. I will stand between her and all suspicion of evil things."
"She has found a champion indeed!" Pelham exclaimed fiercely. "With Miss Fielding I have nothing to do. Yet you had better understand this. If she be Phyllis Poynton she belongs to me, and not to you. She was mine before you heard her name. I have watched her grow up from a child, I taught her to ride and to shoot and to swim. I have watched her listening to the wind, bending over the flowers in her garden. I have walked with her over the moor when the twilight fell and the mists rose. We have seen the kindling of the stars, and we have seen the moon grow pale and the eastern sky ablaze. I have taught her where to look for the beautiful things of life. She has belonged to me in all ways, save one. I am a poor, helpless creature now, George, but, by the gods, I will let no one rob me of my one holy compensation. She is the girl I love; the better part of myself."