"Phyllis Poynton may be all these things to you," Duncombe answered. "I do not know her. I do not recognize her. Find her, if you can; make of her what you will. All that I ask of you is that you divest your mind of these senseless suspicions. Seek Phyllis Poynton where you will, but leave alone the woman whom I love. I will not have her troubled or annoyed by needless importunities. She says she is Miss Fielding. Then she is Miss Fielding. It is enough for me. It must be enough for you!"
"And what about Spencer?" Pelham asked grimly.
"Spencer in this matter is my servant," Duncombe answered. "If his search for Phyllis Poynton entails his annoying Miss Fielding, then he is dismissed. I will have no more to do with the business."
"I have heard of this man Spencer," Andrew answered. "If you think that he is the sort of creature whom you can order about like that, I fancy that you are mistaken. You may try to call him off, if you like, but you won't succeed. He is searching for Phyllis Poynton, and he is coming here. I believe that he will find her."
The windows were wide open, and both men suddenly turned round. There was no mistaking the sound which came to them from the road outside—the regular throb and beat of a perfectly balanced engine. Then they heard a man's voice, cool and precise.
"Here you are, then, and a sovereign for yourself. A capital little car this. Good night!"
The little iron gate opened and closed. A tall man in a loose travelling-coat, and carrying a small bag, entered. He saw Duncombe standing at the open window, and waved his hand. As he approached his boyish face lit up into a smile.
"What luck to find you up!" he exclaimed. "You got my telegram?"
"An hour ago," Duncombe answered. "This is my friend, Mr. Andrew Pelham. What will you have?"
"Whisky and soda, and a biscuit, please," was the prompt reply. "Haven't upset you, I hope, coming down from the clouds in this fashion?"
"Not in the least," Duncombe answered. "You've made us very curious, though."
"Dear me!" Spencer exclaimed, "what a pity! I came here to ask questions, not to answer them. You've set me a regular poser, Duncombe. By Jove! that's good whisky."
"Help yourself," Duncombe answered. "We won't bother you to-night. I'll show you a room as soon as you've had a cigarette. Fair crossing?"
"No idea," Spencer answered. "I slept all the way. Jolly place you've got here, Duncombe. Nice country, too."
"There is just one question," Pelham began.
"Sha'n't answer it—to-night," Spencer interrupted firmly. "I'm dead sleepy, and I couldn't guarantee to tell the truth. And when to-morrow comes—I'll be frank with you—I've very little to say. Pardon me, but where does Mr. Pelham come in in this matter?"
"Pelham," Duncombe said slowly, "was a neighbor of Miss Poynton's, in Devonshire. It was through him that I first went to Paris to search for her."
"Glad to meet him, then," he remarked. "There are a few questions I shall be glad to ask him in the morning."
"There is one," Pelham said, "which you must answer now."
Spencer raised his eyebrows. He was standing with his back to them now, helping himself to sandwiches from a dish upon the sideboard.
"By Jove, your cook does understand these things," he remarked, with his mouth full. "No idea I was so hungry. What was that, Mr. Pelham? A question which must be answered now?"
"Yes. You telegraphed to Duncombe to know the names of Lord Runton's guests, and now you have come here yourself. Why?"
Spencer helped himself to another sandwich.
"I came here," he said, "because I didn't seem to be getting on in Paris. It struck me that the clue to Miss Poynton's disappearance might after all be on this side of the Channel."
Pelham guided himself by the table to the sideboard. He stood close to Spencer.
"Mr. Spencer," he said, "I am almost blind, and I cannot see your face, but I want you to tell me the truth. I expect it from you."
"My dear fellow," Spencer answered. "I'm awfully sorry for you, of course, but I really don't see why I should answer your questions at all, truthfully or untruthfully. I have been making a few inquiries for my friend Duncombe. At present I regret to say that I have been unsuccessful. In their present crude state I should prefer keeping my discoveries, such as they are, to myself."
Pelham struck the sideboard with his clenched fist so that all the glasses rattled upon the tray. His face was dark with passion.
"I will not be ignored in this matter," he declared. "Phyllis Poynton and her brother are nothing to Duncombe. He acted only for me. He cannot deny it. Ask him for yourself."
"I do not need to ask him," Spencer answered. "I am perfectly well aware of the circumstances of the case. All the same, I go about my business my own way. I am not ready to answer questions from you or anybody else."
"You shall tell me this at least," Pelham declared. "You shall tell me why you telegraphed here for the names of Lord Runton's house party."
"Simplest thing in the world," Spencer answered, relinquishing his attack upon the sandwiches, and lighting a cigarette. "I did it to oblige a friend who writes society notes for the 'New York Herald.'"
Duncombe gave vent to a little exclamation of triumph. Pelham for the moment was speechless.
"Awfully sorry if I misled you in any way," Spencer continued. "I never imagined your connecting my request with the disappearance of Phyllis Poynton. Why should I?"
"The fact is," Duncombe interposed, "there is a girl staying at Runton Place whose voice Pelham declares is exactly like Phyllis Poynton's, and whose general appearance, I will admit, is somewhat similar to the photograph I showed you. It is a coincidence, of course, but beyond that it is absurd to go. This young lady is a Miss Fielding. She is there with her father, and they are invited guests, with all the proper credentials."
"I suppose it is because I am not a lady's man," he said carelessly, "but I must admit that all girls' voices sound pretty much alike to me."
"I wish to Heaven that I could see your face!" Pelham exclaimed, "I should know then whether you were telling me the truth."
"The weak point about my temporary profession is," Spencer remarked thoughtfully, "that it enables even strangers to insult one with impunity."
"If I have misjudged you," Pelham said with some dignity, "I am sorry. I am to understand, then, that you have no news whatever to give us about the disappearance of Phyllis Poynton and her brother?"
"Not a scrap!" Spencer answered.
"I will wish you both good night, then," Pelham said. "No, don't trouble, George. I can find my way quite well by myself."
He disappeared, and Duncombe drew a little sigh of relief.
"Excitable person, your friend!" Spencer remarked.
"Very! I am frightened to death that he will make an ass of himself before Miss Fielding. If he hears her speak he loses his head."
"Nice girl?" Spencer asked.
"What sort of a fellow's the father?"
"Very quiet. I've scarcely spoken to him. They're Americans. Friends of Lord Runton's brother, out in New York. Ever heard of them?"
"Yes. A few times."
"You seem interested."
Duncombe turned suddenly white.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
Spencer held his cigarette between his fingers and looked at it thoughtfully.
"Mr. Fielding, of New York," he said, "sailed for America from Havre last Saturday. His daughter has gone to Russia with a party of friends."
Duncombe sprang from his seat. His cigarette slipped from his fingers and fell unheeded upon the carpet.
"Then who—who are these people?" he exclaimed.
Spencer shrugged his shoulders.
"I thought it worth while," he said, "to come over and find out."
A HILLSIDE ENCOUNTER
A few minutes before ten the following morning a mounted messenger from Runton Place brought the following note for Duncombe:—
"RUNTON PLACE, Friday Morning.
"MY DEAR DUNCOMBE,—Fielding has cried off the shoot to-day. Says he has a motor coming over for him to try from Norwich, and his dutiful daughter remains with him. Thought I would let you know in case you cared to come and look them up. Best I could do for you.
"Ever yours sincerely,
Duncombe had breakfasted alone. Pelham had asked for something to be sent up for him, and Spencer, after a cup of coffee in his room, had gone out. Duncombe did not hesitate for a moment. He started at once for Runton Place.
A marvellous change had taken place in the weather since the previous day. The calm splendor of the early autumn seemed to have vanished. A strong north wind was blowing, and the sky was everywhere gray and threatening. The fields of uncut corn were bent, like the waves of the sea, and the yellow leaves came down from the trees in showers. Piled up masses of black clouds were driven across the sky. Scanty drops of rain kept falling, an earnest of what was to come as soon as the wind should fail. Duncombe had almost to fight his way along until, through a private gate, he entered Runton Park. The house lay down in the valley about a mile away. To reach it one had to cross a ridge of hills covered with furze bushes and tumbled fragments of ancient rock.
Half-way up the first ascent he paused. A figure had struggled into sight from the opposite side—the figure of a girl. Her skirts and cloak were being blown wildly about her. She wore a flat Tam-o'-Shanter hat, from under the confines of which her hair was defying the restraint of hatpins and elastic. She stood there swaying a little from the violence of the wind, slim and elegant, notwithstanding a certain intensity of gaze and bearing. Duncombe felt his heart give a quick jump as he recognized her. Then he started up the hill as fast as he could go.
She stood perfectly still, watching him clamber up to her side. Her face showed no sign of pleasure or annoyance at his coming. He felt at once that it was not he alone who had realized the coming of the tragedy.
No words of conventional greeting passed between them as he clambered breathless to her side. The wind had brought no color into her cheeks. There were rims under her eyes. She had the appearance of one who had come into touch with fearsome things.
"What do you want with me?" she asked. "Why are you here?"
"To be with you," he answered. "You know why."
She laughed mirthlessly.
"Better go back," she exclaimed. "I am no fit companion for any one to-day. I came out to be alone."
A gust of wind came tearing up the hillside. They both struggled for breath.
"I came," he said, "to find you. I was going to the house. Something has happened which you ought to know."
She looked back towards the long white front of the house, and there was terror in her eyes.
"Something is happening there," she muttered, "and I am afraid."
He took her gloveless hand. It was as cold as ice. She did not resist his touch, but her fingers lay passively in his.
"Let me be your friend," he pleaded. "Never mind what has happened, or what is going to happen. You are in trouble. Let me share it with you."
"You cannot," she answered. "You, nor any one else in the world. Let me go! You don't understand!"
"I understand more than you think!" he answered.
She turned her startled eyes upon him.
"What do you mean?" she cried.
"I mean that the man whom we employed to trace the whereabouts of Phyllis Poynton and her brother arrived from Paris last night," he answered. "He wanted a list of Lord Runton's house party. Can you guess why?"
"Mr. Fielding, of New York, left Havre on Saturday——"
Her voice was a staccato note of agony. Between the fingers which were pressed to her face he could see the slow, painful flushing of her cheeks.
"Why did you come to tell me this?" she asked in a low tone.
"You know," he answered.
"Did you guess last night that we were impostors?" she asked.
"Certainly not," he answered. "Andrew was tortured with doubts about you. He believed that you were Phyllis Poynton!"
"I am!" she whispered. "I was afraid of him all the evening. He must have known."
It seemed to Duncombe that the rocks and gorse bushes were spinning round and the ground was swaying under his feet. The wind, which had kept them both half breathless, seemed full of mocking voices. She was an impostor. These were her own words. She was in danger of detection, perhaps of other things. At that very moment Spencer might have gained an entrance into Runton Place. He felt uncertain of himself, and all the time her eyes watched him jealously.
"Why did you come here?" she cried. "Why do you look at me like that? It is no concern of yours who I am. Why do you interfere?"
"Everything that concerns you concerns me," he answered. "I don't care who you are, or who you say you are. I don't even ask you for any sort of explanation. I came to warn you about Spencer. For the rest, here am I your friend whatever happens. You are terrified! Don't go back to the house. Give me the right to take care of you. I'll do it!"
Then for the first time a really human expression lit up her face. The sick fear passed away. Her features were suddenly softer. The light in her eyes was a beautiful thing.
"You are kind," she murmured, "kinder than I ever dreamed any one could be who—knew. Will you be kinder still?"
"Try me!" he begged.
"Then go away. Forget who I am. Forget who I am not. Shut yourself up in your study for twenty-four hours, and come out without any memories at all. Oh, do this for me—do this!" she begged, with a sudden break in her voice.
She leaned a little towards him. A long wisp of her hair blew in his face. A moment of madness came to him with the gust of wind which blew her almost into his arms. For one exquisite moment he held her. The violets at her bosom were crushed against his coat. Then she tore herself away.
"You are mad," she cried. "It is my fault. Oh, let me go!"
"Never," he answered, passionately clasping at her hand. "Call yourself by what name you will, I love you. If you are in trouble, let me help. Let me go back to the house with you, and we will face it together, whatever it may be. Come!"
She wrung her hands. The joy had all gone from her face.
"Oh, what have I done?" she moaned. "Don't you understand that I am an impostor? The man down there is not my father. I—oh, let me go!"
She wrenched herself free. She stood away from him, her skirt gathered up into her hand, prepared for flight.
"If you would really do me a kindness," she cried, "get Mr. Spencer to stop his search for me. Tell him to forget that such a person ever existed. And you, too! You must do the same. What I have done, I have done of my own free will. I am my own mistress. I will not be interfered with. Listen!"
She turned a white, intent face towards the house. Duncombe could hear nothing for the roaring of the wind, but the girl's face was once more convulsed with terror.
"What was that?" she cried.
"I heard nothing," he answered. "What can one hear? The wind is strong to drown even our voices."
"And those?" she cried again, pointing with outstretched finger to two rapidly moving black specks coming towards them along the winding road which led from the highway to Runton Place.
Duncombe watched them for a moment.
"They are the Runton shooting brakes," he declared.
"I expect Lord Runton and the rest of them are coming back."
"Coming back!" she repeated, with a little gasp.
"But they were going to shoot all day and dine there. They are not expected home till past midnight."
"I expect the shoot is off," Duncombe remarked. "One couldn't possibly hit anything a day like this. I wonder they ever started."
Her face was white enough before, but it was deathly now. Her lips parted, but only a little moan came from them. He heard the rush of her skirts, and saw her spring forward. He was left alone upon the hilltop.
MR. FIELDING IN A NEW ROLE
Runton was apparently enjoying the relaxation of having got rid of practically the whole of its guests for the day. The women servants were going about their duties faithfully enough, but with a marked absence of any superfluous energy. Mr. Harrison, the butler, was enjoying a quiet pipe in his room and a leisurely perusal of the morning paper. Mrs. Ellis, the much-respected housekeeper, was also in her room comfortably ensconced in an easy-chair, and studying a new volume of collected menus which a friend had sent her from Paris. The servants were not exactly neglecting their work, but every one was appreciating a certain sense of peace which the emptying of the house from a crowd of more or less exacting guests had brought about.
In one room only things were different, and neither Mrs. Ellis nor Mr. Harrison, nor any of the household, knew anything about that. It was the principal guest-chamber on the first floor—a large and handsomely furnished apartment. Barely an hour ago it had been left in spotless order by a couple of painstaking servants. Just now it had another aspect.
In the middle of the room a man lay stretched upon the floor, face downwards. The blood was slowly trickling from a wound in the side of the head down on to the carpet. With nearly every breath he drew he groaned. Overturned chairs and tables showed that he had taken part in no ordinary struggle. The condition of the other man also testified this.
The other man was Mr. Fielding. He was down on his knees upon the floor, rapidly going through the contents of a dark mahogany box, which was apparently full of papers. Scattered over the carpet by his side were various strange-looking tools, by means of which he had forced the lock. Mr. Fielding was not at all his usual self. His face was absolutely colorless, and every few moments his hand went up to his shoulder-blade and a shiver went through his whole frame. There was a faint odor of gunpowder in the room, and somewhere near the feet of the prostrate man lay a small shining revolver. Nevertheless, Mr. Fielding persevered in his task.
Suddenly there came an interruption. Footsteps outside in the corridor had paused. There was a sharp tapping at the door. The prostrate man groaned louder than ever, and half turned over, proving that he was not wholly unconscious. Mr. Fielding closed the box and staggered to his feet.
He stood for a moment staring wildly at the door. Who could it be? He had asked, as a special favor, that he might not be disturbed, and Mr. Fielding knew how to ask favors of servants. Interruption now meant disaster, absolute and unqualified—the end, perhaps, of a career in which he had achieved some success. Big drops of perspiration stood out upon his forehead, drawn there by the pain and this new fear. Slowly, and on tiptoe, he drew near the door.
"Who is that?" he asked with wonderful calmness.
"It is I! Let me in," came the swift answer, and Mr. Fielding drew a little breath of relief. Nevertheless he was angry. He opened the door and drew the girl in.
"You fool!" he exclaimed. "I sent you out of the way on purpose. Why have you come back?"
She opened her lips, but no words came. The man on the floor groaned again. She swayed upon her feet. It was all so horrible.
"Speak, can't you!" he muttered between his teeth. "Things have gone badly here. I'm wounded, and I'm afraid—I've hurt that chap—pretty badly."
"I was in the park," she faltered, "and saw them. They are all coming back."
"They are almost here. Sir George Duncombe told me that they could not shoot because of the wind."
He had forgotten his hurt. He caught up his hat and a coat, and pushed her out of the room. He locked the door, and thrust the key into his pocket. As they walked down the corridor he lit a cigarette.
A footman met them in the hall.
"A gentleman has called to see you, sir—a Mr. Spencer," he announced. "I have shown him into the library."
Mr. Fielding appeared to hesitate for a moment.
"It is the man who wants to sell us the car," he exclaimed, turning towards the girl, "but I haven't even seen it yet. Better tell him to wait for a quarter of an hour," he added, turning towards the footman. "I'll just drive down to the lodge gates and back. Come along, Sybil."
She followed him to the front door. A man was seated at the wheel of the motor car, and turned his head quickly as they approached. Mr. Fielding nodded pleasantly, though his face was white with excruciating pain.
"Kept you waiting, I'm afraid," he said. "Can you drive at all in a wind like this?"
"Jump in, sir, and see," the man answered. "Is the young lady coming?"
Mr. Fielding nodded, and stepped into the front seat. The girl was already in the tonneau. The man slipped in his clutch, and they glided round the broad, circular sweep in front of the entrance. Just as they started the wagonette drew up.
"We sha'n't be more than a few minutes," Mr. Fielding cried out, waving his hand. "Sorry you've lost your day's sport."
"Hold on a minute, and I'll come with you," Runton called out. "That car looks like going."
But Mr. Fielding did not hear.
* * * * *
Duncombe, who had returned from the park by the fields, was crossing the road to enter his own gates, when a black speck far away on the top of the hill attracted his attention. He stood still gazing at it, and was instantly aware that it was approaching him at an almost incredible speed. It gathered shape swiftly, and he watched it with a fascination which kept him rooted to the spot. Above the wind he could hear the throbbing of its engines. He saw it round a slight curve in the road, with two wheels in the air, and a skid which seemed for a moment as though it must mean destruction. Mud and small stones flew up around it. The driver was crouching forward over the wheel, tense and motionless. Duncombe moved to the side of the road to let it pass, with a little exclamation of anger.
Then it came more clearly into sight, and he forgot his anger in his amazement. The seat next the driver was occupied by a man leaning far back, whose face was like the face of the dead. Behind was a solitary passenger. She was leaning over, as though trying to speak to her companion. Her hair streamed wild in the wind, and on her face was a look of blank and fearful terror. Duncombe half moved forward. She saw him, and touched the driver's arm. His hand seemed to fly to the side of the car, and his right foot was jammed down. With grinding of brakes and the screaming of locked wheels, the car was brought to a standstill within a few feet of him. He sprang eagerly forward. She was already upon her feet in the road.
"Sir George," she said, "your warning, as you see, was barely in time. We are adventurer and adventuress—detected. I suppose you are a magistrate. Don't you think that you ought to detain us?"
"What can I do to help you?" he asked simply.
She looked at him eagerly. There were mud spots all up her gown, even upon her face. Her hair was wildly disordered. She carried her hat in her hand.
"You mean it?" she cried.
"You know that I do!"
She turned and looked up the road along which they had come. There was no soul in sight. She looked even up at the long line of windows which frowned down upon them from the back of the Hall. They, too, were empty. She thrust a long envelope suddenly into his hand.
"Guard this for me," she whispered. "Don't let any one know that you have it. Don't speak of it to any one. Keep it until I can send for it."
He thrust it into his inner pocket and buttoned his coat.
"It is quite safe," he said simply.
Her eyes flashed her gratitude upon him. For the first time he saw something in her face—heard it in her tone, which made his heart beat. After all she was human.
"You are very good to me," she murmured. "Believe me, I am not quite as bad as I seem. Good-bye."
He turned with her towards the car, and she gave a low cry. He too started. The car was a mile away, tearing up a hill, and almost out of sight. In the lane behind they could hear the sound of galloping horses. He caught her by the wrist, dragged her through the gate, and behind a great shrub on the lawn.
"Stay there!" he exclaimed hoarsely. "Don't move. I will come back."
Half a dozen horsemen were coming along the lane at steeplechase pace. Lord Runton, on his wonderful black horse, which no man before had ever seen him gallop save across the softest of country, pulled up outside the gate.
"Seen a motor go by, Duncombe?" he called out.
"Rather!" he answered. "Fielding and Miss Fielding in it. Going like Hell!"
Runton waved his companions on, and leaned down to Duncombe.
"Beastly unpleasant thing happened, Duncombe," he said. "Fielding and his daughter have bolted. Fielding seems to have half killed a messenger who came down from London to see Von Rothe, and stolen some papers. Fact of the matter is he's not Fielding at all—and as for the girl! Lord knows who she is. Sorry for you, Duncombe. Hope you weren't very hard hit!"
He gathered up his reins.
"We've sent telegrams everywhere," he said, "but the beast has cut the telephone, and Von Rothe blasphemes if we talk about the police. It's a queer business."
He rode off. Duncombe returned where the girl was standing. She was clutching at the branches of the shrub as though prostrate with fear, but at his return she straightened herself. How much had she heard he wondered.
"Don't move!" he said.
"Can any one see me?" she asked.
"Not from the road."
"From the house?"
"They could," he admitted, "but it is the servants' dinner hour. Don't you notice how quiet the house is?"
She was very white. She seemed to find some difficulty in speaking. There was fear in her eyes.
"It would not be safe for you to leave here at present," he said. "I am going to take you into a little room leading out of my study. No one ever goes in it. You will be safe there for a time."
"If I could sit down—for a little while."
He took her arm, and led her unresistingly towards the house. The library window was closed, but he opened it easily, and helped her through. At the further end of the room was an inner door, which he threw open.
"This is a room which no one except myself ever enters," he said. "I used to do a little painting here sometimes. Sit down, please, in that easy-chair. I am going to get you a glass of wine."
They heard the library door suddenly opened. A voice, shaking with passion, called out his name.
"Duncombe, are you here? Duncombe!"
There was a dead silence. They could hear him moving about the room.
"Hiding, are you? Brute! Come out, or I'll—by heavens, I'll shoot you if you don't tell me the truth. I heard her voice in the lane. I'll swear to it."
Duncombe glanced quickly towards his companion. She lay back in the chair in a dead faint.
A WOMAN'S CRY
The three men were sitting at a small round dining-table, from which everything except the dessert had been removed. Duncombe filled his own glass and passed around a decanter of port. Pelham and Spencer both helped themselves almost mechanically. A cloud of restraint had hung over the little party. Duncombe raised his glass and half emptied its contents. Then he set it down and leaned back in his chair.
"Well," he said, "I am ready for the inquisition. Go on, Andrew."
Pelham fingered his own glass nervously. He seemed to find his task no easy one.
"George," he said, "we are old friends. I want you to remember it. I want you also to remember that I am in a hideous state of worry and nerves"—he passed his hand over his forehead just above his eyes as though they were hurting him. "I am not behaving to you as a guest should to his host. I admit it freely. I have lost my temper more than once during the last twenty-four hours. I am sorry! Forgive me if you can, George!"
"Willingly, Andrew," Duncombe answered. "I shall think no more about it."
"At the same time," Pelham continued, "there is another point to be considered. Have you been quite fair to me, George? Remember that Phyllis Poynton is the one person whose existence reconciles me to life. You had never even heard her name before I sent for you. You went abroad, like the good fellow you are, to find her for me. You assure me that you have discovered—nothing. Let me put you upon your honor, George. Is this absolutely true?"
"I have discovered nothing about Phyllis Poynton," Duncombe declared quietly.
"About Miss Fielding then?"
"Phyllis Poynton and Miss Fielding are two very different persons," Duncombe declared.
"That may be so," Pelham said, "although I find it hard to believe that God ever gave to two women voices so exactly similar. Yet if you are assured that this is so, why not be altogether frank with me?"
"What have you to complain of?" Duncombe asked.
"Something has happened at Runton Place, in which Mr. Fielding and his daughter are concerned," Pelham continued. "I have heard all manner of strange rumors. This afternoon I distinctly heard the girl's voice in the lane outside. She was crying out as though in fear. A few minutes later I heard you speaking to some one in the library. Yet when I entered the room you would not answer me."
"Supposing I grant everything that you say, Andrew," Duncombe answered. "Supposing I admit that strange things have happened with regard to Mr. Fielding and his daughter which have resulted in their leaving Runton Place—even that she was there in the lane this afternoon—how does all this concern you?"
"Because," Pelham declared, striking the table with his fist, "I am not satisfied that the girl who has been staying at Runton Place, and calling herself Miss Fielding, is not in reality Phyllis Poynton."
Duncombe lit a cigarette, and passed the box round.
"Do you know what they are saying to-night of Mr. Fielding and his daughter?" he asked quietly.
"That the one is a robber, and the other an adventuress," Duncombe answered. "This much is certainly true. They have both left Runton Place at a moment's notice, and without taking leave of their host and hostess. Remember, I never knew Phyllis Poynton. You did! Ask yourself whether she is the sort of young person to obtain hospitality under false pretences, and then abuse it—to associate herself in a fraud with a self-confessed robber."
"The idea," Pelham said quietly, "is absurd."
"While we are on the subject," Spencer remarked, drawing the cigarettes towards him, "may I ask you a few questions, Mr. Pelham? For instance, had Miss Poynton any relations in France?"
"Not to my knowledge," Pelham answered. "I have known both her and her brother for a great many years, and I never heard either of them mention any."
"Why did she go to Paris, then?"
"To meet her brother."
"And why did he go abroad?"
"It was a whim, I think. Just a desire to see a few foreign countries before he settled down to live the life of a country gentleman."
"You believe that he had no other reason?"
"I think I may go so far as to say that I am sure of it," Pelham answered.
"One more question," Spencer added, intervening.
But the question remained unasked. The butler had opened the dining-room door and was announcing Lord Runton.
Duncombe rose to his feet in surprise. For the moment a sudden fear drew the color from his cheeks.
He looked apprehensively towards his unexpected visitor. Lord Runton, however, showed no signs of any great discomposure. He was wearing his ordinary dinner clothes, and in reply to Duncombe's first question assured him that he had dined.
"I will try a glass of your port, if I may, George," he declared. "Thanks!"
The butler had wheeled a chair up to the table for him, and left the room. Lord Runton filled his glass and sent the decanter round. Then he turned towards Spencer, to whom he had just been introduced.
"Mr. Spencer," he said, "my visit to-night is mainly to you. I dare say you are aware that a somewhat unpleasant thing has happened at my house. My people tell me that you called there this morning and inquired for Mr. Fielding."
"Quite true," he answered. "I called, but did not see him. He appears to have left somewhat hurriedly while I was waiting."
"You did not even catch a glimpse of him?"
"You know Mr. Fielding by sight, I presume?"
"I have seen him in Paris once or twice," Spencer answered.
"You will not think me impertinent for asking you these questions, I am sure," Lord Runton continued apologetically, "but could you describe Mr. Fielding to me?"
"Certainly," Spencer answered. "He was tall and thin, wears glasses, was clean-shaven, bald, and limped a little."
Lord Runton nodded.
"Thank you," he said. "I presume that your visit this morning was one of courtesy. You are acquainted with Mr. Fielding?"
"I have not that pleasure," Spencer answered. "I am afraid I must confess that my visit was purely one of curiosity."
"Curiosity!" Lord Runton repeated.
"Exactly. Do you mind passing those excellent cigarettes of yours, Duncombe?"
Lord Runton hesitated for a moment. He was conscious of a certain restraint in Spencer's answers. Suddenly he turned towards him.
"Mr. Spencer," he said, "may I ask if you are Mr. Jarvis Spencer, of the 'Daily Messenger'—the Mr. Spencer who was mentioned in connection with the investigations into the Lawson estates?"
"Yes," he said, "I am that person."
"Then," Lord Runton continued, "I want to tell you exactly what has happened to-day in my house, and to ask your advice. May I?"
"If our host has no objection," Spencer answered, glancing towards Pelham.
"None whatever," Duncombe answered, also glancing towards Pelham.
There was a moment's silence. Pelham raised his head.
"If Lord Runton desires it, I will withdraw," he said slowly. "At the same time I must confess that I, too, am interested in this matter. If Lord Runton has no objection to my presence I should like to remain. My discretion goes without saying."
Duncombe moved uneasily in his chair. His eyes sought Spencer's for guidance, but found his head averted. Lord Runton raised his eyebrows slightly at what he considered a somewhat vulgar curiosity, but his reply was prompt.
"You are a friend of Duncombe's, Mr. Pelham," he said, "and that is enough. I have to ask not only you, but all three of you, to consider what I am going to tell you as absolutely confidential."
They all signified their assent. Lord Runton continued:—
"Mr. and Miss Fielding came to me with letters from my brother, and with many convincing proofs of their identity. We none of us had the slightest suspicion concerning them. Their behavior was exactly what it should have been. Nothing about them excited remark in any way, except the unusual number of telegrams and telephone messages which Mr. Fielding was always receiving. That, however, was quite in accord with our ideas of an American business man, and didn't seem to us in the least remarkable."
"The telegrams were delivered through a neighboring office?" Spencer asked quietly.
"Yes," Lord Runton answered, "but they were all in code. I happen to know that because the postmaster brought the first one up himself, and explained that he was afraid that he must have made some mistake as the message was incomprehensible. Fielding only laughed, and gave the man a sovereign. The message was absolutely correct, he declared. He told me afterwards that whenever he was speculating he always coded his messages, and it seemed perfectly reasonable."
"Just so!" he murmured.
"This morning," Lord Runton continued, "Mr. Fielding rather upset our plans. We were all to have spent the day at the Duke's, and dined there. There was a big shoot for the men, as you know. At breakfast-time, however, Mr. Fielding announced that he had a man coming over with a motor car from Norwich for them to try, and begged to be excused. So we had to go without them.
"Von Rothe was staying with me, as you know, and just before we started he had a telegram that a messenger from the Embassy was on his way down. He hesitated for some time as to whether he ought not to stay at home so as to be here when he arrived, but we persuaded him to come with us, and promised to send him back after luncheon. When we got to Chestow, however, the wind had become a gale, and it was impossible to shoot decently. Von Rothe was a little uneasy all the time, I could see, so he and I and a few of the others returned here, and the rest went up to Chestow. Just as we arrived Fielding passed us in a great motor car with his daughter behind. When we got to the house Von Rothe inquired for the messenger. He was told that he was in Mr. Fielding's sitting-room, but when we got there we found the door locked, and through the key-hole we could hear a man groaning. We broke the door in and found Von Rothe's messenger half unconscious, and a rifled despatch box upon the floor. He has given us no coherent account of what has happened yet, but it is quite certain that he was attacked and robbed by Mr. Fielding."
"What was stolen?" Spencer asked. "Money?"
"No, a letter," Lord Runton answered. "Von Rothe says very little, but I never saw a man so broken up. He has left for London to-night."
"The matter is in the hands of the police, of course?" Spencer asked.
Lord Runton shook his head.
"Von Rothe took me into his room and locked the door a few minutes after we had discovered what had happened. He implored me to keep the whole affair from the Press and from publicity in any form. His whole career was at stake, he said, and very much more than his career. All that we could do was to follow Mr. Fielding and drag him back by force if we could. Even then he had little hope of recovering the letter. We did our best, but, of course, we had no chance. Mr. Fielding and his daughter simply drove off. Von Rothe is dealing with the affair in his own way."
"It is a most extraordinary story," Spencer said quietly.
Lord Runton turned towards him.
"I have treated you with confidence, Mr. Spencer," he said. "Will you tell me now why you called at my house to see Mr. Fielding to-day?"
Spencer hesitated, but only for a moment.
"Certainly," he said. "I came because I knew that Mr. Fielding was half-way to America, and his daughter in Russia. Some friends of mine were curious to know who your guests could be."
Pelham raised his head.
"You lied to me then!" he exclaimed.
"I had as much right to lie to you," Spencer answered calmly, "as you had to ask me questions. I had——"
He stopped short in the middle of his sentence. The faces of the three men were a study in varying expressions. From some other part of the house there came to them the sound of a woman's sudden cry of terror—the cry of a woman who had awakened suddenly to look into the face of death. Duncombe's uplifted glass fell with a crash upon the table. The red wine trickled across the table-cloth.
LORD RUNTON IS SUSPICIOUS
Duncombe was out of the room in a very few seconds. The others hesitated for a moment whether to follow him or not. Spencer was the first to rise to his feet and moved towards the door. Lord Runton and Pelham followed a moment or two later. Outside in the hall the house was perfectly silent.
Duncombe reached the library door just in time to find himself confronted by half a dozen of the men and women servants coming from the back of the house. With his hand upon the door-knob he waved them back.
"Be so good, Mrs. Harrison," he said to the housekeeper, "as to keep better order in the servants' hall. We could hear some girls calling or laughing in the dining-room."
"Indeed, sir," Mrs. Harrison answered with some dignity, "the noise, whatever it was, did not come from the servants' quarters. We fancied that it came from your library."
"Quite impossible," Duncombe answered coolly. "If I require any one I will ring."
He passed through the door and locked it on the inside. In half a dozen hasty strides he was across the room and inside the smaller apartment where he had left the girl. With a little gasp of relief he realized that she was there still. She was pale, and a spot of color was blazing in her cheeks. Her hair and dress were a little disordered. With trembling fingers she was fastening a little brooch into her blouse as he entered. A rush of night air struck him from a wide-open window.
"What has happened?" he called out.
"I have been terrified," she answered. "I am sorry I called out. I could not help it. A man came here—through the window. He talked so fast that I could scarcely hear what he said, but he wanted that paper. I tried to make him understand that I had not got it, but he did not believe me—and he was rude."
Duncombe shut down the window, swearing softly to himself.
"I cannot stay with you," he said, "just now. The whole house is alarmed at your cry. Listen!"
There was a loud knocking at the library door. Duncombe turned hastily away.
"I must let them in," he said. "I will come back to you."
She pointed to the window.
"He is coming back," she said, "at twelve o'clock."
"Do you wish me to give up the paper?" he asked.
"Very well. I will be with you when he comes—before then. I must get rid of these men first."
He closed the door softly, and drew the curtain which concealed it. Then he opened the library window, and a moment afterwards the door.
"Come in, you fellows," he said. "I scarcely know what I was doing when I locked the door. I fancy one of the housemaids has been seeing ghosts in the garden. I saw something white in amongst the shrubs, but I could find nothing. Come on out with me."
Spencer followed with a perfectly grave face. Lord Runton looked puzzled. Pelham did not attempt to leave the library. Spencer drew his host a little on one side.
"What a rotten liar you are, George!" he said. "I don't think that even Runton was taken in."
"I suppose it sounded a little thin," Duncombe answered coolly. "Put it this way, then, so far as you are concerned. The shriek occurred in my house. I've no explanation to offer to anybody."
"I like the sound of that better, Duncombe," he remarked. "Hullo! What's the matter with Runton?"
Lord Runton was calling to them.
"You've had a visitor who was in a hurry, old chap!" he remarked. "Send for a lantern."
Duncombe concealed his annoyance.
"I don't want to alarm the whole household," he said. "I've a little electric torch in my study. I'll fetch that."
He brought it out. The progress of a man from the road to the small window, towards which Duncombe glanced every now and then apprehensively, was marked by much destruction. The intruder had effected his exit either in great haste or in a singularly unfortunate manner. He had apparently missed the gate, which at this point was only a small hand one, and in clambering over the fence he had broken the topmost strand of wire. He had blundered into a bed of wallflowers, which were all crushed and downtrodden, and snapped off a rose tree in the middle. Below the window were distinct traces of footmarks. Lord Runton, who held the torch, was becoming excited.
"Duncombe," he said, "there is something which I have not told you yet. I have had numerous reports in about the car, and was able to trace it as far as Lynn, but they all agreed in saying that it contained only two persons—the driver and the man who called himself Fielding. What became of the girl?"
"I have no idea," Duncombe answered steadily.
"Of course not," Lord Runton continued, "but don't you think it possible that—without your knowledge, of course—she may be hidden somewhere about here? That cry was not like the cry of a housemaid. Let us have the whole place searched."
Duncombe shrugged his shoulders.
"As you will," he answered. "I am certain, however, that it will be useless. There is no place here where any one could hide."
"Your servants may know something," Runton suggested.
"I have already questioned them," Duncombe answered.
"Come along, Mr. Spencer," Lord Runton exclaimed, "let us search the grounds."
Spencer shook his head.
"Waste of time, Lord Runton," he answered. "If you really want to discover the whereabouts of this missing young lady, and she should by any chance be close at hand, I should recommend you to induce Sir George to let you search the room to which those footsteps lead."
"The library," Duncombe interrupted quickly. "Search it by all means, if you like. I have done so myself already."
Spencer was facing the house.
"The library!" he remarked reflectively. "Ah!"
He stooped down to light a cigarette. Suddenly he felt Duncombe's hot breath upon his cheek. In the momentary glow of the match he caught a silhouette of a pale, angry face, whose eyes were flashing upon him.
"This isn't your affair, Spencer. Shut up!"
Spencer blew out the match deliberately. They both followed Lord Runton to the library. Pelham was standing in the middle of the room. He had the appearance of a man listening intently.
"George," he asked sharply, "what is on the north side of this room?"
"The wall!" Duncombe answered.
"A passage and the billiard-room."
Pelham seemed dissatisfied.
"I fancied," he muttered—"but I suppose it must have been fancy. Do the women servants use that passage?"
"Of course! Upon my word," Duncombe added, with a nervous little laugh, "you all seem to be trying to make my house into a Maskelyne and Cooke's home of mystery. Let us go into the dining-room and have a whisky and soda."
"Not for me, thanks," Lord Runton declared. "I must go back. The real object of my coming here, Duncombe, was to see if the Mr. Spencer who called at Runton Place to-day was really Mr. Jarvis Spencer, and if so to ask him whether he would help me."
"To what extent, Lord Runton?" Spencer asked quietly.
"To the extent of recovering, or attempting to recover, the papers which were stolen from the Baron Von Rothe," Lord Runton said. "The Baron was a guest in my house, and I feel the occurrence very much. He will not let me even mention the matter to the police, but I feel sure that he could not object to Mr. Spencer's taking the matter in hand."
"I think you will find," Spencer said, "that Von Rothe has already placed the matter in the hands of his own people. The German secret service is pretty active over here, you know. I have come in contact with it once or twice."
"Nevertheless, for my own satisfaction," Lord Runton continued, "I should like the matter inquired into by you, Mr. Spencer."
"I am not quite sure whether I am free to help you or not," Spencer said slowly. "May I come and see you to-morrow morning?"
"If you prefer it," Lord Runton said doubtfully. "Come as early as possible. Good night, Duncombe! I should like to know who your nocturnal visitor was."
"If he comes again," Duncombe said, "I may be able to tell you."
He walked to his desk, and taking out a revolver, slipped it into his pocket. Then he rang the bell for Lord Runton's carriage. It seemed to Duncombe that there was a shade of coolness in his visitor's manner as he took his leave. He drew Spencer a little on one side.
"I want you to promise to come and see me in any case to-morrow morning," he said. "There is something which I should prefer saying to you in my own house to saying here."
"Very well," he said, "I will come. I can promise that much at least."
Lord Runton departed. Pelham went off to bed. Spencer and his host were left alone in the library.
"Billiards, or a whisky and soda in the smoke-room?" the latter asked. "I know that you are not a late bird."
"Neither, thanks. Just a word with you here," Spencer answered.
Duncombe paused on his way to the door. Spencer was standing in a reflective attitude, with his hands behind his back, gently balancing himself upon his toes.
"I am very much disposed," he said, "to accept Lord Runton's offer. Have you any objection?"
"Of course I have," Duncombe answered. "You are working for me."
"Was working for you," Spencer corrected gently. "That is all over, isn't it?"
"What do you mean?" Duncombe exclaimed.
Spencer stood squarely upon his feet. He looked a little tired.
"My engagement from you was to find Miss Phyllis Poynton," he said softly. "You and I are perfectly well aware that the young lady in question is—well, a few yards behind that curtain," he said, motioning with his head towards it. "My task is accomplished, and I consider myself a free man."
Duncombe was silent for a moment. He walked restlessly to the window and back again.
"How did you find out that she was here?" he asked.
Spencer looked a little disgusted.
"My dear fellow," he said, "any one with the brains of a mouse must have discovered that. Why, Lord Runton, without any of the intimations which I have received, is a little suspicious. That is merely a matter of A B C. There were difficulties, I admit, and I am sorry to say that I have never solved them. I cannot tell you at this moment how it comes about that a young lady, brought up in the country here, and from all I can learn an ordinary, unambitious, virtuous sort of young person, should disappear from England in search of a missing brother, and return in a few months the companion of one of the most dangerous and brilliant members of the French secret service. This sort of thing is clean beyond me, I admit. I will be frank with you, Duncombe. I have met with difficulties in this case which I have never met with before—peculiar difficulties."
"Go on!" Duncombe exclaimed eagerly.
"I have many sources of information in Paris," Spencer continued slowly. "I have acquaintances amongst waiters, cabmen, cafe-proprietors, detectives, and many such people. I have always found them most useful. I went amongst them, making careful inquiries about Phyllis Poynton and her brother. They were like men struck dumb. Their mouths were closed like rat-traps. The mention of either the boy or the girl seemed to change them as though like magic from pleasant, talkative men and women, very eager to make the best of their little bit of information, into surly idiots, incapable of understanding or answering the slightest question. It was the most extraordinary experience I have ever come across."
Duncombe was breathlessly interested.
"What do you gather from it?" he asked eagerly.
"I can only surmise," Spencer said slowly, "I can only surmise the existence of some power, some force or combination of forces behind all this, of the nature of which I am entirely ignorant. I am bound to admit that there is a certain amount of fascination to me in the contemplation of any such thing. The murder of that poor girl, for instance, who was proposing to give you information, interests me exceedingly."
Duncombe shuddered at the recollection. The whole scene was before him once more, the whole series of events which had made his stay in Paris so eventful. He laid his hand upon Spencer's arm.
"Spencer," he said, "you speak as though your task were accomplished. It isn't. Phyllis Poynton may indeed be where you say, but if so it is Phyllis Poynton with the halter about her neck, with the fear of terrible things in her heart. It is not you nor I who is the jailer of her captivity. It is some power which has yet to be discovered. Our task is not finished yet. To-night I will try to question her about this network of intrigue into which she seems to have been drawn. If she will see you, you too shall ask her about it. Don't think of deserting us yet."
"My dear Duncombe," Spencer said, "I may as well confess at once that the sole interest I felt in Lord Runton's offer was that it is closely connected with the matter we have been discussing."
"You shall have my entire confidence, Spencer," Duncombe declared. "The man who called himself Fielding was badly wounded, and he passed here almost unconscious. He entrusted the paper or letter, or whatever it was, he stole from Von Rothe's messenger, to his so-called daughter, and she in her turn passed it on to me. It is at this moment in my possession."
Spencer looked very serious.
"My dear fellow," he said, "I congratulate you upon your pluck, but not upon your discretion. You are interfering in what may turn out to be a very great matter—a matter in which a few lives are like the pawns which are swept from the chess-board. Does any one know this?"
"She and I only! You heard her shriek?"
"A man threw up her window and climbed in. He demanded the packet. He searched the room. When he left her he declared that he should return at twelve to-night, and if she did not hand it to him then he threatened her."
Spencer smiled, and rubbed his hands softly together.
"Really," he murmured, "this is most interesting. I am with you, Duncombe. With you altogether! There is only one more question."
"You did not know Phyllis Poynton. You took up this search for her out of your friendship for Pelham. You are a rich man, young, strong, with every capacity for enjoyment. What induces you to risk your life in an adventure of this sort? You see, I don't mince words."
Then Duncombe became grave. His face fell into firm, hard lines. Yet as he spoke there was something boyish about his expression.
"It is a fair question," he answered. "You won't understand me. I don't understand myself. I've a brilliant galaxy of fools behind me. They've made the pages of history interesting. They've been the butt always of wiser men such as you, Spencer. The girl in that room may be Phyllis Poynton or the worst adventuress who ever lied her way through the mazes of intrigue, but I love her! She's in my life—a part of it. If I lose her—well, you know what life is like when the flame has gone and only the embers burn."
Spencer nodded very softly.
"That is sufficient!" he said. "You speak of things that I myself do not understand. But that is nothing. I know that they exist. But——"
"But what about Pelham?"
"Pelham has no prior claim," he answered. "As soon as she is safe he shall know the whole truth. I would tell him at this moment but that I am a little afraid of him. He would never understand, as we can, the intricacy of the situation. And now—to the prosaic."
He rang the bell.
"Groves," he told the butler, "I am hungry. Bring me in anything you can rake up for supper on a tray, and a pint of champagne."
Spencer raised his eyebrows and smiled. Duncombe nodded.
"For her, of course," he said. "I am going to take it in, and I want you to stay here. It is past eleven o'clock already."
HER FIRST KISS
"I was never," she declared, "quite so pleased to see any one in all my life. I was wondering whether it would occur to you that I was starving."
He set the tray down for her, placed a chair in front of the table, and busied himself opening the wine. All the time he was looking at her.
"Whatever have you been doing to yourself?" he asked at length.
She laughed softly.
"Oh, I had to amuse myself somehow," she answered. "I've done my hair a new way, rearranged all my ornaments, and really I don't think a man has a right to such a delightful manicure set. I felt terribly nervous in the lavatory, though. I could hear some one in the billiard-room all the time."
"That's all right!" he declared. "I've locked the door there, and have the key in my pocket. No one can get in from that side."
"Please talk, and don't watch me," she begged. "I'm ashamed to be so hungry."
He smiled and helped her to some more chicken. If he talked he was scarcely conscious of what he said. All the time his eyes kept straying towards her. She had taken off her jacket and was dressed simply enough in a blouse of some soft white material and a dark skirt. Everything, from the ornaments at her neck, the dull metal waistband, and the trim shoes, seemed to him to be carefully chosen, and the best of their sort. She wore no rings, and her fingers had the rosy pinkness of health. If she had seemed graceful to him before in the drawing-room of Runton Place, and surrounded by some of the most beautiful women in the country, she seemed more than ever so now, seated in the somewhat worn chair of his little studio. The color, too, seemed to have come back to her cheeks. She seemed to have regained in some measure her girlishness. Her eyes were ever ready to laugh into his. She chattered away as though the world after all contained nothing more serious for her than for any other girl. Duncombe hated to strike another note, yet he knew that sooner or later it must be done.
"You are quite sure that you will not have anything else?" he asked.
"Absolutely, thanks! I have never enjoyed anything so much in my life."
He glanced at his watch. It was half-past eleven.
"I am afraid," he said, "that I am going to be a nuisance to you, but one's friends often are that. I want to be your friend. I want to prove myself such. I am not an inquisitive person, by any means, but fate has declared that I should be your inquisitor. There are some questions which I am bound to ask you."
Her face grew suddenly grave.
"There is so little," she murmured, "which I can tell you."
"We shall see," he answered. "In the first place, Lord Runton has been here. He is one of my oldest friends, and a very good fellow. He came to tell me that Von Rothe had been robbed in his house of some valuable papers. He came partly to ask my advice. All the time I was sitting opposite to him, with those papers in my pocket."
She looked at him strangely.
"Perhaps," she said quietly, "you gave them up to him."
"I did not," he answered. "You know very well that I did not."
"It was your duty," she said in a low tone.
"Perhaps so. On the other hand," he continued, "you trusted me. The papers are safe."
"Does he know that you have them?" she asked.
"He knows nothing!"
She looked at him steadfastly—not with any appearance of doubting his word, and yet as though she were revolving something in her mind concerning him.
"I am thinking," she said, "how much better it would have been for both of us if we had never met."
"The fates thought otherwise," he answered. "I searched Paris for you, only to find you at my gates. The fates meant you to be my friend. We must be careful not to disappoint them."
She shook her head a little wistfully.
"You have been very good to me," she said, "but you don't understand——"
"Precisely!" he interrupted. "I don't understand. I want to. To begin with—what in this world induced you to throw in your lot even for an hour with the man who called himself Fielding?"
"I can answer no questions concerning myself," she said sadly.
"Come," he said, "it isn't so serious as all that, is it? Sooner or later your friends are sure to find you, and they will not be content with such a statement as that. You were summoned one day to Paris by or on behalf of your brother, who had unaccountably disappeared there. You immediately appear to have followed suit. You had no friends in Paris—neither, I think, had he. I believe I am correct in saying that you had neither of you ever been there before. If your brother has fallen into bad hands, and if those same people are trying to work upon your fears by leading you into this sort of thing—well, I have friends who are powerful enough to bring you safely out of any den of thieves in the world. You are in an impossible situation, my dear young lady. Nature never meant you for an adventuress. There is no necessity for you to become one. Why do you look at me like that?"
There was terror in her face. He had hoped to reassure her, to give her courage. On the contrary every word he spoke only seemed to increase her distress.
"Oh, I am afraid!" she murmured. "I wish I had taken my chance. I ought not to have burdened you for a moment with my affairs. I have given you the right to ask me questions which I cannot answer."
He was perplexed.
"If you have given promises to these people——" he began.
"Oh, there is no question of promises," she interrupted. "I am here of my own free will. I refuse to answer any questions. I pray only if you would be generous that you ask me none, that you keep me until to-morrow, and let me go, not only from this place, but out of your life. Then indeed I will be grateful to you."
He took her hand in his. She yielded it without any attempt at resistance, but it lay in his palm a cold, dead thing.
"I am only concerned for your good," he said gently. "It is your happiness only that I am anxious for. You were not born or trained for a life of lies and crime. I want to save you from it before it is too late."
"What I do," she said slowly, "I do of my own free will."
"Not quite, I think," he answered, "but let that pass. Listen! If you will not talk to me about these things, will you talk to my friend, Jarvis Spencer? He is a gentleman, and a journalist by profession, but he is also one of the cleverest amateur detectives in England."
She held up her hands with a little gesture of horror. Her eyes were alight with fear.
"No!" she cried. "No! A thousand times, no! Don't let him come near me, please. Oh, I wish I could make you understand," she continued helplessly. "You yourself in Paris only a few weeks ago were in terrible danger. A girl who only gave, or meant to give, you information about my brother and me was murdered. You, too, would have been killed if you had found anything out."
He would have answered her lightly, but the memory of Mademoiselle Flossie lying dead upon the bed in that gloomy little room suddenly rose up before him, and the words died away upon his lips. He was silent for a moment, and glanced again at his watch. It wanted only five minutes to twelve. He came and leaned over her chair.
"Phyllis," he said, "what am I to do about you? I cannot let you go out of my life like this. No, you must listen to me for a moment. When Pelham sent for me after you had disappeared he showed me your picture. I am not exactly the sort of man of whom knight-errants are made. I have never gone a mile out of my way to meet any woman in my life. My life here has seemed of all things the best to me. I am a dull, unambitious sort of fellow, you know, since I settled down here, and I expected to go on for the rest of my days pretty much in the same way. And yet when Pelham showed me your picture it was different. I made him give a copy to me. I told him—liar that I was—that I could not carry the memory of your face in my mind, when it was already engraven in my heart. And I went off to Paris, Phyllis, like the veriest Don Quixote, and I came back very sad indeed when I could not find you. Then you came to Runton Place, and the trouble began. I did not care who you were, Phyllis Poynton, Sybil Fielding, or any one else. I let the others dispute. You were—yourself, and I love you, dear. Now do you understand why I cannot let you go away like this?"
He had both her hands in his now, but her face was turned away. Then without any warning, there came a soft rapping at the door which led into the library.
Duncombe reached it in a couple of strides. He opened it cautiously, and found Spencer standing there.
"I thought it best to let you know," he said, "that a carriage has stopped in the lane. If I can be of any assistance I shall be here—and ready."
Duncombe nodded and closed the door. The girl was sitting upright in her chair, with the old look of fear in her eyes.
"Who was that?" she asked quickly.
"Spencer," he answered. "He discovered your presence here, but he is perfectly discreet. He knocked to tell me that a carriage has stopped in the lane outside."
She was white with fear, but he only laughed, and stooping down would have taken her hands once more. But at that moment an unexpected sound intervened. The deep silence of the house was broken by the ringing of the front door bell.
Duncombe started back. The girl half rose to her feet.
"The front door!" he exclaimed. "The servants will have gone to bed. I must answer it myself."
She clung to him with a sudden abandon. She was white to the lips.
"I am afraid," she moaned. "Don't leave me alone."
He glanced towards the window.
"By Jove, it may be a trap!" he exclaimed. "Let them ring. I'll stay here with you."
They stood hand in hand listening. His head was turned towards the door, but the gentle pressure of her fingers drew him round. Her face was upturned to his. Something of the fear had gone. There was an eager, almost desperate, light in her softened eyes, and a tinge of color in her cheeks. He caught her into his arms, and their lips met. She disengaged herself almost immediately.
"I don't care," she said with a little laugh. "That is the first kiss I have ever given to a man, and very likely it will be the last. You won't be able to say that I have gone away without paying my bill. Now go and open the front door, Sir George."
He hesitated for a moment.
"Say only the word, Phyllis, and no one in the world shall ever take you away."
She did not even answer him. He left her with a little sigh.
"Spencer," he said, "if you hear the slightest noise in that room go in and shout for me."
Spencer nodded. The front door bell rang again.
THE EMPTY ROOM
Duncombe unfastened the chain and bolts of the ponderous front door, and looked out into the darkness. A carriage and pair of horses were drawn up outside. A man and a woman, both dressed in long travelling-coats, were standing upon the door-step.
"This is Duncombe Hall, I believe?" the man said. "Is Sir George Duncombe at home?"
"I am Sir George Duncombe," he answered. "Will you come inside?"
They crossed the threshold at once. The man was tall and dark, and his voice and bearing were unmistakable. The woman was fair, petite, and apparently very sleepy. She wore magnificent furs, and she had the air of being in a very bad temper.
"We really are heartily ashamed of ourselves for disturbing you at such an hour, Sir George," the man said, "but you will pardon us when you understand the position. I am the Marquis de St. Ethol, and this is my wife. I have a letter to you from my friend the Duke of Chestow, with whom we have been staying."
Duncombe concealed his astonishment as well as he was able. He bowed to the lady, and led them towards the library. Spencer, who had heard them coming, had hastily concealed his revolver, and was lounging in an easy-chair reading the evening paper.
"I am afraid that my servants are all in bed," Duncombe said, "and I can offer you only a bachelor's hospitality. This is my friend, Mr. Spencer—the Marquis and Marquise de St. Ethol. Wheel that easy-chair up, Spencer, will you?"
Spencer's brow had betrayed not the slightest sign of surprise, but Duncombe fancied that the Marquis had glanced at him keenly. He was holding a note in his hand, which he offered to Duncombe.
"My errand is so unusual, and the hour so extraordinary," he said, "that I thought it would be better for Chestow to write you a line or two. Will you please read it?"
Duncombe tore open the envelope.
"CHESTOW, Wednesday Evening.
"MY DEAR DUNCOMBE,—My friend De St. Ethol tells me that he is obliged, at great personal inconvenience, to execute a commission for a friend which involves a somewhat unceremonious call upon you to-night. He desires me, therefore, to send you these few lines. The Marquis de St. Ethol and his wife are amongst my oldest friends. It gives me great pleasure to vouch for them both in every way.
"The letter, I am afraid," the Marquis said, smiling, "does little to satisfy your curiosity. Permit me to explain my errand in a few words."
"Certainly," Duncombe interrupted. "But won't you take something? I am glad to see that Spencer is looking after your wife."
The Marquise had raised her veil, and was leaning back in a chair, with a sandwich poised in the fingers of one hand and a glass of Burgundy in the other. She was looking a little less bored, and was chatting gayly to Spencer, whose French was equal to her own.
"I thank you very much," the Marquis said. "I will not take anything to drink, but if you have cigarettes—ah, thanks!"
He lit one, and sat on the arm of an easy-chair.
"The facts are these," he said. "I have a great friend in Paris who, knowing that I was at Chestow, and returning to France to-morrow, has, I must say, taken some advantage of my good nature. I am asked to call here and escort home to her friends a young lady, who, I understand, is for the moment a guest under your roof. My friend, I must say, telegraphs in a most mysterious manner, but he is evidently very anxious that we should accede to his request. Our appearance here at this time of night I admit is most unjustifiable, but what were we to do? It is absolutely necessary for my wife to catch the two-twenty from Charing Cross to-morrow. I hope that my friend will some day appreciate my devotion. To come round by your house I have had to borrow a carriage from my friend Chestow. We shall have to drive to Norwich, and catch a train from there to London in the small hours of the morning. I presume the young lady is here?"
"The young lady is here!" Duncombe answered. "May I inquire the name of the friend to whom you are asked to take her?"
The Marquis yawned slightly. He, too, seemed weary.
"My dear Sir George," he said, "I trust that you will appreciate my position in this matter. I do not even know the young lady's name. My eccentric friend in his telegram, which occupied four forms, most specially insisted that I should ask or answer no questions concerning her."
"You are not aware, then, of the circumstances which led to her coming here?" Duncombe asked.
"I am utterly ignorant of them," the Marquis answered. "I am constrained to remain so."
"You no doubt have some message for her," Duncombe said. "Her position here is a little peculiar. She may desire some sort of information as to her destination."
The Marquis knocked the ash off his cigarette.
"If you will produce the young lady," he said, "I think that you will find her prepared to come with us without asking any questions."
Duncombe threw open the door which led into the inner room. The girl stepped forward as far as the threshold and looked out upon them.
"The Marquis and the Marquise de St. Ethol," Duncombe said to her. "They have brought me a letter from the Duke of Chestow, and they have come to take you back to France."
The girl looked fixedly for a moment at the Marquise. If any word or sign passed between them it escaped Duncombe. Phyllis was content, however, to ask no questions.
"I am quite ready," she said calmly.
The Marquise rose.
"Your luggage can be sent on," she remarked.
Duncombe approached Phyllis, and stood by her side.
"These people," he said, "will not tell me where they are taking you to. Are you content to go?"
"I must go," she answered simply.
"You wish me to give you——"
"If you please," she interrupted.
He turned towards the door.
"I have something belonging to Miss—to my guest," he said, "in my own room. If you will excuse me for a moment I will fetch it."
He returned with the sealed envelope which she had given him, and which he placed in her hands. He carried also a fur coat and an armful of wraps.
"You must take these," he declared. "It is cold travelling."
"But how can I return them to you?" she protested. "No, not the coat, please. I will take a rug if you like."
"You will take both," he said firmly. "There need be no trouble about returning them. I shall be in Paris myself shortly, and no doubt we shall come across one another."
Her eyes flashed something at him. What it was he could not rightly tell. It seemed to him that he saw pleasure there, and fear, but more of the latter. The Marquis intervened.
"I trust," he said, "that in that case you will give us the pleasure of seeing something of you. We live in the Avenue de St. Cloud."
"You are very kind," Duncombe said. "I shall not fail to come and see you."
Spencer threw open the door, and they passed out. Phyllis kept by Duncombe's side. He felt her hand steal into his.
"I want you to keep this envelope for me," she whispered. "It contains nothing which could bring you into trouble, or which concerns any one else. It is just something which I should like to feel was in safe keeping."
He thrust it into his pocket.
"I will take care of it," he promised. "And—you won't forget me? We shall meet again—sooner perhaps than you expect."
She shook her head.
"I hope to Heaven that we shall not! At least, not yet," she murmured fervently.
From the carriage window she put out her hand.
"You have been very kind to me," she said. "Good-bye!"
"An impossible word," he answered, with well-affected gayety. "A pleasant journey to you."
Then the carriage rolled away, and Spencer and he were left alone. Duncombe secured the front door, and they walked slowly back to the library.
"You know Paris well," Duncombe said. "Have you ever heard of these people?"
"My dear fellow!" he exclaimed. "De St. Ethol is one of the first nobles in France. I have seen him at the races many times."
"Not the sort of people to lend themselves to anything shady?"
"The last in the world," Spencer answered. "She was the Comtesse de Laugnan, and between them they are connected with half a dozen Royal houses. This business is getting exceedingly interesting, Duncombe!"
But Duncombe was thinking of the empty room.
GUY POYNTON AGAIN
"I Suppose," the boy said thoughtfully, "I must seem to you beastly ungrateful. You've been a perfect brick to me ever since that night. But I can't help being a bit homesick. You see, it was really the first time I'd ever been away from home for long, and though my little place isn't a patch on this, of course, still, I was born there, and I'm jolly fond of it."
His companion nodded, and his dark eyes rested for a moment upon the other's face. Guy Poynton was idly watching the reapers at work in the golden valley below, and he did not catch his friend's expression.
"You are very young, mon cher ami," he said. "As one grows older one demands change. Change always of scene and occupation. Now I, too, am most hideously bored here, although it is my home. For me to live is only possible in Paris—Paris, the beautiful."
Guy looked away from the fields. He resented a little his friend's air of superiority.
"There's only a year's difference in our ages!" he remarked.
Henri de Bergillac smiled—this time more expressively than ever, and held out his hands.
"I speak of experience, not years," he said. "You have lived for twenty years in a very delightful spot no doubt, but away from everything which makes life endurable, possible even, for the child of the cities. I have lived for twenty-one years mostly in Paris. Ah, the difference!"
Guy shrugged his shoulders, and leaned back in his chair.
"Well," he said briefly, "tastes differ. I've seen quite all I want to of Paris for the rest of my life. Give me a fine June morning in the country, and a tramp round the farm, or an early morning start in September walking down the partridges, or a gray day in November with a good gee underneath, plenty of grass ahead, and hounds talking. Good God, I wish I were back in England."
Henri smiled and caressed his upper lip, where symptoms of a moustache were beginning to appear.
"My dear Guy," he said, "you speak crudely because you do not understand. You know of Paris only its grosser side. How can one learn more when he cannot even speak its language? You know the Paris of the tourist. The real magic of my beautiful city has never entered into your heart. Your little dabble in its vices and frivolities must not count to you as anything final. The joy of Paris to one who understands is the exquisite refinement, the unsurpassed culture, of its abysmal wickedness."
"The devil!" Guy exclaimed. "Have you found out all that for yourself?"
Henri was slightly annoyed. He was always annoyed when he was not taken seriously.
"I have had the advantage," he said, "of many friendships with men whose names you would scarcely know, but who directed the intellectual tendencies of the younger generation of Parisians. People call us decadents—I suppose, because we prefer intellectual progression to physical activity. I am afraid, dear friend, that you would never be one of us."
"I am quite sure of it," Guy answered.
"You will not even drink absinthe," Henri continued, helping himself from a little carafe which stood between them, "absolutely the most artistic of all drinks. You prefer a thing you call a pipe to my choicest cigarettes, and you have upon your cheeks a color of which a ploughboy should be ashamed."
Guy laughed good-humoredly.
"Well, I can't help being sunburnt!" he declared. Henri sighed delicately.
"Ah, it is not only that," he said. "I wish so much that I could make you understand. You positively cultivate good health, take cold baths and walks and exercises to preserve it."
"Why the dickens shouldn't I?"
Henri half closed his eyes. He was a dutiful nephew, but he felt that another month with this clodhopper of an English boy would mean the snapping of his finely strung nerves.
"My friend," he began gently, "we in Paris of the set to whom I belong do not consider good health to be a state which makes for intellectual progression. Good health means the triumph of the physical side of man over the nervous. The healthy animal sleeps and eats too much. He does not know the stimulus of pain. His normal condition is unaspiring—not to say bovine. The first essential, therefore, of life, according to our tenets, is to get rid of superfluous health."
Guy did not trust himself to speak this time. He only stared at his companion, who seemed pleased to have evoked his interest.
"Directly the body is weakened," Henri continued, "the brain begins to act. With the indisposition for physical effort comes activity of the imagination. Cigarettes, drugs, our friend here," he continued, patting the carafe, "late nights, la belle passion—all these—all these——"
He broke off in the middle of his sentence. Simultaneously he abandoned his carefully chosen attitude of studied languor. He was leaning forward in his chair watching a carriage which had just come into sight along the straight wide road which led from the outside world to the chateau.
"The devil!" he exclaimed. "My respected uncle! Jacques!"
A man-servant stepped out upon the terrace.
"Remove the absinthe, Jacques. Monsieur le Duc arrives!"
Guy, who also had been watching the carriage, gave utterance to a little exclamation. He pointed to two figures on horseback who rode behind the carriage.
"The gendarmes!" he exclaimed. "They have come for me at last!"
His face was no longer ruddy. The pallor of fear had crept to his cheeks. A note of despair rang in his voice.
His companion only laughed.
"Gendarmes, perhaps," he answered, "but not for you, my young friend. Have I not told you that you are in sanctuary here? A guest of the Duc de Bergillac evades all suspicion. Ah, I understand well those gendarmes. Let their presence cause you no anxiety, cher monsieur. They are a guard of honor for my reverend uncle and the personage who rides with him."
Guy resumed his chair, and sat with his head buried in his hands in an attitude of depression. His companion leaned over the stone balustrade of the terrace and waved his hand to the occupants of the carriage below. They pulled up at the bottom of the steps and commenced slowly to ascend. In obedience to an imperious gesture from his uncle, Henri advanced to meet them. He greeted his uncle with graceful affection. Before the other man, although his appearance was homely and his dress almost untidy, he bowed very low indeed, and accepted his proffered hand as a mark of favor.
The Duc de Bergillac was tall, sallow, with black moustache and imperial. He possessed all the personal essentials of the aristocrat, and he had the air of one accustomed to command.
"Henri," he said, "your young friend is with you?"
"But certainly," his nephew answered with a sigh. "Am I not always obedient? He has scarcely been out of my sight since we arrived."
"Very good! You saw us arrive just now. Did you mention the name of Monsieur Grisson?" the Duke asked.
"But certainly not!" Henri answered.
The Duke nodded.
"You have discretion," he said. "Monsieur Grisson is here incognito. He wishes to hear your young friend's story from his own lips."
The Duke's companion nodded silently. He had the air of a silent man. He was short, inclined to be stout, and his dress and bearing were almost bourgeois. His features were large and not particularly intelligent, his cheeks were puffy, and his gray beard ill-humored. He had the double neck of the Frenchman of the lower class who has not denied himself the joys of the cuisine, and his appearance would have been hopelessly commonplace but for the deep-set brilliant black eyes which lit up his whole face and gave it an aspect of power.
"After dejeuner, you understand," he said. "It is well that your young friend should not understand that I came here for no other reason. I will see first your manuscripts, Monsieur le Duc."
The Duke waved his hand courteously to Guy as the two men passed along on their way to the library. Henri resumed his seat with a little shrug of the shoulders.
"My respected uncle will bring such strange people here to see his manuscripts and collection of missals," he remarked. "For myself it is a hobby which wearies me. And you, mon cher Guy?"
"I know nothing about them," he answered. "But the gendarmes, Henri? Why did they ride with your uncle's carriage?"
Henri smiled reassuringly.
"The old gentleman," he said, "has something to do with the Government, and they were in attendance upon him. You can realize, my friend," he added, "that you are indeed in a republican country. Such people must have the entree to our houses, even to our table. I presume that you will have the pleasure of taking luncheon with him even."
A man-servant came out upon the terrace.
"Monsieur le Duc desires me to say that luncheon is served," he announced.
Henri passed his arm through his friend's.
"Come," he said, "let us go and see if we can amuse ourselves with my uncle's venerable friend. I do not suppose that he speaks English, but I will interpret for you."
AN OLD STORY
Guy moved uneasily upon his chair. The color mounted almost to his forehead. It was a humiliation this, upon which he had not counted. Monsieur Grisson was sitting within a few feet of him. A serviette was tucked carefully underneath his collar, and his face was a little flushed with the exercise of eating. His eyes, however, were undimmed, and his manners, although a little brusque, had certainly not merited the epithet of bourgeois.
"It isn't much of a story," Guy began, making a desperate effort. "It was my first visit to Paris, and I lost my head a bit. I drank too much wine and quarrelled with a fellow who certainly insulted me. They all told me that I must fight him, so——"
"Stop, Monsieur Poynton!"
Guy raised his head in surprise. The exclamation had come from the Duc de Bergillac. Monsieur Grisson was looking towards him as though for an explanation.
"My dear young friend," the Duke remarked with a smile, "it is my stupidity which is to blame. I had forgotten the little matter to which you are alluding, and—between ourselves—it is one which is very much better not related to Monsieur Grisson. I was alluding to your other adventure—up in the Pozen forest."
Guy for a moment was too astonished for words. Then he recovered himself with a little laugh and raised his head. There was nothing terrible in the other affair.
"I will tell Monsieur Grisson about that with pleasure," he said, "if it is likely to interest him. I was in the North of Germany on a walking-tour, and I had rather a stupid fancy to go as far as the Russian frontier, and then return by Vienna to Paris. I was quite alone, and had no one's plans but my own to consult, so I started off from Steritz, I think the place was called. Well, we were within about forty miles of a place called Renzan when our train was stopped and shunted. We were told that some specials were to go by. I should think we must have waited there for an hour or more. Anyhow I got sick of it, and passed through the cars on to the rear platform, and down on to the line. I spoke to the guard, and I understood him to say that we should not be starting for at least half an hour. I strolled along the line a little way and stopped to light a pipe. Suddenly I heard a whistle, and when I turned round the rear light of the train was moving away. I shouted and ran as hard as I could, but it was no use. In less than two minutes the train was out of my sight, and I was left alone."
The Duke pushed a small atlas across the table.
"I wonder," he said, "if you could put your finger on about the spot where you were? Here, you see, is the railway line."
Guy studied it for a few moments carefully, and looked at the scale. Then he pointed to a certain spot.
"As near as I could say," he declared, "about there."
The Duke and Monsieur Grisson exchanged quick glances. Guy was beginning to feel a little mystified.
"Proceed, if you please," the Duke said courteously. "I am sure that Monsieur Grisson finds your story most interesting. Permit me."
Guy sipped the fin champagne from the glass which the Duke had carefully filled, and took a cigarette from the box at his elbow.
"I found myself," he continued, "in the middle of a dense pine forest, with just sufficient clearing for two lines of rails and no more. There seemed to be nothing for me to do but to walk ahead in the direction which the train had taken. I lit a pipe and started out all right, but I very soon got tired. The sleepers were a long way apart, and the track between frightfully rough. I walked for hours without seeing the slightest sign of a station or a break in the woods, and finally I sat down dead beat. My feet were all blisters, and I felt that I couldn't walk another yard. Fortunately it was a warm night, and I made up my mind to crawl under the bracken just inside the wood and go to sleep. I found a comfortable place, and I'd just gone off when a noise close at hand woke me. I sat up and looked around.
"Within a few feet of me an engine and a single carriage had pulled up. At intervals along the line as far as I could see soldiers were stationed like sentries. I could see that they were looking sharply up and down, and even a little way into the wood. From the train three or four men in long cloaks had already descended. They were standing in the track talking together."
For the first time Monsieur Grisson interrupted. He took his cigar from his mouth and leaned over towards the young Englishman.
"You were lost yourself. You did not accost them? Ask them the way anywhere?"
"It seems odd, I suppose, that I didn't," Guy answered, "but do you know there was an air of secrecy about the whole thing which rather frightened me. And those soldiers had exactly the air of looking for somebody to shoot. Anyhow, while I was hesitating what to do, there was a whistle and another train came from the opposite direction. Then, of course, I waited to see what was going to happen."
"And you saw?" the Duke began.
"I saw another single carriage arrive, more men in long cloaks and more soldiers. There was a brief but hearty greeting between two men, who seemed to be the principals in this little pantomime. Then they both got into the train which had arrived first, and I could see them sitting at a table talking, and a third man, who seemed to be a sort of secretary, was writing all the time. In about half an hour they both stepped back on to the line, and every one commenced shaking hands and saying good-bye. Then the whole thing seemed to melt away. The trains went on, the soldiers climbed into a truck attached to one of them, and everything was just as quiet as before."
"I waited until it was clear daylight, and then I resumed my walk along the line. I found the next station about five miles off, and I was thankful to see that the guard of the train which had left me behind had had the sense to put my luggage out there. I went to the hotel and had some breakfast, and afterwards I chucked my idea of going so far as the frontier, and left for Vienna. A week later I was in Paris."
The Duke nodded.
"I have asked you this question before," he said "but Monsieur Grisson is anxious to hear it from your own lips. To how many people did you tell this little adventure of yours before you reached Paris?"
"To not a soul!" Guy answered. "I was very dull in Vienna. I found no one who could speak English and my few words of German did me no good at all. I came on to Paris within a week."
The Duke nodded.
"And in Paris for the first time!" he remarked. "You mentioned the affair?"
"Yes! I took up an illustrated paper at a cafe on the night of my arrival whilst waiting for supper, and saw pictures of two men there who reminded me very much of the two whom I had seen on the railway near Pozen. I think I made some remark out loud which attracted the attention of a woman who was sitting at the next table, and later on I told her the whole story."