He did not go straight to Hereford for the best of reasons. He had told Cynthia of Mrs. Leland's coming, and had heard of if not from her in response to his letter. If he rushed off now to intercept the motorists at Hereford he would defeat the very purpose he had in view, which was to interpose an effectual shield between the scoundrelly lordling and his prey, while avoiding any risk of hurting his daughter's feelings. Moreover, he was eminently a just man. Hearing from Marigny that Simmonds, the original cause of all the trouble, was skulking at Bristol, to Bristol he went. From that starting-point, with his knowledge of Cynthia's probable route, he could surely pick up traces of the predatory car at most towns through which it passed. Moreover, he could choose his own time for joining the party in front, which by this time he was fully resolved on, either at Chester or farther north.
Transcending these minor features of a disturbing affair was his self-confessed fear of Cynthia. In the unfathomed deeps of a father's love for such a daughter there is ever an element of fear. Not for all his wealth would Vanrenen cast a shadow on the unsullied intimacy of their affection. Therefore, he would be wary, circumspect, ready to accept as most credible theories which he would scout in any other conditions, quick to discern the truth, slow to point out wherein an inexperienced girl had erred, but merciless to the fortune-hunter who had so jeopardized Cynthia's happiness and his own.
Hence, his appearance at the Symon's Yat Hotel seemed to have no more serious import than a father's wish to delight his daughter by an unexpected participation in her holiday. No secret had been made as to the Mercury's halting-place that day. Cynthia herself had written the address in the hotel register, adding a request that letters, if any, were to be forwarded to Windermere.
By chance, the smiling landlady's curiosity as to "Fitzroy" raised a new specter.
"He must be a gentleman," she said, "because he belongs to the Thames Rowing Club; he also spoke and acted like one. Why did he employ an assistant chauffeur? That is most unusual."
Vanrenen could only explain that arrangements for the tour were made during his absence in France, so he was not fully posted as to details.
"Oh, they did not intend to remain here on Saturday, but Miss Vanrenen liked the place, and seemed to be rather taken with the hotel——" whereat the millionaire nodded his complete agreement—"so Mr. Fitzroy telegraphed for a man named Dale to come to Hereford. There was some misunderstanding, however, and Dale only arrived yesterday in the car. He left by an early train this morning, after doing the garage work."
Simmonds, candor itself about Medenham, had said no word of the Earl of Fairholme or of Dale. Marigny, of course, was silent as to the Earl, since it might have ruined his last faint hope of success had the two perplexed fathers met; Simmonds's recent outburst opposed an effectual bar to farther questioning; so Vanrenen was free to deduce all sorts of possibilities from the existence of yet another villainous chauffeur.
Unhappily, he availed himself of the opportunity to the full. The fair countryside and the good food of the March counties made little or no appeal to him thenceforth. He pined to be in Chester, yet restrained the impulse that urged a frenzied scurry to the Banks of the Dee, for he was adamant in his resolve not to seem to have pursued Cynthia, but rather to have joined her as the outcome of a mere whim after she had met Mrs. Leland.
The Mercury arrived at Ludlow long before Vanrenen crossed the Wye Bridge at Hereford. Medenham stopped the car at "The Feathers," that famous magpie among British Inns, where Cynthia admired and photographed some excellent woodcarving, and saw an iron-studded front door which has shut out revellers and the night on each alternate round of the clock since 1609, if not longer.
If they hurried over luncheon they were content to dawdle in the picturesque streets, and Cynthia was reluctant to leave the fine old castle, in which Milton's "Masque of Comus" was first played on Michaelmas night of 1634. At first, she yielded only to the flood of memories pent in every American brain when the citizen of the New World stands in one of these treasure-houses of history and feels the passing of its dim pageants; when they stood together in the ruined banqueting hall, Medenham gave play to his imagination, and strove to reconstruct a scene once spread before the bright eyes of a maiden long since dead.
"You will please regard yourself," he said, "as the Lady Alice Egerton, daughter of the Earl of Bridgwater, Lord President of the Marches of Wales, who, with her two brothers, was benighted in the Forest of Heywood while riding to Ludlow to witness her father's installation in his high office. Milton was told of her adventures by Henry Lawes, the musician, and he wrote the 'Masque of Comus' to delight her and her friends. Have you read 'Comus'?"
"No," said Cynthia, almost timidly, for she was beginning to fear this masterful man whose enthusiasm caught her to his very soul at such moments.
"Ah, but you shall. It ranks high among the miracles of English poetry wrought by Milton. Many a mile from Ludlow have I called to mind one of its incomparable passages:
A thousand phantasies Begin to throng into my memory— Of calling shapes, and beckoning shadows dire, And airy tongues that syllable men's names On sands, and shores, and desert wildernesses.
And now you, the heroine of the masque, must try to imagine that you are lost in a wild wood represented by a carpet spread here, in the center of the hall. Seated there on a dais, is your father the Earl, surrounded by his officers and retainers. Near you are your brothers, Lord Brackley and Thomas Egerton, so blinded by sprites that they cannot see you, though keen enough to note the bright eyes and flushed cheeks of other ladies of high degree bidden to Ludlow from neighboring shires for the merry-making. And mark you, this is no rude gathering of unlettered squires and rough men-at-arms. How is it possible that an uncultured throng should listen rapturously to the noblest performance of the kind that exists in any language, wherein each speech is a majestic soliloquy, eloquent, sublime, with an uncloying word-music acclaimed by three centuries?"
The sheer wonder in Cynthia's face warned him that this brief excursion into the pages of Macaulay had better cease, so he focused his thoughts on the actual representation of the masque in which he had taken part ten years ago at Fairholme.
"I must ask you to concede that the lords and ladies, the civic dignitaries and their wives, for whose amusement Milton spread the pinions of his genius, were far better equipped to understand his lyric flights than any similar assemblage that could be collected haphazard in some modern castle. They did not pretend—they knew. Even you, Lady Alice, could frame a neat verse in Latin and cap some pleasant jest with a line from Homer. When Milton dreamed aloud of bathing in the Elysian dew of the rainbow, of inhaling the scents of nard and cassia, 'which the musky wings of the Zepyhr scatter through the cedared alleys of the Hesperides,' they followed each turn and swoop of his fancy with an active sense of its truth and beauty. And what a brilliant company! How the red flare of torch and cresset would flicker on the sheen of silk, the luster of velvet, the polished brightness of morion and spear. I think I can see those gallant gentlemen and fine ladies grouped round the players who told of the strange pranks played by the God of Mirth. Perhaps that same fair Alice, who supplied the motive of the masque as well as its leading lady, may be linked with you by stronger ties than those of mere feminine grace——"
Cynthia did not blush: she grew white, but shook her head.
"You cannot tell," he said. "'Comus' was played in Ludlow only fourteen years after the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in New England, and I would remind you that we stocked the new nation in the west with some of the bluest blood in Britain. Even in this hall there were Puritans whose ascetic tastes disapproved of Milton's imageries, of children play-acting, of the brave show made by the gentry——"
"My mother's people lived in Pennsylvania for generations," she broke in with a strange wistfulness.
"I knew it," he cried in triumph. "Tell me the names of the first-nighters at the Milton Theater, Ludlow, on that autumn evening in 1634, and warrant me to find you an authentic ancestor."
Cynthia bent a puzzled brow at him.
"After this, I shall apply myself to 'Comus' with added comprehension," she said. "But—you take my breath away; have you, then, delved so deep in the mine of English history that you can people 'most every ruined pile in Britain with the men and women of the dead years?"
He laughed, and colored a little, with true British confusion at having been caught in an extravagant mood.
"There you lay bare the mummer," he said. "What clever fellows actors would be if they grasped the underlying realities of all the fine words they mouth! No; I quote 'Comus' only because on one half-forgotten occasion I played in it."
The prompt question took him unaware.
"At Fairholme," he said.
"Is that another castle?"
"No—merely a Georgian residence."
"I seem to have heard of it—somewhere—I can't remember."
He remembered quite well—was not Mrs. Devar, student of Burke, sitting in the car at the castle gate?
"Oh, we must hurry," he said shamefacedly. "I have kept you here too long, for we have yet to
trace huge forests and unharbour'd heaths, Infamous hills and sandy perilous wilds,
before we see Chester—and Mrs. Leland."
With that the bubble was pricked, and staid Ludlow became a busy market-town again, its streets blocked by the barrows of hucksters and farmers' carts, its converging roads thronged with cattle. At Shrewsbury Medenham was vouchsafed a gleam of frosty humor by Mrs. Devar's anxiety lest her son might have obeyed her earlier injunctions, and kept tryst at "The Raven" after all. That trivial diversion soon passed. He hoped that Cynthia would share the front seat with him in the final run to Chester; but she remained tucked up in the tonneau, and the dread that kept her there was bitter-sweet to him, since it betrayed her increasing lack of confidence in herself.
The rendezvous was at the Grosvenor Hotel, and Medenham had made up his mind how to act long before the red towers of Chester Cathedral glowed above the city's haze in the fire of a magnificent sunset. Dale was waiting on the pavement when the Mercury drew up at the galleried entrance to the hotel.
Medenham leaped down.
"Good-by, Miss Vanrenen," he said, holding out his hand. "I can catch an early train to town by hurrying away at once. This is Dale, who will take my place. He is thoroughly reliable, and an even more careful driver than I am."
"Are you really going—like that?" faltered Cynthia, and her face blanched at the suddenness of it.
"Yes. I shall have the pleasure of seeing you in London when you return."
Their hands met in a firm clasp. Mrs. Devar, too flustered at first to gasp more than an "Oh!" of astonishment, leaned forward and shook his hand with marked cordiality.
"You must tell Dale to take great care of us," she said, knowingly.
"I think he realizes the exceeding trust I repose in him," he said, but the accompanying smile was meant for Cynthia, and she read into it a farewell that presaged many things.
He disappeared without another word. When a slim, elegantly-gowned lady had hastened to the door from the drawing-room, whence she was summoned by a page, she found two dust-covered figures in the act of alighting from a well-appointed car. Her next glance was at the solemn jowl of the chauffeur.
"Cynthia, my darling girl!" she cried, with arms thrown wide.
There could be no doubting the heartiness of the greeting, and in that motherly embrace Cynthia felt a repose, a security, that she had been willfully skeptical of during many weary hours. But polite usage called for an introduction, and Mrs. Leland and Mrs. Devar eyed each other warily, with the smiles of convention.
Mrs. Leland glanced at Dale.
"And who is this?" she asked, seizing the opportunity to settle a point that was perplexing her strangely.
"Our chauffeur," said Cynthia, and a glint of fun showed through the wanness of her cheeks.
Even smooth-tongued Mrs. Leland was at a loss.
"Not Fitzroy, who left us a minute ago. This man's name is Dale. One wonders, though, how you knew—why you doubted," cried Cynthia in sharp discernment.
"Pray why did Fitzroy leave you a minute ago?" was all that the other woman could find to say.
"He had to return to London. But, there—it is I who ought to ask questions. Let us go inside. I want to get some of the grit out of my eyes and hair; then I shall become an absolute mark of interrogation—so I warn you. Of course, I am delighted to see you; but queer things have happened, and I am pining to have them cleared up. When did you see father last? Is he still in London?"
Mrs. Leland answered, with freer speech now, but in her heart she was saddened by Medenham's duplicity. Six months earlier he and the Earl had dined at the villa she was occupying at San Remo for the winter. She then took a great liking to him on account of his shy and reticent but singularly pleasing manners. She was prepared to laugh at the present escapade when she had discussed it with him that night. Now he had fled, doubtless through fear. That was bad. That looked ugly and mean. Most certainly Peter Vanrenen had acted rightly in bringing her post-haste from Trouville. She must use all her skill if mischief were to be avoided.
WHEREIN WRATH BEGUILES GOOD JUDGMENT
"Enjoy your run to Hereford?"
"Immensely. Did you?"
"It was not so bad. Rather tiresome, you know, travelin' alone, but on the return journey I fell in with a decent sort of Frenchman who helped to pass the time."
"Monsieur Marigny, in fact?"
"Ah, you know him, of course. I had forgotten."
"I have met him. He is not the kind of person I care to know."
The Earl selected an egg, tapped it, and asked his son what he thought of the crops—did they want rain? The two were breakfasting alone—at the moment there was not even a man-servant in the room—but Lord Fairholme had long ago established the golden rule that controversial topics were taboo during meals. Medenham laughed outright at the sudden change of topic. He remembered that Dale was sent to bed in the Green Dragon Hotel at eight o'clock, and he had not the least doubt that his father's ukase was really a dodge to secure an undisturbed dinner. But he was under no delusions because of this placid meeting in the breakfast-room. There was thunder in the air. Tomkinson had warned him of it overnight.
"There's bin ructions while you were away, my lord," the butler had whispered, waylaying him in the hall just before midnight. "Lady St. Maur has upset the Earl somethink dreadful;" and Medenham had growled in reply: "Her ladyship will lunch here at one o'clock to-morrow, Tomkinson. Have an ambulance ready at two, for she will be in little pieces before I have done with her. The mangling will be somethink orful."
"But what has become of Dale, my lord?" went on Tomkinson in a hushed voice.
"Dale? He is all right. Why? Is he in the soup, too?"
"No, my lord. I've heard nothink of that, but he sent me a wire from Bristol——"
"A telegram—about what?"
"About a horse."
"Oh, the deuce take you and your horses. By the way, that reminds me—you gave me a rotten tip for the Derby."
"It was a false run race, my lord. The favorite was swep' off his feet at Tattenham Corner, and couldn't get into his stride again till the field was opposite Langland's Stands. After that——"
"After that I'm going to bed. But I forgive you, Tomkinson. You put up a ripping good lunch. You're a far better butler than a tipster."
This brief conversation had illumined at least one dubious page in the records of the past few days. Medenham realized now that his aunt had emptied the vials of her wrath on Mrs. Devar, but, that lady being absent in body, the Earl had received the full dose. It indicated somewhat the line he should follow when, breakfast ended, his father suggested that they should smoke a cigarette in the library.
Once there, and the door closed, the Earl established himself on the hearth-rug with his back to the fireplace. It was high summer, and the lazy London heat crept in through the open windows; but the hearth-rug constituted a throne, a seat of Solomon; had his lordship stood anywhere else he would have felt lacking in authority.
"Now, George, my boy, tell me all about it," he said, with a genially paternal air that lent itself admirably to the discussion of a youngster's transgressions.
Medenham had a sense of humor denied to his well-meaning sire. He recalled the last time he had heard those words. He and another sprig of nobility had come up to London from Winchester without leave in order to attend a famous glove contest between heavyweights, and there had been wigs on the green before an irate head-master would even deign to flog them. That had happened twelve years ago, almost to a day. Since then he had fought through a great war, had circled the globe, had sought the wild places of earth and its monsters in their lairs. He knew men and matters as his father had never known them. A Prime Minister had urged him to adopt a political career, and had virtually promised him a colonial under-secretaryship as soon as he entered parliament. He held the D.S.O., had been thanked by the Royal Geographical Society for a paper on Kilimanjaro, and cordially invited by the Foreign Office to send in any further notes in his possession. Months later, he heard that Sir Somebody Something was deeply interested in his comments on the activity of a certain Great Power in the neighborhood of Britain's chief coaling-stations in the Indian Ocean.
The absurdity of a family conclave in which he should again be treated as a small boy, and admonished to apologize and be flogged, while it brought a smile to his lips, banished any notion of angry remonstrance.
"By 'all about it' I suppose you mean that you wish to hear what I have been doing since last Wednesday," he said pleasantly. "Well, dad, I have obeyed your orders. You asked me to find a wife worthy to reign at Fairholme. I have succeeded."
"You don't mean to say you have married her!" shouted the Earl, in a purple upheaval of rage whose lightning-like abruptness was not its least amazing feature. Certainly Medenham was taken aback by it. Indeed, he was almost alarmed, though he had no knowledge of apoplexy in the family.
"I have not even asked the lady yet," he said quietly. "I hope—I think—that the idea will not be disagreeable to her; but a future Countess of Fairholme is not to be carried by storm in that fashion. We must get to know her people——"
"D——n her people!" broke in the older man. "Have you taken leave of your wits, George, to stand there and talk such infernal nonsense?"
"Steady, dad, steady!" and the quiet voice grew still more calm, though the forehead wrinkled a little, and there was an ominous tightening of the lips. "You must take that back. Peter Vanrenen is quite as great a man in the United States as you are in England—may I even say, without disrespect, a man who has won a more commanding position?—and his daughter, Cynthia, is better fitted to adorn a coronet than a great many women now entitled to wear one."
The Earl laughed, with an immoderate display of an amusement he was far from feeling.
"Are these Wiggy Devar's credentials? By gad, that shabby little wretch is flying high when she tries to bag my son for her pretty protegee!"
"Don't you think it would be wiser, sir, if you allowed me to tell you exactly what has taken place since we met last?"
"What good purpose will that serve? I have heard the whole story from Lady Porthcawl, from Dale, from that Frenchman—and Heaven knows I have been well coached in Mrs. Devar's antecedents by your Aunt Susan. George, I am surprised that a man of your sound commonsense should permit yourself to be humbugged so egregiously.... Yes, yes, I am aware that an accident led you to take Simmonds's place in the first instance, but can't you see that the Devar creature must have gone instantly on her bended knees—if she ever does pray, which I doubt—and thanked Providence for the chance that enabled her to dispose of an earldom?... At a pretty stiff price, too, I'll be bound, if the truth were told. Really, George, notwithstanding your very extensive travels and wide experiences, you are nothing but a kid in the hands of a managing woman of the Devar variety."
"I am not being given in marriage by Mrs. Devar, I assure you," began Medenham, smiling anxiously, for the fatherly "tell me all about it" was not being borne out by the Earl's petulance.
"No. You can trust me to take care of that."
"But are you treating me quite fairly? Why should the distorted version of my affairs given by Lady Porthcawl, a woman whom Cynthia Vanrenen could not possibly receive in her house, and by Count Edouard Marigny, a disappointed fortune-hunter, be accepted without cavil, while my own story is not listened to? I leave Dale out of it. I am sure he told you the actual truth——"
"By the way, where is he now?"
"Somewhere in the neighborhood of Chester, I believe."
"Have you discharged him?"
"No—why should I?"
"Because I wish it."
"Why in the world are you so unreasonable, dad?"
"Unreasonable! By gad, I like that. Have I been gallivanting round the country with some——"
"Stop! You are going too far. This conversation must cease here and now. If you have any respect for yourself, though not for me, you must adjourn the discussion till after you have met Miss Vanrenen and her father."
For the first time in his life, the Earl of Fairholme realized his limitations; he was actually cowed for a few fleeting seconds. But the arrogant training of the county bench, the seignory of a vast estate, the unquestioning deference accorded to his views by thousands of men who tacitly admitted that what he said must be right because he was a lord—these excellent stays of self-conceit came to his help, and he snorted indignantly:
"I absolutely refuse to meet either of them."
"That disposes of the whole difficulty for the hour," said Medenham, turning to leave the room.
"Wait, George.... I insist——"
Perhaps a clearer glimpse of a new and, to him, utterly unsuspected force in his son's character withheld the imperious command that trembled on the Earl's lips. Medenham halted. The two looked at each other, and the older man fidgeted with his collar, which seemed to have grown tight for his neck.
"Come, come, let us not leave a friendly argument in this unsettled state," he said after an awkward pause. "My only thought is for your interests, you know. Your lifelong happiness is at stake, to say nothing of the future of our house."
"I recognize those considerations so fully that I am going now in order to shirk even the semblance of a quarrel between us."
"Why not thresh things out? Your aunt will be here in a couple of hours——"
"You refuse to hear a word. You argue with a hammer, sir. I shall send a note to Lady St. Maur telling her that she has done mischief in plenty without adding fuel to the fire by coming here to-day—unless you wish to consult her, that is?"
The Earl, already afraid of his sister, was rapidly learning to fear his son.
"Dash it all! don't tell me you are off on this d——d motoring trip once more?" he cried passionately.
Medenham smiled, even in his anger.
"See how willfully you misunderstand me," he said. "I came away from Miss Vanrenen solely because matters had gone far enough under rather absurd conditions. She knows me only as Fitzroy, the chauffeur; it is time to drop masquerading. Romance is delightful in its way—perhaps there might well be more of it in this commonplace world of ours—but none of us can afford to play the knight errant too long, so when next I meet Cynthia it will be as a man who occupies a social position that renders our marriage at least possible."
Lord Fairholme threw out his hands in a gesture of sheer bewilderment.
"And do you honestly believe that?" he exclaimed.
"I am quite sure of it. I may have to jump a very big fence indeed when she learns the harmless deception I have practiced on her, but I do hope most devoutly that she will look at the facts more calmly than you have done."
The Earl took a turn or two on the hearth-rug, from which wisdom had temporarily taken flight. He thought now he could see a way to avoid open rupture, and he believed, quite rightly, that his son was in no mood to accept further disillusionment.
"At any rate," he grumbled, "you are cutting a discred—sorry, I didn't quite mean that—you are not rushing away from town again in pursuit of the young lady?"
"When is she due back in London?"
"And you will not see her before that day?"
"I believe not—in fact, I am fairly certain of it. Mrs. Leland joined her at Chester last night, so there should be no curtailment of the tour."
The Earl started.
"Mrs. Leland! Not the Mrs. Leland of Paris, and San Remo?"
"Yes. By hazard, as it were, you have let me tell you why I came away—one of the reasons. Mrs. Leland would have recognized me at once."
"Dear me, dear me, this is a beastly muddle! Look here, George, promise me you won't do anything stupid for a day or so.... I have been so pestered by people ... I don't know which way to turn. Why not stay and meet your aunt?"
"Because I might lose my temper with her."
"Ah, well, she is somewhat trying when it comes to family matters. Still, I may tell her——"
"That she ought to mind her own business? By all means. And oblige me, too, by telling her that she would confer a boon on humanity if she persuaded Lady Porthcawl to go to—Jericho—or Tokio—or wherever that ass, Porthcawl, may happen to be."
"Millicent Porthcawl was at Bournemouth, you know."
"Yes, I spoke to her. She had the impudence to introduce Ducrot to Cynthia."
"By gad! Did she, though? I heard something from Scarland about that affair. Well, well—there's no accounting for tastes. I suppose you realize, George, that I am keeping back a good deal of the tittle-tattle which reached me during your absence. I don't want to hurt your feelings——"
"Thank you. The absurdity of the present position lies in the fact that I shall have all my work cut out to hold your wrath against these people within bounds when once you have met Cynthia."
"Oh, I have no doubt she is pretty, and fascinating, and all that sort of thing," growled the Earl, in a grudging access of good humor. "Confound it, that is why we are putty in their hands, George. Don't forget I've had fifty-five years of 'em. Gad! I could tell you things—all right, let us chuck the dispute for the time. Shall I see you at dinner?"
"Yes—if you are alone."
"There will be no women. I'll take devilish good care of that. Scarland is in town for the show, and he is bringing Sir Ashley Stoke, but Betty is nursing a youngster through the measles. Good Lord! I'm glad your aunt didn't get hold of Betty!"
Now, Lord Fairholme's diatribes against the sex were not quite justified. Notorious as a lady-killer in his youth, in middle age he was as garrulous a gossip as Mrs. Devar herself. Indeed, he had an uneasy consciousness that Lady St. Maur might turn and rend him if stress were laid only on her efforts to thwart his son's unexpected leaning towards matrimony. During every yard of the journey from Chester to London he had tried to extract information from Marigny, and the sharp-witted Frenchman had enjoyed himself hugely in displaying a well-feigned reluctance to yield to the Earl's probing. It was just as much a part of his scheme to make the threatened alliance as objectionable on the one side as on the other. By painting Medenham as an unprincipled adventurer he had succeeded in alarming Vanrenen; his sly hints, derogatory of both Cynthia and her father, now fanned the flame of suspicion kindled in Lord Fairholme's breast by his sister's remonstrances. Unfortunately, his lordship had gone straight to Curzon Street and told Susan St. Maur every word that Marigny had said, and a good deal that he had not said, but had left to be inferred from a smirk, a malicious glance, an airy gesture.
Perhaps the two elderly guardians of the Fairholme line were not wholly to blame for their interference. The title descended through male heirs only, and Medenham's marriage thereby attained an added importance. Lord Fairholme himself had been singularly fortunate in escaping a mesalliance—several, in fact—and it was the one great trouble in his otherwise smooth and self-contained life that his high-born and most admirable countess had died soon after the birth of her second child, the present Marchioness of Scarland. Such a man would naturally be the most jealous scrutineer of the pretensions of his son's chosen wife. Qualities of heart and mind would weigh light in the scale against genealogy. To his thinking, blue blood differed from the common red stream as the claret of some noted vintage differs from the vin ordinaire of the same year. Perhaps he had blundered on a well-founded theory, but he certainly lacked discrimination as to the cru.
Medenham did some shopping, lunched at a club, surprised his tailor by a prolonged visit and close inspection of tweeds and broadcloths, and successfully repressed a strong desire to write a letter. It was some consolation to peruse for the twentieth time the four closely-written pages on which Cynthia had set out the tour's timetable for the benefit of Simmonds. He had not returned it, since she possessed a copy, and in his mind's eye he followed the Mercury in its flight up the map from end to end of industrial Lancashire, through smoky Preston to trim Lancaster and quiet Kendal, and finally, after a long day, to the brooding peace and serene beauty of Windermere.
At last, rousing himself from his dreaming—for he was now back in his club again, sipping a cup of tea—he glanced at his watch. Five o'clock—a likely hour to find Mr. Vanrenen in the hotel, if, as was most probable, Devar's telegram to his mother was altogether mistaken in its report of the millionaire's movements.
He meant, of course, to make himself known to Vanrenen, and go through the whole adventure from A to Z. It should provide an interesting story, he thought—lively as a novel in some of its chapters, and calculated to appeal strongly to the bright intelligence of an American. On his way to the Savoy, he tried to picture to himself just what Cynthia's father would look like. It was a futile endeavor, because he had never yet been able to construct a mental portrait of any man wholly unknown to him. One day in Madras he had telephoned to an official for leave to shoot an elephant in a Government reservation, and a deep voice boomed back an answer. Apparently it belonged to a man whose stature warranted his appointment as controller of monsters, but when Medenham called in person for the permit he found that the voice came from a lean and wizened scrap of humanity about five feet high.
He smiled at the recollection of his dumb surprise at this apparition, and was in the best of humors with himself when he arrived at the inquiry office of the Savoy Hotel and asked for Mr. Peter Vanrenen.
"Left here Sunday, sir," was the answer. "He will not return for a week."
This blow dished his hopes. He had counted strongly on gaining Vanrenen's friendship and sympathy before Cynthia's dainty vision met his eyes again.
"Has he gone to Paris?" he inquired.
"Can't say, sir, I'm sure. My orders are to tell callers that Mr. Vanrenen will be in town next Tuesday."
So, if present arrangements held good, Cynthia would reach London two days before her father. Well, he must contrive somehow to get Lady St. Maur in a proper frame of mind. Mrs. Leland's presence would be a positive blessing in that respect. Meanwhile, there would be no harm done if he——
Lest prudence should conquer him a second time he sat down and wrote:
DEAR MISS VANRENEN—I hope the car is behaving in a manner that befits the messenger of the gods, and that Dale has justified my faith in him. I am here in fulfillment of my promise to call on Mr. Vanrenen: unluckily, he is out of town, and the hotel people say he is not expected back till a day early next week. If you make any change in your programme, or even if you have a minute to spare, though proving yourself a true American by rigidly adhering to schedule, please send a line to yours ever sincerely——
Once more he hesitated at the name, and contented himself by signing "George, the Chauffeur."
The problem of an address offered some difficulty, but he boldly declared for "91 Grosvenor Square" in a postscript, believing, and correctly as it happened, that Cynthia shared with Sam Weller a peculiar knowledge of London that rendered one address very like unto another in her eyes.
The failure to meet Vanrenen was the first real drawback he had encountered. It was irritating, at the time, but he gave little heed to it after the first pang of disappointment had passed. Fate, which had proved so kind during six days, did not see fit to warn him that her smiles would now be replaced by frowns. She even lulled him into the belief that Vanrenen's absence might prove fortunate.
"Perhaps," he fancied, "I would have rubbed him up the wrong way. He is devoted to his daughter, and he might look on my harmless but unavoidable guile with a prejudiced eye. In any event, I should be compelled to go slow in analyzing Mrs. Devar's motives, and this pertinacious Marigny seems to have been fairly intimate with him in Paris. Yes, on the whole, it is just as well that I missed him. Cynthia can put matters before him in a better light than is possible to one who is an utter stranger. I must tell her, in my best American, that it is up to her to explain Fitzroy to pap."
Before leaving the hotel he inquired for Count Edouard Marigny. He drew a blank there. No such name had been registered during the year.
The dinner passed without noteworthy incident. Sir Ashley Stoke condemned the Government, the Marquis of Scarland was more than skeptical as to the prospects of grouse shooting after the deluge in April and May, Lord Fairholme growled at the pernicious effects of the Ground Game Act, and Medenham spoke of these things with his lips but in his heart thought of Cynthia. The four men were in the smoking-room, and the Earl was chaffing his son on account of his inability to play bridge, when Tomkinson entered. He approached Medenham.
"Dale has arrived; he wishes to see your lordship," he said in a stage whisper.
The young man sprang to his feet, and his troubled cry brought a smile of wonderment to his brother-in-law's face.
"By Jove!" said the Marquis, "you couldn't have jumped quicker if Tomkinson had said 'the devil' instead of 'Dale.' Who, then, is Dale?"
Medenham hurried from the room without another word. The Earl shook his head.
"More mischief!" he muttered. "Dale is George's chauffeur. I suppose he is mixed up in this Vanrenen muddle again."
"What muddle is that?" asked Scarland. "Is George in it?—that would be unusual."
Fairholme suddenly bethought himself.
"Something to do with a motor," he said vaguely. "The Vanrenens are Americans, friends of Mrs. Leland's. You remember her, Arthur, don't you?"
"Perfectly. Is 'Vanrenen' the Peter of that ilk?"
"I think so. Yes—that is the name—Peter Vanrenen."
"Oh, he's all right. If George has any dispute with him I'll settle it in a minute. He is as straight as they make 'em—bought two of my prize bulls three years ago for his ranch in Montana. By the way, someone told me the other day that he has a very pretty daughter—'a real peach' the man said. Wonder if George has seen her? Begad, he might go farther and fare worse. We effete aristocrats can do with a strain of new blood occasionally, eh, what?"
"'Vanrenen' sounds like a blend of old Dutch and New England," said Sir Ashley Stoke, who was sane on all subjects save one, his pet mania being the decay of England since the passing of the Victorian age.
The Earl helped himself to a whisky and soda. His egotism was severely shaken. Who would have thought that a pillar of the state like Scarland would approve of this Vanrenen girl as a match for George, even in jest? But he had the good sense to steer clear of explanations. When he found his voice it was to swear at the quality of the whisky.
Medenham, meanwhile, had rushed into the hall. He expected to find Dale there, but saw no one except the suave footman on duty. The man opened the door.
"Dale is outside, in the car, my lord," he said.
"In the car!" That meant the bursting of a meteor in a blue sky.
Sure enough, there stood the Mercury, dusty and panting, but seemingly gathering breath for another mighty effort if necessary.
"Come in!" shouted Medenham, on whom the first strong shadow of impending disaster had fallen as soon as he heard those ill-omened words "in the car."
Dale scrambled to the pavement and walked stiffly up the steps, being weary after an almost unbroken run of one hundred and eighty miles. He nodded to the Mercury, and the footman rang for a pageboy to mount guard. Medenham led the way into a small anteroom and switched on the light.
"Now," he said.
"Mr. Vanrenen kem to Chester last night in Simmond's car, my lord. This mornin' he sent for me an' sez 'who are you?' 'The chauffeur, sir,' sez I. 'Whose chauffeur?' sez he. 'Yours for the time,' sez I, bein' sort of ready for him. 'Well, you can get,' sez he. 'Get what?' sez I. 'Get out,' sez he. Of course, my lord, I knew well enough what he meant, but I wanted to have it straight, an' I got it."
Dale's style of speech was elliptical, though he might have been surprised if told so. For once, Medenham wished he was a loquacious man.
"Was nothing else said?" he asked. "No message from—anyone? No reason given? What brought Simmonds to Chester?"
"Mr. Vanrenen picked him up in Bristol at 4 a.m. yesterday, my lord. Simmonds made out that that there Frenchman, Monsieur Marinny" (Dale prided himself on a smattering of French), "had pitched a fine ole tale about you. In fact, the bearings got so hot at Symon's Yat that Simmonds chucked his job till Mr. Vanrenen sort of apologized."
"Can you be specific, Dale? You are hard to follow."
"Well, my lord, I could do with a drink. It's a long road that stretches between here an' Chester, an' I left there at ten o'clock this morning, runnin' through any Gord's quantity of traps, an' all."
Medenham did not smile. He touched a bell, and found that Dale's specific was a bottle of beer.
"I never set eyes on Miss Cynthia," continued the chauffeur, his wits quickening under the soothing draught. "Another lady kem out an' looked me up an' down. 'Yes, that is the car,' she said, an' with that I remembered seein' her at San Remo. Mrs. Devar seemed as if she wanted to say somethink, but she daren't, because Mr. Vanrenen's eye was on her. He made no bones about it, but told me to hike back to London the minnit Simmonds got the carrier off."
"I am quite clear on that point. What I really want to know is the reason behind Simmonds's statement about Count Marigny's tale-pitching, as you term it."
"Oh, of course Mr. Vanrenen didn't say anythink. Simmonds was what you call puttin' two an' two together. From what Mr. Vanrenen arsked him it was easy enough to get at the Frenchman's dirty tricks."
"Tell me how Simmonds put it?" said Medenham, with the patience of a great anger. Dale scratched the back of his ear.
"For one thing, my lord, Mr. Vanrenen wanted to know if you was reelly a viscount. It was a long time before Simmonds could get him to believe that the accident in Down Street wasn't a put up job. Then, he was sure you stopped in Symon's Yat just in order to throw Mr. Marinny off your track. Simmonds is no fool, my lord, an' he guesses that the Frenchman brought Mr. Vanrenen hot-foot from Paris so as to—to——"
Dale grinned, and sought inspiration in the bottom of an empty glass.
"Well, my lord, excuse me," he said, "but you know what I mean."
Medenham completed the sentence.
"So as to prevent me from marrying Miss Cynthia."
"Exactly what Simmonds an' me said, my lord."
"He will not succeed, Dale."
"I never thought he would. Once your lordship is set on a thing, well, that thing occurs."
"Thank you. Good-night!"
Medenham did not feel equal to facing the men in the smoking-room again. He went out, walked up Oxford Street and across the park, and reached his room about midnight. Next day he devoted himself to work. In view of the new and strange circumstances that had arisen he believed confidently that Cynthia would reply to his letter by return of post, and there should be no chance of delay, because she meant to stay two days at Windermere, making that town the center of excursions through lakeland.
While the son was seeking forgetfulness in classifying a collection of moths and night flies caught during a week at La Turbie, the father found occupation in prosecuting diligent inquiries into the social and financial standing of Peter Vanrenen. As a result, the Earl visited Lady St. Maur, and, as a further result, Lady St. Maur wrote a very biting and sarcastic note to "My dear Millicent." Moreover, she decided not to press her nephew to visit her at present.
Next morning, Medenham was up betimes. He heard the early postman's knock, and Tomkinson in person brought the letters.
"There's nothink in the name of Fitzroy, my lord," said he, having been warned in that matter overnight.
Medenham took his packet with the best grace possible, trying to assure himself that Cynthia had written at a late hour and had missed the first London mail in consequence. Glancing hurriedly through the correspondence, however, his glance fell on a letter bearing the Windermere postmark. It was addressed, in an unfamiliar hand, to "Viscount Medenham," and the writing was bold, well-formed, and business-like. Then he read:
SIR—My daughter received a note from you this morning, and she was about to answer it when I informed her that she was communicating with a person who had given her an assumed name. I also asked her, as a favor, to permit me to reply in her stead. Now, I have this to say—Miss Vanrenen does not know, and will never know from me, the true nature of the trick you played on her. You bear the label of a gentleman, so it is my earnest hope—indeed, my sincere belief—that you will respect the trust she placed in you, and not expose her to the idle chatter of clubs and scandal-spreading drawing-rooms. During two days I have been very bitter against you. To-day I take a calmer view, and, provided that neither my daughter nor I ever see or hear of you again, I shall be willing to credit that you acted more in a spirit of youthful caprice than from any foul desire to injure the good repute of one who has done no harm to you or yours.
I am, Yours truly, PETER VANRENEN.
Medenham read and reread this harsh letter many times. Then, out of brooding chaos, leaped one fiery question—where was Marigny?
The gate which Cynthia's father had shut and bolted in his face did not frighten him. He had leaped a wall of brass and triple steel when he won Cynthia Vanrenen's love in the guise of an humble chauffeur, so it was unbelievable that the barrier interposed by a father's misguided wrath should prove unsurmountable.
But Marigny! He wanted to feel his fingers clutching that slender throat, to see that pink and white face empurple and grow black under their strain, and it was all-important that the scoundrel should be brought to book before the Vanrenens returned to London. He gave a passing thought to Mrs. Leland, it was true. If she shared with Vanrenen the silly little secret of his identity, it was beyond comprehension that she should let her friend hold the view that he (Medenham) was merely an enterprising blackguard.
Still, these considerations were light as thistle-down compared with the need of finding Marigny. He and Dale began to hunt London for the Frenchman. But they had to deal with a wary bird, who would not break covert till it suited his own convenience. And then, the sublime cheek of the man! On the Friday morning, when Medenham rose with a fixed resolve to obtain the services of a private detective, he received this note:
DEAR VISCOUNT MEDENHAM—I have a notion, as our mutual acquaintance Mr. Vanrenen would say (Do you know him? Now that I consider the matter, I think not), that you are anxious to meet me. We have things to discuss, have we not? Well, then I await you at the above address.
Yours to command, EDOUARD MARIGNY.
—AND GOOD JUDGMENT YIELDS TO FOLLY
At any other moment the tone of confidence underlying the effrontery of this letter would certainly have revealed its presence to a brain more than ordinarily acute. But in the storm and stress of his rage against gods and men, Medenham did not wait to ponder subtleties of expression. No matter what the hidden reason that inspired Marigny's pen, it was enough for Medenham to know that at last that arch-plotter and very perfect rascal was within his reach. He breakfasted in a fury of haste, crammed on a hat, and rushed away, meaning to drive in a cab to the hotel in Northumberland Avenue from which Marigny wrote.
Such was his agitated state that he was not even surprised when he found the Mercury waiting outside, with Dale, taciturn as ever, scrutinizing the day's sporting news. In sober fact, the man was almost as perturbed as his master. For an hour in the morning, and again during certain periods of suspense in the afternoon, he forgot his troubles in the effort either to "spot winners" or to persuade himself that the horses he had selected for particular races had not run, since their names failed to appear among the "first three." But these spasms of anticipation and disillusionment soon passed. During the remainder of the long hours of daylight Dale was ever on the qui vive for a wild rush of two or three hundred miles in pursuit of the woman whose charms had so effectually subjugated the young Viscount. Even the hunt for Marigny did not weaken Dale's belief, and Medenham was never in Cavendish Square or at his club at any practicable hour that the Mercury was not at hand, with petrol tanks full, luggage carriers attached, and a full stock of spares and reserve spirit on board. At any rate, on this occasion Medenham merely gave him Marigny's address, and jumped inside. Dale was disappointed. He expected the order to be "Carlisle," at the least.
Soon his lordship was being conducted by an hotel servant to a private sitting-room. The Frenchman, who was seated at a table, writing, when he entered, rose and bowed politely.
"I thought it highly probable that I should have the honor of seeing you this morning, Viscount Medenham," he said, and there was a touch of restraint, of formal courtesy, in his voice that the other, even in his anger against the man, did not fail to notice. Oddly enough, it savored of brutality to attack him without preface, and Marigny seemed to be unconscious of his visitor's unconcealed animosity.
"I am glad you are here," he went on glibly. "Recent events call for a full discussion between you and me, do you agree? But before we come to close quarters, as you say in England, I wish to know whether the argument is to be conducted on lines that befit gentlemen. On the last occasion when we differed, you used the methods of the costermonger."
"They served their purpose," said Medenham, annoyed at finding the Frenchman's coolness rather disconcerting.
Suddenly, he decided on a new plan of action, and resolved to let the man say what he chose. Dearly as he would have liked to wreak physical vengeance on him, he felt that such a proceeding offered the least satisfactory way out of a situation fraught with no small risk of publicity. Marigny must have had some all-powerful motive in sending for him; better learn that before his bitter and contemptuous words sealed an adversary's lips.
"Won't you sit down?" came the urbane request.
"I prefer standing, if you don't mind," said Medenham curtly; then he added, after a little pause:
"It may clear the atmosphere somewhat if I tell you that I threatened you at Bristol merely because a certain issue had to be determined within a few seconds. That consideration does not apply now. You are at liberty to say what you like without fear of consequences."
The Frenchman elevated his eyebrows.
"Fear?" he said.
"Oh, don't bandy words with me. You know what I mean. I suppose a man must possess courage of a sort even to become a blackmailer, which is what you threaten to develop into. At any rate, I promise to keep my hands off you, if that is what you want."
"Not exactly," was the quiet answer. "One may draw distinctions, even in that regard, but I do wish for an opportunity to discuss our quarrel without an appeal to brute force."
"In other words," said Medenham sternly, "you want to be free to say something which under ordinary conditions would earn you a thrashing. Well—say it!"
Marigny nodded, pulled a chair round so that he was straddled across it, facing Medenham, with his arms resting on the back. He lit a cigarette, and seemed to draw inspiration from the first dense cloud of smoke, for his eyes dwelt on it rather than sought the Englishman's frown.
"In a dispute of this kind," he said, "it is well to begin at the beginning, otherwise one's motives are apt to be misunderstood. Even you, I suppose, will admit that I was first in the field."
There was no answer. To his credit, Medenham thought, Marigny showed a curious unwillingness to mention Cynthia's name, but, no matter what he had in mind, Medenham certainly did not intend to render his task easier.
"You see," went on Count Edouard, after a thoughtful puff or two, "I am quite as well-born a man in my country as you are in yours. I have not ascertained the date when the Fairholme Earldom was created, but there has been a Comte Marigny on the Loire since 1434. Of course, you understand that I do not mention this trivial fact in any ridiculous spirit of boasting. I only put it forward as constituting a claim to a certain equality. That is all. Unfortunately, recent events in my family have robbed me of those necessary appurtenances to rank and position which a happier fate has preserved to you. I am poor, you are rich; I must marry a wife with money, you can afford to marry for love. Why then, Viscount Medenham, should you step in and rob me of a rich wife?"
In spite of his loathing of the means adopted by this self-proclaimed rival to snatch an advantage, Medenham did not hesitate to reply:
"My answer to that is, of course, that I have done nothing of the sort. I simply intervened between a crew of adventurers and their possible, though most improbable, victim."
"Unfortunately, our points of view are irreconcilable," went on the Frenchman airily. "I might claim that the term adventurer, as applied to me, is a harsh one. You may inquire where and how you choose in Paris, and you will find no discredit attached to my name. But that phase of the difficulty is now of no consequence. Let us keep to the main issue. Some three months ago I made the acquaintance of a lady fitted in every respect to fill my ideal. I was on good terms with her father, and by no means distasteful to the lady herself. Given a fair opportunity, I thought I might win her, and I was puzzling my wits to know how best to attain that most desirable end when Fate apparently opened a way. But you have no doubt observed in life that while one can seldom misinterpret Fate's frowns, her smiles can be damnably misleading. Sometimes they are little else than malicious leers; it was so now, and I quickly found that I had erred badly in thinking that I had been vouchsafed a golden opportunity——"
"Can't you spare me some of this theorizing?" broke in Medenham with a cold impatience. "You happened to send for me at a moment when I was exceedingly anxious to meet you. The fact that I am here in response to your request stops me from carrying out the special purpose I had in view. That can wait, though not very long. At any rate, you might save yourself some hair-splitting and me some exercise of self-restraint by telling me what it is that you want."
"A thousand regrets if I am boring you," said Marigny, leaning back in the chair and laying the cigarette on the mantelpiece. "Yet bear with me a little while, I pray you; these explanations are necessary. A sane man acts with motive, and it is only reasonable that you should understand my motive before you hear my project."
"Ah, then, there is a project?"
"Yes. You have stepped in between me and the realization of my dearest wish, of my main object in life. You are, I take it, a soldier and a gentleman. There is a way by which men of honor settle these disputes—I invite you to follow it."
The fantastic proposal was made with an air of dignity that robbed it of any inherent ludicrousness. Greatly as he despised this man, Medenham could not wholly conceal the wonder that leaped to his eyes.
"Are you suggesting that we should fight a duel?" he asked, smiling with incredulity, yet constrained to believe that Marigny was really speaking in cold blood.
"Yes—oh, yes. A duel—no make-believe!"
A curious change came into Marigny's voice at that instant. He seemed to bark each staccato phrase; a vindictive fire gleamed in his black eyes, and the olive tint showed beneath the pink and white of his skin.
Medenham laughed, almost good-humoredly.
"The notion is worthy of you," he said. "I might have expected it, but I fancied you were more sensible. Surely you know enough of my world to realize that such a thing is impossible."
"It must be made possible," said Marigny gravely.
"It cannot—I refuse."
"I am partly prepared for some such answer, but I shall be just to you in my thoughts, Viscount Medenham. I know you are a brave man. It is not cowardice, but your insular convention that restrains you from facing me on the field. Nevertheless, I insist."
Medenham threw out an impatient hand.
"You are talking arrant nonsense, for what purpose I can hardly conceive," he said, frowning with vexation at the tragi-comedy into which he had been drawn. "Frenchmen, it is true, regard these things from a different standpoint. That which seems rational to you is little else than buffoonery to me. If that is your object in seeking an interview, it has now been accomplished. I absolutely decline to entertain the proposition for a moment. You have certainly succeeded in lending an air of drivel to a controversy that I regard as serious. I came here filled with very bitter thoughts toward you, but your burlesque has disarmed me. It is only fair, however, that I should warn you not to cross my path again, since one's sense of humor may become strained, and that will be bad for you."
His attitude seemed to betoken an immediate departure, but Marigny looked at him so fixedly that he waited to hear what the other had to say. He was quite determined now to keep Cynthia out of the discussion. Even Vanrenen's letter need not be mentioned until he had seen the millionaire in person and disabused his mind of the inept inventions with which the Frenchman had perplexed him.
"I don't take your refusal as final," said Count Edouard, speaking very slowly, and choosing each sentence with evident care. "I was at pains to explain my position, and there now devolves upon me the disagreeable duty of telling you what will happen if you do not fight. You English may not care to defend your honor in the manner that appeals to a more sensitive nation like the French, but you are vulnerable in your womenfolk. I now tell you quite frankly, that if you do not abandon your pretensions to Miss Cynthia Vanrenen, I shall make it my special business in life to ruin her socially."
Medenham listened more in amazement than indignation.
At first, the true significance of the threat left him unmoved. In his ears it was a mere repetition of the bogey raised by Vanrenen, and that was the wildest nonsense.
"I really do not think you are responsible for your words," he began.
Marigny swept aside the protest with an emphatic gesture.
"Oh, yes, I am," he said, his voice low, sibilant, menacing. "I have laid my plans, and shall pursue them with a complete detachment. Others may suffer—so shall I. I have practically reached the limit of my resources. In a month or less I shall be penniless. What money I could scrape together I devoted to the furtherance of this marriage-project, and I am well aware that when you meet Mr. Vanrenen, my poor little cobweb of intrigue will be blown into thin air. You are quite a desirable parti, Viscount Medenham—every condition points to your speedy and happy union to the lady of your choice. It is, however, a most unfortunate and lamentable fact that she also happens to be the lady of my choice, and I shall revenge myself on you, through her, in the way best calculated to pierce your thick British hide. The future Countess of Fairholme should be superior to Caesar's wife in being not only above suspicion, but altogether removed from its taint. I am afraid that it will be my task to tarnish her escutcheon."
"You miserable rascal," cried Medenham, stung beyond endurance by this extraordinary declaration of a vile purpose, "why should you imagine that I shall allow you to sit there and pour forth your venom unscathed? Stand up, you beast, or must I kick you up!"
"Ha! You are ready to fight me now, my worthy Viscount! But not in your costermonger fashion. You cannot, because I have your promise. You see I have taken your measure with some accuracy, and hard words will not move me. I mean you to understand the issue clearly. Either you meet me under conditions that will insure a clear field for the survivor, or I devote myself to spreading in every quarter most likely to prove damaging to Miss Vanrenen the full, though, perhaps, untrue, but none the less fascinating story of her boating excursion on the Wye at midnight."
He did then spring to his feet, for Medenham was advancing on him with obvious intent to stifle the monstrous accusation by force.
"No! No! you will achieve nothing by violence," he shouted. "You are not so much my physical superior that I cannot defend myself until assistance arrives, and I will ask you to consider what manner of gloss will be placed upon your actions if I drag you before a magistrate for an assault. Why, man, you are absolutely at my mercy. You yourself would be my best witness. Ah, touche! You felt the point that time. Que diable! I gave you credit for a quicker wit, but it is gratifying to learn that you are beginning at last to see that I am in deadly earnest. When I strike there is nothing half-hearted behind my blow; I swear to you that I shall neither relent nor draw back. If ruin overwhelm me, Cynthia Vanrenen shall be involved in my downfall. Picture to yourself the smiles, the whispers, the half-spoken scandal that will cling to her through life. Who will believe her when she says that she was ignorant of your rank when she started out from London? The incomparable Cynthia and the naughty Viscount, touring their thousand miles through England with Mrs. Devar as a shield of innocence!... Mrs. Devar!... Can't you hear the long and loud guffaw that would convulse society as soon as her name cropped up? Ah, you are writhing under the lash now, I fancy! It is dawning on you that a peril greater than the sword or bullet may be near. Dozens of people in Paris and London know, or guess, at any rate, that I was Cynthia Vanrenen's suitor, but as many hundreds as there were dozens shall be told that I cast her off because of the taint placed on her by your silly masquerading. You have no escape—you have no answer—your marriage will only serve to confirm my words. Do you hear? I shall say.... But you know what I shall say.... Now, will you fight me?"
"Yes," said Medenham.
A spasm of hate and furious joy struggled for mastery in Marigny's face, but he showed an iron resolution that almost equaled the coolness of the man whose scornful gaze might well have abashed him.
"I thought so," he said—"under terms, of course?"
"Terms, you beast! The only terms I ask are that you shall stand before me with a sword in your hand."
"A sword!—is that quite fair? You Englishmen are not proficient with the sword. Why not pistols?"
"I think you are right," said Medenham, turning away as if the sight of him was loathsome. "You deserve the death of a dog; it would dishonor bright steel to touch you."
"We shall see," said Marigny, who having achieved his purpose, was now apparently unconcerned as to its outcome. "But it would be folly to fight without arriving at an understanding. I shall try to kill you, and I am sure you will admit that I have striven to force you into an active reciprocity in that respect. But one might only be wounded—that is the lottery of it—so I stipulate that if fortune should favor me, and you still live, you shall agree to leave me in undisturbed possession of the field for at least six months after our encounter."
Medenham still refused to look at him.
"I agree to no terms or conditions whatsoever," he answered. "I am meeting you solely because of the foul lie you have dared to utter against the reputation of the woman I love. If you breathe a word of it in any other ear I shall tear your tongue out by the roots, duel or no duel."
"Ah, but that is a pity," jeered the Frenchman. "Don't you see that unless you accept my offer I shall be compelled to fall back on the sword, since it is absolutely an essential element of my probable success that you should be cleared out of my way? I have no chance against you in the matrimonial market, but I think the odds are in my favor when cold steel is the arbitrator. Now, could anyone be more frank than I in this matter? I mean either to win or lose. There must be no middle course. Unless you are willing to stand aside, if beaten, I can win only by stepping over your corpse. Why not avoid extremes? They may be unnecessary."
"You have already convinced me that your ethics are drawn from the police court, but I see now, that you depend for your wit on the cheaper variety of melodrama," said Medenham, with a quiet derision that at last brought a flush of passion to the Frenchman's face. "I fail to see the need of more words. You have asked for deeds, and you shall have them. When and where do you propose that this encounter shall take place?"
"To-morrow morning—about four o'clock—on the sands between Calais and Wissant."
In spite of all that had gone before, Medenham was unprepared for this categorical answer. Were he in full possession of his faculties he must have seen the trap into which he was being decoyed. Unhappily, Vanrenen's letter had helped to complete the lure, and he was no longer amenable to the dictates of cold reason.
"That is hardly possible," he said. "I do not propose to bring myself under the law as a murderer, Monsieur Marigny. I am ready to take the consequences of a fair fight, but to secure that, certain preliminaries are indispensable."
"I was sure you would meet me," said Marigny, smiling nonchalantly as he lighted the cigarette again. "I have arranged everything, even the attendance of witnesses and a doctor. We cross over to Calais by the night boat from Dover, pick up the others at the Hotel de la Plage, at which they will arrive to-night, and drive straight to the terrain. There is no prospect of outside interference. This is not the sort of duel which either of the combatants is anxious to advertise broadcast. My friends will be discretion itself, and I need hardly express my conviction that you will not make known in England the purpose of our journey. Of course, it is open to you to bring one of your own friends, if you think fit. But my notion is, that these affairs should be settled discreetly in the presence of the smallest possible number of onlookers. I shall, of course, satisfy you as to the standing of the gentlemen I have summoned from Paris. On the table there are their telegrams accepting my invitation to meet us at Calais. When you came in I was busy putting my wretched affairs in order. At least I have given you proof of my belief in your courage. I even go so far as to say that I regret most profoundly the necessity which has driven me to use threats against a charming lady in order to wring a challenge out of you. Of course, between ourselves, I know perfectly well that there is not a word of truth in the statements I have pledged myself to make, but that defect in nowise detracts from their efficiency. Indeed, it commends them the more to the real purveyor of scandal——"
The door slammed behind Medenham. A dreadful doubt assailed him that if he did not hurry away from that taunting voice he might be tempted to forget himself—and what torture that would mean to Cynthia! He was indeed a prey to complex emotions that rendered him utterly incapable of forming a well-balanced judgment. Nothing more illogical, more ill-advised, more thoroughly unsuited to achieve its object than the proposed duel could well be mooted, yet the sheer malignity of Marigny's ruffianly device to attain his ends had impelled him to that final madness. Notions of right and wrong were topsy-turvy in his brain. He was carried along on a current of passion that overturned every barrier imposed by sense and prudence. It seemed quite reasonable to one who had often risked life and limb for his country, who, from mere love of sport, had faced many an infuriated tiger and skulking lion, that he should be justified by the eternal law in striving to rid the world of this ultra-beast. He had not scrupled to kill a poisonous snake—why should he flinch from killing a man whose chief equipment was the poison-laden fang of slander? Happily, he could use a sword in a fashion that might surprise Marigny most wofully. If he did not succeed in killing the wretch, he would surely disable him, and the thought sent such a thrill of fierce pleasure through his veins that he resolutely closed his eyes to the lamentable results that must follow his own death.
Cynthia, at least, would not suffer; that was all he cared for. No matter what happened, he did not imagine for one moment that she would marry Marigny. But that eventuality hardly troubled him at all. The Frenchman had chosen the sword, and he must abide by its stern arbitrament.
"Home!" he said to Dale, finding his retainer's eye bent inquiringly on him when he reached the street. The word had a curiously detached sound in his ears. "Home!" It savored of rank lunacy to think that within a few short hours he would be standing on foreign soil, striving desperately with naked steel to defend his own life and destroy another's.
The fine weather which had endured so long gave way that night. Storm-clouds swept up from the Atlantic, and England was drenched in rain when Medenham quitted Charing Cross at 9 p.m. At the eleventh hour he determined to take Dale with him, but that belated display of wisdom arose more from the need he felt of human companionship than from any sense of the absurdity of going alone to fight a duel in a foreign land. He had given no thought during the fleeting hours to the necessity of communicating with his relatives in case he fell a victim to Marigny's rancor, so he devoted himself now to writing a brief account to the Marquis of Scarland of the causes that led up to the duel. He concluded with an entreaty that his brother-in-law should use all means within his power to close down any inquiry that might result, and pointed out that in this connection Dale would prove a valuable ally, since his testimony would make clear the fact that the contest had taken place in France, where duels are looked on with a more lenient eye than in England.
It was difficult to write legibly in the fast-moving, ill-lighted train, so he completed the letter on board the steamer, but did not hand it to Dale until after Calais was reached.
While the steamer was drawing up to her berth, he saw Count Edouard Marigny among the few passengers on deck. He had turned his back on the Frenchman at Charing Cross, but the imperturbable Count, noticing Dale in the half-light of dawn, believed that Medenham had brought a fellow-countryman as a witness. He strolled up, and said affably:
"Is this gentleman your friend?"
"Yes," said Medenham, "though not quite in the sense that you mean. He will accompany me to the hotel, and await my return there."
The Frenchman was evidently mystified; he smiled, but passed no other comment. Dale, who heard what was said, now wondered more than ever what lay behind this sudden journey to France. He had already recognized Marigny as the owner of the Du Vallon, for he had seen him leaving the Metropole Hotel at Brighton not many days ago, and had the best of reasons for regarding him as Viscount Medenham's implacable enemy. Why, then, were these two crossing the Channel in company, going together to some hotel, and leaving him, Dale, to kick his heels in the small hours of the morning till it pleased them to pick him up again?
In justice to the loyal-hearted chauffeur, plunged quite unknowingly into the crisis of his life, it must be said that the notion of a duel did not even occur to his puzzled brain.
Nor was he given much time for speculation. A carriage awaited the trio at the quay. They carried no luggage to entail a delay at the Customs, and they drove off at a rapid pace through silent streets in a drenched downpour of rain. When they reached the Hotel de la Plage, neither Medenham nor the Frenchman alighted, but the former handed Dale a letter.
"I may be detained in France somewhat longer than I anticipated," he said in a matter-of-fact tone. "If that is so, and you have to return to England without me, hand this letter to the Marquis of Scarland. Take great care of it, and keep it in your possession until you are positively assured that I am unable to go with you."
These enigmatical instructions bothered their hearer far more than any of the strange proceedings of the night.
"How shall I know, my lord, whether I am to go back with you or not?" he asked.
"Oh, of course I shall make that quite clear," laughed Medenham. "At present, all you have to do is to wait here a little while."
His careless demeanor dispelled the first dim shadow of doubt that had arisen in Dale's mind. The man was no stranger on the Continent, having traveled with his employer over the length and breadth of France and Northern Italy; but the manner of this visit to the Hotel de la Plage at Calais was so perplexing that he essayed another question.
"When may I expect you, my lord?" he asked.
Medenham affected to consult his watch.
"Within an hour," he said; "perhaps a few minutes more. At any rate, you can arrange to catch the afternoon boat. Meanwhile, make yourself comfortable."
By this time, three men, whom he had never seen before, came out from the hotel. Apparently, they were fully prepared for the coming of the visitors from England. They greeted Count Marigny cordially, and were introduced to Medenham. Without more ado, two of them entered the vehicle; the third, hoisting an umbrella, climbed to the side of the driver, to whom no orders were given, and the cab rattled rapidly away over the paving-stones, leaving Dale to gaze disconsolately after it.
Then the vague suspicions in his mind awoke into activity. For one thing, he had heard one of the strangers alluded to as "Monsieur le Docteur." For another, the newcomers carried a curious-looking parcel, or case, of an elongated shape that suggested unusual contents. Some trick of memory came to his aid. In an hotel at Lyons he had watched a valet packing just such an object with the remainder of his employer's luggage, and was told, on inquiry, that it contained foils. But why foils? ... at four o'clock in the morning? ... in a country where men might still requite an outrage by an appeal to the law of the jungle?
Hastily drawing from his breast pocket the letter intrusted to him, he examined the superscription. It was addressed simply to the Marquis of Scarland, and must surely be a document of immense significance, or the young Viscount would not have brought him all the way from London to act as messenger rather than intrust it to the post. Each instant Dale's ideas became clearer; each instant his heart throbbed with a deeper anxiety. At last, when the four-wheeler disappeared from sight round an angle of the rain-soaked boulevard, he yielded to impulse and ran into the hotel. French people are early risers, but the visitors to Calais that morning were astir at an hour when most of the hotel staff were still sound asleep. A night porter, however, was awaiting him at the entrance, and Dale forthwith engaged in a valiant struggle with the French language in the effort to ascertain, first, whether the man possessed a bicycle, and, secondly, whether he would lend it. The Frenchman, of course, broke into a voluble statement out of all proportion to the demand, but the production of a British sovereign seemed to interpret matters satisfactorily, because a bicycle was promptly produced from a shed in the rear of the building.
Dale handed the man the sovereign, jumped on the machine, and rode off rapidly in the direction taken by the cab. He had no difficulty in turning the corner round which it had vanished, but a little farther on he erred in thinking that it had gone straight ahead, since the driver had really turned to the right again in order to keep clear of the fortifications. Dale traveled at such a pace that the first long stretch of straight road opening up before his eyes convinced him of his blunder when no cab was in sight. He raced back, dismounted at the crossing, examined the road for wheel-marks, and soon was in the saddle again. He was destined to be thus bothered three times in all, but, taught wisdom by his initial mistake, he never passed a crossroad without searching for the recent tracks of wheels.
The rain helped him wherever the roadway was macadamized, but the paved routes militaires with which Calais abounds offered difficulties that caused many minutes of delay. At last, he found himself in the open country, scorching along a sandy road that traversed the low dunes lying between the town of Calais and Cape Gris Nez. It was not easy to see far ahead owing to the rain and mist, and he had covered a mile or more beyond the last of the scattered villas and cottages which form the eastern suburb of the port, when he saw the elusive cab drawn up by the roadside. The horse was steaming as though it had been driven at a great pace, and the driver stood near, smoking a cigarette, and protecting himself from the persistent downpour by an umbrella.
Dale soon reached the man, and said breathlessly, in his slow French:
"Where are the gentlemen?"
The cabman, who had evidently been paid to hold his tongue, merely shrugged. Dale, breathing hard, laid a heavy hand on his shoulder, whereupon the other answered: "I don't know."
This, of course, was a lie, and the fact that it was a lie alarmed Dale quite as much as any of the sinister incidents which had already befallen. For one thing, there was no house into which five men could have gone. On each side of the road were bleak sandhills; to the right was the sea, gray and lowering beneath a leaden-hued sky that seemed to weep above a dead earth. Here, undoubtedly, was the cab, since Dale could swear to both horse and man. Where, then, were its occupants?
Having to depend upon his wits, he gave no further heed to the Frenchman, but, fancying that he saw vestiges of recent footmarks on the right, or seaward, side of the road, and dragging the bicycle with him, he climbed to the top of the nearest dune, as he believed that a view of the sands could be obtained from that point. He was right. The sea was at a greater distance than he imagined would be the case, but a wide strip of firm sand, its wet patches glistening dully in the half-light, extended to the water's edge almost from the base of the hillock on which he stood.
At first, his anxious eyes strained through the haze in vain, until some circling seagulls caught his attention, and then he discerned some vague forms silhouetted against a brighter belt of the sea to the northeast.
Three of the figures were black and motionless, but two gave an eerie suggestion of whiteness and movement. Abandoning the bicycle, and hardly realizing why he should be so perturbed, Dale ran forward. Twice he stumbled and fell amidst the stringy heath grass, but he was up again in a frenzy of haste, and soon was near enough to the group of men to see that Medenham and Marigny, bare-headed and in their shirt sleeves, were fighting with swords.
Dale's eyes were now half-blinded with perspiration, for he had ridden fast through the mud from Calais, and this final run through yielding sand and clinging sedge was exhausting to one who seldom walked as many furlongs as he had covered miles that morning. But even in his panic of distress he fancied that his master was pressing the Frenchman severely. It was no child's play, this battle with cold steel. The slender, venomous-looking blades whirled and stabbed with a fearsome vehemence, and the sharp rasp of each riposte and parry rang out with a horrible suggestiveness in the moist air. And then, as he lumbered heavily on, Dale thought he saw something that turned him sick with terror. Almost halting, he swept a hasty hand across his eyes—then he was sure.
Medenham, with arm extended in a feint in tierce, was bearing so heavily on his opponent's rapier that his right foot slipped, and he stumbled badly. At once Marigny struck with the deadly quickness and certainty of a cobra. His weapon pierced Medenham's breast high up on the right side. The stroke was so true and furious that the Englishman, already unbalanced, was driven on to his back on the sand. Marigny wrenched the blade free, and stooped with obvious intent to plunge it again through his opponent's body. A warning shout from each of the three spectators withheld him. He scowled vindictively, but dared not make that second mortal thrust. These French gentlemen whom he had summoned from Paris were bound by a rigid code of honor that would infallibly have caused him to be branded as a murderer had he completed matters to his satisfaction. Nevertheless, he bent and peered closely into Medenham's face, gray now as the sand on which he was lying.
"I think it will serve," he muttered to himself. "May the devil take him, but I thought he would get the better of me!"
He turned away with an affectation of coolness which he was far from feeling, while the doctor knelt to examine Medenham's injury. He saw someone running towards him, but believed it must be one of the witnesses, and his eyes fell to the stained blade in his hand.
"I rather forgot myself——" he began.
But the excuse was stopped short by a blow on the angle of the jaw that stretched him by Medenham's side and apparently as lifeless.
Assuredly, Dale was not versed in the punctilio of the duel, but he knew how and where to hit with a fist that was hard as one of his own spanners. He put weight and passion into that punch, and scarcely understood how effective it was until he found himself struggling in the grasp of two excited Frenchmen. He cursed both them and Marigny fluently, and vowed the most horrible vengeance on all three, but soon calmed himself sufficiently to see that Count Edouard could not stir, and his perturbed wits then sought to learn the extent of his master's injury. Still he swore at Marigny.
"Damn you!" he cried hoarsely, "you would have stabbed him as he was lying there if these pals of yours hadn't stopped you!"
At last, recovering some degree of self-possession, he assisted the astounded and rather frightened Frenchmen to carry Medenham to the waiting carriage. One, who spoke English, asked him to help in rendering a like service to Marigny, but he refused with an oath, and the others dared not press him, he looked so fierce and threatening.
"Is he dead?" he asked the doctor brokenly.
There could be no mistaking the meaning of the words, for his red-shot eyes glared fixedly at the limp body of his master. The other shook his head, but pointed in the direction of Calais, as though to suggest that the sooner the injured man was taken to some place where his wound could be properly attended to, the better would be the faint chance of life that remained. By this time the seconds were approaching, and Marigny had seemingly recovered to a slight extent from the knockout blow which he had received so unexpectedly.
The doctor, who was the only self-collected person present, pointed to the bicycle.
"Hotel," he said emphatically. "Go hotel—quick!"
Dale was minded not to desert his master, but the anxiety in the doctor's face warned him that the request ought to be obeyed. If the spark of vitality still flickering in Medenham's body was to be preserved not a moment should be lost in preparing a room for his reception.
Gulping down his anguish, Dale mounted and made off. At a distant bend in the road he turned his head and looked back along that dismal heath. All five were packed in the cab, and the coachman was urging the unwilling horse into a trot.
* * * * *
And what of Cynthia?
The break in the weather was the one thing needed to put an abrupt end to all pretense of enjoyment so far as the Windermere tourists were concerned. Strained relations existed from the moment Vanrenen arrived at Chester. For the first time in her life, Cynthia thought that her father was not acting with the open-eyed justice which she expected from him, and for the first time in his life Peter Vanrenen harbored an uneasy suspicion that his daughter had not been quite candid with him. It was impossible, of course, in the close intimacy of long hours spent together in a touring car, that there should not be many references to Fitzroy and the Mercury. They were inevitable as the milestones, and Vanrenen, who was just as prone as other men to look at facts through his own spectacles, failed to understand how an intelligent girl like his daughter could remain in constant association with Viscount Medenham for five days, and yet not discover his identity.
More than once, indeed, notwithstanding the caution exercised by the others—engaged now in a tacit conspiracy to dispel memories of a foolish entanglement from the girl's mind—the identification of Fitzroy with the young Viscount trembled on the very lip of discovery. Thus, on Friday, when they had motored to Grasmere, and had gathered before lunch in the lounge of the delightfully old-fashioned Rothay Hotel, Vanrenen happened to pick up an illustrated paper, containing a page of pictures of the Scarland short-horns.
Now, being a busy man, he gave little heed to the terminological convolutions of names among the British aristocracy. He had not the slightest notion that the Marquis of Scarland's wife was Medenham's sister, and, with the quick interest of the stock-breeder, he pointed out to Mrs. Leland an animal that resembled one of his own pedigree bulls, at present waxing fat on the Montana ranch. For the moment Mrs. Leland herself had forgotten the relationship between the two men.
"I met the Marquis last year at San Remo," she said heedlessly. "Anyone more unlike a British peer you could not imagine. If I remember rightly, he is a blunt, farmer-like person, but his wife is very charming. By the way, who was she?"
Such a question could not pass Mrs. Devar unanswered.
"Lady Betty Fitzroy," she chirped instantly.
Cynthia, who was looking through the window at the square-towered little church, throned midst the somber yews which shelter the graves of Wordsworth and his kin, caught the odd conjunction of names—"Betty" and "Fitzroy."
"Who is that you are speaking of, father?" she asked, though with a listless air that Medenham had never seen during any minute of those five happy days.
"The Marquis of Scarland—the man from whom I bought some cattle a few years ago," he said, trusting to the directness of the reply to carry it through unchallenged.
Cynthia's brows puckered in a reflective frown.
"That is odd," she murmured.
"What is odd?" asked her father, while Mrs. Leland bent over the periodical to hide a smile of embarrassment.
"Oh, just a curious way of running in grooves people have in this country. They call towns after men and men after towns."
She was about to add that Fitzroy had told her of a sister Betty who was married to a man named Scarland, a breeder of pedigree stock, but checked the impulse. For some reason known best to her father, he did not seem to wish any mention to be made of the vanished chauffeur, but she did not gauge the true extent of his readiness to drop the subject on that occasion.
Mrs. Leland looked up, caught his eye with a smile, and asked how many miles it was to Thirlmere. Cynthia's thoughts brooded again on poets and lonely graves, and the danger passed.
Mrs. Devar, in these days, had recovered her complacency. The letter she wrote from Symon's Yat had reached Vanrenen from Paris, and its hearty disapproval of Fitzroy helped to re-establish his good opinion of her. She heard constantly, too, from Marigny and her son. Both agreed that the comet-like flight of Medenham across their horizon was rapidly losing its significance. Still, she was not quite happy. Mrs. Leland's advent had thrust her into the background, for the American widow was rich, good-looking, and cultured, and the flow of small talk between the newcomer and Cynthia left her as hopelessly out of range as used to be the case when that domineering Medenham would lean back in the car and say things beyond her comprehension, or murmur them to Cynthia if she happened to be sitting by his side.
Luncheon had ended, but the clouds which had been gathering over the lake country during the morning suddenly poured a deluge over a thirsty land. Thirlmere and Ullswater and the rest of the glories of Westmoreland that lay beyond the pass of Dunmail Raise were swallowed up in a fog of rain. Simmonds, questioned by the millionaire, admitted that a weather-beaten native had prophesied "a week of it," more or less.
Four Britons might have sat down and played Bridge stolidly, but three of this quartette were Americans, and within two hours of the change in the elements, they were seated in the London-bound train at Windermere Station.
Not one of them was really displeased because of this rapid alteration in their plans. Cynthia was ill at ease; Mrs. Leland wished to rejoin her guests at Trouville; Vanrenen, who was anxious to complete certain business negotiations in Paris, believed that a complete change of scene and new interests in life would speedily bring Cynthia back to her own cheery self; while Mrs. Devar, though the abandonment of the tour meant reversion to a cheap boarding-house, was not sorry that it had come to an end. In London, she would be more in her element, and, at any rate, she was beginning to feel cramped through sitting three in a row in Simmonds's car, after the luxurious comfort of two in the tonneau of the Mercury.