"DEAR MR. DUCAINE,—My father wishes me to say that he and Lord Chelsford will call upon you to-morrow morning, between ten and eleven o'clock.—With best regards, I am,
The letter slipped from my hands on to the table. Lord Chelsford was a Cabinet Minister and a famous man. What could he have to do with any appointment which the Duke might offer me? I read the few words over and over again. The handwriting, the very faint perfume which seemed to steal out of the envelope, a moment's swift retrospective thought, and my fancy had conjured her into actual life. She was there in the room with me, slim and shadowy, with her quiet voice and movements, and with that haunting, doubtful look in her dark eyes. What had she meant by that curious warning? What was the knowledge or the fear which inspired it? If one could only understand!
I sat down in my chair and tried to read, but the effort was useless. Directly opposite to me was that black uncurtained window. Every time I looked up it seemed to become once more the frame for a white evil face. At last I could bear it no longer. I rose and left the house. I wandered capless across the marshes to where the wet seaweed lay strewn about, and the long waves came rolling shorewards; a wilderness now indeed of grey mists, of dark silent tongues of sea-water cleaving the land. There was no wind-no other sound than the steadfast monotonous lapping of the waves upon the sands. Along that road he had come; the faintly burning light upon my table showed where he had pressed his face against the window. Then he had wandered on, past the storm-bent tree at the turn of the road pointing landwards. A few yards farther was the creek from which we had dragged him. The events of the night struggled to reconstruct themselves in my mind, and I fought against their slow coalescence. I did not wish to remember—to believe. In my heart I felt that for some hidden reason Ray was my friend. This visit of the Duke's, with whatever it might portend, was without doubt inspired by him. And, on the other hand, there was the warning of Lady Angela, so earnestly expressed, so solemn, almost sad. How could I see light through all these things? How could I hope to understand?
The Duke came punctually, spruce and debonnair, a small rose in his buttonhole, his wizened cheeks aglow with the smart of the stinging east wind. With him came Lord Chelsford, whose face and figure were familiar enough to me from the pages of the illustrated papers. Dark, spare, and tall, he spoke seldom, but I felt all the while the merciless investigation of his searching eyes. The Duke, on the other hand, seemed to have thrown aside some part of his customary reserve. He spoke at greater length and with more freedom than I had heard him.
"You see, Mr. Ducaine," he began, "I am not a man who makes idle promises. I am here to offer you employment, if you are open to accept a post of some importance, and also, to be frank with you, of some danger."
"If I am qualified for the post, your Grace," I answered, "I shall be only too willing to do my best. But you must excuse me if I express exactly what is in my mind. I am almost a stranger to you. I am a complete stranger to Lord Chelsford. How can you rely upon my trustworthiness? You must have so many young men to choose from who are personally known to you. Why do you come to me?"
The Duke smiled grimly.
"In the first place," he said, "we are only strangers from the personal point of view, which is possibly an advantage. I have in my pocket a close record of your days since you entered the university. I know those who have been your friends, your tastes, how you have spent your time. Don't be foolish, young sir," he added sharply, as he saw the colour rise in my cheeks: "you will have a trust reposed in you such as few men have ever borne before. This prying into your life is from no motives of private curiosity. Wait until you hear the importance of the things which I am going to say to you." I was impressed into silence. The Duke continued—"You have heard, my young friend," he said, "of the Committee of National Defence?" "I have read of it," I answered.
"Good! This committee has been formed and sanctioned by the War Office in consequence of the shocking revelations of inefficiency which came to light during the recent war. It occurred to the Prime Minister, as I dare say it did to most of the thinking men in the country, that if our unreadiness to take the offensive was so obvious, it was possible that our defensive precautions had also been neglected. A. board was therefore formed to act independently of all existing institutions, and composed chiefly of military and naval men. The Commander-in-Chief, Lord Cheisford, Colonel Ray, and myself are amongst the members. Our mandate is to keep our attention solely fixed upon the defences of the country, to elaborate different schemes for repelling different methods of attack, and in short to make ourselves responsible to the country for the safety of the Empire. Every harbour on the south and east coast is supposed to be known to us, every yard of railway feeding the seaports from London, all the secret fortifications and places, south of London, capable of being held by inferior forces. The mobilization of troops to any one point has been gone thoroughly into, and every possible movement and combination of the fleet. These are only a few of the things which have become our care, but they are sufficient for the purpose of illustration. The importance of this Board must be apparent to you; also the importance of absolute secrecy as regards its doings and movements."
I was fascinated by the greatness of time subject. However, I answered him as quickly as possible, and emphatically.
"The Board," the Duke continued, "has been meeting in London. For the last few months we have had business of the utmost importance on hand. But on January 10, that is just six weeks ago, we came to a full stop. The Commander-in-Chief had no alternative but temporarily to dissolve the assembly. We found ourselves in a terrible and disastrous position. Lord Ronald Matheson had been acting as secretary for us. We met always with locked doors, and the names of the twelve members of the Board are the most honoured in England. Yet twenty-four hours after our meetings a verbatim report of them, with full particulars of all our schemes, was in the hands of the French Secret Service."
"Good God!" I exclaimed, startled for the moment out of my respectful silence.
The Duke himself seemed affected by the revelation which he had made. He sat forward in his chair with puckered brows and bent head. His voice, which had been growing lower and lower, had sunk almost to a whisper. It seemed to me that he made a sign to Lord Chelsford to continue. Almost for the first time the man who had done little since his entrance save watch me, spoke.
"My own political career, Mr. Ducaine," he said, "has been a long one, but I have never before found myself confronted with such a situation. Even you can doubtless realize its effect. The whole good of our work is undone. If we cannot recommence, and with different results, I am afraid, as an Englishman, to say what may happen. War between England and France to-day would be like a great game of chess between two masters of equal strength—one having a secret knowledge of his opponent's each ensuing move. You can guess what the end of that would be. Our only hope is at once to reconstruct our plans. We are hard at it now by day and by night, but the time has arrived when we can go no further without a meeting, and the actual committal to paper and diagram of our new schemes. We have discussed the whole matter most carefully, and we have come to the following decision. We have reduced the number of the Board by half, those who have resigned, with certain exceptions, having done so by ballot. We have decided that instead of holding our meetings at the War Office they shall take place down here at the Duke's house, and so far as possible secretly. Then, as regards the secretaryship. No shadow of suspicion rests upon Lord Ronald any more than upon his predecessors, but, as you may have read in the newspapers, he has temporarily lost his reason owing to the shock, and has been obliged to go to a private home. We have decided to engage some one absolutely without political connexions, and whose detachment from political life must be complete. You have had a warm advocate in Colonel Mostyn Ray, and, subject to some stringent and absolute conditions, I may say that we have decided to offer you the post."
I looked from one to the other. I have no doubt that I looked as bewildered as I felt.
"I am a complete stranger to all of you," I murmured. "I am not deserving in any way of such a position."
Lord Chelsford smiled.
"You underrate yourself, young man," he said drily, "or your college professors have wandered from the truth. Still, your surprise is natural, I admit. I will explain a little further. Our choice is more limited than you might think. At least fifty names were proposed, all of them of young men of the highest character. Each one, however, had some possibly doubtful relative or association or custom in life. It is evident that there is treachery somewhere in the very highest quarters. These young men were sure to be brought into contact with it. Now it was Ray's idea to seek for some one wholly outside the diplomatic world, living in a spot remote from London, with as few friends as possible, who would have no sentimental objections to the surveillance of detectives. You appear to us to be suitable."
"It is a wonderful offer!" I exclaimed.
"In a sense it is," Lord Cheisford continued. "The remuneration, of course, will be high, but the post itself may not be a permanency, and you will live all the time at high pressure. The Duke will place a small house at your disposal, and it will be required that you form no new acquaintances without reference to him, nor must you leave this place on any account without permission. You will virtually be a prisoner, and if certain of my suspicions are correct you may even find the post one of great physical danger. On the other hand, you will have a thousand a year salary, and a sum of five thousand pounds in two years' time if all is well."
Excitement seemed to have steadied my nerves. I forgot all the minor tragedies which had been real enough things to face only a few hours ago. I spoke calmly and decisively.
"I accept, Lord Cheisford," I said. "I shall count my life a small thing indeed against my fidelity."
He drummed idly with his forefinger upon the table. His eyes were wandering around the room absently. His face was calm and expressionless.
"Very well, then," he said, "my business here is settled. I shall leave it with the Duke to acquaint you with the practical details of your work, and our arrangement."
He rose to his feet. The Duke glanced at his watch.
"You have only just time for the train," he remarked. "The car shall take you there. I prefer to walk back, and I have something further to say to Mr. Ducaine."
Lord Chelsford took leave of me briefly, and the Duke, after accompanying him outside, returned to his former seat. I ventured upon an incoherent attempt to express my gratitude, which he at once waved aside. He leaned over the table, and he fixed his eyes steadfastly upon me.
"I am able now," he said, "to ask you a question postponed from the other day. It is concerning the man who was found dead in the creek."
His merciless eyes noted my start.
"Ah!" he continued. "I can see that you know something. I have my suspicions about this man. You can now understand my interest when I hear of strangers in the neighbourhood. I do not believe that he was a derelict from the sea. Do you?"
"No," I answered.
"Am I right," he said, "in presuming that you know he was not?"
"I know that he was not," I admitted.
His fingers ceased their beating upon the table. His face became white and masklike.
"Go on," he said.
"I know that he came through Braster, and he asked for me. He looked in through the window of my cottage when Colonel Ray was with me. I saw him no more after that until I found him dead."
"Ray left you after you had seen this man's face at the window?"
"The wounds about the man's head and body. If he was not thrown up by the sea, can you explain them?"
"No," I answered with a shudder.
"At the inquest it was not mentioned, I think, that he had been seen in the village?"
"It was not," I admitted. "Most of the people were at Colonel Ray's lecture. He spoke to one girl, a Miss Moyat."
"She did not give evidence."
"I thought," I said in a low tone, "that she had better not."
"Did you hear anything after Ray left?" he asked suddenly.
I could have cried out, but my tongue seemed dry in my throat.
"There was a sound," I muttered, "I fancied that it was a cry. But I could not tell. The wind was blowing, and the sea and rain! No, I could not tell."
He rose up.
"You appear," he said drily, "to have discretion. Cultivate it! It is a great gift. I shall look for you at eleven o'clock in the morning. I am having a large house party this week, and amongst them will be our friends."
He left me without any further farewell, and turned slowly homewards. When he reached the bend in the road he paused, and remained there for several moments motionless. His eyes were fixed upon the small creek. He seemed to be measuring the distance between it and the road. He was still lingering there when I closed the door.
The sunlight was streaming through the window when at last my pen ceased to move. I rubbed my eyes and looked out in momentary amazement. Morning had already broken across the sea. My green-shaded lamp was burning with a sickly light. The moon had turned pale and colourless whilst I sat at my desk.
I stretched myself and, lighting a cigarette, commenced to collect my papers. Immediately a dark figure rose from a couch in the farther corner of the room and approached me.
"Can I get you anything, sir?"
I turned in my chair. The man-servant whom the Duke had put in charge of the "Brand," my present habitation, and who remained with me always in the room while I worked, stood at my elbow.
"I would like some coffee, Grooton," I said. "I am going to walk up to the house with these papers, and I shall want a bath and some breakfast directly I get back."
"Very good, sir. It shall be ready."
I folded up the sheets and maps, and placing them in an oilskin case, tied them round my body under my waistcoat. Then I withdrew all the cartridges save one from the revolver which had lain all night within easy reach of my right hand, and slipped it into my pocket.
"Coffee ready, Grooton?"
"In one moment, sir."
I watched him bending over the stove, pale, dark-visaged, with the subdued manners and voice which mark the aristocracy of servitude. My employer's confidence in him must be immense, for while he watched over me I was practically in his power.
"Have you been long with the Duke, Grooton?" I asked him.
"Twenty-one years, sir. I left his Grace to go to Lord Chelsford, who found me some work in London."
"Secret service work, wasn't it, Grooton?"
"Some parts of it very interesting, sir."
I nodded and drank my coffee. Grooton was watching me with an air of respectful interest.
"You will pardon my remarking it, sir, but I hope you will try and get some sleep during the day. You are very pale this morning, sir."
I looked at the glass, and was startled at my own reflection. This was only my third day, and the responsibilities of my work were heavy upon me. My cheeks were sunken and there were black rings around my eyes.
"I will lie down when I come back, Grooton," I answered.
Outside, the fresh morning wind came like a sudden sweet tonic to my jaded nerves. I paused for a moment to face bareheaded the rush of it from the sea. As I stood there, drinking it in, I became suddenly aware of light approaching footsteps. Some one was coming towards the cottage from the Park.
I did not immediately turn my head, but every nerve in my body seemed to stiffen into quivering curiosity.
The pathway was a private one leading from the house only to the "Brand," and down the cliff to Braster. It was barely seven o'clock, and the footsteps were no labouring man's. I think that I knew very well who it was that came so softly down the cone-strewn path.
We faced one another with little of the mask of surprise. She came like a shadow, flitting between the slender tree trunks out into the sunshine, where for a moment she seemed wan and white. Her dark eyes flashed a greeting at me. I stood cap in hand before her. It was the first time we had met since I had taken up my abode at the "Brand."
"Good-morning, Mr. Ducaine," she said. "You need not look at me as though I were a ghost. I always walk before breakfast in the country."
"There is no better time," I answered.
"You look as though you had been up all night," she remarked.
"I had work to finish," I told her.
"So you would have none of my advice, Mr. Secretary," she said softly, coming a little nearer to me. "You are already installed."
"Already at work," I asserted.
She glanced towards the "Brand."
"I hope that you are comfortable," she said. "A couple of hours is short notice in which to make a place habitable."
"Grooton is a magician," I told her. "He has arranged everything."
"He is a wonderful servant," she said thoughtfully.
A white-winged bird floated over our heads and drifted away skywards. She followed it with her eyes.
"You wonder at seeing me so early," she murmured. "Don't you think that it is worth while? Nothing ever seems so sweet as this first morning breeze."
I bowed gravely. She was standing bareheaded now at the edge of the cliff, watching the flight of the bird. It was delightful to see the faint pink come back to her cheeks with the sting of the salt wind. Nevertheless, I had an idea in my mind that it was not wholly for her health's sake that Lady Angela walked abroad so early.
"Tell me," she said presently, "have you had a visitor this morning?"
"What, at this hour?" I exclaimed.
"There are other early risers besides you and me," she said. "The spinney gate was open, so some one has passed through."
I shook my head.
"I have not seen or heard a soul," I told her. "I have just finished some work, and I am on my way up to the house with it."
"You really mean it?" she persisted.
"Of course I do," I answered her. "Grooton is the only person I have spoken to for at least nine hours. Why do you ask?"
"My window looks this way," she said, "and I fancied that I saw some one cross the Park while I was dressing. The spinney gate was certainly open."
"Then I fancy that it has been open all night," I declared, "for to the best of my belief no one has passed through it save yourself. May I walk with you back to the house, Lady Angela? There is something which I should very much like to ask you."
She replaced her hat, which she had been carrying in her hand. I stood watching her deft white fingers flashing amongst the thick silky coils of her hair. The extreme slimness of her figure seemed accentuated by her backward poise. Yet perhaps I had never before properly appreciated its perfect gracefulness.
"I was going farther along the cliffs," she said, "but I will walk some of the way back with you. One minute."
She stood on the extreme edge, and, shading her eyes with her hand, she looked up and down the broad expanse of sand—a great untenanted wilderness. I wondered for whom or what she was looking, but I asked no question. In a few moments she rejoined me, and we turned inland.
"Well," she said, "what is it that you wish to say?"
"Lady Angela," I began, "a few weeks ago there was no one whose prospects were less hopeful than mine. Thanks to your father and Colonel Ray all that is changed. To-day I have a position I am proud of, and important work. Yet I cannot help always remembering this: I am holding a post which you warned me against accepting."
"I am very curious," I said. "I have never understood your warning. I believe that you were in earnest. Was it that you believed me incapable or untrustworthy, or—"
"You appear to me," she murmured, "to be rather a curious person."
I bent forward and looked into her face. There was in her wonderful eyes a glint of laughter which became her well. She walked with slow graceful ease, her hands behind her, her head almost on a level with my own. I found myself studying her with a new pleasure. Then our eyes met, and I looked away, momentarily confused. Was it my fancy, or was there a certain measure of rebuke in her cool surprise, a faint indication of her desire that I should remember that she was the Lady Angela Harberly, and I her father's secretary? I bit my lip. She should not catch me offending again, I determined.
"You must forgive me," I said stiffly, "but your warning seemed a little singular. If you do not choose to gratify my curiosity, it is of no consequence."
"Since you disregarded it," she remarked, lifting her dress from the dew-laden grass on to which we had emerged, "it does not matter, does it? Only you are very young, and you know little of the world. Lord Ronald was your predecessor, and he is in a lunatic asylum. No one knows what lies behind certain unfortunate things which have happened during the last months. There is a mystery which is as yet unsolved."
"In your heart you are thinking," I said, "that such an unsophisticated person as myself will be an easy prey to whatever snares may be laid for me. Is it not so?"
She looked at me with uplifted eyebrows.
"Others of more experience have been worsted," she remarked calmly. "Why not you?"
"If that is a serious question," I said, "I will answer it. Perhaps my very inexperience will be my best friend."
"Those before me," I continued, "have thought that they knew whom to trust. I, knowing no one, shall trust no one."
"Not even me?" she asked, half turning her head towards me.
"Not even you," I answered firmly.
A man's figure suddenly appeared on the left. I looked at him puzzled, wondering whence he had come.
"Here is your good friend, Colonel Mostyn Ray," she remarked, with a note of banter in her tone. "What about him?"
"Not even Colonel Mostyn Ray," I answered. "The notes which I take with me from each meeting are to be read over from my elaboration at the next. Nobody is permitted to hold a pen or to make a note whilst they are being read. Afterwards I have your father's promise that not even he will ask for even a cursory glance at them. I deliver them sealed to Lord Chelsford."
Ray came up to us. His dark eyebrows were drawn close together, and I noticed that his boots were clogged with sand. He had the appearance of a man who had been walking far and fast.
"You keep up your good habits, Lady Angela," he said, raising his cap.
"It is my only good one, so I am loth to let it go," she answered. "If you were as gallant as you appear to be energetic," she added, glancing at his boots, "you would have stopped when I called after you, and taken me for a walk."
His eyes shot dark lightnings at her.
"I did not hear you call," he said.
"You had the appearance of a man who intended to, hear nothing and see nothing," she remarked coolly. "Never mind! There will be no breakfast for an hour yet. You shall take me on to Braster Hill. Come!"
They left me at a turn in the path. I saw their heads close together in earnest conversation. I went on towards the house.
I entered by the back, and made my way across the great hall, which was still invaded by domestics with brushes and brooms. Taking a small key from my watch-chain, I unfastened the door of a room almost behind the staircase, and pushed it open. The curtains were drawn, and the room itself, therefore, almost in darkness. I carefully locked myself in, and turned up the electric light.
The apartment was a small one, and contained only a few pieces of heavy antique furniture. Behind the curtains were iron shutters. In one corner was a strong safe. I walked to it, and for the first time I permitted myself to think of the combination word. Slowly I fitted it together, and the great door swung open.
There were several padlocked dispatch-boxes, and, on a shelf above, a bundle of folded papers. I took this bundle carefully out and laid it on the table before me. I was on the point of undoing the red tape with which it was tied, when my fingers became suddenly rigid. I stared at the packet with wide-open eyes. I felt my breath come short and my brain reeling. The papers were there sure enough, but it was not at them that I was looking. It was the double knot in the pink tape which fascinated me.
AN EXPRESSION OF CONFIDENCE
I have no exact recollection of how long I spent in that little room. After a while I closed the door safe, and reset the combination lock with trembling fingers. Then I searched all round, but could find no traces of any recent intruder. I undid the heavy shutters, and let in a stream of sunshine. Outside, Ray and Lady Angela were strolling up and down the terrace. I watched the latter with fascinated eyes. It was from her that this strange warning had come to me, this warning which as yet was only imperfectly explained. What did she know? Whom did she suspect? Was it possible that she, a mere child, had even the glimmering of a suspicion as to the truth? My eyes followed her every movement. She walked with all the lightsome grace to which her young limbs and breeding entitled her, her head elegantly poised on her slender neck, her face mostly turned towards her companion, to whom she was talking earnestly. Even at this distance I seemed to catch the inspiring flash of her dark eyes, to follow the words which fell from her lips so gravely. And as I watched a new idea came to me. I turned slowly away and went in search of the Duke.
I found him sitting fully dressed in an anteroom leading from his bedroom, with a great pile of letters before him, and an empty postbag. He was leaning forward, his elbow upon the table, his head resting upon his right hand. Engrossed as I was with my own terrible discovery, I was yet powerfully impressed by his unfamiliar appearance. In the clear light which came flooding in through the north window he seemed to me older, and his face more deeply lined than any of my previous impressions of him had suggested. His eyes were fixed upon the mass of correspondence before him, most of which was as yet unopened, and his expression was one of absolute aversion. At my entrance he looked up inquiringly.
"What do you want, Ducaine?" he asked.
"I am sorry to have disturbed your Grace," I answered. "I have come to place my resignation in your hands."
His face was expressive enough in its frowning contempt, but he said nothing for a moment, during which his eyes met mine mercilessly.
"So you find the work too hard, eh?" he asked.
"The work is just what I should have chosen, your Grace," I answered. "I like hard work, and I expected it. The trouble is that I have succeeded no better than Lord Ronald."
My words were evidently a shock to him. He half opened his lips, but closed them again. I saw the hand which he raised to his forehead shake.
"What do you mean, Ducaine? Speak out, man."
"The safe in the study has been opened during the night," I said. "Our map of the secret fortifications on the Surrey downs and plans for a camp at Guilford have been examined."
"How do you know this?"
"I tied the red tape round them in a peculiar way. It has been undone and retied. The papers have been put back in a different order."
The Duke was without doubt agitated. He rose from his chair and paced the room restlessly.
"You are sure of what you say, Ducaine?" he demanded, turning, and facing me suddenly.
"Absolutely sure, your Grace," I answered.
He turned away from me.
"In my own house, under my own roof," I heard him mutter. "Good God!"
I had scarcely believed him capable of so much feeling. When he resumed his seat and former attitude I could see that his face was almost gray.
"This is terrible news," he said. "I am not at all sure, though, Mr. Ducaine, that any blame can attach itself to you."
"Your Grace," I answered, "there were three men only who knew the secret of that combination. One is yourself, another Colonel Ray, the third myself. I set the lock last night. I opened it this morning. I ask you, in the name of common sense, upon whom the blame is likely to fall? If I remain this will happen again. I cannot escape suspicion. It is not reasonable."
"The word was a common one," the Duke said half to himself. "Some one may have guessed it."
"Your Grace," I said, "is it likely that any one would admit the possibility of such a thing?"
"It may have been overheard."
"It has never been spoken," I reminded him. "It was written down, glanced at by all of us, and destroyed."
The Duke nodded.
"You are right," he admitted. "The inference is positive enough. The safe has been opened between the hours of ten at night and seven o'clock this morning by—"
"By either myself, Colonel Ray, or your Grace," I said.
"I am not sure that I am prepared to admit that," the Duke objected quietly.
"It is inevitable!" I declared.
"Only the very young use that word," the Duke said drily.
"I spoke only of what others must say," I answered.
"It is a cul de sac, I admit," the Duke said. "Nevertheless, Mr. Ducaine, I am not prepared without consideration to accept your resignation. I cannot see that our position would be improved in any way, and in my own mind I may add that I hold you absolved from suspicion."
I held myself a little more upright. The Duke spoke without enthusiasm, but with conviction.
"Your Grace is very kind," I answered gratefully, "but there are the others. They know nothing of me. It is inevitable that I should become an object of suspicion to them."
The Duke looked thoughtfully for several moments at the table before him. Then he looked up at me.
"Ducaine," he said, "I will tell you what I propose. You have done your duty in reporting this thing to me. Your duty ends there—mine begins. The responsibility, therefore, for our future course of action remains with me. You, I presume, are prepared to admit this."
"Certainly, your Grace," I answered.
"I see no useful purpose to be gained," the Duke continued, "in spreading this thing about. I believe that we shall do better by keeping our own counsel. You and I can work secretly in the matter. I may have some suggestions to make when I have considered it more fully; but for the present I propose that we treat the matter as a hallucination of yours. We shall hear in due course if this stolen information goes across the water. If it does—well, we shall know how to act."
"You mean this?" I asked breathlessly. "Forgive me, your Grace, but it means so much to me. You believe that we are justified?"
"Why not?" the Duke asked coldly. "It is I who am your employer. It is I who am responsible to the country for these things. You are responsible only to me. I choose that you remain. I choose that you speak of this matter only when I bid you speak."
To me it was relief immeasurable. The Duke's manner was precise, even cold. Yet I felt that he believed in me. I scarcely doubted but that he had suspicions of his own. I, at any rate, was not involved in them. I could have wrung him by the hand but for the inappropriateness of such a proceeding. So far as he was concerned I could see that the matter was already done with. His attention was beginning to wander to the mass of letters before him.
"Would you allow me to help your Grace with your correspondence?" I suggested. "I have no work at present."
The Duke shook his head impatiently.
"I thank you," he said. "My man of business will be here this morning, and he will attend to them. I will not detain you, Mr. Ducaine."
I turned to leave the room, but found myself face to face with a young man in the act of entering it.
"Blenavon!" the Duke exclaimed.
"How are you, sir?" the newcomer answered. "Sorry I didn't arrive in time to see you last night. We motored from King's Lynn, and the whole of this respectable household was in bed."
I knew at once who he was. The Duke looked towards me.
"Ducaine," he said, "this is my son, Lord Blenavon."
Lord Blenavon's smile was evidently meant to be friendly, but his expression belied it. He was slightly taller than his father, and his cast of features was altogether different. His cheeks were pale, almost sunken, his eyes were too close together, and they had the dimness of the roue or the habitual dyspeptic. His lips were too full, his chin too receding, and he was almost bald.
"How are you, Mr. Ducaine?" he said. "Awful hour to be out of bed, isn't it? and all for the slaying of a few fat and innocent birds. Let me see, wasn't I at Magdalen with you?"
"I came up in your last year," I reminded him.
"Ah, yes, I remember," he drawled. "Terrible close worker you were, too. Are you breakfasting down stairs, sir?"
"I think that I had better," the Duke said. "I suppose you brought some men with you?"
"Half a dozen," Lord Blenavon answered, "including his Royal Highness."
The Duke thrust all his letters into his drawer, and locked them up with a little exclamation of relief.
"I will come down with you," he said. "Mr. Ducaine, you will join us."
I would have excused myself, for indeed I was weary, and the thought of a bath and rest at home was more attractive. But the Duke had a way of expressing his wishes in a manner which it was scarcely possible to mistake, and I gathered that he desired me to accept his invitation. We all descended the stairs together.
HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS
The long dining-room was almost filled with a troop of guests who had arrived on the previous day. Most of the men were gathered round the huge sideboard, on which was a formidable array of silver-covered hot-water dishes. Places were laid along the flower-decked table for thirty or forty. I stood apart for a few moments whilst the Duke was greeting some of his guests. Ray, who was sitting alone, motioned me to a place by him.
"Come and sit here, Ducaine," he said; "that is," he added, with a sudden sarcastic gleam in his dark eyes, "unless you still have what the novelists call an unconquerable antipathy to me. I don't want to rob you of your appetite."
"I did not expect to see you down here again so soon, Colonel Ray," I answered gravely. "I congratulate you upon your nerves."
Ray laughed softly to himself.
"You would have me go shuddering past the fatal spot, I suppose, with shaking knees and averted head, eh? On the contrary, I have been down on the sands for more than an hour this morning, and have returned with an excellent appetite."
I looked at him curiously.
"I saw you returning," I said. "Your boots looked as though you had been wading in the wet sand. You were not there without a purpose."
"I was not," he admitted. "I seldom do anything without a purpose."
For a moment he abandoned the subject. He proceeded calmly with his breakfast, and addressed a few remarks to a man across the table, a man with short cropped hair and beard, and a shooting dress of sombre black.
"You are quite right," he said, turning towards me suddenly. "I had a purpose in going there. I thought that the gentleman whose untimely fate has enlisted your sympathies might have dropped something which would have been useful to me."
For the moment I forgot this man's kindness to me. I looked at him with a shudder.
"If you are in earnest," I said, "I trust that you were unsuccessful."
I fancied that there was that in his glance which suggested the St. Bernard looking down on the terrier, and I chafed at it.
"It would have been better for you," he said, grimly, "had my search met with better result."
"For me?" I repeated.
"For you! Yes! The man came to see you. If he had been alive you might have been in his toils by now. He was a very cunning person, and those who sent him were devils."
"How do you know these things?" I asked, amazed.
"From the letters which I ripped from his coat," he answered.
"He came to Braster to see me, then?" I exclaimed.
"And the letters which you took from him—were they addressed to me?"
I was getting angry, but Ray remained imperturbable.
"I think," I said, "you will admit that I have a right to them."
"Not a shadow of a doubt of it," he answered. "In fact, it was so obvious that I destroyed them."
"Destroyed my letters!"
"Precisely! I chose that course rather than allow them to fall into your hands."
"You admit, then," I said, "that I had a right to them."
"Indubitably. But they do not exist."
"You read them, without doubt. You can acquaint me with their contents."
"Some day," he said, "I probably shall. But not yet. Believe me or not, as you choose, but there are certain positions in which ignorance is the only possible safe state. You are in such a position at the present moment."
"Are you," I asked, "my moral guardian?"
"I have at least," he said, "incurred certain responsibilities on your behalf. You could no longer hold your present post and be in communication with the sender of those letters."
My anger died away despite myself. The man's strength and honesty of purpose were things which I could not bring myself to doubt. I continued my breakfast in silence.
"By-the-bye," he remarked presently, "you, too, my young friend, were out early this morning."
"I was writing all night," I answered. "I had documents to put in the safe."
He shot a quick searching glance at me.
"You have been to the safe this morning, then?"
I answered him with a composure at which I inwardly marvelled.
"Certainly! It was the object of my coming here."
"You entered the room with the Duke. Was he in the study at that hour?"
"No, I went upstairs to him. I had a question to ask."
"And you have met Lord Blenavon? What do you think of him?"
"We were at Magdalen together for a term," I answered. "He was good enough to remember me."
Ray smiled, but he did not speak another word to me all the breakfast-time. Once I made a remark to him, and his reply was curt, almost rude. I left the room a few minutes afterwards, and came face to face in the hall with Lady Angela.
"I am glad, Mr. Ducaine," she remarked, "that your early morning labours have given you an appetite. You have been in to breakfast, have you not?"
"Your father was good enough to insist upon it," I answered.
"You have seen him already this morning, then?"
"For a few minutes only," I explained. "I went up to his room."
"I trust so far that everything is going on satisfactorily?" she inquired, raising her eyes to mine.
I did not answer her at once. I was engaged in marvelling at the wonderful pallor of her cheeks.
"So far as I am concerned, I think so," I said. "Forgive me, Lady Angela," I added, "but I think that you must have walked too far this morning. You are very pale."
"I am tired," she admitted.
There was a lounge close at hand. She moved slowly towards it, and sat down. There was no spoken invitation, but I understood that I was permitted to remain with her.
"Do you know," she said, looking round to make sure that we were alone, "I dread these meetings of the Council. I have always the feeling that something terrible will happen. I knew Lord Ronald very well, and his mother was one of my dearest friends. I am sure that he was perfectly innocent. And to-day he is in a madhouse. They say that he will never recover."
I did not wish to speak about these things, even with Lady Angela. I tried to lead the conversation into other channels, but she absolutely ignored my attempt.
"There is something about it all so grimly mysterious," she said. "It seems almost as though there must be a traitor, if not in the Council itself, in some special and privileged position."
She looked up at me as though asking for confirmation of her views. I shook my head.
"Lady Angela," I said, "would you mind if I abstained from expressing any opinion at all? It is a subject which I feel it is scarcely right for me to discuss."
She looked at me with wide-open eyes, a dash of insolence mingled with her surprise. I do not know what she was about to say, for at that moment the young man with the sombre shooting suit and closely cropped hair paused for a moment on his way out of the breakfast-room. He glanced at me, and I received a brief impression of an unwholesome-looking person with protuberant eyeballs, thin lashes, and supercilious mouth.
"I trust that the day's entertainment will include something more than a glimpse of Lady Angela," he said, with a low bow.
She raised her eyes. It seemed to me, who was watching her closely, that she shrank a little back in her seat. I was sure that she shared my instinctive dislike of the man.
"I think not," she said. "Perhaps you are expecting me to come down with the lunch and compliment you all upon your prowess."
"It would be delightful!" he murmured.
She shook her head.
"There are too many of you, and I am too few," she said lightly. "Besides, shooting is one of the few sports with which I have no sympathy at all. I shall try and get somewhere away from the sound of your guns."
"I myself," he said, "am not what you call a devotee of the sport. I wonder if part of the day one might play truant. Would Lady Angela take pity upon an unentertained guest?"
"I should find it a shocking nuisance," she said, coolly. "Besides, it would not be allowed. You will find that when my father has once marshalled you, escape is a thing not to be dreamed of. Every one says that he is a perfect martinet where a day's shooting is concerned."
He smiled enigmatically. "We shall see," he remarked, as he turned away. Lady Angela watched him disappear. "Do you know who that is?" she asked me. I shook my head. "Some one French, very French," I remarked. "He should be," she remarked. "That is Prince Henri de Malors. He represents the hopes of the Royalists in France."
"It is very interesting," I murmured. "May I ask is he an old family friend?"
"Our families have been connected by marriage," she answered. "He and Blenavon saw a great deal of one another in Paris, very much to the disadvantage of my brother, I should think. I believe that there was some trouble at the Foreign Office about it."
"It is very interesting," I repeated.
"Blenavon was very foolish," she declared. "It was obviously a most indiscreet friendship for him, and Paris was his first appointment. But I must go and speak to some of these people."
She rose and left me a little abruptly. I escaped by one of the side entrances, and hurried back to my cottage.
The Prince accepted my most comfortable easy chair with an air of graceful condescension. Lady Angela had already seated herself. It was late in the afternoon, and Grooton was busy in the room behind, preparing my tea.
"The Prince did not care to shoot to-day," Lady Angela explained, "and I have been showing him the neighbourhood. Incidentally, I am dying for some tea, and the Prince has smoked all his cigarettes."
The Prince raised his hand in polite expostulation, but he accepted a cigarette with a little sigh of relief.
"You have found a very lonely spot for your dwelling-house, Mr. Ducaine," he said. "You English are so fond of solitude."
"It suits me very well," I answered, "for just now I have a great deal of work to do. I am safely away from all distractions here."
Lady Angela smiled at me.
"Not quite so safe perhaps, Mr. Ducaine, as you fondly imagined," she remarked. "I am afraid that we disturbed you. You look awfully busy."
She glanced towards my writing-table. It was covered with papers, and a map of the southern counties leaned up against the wall. The Prince also was glancing curiously in the same direction.
"I have finished my work for the day," I said, rising. "If you will permit me, I will put it away."
Grooton brought in tea. The Prince was politely curious as to the subject matter of those closely written sheets of paper.
"You are perhaps interested in literature, Mr. Ducaine," he remarked.
"Immensely," I answered, waving my hand towards my bookshelves.
"But you yourself—you no doubt write?"
"Oh, one tries," I answered, pouring out the tea.
"It may be permitted then to wish you success," he remarked dryly.
"You are very good," I answered.
Lady Angela calmly interposed. The Prince ate buttered toast and drank tea with a bland affectation of enjoyment. They rose almost immediately afterwards.
"You are coming up to the house this evening, Mr. Ducaine?" Lady Angela asked.
"I am due there now," I answered. "If you will allow me, I will walk back with you."
The Prince touched my arm as Lady Angela passed out before us.
"I am anxious, Mr. Ducaine," he said, looking me in the face, "for a few minutes' private conversation with you. I shall perhaps be fortunate enough to find you at home to-morrow."
He did not wait for my answer, for Lady Angela looked back, and he hastened to her side. He seemed in no hurry, however, to leave the place. The evening was cloudy and unusually dark. A north wind was tearing through the grove of stunted firs, and the roar of the incoming sea filled the air with muffled thunder. The Prince looked about him with a little grimace.
"It is indeed a lonely spot," he remarked. "One can imagine anything happening here. Did I not hear of a tragedy only the other day—a man found dead?"
"If you have a taste for horrors, Prince," I remarked, "you can see the spot from the edge of the cliff here."
The Prince moved eagerly forward.
"I disclaim all such weakness," he said, "but the little account which I read, or did some one tell me of it?—ah, I forget; but it interested me."
I pointed downwards to where the creek-riven marshes merged into the sands.
"It was there—a little to the left of the white palings," I said. "The man was supposed to have been cast up from the sea."
He measured the distance with his eye. I anticipated his remark.
"The tide is only halfway up now," I said, "and on that particular night there was a terrible gale."
"Nevertheless," he murmured, half to himself, "it is a long way. Was the man what you call identified, Mr. Ducaine?"
"There were no letters or papers found upon him?"
The Prince looked at me sharply.
"That," he said softly, "was strange. Does it not suggest to you that he may have been robbed?"
"I had not thought of it," I answered. "The verdict, I believe, was simply Found drowned."
"Found drowned," the Prince repeated. "Ah! Found drowned. By-the-bye," he added suddenly, "who did find him?"
"I did," I said coolly.
"You?" The Prince peered at me closely through the dim light. "That," he said reflectively, "is interesting."
"You find it so interesting," I remarked, "that perhaps you could help to solve the question of the man's identity."
He seemed startled.
"I?" he exclaimed. "But, no. Why should you think that?"
I turned to join Lady Angela. He did not immediately follow.
"Why did you bring him?" I asked her softly. "You had some reason."
"He was making inquiries about you," she answered, "secretly and openly. I thought you ought to know, and I could think of no other way of putting you on your guard."
"The Prince of Malors!" I murmured. "He surely would not stoop to play the spy."
She was silent, and moved a step or two farther away from the spot where he still stood as though absorbed. His angular figure was clearly defined through the twilight against the empty background of space. He was on the very edge of the cliff, almost looking over.
"I know very little about him myself," she said hurriedly, "but I have heard the others talk, Lord Chelsford especially. He is a man, they say, with a twofold reputation. He has played a great part in the world of pleasure, almost a theatrical part; but, you know, the French people like that."
"It is true," I murmured. "They love their heroes decked in tinsel." She nodded.
"They say that it is part of a pose, and that he has serious political ambitions. He contemplates always some great scheme which shall make him the idol, if only for a day, of the French mob. A day would be sufficient, for he would strike while—Prince, be careful," she called out. "Ah!"
We heard a shrill cry, and we saw the Prince sway on the verge of the cliff. He threw up his arms and clutched wildly at the air, but he was too late to save himself. We saw the ground crumble beneath his feet, and with a second cry of despair he disappeared.
Grooton, Lady Angela, and I reached the edge of the cliff at about the same moment. We peered over in breathless anxiety. Lady Angela clutched my arm, and for a moment I did not in the least care what had happened to the Prince.
"Don't be frightened," I whispered. "The descent is not by any means sheer. He can't possibly have got to the bottom. I will clamber down and look for him,"
"Oh, you mustn't," she exclaimed. "It is not safe. How terrible it looks down there!"
I raised my voice and shouted. Almost immediately there came an answer.
"I am here, my friends, in the middle of a bush. I dare not move. It is so dark I cannot see where to put my foot. Can you lower me a lantern, and I will see if I can climb up?"
Grooton hastened back to the cottage.
"I think you will be all right," I cried out. "It is not half as steep as it looks."
"I believe," he answered, "that I can see a path up. But I will wait until the lantern comes."
The lantern arrived almost immediately. We lowered it to him by a rope, and he examined the face of the cliff.
"I think that I can get up," he cried out, "but I should like to help myself with the rope. Can you both hold it tightly?"
"All right," I answered. "We've got it."
He clambered up with surprising agility. But as he reached the edge of the cliff he groaned heavily.
"Are you hurt?" Lady Angela asked.
"It is my foot," he muttered, "my left foot. I twisted it in falling."
Grooton and I helped him to the cottage. He hobbled painfully along with tightly clenched lips.
"I shall have to ask for a pony cart to get up to the house, I am afraid," he said. "I am very sorry to give you so much trouble, Mr. Ducaine."
"The trouble is nothing,". I answered, "but I am wondering how on earth you managed to fall over the cliff."
"I myself, I scarcely know," he answered, as he sipped the brandy which Grooton had produced. "I am subject to fits of giddiness, and one came over me as I stood there looking down. I felt the ground sway, and remember no more. I am very sorry to give you tall this trouble, but indeed I fear that I cannot walk."
"We will send you down a cart," I declared. "You will have rather a rough drive across the grass, but there is no other way."
"You are very kind," he declared. "I am in despair at my clumsiness."
I gave him my box of cigarettes. Lady Angela hesitated.
"I think," she said, "that I ought to stay with you, Prince, while Mr. Ducaine goes up for the cart."
"Indeed, Lady Angela, you are very kind," he answered, "but I could not permit it. I regret to say that I am in some pain, and I have a weakness for being alone when I suffer. If I desire anything Mr. Ducaine's servant will be at hand."
So we left him there. At any other time the prospect of that walk with Lady Angela would have filled me with joy. But from the first moment of leaving the cottage I was uneasy.
"What do you think of that man?" I asked her abruptly. "I mean personally?"
"I hate him," she answered coolly. "He is one of those creatures whose eyes and mouth, and something underneath his most respectful words, seem always to suggest offensive things. I find it very hard indeed to be civil to him."
"Do you happen to know what Colonel Ray thinks of him?" I asked her.
"I have no special knowledge of Colonel Ray's likes or dislikes," she answered.
"Forgive me," I said. "I thought that you and he were very intimate, and that you might know. I wonder whether he takes the Prince seriously."
"Colonel Ray is one of my best friends," she said, "but I am not in his confidence."
A slight reserve had crept into her tone. I stole a glance at her face; paler and more delicate than ever it seemed in the gathering darkness. Her lips were firmly set, but her eyes were kind. A sudden desire for her sympathy weakened me.
"Lady Angela," I said, "I must talk to some one. I do not know whom to trust. I do not know who is honest. You are the only person whom I dare speak to at all."
She looked round cautiously. We were out of the plantation now, in the open park, where eavesdropping was impossible.
"You have a difficult post, Mr. Ducaine," she said, "and you will remember—"
"Oh, I remember," I interrupted. "You warned me not to take' it. But think in what a position I was. I had no career, I was penniless. How could I throw away such a chance?"
"Something has happened—this morning, has it not?" she asked.
She waited for me to go on. She was deeply interested. I could hear her breath coming fast, though we were walking at a snail's pace. I longed to confide in her absolutely, but I dared not.
"Do not ask me to tell you what it was," I said. "The knowledge would only perplex and be a burden to you. It is all the time like poison in my brain."
We were walking very close together. I felt her fingers suddenly upon my arm and her soft breath upon my cheek.
"But if you do not tell me everything—how can you expect my sympathy, perhaps my help?"
"I may not ask you for either," I answered sadly. "The knowledge of some things must remain between your father and myself."
"Between my father—and yourself!" she repeated.
I was silent, and then we both started apart. Behind us we could hear the sound of footsteps rapidly approaching, soft quick footsteps, muffled and almost noiseless upon the spongy turf. We stood still.
I wheeled round and peered into the darkness. Lady Angela's fingers clutched my arm. I could feel that she was trembling violently. It was Grooton whose figure loomed up almost immediately before us—Grooton, bareheaded and breathless. "What is it?" I exclaimed quickly. "I think, sir, that you had better return," he panted.
He pointed over his shoulder towards the "Brand," and I understood. In a moment I was on my way thither, running as I had not done since my college days. I stumbled over antheaps, and more than once I set my foot in a rabbit hole, but somehow I kept my balance. As I neared the cottage I slackened my speed and proceeded more stealthily. I drew close to the window and peered in. Grooton had been right indeed to fetch me. The Prince was standing before my desk, with a bundle of papers in his hand. I threw open the door and entered the room. Swift though my movement had been, a second's difficulty with the catch had given the Prince his opportunity. He was back in his easy chair when I entered, reclining there with half-closed eyes. He looked up at me with well simulated surprise.
"You are soon back, Mr. Ducaine," he remarked calmly. "Did you forget something?"
"I forgot," I answered, struggling to recover my breath, "to lock up my desk."
"An admirable precaution," he admitted, watching as I gathered my papers together, "especially if one has valuables. It is an exposed spot this, and very lonely."
"I am curious," I said, leaning against the table and facing him, "I am curious to know which of my poor possessions can possibly be of interest or value to the Prince of Malors."
The calm hauteur of his answering stare was excellently done. I had a glimpse now of the aristocrat.
"You speak in enigmas, young man," he said. "Kindly be more explicit."
"My language can scarcely be more enigmatic than your actions," I answered. "I was fool enough to trust you and I left you here alone. But you were not unobserved, Prince. My servant, I am thankful to say, is faithful. It was he who summoned me back."
"Indeed!" he murmured.
"I might add," I continued, "that I took the liberty of looking in through the side window there before entering."
"If it amused you to do so, or to set your servant to spy upon me," he said, "I see no reason to object. But your meaning is still unexplained."
"The onus of explanation," I declared, "appears to me to rest with you, Prince. I offered the hospitality of my room, presumably to a gentleman—not to a person who would seize that opportunity to examine my private papers."
"You speak with assurance, Mr. Ducaine."
"The assurance of knowledge," I answered. "I saw you at my desk from outside."
"You should consult an oculist," he declared. "I have not left this chair. My foot is still too painful."
"You lie well, Prince," I answered, "but not well enough."
He looked at me thoughtfully.
"I am endeavouring," he said, "to accommodate myself to the customs of this wonderful country of yours. In France one sends one's seconds. What do you do here to a man who calls you a liar?"
"We treat him," I answered hotly, "as the man deserves to be treated who abuses the hospitality of a stranger, and places himself in the position of a common thief."
The Prince shrugged his shoulders lightly, and helped himself to one of my cigarettes.
"You are very young, Mr. Ducaine," he said, looking at me thoughtfully. "You have no doubt your career to make in the world. So, in a greater sense of the word, have I. I propose, if you will allow me, to be quite frank with you."
"I have no wish for your confidences, Prince," I answered. "They cannot possibly concern or interest me."
"Do not be too sure of that," he said. "Like all young men of your age, you jump too readily at conclusions. It is very possible that you and I may be of service to one another, and I may add that those who have been of service to the Prince of Malors have seldom had cause to regret it."
"This conversation," I interposed, "seems to me to be beside the point. I have no desire to be of service to you. My inclinations are rather the other way."
"The matter may become more clear to you if you will only curb your impatience, my young friend," the Prince said. "It is only my ambition to serve my country, to command the gratitude of a nation which to-day regards both me and mine with mingled doubt and suspicion. I have ambitions, and I should be an easy and generous master to serve."
"I am honoured with your confidence, Prince, but I still fail to see how these matters concern me," I said, setting my teeth hard.
"With your permission I will make it quite clear," he continued. "For years your War Office has suffered from constant dread of an invasion by France. The rumour of our great projected manoeuvres in the autumn have inspired your statesmen with an almost paralysing fear. They see in these merely an excuse for marshalling and equipping an irresistible army within striking distance of your Empire. Personally I believe that they are entirely mistaken in their estimate of my country's intentions. That, however, is beside the mark. You follow me?"
"Perfectly," I assured him. "This is most interesting, although as yet it seems to me equally irrelevant."
"Your War Office," the Prince continued, "has established a Secret Council of Defence, whose only task it is to plan the successful resistance to that invasion, if ever it should take place. You, Mr. Ducaine, are, I believe, practically the secretary of that Council. You have to elaborate the digests of the meetings, to file schemes for the establishment of fortifications and camps; in a word, the result of these meetings passes through your hands. I will not beat about the bush, Mr. Ducaine. You can see that you have something in your keeping which, if passed on to me, would accomplish my whole aim. The army would be forced to acknowledge my claim upon them; the nation would hear of it."
"Well," I asked, "supposing all you say is true? What then?"
"You are a little obtuse, Mr. Ducaine," the Prince said softly. "If twenty thousand pounds would quicken your understanding—"
I picked up a small inkpot from the side of the table and hurled it at him. He sprang aside, but it caught the corner of his forehead, and he gave a shrill cry of pain. He struck a fierce blow at me, which I parried, and a moment later we were locked in one another's arms. I think that we must have been of equal strength, for we swayed up and down the room, neither gaining the advantage, till I felt my breath come short and my head dizzy. Nevertheless, I was slowly gaining the mastery. My grasp upon his throat was tightening. I had hold of his collar and tie, and I could have strangled him with a turn of my wrist. Just then the door opened. There was a quick exclamation of horrified surprise in a familiar tone. I threw him from me to the ground, and turned my head. It was Lady Angela who stood upon the threshold.
A RELUCTANT APOLOGY
Lady Angela looked at us both in cold surprise.
"Mr. Ducaine! Prince!" she exclaimed. "What is the meaning of this extraordinary exhibition?"
The Prince, whose sangfroid was marvellous, rose to his feet, and began to wipe his forehead with a spotless cambric handkerchief.
"My dear Lady Angela," he said, "I am most distressed that you should have been a witness of this—extraordinary incident. I have been trying to adapt myself to the methods of your country, but, alas! I cannot say that I am enamoured of them. Here, it seems, that gentlemen who differ must behave like dustmen. Will you pardon me if I turn my back to you for a moment? I see a small mirror, and I am convinced that my tie and collar need readjustment."
"But why quarrel at all?" she exclaimed. "Mr. Ducaine," she added, turning coolly to me, "I trust you have remembered that the Prince is my father's guest."
I was speechless, but the Prince himself intervened.
"The blame, if any," he declared, "was mine. Mr. Ducaine appeared to misunderstand me from the first. I believe that his little ebullition arose altogether from too great zeal on behalf of his employers. I congratulate him upon it, while I am bound to deprecate his extreme measures."
"And you, Mr. Ducaine," she asked, turning towards me, "what have you to say?"
"Nothing," I declared, stung by her tone and manner as much as by his coolness, "except that I found the Prince of Malors meddling with my private papers, and subsequently I interrupted him in the offer of a bribe."
The Prince smoothed his necktie, which he had really tied very well, complacently.
"The personal belongings of Mr. Ducaine," he said calmly, "are without interest to me. I fancy that the Prince of Malors can ignore any suggestions to the contrary. As for the bribe, Mr. Ducaine talks folly. I am not aware that he has anything to sell, and I decline to believe him a blackmailer. I prefer to look upon him as a singularly hot-headed and not over-intelligent person, who takes very long jumps at conclusions. Lady Angela, I find my foot much better. May I have the pleasure of escorting you to the house?"
I held my tongue, knowing very well that the Prince played his part solely that I might be entrapped into speech. But Lady Angela seemed puzzled at my silence. She looked at me for a moment inquiringly out of her soft dark eyes. I made no sign. She turned away to the Prince.
"If you are sure that you can walk without pain," she said. "We will not trouble you, Mr. Ducaine," she added, as I moved to open the door.
So they left me alone, and I was not sure whether the honours remained with him or with me. He had never for a moment lost his dignity, nor had he even looked ridiculous when calmly rearranging his tie and collar. I laughed to myself bitterly as I prepared to follow them. I was determined to lay the whole matter before the Duke at once.
As I reached the terrace I saw a man walking up and down, smoking a pipe. He stood at the top of the steps and waited for me. It was Colonel Ray. He took me by the arm.
"I have been waiting for you, Ducaine," he said. "I was afraid that I might miss you, or I should have come down."
"I am on my way to the Duke," I said, "and my business is urgent."
"So is mine," he said grimly. "I want to know exactly what has passed between you and the Prince of Malors."
"I am not at all sure, Colonel Ray," I answered, "that I am at liberty to tell you. At any rate, I think that I ought to see the Duke first."
His face darkened, his eyes seemed to flash threatening fires upon me. He was smoking so furiously that little hot shreds of tobacco fell from his pipe.
"Boy," he exclaimed, "there are limits even to my forbearance. You are where you are at my suggestion, and I could as easily send you adrift. I do not say this as a threat, but I desire to be treated with common consideration. I appeal to your reason. Is it well to treat me like an enemy?"
"Whether you are indeed my friend or my enemy I am not even now sure," I answered. "I am learning to be suspicious of every person and thing which breathes. But as for this matter between the Prince and myself, it can make little difference who knows the truth. He shammed a fall over the cliff and a sprained ankle. Lady Angela and I started for the house to send a cart for him, but, before we were halfway across the Park, Grooton fetched me back. I found the Prince examining the papers on which I had been working, and when I charged him with it he offered me a bribe."
"I struck him!"
"You struck him! And you had him in your power—to play with as you would. And you struck him! Oh, Ducaine, you are very, very young. I am your friend, boy, or rather I would be if you would let me. But I am afraid that you are a blunderer."
I faced him with white face.
"I seem to have found my way into a strange place," I answered. "I have neither wit nor cunning enough to know true men from false. I would trust you, but you are a murderer. I would have trusted the Prince of Malors, but he has proved himself a common adventurer. So I have made up my mind that all shall be alike. I will be neither friend nor foe to any mortal, but true to my country. I go my way and do my duty, Colonel Ray."
He blew out dense volumes of smoke, puffing furiously at his pipe for several minutes. There seemed to be many things which he had it in his mind to say to me. But, as though suddenly altering his purpose, he stood on one side.
"You shall go your own way," he said grimly. "The Lord only knows where it will take you."
It took me in the first place to the Duke, to whom I recounted briefly what had happened. I could see that my story at once made a deep impression upon him. When I had finished he sat for several minutes deep in thought. For the first time since I had known him he seemed nervous and ill at ease. He was unusually pale, and there were deep lines engraven about his mouth. One hand was resting upon the table, and I fancied that his fingers were shaking.
"The Prince of Malors," he said at last, and his voice lacked altogether its usual ring of cool assurance, "is of Royal blood. He is not even in touch with the political powers of France to-day. He may have been guilty of a moment's idle curiosity—"
"Your Grace must forgive me," I interrupted, "but you are overlooking facts. The fall over the cliff was premeditated, the sprained foot was a sham, the whole affair was clearly planned in order that he might be left alone in my room. Besides, there is the bribe."
The Duke folded his hands nervously together. He looked away from me into the fire.
"It is a very difficult position," he declared, "very difficult indeed. The Prince has been more than a friend to Blenavon. He has been his benefactor. Of course he will deny this thing with contempt. Let me think it out, Ducaine."
"By all means, your Grace," I answered, a little nettled at his undecided air. "So far as I am concerned, my duty in the matter ends here. I have, told you the exact truth concerning it, and it seems to me by no means improbable that the Prince has been in some way responsible for those former leakages."
The Duke shook his head slowly.
"It is impossible," he said.
"Your Grace is the best judge," I answered.
"The Prince was not in the house last night when the safe was opened, he objected.
"He probably has accomplices," I answered. "Besides, how do we know that he was not here?"
"Even if he were," the Duke said, raising his head, "how could he have known the cipher?"
I made no answer at all. It seemed useless to argue with a man who had evidently made up his mind not to be convinced.
"Have you mentioned this matter to any one?" the Duke asked.
"To Colonel Ray only, your Grace," I answered.
"Ray!" The Duke was silent for a moment. He was looking steadily into the fire. "You told Ray what you have told me?"
"In substance, yes, your Grace. In detail, perhaps not so fully."
"He did not doubt my story, your Grace," I said quietly.
The Duke frowned across at me.
"Neither do I, Ducaine," he declared. "It is not a question of veracity at all. It is a question of construction. You are young, and these things are all new to you. The Prince might have been trying you, or something which you did not hear or have forgotten might throw a different light upon his actions and suggestion. I beg that you will leave the matter entirely in my hands."
I abandoned the subject then and there. But as I left the room I came face to face with Blenavon, who was loitering outside. He at once detained me. His manner since the morning had altered. He addressed me now with hesitation, almost with respect.
"Can you spare me a few minutes, Mr. Ducaine?" he asked. "I will not detain you long."
"I am at your service, Lord Blenavon," I answered. "We will go into the hall and have a smoke," he suggested, leading the way. "To me it seems the only place in the house free from draughts."
I followed him to where, in a dark corner of the great dome-shaped hall, a wide cushioned lounge was set against the wall. He seated himself and motioned me to follow his example. For several moments he remained silent, twisting a cigarette with thin nervous fingers stained yellow with nicotine. Every now and then he glanced furtively around. I waited for him to speak. He was Lady Angela's brother, but I disliked and distrusted him.
He finally got his cigarette alight, and turned to me.
"Mr. Ducaine," he said, "I want you to apologize to my friend, the Prince of Malors, for your behaviour this afternoon."
"Apologize to the Prince!" I exclaimed. "Why should I?"
"Because this is the only condition on which he will consent to remain here."
"I should have thought," I said, "that his immediate departure was inevitable. I detected him in behaviour—"
"That is just where you are wrong," Blenavon interrupted eagerly. "You were mistaken, entirely mistaken."
I laughed, a little impolitely, I am afraid, considering that this was the son of my employer.
"You know the circumstances?" I asked. He nodded.
"The Prince has explained them to me. It was altogether a misunderstanding. He felt his foot a little easier, and he was simply looking for a newspaper or something to read until you returned. Inadvertently he turned over some of your manuscript, and at that moment you entered."
"Most inopportunely, I am afraid," I answered, with an unwilling smile. "I am sorry, Lord Blenavon, that I cannot accept this explanation of the Prince's behaviour. I am compelled to take the evidence of my eyes and ears as final."
Blenavon sucked at his cigarette fiercely for a minute, threw it away, and commenced to roll another.
"It's all rot!" he exclaimed. "Malors wouldn't do a mean action, and, besides, what on earth has he to gain? He is a fanatical Royalist. He is not even on speaking terms with the Government of France to-day."
"I perceive," I remarked, looking at him closely, "that you are familiar with the nature of my secretarial work."
He returned my glance, and it seemed to me that there was some hidden meaning in his eyes which I failed to catch.
"I am in my father's confidence," he said slowly.
There was a moment's silence. I was listening to a distant voice in the lower part of the hall.
"Am I to take it, Mr. Ducaine, then," he said at last, "that you decline to apologize to the Prince?"
"I have nothing to apologize for," I answered calmly. "The Prince was attempting to obtain information in an illicit manner by the perusal of papers which were in my charge."
Blenavon rose slowly to his feet. His eyes were fixed upon the opposite corner of the hall. Lady Angela, who had just descended the stairs, was standing there, pale and unsubstantial as a shadow, and it seemed to me that her eyes, as she looked across at me, were full of trouble. She came slowly towards us. Blenavon laid his hand upon her arm.
"Angela," he said, "Mr. Ducaine will not accept my word. I can make no impression upon him. Perhaps he will the more readily believe yours."
"Lady Angela will not ask me to disbelieve the evidence of my own senses," I said confidently.
She stood between us. I was aware from the first of something unfamiliar in her manner, something of which a glimmering had appeared on our way home through the wood.
"It is about Malors, Angela," he continued. "You were there. You know all that happened. Malors is very reasonable about it. He admits that his actions may have seemed suspicious. He will accept an apology from Mr. Ducaine, and remain."
She turned to me.
"And you?" she asked.
"The idea of an apology," I answered, "appears to me ridiculous. My own poor little possessions were wholly at his disposal. I caught him, however, in the act of meddling with papers which are mine only on trust."
Lady Angela played for a moment with the dainty trifles which hung from her bracelet. When she spoke she did not look at me.
"The Prince's explanation," she said, "is plausible, and he is our guest. I think perhaps it would be wisest to give him the benefit of the doubt."
"Doubt!" I exclaimed, bewildered. "There is no room for doubt in the matter."
Then she raised her eyes to mine, and I saw there new things. I saw trouble and appeal, and behind both the shadow of mystery.
"Have you spoken to my father?" she asked.
"Yes," I answered.
"Did he accept—your view?"
"He did not," I answered bitterly. "I could not convince him of what I saw with my own eyes."
"You have done your duty, then," she said softly. "Why not let the rest go? As you told us just now, this is not a personal matter, and there are reasons why he did not wish the Prince to leave suddenly."
I was staggered. I held my peace, and the two stood watching me. Then I heard footsteps approaching us, and a familiar voice.
"What trio of conspirators is this talking so earnstly in the shadows? Ah!"
The Prince had seen me, and he stood still. I faced him at once.
"Prince," I said, "it has been suggested to me that my eyesight is probably defective. It is possible in that case that I have not seen you before to-day, that the things with which I charge you are false, that in all probability you were in some other place altogether. If this is so, I apologize for my remarks and behaviour towards you."
He bowed with a faint mirthless smile.
"It is finished, my young friend," he declared. "I wipe it from my memory." It seemed to me that I could hear Blenavon's sigh of relief, that the shadow had fallen from Lady Angela's face. There was a little murmur of satisfaction from both of them. But I turned abruptly, and with scarcely even an attempt at a conventional farewell I left the house, and walked homewards across the Park.
TWO FAIR CALLERS
After three days the house party at Rowchester was somewhat unexpectedly broken up. Lord Chelsford departed early one morning by special train, and the Duke himself and the remainder of his guests left for London later on in the day. I remained behind with three weeks' work, and a fear which never left me by day or by night. Yet the relief of solitude after the mysteries of the last few days was in itself a thing to be thankful for.
For nine days I spoke with no one save Grooton. For an hour every afternoon, and for rather longer at night, I walked on the cliffs or the sands. Here on these lonely stretches of empty land I met no one, saw no living thing save the seagulls. It was almost like a corner of some forgotten land. These walks, and an occasional few hours' reading, were my sole recreation.
It was late in the afternoon when I saw a shadow pass my window, and immediately afterwards there was a timid knock at the door. Grooton had gone on his daily pilgrimage with letters to the village, so I was obliged to open it myself. To my surprise it was Blanche Moyat who stood upon the threshold. She laughed a little nervously.
"I'm no ghost, Mr. Ducaine," she said, "and I shan't bite!"
"Forgive me," I answered. "I was hard at work and your knock startled me. Please come in."
I ushered her into my sitting-room. She was wearing what I recognized as her best clothes, and not being entirely at her ease she talked loudly and rapidly.
"Such a stranger as you are, Mr. Ducaine," she exclaimed. "Fancy, it's getting on for a month since we any of us saw a sign of you, and I'm sure never a week used to pass but father'd be looking for you to drop in. We heard that you were living here all by yourself, and this morning mother said, perhaps he's ill. We tried to get father to come up and see, but he's off to Downham market to-day, and goodness knows when he'd find time if we left it to him. So I thought I'd come and find out for myself."
"I am quite well, thanks, Miss Moyat," I answered, "but very busy. The Duke has been giving me some work to do, and he has lent me this cottage, so that I shall be close at hand. I should have looked you up the first time I came to Braster, but as a matter of fact I have not been there since the night of my lecture."
She was nervously playing with the fastening of her umbrella, and it seemed to me that her silence was purposeful. I ventured some remark about the weather, which she interrupted ruthlessly.
"It's a mile and a half to our house from here," she said, "not a step farther. I don't see why you shouldn't have made a purpose journey."
I ignored the reproach in her eyes, as I had every right to do. But I began to understand the reason of her nervousness and her best clothes, and I prayed for Grooton's return.
"If I had had an evening to myself," I said, "I should certainly have paid your father a visit. But as it happens, the Duke has required me at the house every night while he was here, and he has left me enough work to do to keep me busy night and day till he comes back."
She looked down upon the floor.
"I had to come and see you," she said in a low tone. "Sometimes I can't sleep for thinking of it. I feel that I haven't done right."
I knew, of course, what she meant.
"I thought we had talked all that out long ago," I answered, a little wearily. "You would have been very foolish if you had acted differently. I don't see how else you could have acted."
"Oh, I don't know," she said. "We were always brought up very particular—especially about telling the truth."
"Well, you haven't said anything that wasn't the truth," I reminded her.
"Oh, I don't know. I haven't said what I ought to say," she declared. "It seems all right when you are with me, and talk about it," she continued slowly, raising her eyes to mine. "It's when I don't see you for weeks and weeks that it seems to get on my mind, and I get afraid. I don't understand it, I don't understand it even now."
"Don't understand what?" I repeated.
She looked around. Her air of troubled mystery was only half assumed.
"How that man died!" she whispered.
"I can assure you that I did not kill him, if that is what you mean," I told her coolly. "The matter is over and done with. I think that you are very foolish to give it another thought."
"Men can forget those things easier," she said. "Perhaps he had a wife and children. Perhaps they are wondering all this time what has become of him."
"People die away from their homes and families every day, every hour," I answered. "It is only morbid to brood over one particular example."
"Father would never forgive me if he knew," she murmured, irrelevantly. "He hates us to do anything underhand."
I heard Grooton return with a sigh of relief.
"You will have some tea," I suggested.
She shook her head and stood up. I did not press her.
"No, I won't," she said. "I am sorry I came. I don't understand you, Mr. Ducaine. You seem to have changed altogether just these last few weeks. I can see that you are dying to get rid of me now, but you were glad enough to see me, or at any rate you pretended to be, once."
My breath was a little taken away. I looked at her in surprise. Her cheeks were flushed, her voice had shaken with something more like anger than any form of pathos. I was at a loss how to answer her, and while I hesitated the interruption which I had been praying for came, though from a strange quarter. My door was pushed a few inches open, and I heard Lady Angela's clear young voice.
"Are you there, Mr. Ducaine? May I come in?"
Before I could answer she stood upon the threshold, I saw the delightful little smile fade from her lips as she looked in. She hesitated, and seemed for a moment about to retreat.
"Please come in, Lady Angela," I begged, eagerly.
She came slowly forward.
"I must apologize for my abominable country manners," she said, resting the tips of her fingers for a moment in mine. "I saw your door was not latched, and it never occurred to me to knock."
"It was not necessary," I assured her. "A front door which does not boast a knocker or a bell must expect to be taken liberties with. But it is a great surprise to see you here. I had no idea that any one was at Rowchester, or expected there, except Lord Blenavon. Has the Duke returned?"
She shook her head.
"I came down alone," she answered. "I found London dull. Let me see, I am sure that I know your face, do I not?" she added, turning to Blanche Moyat with a smile. "You live in Braster, surely?"
"I am Miss Moyat," Blanche answered quietly.
"Of course. Dear me! I ought to have recognized you. We have been neighbours for a good many years."
"I will wish you good-afternoon, Mr. Ducaine," Blanche said, turning to me. "Good-afternoon—your Ladyship," she added a little awkwardly.
I opened the door for her.
"I will come down and see your father the first evening I have to spare," I said. "I hope you will tell him from me that I should have been before, but for the luxury of having some work to do."
"I will tell him," she said almost inaudibly.
"And thank you very much for coming to inquire after me," I added. "Good-afternoon."
"Good-afternoon, Mr. Ducaine."
I closed the door. Lady Angela was lounging in my easy chair with a slight smile upon her lips.
"Two lady callers in one afternoon, Mr. Ducaine," she remarked quietly. "You will lose your head, I am afraid."
"I can assure you, Lady Angela," I answered, "that there is not the slightest fear of such a catastrophe."
She sat looking meditatively into the fire, swinging her dogskin gloves in her hands. She wore a plain pearl grey walking dress and deerstalker hat with a single quill in it. The severe but immaculate simplicity of her toilette might have been designed to accentuate the barbarities of Blanche Moyat's cheap finery.
"I understood that you would be in town for at least three weeks," I remarked. "I trust that his Grace is well."
"I trust that he is," she answered. "I see nothing of him in London. He has company meetings and political work every moment of his time. I do not believe that there is any one who works harder."
"He has, at least," I remarked, "the compensation of success."
"You are wondering, I suppose," she said, looking up at me quickly, "what has brought me back again so soon."
"I certainly did not expect you," I admitted.
She rose abruptly.
"Come outside," she said, "and I will show you. Bring your hat."
We passed into the March twilight. She led the way down the cliff and towards the great silent stretch of salt marshes. An evening wind, sharp with brine, was blowing in from the ocean, stirring the surface of the long creeks into silent ripples, and bending landwards the thin streaks of white smoke rising amongst the red-tiled roofs of the village. I felt the delicate sting of it upon my cheeks. Lady Angela half closed her eyes as she turned her face seawards.
"I came for this," she murmured. "There is nothing like it anywhere else."
We stood there in silence for several long minutes. Then she turned to me with a little sigh.
"I am content," she said. "Will you come up and dine with us to-night? Blenavon will be there, you know." I hesitated.
"I am afraid it is rather a bother to you to leave your work," she continued, "but I am not offering you idle hospitality. I really want you to come."
"In that case," I answered, "of course I shall be delighted."
She pointed to Braster Grange away on the other side of the village. I noticed for the first time that it was all lit up.
"Have you heard anything of our new neighbours?" she asked.
"Only their names," I answered. "I did not even know that they had arrived."
"There is only a woman, I believe," she said. "I have met her abroad, and I dislike her—greatly. I hear that my brother spends most of his time with her, and that he has dined there the last three nights. It is not safe or wise of him, for many reasons. I want to stop it. That is why I have asked you to come to us."
"It is quite sufficient," I told her. "If you want me for any reason I will come. I am two days ahead of my work."
We threaded our way amongst the creeks. All the time the salt wind blew upon us, and the smell of fresh seaweed seemed to fill the air with ozone. Just as we came in sight of the road we heard the thunder of hoofs behind. We turned around. It was Blenavon, riding side by side with a lady who was a stranger to me. Her figure was slim but elegant. I caught a glimpse of her face as they flashed by, and it puzzled me. Her hair was almost straw coloured, her complexion was negative, her features were certainly not good. Yet there was something about her attractive, something which set me guessing at once as to the colour of her eyes, the quality of her voice, if she should speak. Blenavon reined in his horse.
"So you have turned up, Angela," he remarked, looking at her a little nervously. "You remember Mrs. Smith-Lessing, don't you—down at Bordighera, you know?"
Angela shook her head, but she never glanced towards the woman who sat there with expectant smile.
"I am afraid that I do not," she said. "I remember a good many things about Bordighera, but—not Mrs. Smith-Lessing. I shall see you at dinner-time, Blenavon. I have some messages for you."
I saw the whip come down upon the woman's horse, but I did not dare to look into her face. Blenavon, with a smothered oath and a black look at his sister, galloped after her. I rejoined Lady Angela, who was already in the road.
"Dear me," she said, "what a magnificent nerve that woman must have! To dare to imagine that I should receive her! Why, she is known in every capital in Europe—a police spy, a creature whose brains and body and soul are to be bought by any one's gold."
"What on earth can such a woman want here?" I remarked.
"In hiding, very likely," Lady Angela remarked. "Or perhaps she may be an additional complication for you."
I laughed a little scornfully.
"You, too, are getting suspicious," I declared. "The Prince and Mrs. Smith-Lessing are a strong combination."
"Be careful then that they are not too strong for you," she answered, smiling. "I have heard a famous boast of Mrs. Smith-Lessing's, that never a man nor a lock has yet resisted her."
I thought of her face as I had seen it in the half light—a faint impression of delicate colourlessness, and for the life of me I could not help a little shiver. Lady Angela looked at me in surprise.
"Are you cold?" she asked. "Let us walk more quickly."
"It is always cold at this time in the evening," I remarked. "It is the mist coming up from the marshes. One feels it at unexpected moments."
"I am not going to take you any farther," she declared, "especially as you are coming up to-night. Eight o'clock, remember. Go and salve your conscience with some work."
I protested, but she was firm. So I stood by the gate and watched her slim young figure disappear in the gathering shadows.
LADY ANGELA'S ENGAGEMENT
I dined that night at Rowchester. Lord Blenavon was sulky, and Lady Angela was only fitfully gay. It was not altogether a cheerful party. Lady Angela left us the moment Blenavon produced his cigarette-case.
"Do not stay too long, Mr. Ducaine," she said, as I held the door open for her. "I want a lesson at billiards."
I bowed and returned to my seat. Blenavon was leaning back in his chair, smoking thoughtfully.
"My sister," he remarked, looking up at the ceiling and speaking as though to himself, "would make an admirable heroine for the psychological novelist. She is a bundle of fancies; one can never rely upon what she is going to do. What other girl in the world would get engaged on the Thursday, and come down here on the Friday to think it over—leaving, of course, her fiance in town? Doesn't that strike you as singular?"
"Is it," I asked calmly, "a genuine case?"
Lord Blenavon nodded.
"I do not think that it is a secret," he said, helping himself to wine and passing the decanter. "She has made up her mind at last to marry Mostyn Ray. The affair has been hanging about for more than a year. In fact, I think that there was something said about it before Ray went abroad. Personally, I think that he is too old. I don't mind saying so to you, because that has been my opinion all along. However, I suppose it is all settled now."
I kept my eyes fixed upon the wineglass in front of me, but the things which I saw, no four walls had ever enclosed. One moment the rush of the sea was in my ears, another I was lying upon the little horsehair couch in my sitting-room. I felt her soft white fingers upon my pulse and forehead. Again I saw her leaning down from the saddle of her great brown horse, and heard her voice, slow, emotionless, yet always with its strange power to play upon my heartstrings. And yet, while the grey seas of despair were closing over my head, I sat there with a stereotyped smile upon my lips, fingering carelessly the stem of my wineglass, unwilling guest of an unwilling host. I do not know how long we sat there in silence, but it seemed to me an eternity, for all the time I knew that Blenavon was watching me. I felt like a victim upon the rack, whilst he, the executioner, held the cords. I do not think, however, that he learnt anything from my face.