With a little shrug of the shoulders he abandoned the subject.
"By-the-bye, Ducaine," he said, "I hope you won't mind my asking you a rather personal question."
"If it is only personal," I answered quietly, "not at all. As you know, I may not discuss any subject connected with my work."
"Quite so! I only want to know whether your secretarial duties begin and end with your work on the Council of Defence, or are you at all in my father's confidence as regards his private affairs?"
"I am temporary secretary to the Council of Defence only, Lord Blenavon," I answered. "I know nothing whatever of your father's private affairs. He has his own man of business."
I am not sure whether he believed me. He cracked some walnuts and commenced peeling them.
"My father will never listen to me," he said, "but I feel sure that he makes a mistake in becoming a director of all these companies. Politics should be quite sufficient to engross his time, and the money cannot be so much of an object to him. I don't suppose his holdings are large, but I am quite sure that one or two of those Australian gold mines are dicky, and you know he was an enormous holder of Chartereds, and wouldn't sell, worse luck! Of course I'm not afraid of his losing in the long run, but it isn't exactly a dignified thing to be associated with these concerns that aren't exactly A1. His name might lead people into speculations who couldn't altogether afford it."
"I know nothing whatever of these matters," I answered, "but from what I have seen of your father I should imagine that he is remarkably able to guard his own interests."
"I suppose that is true," he admitted. "But when he is already a rich man, with very simple tastes, I am rather surprised that he should care to meddle with such things."
"Playing at commerce," I remarked, "has become rather a hobby with men of leisure lately."
"And women, too," Blenavon assented. "Rather an ugly hobby, I call it."
A servant entered and addressed Blenavon. "The carriage is at the door, your Lordship," he announced.
Blenavon glanced at his watch and rose.
"I shall have to ask you to excuse me, Ducaine," he said. "I was to have dined out to-night, and I must go and make my peace. Another glass of wine?"
I rose at once.
"Nothing more, thank you," I said. "I will just say good-night to your sister."
"She's probably in the drawing-room," he remarked. "If not, I will make your excuses when I see her."
Blenavon hurried out. A few moments later I heard the wheels of his carriage pass the long front of the house and turn down the avenue. I lingered for a moment where I was. The small oak table at which we had dined seemed like an oasis of colour in the midst of an atmosphere of gloom. The room was large and lofty, and the lighting was altogether inadequate. From the walls there frowned through the shadows the warlike faces of generations of Rowchesters. At the farther end of the apartment four armed giants stood grim and ghostlike in the twilight, which seemed to supply their empty frames with the presentment of actual warriors. I looked down upon the table, all agleam with flowers, and fruit, and silver, over which shone the red glow of the shaded lamps. Exactly opposite to me, in that chair now pushed carelessly back, she had sat, so close that my hand could have touched hers at any moment, so close that I had been able to wonder more than ever before at the marvellous whiteness of her skin, the perfection of her small, finely-shaped features, the strange sphinxlike expression of her face, always suggestive of some great self-restraint, mysterious, and subtly stimulating. And as I stood there she seemed again to be occupying the chair, at first a faint shadowy presence, but gaining with every second shape and outline, until I could scarcely persuade myself that it was not she who sat there, she whose eyes more than once during dinner-time had looked into mine with that curious and instinctive demand for sympathy, even as regards the things of the moment, the passing jest, the most transitory of emotions. A few minutes ago I had felt that I knew her better than ever before in my life, and now the chair was empty. My heart was beating at the imaginary presence of the vainest of shadows. She was going to marry Colonel Mostyn Ray.
And then I stood as though suddenly turned to stone. Before me were the great front windows of the castle. Beyond, eastwards, stretched the salt marshes, the salt marshes riven with creeks. Once more my unwilling hands touched that huddled-up heap of extinct humanity. I saw the dead white face, which the sun could never warm again, and I felt the hands, cold, clammy, horrible. Ray was a soldier, and life and death had become phrases to him; but I—it was the first dead man I had ever seen, and the horror of it was cold in my blood. Ray had murdered him, fought with him, perhaps, but killed him. What would she say if she knew? Would his hands be clean to her, or would the horror rise up like a red wall between them?
"Will you take coffee, sir?"
I set my teeth and turned slowly round. I even took the cup from the tray without spilling it.
"What liqueur may I bring you, sir?" the man asked.
"Brandy," I answered.
In a few minutes I was laughing at myself, not quite naturally, perhaps, but only I could know that. I was getting to be a morbid, nervous person. It was the solitude! I must get away from it all before long. Fate had been playing strange tricks with me. Life, which a few months ago had been a cold and barren thing, was suddenly pressed to my lips, a fantastic, intoxicating mixture. I had drawn enough poison into my veins. I would have no more. I swore it.
* * * * *
I tried to leave the castle unnoticed, but the place was alive with servants. One of them hurried up to me as I tried to reach my hat and coat.
"Her ladyship desired me to say that she was in the billiard-room, sir," he announced.
"Will you tell Lady Angela—" and then I stopped. The door of the billiard-room was open, and Lady Angela stood there, the outline of her figure sharply de fined against a flood of light. She had a cue in her hand, and she looked across at me.
"You are a long time, Mr. Ducaine. I am waiting for you to give me a lesson at billiards."
I crossed the hall to her side.
"I thought that as Lord Blenavon had gone out—"
She shrugged her shoulders.
"That you would evade your duty, which is clearly to stay and entertain your hostess."
She closed the door and glanced at me curiously.
"What has happened to you?" she asked. "You look as though you had been with ghosts."
"Is it so impossible?" I asked, moving a little nearer to the huge log fire. "What company is more terrifying than the company of our dead thoughts and dead hopes and dead memories?"
"Really, I am afraid that Blenavon must have been a very depressing companion!" she said, leaning her elbow upon the broad mantelpiece.
It was absurd! I tried to shake myself free from the miseries of the last hour.
"I am afraid it must have been the other way," I said, "for your brother has gone out."
"Yes," she said quietly, "he has gone to that woman at Braster Grange. I wish I knew what brought her into this part of the country."
I looked round at the billiard-table.
"Did you mean that you would like a game?" I asked. "I am rather out of practice, but I used to fancy myself a little."
"I have no doubt," she answered, sinking into a low chair, "that you are an excellent player, but I am willing to take it for granted. I do not wish to play billiards. Draw that chair up to the fire and talk to me."
It was of all things what I wished to avoid that night. But there was no escape. I obeyed her.
"What your brother has told me is, I presume, no secret," I said. "I am to wish you happiness, am I not?"
She looked up at me in quick surprise.
"Did Blenavon tell you—"
"That you had promised to marry Colonel Mostyn Ray. Yes."
"That is very strange," she said thoughtfully. "Blenavon is not as a rule needlessly communicative, and at present it is almost a secret."
"Nevertheless," I said, turning slowly towards her, "I presume that it is true."
"It is perfectly true," she answered.
There was silence between us for several minutes. One of the footmen came softly in to see whether we required a marker, and finding us talking, withdrew. I was determined that the onus of further speech should remain with her.
"You are surprised?" she asked at last.
"I scarcely know," I answered, "except that I have never associated the thought of marriage with Colonel Ray, and he is very much older than you."
"Yes, he is a great deal older," she answered. "I think that his history has been rather a sad one. He was in love for many years with a woman who married—some one else. I have always felt sorry for him ever since I was a little girl."
"Do you know who that woman was?"
"I have never heard her name," she answered.
I found courage to lift my eyes and look at her.
"May I ask when you are going to be married?"
Her eyes fell. The question did not seem to please her.
"I do not know," she said. "We have not spoken of that yet. Everything is very vague."
"Colonel Ray is coming down here, of course?" I remarked.
"Not to my knowledge," she declared. "Not at any rate until the next meeting of the Council. I shall be back in town before then."
"I begin to believe," I said, with a grim smile, "that your brother was right."
"My brother right?"
"He finds you enigmatic! You become engaged to a man one day, and you leave him the next—without apparent reason."
She was obviously disturbed. A slight wave of trouble passed over her face. Her eyes failed to meet mine.
"That I cannot altogether explain to you," she said. "There are reasons why I should come, but apart from them this place is very dear to me. I think that whenever anything has happened to me I have wanted to be here. You are a man, and you will not altogether understand this."
"Why not?" I protested. "We, too, have our sentiment, the sentiment of places as well as of people. If I could choose where to die I think that it would be here, with my windows wide open and the roar of the incoming tide in my ears."
"For a young man," she remarked, looking across at me, "I should consider you rather a morbid person."
"There are times," I answered, "when I feel inclined to agree with you. To-night is one of them."
"That," she said coolly, "is unfortunate. You have been over-working."
"I am worried by a problem," I told her. "Tell me, are you a great believer in the sanctity of human life?"
"What a question!" she murmured. "My own life, at any rate, seems to me to be a terribly important thing."
"Suppose you had a friend," I said, "who was one night attacked in a quiet spot by a man who sought his life, say, for the purpose of robbery. Your friend was the stronger and easily defended himself. Then he saw that his antagonist was a man of ill repute, an evildoer, a man whose presence upon the earth did good to no one. So he took him by the throat and deliberately crushed the life out of him. Was your friend a murderer?"
She smiled at me—that quiet, introspective smile which I knew so well.
"Does the end justify the means? No, of course not. I should have been very sorry for my friend; but if indeed there is a Creator, it is He alone who has power to take back what He has given."
"Your friend, then—"
"Don't call him that!"
I rose up and moved towards the door. I think that she saw something in my face which checked any attempt she might have made to detain me.
"You must forgive me," I said. "I cannot stay."
She said nothing. I looked back at her from the door. Her eyes were fixed upon me, a little distended, full of mute questioning. I only shook my head. So I left her and passed out into the night.
There followed for me a period of unremitting hard work, days during which I never left my desk save at such hours when I knew that the chances of meeting any one scarcely existed. Several times I saw Lady Angela from my window on the sands below, threading her way across the marshes to the sea. Once she passed my window very slowly, and with a quick backward glance as she turned to descend the cliff. But I sat still with clenched teeth. I had nailed down my resolutions, I had determined to hold fast to such threads of my common sense as remained. Only in the night-time, when sleep mocked me and all hope of escape was futile, was I forced to grapple with this new-born monster of folly. It drove me up across the Park to where the house, black and lightless, rose a dark incongruous mass above the trees, down to the sea, where the wind came booming across the bare country northwards, and the spray leaped white and phosphorescent into the night like flakes of wind-hurled snow. I stood as close to the sea as I dared, and I prayed. Once I saw morning lighten the mass of clouds eastwards, and the grey dawn break over the empty waters. I heard the winds die away, and I watched the sea grow calm. Far across on the horizon there was faint glimmer of cold sunlight. Then I went back to my broken rest. It was my solitude in those days which drove me to seek peace or some measure of it from these things.
At last a break came, a summons to London to a meeting of the Council. I was just able to catch my train and reach the War Office at the appointed time. There were two hours of important work, and I noticed a general air of gravity on the faces of every one present. After it was over Ray came to my side.
"Ducaine," he said, "Lord Chelsford wishes to speak' to you for a few moments. Come this way."
He led me into a small, barely-furnished room, with high windows and only one door. It was empty when we entered it. Ray looked at me as he closed the door, and I fancied that for him his expression was not unfriendly.
"Ducaine," he said, "there has been some more of this damned leakage. Chelsford will ask you questions. Answer him simply, but tell him everything—everything, you understand."
"I should not dream of any concealment," I answered.
"Of course not! But it is possible—Ah!"
He broke off and remained listening. There was the sound of a quick footstep in the hall.
"Now you will understand what I mean," he whispered. "Remember!"
It was not Chelsford, but the Duke, who entered and greeted me cordially. With a farewell nod to me Ray disappeared. The Duke looked round and watched him close the door. Then he turned to me.
"Ducaine," he said, "a copy of our proposed camp at Winchester, and the fortifications on Bedler's Hill, has reached Paris."
"Your Grace," I answered, "it was I who pointed out to you that our papers dealing with those matters had been tampered with. I am waiting now to be cross-questioned by Lord Cheisford. I have done all that is humanly possible. It goes without saying that my resignation is yours whenever you choose to ask for it."
The Duke sat down and looked at me thoughtfully.
"Ducaine," he said, "I believe in you."
I drew a little breath of relief. The Duke was a hard man and a man of few words. I felt that in making that speech he had departed a great deal from his usual course of action, and I knew that he meant it.
"I am very much obliged to your Grace," I answered.
"I think," he continued, "that Lord Cheisford and in fact all the others are inclined to accept you on my estimate. We all of us feel that we are the victims of some unique and very marvellous piece of roguery on the part of some one or other. I believe myself that we are on the eve of a discovery."
"Thank Heaven!" I murmured.
"We shall only succeed in unravelling this mystery," the Duke continued deliberately, "by very cautious and delicate manoeuvring. I have an idea which I propose to carry out. But its success depends largely upon you."
"Upon me?" I repeated, amazed.
"Exactly! Upon your common sense and judgment." The Duke paused to listen for a moment. Then he continued, speaking very slowly, and leaning over towards me—
"Lord Chelsford proposes for his own satisfaction to cross-examine you. It occurs to me that you will probably tell him of your fancied disturbance of those papers in the safe, and of your little adventure with the Prince of Malors." I looked at him in surprise. "Have they not all been told of this?" I asked. "No."
There was a moment's dead silence. I was a little staggered. The Duke remained imperturbable.
"They have not been told," he repeated. "No one has been told. The matter was one for my discretion, and I exercised it."
There seemed to be no remark which I could make, so I kept silence.
"We have discussed this matter before," the Duke said, "and my firm conviction is that you were mistaken. That safe could only have been opened by yourself, Ray, or myself. I think I am justified in saying that neither of us did open it."
"Nevertheless that safe was opened," I objected. "Those were the very papers, copies of which have found their way to Paris."
"Exactly," the Duke answered. "Only you must remember that every member of the Board was sufficiently acquainted with their contents to have sent those particulars to Paris, without opening the safe for a further investigation of them. Any statement of your suspicion would only result in attention being diverted from the proper quarters to members of my household. I believe that even if you are right, even if those papers were disturbed, it was done simply to throw dust in your eyes. Do you follow me?"
"Yes, your Grace," I answered.
"Lord Chelsford, if you were able to convince him, would most certainly be misled in this direction. That is why I have kept your report to myself. That is why my advice to you now is to say nothing about your imagined displacement of those papers. That is my advice. You understand?"
"Yes, your Grace," I repeated.
"With regard to the Prince of Malors," the Duke continued, "my firm conviction is that you were mistaken. Malors is not a politician. He has nothing whatever to gain or lose in this matter. He is a member of one of the most ancient houses of Europe, a house which for generations has been closely connected with my own. I absolutely decline to believe that whilst under my roof a Malors could lower himself to the level of a common spy. Such an accusation brought against him would be regarded as a blot upon my hospitality. Further, it would mean the breaking off of my ancient ties of friendship. I am very anxious, therefore, that you should bring yourself to accept my view as to this episode also."
"Your Grace," I answered, "you ask me very hard things."
He looked at me with his clear cold eyes.
"Surely not too hard, Mr. Ducaine," he said. "I ask you to accept my judgment. Consider for a moment. You are a young man, little more than a boy. I for forty years have been a servant of my country, both in the field and as a lawmaker. I am a Cabinet Minister. I have a life-long experience of men and their ways. My judgment in this matter is that you were mistaken, and much mischief is likely to ensue if the Prince of Malors should find himself an object of suspicion amongst us."
"Your Grace," I said, "forgive me, but why do you not say these things to the Board, or to Lord Chelsford and Colonel Ray after they have heard my story?"
"Because," the Duke answered, "I have no confidence in the judgment of either of them. Both in their way are excellent men, but they are of this new generation, who do not probe beneath the surface, who form their opinions only from the obvious. It is possible that after hearing your story they might consider the problem solved. I am, at any rate, convinced that they would commence a search for its solution in altogether wrong quarters."
"Your Grace," I said firmly, "I am very sorry indeed that I cannot take your advice. I think it most important that Lord Cheisford should know that those papers were tampered with. And as regards the Prince of Malors, whatever his motive may have been, I discovered him in the act of perusing the documents relating to the subway of Portsmouth. I cannot possibly withhold my knowledge of these things from Lord Chelsford. In fact, I think it is most important that he should know of them."
The Duke rose slowly to his feet. He showed no sign of anger.
"If you prefer your own judgment to mine, Mr. Ducaine," he said, "I have no more to say. I have taken you into my confidence, and I have endeavoured to show you your most politic course of behaviour. If your views are so far opposed, you must not consider it an injustice if I decide that a person of more judgment is required successfully to conduct the duties of secretary to the Council."
"I can only thank your Grace for your past kindness," I answered with sinking heart.
He looked across at me with still cold eyes.
"Do not misunderstand me," he said. "I do not dismiss you. I shall leave that to the Board. If my colleagues are favourably disposed towards you I shall not interfere. Only so far as I am concerned you must take your chance."
"I quite understand your Grace," I declared. "I think that you are treating me very fairly."
The Duke leaned back in his chair.
"Here they come!" he remarked.
IN WHICH I SPEAK OUT
The door was thrown open. Lord Chelsford and Colonel Ray entered together. The Commander-in-Chief accompanied them, and there was also present a person who sat a little apart from the others, and who, I learned afterwards, was a high official in the secret service. More than ever, perhaps, I realized at that moment in the presence of these men the strangeness of the events which for a short space of time, at any rate, had brought me into association with persons and happenings of such importance.
Lord Chelsford seated himself at the open desk opposite to the Duke. As was his custom, he wasted no time in preliminaries.
"We wish for a few minutes' conversation with you, Mr. Ducaine," he said, "on the subject of this recent leakage of news concerning our proceedings on the Council of Defence. I need not tell you that the subject is a very serious one."
"I quite appreciate its importance, sir," I answered.
"The particular documents of which we have news from Paris," Lord Chelsford continued, "are those having reference to the proposed camp at Winchester and the subway at Portsmouth. I understand, Mr. Ducaine, that these were drafted by you, and placed in a safe in the library of Rowchester on the evening of the eighteenth of this month."
"That is so, sir," I answered. "And early the next morning I reported to the Duke that the papers had been tampered with."
There was a dead silence for several moments. Lord Chelsford glanced at the Duke, who sat there imperturbable, with a chill, mirthless smile at the corner of his lips. Then he looked again at me, as though he had not heard aright.
"Will you kindly repeat that, Mr. Ducaine?" he said.
"Certainly, sir," I answered. "I had occasion to go to the safe again early on the morning of the nineteenth, and I saw at once that the documents in question had been tampered with. I reported the matter at once to his Grace."
The eyes of every one were bent upon the Duke. He nodded his head slowly.
"Mr. Ducaine," he said, "certainly came to me and made the statement which he has just repeated. I considered the matter, and I came to the conclusion that he was mistaken. I was sure of it then. I am equally sure of it now."
"Tell us, Mr. Ducaine," Lord Chelsford said, "what your reasons were for making such a statement."
I took a piece of red tape and a newspaper from the table before which I stood. I folded up the newspaper and tied the tape around it.
"When I put those documents away," I said, "I tied them up with a knot like this, of my own invention, which I have never seen used by anybody else. In the morning I found that my knot had been untied, and that the tape around the papers had been re-tied in an ordinary bow."
"Will you permit me for a moment," the Duke interposed. "The safe, I believe, Mr. Ducaine, was secured with a code lock, the word of which was known to-whom?"
"Yourself, sir, Colonel Ray, and myself."
The Duke nodded.
"If I remember rightly," he said, "the code word was never mentioned, but was written on a piece of paper, glanced at by each of us in turn, and immediately destroyed."
"That is quite true, sir."
"Now, do you believe, Mr. Ducaine," the Duke continued, "that it was possible for any one else except us the to have attained to the knowledge of that word."
"I do not sir," I admitted.
"Do you believe that it was possible for any one to have opened the safe without the knowledge of that word?"
"Without breaking it open, no, sir."
"There were no signs of the lock having been tampered with when you went to it in the morning?" "None, sir."
"It was set at the correct word, the word known only to Colonel Ray, myself, and yourself?" "Yes, sir."
The Duke leaned back in his chair and addressed Lord Cheisford.
"For the reasons which you have heard from Mr. Ducaine himself," he said drily, "I came to the conclusion that he was mistaken in his suggestion. I think that you will probably be inclined to agree with me."
These men had learnt well the art of masking their feelings. From Lord Chelsford's polite bow I could gather nothing.
"I am forced to admit," he said, "that no other conclusion seems possible. Now, Mr. Ducaine, with regard to the execution of your work. It is carried out altogether, I believe, at the 'Brand'?"
"Your only servant is the man Grooton, for whom the Duke and I myself are prepared to vouch. You are also watched by detectives residing in the village, as I dare say you know. I also understand that you have no private correspondence, and receive practically no visitors. Now tell me the only persons who, to your knowledge, have entered the 'Brand' since you have been engaged in this work."
I answered him at once.
"Colonel Ray, Lady Angela Harberly, Lord Blenavon, the Prince of Malors, and a young lady called Blanche Moyat, the daughter of a farmer in Braster at whose house I used sometimes to visit."
Lord Chelsford referred to some notes in his hand. Then he leaned back in his chair, and looked at me steadfastly.
"Is there any one," he asked, "whom you suspect to have visited you for the purpose, either direct or indirect, of gaining information as to your work?"
"Yes, sir," I answered promptly.
A little exclamation escaped from the Commander-in-Chief. Lord Chelsford never removed his eyes from my face, the Duke had still the appearance of a tolerant but slightly bored listener.
"Who?" Lord Chelsford asked.
"The Prince of Malors," I answered.
There was a moment's silence. Lord Cheisford turned again to his notes. Then he looked up at me.
"Your reasons?" he asked.
I told them the story carefully and circumstantially. When I had finished Colonel Ray left his seat and whispered something in Lord Chelsford's ear. The Duke interposed.
"I wish," he said, "to add a brief remark to the story which you have just heard. I have known Malors since he was a boy, my father knew his father, and, as you may know, our families have been frequently connected in marriage. I do not wish to impugn the good faith of this young man, but the Prince of Malors was my guest, and the accusation against him is one which I cannot believe."
"The story, as I have told it, sir, is absolutely true," I said to Lord Cheisford. "There was no room for any mistake or misapprehension on my part. I am afraid that I haven't been a great success as your secretary. Colonel Ray gave me to understand, of course, that your object in engaging an utterly unknown person was to try and stop this leakage of information. It is still going on, and I cannot stop it. I am quite prepared to give up my post at any moment."
Lord Chelsford nodded towards the door.
"Will you be so good as to step into the next room for a few minutes, Mr. Ducaine?" he said. "We will discuss this matter together."
I departed at once, and found my way into a bare waiting-room, hung with a few maps, and with uncarpeted floor. The minutes dragged along slowly. I hated the thought of dismissal, I rebelled against it almost fiercely. I had done my duty, I had told the truth, there was nothing against me save this obstinate and quixotic loyalty of the Duke to an old family friend. Yet I scarcely dared hope that there was a chance for me.
At last I heard the door open, and the sound of friendly adieux in the passage. Lord Cheisford came in to me alone. He took up a position with his back to the fire, and looked at me thoughtfully.
"Well, Mr. Ducaine," he said, "we have discussed this matter thoroughly, and we are all practically agreed that there is no reason why we should ask you to give up your position."
I was almost overcome. It was a wonderful relief to me.
"But surely the Duke—" I faltered.
"The Duke is very loyal to his friends, Mr. Ducaine," he said, "but he is also a man with a nice sense of justice. You and he regard two incidents from entirely different points of view, but he does not for a moment suggest that your account of them is not an honest one. He looks upon you as a little nervous and overstrung by your responsibilities and disposed to be imaginative. He will not hear anything against the Prince of Malors."
"My story is as true as God's Word," I declared.
"I am inclined to believe in it myself, Mr. Ducaine," said Lord Chelsford. "There are indications of a strong revival of Royalist sentiment amongst the French people, and it is very possible that the Prince of Malors may wish to ingratiate himself by any means with the French army. This sort of thing scarcely sounds like practical politics, but one has to bear in mind the peculiar temperament of the man himself, and the nation. I personally believe that the Prince of Malors would consider himself justified in abusing the hospitality of his dearest friend in the cause of patriotism. At any rate, this is my view, and I am acting upon it. All danger from that source will now be at an end, for in an hour's time the Prince will be under the surveillance of detectives for the remainder of his stay in England."
I breathed a sigh of relief.
"I am to go back to Braster, then?" I asked.
"To-night, if possible," Lord Chelsford answered. "Go on living as you have been living. And, listen! If you should have further cause to suspect the Prince of Malors or anybody else, communicate with me or with Ray. The Duke is, of course, a man of ability and an honourable man, but he is prejudiced in favour of his friends. Some of us others have had to learn our lessons of life, and men, in a sharper school. You understand me, Mr. Ducaine, I am sure."
"I perfectly understand, sir," I answered.
"There is nothing more which you wish to ask me?"
"There is a suggestion I should like to make, sir, with regard to the disposal of my finished work," I told him.
"Go on, Mr. Ducaine. I shall be glad to listen to it."
There was a knock at the door. Lord Chelsford held up his finger.
"Send it me in writing," he said in a low tone, "to-morrow.—Come in!"
Ray and I left the building together. As we turned into Pall Mall he glanced at his watch.
"You have missed the six o'clock train," he remarked. "I suppose you know that there is nothing now till the nine-twenty. Will you come to the club with me, and have some dinner?"
It was less an invitation than a command. I felt a momentary impulse of rebellion, but the innate masterfulness of the man triumphed easily. I found myself walking, a little against my will, down Pall Mall by his side. A man of some note, he was saluted every minute by passers-by, whom, however, he seemed seldom to notice. In his town clothes, his great height, his bronzed face, and black beard made him a sufficiently striking personality. I myself, though I was little short of six feet, seemed almost insignificant by his side. Until we reached the club he maintained an unbroken silence. He even ignored some passing comment of mine; but when once inside the building he seemed to remember that he was my host, and his manner became one of stiff kindness. He ordered an excellent dinner and chose the wine with care. Then he leaned a little forward across the table, and electrified me by his first remark.
"Ducaine," he said, "what relatives have you with whom you are in any sort of communication?"
"None at all!" I answered.
"Sir Michael Trogoldy was your mother's brother," he remarked. "He is still alive."
"I believe so," I admitted. "I have never approached him, nor has he ever taken any notice of me."
"You did not write to him, for instance, when Heathcote absconded, and you had to leave college?"
"Certainly not," I answered. "I did not choose to turn beggar."
"How much," he asked, "do you know of your family history?"
"I know," I told him, "that my father was cashiered from the army for misconduct, and committed suicide. I know, too, that my mother's people treated her shamefully, and that she died alone in Paris and almost in poverty. It was scarcely likely, therefore, that I was going to apply to them for help." Ray nodded.
"I thought so," he remarked grimly. "I shall have to talk to you for a few minutes about your father."
I said nothing. My surprise, indeed, had bereft me of words. He sipped his wine slowly, and continued.
"Fate has dealt a little hardly with you," he said. "I am almost a stranger to you, and there are even reasons why you and I could never be friends. Yet it apparently falls to my lot to supplement the little you know of a very unpleasant portion of your family history. That rascal of a lawyer who absconded with your money should have told you on your twenty-first birthday."
"A pleasant heritage!" I remarked bitterly; "yet I always wanted to know the whole truth."
"Here goes, then," he said, filling my glass with wine. "Your father was second in command at Gibraltar. He sold a plan of the gallery forts to the French Government, and was dismissed from the army."
I started as though I had been stung. Ray continued, his stern matter-of-fact tone unshaken.
"He did not commit suicide as you were told. He lived, in Paris, a life of continual and painful degeneration. Your mother died of a broken heart. There was another woman, of course, whose influence over your father was unbounded, and at whose instigation he committed this disgraceful act. This woman is now at Braster."
My brain was in a whirl. I was quite incapable of speech.
"Her real name," he continued coolly, "God only knows. For the moment she calls herself Mrs. Smith-Lessing. She is a Franco-American, a political adventuress of the worst type, living by her wits. She is ugly enough to be Satan's mistress, and she's forty-five if she's a day, yet she has but to hold up her finger, and men tumble the gifts of their life into her lap, gold and honour, conscience and duty. At present I think it highly probable that you are her next selected victim."
For several minutes Ray proceeded with his dinner. I did my best to follow his example, but my appetite was gone. I could scarcely persuade myself that the whole affair was not a dream—that the men who sat all round us in little groups, the dark liveried servants passing noiselessly backwards and forwards, were not figures in some shadowy nightmare, and that I should not wake in a moment to find myself curled up in a railway carriage on my way home. But there was no mistaking the visible presence of Colonel Mostyn Ray. Strong, stalwart, he sat within a few feet of me, calmly eating his dinner as though my agony were a thing of little account. He, at least, was real.
"This woman," he continued, presently, "either is, or would like to be, mixed up with the treachery that is somewhere close upon us. Sooner or later she will approach you. You are warned."
"Yes," I repeated vaguely, "I am warned."
"I have finished," Colonel Ray remarked. "Go on with your dinner and think. I will answer any question presently."
There were only two I put to him, and that was when my hansom had been called and I was on the point of leaving.
"Is he—my father—alive now?" I asked.
"I have reason to believe," Ray answered, "that he may be dead."
"How is it," I asked, "that you are so well acquainted with these things? Were you at any time my father's friend?"
"I was acquainted with him," Ray answered. "We were at one time in the same regiment. My friendship was—with your mother."
The answer was illuming, but he never winced.
"Indirectly," I said, "I seem to have a good deal to thank you for. Why do you say that you can never be my friend?"
"You are your father's son," he answered curtly.
"I am also my mother's son," I objected.
"For which reason," he said, "I have done what I could to give you a start in life."
And with these words he dismissed me.
* * * * *
I received Ray's warning concerning Mrs. Smith-Lessing, the new tenant of Braster Grange, somewhere between seven and eight o'clock, and barely an hour later I found myself alone in a first-class carriage with her, and a four hours' journey before us. She had arrived at King's Cross apparently only a few minutes before the departure of the train, for the platform was almost deserted when I took my seat. Just as I had changed my hat for a cap, however, wrapped my rug around my knees, and settled down for the journey, the door of my carriage was thrown open, and I saw two women looking in, one of whom I recognized at once. Mrs. Smith-Lessing, although the night was warm, was wearing a heavy and magnificent fur coat, and the guard of the train himself was attending her. Behind stood a plainly dressed woman, evidently her maid, carrying a flat dressing-case. There was a brief colloquy between the three. It ended in dressing-case, a pile of books, a reading lamp, and a formidable array of hat-boxes, and milliner's parcels being placed upon the rack and vacant seats in my compartment, and immediately afterwards Mrs. Smith-Lessing herself entered. I heard her tell her maid to enter the carriage behind. The door was closed and the guard touched off his hat. A minute later and we were off.
I was alone with the adventuress. I had no doubt but that she had chosen my carriage with intent. I placed my dispatch-box on the rack above my head, and opened out a newspaper, which I had no intention of reading. She, for her part, arranged her travelling light and took out a novel. She did not apparently even glance in my direction, and seemed to become immersed at once in her reading. So we travelled for half an hour or so.
At the end of that time I was suddenly conscious that she had laid down her book, and was regarding me through partially-closed eyes. I too laid down my paper. Our eyes met, and she smiled.
"Forgive me," she said, "but did I not see you one day last week upon the sands at Braster with Lady Angela Harberly?"
"I believe so," I answered. "You were riding, I think, with her brother."
"How fortunate that I should find myself travelling with a neighbour!" she murmured. "I rather dreaded this night journey. I just missed the six o'clock, and I have been at the station ever since."
I understood at once one of the charms of this woman. Her voice was deliciously soft and musical. The words seemed to leave her lips slowly, almost lingeringly, and she spoke with the precision and slight accent of a well-educated foreigner. Her eyes seemed to be wandering all over me and my possessions, yet her interest, if it amounted to that, never even suggested curiosity or inquisitiveness.
"It is scarcely a pleasant journey at this time of night," I remarked.
"Indeed, no," she assented. "I wonder if you know my name? I am Mrs. Smith-Lessing, of Braster Grange. And you?"
"My name is Guy Ducaine," I told her. "I live at a small cottage called the 'Brand.'"
"That charming little place you can just see from the sands?" she exclaimed. "I thought the Duke's head-keeper lived there."
"It was a keeper's lodge before the Duke was kind enough to let it to me," I told her.
"It is a very delightful abode," she murmured.
She picked up her book, and after turning over the pages aimlessly for a few minutes, she recommenced to read. I followed her example; but when a little later on I glanced across in her direction, I found that her eyes were fixed upon me, and that her novel lay in her lap.
"My book is so stupid," she said apologetically. "I find, Mr. Ducaine," she added with sudden earnestness, "the elements of a much stranger story closer at hand."
"That," I remarked, laying down my own book, and looking steadily across at her, "sounds enigmatic."
"I think," she said, "that I am very foolish to talk to you at all about it. If you know who I am, you are probably armed against me at all points. You will weigh and measure my words, you will say to yourself, 'Lies, lies, lies!' You will not believe in me or anything I say. And, again, if you do not know, the story is too painful a one for me to tell."
"Then let us both avoid it," I said, reaching again for my paper. "We shall stop at Ipswich in an hour. I will change carriages there."
She turned round in her seat towards the window, as though to hide her face. My own attempt at reading was a farce. I watched her over the top of my paper. She was looking out into the darkness, and she seemed to me to be crying. Every now and then her shoulders heaved convulsively. Suddenly she faced me once more. There were traces of tears on her face; a small lace handkerchief was knotted up in her nervous fingers.
"Oh, I cannot," she exclaimed plaintively. "I cannot sit here alone with you and say nothing. I know that I am judged already. It does not matter. I am your father's wife, Guy. You owe me at least some recognition of that fact."
"I never knew my father," I said, "except as the cause of my own miserable upbringing and friendless life."
"You never knew him," she answered, "and therefore you believe the worst. He was weak, perhaps, and, exposed to a terrible temptation, he fell! But he was not a bad man. He was never that."
"Do you think, Mrs. Smith-Lessing," I said, struggling to keep my voice firm, though I felt myself trembling, "that this is a profitable discussion for either of us?"
"Why not?" she exclaimed almost fiercely. "You have heard his story from enemies. You have judged him from the report of those who were never his friends. He sinned and he repented. Better and worse men than he have done that. If he were wholly bad, do you believe that after all these years I should care for him still?"
I held my peace. The woman was leaning over towards me now. She seemed to have lost the desire to attract. Her voice had grown sharper and less pleasant, her carefully arranged hair was in some disorder, and the telltale blue veins by her temples and the crow's feet under her eyes were plainly visible. Her face seemed suddenly to have become pinched and wan, the flaming light in her strangely coloured eyes was a convincing assertion of her earnestness. She was not acting now, though what lay behind the storm I could not tell.
"You seem afraid to talk to me," she exclaimed. "Why? I have done you no harm!"
"Perhaps not," I answered, "yet I cannot see what we gain by raking up this miserable history. It is both painful and profitless."
"I will say no more," she declared, with a sudden note of dignity in her tone. "I can see that I am judged already in your mind. After all, it does not really matter. No one likes to be thought worse of than they deserve, and women are all—a little foolish. But at least you must answer me one question. I have the right to ask it. You must tell me where he is."
"Where who is?" I asked.
Again her eyes flamed upon inc. Her lips parted a little, and I could see the white glimmer of her teeth.
"Oh, you shall not fence with me like a baby!" she exclaimed. "Tell me, or lie to me, or refuse to tell me! Which is it?"
"Upon my honour," I said, looking at her curiously, "I have no idea whom you mean!"
She looked at inc steadily for several moments, her lips parted, her breath seeming to come sharply between her teeth.
"I mean your father," she said. "Whom else should I mean?"
TWO TO ONE
I looked across at the woman, who was waiting my answer with every appearance of feverish interest.
"What should I know about him?" I said slowly. "I have been told that he is dead. I know no more than that."
She started as though my words had stung her.
"It is not possible!" she exclaimed. "I must have heard of it. When he left me—it was less than three months ago—he seemed better than I had known him for years."
"All my life," I said, "I have understood that my father died by his own hand after his disgrace. To-night for the first time I was told that this was not the fact. I understood, from what my informant said, that he had died recently."
She drew a sharp breath between her teeth, and suddenly struck the cushioned arm of the carriage by her side with her clenched hand.
"It is a lie!" she declared. "Whoever told you so, it is a lie!"
"Do you mean that he is not dead?" I exclaimed. "Do you mean that you have not seen him yourself—within the last few months?" she demanded fiercely. "He left me to come to you on the first day of the New Year."
"I have never seen him to my knowledge in my life," I answered.
She leaned back in her seat, murmuring something to herself which I could not catch. Past-mistress of deceit though she may have been, I was convinced that her consternation at my statement was honest. She did not speak or look at me again for some time. As for me, I sat silent with the horror of a thought. Underneath the rug my limbs were cold and lifeless. I sat looking out of the rain-splashed window into the darkness, with fixed staring eyes, and a hideous fancy in my brain. Every now and then I thought that I could see it—a white evil face pressed close to the blurred glass, grinning in upon me. Every shriek of the engine—and there were many just then, for we were passing through a network of tunnels—brought beads of moisture on to my forehead, made me start and shake like a criminal. Surely that was a cry! I started in my seat, only to see that my companion, now her old self again, was watching me intently.
"I am afraid," she said softly, "that you are not very strong. The excitement of talking of these things has been too much for you."
"I have never had a day's illness in my life," I answered. "I am perfectly well."
"I am glad," she said simply. "I must finish what I was telling you. Your father was continually talking and thinking of you. He knew all about you at college. He knew about your degree, of your cricket and rowing. Lately he began to get restless. He lost sight of you after you left Oxford, and it worried him. There were reasons, as you know, why it was not well for him to come to England, but nevertheless he determined to brave it out. It was to find you that he risked so much. He left me on New Year's Day, and I have never heard a word from him since. That is why I came to England."
"The whole reason?" I asked, like a fool.
"The whole reason," she affirmed simply.
"I do not wish to see my father," I said. "If he comes to me I shall tell him so."
"He wants to tell you his story himself," she murmured.
"I would never listen to it," I answered. She sighed.
"You are very young," she said. "You do not know what temptation is. You do not know how badly he was treated. You have heard his history, perhaps, from his enemies. He is getting old now, Guy. I think that if you saw him now you would pity him."
"My pity," I answered, "would never be strong enough to suffer me to open the door to him—if he should come. He has left me alone all these years. The only favour I would ever ask of him would be that he continues to do so."
"You will believe the story of strangers?"
"No one in the world could be a greater stranger to me than he." She sighed.
"You will not even let me be your friend," she pleaded. "You are young, you are perhaps ambitious. There may be many ways in which I could help you."
"As you helped my father, perhaps," I answered bitterly. "Thank you, I have no need of friends—that sort of friends."
Her eyes seemed to narrow a little, and the smile upon her lips was forced.
"Is that kind of you?" she exclaimed. "Your father was in a position of great trust. It is different with you. You are idle, and you need a career. England has so little to offer her young men, but there are other countries—"
I interrupted her brusquely.
"Thank you," I said, "but I have employment, and such ambitions as I have admit of nothing but an honest career."
Again I saw that contraction of her eyes, but she never winced or changed her tone.
"You have employment?" she asked, as though surprised.
"Yes. As you doubtless know, I am in the service of the Duke of Rowchester," I told her.
"It is news to me," she replied. "You will forgive me at least for being interested, Guy. But when you say in the service of the Duke of Rowchester you puzzle me. In England what does that, mean?"
"I am one of the Duke's secretaries," I answered.
"Is the Duke, then, a politician?" she asked, "that he needs secretaries?"
"Not at all," I answered drily. "His Grace is President of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or Children, whichever you like. We have a large correspondence."
She picked up her book.
"I am afraid that I understand you," she said. "You have a good deal of the brutality of youth, Guy, and, I might add, of its credulity also. Whose word is it, I wonder, that you have taken so abjectly—with such an open mouth? If I have enemies I have not deserved them. But, after all, it matters little."
We did not speak again until we neared the junction. Then she began to gather up her things.
"How are you getting home?" she asked. "It is two o'clock, and raining."
"I am going to walk," I answered.
"But that is absurd," she protested. "I have a closed carriage here. I insist that you let me drive you. It is only common humanity; and you have that great box too."
I buttoned up my coat.
"Mrs. Smith-Lessing," I said, "you perhaps wish to force me into seeming ungracious. You have even called me brutal. It is your own fault. You give me no chance of escape. You even force me now to tell you that I do not desire—that I will not accept—any hospitality at your hands."
She fastened her jacket with trembling fingers. Her face she kept averted from me.
"Very well," she said softly, "I shall not trouble you any more."
At the junction I fetched the sleepy-looking porter to see to her luggage, and then left her. My rug I left in the station-master's office, and with the dispatch-box in my hand I climbed the steps from the station, and turned into the long straight road which led to Braster. I had barely gone a hundred yards when a small motor brougham, with blazing lights and insistent horn, came flying past me and on into the darkness. I caught a momentary glimpse of Mrs. Smith-Lessing's pale face as the car flashed by, a weird little silhouette, come and gone in a second. Away ahead I saw the mud and rain from the pools fly up into the air in a constant stream caught in the broad white glare of the brilliant search-lamps. Then the car turned a corner and vanished.
I was tired, yet I found the change from the close railway carriage, and the tension of the last few hours, delightful. The road along which I trudged ran straight to the sea, the distant roar of which was already in my ears, and the wet wind which blew in my face was salt and refreshing. It was a little after two in the morning, and the darkness would have been absolute, but for a watery moon, which every now and then gave a fitful light. For a mile or more I walked with steady, unflagging footsteps. Then suddenly I found myself slackening my pace. I walked slower and slower. At last I stopped.
About fifty yards farther on my left was Braster Grange. It stood a little way back from the road. Its gardens were enclosed by a thin storm-bent hedge, just thick enough to be a screen from the road. The entrance was along a lane which branched off here from the main road, and led on to the higher marshes, and thence on to the road from Braster village to Rowchester and my cottage. Straight on, the road which I was following led into Braster, but the lane to the left round past the Grange saved me fully half a mile. In an ordinary way I should never have hesitated for a moment as to my route. I knew every inch of the lane, and though it was rough walking, there were no creeks or obstacles of any sort to be reckoned with. And yet, as I neared the corner, I came to a full stop. As I stood there in the road I felt my heart beating, I seemed possessed by a curious nerve failure. My breath came quickly. I felt my heart thumping against my side. I stood still and listened. Down on the shingles I could hear the sea come thundering in with a loud increasing roar, dying monotonously away at regular intervals. I could hear the harsh grinding of the pebbles, the backward swirl of long waves thrown back from the land. I heard the wind come booming across the waste lands, rustling and creaking amongst the few stunted trees in the grounds of Braster Grange. Of slighter sounds there seemed to be none. The village ahead was dark and silent, the side of the house fronting the road was black and desolate. It was a lonely spot, a lonely hour. Yet as I stood there shivering with nameless apprehensions, I felt absolutely certain that I was confronted by some hidden danger.
In a moment or two, I am thankful to say, my courage returned. I struck a match and lit a cigar, one of a handful which Ray had forced upon me. Then I crossed stealthily to the other side of the road, and felt for the hedge. I pricked my hands badly, but after feeling about for some moments I was able to cut for myself a reasonably thick stick. With this in my right hand, and the dispatch-box under my left arm I proceeded on my way.
I walked warily, and when I had turned into the lane which passed the entrance to Braster Grange I walked in the middle of it instead of skirting the wall which enclosed the grounds. I passed the entrance gates, and had only about twenty yards farther to go before I emerged upon the open marshland. Here the darkness was almost impenetrable, for the lane narrowed. The hedge on the left was ten or twelve feet high, and on the right were two long barns. I clasped my stick tightly, and walked almost stealthily. I felt that if I could come safely to the end of these barn buildings I could afford to laugh at my fears.
Suddenly my strained hearing detected what I had been listening for all the time. There was a faint but audible rustling in the shrubs overgrowing the wall on my left. I made a quick dash forward, tripped against some invisible obstacle stretched across the lane, and went staggering sideways, struggling to preserve my balance. Almost at the same moment two dark forms dropped from the shelter of the shrubs on to the lane by my side. I felt the soft splash of a wet cloth upon my cheeks, an arm round my neck, and the sickening odour of chloroform in my nostrils. But already I had regained by balance. I wrenched myself free from the arm, and was suddenly blinded by the glare of a small electric hand-light within a foot of my face. I struck a sweeping blow at it with my stick, and from the soft impact it seemed to me that the blow must have descended upon the head of one of my assailants. I heard a groan, and I saw the shadowy form of the second man spring at me. What followed was not, I believe, cowardice on my part, for my blood was up and my sense of fear gone. I dashed my stick straight at the approaching figure, and I leaped forward and ran. I had won the hundred yards and the quarter of a mile at Oxford, and I was in fair training. I knew how to get off fast, and after the first dozen yards I felt that I was safe. The footsteps which had started in pursuit ceased in a few minutes. Breathless, but with the dispatch-box safe under my arm, I sprinted across the marsh, and never paused till I reached the road. Then I looked back and listened. I could see or hear nothing, but from one of the top rooms in the Grange a faint but steady light was shining out.
LADY ANGELA APPROVES
It was the only breath of fresh air which I had allowed myself all the morning, though the dazzling sunlight and the soft west wind had tempted me all the time. And now, as ill luck would have it, I had walked straight into the presence of the one person in the world whom I wished most earnestly to avoid. She was standing on the edge of the cliff, her hands behind her, gazing seawards, and though I stopped short at the sight of her, and for a moment entertained wild thoughts of flight, it was not possible for me to carry them out. A dry twig snapped beneath my feet, and, turning quickly round, she had seen me. She came forward at once, and for some reason or other I knew that she was glad. She smiled upon me almost gaily.
"So this sunshine has even tempted you out, Sir Hermit," she exclaimed. "Is it not good to feel the Spring coming?"
"Delightful," I answered.
She looked at me curiously.
"How pale you are!" she said. "You are working too hard, Mr. Ducaine."
"I came down from London by the mail last night," I said. "I saw Colonel Ray—had dinner with him, in fact."
She nodded, but asked me no questions.
"I think," she said abruptly, "that they are all coming down here in a few days. I heard from my father this morning."
"I have been very unfortunate, Lady Angela," I said. "Your father is displeased with me. I think that but for Colonel Ray I should have been dismissed yesterday."
"Is it about—the Prince of Malors?" she asked in a low tone.
"Partly. I was forced to tell what I knew." She hesitated for a moment, then she turned impulsively toward me.
"You were right to tell them, Mr. Ducaine," she said. "I have hated myself ever since the other night when I seemed to side against you. There are things going on about us which I cannot fathom, and sometimes I have fears, terrible fears. But your course at least is a clear one. Don't let yourself be turned aside by any one. My father has prejudices which might lead him into grievous errors. Trust Colonel Ray—no one else. Yours is a dangerous position, but it is a splendid one. It means a career and independence. If there should come a time even—"
She broke off abruptly in her speech. I could see that she was agitated, and I thought that I knew the cause.
"Lady Angela," I said slowly, "would it not be possible for you and Colonel Ray to persuade Lord Blenavon to go abroad?"
She swayed for a moment as though she would have fallen, and her eyes looked at me full of fear.
"You think—that it would be better?"
"It would break my father's heart," she murmured, "if ever he could be brought to believe it."
"The more reason why Lord Blenavon should go," I said. "He is set between dangerous influences here. Lady Angela, can you tell me where your brother was last night?"
"How should I?" she answered slowly. "He tells me nothing."
"He was not at home?"
"He dined at home. I think that he went out afterwards."
"And if he returned at all," I said, "I think you will find that it was after three o'clock."
She came a little nearer to me, although indeed we were in a spot where there was no danger of being overheard.'
"What do you know about it?"
"Am I not right?" I asked.
"He did not return at all," she answered. "He is not home yet."
I had believed from the first that Blenavon was one of my two assailants. Now I was sure of it.
"When he does come back," I remarked grimly, "you may find him more or less damaged."
"Mr. Ducaine," she said, "you must explain yourself."
I saw no reason why I should not do so. I told her the story of my early morning adventure. She listened with quivering lips.
"You were not hurt, then?" she asked eagerly.
"I was not hurt," I assured her. "I was fortunate."
"Tell me what measures you are taking," she begged.
"What can I do?" I asked. "It was pitch dark, and I could identify no one. I am writing Colonel Ray. That is all."
"That hateful woman," she murmured. "Mr. Ducaine, I believe that if Blenavon is really concerned in this, it is entirely through her influence."
"Very likely," I answered. "I have heard strange things about her. She is a dangerous woman."
We were both silent for a moment. Then Lady Angela, whose eyes were fixed seawards, suddenly turned to me.
"Oh," she cried, "I am weary of all these bothers and problems and anxieties. Let us put them away for one hour of this glorious morning. Dare you play truant for a little while and walk on the sands?"
"I think so," I answered readily, "if you will wait while I go and put Grooton in charge."
"I will be scrambling down," she declared. "It is not a difficult operation."
I joined her a few minutes later, and we set our faces toward the point of the bay. Over our heads the seagulls were lazily drifting and wheeling, the quiet sea stole almost noiselessly up the firm yellow sands. Farther over the marshes the larks were singing. Inland, men like tiny specks in the distance were working upon their farms. We walked for a while in silence, and I found myself watching my companion. Her head was thrown slightly back, she walked with all the delightful grace of youth and strength, yet there was a cloud which still lingered upon her face.
"These," I said abruptly "should be the happiest days of your life, Lady Angela. After all, is it worth while to spoil them by worrying about other people's doings?"
"Other people's doings?" she murmured.
I shrugged my shoulders.
"Selfishness, you know, is the permitted vice of the young—and of lovers."
"Blenavon can scarcely rank amongst the other people with me," she said. "He is my only brother."
"Colonel Ray is to be your husband," I reminded her, "which is far more important."
She turned upon me with flaming cheeks.
"You do not understand what you are talking about, Mr. Ducaine," she said, stiffly. "Colonel Ray and I are not lovers. You have no right to assume anything of the sort."
"If you are not lovers," I said, "what right have you to marry?"
She seemed a little staggered, as indeed she might be by my boldness.
"You are very mediaeval," she remarked.
"The mediaeval sometimes survives. It is as true now as then that loveless marriages are a curse and a sin," I answered. "It is the one thing which remains now as it was in the beginning."
She looked at me furtively, almost timidly.
"I should like to know why you are speaking to me like this," she said. "I do not want to seem unkind, but do you think that the length of our acquaintance warrants it?"
"I do not know how long I have known you," I answered. "I do not remember the time when I did not know you. You are one of those people to whom I must say the things which come into my mind. I think that if you do not love Colonel Ray you have no right to marry him."
She looked me in the face. Her cheeks were flushed with walking, and the wind had blown her hair into becoming confusion.
"Mr. Ducaine," she said, "do you consider that Colonel Ray is your friend?"
"He has been very good to me," I answered.
"There is something between you two. What is it?"
"It is not my secret," I told her.
"There is a secret, then," she murmured. "I knew it. Is this why you do not wish me to marry him?"
"I have not said that I do not wish you to marry him," I reminded her.
"Not in words. You had no need to put it into words."
"You are very young," I said, "to marry any one for any other reason save the only true one. Some day there might be some one else."
She watched the flight of a seagull for a few moments—watched it till its wings shone like burnished silver as it lit upon the sun-gilded sea.
"I do not think so," she said, dreamily. "I have never fancied myself caring very much for any one. It is not easy, you know, for some of us."
"And for some," I murmured, "it is too easy."
She looked at me curiously, but she had no suspicion as to the meaning of my words.
"I want you to tell me something," she said, in a few minutes. "Have you any other reason beyond this for objecting to my marriage with Colonel Ray?"
"If I have," I answered slowly, "I cannot tell it you. It is his secret, not mine."
"You are mysterious!" she remarked.
"If I am," I objected, "you must remember that you are asking me strange questions."
"Colonel Ray is too honest," she said, thoughtfully, "to keep anything from me which I ought to know."
I changed the conversation. After all I was a fool to have blundered into it. We talked of other and lighter things. I exerted myself to shake off the depression against which I had been struggling all the morning. By degrees I think we both forgot some part of our troubles. We walked home across the sandhills, climbing gradually higher and higher, until we reached the cliffs. On all sides of us the coming change in the seasons seemed to be vigorously asserting itself. The plovers were crying over the freshly-turned ploughed fields, a whole world of wild birds and insects seemed to have imparted a sense of movement and life to what only a few days ago had been a land of desolation, a country silent and winterbound. Colour was asserting itself in all manner of places—in the green of the sprouting grass, the shimmer of the sun upon the sea-stained sands, in the silvery blue of the Braster creeks. Lady Angela drew a long breath of content as we paused for a moment at the summit of the cliffs.
"And you wonder," she murmured, "that I left London for this!"
"Yes, I still wonder," I answered. "The beauties of this place are for the lonely—I mean the lonely in disposition. For you life in the busy places should just be opening all her fascinations. It is only when one is disappointed in the more human life that one comes back to Nature."
"Perhaps then," she said, a little vaguely, "I too must be suffering from disappointments. I have never realized—"
We had taken the last turn. My cottage was in sight. To my surprise a man was standing there as though waiting. He turned round as we approached. His face was very pale, and the back of his head was bandaged. He carried his arm, too, in a sling. It was Colonel Mostyn Ray!
MISS MOYAT MAKES A SCENE
Ray was smoking his customary enormous pipe, which he deliberately emptied as Lady Angela and I approached. The sight of him and the significance of his wounds reduced me to a state of astonishment which could find no outlet in words. I simply stood and stared at him. Lady Angela, however, after her first exclamation of surprise, went up and greeted him.
"Why, my dear Mostyn," she exclaimed, "wherever have you sprung from, and what have you been doing to yourself?"
"I came from London—newspaper train," he answered.
"And your head and arm?"
"Thrown out of a hansom last night," he said grimly.
We were all silent for a moment. So far as I was concerned, speech was altogether beyond me. Lady Angela, too, seemed to find something disconcerting in Ray's searching gaze.
"My welcome," he remarked quietly, "does not seem to be overpowering."
Lady Angela laughed, but there was a note of unreality in her mirth.
"You must expect people to be amazed, Mostyn," she said, "if you treat them to such surprises. Of course I am glad to see you. Have you seen Blenavon yet?"
"I have not been to the house," he answered. "I came straight here."
"And your luggage?" she asked.
"Lost," he answered tersely. "I only just caught the train, and the porter seems to have missed me."
"You appear to have passed through a complete chapter of mishaps," she remarked. "Never mind! You must want your lunch very badly, or do you want to talk to Mr. Ducaine?"
"Next to the walk up to the house with you," he answered, "I think that I want my lunch more than anything in the world."
Lady Angela smiled her farewells at me, and Ray nodded curtly. I watched them pass through the plantation and stroll across the Park. There was nothing very loverlike in their attitude. Ray seemed scarcely to be glancing towards his companion; Lady Angela had the air of one absorbed in thought. I watched them until they disappeared, and then I entered my own abode and sat down mechanically before the lunch which Grooton had prepared. I ate and drank as one in a dream. Only last night Ray had said nothing about coming to Braster. Yet, there he was, without luggage, with his arm and head bound up. Just like this I expected to see the man whom I had struck last night.
Now though Ray's attitude towards me was often puzzling, an absolute faith in his honesty was the one foundation which I had felt solid beneath my feet during these last few weeks of strange happenings. This was the first blow which my faith had received, and I felt that at any cost I must know the truth. After lunch I finished the papers which, when complete, it was my duty to lock away in the library safe up at the house, and secured them in my breast-pocket. But instead of going at once to the house I set out for Braster Junction.
There was a porter there whom I had spoken to once or twice. I called him on one side.
"Can you tell me," I asked, "what passengers there were from London by the newspaper train this morning?"
"None at all, sir," the man answered readily.
"Are you quite sure?" I asked.
The man smiled.
"I'm more than sure, sir," the man answered, "because she never stopped. She only sets down by signal now, and we had the message 'no passengers' from Wells. She went through here at forty miles an hour."
"I was expecting Colonel Ray by that train," I remarked, "the gentleman who lectured on the war, you know, at the Village Hall."
The man looked at me curiously.
"Why, he came down last night, same train as you, sir. I know, because he only got out just as the train was going on, and he stepped into the station master's house to light his pipe."
"Thank you," I said, giving the man a shilling. "I must have just missed him, then."
I left the station and walked home. Now, indeed, all my convictions were upset. Colonel Ray had left me outside his clubhouse last night, twenty minutes before the train started, without a word of coming to Braster. Yet he travelled down by the same train, avoided me, lied to Lady Angela and myself this morning, and had exactly the sort of wounds which I had inflicted upon that unknown assailant who attacked me in the darkness. If circumstantial evidence went for anything, Ray himself had been my aggressor.
I avoided the turn by Braster Grange and went straight on to the village. Coming out of the post office I found myself face to face with Blanche Moyat. She held out her hand eagerly.
"Were you coming in?" she asked.
"Well, not to-day," I answered. "I am on my way to Rowchester, and I am late already."
She kept by my side.
"Come in for a few moments," she begged, in a low tone. "I want to talk to you."
"Not the old subject, I hope," I remarked.
She looked around with an air of mystery.
"Do you know that some one is making inquiries about—that man?"
"I always thought it possible," I answered, "that his friends might turn up some time or other."
We were opposite the front of the Moyats' house. She opened the door and beckoned me to follow. I hesitated, but eventually did so. She led the way into the drawing-room, and carefully closed the door after us.
"Mr. Ducaine," she said, "I mean it, really. There is some one in the village making inquiries—about—the man who was found dead."
"Well," I said, "that is not very surprising, is it? His friends were almost certain to turn up sooner or later."
"His friends! But do you know who it is?" she asked.
I sank resignedly into one of Mrs. Moyat's wool-work covered chairs. An absurd little canary was singing itself hoarse almost over my head. I half closed my eyes. How many more problems was I to be confronted with during these long-drawn-out days of mystery?
"Oh, I do not know," I declared. "I am sure I do not care. I am sorry that I ever asked you for one moment to keep your counsel about the fellow. I never saw him, I do not know who he was, I know nothing about him. And I don't want to, Miss Moyat. He may have been prince or pedlar for anything I care."
"Well, he wasn't an ordinary person, after all," she declared, with an air of mystery. "Have you heard of the lady who's taken Braster Grange? She's a friend of Lord Blenavon's. He's always there."
"I have heard that there is such a person," I answered wearily.
"She's been making inquiries right and left—everywhere. There's a notice in yesterday's Wells Gazette, and a reward of fifty pounds for any one who can give any information about him sufficient to lead to identification."
"If you think," I said, "that you can earn the pounds, pray do not let me stand in your way."
She looked at me with a fixed intentness which I found peculiarly irritating.
"You don't think that I care about the fifty pounds," she said, coming over and standing by my chair.
"Then why take any notice of the matter at all?" I said. "All that you can disclose is that he came from the land and not from the sea, and that he asked where I lived. Why trouble yourself or me about the matter at all? There really isn't any necessity. Some one else probably saw him besides you, and they will soon find their way to this woman."
"It was only to me," she murmured, "that he spoke of you."
"Do you believe," I asked, "that I murdered him?"
"No, of course I don't," she declared.
"Then why all this nervousness and mystery?" I asked. "I have no fear of anything which might happen. Why should you be afraid?"
"I am not afraid," she said slowly, "but there is something about it which I do not understand. Ever since that morning you have avoided me."
"Nonsense!" I exclaimed.
"It is not nonsense," she answered. "It is the truth. You used to come sometimes to see father—and now you never come near the place. It is—too bad of you," she went on, with a little sob. "I thought that after that morning, and my promising to do what you asked, that we should be greater friends than ever. Instead of that you have never been near us since. And I don't care who knows it. I am miserable."
She was leaning against the arm of my chair. It was clearly my duty to administer the consolation which the situation demanded. I realized, however, that the occasion was critical, and I ignored her proximity.
"Miss Moyat," I said, "I am sorry if asking you to tell that harmless little fib has made you miserable. I simply desired—"
"It isn't altogether that," she interrupted. "You know it isn't."
"You give me credit for greater powers of divination than I possess," I answered calmly. "Your father was always very kind to me, and I can assure you that I have not forgotten it. But I have work to do now, and I have scarcely an hour to spare. Mr. Moyat would understand it, I am sure."
The door was suddenly opened. Mrs. Moyat, fat and comely, came in. She surveyed us both with a friendly and meaning smile, which somehow made my cheeks burn. It was no fault of mine that Blanche had been hanging over my chair.
"Come," she said, "I'm sure I'm very glad to see you once more, Mr. Ducaine. Such a stranger as you are too! But you don't mean to sit in here without a fire all the afternoon, I suppose, Blanche. Tea is just ready in the dining-room. Bring Mr. Ducaine along, Blanche."
I held out my hand.
"I am sorry that I cannot stop, Mrs. Moyat," I said. "Good-afternoon, Miss Moyat."
She looked me in the eyes.
"You are not going," she murmured.
"I am afraid," I answered, "that it is imperative. I ought to have been at Rowchester long ago. We are too near neighbours, though, not to see something of one another again before long."
"Well, I'm sure there's no need to hurry so," Mrs. Moyat declared, backing out of the room. "Blanche, you see if you can't persuade Mr. Ducaine. Father'll be home early this evening, too."
"I think," Blanche said, "that Mr. Ducaine has made up his mind."
She walked with me to the hall door, but she declined to shake hands with me. Her appearance was little short of tragic. I think that at another time I might have been amused, for never in my life had I spoken more than a few courteous words to the girl. But my nerves were all on edge, and I took her seriously. I walked down the street, leaving her standing in the threshold with the door open as though anxious to give me a chance to return if I would. I looked back at the corner, and waved my hand. There was something almost threatening in the grim irresponsive figure, standing watching me, and making no pretence at returning my farewell—watching me with steady eyes and close-drawn brows.
MOSTYN RAY EXPLAINS
I walked straight to the House, and locked up my papers in the great safe. I had hoped to escape without seeing either Ray or Lady Angela, but as I crossed the hall they issued from the billiard-room. Lady Angela turned towards me eagerly.
"Mr. Ducaine," she exclaimed, "have you seen anything of Lord Blenavon to-day?"
I shook my head.
"I have not seen him for several days, Lady Angela," I answered.
Ray said something to her which I could not hear. She nodded and left us together.
"It seems," he said, "that this amiable young gentleman is more or less in the clutches of our siren friend at Braster Grange. I think that you and I had better go and dig him out."
"Thank you," I answered, "but I had all I wanted of Braster Grange last night."
"Pooh!" he answered lightly, "you are not even scratched. They are clumsy conspirators there. I think that you and I are a match for them. Come along!"
"You must excuse me, Colonel Ray," I said, "but I have no desire to visit Braster Grange, even with you."
Lady Angela, whose crossing the hall had been noiseless, suddenly interposed.
"You are quite right, Mr. Ducaine," she said; "but this is no visit of courtesy, is it? I am sure that my brother would never stay there voluntarily. Something must have happened to him."
"We will go and see," Ray declared. "Come along, Ducaine."
I hesitated, but a glance from Lady Angela settled the matter. For another such I would have walked into hell. Ray and I started off together, and I was not long before I spoke of the things which were in my mind.
"Colonel Ray," I said, "when I saw you this morning you made two statements, both of which were false."
Ray brought out his pipe and began to fill it in leisurely fashion.
"Go on," he said. "What were they?"
"The first was that you had come down from London by the newspaper train this morning, and the second was that you had received your injuries in a hansom cab accident."
His pipe was started, and he puffed out dense volumes of smoke with an air of keen enjoyment.
"Worst of having a woman for your hostess," he remarked, "one can't smoke except a sickly cigarette or two. You should take to a pipe, Ducaine."
"Will you be good enough to explain those two misstatements, Colonel Ray?"
"Lies, both of them!" he answered, with grim cheerfulness. "Rotten lies, and I hate telling 'em. The hansom cab accident must have sounded a bit thin."
"It did," I assured him.
He removed his pipe from his teeth, and pushed down the tobacco with the end of his finger.
"I came down from town by the same train that you did," he said, "and as for my broken head and smashed arm, you did it yourself."
"I imagined so," I answered. "Perhaps you will admit that you owe me some explanation." He laughed, a deep bass laugh, and looked down at me with a gleam of humour in his black eyes.
"Come," he said, "I think that the boot is on the other leg. My head is exceedingly painful and my leg is very stiff. For a young man of your build you have a most surprising muscle."
"I am to understand, then, that it was you who committed an unprovoked assault upon me—who planned to have me waylaid in that dastardly fashion?"
"Do you think," Ray asked quietly, "that I should be such a damned fool?"
"What am I to think, then, what am I to believe?" I asked, with a sudden anger. "You found me starving, and you gave me employment, but ever since I started my work life has become a huge ugly riddle. Are you my friend or my enemy? I do not know. There is a drama being played out before my very eyes. The figures in it move about me continually, yet I alone am blindfolded. I am trusted to almost an incredible extent. Great issues are confided to me. I have been given such a post as a man might work for a lifetime to secure. Yet where a little confidence would give me zest for my work—would take away this horrible sense of moving always in the darkness—it is withheld from me."
Ray smoked on in silence for several moments.
"Well," he said, "I am not sure that you are altogether unreasonable. But, on the other hand, you must not forget that there is method, and a good deal of it, in the very things of which you complain. There are certain positions in which a man may find himself where a measure of ignorance is a blessed thing. Believe me, that if you understood, your difficulties would increase instead of diminish."
I shrugged my shoulders.
"But between you and me at least, Colonel Ray," I said, "there is a plain issue. You can explain the events of last night to me."
"I will do that," he answered, "since you have asked it. Briefly, then, I parted from you on the steps of my club at a few minutes past nine last night."
"I saw from the moment we appeared that you were being watched. I saw the man who was loitering on the pavement lean over to hear the address you gave to the cabman, and you were scarcely away before he was following you. But it was only just as he drove by, leaning a little forward in his hansom, that I saw his face. I recognized him for one of that woman's most dangerous confederates, and I knew then that some villainy was on foot. To cut a long story short, I came down unobserved in your train, followed you to Braster Grange, and was only a yard or two behind when this fellow, who acts as the woman's chauffeur, sprang out upon you. I was unfortunately a little two quick to the rescue, and received a smash on the head from your stick. Then you bolted, and I found myself engaged with a pair of them. On the whole I think that they got the worst of it."
"The other one—was Lord Blenavon!" I exclaimed.
"Then he is concerned in the plots which are going on against us," I continued. "I felt certain of it. What a blackguard!"
"For his sister's sake," Colonel Ray said softly, "I want to keep him out of it if I can. Therefore I hit him a little harder than was necessary. He should be hors de combat for some time."
"But why didn't you cry out to me?" I said. "I should not have run if I had known that I had an ally there."
"To run was exactly what I wanted you to do," Ray answered. "You had the dispatch-box, and I wanted to see you safe away."
I glanced at his bandaged head and arm.
"I suppose that I ought to apologize to you," I said.
"Under the circumstances," he declared, "we will cry quits."
Then as we walked together in the glittering spring sunshine, this big silent man and I, there came upon me a swift, poignant impulse, the keener perhaps because of the loneliness of my days, to implore him to unravel all the things which lay between us. I wanted the story of that night, of my concern in it, stripped bare. Already my lips were opened, when round the corner of the rough lane by which Braster Grange was approached on this side came a doctor's gig. Ray shaded his eyes and gazed at its occupant.
"Is this Bouriggs, Ducaine?" he asked, "the man who shot with us?"
"It is Dr. Bouriggs," I answered.
Ray stopped the gig and exchanged greetings with the big sandy-haired man, who held a rein in each hand as though he were driving a market wagon. They chatted for a moment or two, idly enough, as it seemed to me.
"Any one ill at the Grange, doctor?" Ray asked at length.
The doctor looked at him curiously.
"I have just come from there," he answered. "There is nothing very seriously wrong."
"Can you tell me if Lord Blenavon is there?" Ray asked.
The doctor hesitated.
"It was hinted to me, Colonel Ray," he said, "that my visit to the Grange was not to be spoken of. You will understand, of course, that the etiquette of our profession—"
"Quite right," Ray interrupted. "The fact is, Lady Angela is very anxious about her brother, who did not return to Rowchester last night, and she has sent us out as a search party. Of course, if you were able to help us she would be very gratified."
The doctor hesitated.
"The Duke and, in fact, all the family have always been exceedingly kind to me," he remarked, looking straight between his horse's ears. "Under the circumstances you mention, if you were to assert that Lord Blenavon was at Braster Grange I do not think that I should contradict you."
"Thank you, doctor," he said. "Good morning."
The doctor drove on, and we pursued our way.
"It was a very dark night," Ray said, half to himself, "but if Blenavon was the man I hit he ought to have a cracked skull."
After all, our interrogation of the doctor was quite unnecessary. We were admitted at once to the Grange by a neatly-dressed parlour-maid. Mrs. Smith-Lessing was at home, and the girl did not for a moment seem to doubt her mistress's willingness to receive us. As she busied herself poking the fire and opening wider the thick curtains, Ray asked her another question.
"Do you know if Lord Blenavon is here?"
"Yes, sir," the girl answered promptly. "He was brought in last night rather badly hurt, but he is much better this morning. I will let Mrs. Smith-Lessing know that you are here, sir."
She hurried out, with the rustle of stiff starch and the quick light-footedness of the well-trained servant. Ray and I exchanged glances.