That was all the consolation I had from Colonel Mostyn Ray.
At ten o'clock the next morning the Duke came to me in the study, where I was already at work. He was looking, even for him, particularly trim and smart, and he wore a carefully-selected pink rosebud in his buttonhole. His greeting was almost cordial. He gave me a few instructions, and then lit a cigarette.
"What is this about your resignation, Ducaine?" he asked.
"I do not wish to resign, sir," I answered. "I have explained certain circumstances to Colonel Ray, which it seemed to me might make my resignation necessary. He promised to confer with Lord Cheisford, and let me know the result."
The urbanity slowly faded from the Duke's face.
"I am your employer," he said coldly. "I do not understand why you thought it necessary to go to Colonel Ray."
"It was entirely owing to Colonel Ray, sir," I answered, "that I received the appointment, and he has practically made himself responsible for me."
"You are mistaken," the Duke answered. "The responsibility is shared by all of us. Your unfortunate family history was known to the whole Board."
"Then I am less indebted to Colonel Ray, sir, than I imagined," I answered. "I am very glad, however, that it is known. Perhaps Lord Cheisford may not consider my resignation necessary?"
"The circumstances being—?"
"I have seen and spoken with my father in London," I answered.
The Duke was silent.
"I presume," he said, after a short pause, "that you must yourself realize the indiscretion of this."
"I went at once to Colonel Ray and offered my resignation," I answered.
The Duke nodded.
"Your father," he said slowly, "is in London?" "Yes, sir."
I hesitated. Yet perhaps the Duke had a right to know the truth.
"He is with the lady who occupied Braster Grange, sir, until last week," I answered. "She passed under the name of Mrs. Smith-Lessing, but I believe that she is in reality my stepmother."
The Duke stood a few paces from me, looking out of the window. He held his cigarette between his fingers, and he stood sideways to me. Nothing about his attitude or face was unusual. Yet I felt myself watching him curiously. There was something about his manner which seemed to me to suggest some powerful emotion only kept in check by the exercise of a strong will.
"This is the person, I believe," he said in a slow measured tone, "with whom my son, Lord Blenavon, was said to have been intimate?"
"Lord Blenavon was certainly a constant visitor at Braster Grange," I answered.
"You know her address in London?" the Duke asked.
He turned and faced me. He was certainly paler than he had been a few minutes ago.
"I should be glad," he said, "if you would arrange for me to have an interview with her."
"An interview with Mrs. Smith-Lessing!" I repeated incredulously.
The Duke inclined his head.
"There are a few questions," he said, "which I wish to ask her."
"I can give you her address," I said.
"I wish you to see her and arrange for the interview personally," the. Duke answered.
"You will see that my visiting her does not prejudice me further with the Board, sir?" I ventured to say. "You can take that for granted," the Duke said. So that afternoon I called at No. 29, Bloomsbury Street, and in a shabby back room of a gloomy, smoke-begrimed lodging-house I found my father and Mrs. Smith-Lessing. He was lying upon a horsehair sofa, apparently dozing. She was gazing negligently out of the window, and drumming upon the window pane with her fingers. My arrival seemed to act like an electric shock upon both of them. It struck me that to her it was not altogether welcome, but my father was nervously anxious to impress upon me his satisfaction at my visit.
"Now," he said, drawing his chair up to the table, "we can discuss this little matter in a business-like way. I am delighted to see you, Guy, quite delighted."
"What matter?" I asked quietly.
My father coughed and looked towards my stepmother, as though for guidance. But her face was a blank.
"Guy," he said, "I am sure that you are a young man of common sense. You will prefer that I speak to you plainly. There are some fools at our end—I mean at Paris—who think they will be better off for a glance at the doings of your Military Board. Up to now we have kept them supplied with a little general information. Lord Blenavon, who is a remarkably sensible young man, lent us his assistance. I tell you this quite frankly. I believe that it is best."
He was watching me furtively. I did my best to keep my features immovable.
"With Lord Blenavon's assistance," my father continued, "we did at first very well. Since his—er—departure we have not been so fortunate. I will be quite candid. We have not succeeded at all. Our friends pay generously, but they pay by results. As a consequence your stepmother and I are nearly penniless. This fact induces me to make you a special—a very special—offer."
My stepmother seemed about to speak. She checked herself, however.
"Go on," I said.
My father coughed. There was a bottle upon the table, and he helped himself from it.
"My nerves," he remarked, "are in a shocking state this morning. Can I offer you anything?"
I shook my head. My father poured out nearly a glass full of the raw spirit, diluted it with a little, a very little, water, and drank it off.
"Your labours, my dear boy," he continued, "I refer, of course, to the labours of the Military Council, are, I believe, concentrated upon a general scheme of defence against any possible invasion on the part of France. Quite a scare you people seem to be in. Not that one can wonder at it. These military manoeuvres of our friends across the water are just a little obvious even to John Bull, eh? You don't answer. Quite right, quite right! Never commit yourself uselessly. It is very good diplomacy. Let me see, where was I? Ah! The general scheme of defence is, of course, known to you?"
"Naturally," I admitted.
"With a list of the places to be fortified, eh? The positions to be held and the general distribution of troops? No doubt, too, you have gone into the railway and commissariat arrangements?"
"All these details," I assented, "have gone through my hands."
He dabbed his forehead with a corner of his handkerchief. There was a streak of purple colour in his checks. He kept his bloodshot eyes fixed upon me.
"I will tell you something, Guy," he said, "which will astonish you. You realize for yourself, of course, that such details as you have spoken of can never be kept altogether secret? There are always leakages, sometimes very considerable leakages. Yes, Guy," he added, "there are people, friends of mine in Paris, who are willing to pay a very large sum of money—such a large sum of money that it is worth dividing, Guy—for just a bare outline of the whole scheme. Foolish! Of course it is foolish. But with them money is no object. They think they are getting value for it. Absurd! But, Guy, what should you say to five thousand pounds?"
"It is a large sum," I answered.
He plucked me by the sleeve. His eyes were hungering already for the gold.
"We can get it," he whispered hoarsely. "No trouble to you—no risk. I can make all the arrangements. You have only to hand me the documents."
"I must think it over," I said.
He leaned back in his chair.
"Why?" he asked. "What need is there to hesitate? The chance may slip by. There are many others on the look out."
"There is no one outside the Military Board save myself who could give these particulars," I said slowly.
"But my friends," he said sharply. "Theirs is a foolish offer. They may change their minds. Guy, my boy, I know the world well. Let me give you a word of advice. When a good thing turns up, don't play with it. The men who decide quickly are the men who do things."
I thrust my hand into my breast-pocket and drew out a roll of papers.
"Supposing I have already decided," I said.
His eyes gleamed with excitement. He almost snatched at the papers, but I held them out of his reach. Then with a sharp little cry the woman stood suddenly between us. There was a look almost of horror on her pale strained face, as she held out her hand as though to push me away.
"Guy, are you mad?" she cried.
The veins stood out upon my father's forehead. He regarded her with mingled anger and surprise.
"What do you mean, Maud?" he exclaimed. "How dare you interfere? Guy, give me the papers."
"He shall not!" she exclaimed fiercely. "Guy, have you lost your senses? Do you want to ruin your whole life?"
"Do you mean," I asked incredulously, "that you do not wish me to join you?"
"Join us! For Heaven's sake, no!" she answered fiercely. "Look at your father, an outcast all his life. Do you want to become like him? Do you want to turn the other way whenever you meet an Englishman, to skulk all your days in hiding, to be the scorn even of the men who employ you? Guy, I would sooner see you dead than part with those papers."
"You damned fool!" my father muttered. "Take no notice of her, Guy. Five thousand pounds! I will see it paid to you, every penny of it. And not a soul will ever know!"
My father stood over her, and there was a threat in his face. She did not shrink from him for a moment. She laid her white hands upon my shoulders, and she looked earnestly into my eyes.
"Guy," she said, "even now I do not believe that you meant to be so very, very foolish. But I want you to go away at once. You should never have come. It is not good for you to come near either of us."
I rose obediently. I think that if I had not been there my father would have struck her. He was almost speechless with fury. He poured himself out another glass of brandy with shaking fingers.
"Thank you," I said to her, simply. "I do not think that these papers are worth five thousand. Let me tell you what I came here for. I am a messenger from the Duke of Rowchester."
My father dropped his glass. Mrs. Smith-Lessing looked bewildered.
"The Duke," I said to her, "desires to see you. Can you come to Cavendish Square this afternoon?"
"The Duke?" she murmured.
"He wishes to see you," I repeated. "Shall I tell him that you will call at four o'clock this afternoon, or will you go back with me?"
"Do you mean this?" she asked in a low tone. "I do not understand it. I have never seen the Duke in my life."
"I understand no more than you do," I assured her. "That is the message."
"I do not promise to come," she said. "I must think it over."
My father pushed her roughly away.
"Come, there's been enough of this fooling," he declared roughly. "Guy, sit down again, my boy. We must have another talk about this matter."
I turned upon him in a momentary fit of passion.
"I have no more to say, sir," I declared. "It seems that you are not content with ruining your own life and overshadowing mine. You want to drag me, too, down into the slough."
"You don't understand, my dear boy!"
The door opened and Ray entered. My bundle of papers slipped from my fingers on to the floor in the excitement of the moment.
MYSELF AND MY STEPMOTHER
I Saw then what a man's face may look like when he is stricken with a sudden paralysing fear. I saw my father sit in his chair and shake from head to foot. Ray's black eyes seemed to be flashing upon us all the most unutterable scorn.
"What is this pleasant meeting which I seem to have interrupted, eh?" he asked, with fierce sarcasm. "Quite a family reunion!"
My stepmother, very pale, but very calm, answered him.
"To which you," she said, "come an uninvited guest."
He laughed harshly.
"You shall have others, other uninvited guests, before many hours are past," he declared. "You remember my warning, Ducaine."
My father seemed to me to be on the eve of a collapse. His lips moved, and he mumbled something, but the words were wholly unintelligible. Ray turned to my stepmother.
"When that man," he continued, "had the effrontery to return to this country, he sent his cursed jackal with letters to his son. I intercepted those letters, and I burned them; but I came straight to London, and I found him out. I told him then that I spared him only for the sake of his son. I told him that if ever again he attempted in any way to communicate with him, personally or by letter, nothing should stay my hand. He had a very clear warning. He has chosen to defy me. I only regret, madam, that the law has no hold upon you also."
She turned from him scornfully and laid her hand upon my father's shoulder. Her very touch seemed to impart life to him. His words were not very coherent, but they were comprehensible.
"I kept my word, Ray. Yes, I kept my word," he said. "I never sent for him. Ask him; ask her. We met by accident. I told him my address. That is all. He came here this afternoon with a message from the Duke."
Ray laughed bitterly. There was about his manner a cold and singular aloofness. We were all judged and condemned.
"An invitation to dinner, I presume," he remarked.
"The Duke sent for me," my stepmother said, quietly.
She did not for a moment quail before the scornful disbelief which Ray took no pains to hide.
"You can see for yourself if you like," she continued, "that in a few minutes I shall leave this house, with you, if you are gallant enough to offer me your escort, and I shall go straight to Cavendish Square. You have no imagination, Colonel Ray, or you would not be so utterly surprised. Think for a moment. Does no reason occur to you why the Duke might wish to see me?"
It obviously did. He frowned heavily.
"If this absurd story is true," he said, "and the Duke has really sent to ask news of Blenavon from you—well, he is a bigger fool than I took him for. But there remains something else to be explained. What are those papers?"
My father laid his trembling hands upon them.
"They have nothing to do with you," he explained; "nothing at all! It is a little family matter-between Guy and me. Nothing more. They belong to me. Damn you, Ray, why are you always interfering in my concerns?"
Ray turned to me. There was a look in his eyes which I readily understood. At that moment I think that I hated him.
"What are those papers?" he asked.
"Take them and see," I answered. "If I told you you would not believe me."
He moved a few steps towards them, and then paused. I saw that my father was leaning forward, and in his shaking hand was a tiny gleaming revolver. A certain desperate courage seemed to have come to him.
"Ray," he cried hoarsely, "touch them at your peril!"
There was a moment's breathless silence. Then with an incredibly swift movement my stepmother stepped in between and snatched up the little roll. She glanced behind at the grate, but the fire was almost extinct. With a little gesture of despair she held them out to me. "Take them, Guy," she cried.
Ray stood by my side, and I felt his hand descend like a vice upon my shoulder.
"Give me those papers," he demanded.
I hesitated for a moment. Then I obeyed him. I heard a little sob from behind. The pistol had fallen from my father's shaking fingers, his head had fallen forwards upon his hands. A tardy remorse seemed for a moment to have pierced the husk of his colossal selfishness.
"It is all my fault, my fault!" he muttered.
My stepmother turned upon him, pale to the lips, with blazing eyes.
"You are out of your senses," she exclaimed. "Guy, this man is a bully. All his life it has been his pleasure to persecute the weak and defenceless. The papers are yours. I do not know what they are, nor does he," she added, pointing to where my father still crouched before the table. "Don't let him frighten you into giving them up. He is trying to drag you into the mesh with us. Don't let him! You have nothing to do with us, thank Heaven!"
She stopped suddenly, and snatched the pistol from my father's nerveless grasp. Then her hand flashed out. Ray was covered, and her white fingers never quivered. Even Ray took a quick step backwards.
"Give him back those papers," she commanded.
I intervened, stepping into the line of fire.
"I gave them to him willingly," I told her. "I do not wish to have them back. He is one of my employers, and he has a right to claim them."
I spoke firmly, and she saw that I was at any rate in earnest. Yet the look which she threw upon me was a strange one. I felt that she was disappointed, that a certain measure of contempt too was mingled with her disappointment. She threw the pistol on to the sofa and shrugged her shoulders.
"After all," she said, "I suppose you are right. The whole affair is not worth these heroics. I am ready to go with you to the Duke, Guy, unless Colonel Ray has any contrary orders for us."
Ray turned to me.
"You must come with me at once to my rooms," he said coldly. "This person can find the Duke by herself, if indeed the Duke has sent for her."
I understood then why people hated Ray. There was a vein of positive brutality somewhere in the man's nature.
"I am sorry," I answered him, "but I cannot come to your rooms at present. The Duke is my present employer, and I am here to take Mrs. Smith-Lessing to him. As long as she is willing to accept my escort I shall certainly carry out my instructions."
"Don't be a fool, boy," Ray exclaimed sharply. "I want to give you a last chance before I go to Lord Chelsford."
"I do not think," I answered, "that I care about accepting any favours from you just now, Colonel Ray. Nor am I at all sure that I need them," I added.
He turned on his heel, but at the door he hesitated again.
"Guy," he said in a low tone, "will you speak to me for a moment outside?"
I stood on the landing with him. He closed the door leading into the sitting-room.
"Guy," he said, "you know that if I leave you behind, you link your lot with—them. You will be an outcast and a fugitive all your days. You will have to avoid every place where the English language is spoken. You will never be able to recover your honour, you will be the scorn of all Englishmen and English—women. I speak to you for your mother's sake, boy. You have started life with a cursed heritage. I want to make allowance for it."
I looked him straight in the face.
"I am afraid, Colonel Ray," I said, "that you are not inclined to give me credit for very much common sense. Take those papers to Lord Chelsford. I will come round to your rooms as soon as possible."
He looked at me with eager, searching gaze.
"You mean this?"
"Certainly!" I answered.
He seemed about to say something, but changed his mind. He left me without another word. I stepped back into the sitting-room. My father, with an empty tumbler in his hand, was crouched forward over the table, breathing heavily. My stepmother, with marble 'face and hard set eyes, was leaning forward in her chair, looking into the dying fire. She scarcely glanced at me as I entered.
"Has he gone?" she asked.
"Yes," I answered. "Will you get ready, please? I want to take you to the Duke."
She rose to her feet at once, and moved towards the door. I was left alone with my father, but he never stirred during her absence, nor did I speak to him. She returned in a few minutes, dressed very quietly, and wearing a veil which completely obscured her features. We walked to the corner of the square, and then I called a hansom.
"I know nothing about Lord Blenavon," she said, a little wearily. "I suppose the Duke will not believe that, but it is true."
"You can do no more than tell the truth," I remarked.
"Tell me what he is like—the Duke?" she asked abruptly.
"He is a typical man of his class," I answered. "He is stiff, obstinate, punctilious, with an extreme sense of honour, to gratify which, by-the-bye, he has just deliberately pauperized himself. He will not remind you in the least of Lord Blenavon."
"I should imagine not," she answered.
Then there was a short silence, and I could see that she was crying under her veil. I laid my hand upon hers.
"I am afraid," I said gently, "that I have misled you a little. You are worrying about me, and it isn't half so necessary as you imagine. You thought me mad to listen to my father's offer, and a coward to give up those papers to Ray. Isn't that so?"
My words seemed to electrify her. She pushed up her veil and looked at me eagerly.
"Well? Go on!" she exclaimed.
"There are some things," I said, "which I have made up my mind to tell no one. But at least I can assure you of this. I am not nearly in so desperate a position as you and Colonel Ray seem to think."
She caught hold of my hand and grasped it convulsively. The hard lines seemed to have fallen away from her face. She smiled tremulously.
"Oh, I am glad!" she declared. "I am glad!"
Just then a carriage passed us, and I saw Lady Angela lean a little forward in her seat as though to gain a better view of us.
The Duke was in his study awaiting our arrival. I saw him rise and bow stiffly to my stepmother. Then I closed the door and left them alone.
I wandered through the house, a little at a loss to know what to do with myself. It was too soon to go to Ray, and the work on which I was engaged was all in the study. Just as I passed the drawing-room door, however, it opened suddenly, and Lady Angela came out, talking to a white-haired old gentleman, who carried a stick on which he leaned heavily. He looked at me rather curiously, and then began to hobble down the hall at a great pace. But Lady Angela laid her hand upon his arm.
"Why, Sir Michael," she exclaimed, "this won't do at all. You can't look him in the face and run. Mr. Ducaine, this is Sir Michael Trogoldy."
He swung round and held out his hand. His eyes searched my face eagerly.
"Nephew," he said, "I wanted to meet you, and I didn't want to meet you. God bless my soul! you've got Muriel's eyes and mouth. Come and dine with me one night next week-any night: let me know. Good-bye, good-bye, Lady Angela. God bless you. Here, James, give me your arm down the steps, and whistle for my fellow to draw up. There he is, in the middle of the road, the blockhead."
Lady Angela and I exchanged glances. I think that we should both have laughed but for the tears which we had seen in his eyes.
"Poor old man," she murmured. "He is very nervous and very sensitive. I know that he dreaded seeing you, and yet he came this afternoon for no other purpose. Will you come into the drawing-room for a moment?"
There was a certain stiffness in her manner, which was new to me. She remained standing, and her soft dark eyes were full of grave inquiry.
"Mr. Ducaine," she said, "I passed you just now driving in a hansom with a person—of whom I disapprove. May I know—is it any secret why you were with her?"
"It is no secret at all, Lady Angela," I answered. "I was sent to fetch her by your father."
"By my father?" she repeated incredulously. "Do you mean that she is in this house?"
"Certainly," I answered. "Your father is anxious, I believe, about Lord Blenavon. It occurred to me that he perhaps hoped to get news of him from Mrs. Smith-Lessing. At any rate he sent me for her."
She seemed to me to be trembling a little. Her eyes sought mine almost pathetically. She was afraid of something. In the half-lights she appeared to me then so frail and girlish that a great wave of tenderness swept in upon me. I longed to take her into my arms—even to hold her hands and try to comfort her. Surely to do these things was the privilege of the man who loved her. And I loved her—loved her so that the pain and joy of it were woven together like live things in my heart, fighting always against the grim silence which lay like a seal upon my lips. But there were moments when I was sorely tried, and this was one of them. My eyes fell from hers. I dared not look her in the face.
"Is this—all?" she asked falteringly.
"It is all that I know," I answered.
Then we were silent. With a little sigh she sank down in the corner of a high-backed easy chair. It seemed to me that she was thinner, that something of the delicate childishness of her appearance had passed away since her coming to London. I knew that she was in trouble, and I dared not ask her the cause of it.
"I wish that we were going back to Braster to-morrow," she said suddenly. "Everything and everybody is different here. You seem to spend most of your time trying to avoid me, and—Colonel Ray, I do not know what is the matter with him, but he has become like a walking tragedy."
"I have not tried to avoid you," I said. "I—"
Then I stopped short. Her eyes were fixed upon mine and the lie stuck in my throat. I went on desperately.
"I think," I said, "that if you fancy Colonel Ray is different you should ask him about it."
She shook her head dejectedly.
"I cannot," she said. "Sometimes I am frightened of Colonel Ray. It is like that just now."
"But you should try and get over it," I said gently. "He has strange moods, but you should always remember that he is the man whom you are going to marry. There ought to be every confidence between you, and I know—yes, I know that he is very fond of you."
She leaned a little forward. Her hair was a little dishevelled, her face was almost haggard. Her under lip was quivering like a child's.
"I am afraid of him," she sobbed out suddenly. "I am afraid of him, and I have promised to marry him. Can't somebody—help me?"
Her head fell suddenly forward and was buried in her hands. Her whole frame shook with convulsive weeping, and then suddenly a little white hand shot out towards me. She did not look up, but the hand was there, timid, yet inviting. I dropped on my knee by her side, and I held it in mine.
"Dear Lady Angela," I murmured. "You must not give way like this, you must not! Ray is not used to women, and you are very young. But he loves you, I know that he loves you."
"I don't—want him to love me," she sobbed. "Oh, I know that I am foolish and wicked and childish, but I am afraid of him."
I kept silence, for my own battle was a hard one. The little hand was holding fast to mine. She lay curled up in the corner of the chair, her face hidden, her slim delicate figure shaking every now and then with sobs. All the while I longed passionately to take her into my arms and comfort her.
"Don't!" I begged. "Oh, don't. Ray has told me his story. He has made me his confidant. He has told me how unhappy he has been, and how he loves you. Oh, Lady Angela, what is there I can say? What can I do?"
I was losing my head a little, I think, for her fingers were gripping mine convulsively, warm and tender little fingers which seemed to be drawing me all the while closer to her.
"I am so miserable," she murmured.
Then suddenly her other arm was around my neck, her wet tear-stained face was pressed to mine. I scarcely knew how it happened, but I knew that she was in my arms, and my lips were pressed to hers. A sudden, beautiful wave of colour flooded her cheeks; she smiled gladly up at me. She gave a delicious little sigh of satisfaction and then buried her face on my shoulder. Almost at the same moment Ray entered the room.
She did not at once raise her head, although she pushed me gently away from her at the sound of the opening door. But I, who was standing facing that direction, saw him from the first, a dark stern figure, standing as though rooted to the ground, with the doorhandle still in his hand. For the second time in one day he seemed to have intervened at the precise psychological moment. He did not speak to me, nor I to him. Lady Angela, as though wondering at the silence, turned her head at last, and a little gasping cry broke from her lips.
"Mostyn," she exclaimed. "Is that you?"
For answer he turned towards the wall and flooded the room with electric light. Then he looked at us both intently and mercilessly; only this time I saw that much of his wonderful self-control was wanting. He did not answer Lady Angela. He did not glance towards her.
"You cur!" he cried. "Twice in a day am I to be brought face to face with your cursed treachery? Twice in a day! Lady Angela, may I beg that you will leave us?"
She stood up and faced him, slim and white-faced, yet with her head thrown back and her voice steady.
"Mostyn," she said, "this is my fault. I do not ask for your forgiveness. I have behaved shamefully, but I was miserable, and I forgot. Mr. Ducaine is blameless. It was my fault."
"You will pardon the keenness of my observation," he answered, "but the attitude in which I was unfortunate enough to find you tells its own story. You will oblige me, Lady Angela, by leaving us alone."
I would have spoken, but she held out her hand.
"I think you forget, Colonel Ray," she said, "that this is my house. I am not disposed to leave you and Mr. Ducaine here together in your present mood."
He laughed harshly.
"Are you afraid for your lover?" he asked. "I promise you that I will hold his person sacred."
"Lady Angela," I begged. "Please leave us. I—"
Then came an interruption so unexpected and yet so natural that the whole scene seemed at once to dissolve into bathos. The door was thrown open, and a footman ushered in callers.
"Lady Chelsford and the Marchioness of Cardenne, your ladyship," he announced. "Mrs. and the Misses Colquhoun. Sir George Treherne!"
It was a transformation. The room, with its dull note of tragedy, was suddenly filled with faint perfumes, shaken from the rustling draperies of half a dozen women, a little chorus of light voices started the babel of small-talk, Lady Angela had taken her place behind the large round tea-table and was talking nonsense with the tall young guardsman who had drawn his chair up to her side, and I, with a plate of sandwiches in my hand, nearly ran into Ray, who was carrying a cup of tea. For a quarter of an hour or so we played our parts in the comedy. Then a servant entered the room and whispered in my ear.
"His Grace would be glad to see you in the library, sir."
I rose at once. Angela's eyes were fixed upon mine questioningly. As I passed the table I spoke to her, and purposely raised my voice so that Ray should hear.
"Your father has sent for me, Lady Angela. He is terribly industrious to-day."
She smiled back to me quietly. I lingered in the hall for a minute, and Ray joined me there. He did not speak a word, but he motioned me fiercely to precede him to the library. Directly we entered it was clear that something unusual had happened. The great safe door stood open. Lord Chelsford and the Duke were both awaiting our coming.
I LOSE MY POST
The Duke solemnly closed the door. "Ray," he said, "I am glad that you are here. Something serious has happened. Mr. Ducaine, Lord Chelsford and I desire to ask you a few questions."
I bowed. What was coming I could not indeed imagine, unless Ray had already made the disclosure.
"The word code for the safe to-day was Magenta, I believe?" the Duke asked.
"That is correct, sir," I answered.
"And it was known to whom?"
"To Lord Chelsford, yourself, Colonel Ray, and myself," I answered.
"And what was there in the safe?" the Duke asked.
"The plans for the Guildford Camp, the new map of Surrey pricked for fortifications, and one or two transport schemes," I answered.
"Exactly! Those documents are now all missing."
I strode to the safe and looked in. It was as the Duke had said. The safe was practically empty.
"They were there this morning," I said. "It was arranged that I should examine the contents of the safe the first thing, and take any finished work over to the War Office. Do you remember who has been in the room to-day, sir?"
"Yourself, myself, and the woman whom you brought here an hour or so ago."
"Mrs. Smith-Lessing?" I exclaimed.
"Precisely!" the Duke remarked, drily.
"Did you leave her alone here?" I asked.
"For two minutes only," the Duke answered. "I was called up on the telephone from the House of Lords. I did not imagine that there could be the slightest risk in leaving her, for without the knowledge of that word Magenta the safe would defy a professional locksmith."
"You will forgive my suggesting it, your Grace," I said, with some hesitation, "but you have not, I presume, had occasion to go to the safe during the day?"
"I have not," the Duke answered tersely.
"Then I cannot suggest any explanation of the opening of the safe," I admitted. "It was impossible for Mrs. Smith-Lessing to have opened it unless she knew the code word."
"The question is," the Duke said quietly, "did she know it?"
Then I realized the object of this cross-examination. The colour flared suddenly into my cheeks, and as suddenly left them. The absence of those papers was extraordinary to me. I utterly failed to understand it.
"I think I know what you mean, sir," I said. "It is true that Mrs. Smith-Lessing is my stepmother. I believe it is true, too, that she is connected with the French Secret Police. I was there this afternoon—you yourself sent me. But I did not tell Mrs. Smith-Lessing the code word, and I know nothing of the disappearance of those documents."
Then Ray moved forward and placed deliberately upon the table the roll of papers which I had given up to him a few hours ago.
"What about these?" he asked, with biting scorn. "Tell the Duke and Lord Cheisford where I found them! Let us hear your glib young tongue telling the truth for once, sir."
Both the Duke and Lord Chelsford were obviously startled. Ray had always been my friend and upholder. He spoke now with very apparent enmity.
"Perhaps you would prefer to tell the story yourself," I answered. "I will correct you if it is necessary."
"Very well," he answered. "I will tell the story, and a pitiful one it is. This boy is watched, as we all know, for, owing to my folly in ignoring his antecedents, a great trust has been reposed in him. News was brought to me that he had been seen with his father and Mrs. Smith-Lessing in Gattini's Restaurant. Later, that he had found his way to their lodging. I followed him there. He may have gone there with an errand from you, Duke, but when I arrived he was doing a little business on his own account, and these papers were in the act of passing from him to his father."
"What are they?" Lord Chelsford asked.
"Your Lordship may recognize them," I answered quietly. "They are a summary of the schemes of defence of the southern ports. I was at that moment, the moment when Colonel Ray entered, considering an offer of five thousand pounds for them."
Even Ray was staggered at my admission, and the Duke looked as though he could scarcely believe his ears. Lord Chelsford was busy looking through the papers.
"You young blackguard," Ray muttered through his teeth. "After that admission, do you still deny that you told Mrs. Smith-Lessing, or whatever the woman calls herself, the code word for that safe?"
"Most certainly I deny it," I answered firmly. "The two things are wholly disconnected."
The Duke sat down heavily in his chair. I knew very well that of the three men he was the most surprised. Lord Cheisford carefully placed the papers which he had been reading in his breast-pocket. Ray leaned over towards him.
"Lord Chelsford," he said, "and you, Duke, you took this young man on trust, and I pledged my word for him. Like many a better man, I made a mistake. For all that we know he has secret copies of all the work he has done for us, ready to dispose of. What in God's name, are we going to do with him?"
"What do you suggest?" Lord Chelsford asked softly.
"My way would not be yours," Ray answered, with a hard laugh. "I am only half civilized, you know, and if he and I were alone in the desert at this moment I would shoot him without remorse. Such a breach of trust as this deserves death."
"We are, unfortunately," Lord Cheisford remarked, "not in a position to adopt such extreme measures. It would not even be wise for us to attempt to formulate a legal charge against him. The position is somewhat embarrassing. What do you suggest, Duke?"
I glanced towards the Duke, and I was surprised to see that his hands were shaking. For a man who rarely displayed feeling the Duke seemed to be wonderfully affected.
"I can suggest nothing," he answered in a low tone. "I must confess that I am bewildered. These matters have developed so rapidly."
Lord Cheisford looked thoughtful for a moment.
"I have a plan in my mind," he said slowly. "Duke, should I be taking a liberty if I asked to be left alone with this young man for five minutes?"
The Duke rose slowly to his feet. He had the air of one not altogether approving of the suggestion. Ray glowered upon us both, but offered no objection. They left the room together. Lord Cheisford at once turned to me.
"Ducaine," he said, "forgive me that I did not come to your aid. I will see that you do not suffer later on. But what in Heaven's name is the meaning of this last abstraction' from the safe?"
I shook my head.
"The woman could never have guessed the word!" I said.
"Impossible!" he agreed. "Ducaine, do you know why Lord Blenavon left England so suddenly?"
"Colonel Ray knows, sir," I answered. "Ask him!"
Lord Chelsford became very thoughtful.
"Ducaine," he said, "we are in a fix. So far your plan has worked to perfection. Paris has plenty of false information, and your real copies have all reached me safely. But if you leave, how is this to be carried on? I do not know whom I mistrust, but if the day's work of the Board is really to be left in 'the safe, either here or at Braster—"
"You must choose my successor yourself, sir," I interrupted.
"The Duke has always opposed my selections. Besides, you have prepared your false copies with rare skill. Even I was deceived for a moment just now by your summary. You don't overdo it. Everything is just a little wrong. I am not sure even now whether I should not do better to tell Ray and the Duke the truth."
"I am in your hands, sir," I answered. "You must do as you think best."
"They will be back in a moment. It is absurd to doubt either of them, Ducaine. Yet I shall keep silent. I have an idea. Agree to everything I say."
The Duke and Ray returned together. Lord Chelsford turned to them.
"Mr. Ducaine," he said, coldly, "persists in his denial of any knowledge of to-day's affair. With regard to the future, I have offered him his choice of an arrest on the charge of espionage, or a twelve months' cruise on the Ajax, which leaves to-morrow for China. He has chosen the latter. I shall take steps of course to see that he is not allowed to land at any calling-place, or dispatch letters."
Ray smiled a little cruelly.
"The idea is an excellent one, Chelsford," he said. "When did you say that the Ajax sailed?"
"To-morrow," Lord Cheisford answered. "I propose to take Mr. Ducaine to my house to-night, and to hand him over to the charge of a person on whom I can thoroughly rely."
The Duke looked at me curiously.
"Mr. Ducaine consents to go?" he asked.
"It is a voyage which I have long desired to take," I answered coolly, "though I never expected to enjoy it at my country's expense."
The Duke rang the bell.
"Will you have Mr. Ducaine's things packed and sent across—did you say to your house, Lord Chelsford?"
"To my house," Lord Chelsford assented.
"To No. 19, Grosvenor Square," the Duke ordered. "Mr. Ducaine will not be returning."
Lord Chelsford rose. I followed his example. Neither the Duke nor Ray attempted any form of farewell. The former, however, laid some notes upon the table.
"I believe, Mr. Ducaine," he said, "that there is a month's salary due to you. I have added something to the amount. Until to-day I have always considered your duties admirably fulfilled."
I looked at the notes and at the Duke.
"I thank your Grace," I answered. "I will take the liberty of declining your gift. My salary has been fully paid."
For a moment I fancied I caught a softer gleam in Ray's eyes. He seemed about to speak, but checked himself. Lord Chelsford hurried me from the room, and into his little brougham, which was waiting.
"Do you really mean me to go to China, sir?" I asked him, anxiously.
"Not I!" he answered. "I am going to send you to Braster."
LORD CHELSFORD'S DIPLOMACY
I dined alone with Lord and Lady Chelsford. From the moment of our arrival at Chelsford House my host had encouraged nothing but the most general conversation. It happened that they were alone, as a great dinner party had been postponed at the last moment owing to some Royal indisposition. Lord Chelsford in his wife's presence was careful to treat me as an ordinary guest; but directly she had left the room and we were alone he abandoned his reticence.
"Mr. Ducaine," he said, "from the time of our last conversation at the War Office and our subsequent tete-a-tete I have reposed in you the most implicit confidence."
"I have done my best, sir," I answered, "to deserve it."
"I believe you," he declared. "I am going now to extend it. I am going to tell you something which will probably surprise you very much. Since the first time when you found your documents tampered with, every map and every word of writing entrusted to the safe, either at Braster House or Cavendish Square, has been got at. Exact copies of them are in Paris to-day."
I looked at him in blank amazement. The thing seemed impossible.
"But in very many cases," I protested, "the code word for opening the safe has been known only to Colonel Ray, the Duke, and myself."
"The fact remains as I have stated it," Lord Chelsford said slowly. "My information is positive. When you came to me and suggested that you should make two copies of everything, one correct, one a mass of incorrectness, I must admit that I thought the idea farfetched and unworkable. Events, however, have proved otherwise. I have safely received everything which you sent me, and up to the present, with the exception of that first plan of the Winchester forts, our secrets are unknown. But now we have come to a deadlock."
"If you do not mind telling me, Lord Chelsford, I should very much like to know why you did not explain the exact circumstances to Ray and the Duke this afternoon."
Lord Chelsford nodded.
"I thought that you would ask that," he said. "It is not altogether an easy question to answer. Remember this. The French War Office are to-day in possession of an altogether false scheme of our proposed defences—a scheme which, if they continue to regard it as genuine, should prove nothing short of disastrous to them. Only you and I are in the secret at present. Positively I did not feel that I cared to extend that knowledge to a single other person."
"But you might have told Colonel Ray and the Duke separately," I remarked. "The Duke has never been my friend, and Ray has other causes for being angry with me just at present; but between them they rescued me from something like starvation, and it is terrible for them to think of me as they are doing now."
Lord Chelsford poured himself out a glass of wine, and held it up to the light for a moment.
"Mr. Ducaine," he said, "a secret is a very subtle thing. Though the people who handle it are men of the most unblemished honour and reputation, still the fewer they are, the safer the life of that secret."
"But the Duke and Colonel Ray!" I protested.
"I might remind you," Lord Chelsford said, smiling, "that those are precisely the two persons who shared with you the knowledge of the word which opened the safe."
"I presume that you do not suspect either of them?" I remarked.
"The absurdity is obvious," Lord Cheisford answered. "But the force of my former remark remains. I like that secret better when it rests between you and me. It means, I know, that for a time—I promise you that it shall be only for a time—you must lose your friends, but the cause is great enough, and it should be within our power to reward you later on."
"Oh, I am willing enough," I answered. "But may I ask what you are going to do with me?"
Lord Chelsford smoked in silence for several moments.
"Mr. Ducaine," he said, "who is there in the household of the Duke who opens that safe and copies those papers? Who is the traitor?"
"God only knows!" I answered. "It is a hopeless mystery."
"Yet we must solve it," Lord Chelsford said, "and quickly. If a single batch of genuine maps and plans were tampered with, disparities would certainly appear, and the thing might be suspected. Besides, upon the face of it, the thing is terribly serious."
"You have a plan," I said.
"I have," Lord Chelsford answered calmly. "You remember Grooton?"
"Certainly! He was a servant at Braster."
"And the very faithful servant of his country also," Lord Chelsford remarked. "You know, I believe, that he was a secret service man. He is entirely safe, and I have sent for him. Now I imagine that the Duke will wish our new secretary to live still at the 'Brand'—he preferred it in your case, as you will remember. Our new secretary is going to be my nephew. He is very stolid and honest, and fortunately not a chatterbox. He is going to be the nominal secretary, but I want you to be the one who really does the work."
"I am afraid I don't understand!" I was forced to admit.
"It will mean," Lord Cheisford said, "some privation and a great deal of inconvenience for you. But I am going to ask you to face it, for the end to be gained is worth it. I want you also to be at the 'Brand,' but to lie hidden all the day time. You can have one of the upstair rooms fitted as a writing room. Then you and my nephew can do the transposition. And beyond all that I want you to think—to think and to watch."
My heart leaped with joy to think that after all I was not to go into exile. Then the quiet significance of Lord Chelsford's last words were further impressed upon me by the added gravity of his manner.
"Mr. Ducaine," he said, "you must see for yourself that I am running a very serious risk in making these plans with you behind the backs of the Duke of Rowchester and Colonel Ray. The Duke is a man of the keenest sense of honour, as his recent commercial transactions have shown. He has parted with a hundred thousand pounds rather than that the shadow of a stigma should rest upon his name. He is also my personal friend, and very sensitive of any advice or criticism. Then Ray—a V.C., and one of the most popular soldiers in England to-day—he also is quick tempered, and he also is my friend. You can see for yourself that in acting as I am, behind the backs of these men, I am laying myself open to very grave trouble. Yet I see no alternative. There is a rank traitor either on the Military Board or closely connected with the Duke's household. He does not know it, nor do they know it, but everyone of his servants has been vigorously and zealously watched without avail. The circle has been drawn closer and closer, Mr. Ducaine. Down in Braster you may be able to help me in narrowing it down till only one person is within it. Listen!"
Lady Chelsford entered, gorgeous in white satin and a flaming tiara. She looked at me, I thought, a little gravely.
"Morton," she said, "I want you to spare me a minute. Mr. Ducaine will excuse you, I am sure."
Lord Cheisford and she left the room together. I, feeling the heat of the apartment, walked to the window, and raising the sash looked out into the cool dark evening. At the door, drawn up in front of Lord Cheisford's brougham, was a carriage with a tall footman standing facing me. I recognized him and the liveries in a moment. It was the Rowchester carriage. Some one from Rowchester House was even now with Lord and Lady Chelsford.
Fresh complications, then! Had the Duke come to see me off, or had his suspicions been aroused? Was he even now insisting upon an explanation with Lord Cheisford? The minutes passed, and I began to get restless and anxious. Then the door opened, and Lord Chelsford entered alone. He came over at once to my side. He was looking perplexed and a little annoyed.
"Ducaine," he said, "Lady Angela Harberly is here."
I started, and I suppose my face betrayed me.
"And she wishes to see you," he continued. "Lady Chelsford is chaperoning her to-night to Suffolk House, but she says that she should have come here in any case. She believes that you are going to China."
"Did you tell her?" I asked.
"I have told her nothing," he answered. "The question is, what you are to tell her. I understand, Ducaine, that Lady Angela was engaged to be married to Colonel Ray."
"I believe that she is," I admitted.
"Then I do not understand her desire to see you," Lord Chelsford said. "The Duke of Rowchester is my friend and relative, Ducaine, and I do not see how I can permit this interview."
"And I," said a quiet thrilling voice behind his back, "do not know how you are going to prevent it."
She closed the door behind her. She was so frail and so delicately beautiful in her white gown, with the ropes of pearls around her neck, the simply parted hair, and her dark eyes were so plaintive and yet so tender, that the angry exclamation died away on Lord Cheisford's lips.
"Angela," he said, "Mr. Ducaine is here. You can speak with him if you will, but it must be in my presence. You must not think that I do not trust you—both of you. But I owe this condition to your father."
She came over to me very timidly. She seemed to me so beautiful, so exquisitely childish, that I touched the fingers of the hand she gave me with a feeling of positive reverence.
"You have come to wish me God-speed," I murmured. "I shall never forget it."
"You are really going, then?"
"I am going for a little time out of your life, Lady Angela," I answered. "It is necessary: Lord Chelsford knows that. But I am not going in disgrace. I am very thankful to be able to tell you that."
"It was not necessary to tell me," she answered. "Am I not here?"
I bent low over her hand, which rested still in mine.
"Mine is not a purposeless exile—nor altogether an unhappy one—now," I said. "I have work to do, Lady Angela, and I am going to it with a good heart. When we meet again I hope that it may be differently. Your coming—the memory of it will stand often between me and loneliness. It will sweeten the very bitterest of my days."
"You are really going—to China?" she murmured.
I glanced towards Lord Chelsford. His back was turned to us. If he understood the meaning of my pause he made no sign.
"I may not tell you where I am going or why," I answered. "But I will tell you this, Lady Angela. I shall come back, and as you have come to see me to-night, so shall I come to you before long. If you will trust me I will prove myself worthy of it."
She did not answer me with any word at all, but with a sudden little forward movement of both her hands, and I saw that her eyes were swimming in tears. Yet they shone into mine like stars, and I saw heaven there.
"I am sorry," Lord Chelsford said, gravely interposing, "but Lady Chelsford will be waiting for you, Angela. And I think that I must ask you to remember that I cannot sanction, or appear by my silence to sanction, anything of this sort."
So he led her away, but what did I care? My heart was beating with the rapture of her backward glance. I cared neither for Ray nor the Duke nor any living person. For with me it was the one supreme moment of a man's lifetime, come too at the very moment of my despair. I was no longer at the bottom of the pit. The wonderful gates stood open.
A TERRIBLE DISCOVERY
I Called softly to Grooton from my room upstairs.
"You are alone?"
"Is Mr. Hill still up at the Court?"
"He will be there until midnight, sir."
A gust of wind came suddenly roaring through the wood, drowning even the muffled thunder of the sea below. The rain beat upon the window panes. The little house, strongly built though it was, seemed to quiver from its very foundations. I caught up my overcoat, and boldly descended the narrow staircase. Grooton stood at the bottom, holding a lamp in his hand.
"You are quite safe to-night, sir," he said. "There'll be no one about in such a storm."
I stood still for a moment. The raging and tearing of the sea below had momentarily triumphed over the north wind.
"The trees in the spinney are snapping like twigs, sir," Grooton remarked. "There's one lying right across the path outside. But you'll excuse me, sir—you're not going out!"
"I think so, Grooton," I answered, "for a few minutes. Remember that I have been a prisoner here for three days. I'm dying for some fresh air."
"I don't think it's hardly safe, sir," he protested, deprecatingly. "Not that there's any fear of your being seen: the wind's enough to carry you over the cliff."
"I shall risk it, Grooton," I answered. "I think that the wind is going down, and there won't be a soul about. It's too good a chance to miss."
I waited for a momentary lull, and then I opened the door and slipped out. The first breath of cold strong air was like wine to me after my confinement, but a moment later I felt my breath taken away, and I was lifted almost from my feet by a sudden gust. I linked my arm around the trunk of a swaying pine tree and hung there till the lull came. Up into the darkness from that unseen gulf below came showers of spray, white as snow, falling like rain all about me. It was a night to remember.
Presently I turned inland, and reached the park. I left the footpath so that I should avoid all risk of meeting any one, and followed the wire fencing which divided the park from the belt of fir trees bordering the road. I walked for a few hundred yards, and then stopped short.
I had reached the point where that long straight road from Braster turned sharply away inland for the second time. At a point about a quarter of a mile away, and rapidly approaching me, came a twin pair of flaring eyes. I knew at once what they were—the head lights of a motor car. Without a moment's hesitation I doubled back to the "Brand."
"Grooton!" I called sharply.
"Is any one at Braster Grange?" I asked.
"Not that I have heard of, sir," he answered.
"You do not know whether Mrs. Smith-Lessing is expected back?"
"I have not heard, sir. They left no servants there—not even a caretaker."
I stepped back again into the night and took the shortest cut across the park to the house. As I neared the entrance gates I left the path and crept up close to the plantation which bordered the road. My heart gave a jump as I listened. I could hear the low level throbbing of a motor somewhere quite close at hand. The lights had been extinguished, but it was there waiting. I did not hesitate any longer. I kept on the turf by the side of the avenue and made my way up to the house.
The library alone and one small window on the ground floor were lit. I crept up on the terrace and tried to peer in, but across each of the library windows the curtains were too closely drawn. There remained the small window at the end of the terrace. I crept on tiptoe towards this, feeling my way through the darkness by the front of the house. Suddenly I came to a full stop. I flattened myself against the stonework and held my breath. Some one else was on the terrace. What I had heard was unmistakable. It was the wind blowing amongst a woman's skirts, and the woman was very close at hand.
I almost felt her warm breath as she stole past me. I caught a gleam of a pale face, sufficient to tell me who she was. She passed on and took up her stand outside that small end window.
I, too, crept nearer to it.—About a yard away there was a projection of the front. I stole into the deep corner and waited. A few feet from me I knew that she too was waiting.
Half an hour, perhaps an hour, passed. My ears became trained to all sounds that were not absolutely deadened by the roar of the wind. I heard the crash of falling boughs in the wood, the more distant but unchanging thunder of the sea, the sharp spitting of the rain upon the stone walk. And I heard the opening of the window by the side of which I was leaning.
I was only just in time. Through the raised sash there came a hand, holding a packet of some sort, and out of the darkness came another hand eagerly stretched out to receive it. I brushed it ruthlessly aside, tore the packet from the fingers which suddenly strove to retain it, and with my other hand I caught the arm a little above the wrist. I heard the flying footsteps of my fellow-watcher, but I did not even turn round. A fierce joy was in my heart. Now I was to know. The veil of mystery which had hung over the doings at Braster was to be swept aside. I stooped down till my eyes were within a few inches of the hand. I passed my fingers over it. I felt the ring—
Then I remember only that mad headlong flight back across the park, where the very air seemed full of sobbing, mocking voices, and the ground beneath my feet swayed and heaved. I could not even think coherently. I heard the motor go tearing down the road past me, and come to a standstill at the turn. Still I had no thought of any danger. It never occurred to me to leave the footpath and make my way back to the "Brand," as I might well have done, by a more circuitous route. I kept on the footpath, and just as I reached the little iron gate which led into the spinney, I felt a man's arm suddenly flung around my neck, and with a jerk I was thrown almost off my feet.
"He is here, madame," I heard a low voice say. "Take the papers from him. I have him safe."
I think that my desperate humour lent me more than my usual strength. With a fierce effort I wrenched myself free. Almost immediately I heard the click of a revolver. "If you move," a low voice said, "I fire!" "What do you want?" I asked. "The papers." I laughed bitterly. "Are they worth my life?" I asked. "The life of a dozen such as you," the man answered. "Quick! Hand them over."
Then I heard a little cry from the woman who had been standing a few feet off. In the struggle I had lost my cap, and a faint watery moon, half hidden by a ragged bank of black clouds, was shining weakly down upon us.
"Guy," she cried, and her voice was shaking as though with terror. "Guy, is that you?"
I lost my self-control. I forgot her sex, I forgot everything except that she was responsible for this unspeakable corruption. I said terrible things to her. And she listened, white—calm—speechless. When I had finished she signed to the man to leave us. He hesitated, but with a more peremptory gesture she dismissed him.
"Guy," she said, "you have not spared me. Perhaps I do not deserve it. Now listen. The whole thing is at an end. Those few papers are all we want. Your father is already in France. I am leaving at once. Give me those papers and you will be rid of us for ever. If you do not I must stay on until I have received copies of a portion of them, at any rate. You know very well now that I can do this. Give me those that you have. It will be safer—in every way."
"Give them to you?" I answered scornfully. "Are you serious?"
"Very serious, Guy. Do you not see that the sooner it is all over—the better—the safer—up there?"
She pointed towards the house. I could have struck the white fingers with their loathsome meaning.
"I shall take this packet to Lord Chelsford," I said. "I am down here as a spy—a spy upon spies. He is up at the house now, and to-morrow this packet will be in his hands. I shall tell him how I secured it. I think that after that you will not have many opportunities for plying your cursed trade."
"You know the consequences?"
"They are not my concern," I answered coldly.
She looked over her shoulder.
"If I," she said, "were as unwavering in my duty as you I should call Jean back."
"I am indifferent," I answered. "I do not value my life enough to shrink from fighting for it."
She turned away.
"You are very young, Guy," she said, "and you talk like a very young man. You must go your own way. Send for Lord Chelsford, if you will. But remember all that it will mean. Can't you see that such stern morality as yours is the most exquisite form of selfishness? Good-bye, Guy."
She glided away. I reached the "Brand" undisturbed.
"I do not understand you, Ducaine," Lord Chelsford said slowly. "You have been a faithful and valuable servant to your country, and you know very well that your services are not likely to be forgotten. I want you only to be consistent. I must know from whom you received this packet."
"I cannot tell you, sir," I answered. "It was a terribly dark night, and it is not easy to identify a hand. Besides, it was snatched away almost at once."
"In your own mind, Ducaine," Chelsford said, "have you hazarded a guess as to who that unseen person might be?"
"It is too serious a matter to hazard guesses about, sir," I answered.
"Nevertheless," Lord Chelsford continued, eyeing me closely, "in your own mind you know very well who that person was. You are a bad liar, Ducaine. There was something about the hand which told you the truth—a ring, perhaps. At any rate, something."
"I had no time to feel for such things, sir," I answered.
"Ducaine," Lord Chelsford said, "I am forced to connect your refusal to hazard even a surmise as to the identity of that hand with your sudden desire to break off all connection with this matter. I am forced to come to a conclusion, Ducaine. You have discovered the truth. You know the traitor!"
"On the contrary, Lord Chelsford," I answered, "I know nothing.".
Later in the day he came to me again. I could see that he had made no fresh discovery.
"Ducaine," he said, "what time did you say that you left here last night?"
"At midnight, sir."
"And you were back?"
"That corresponds exactly with Grooton's statement," Lord Chelsford said. "And yet I have certain information that from a few minutes before eleven till two o'clock not one member of the Military Board quitted the library."
"That is conclusive," I remarked.
"It is remarkably inconclusive to me," Lord Chelsford remarked grimly. "Whom else save one of your friends who are all upon the Board could you possibly wish to shield?"
"That I even wish to do so," I answered, "is purely an assumption."
"You are fencing with me, young man," Lord Chelsford said grimly, "and it is not worth while. Hush!"
There was a rap at the door downstairs. We heard the Duke's measured tones.
"I understood that Lord Chelsford was here," he said.
"Lord Chelsford has left, your Grace," Grooton answered.
"And Mr. Hill?"
"He has been at the house all day, your Grace."
The Duke appeared to hesitate for a moment.
"Grooton," he said, "I rely upon you to see that Lord Cheisford has this note shortly. I am going for a little walk, and shall probably return this way. I wish you to understand that this note is for Lord Chelsford's own hand."
"Certainly, your Grace."
"Not only that, Grooton, but the fact that I called here and left a communication for Lord Chelsford is also—to be forgotten."
"I quite understand, your Grace," Grooton assured him.
The Duke struck a match, and a moment or two later we saw him strolling along the cliff side, smoking a cigarette, his hands behind him, prim, carefully dressed, walking with the measured ease of a man seeking an appetite for his dinner. He was scarcely out of sight, and Lord Chelsford was on the point of descending for his note, when my heart gave a great leap. Lady Angela emerged from the plantation and crossed the open space in front of the cottage with swift footsteps. Her hair was streaming in the breeze as though she had been running, but there was not a vestige of colour in her cheeks. Her eyes, too, were like the eyes of a frightened child.
Lord Chelsford descended the stairs and himself admitted her.
"Why, Angela," he exclaimed, "you look as though you had seen a ghost. Is anything the matter?"
"Oh, I am afraid so," she answered. "Have you seen my father?"
"Why?" he asked, fingering the note which Grooton had silently laid upon the table.
"Something has happened!" she exclaimed. "I am sure of it. Last night he came to me before dinner. He told me that Blenavon was in trouble. It was necessary to send him money by a special messenger, by the only person who knew his whereabouts. He gave me a packet, and he told me that at a quarter-past twelve last night I was to be in my music-room, and directly the stable clock struck that I was to open the window, and some one would be there on the terrace and take the packet. I did exactly as he told me, and there was someone there; but I had just held out the packet when a third person snatches it away, and held my hand close to his eyes as though to try and guess who I was. I managed to get it away and close the window, but I think that the wrong person must have taken the packet. I told my father to-day, and—you know that terribly still look of his. I thought that he was never going to speak again. When I asked him if there was a good deal of money in it—he only groaned."
Up on the top of the stairs I was shaking with excitement. I heard Lord Cheisford speak, and his voice was hoarse.
"Since then," he asked, "what?"
"A man came to see father. He drove from Wells. He looked like a Frenchman, but he gave no name. He was in the library for an hour. When he left he walked straight out of the house and drove away again. I went into the library, and—you know how strong father is—he was crouching forward across the table, muttering to himself. It was like some sort of a fit. He did not know me when I spoke to him. Lord Chelsford, what does it all mean?"
"Go on!" he answered. "Tell me the rest."
"There is nothing else," she faltered. "He got better presently, and he kissed me. I have never known him to do such a thing before, except at morning or night. And then he locked himself in the study and wrote. About an hour afterwards I heard him—asking everywhere for you. The servants thought that you had come here. I saw him crossing the park, so I followed."
Lord Chelsford came to the bottom of the stairs and called me by name. I heard Lady Angela's little cry of surprise. I was downstairs in a moment, and she came straight into my arms. Her dear tear-stained little face buried itself upon my shoulder.
"I am so thankful, so thankful that you are here," she murmured.
And all the while, with the face of a man forced into the presence of tragedy, Lord Chelsford was reading that letter. When he had finished his hands were shaking and his face was grey. He moved over to the fireplace, and, without a moment's hesitation, he thrust the letter into the flames. Not content with that, he stood over it, poker in hand, and beat the ashes into powder. Then he turned to the door.
"Take care of Angela, Ducaine," he exclaimed, and hurried out.
But Lady Angela had taken alarm. She hastened after him, dragging me with her. Lord Cheisford was past middle age, but he was running along the cliff path like a boy. We followed. Lady Angela would have passed him, but I held her back. She did not speak a word. Some vague prescience of the truth even then, I think, had dawned upon her.
We must have gone a mile before we came in sight of him. He was strolling along, only dimly visible in the gathering twilight, still apparently smoking, and with the air of a man taking a leisurely promenade. He was toiling up the side of the highest cliff in the neighbourhood, and once we saw him turn seaward and take off his hat as though enjoying the breeze. Just as he neared the summit he looked round. Lord Chelsford waved his hand and shouted.
"Rowchester," he cried. "Hi! Wait for me."
The Duke waved his hand as though in salute, and turned apparently with the object of coming to meet us. But at that moment, without any apparent cause, he lurched over towards the cliff side, and we saw him fall. Lady Angela's cry of frenzied horror was the most awful thing I had ever heard. Lord Chelsford took her into his arms.
"Climb down, Ducaine," he gasped. "I'm done!"
I found the Duke on the shingles, curiously unmangled. He had the appearance of a man who had found death restful.
THE THEORIES OF A NOVELIST
The novelist smiled. He had been buttonholed by a very great man, which pleased him. He raised his voice a little. There were others standing around. He fancied himself already the centre of the group. He forgot the greatness of the great man.
"In common with many other people, my dear Marquis," he said, "you labour under a great mistake. Human character is governed by as exact laws as the physical world. Give me a man's characteristics, and I will undertake to tell you exactly how he will act under any given circumstances. It is a question of mathematics. We all carry with us, inherited or acquired, a certain amount of resistance to evil influence, certain predilections towards good and vice versa, according as we are decent fellows or blackguards. Some natures are more complex than others, of course—that only means that the weighing up of the good and evil in them is a more difficult matter. There are experts who can tell you the weight of a haystack by looking at it, and there are others who are able at Christmas-time to indulge in an unquenchable thirst by accurately computing the weight, down to ounces, of the pig or turkey raffled for at their favourite public-house. So the trained student of his fellows can also diagnose his subjects and anticipate their actions."
The Marquis smiled.
"You analytical novelists would destroy for us the whole romance of life," he declared. "I will not listen to you any longer. I fear ignorance less than disillusion!"
He passed on, and the little group at once dispersed. The novelist was left alone. He went off in a huff. Lord Chelsford plucked me by the arm.
"Let us sit down, Ducaine," he said. "What rubbish these men of letters talk!"
I glanced towards the ballroom, but my companion shook his head.
"Angela is dancing with the Portuguese Ambassador," he said, "and he will never give up his ten minutes afterwards. You must pay the penalty of having—married the most beautiful woman in London, Guy, and sit out with the old fogies. What rubbish that fellow did talk!"
"You are thinking—" I murmured.
"Of the Duke! Yes! There was a man who to all appearance was a typical English gentleman, proud, sensitive of his honour, in every action which came before the world a right-dealing and a right-doing man. To do what seemed right to him from one point of view he stripped himself of lands and fortune, and when that was not enough he stooped to unutterable baseness. He was willing to betray his country to justify his own sense of personal honour."
"In justice to him," I said, "one must remember that he never for a moment believed in the possibility of a French invasion."
Lord Cheisford shook his head.
"It is too nice a point," he declared. "We may not reckon it in his favour. I wonder how our friends on the other side felt when they knew that they had paid fifty thousand pounds for false information? We ought to make you a peer, Ducaine. The Trogoldy money would stand it."
"For Heaven's sake, don't!" I cried. "What have I done that you should want to banish me into the pastures?"
"You talk too much," my companion murmured. "In the Lords it wouldn't matter, but in the Commons you are a nuisance. I suppose you want to be taken into the Cabinet."
"Quite true!" I admitted. "You want young men there, and I am ready any time."
"A man with a wife like yours," Lord Chelsford remarked, thoughtfully, "is bound to go anywhere he wants. Then he sits down and takes all the credit to himself."
Angela passed on the arm of the Ambassador. She waved her hand gaily to us, but her companion drew her firmly away. We both looked after her admiringly.
"Guy," Lord Chelsford said, "we have both of us done some good work in our time, but never anything better than the way we managed to hoodwink everybody—even herself, about her father. Amongst the middle classes he remains a canonized saint, the man who pauperized himself for their sakes. Ray was too full of Blenavon's little aberrations to suspect any one else, and our friends from across the water who might—I mean the woman—have been inclined for a little blackmail, were obliging enough to make a final disappearance in the unlucky Henriette. The woman was saved, though, by-the-bye."
"The woman is still alive," I told him, "but I will answer for her silence. I allow her a small pension—all she would accept. She is living in the south of France somewhere."
"And Blenavon," Lord Chelsford said, with a smile, "has married an American girl who has made a different man of him. What character those women have! She hasn't a penny, they tell me, until her father dies, and they work on their ranch from sunrise. She will be an ornament to our aristocracy when they do come back."
"They are coming next spring," I remarked, "if they can do it out of the profits of the ranch—not unless. Blenavon has carried out his father's wishes to the letter, and cut off the entail of everything that was necessary."
"What a silly ass that novelist was!" Lord Chelsford declared vigorously.