Instinctively she bent down, but as she did so she heard the man behind her make a quick movement.
She straightened herself and looked sharply round.
L'Ami Fritz was still holding in his hand the small pair of nail scissors with which he had snipped asunder her necklace; with the other he was in the act of taking out something from the drawer of the buffet.
She suddenly saw what that something was.
Sylvia Bailey's nerves steadied; her mind became curiously collected and clear. There had leapt on her the knowledge that this man and woman meant to kill her—to kill her for the sake of the pearls which were still bounding about the floor, and for the comparatively small sum of money which she carried slung in the leather bag below her waist.
L'Ami Fritz now stood staring at her. He had put his right hand—the hand holding the thing he had taken out of the drawer—behind his back. He was very pale; the sweat had broken out on his sallow, thin face.
For a horrible moment there floated across Sylvia's sub-conscious mind the thought of Anna Wolsky, and of what she now knew to have been Anna Wolsky's fate.
But she put that thought, that awful knowledge, determinedly away from her. The instinct of self-preservation possessed her wholly.
Already, in far less time than it would have taken to formulate the words, she had made up her mind to speak, and she knew exactly what she meant to say.
"It does not matter about my pearls," Sylvia said, quietly. Her voice shook a little, but otherwise she spoke in her usual tone. "If you are going into Paris to-morrow morning, perhaps you would take them to be restrung?"
The man looked questioningly across at his wife.
"Yes, that sounds a good plan," he said, in his guttural voice.
"No," exclaimed Madame Wachner, decidedly, "that will not do at all! We must not run that risk. The pearls must be found, now, at once! Stoop!" she said imperiously. "Stoop, Sylvia! Help me to find your pearls!"
She made a gesture as if she also meant to bend down....
But Sylvia Bailey made no attempt to obey the sinister order. Slowly, warily she edged herself towards the closed window. At last she stood with her back to it—at bay.
"No," she said quietly, "I will not stoop to pick up my pearls now, Madame Wachner. It will be easier to find them in the daylight. I am sure that Monsieur Wachner could pick them all up for me to-morrow morning. Is not that so, Ami Fritz?" and there was a tone of pleading, for the first time of pitiful fear, in her soft voice.
She looked at him piteously, her large blue eyes wide open, dilated—
"It is not my husband's business to pick up your pearls!" exclaimed Madame Wachner harshly.
She stepped forward and gripped Sylvia by the arm, pulling her violently forward. As she did so she made a sign to her husband, and he pushed a chair quickly between Mrs. Bailey and the window.
Sylvia had lost her point of vantage, but she was young and lithe; she kept her feet.
Nevertheless, she knew with a cold, reasoned knowledge that she was very near to death—that it was only a question of minutes,—unless—unless she could make the man and woman before her understand that they would gain far more money by allowing her to live than by killing her now, to-night, for the value of the pearls that lay scattered on the floor, and the small, the pitiably small sum on her person.
"If you will let me go," she said, desperately, "I swear I will give you everything I have in the world!"
Madame Wachner suddenly laid her hand on Sylvia's arm, and tried to force her down on to her knees.
"What do you take us for?" she cried, furiously. "We want nothing from you—nothing at all!"
She looked across at her husband, and there burst from her lips a torrent of words, uttered in the uncouth tongue which the Wachners used for secrecy.
Sylvia tried desperately to understand, but she could make nothing of the strange, rapid-spoken syllables—until there fell on her ear, twice repeated, the name Wolsky....
Madame Wachner stepped suddenly back, and as she did so L'Ami Fritz moved a step forward.
Sylvia looked at him, an agonised appeal in her eyes. He was smiling hideously, a nervous grin zig-zagging across his large, thin-lipped mouth.
"You should have taken the coffee," he muttered in English. "It would have saved us all so much trouble!"
He put out his left hand, and the long, strong fingers closed, tentacle-wise, on her slender shoulder.
His right hand he kept still hidden behind his back—
The great open-air restaurant in the Champs Elysees was full of foreigners, and Paul de Virieu and Bill Chester were sitting opposite to one another on the broad terrace dotted with little tables embowered in flowering shrubs.
They were both smoking,—the Englishman a cigar, the Frenchman a cigarette. It was now half-past seven, and instead of taking the first express to Switzerland they had decided to have dinner comfortably in Paris and to go on by a later train.
Neither man felt that he had very much to say to the other, and Chester started a little in his seat when Paul de Virieu suddenly took his cigarette out of his mouth, put it down on the table, and leant forward. He looked at the man sitting opposite to him straight in the eyes.
"I do not feel at all happy at our having left Mrs. Bailey alone at Lacville," he said, deliberately.
Chester stared back at him, telling himself angrily as he did so that he did not in the least know what the Frenchman was driving at!
What did Paul de Virieu mean by saying this stupid, obvious thing, and why should he drag in the question of his being happy or unhappy?
"You know that I did my best to persuade her to leave the place," said Chester shortly. Then, very deliberately he added, "I am afraid, Count, that you've got quite a wrong notion in your mind concerning myself and Mrs. Bailey. It is true I am her trustee, but I have no power of making her do what I think sensible, or even what I think right. She is absolutely her own mistress."
He stopped abruptly, for he had no wish to discuss Sylvia and Sylvia's affairs with this foreigner, however oddly intimate Mrs. Bailey had allowed herself to get with the Comte de Virieu.
"Lacville is such a very queer place," observed the Count, meditatively. "It is perhaps even queerer than you know or guess it to be, Mr. Chester."
The English lawyer thought the remark too obvious to answer. Of course Lacville was a queer place—to put it plainly, little better than a gambling hell. He knew that well enough! But it was rather strange to hear the Comte de Virieu saying so—a real case, if ever there was one, of Satan rebuking sin.
So at last he answered, irritably, "Of course it is! I can't think what made Mrs. Bailey go there in the first instance." His mind was full of Sylvia. He seemed to go on speaking of her against his will.
"Her going to Lacville was a mere accident," explained Paul de Virieu, quickly. "She was brought there by the Polish lady, Madame Wolsky, of whom you must have heard her speak, whom she met in an hotel in Paris, and who disappeared so mysteriously. It is not a place for a young lady to be at by herself."
Bill Chester tilted back the chair on which he was sitting. Once more he asked himself what on earth the fellow was driving at? Were these remarks a preliminary to the Count's saying that he was not going to Switzerland after all—that he was going back to Lacville in order to take care of Sylvia.
Quite suddenly the young Englishman felt shaken by a very primitive and, till these last few days, a very unfamiliar feeling—that of jealousy.
Damn it—he wouldn't have that. Of course he was no longer in love with Sylvia Bailey, but he was her trustee and lifelong friend. It was his duty to prevent her making a fool of herself, either by gambling away her money—the good money the late George Bailey had toiled so hard to acquire—or, what would be ever so much worse, by making some wretched marriage to a foreign adventurer.
He stared suspiciously at his companion. Was it likely that a real count—the French equivalent to an English earl—would lead the sort of life this man, Paul de Virieu, was leading, and in a place like Lacville?
"If you really feel like that, I think I'd better give up my trip to Switzerland, and go back to Lacville to-morrow morning."
He stared hard at the Count, and noted with sarcastic amusement the other's appearance—so foppish, so effeminate to English eyes; particularly did he gaze with scorn at the Count's yellow silk socks, which matched his lemon-coloured tie and silk pocket handkerchief. Fancy starting for a long night journey in such a "get-up." Well! Perhaps women liked that sort of thing, but he would never have thought Sylvia Bailey to be that sort of woman.
A change came over Paul de Virieu's face. There was unmistakable relief—nay, more—even joy in the voice with which the Frenchman answered,
"That is excellent! That is quite right! That is first-rate! Yes, yes, Mr. Chester, you go back to Lacville and bring her away. It is not right that Mrs. Bailey should be by herself there. It may seem absurd to you, but, believe me, Lacville is not a safe spot in which to leave an unprotected woman. She has not one single friend, not a person to whom she could turn to for advice,—excepting, of course, the excellent Polperro himself, and he naturally desires to keep his profitable client."
"There's that funny old couple—I mean the man called Fritz Something-or-other and his wife. Surely they're all right?" observed Chester.
Paul de Virieu shook his head decidedly.
"The Wachners are not nice people," he said slowly. "They appear to be very fond of Mrs. Bailey, I know, but they are only fond of themselves. They are adventurers; 'out for the stuff,' as Americans say. Old Fritz is the worst type of gambler—the type that believes he is going to get rich, rich beyond dreams of avarice, by a 'system.' Such a man will do anything for money. I believe they knew far more of the disappearance of Madame Wolsky than anyone else did."
The Count lowered his voice, and leant over the table.
"I have suspected," he went on—"nay, I have felt sure from the very first, Mr. Chester, that the Wachners are blackmailers. I am convinced that they discovered something to that poor lady's discredit, and—after making her pay—drove her away! Just before she left Lacville they were trying to raise money at the Casino money-changer's on some worthless shares. But after Madame Wolsky's disappearance they had plenty of gold and notes."
Chester looked across at his companion. At last he was really impressed. Blackmailing is a word which has a very ugly sound in an English lawyer's ears.
"If that is really true," he said suddenly, "I almost feel as if I ought to go back to Lacville to-night. I suppose there are heaps of trains?"
"You might, at all events, wait till to-morrow morning," said Paul de Virieu, drily.
He also had suddenly experienced a thrill of that primitive passion, jealousy, which had surprised Chester but a few moments before. But the Count was a Frenchman. He was familiar with the sensation—nay, he welcomed it. It showed that he was still young—still worthy to be one of the great company of lovers.
Sylvia, his "petite amie Anglaise," seemed to have come very near to him in the last few moments. He saw her blue eyes brim with tears at his harsh words—he thrilled as he had thrilled with the overmastering impulse which had made him take her into his arms—her hand lay once more in his hand, as it had lain, for a moment this morning.
Had he grasped and retained that kind, firm little hand in his, an entirely new life had been within his reach.
A vision rose before Paul de Virieu—a vision of Sylvia and himself living heart to heart in one of those small, stately manor-houses which are scattered throughout Brittany. And it was no vague house of dreams. He knew the little chateau very well. Had not his sister driven him there only the other day? And had she not conveyed to him in delicate, generous words how gladly she would see his sweet English friend established there as chatelaine?
A sense of immeasurable loss came over Paul de Virieu—But, no, he had been right! Quite right! He loved Sylvia far too well to risk making her as unhappy as he would almost certainly be tempted to make her, if she became his wife.
He took off his hat and remained silent for what seemed to his companion quite a long time.
"By the way, what is Mrs. Bailey doing to-night?" he asked at last.
"To-night?" replied Chester. "Let me see? Why, to-night she is spending the evening with those very people—the Wachners, of whom you were speaking just now. I heard her arranging it with them this afternoon." He added, stiffly, "But I doubt if your impression as to these people is a right one. They seem to me a very respectable couple."
Paul de Virieu shrugged his shoulders. He felt suddenly uneasy—afraid he hardly knew of what.
There was no risk that Sylvia Bailey would fall a victim to blackmailers—she had nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to conceal. But still he hated to think that she was, even now, alone with a man and woman of whom he had formed such a bad impression.
He took his watch out of his pocket. "There's a train for Lacville at a quarter to ten," he said slowly. "That would be an excellent train for—for us—to take—"
"Then are you thinking of going back to Lacville too?" There was that sarcastic inflection in the Englishman's voice which the Count had learned to look for and to resent.
Count Paul looked at Bill Chester significantly, and his look said, "Take care, my friend! We do not allow a man to sneer at another man in this country unless he is willing to stand certain unpleasant consequences. Our duels are not always pour rire!"
During the short train journey back to Lacville they hardly spoke. Each thought that the other was doing a strange and unreasonable thing—a thing which the thinker could have done much better if left to himself.
At Lacville station they jumped into a victoria.
"I suppose we had better drive straight to the Villa du Lac," said Chester, hesitatingly.
"Yes, we had better go first to the Villa du Lac, for Mrs. Bailey should be home by now. By the way, Mr. Chester, you had better ask to have my room to-night; we know that it is disengaged. As for me, I will go on somewhere else as soon as I know you have seen our friend. Please do not tell Mrs. Bailey that I came with you. Where would be the use? I may go back to Paris to-night." Paul de Virieu spoke in a constrained, preoccupied voice.
"But aren't you coming in? Won't you stay at Lacville at least till to-morrow?"
Chester's voice unwittingly became far more cordial; if the Frenchman did not wish to see Sylvia, why had he insisted on coming back, too, to Lacville.
The hall of the Villa du Lac was brightly lit up, and as the victoria swept up the short drive to the stone horseshoe stairway, the Comte de Virieu suddenly grasped the other's hand.
"Good luck!" he exclaimed, "Good luck, fortunate man! As the Abbot at my English school used to say to me when he met me, as a little boy, running about the cloisters, 'God bless you!'"
Chester was rather touched, as well as surprised. But what queer, emotional fellows Frenchmen are to be sure! Although Count Paul, as Sylvia used to call him, had evidently been a little bit in love with her himself, he was quite willing to think of her as married to another man!
But—but there was the rub! Chester was no longer so sure that he wanted to marry Sylvia. She had become a different woman—she seemed to be another Sylvia to the one he had always known.
"I'll just come out and tell you that it's all right," he said a little awkwardly. "But I wish you'd come in—if only for a minute. Mrs. Bailey would be so pleased to see you."
"No, no," muttered the other. "Believe me, she would not!"
Chester jumped out of the carriage and ran quickly up the stone steps, and rang the bell.
The door was opened by M. Polperro himself. Even busier than usual was the merry, capable little chef, for as it happened Madame Polperro had had to go away for two or three days.
"I want to know," said Chester abruptly, "if you can let me have a room for to-night? The room the Comte de Virieu occupied is, I suppose, disengaged?"
"I will see, M'sieur—I will inquire!"
M. Polperro did not know what to make of this big Englishman who had come in out of the night, bringing no luggage with him but one little bag.
Then he suddenly remembered! Why, of course, this was the friend of the pretty, charming, wealthy Madame Bailey; the English gentleman who had been staying during the past few days at the Pension Malfait! A gentleman who was called after a well-known cheese—yes, Chester was his name.
Then this Mr. Chester's departure from Lacville had been a fausse sortie—a ruse to get rid of the Comte de Virieu, who was also in love with the lovely young English widow?
Ah! Ah! M. Polperro felt very much amused. Never had he heard of anything so droll! But the Englishman's tale of love was not to run smooth after all, for now another complication had arisen, and the very last one any sensible man would have expected!
"Yes, M'sieur," said M. Polperro demurely, "it is all right! I had forgotten! As you say, the Comte de Virieu's room is now empty, but"—he hesitated, and with a sly look added, "indeed we have another room empty to-night—a far finer room, with a view over the lake—the room Madame Bailey occupied."
"The room Mrs. Bailey occupied?" echoed Chester. "Has Mrs. Bailey changed her room to-day?"
"Oh, no, M'sieur! She left Lacville this very evening. I have but just now received a letter from her."
The little man could hardly keep serious. Oh! those Englishmen, who are said to be so cold! When in love they behave just like other people.
For Chester was staring at him with puzzled, wrathful eyes.
"Ah! what a charming lady, M'sieur; Madame Polperro and I shall miss her greatly. We hoped to keep Madame Bailey all the summer. But perhaps she will come back—now that M'sieur has returned." He really could not resist that last thrust.
"Left Lacville!" repeated Chester incredulously. "But that's impossible! It isn't more than three hours since we said good-bye to her at the station. She had no intention of leaving Lacville then. Do you say you've received a letter from her?"
"Will you please show it me?"
M. Polperro, followed closely by the Englishman, trotted off into his office, a funny little hole of a place which had been contrived under the staircase. It was here that Madame Polperro was supposed to spend her busy days.
M. Polperro felt quite lost without his wife. Slowly, methodically, he began to turn over the papers on the writing-table, which, with one chair, filled up all the place.
There had evidently been a lovers' quarrel between these two peculiar English people. What a pity that the gentleman, who had very properly returned to beg the lady's pardon, had found his little bird flown—in such poetic terms did the landlord in his own mind refer to Sylvia Bailey.
The pretty Englishwoman's presence in the Villa du Lac had delighted M. Polperro's southern, sentimental mind; he felt her to be so decorative, as well as so lucrative, a guest for his beloved hotel. Mrs. Bailey had never questioned any of the extras Madame Polperro put in her weekly bills, and she had never become haggard and cross as other ladies did who lost money at the Casino.
As he turned over the papers—bills, catalogues, and letters with which the table was covered, these thoughts flitted regretfully through M. Polperro's mind.
But he had an optimistic nature, and though he was very sorry Madame Bailey had left the Villa du Lac so abruptly, he was gratified by the fact that she had lived up to the ideal he had formed of his English guest. Though Madame Bailey had paid her weekly bill only two days before—she was en pension by the day—she had actually sent him a hundred francs to pay for the two days' board; the balance to be distributed among the servants....
There could surely be no harm in giving this big Englishman the lady's letter? Still, M. Polperro was sorry that he had not Madame Polperro at his elbow to make the decision for him.
"Here it is," he said at last, taking a piece of paper out of the drawer. "I must have put it there for my wife to read on her return. It is a very gratifying letter—M'sieur will see that for himself!"
Chester took the folded-up piece of notepaper out of the little Frenchman's hand with a strange feeling of misgiving.
He came out into the hall and stood under the cut-glass chandelier—
"You have made a mistake," he exclaimed quickly; "this is not Mrs. Bailey's handwriting!"
"Oh, yes, M'sieur, it is certainly Mrs. Bailey's letter. You see there is the lady's signature written as plainly as possible!"
Chester looked down to where the man's fat finger pointed.
In the strange, the alien handwriting, were written two words which for a moment conveyed nothing to Chester, "Silvea" and "Baylee"; as for the writing, stiff, angular, large, it resembled Sylvia's sloping English caligraphy as little as did the two words purporting to be her signature resemble the right spelling of her name.
A thrill of fear, of terrifying suspicion, flooded Bill Chester's shrewd but commonplace mind.
Slowly he read the strange letter through:
"Monsieur Polperro (so ran the missive in French)—
"I am leaving Lacville this evening in order to join my friend Madame Wolsky. I request you therefore to send on my luggage to the cloak room at the Gare du Nord. I enclose a hundred-franc note to pay you what I owe. Please distribute the rest of the money among the servants. I beg to inform you that I have been exceedingly comfortable at the Villa du Lac, and I will recommend your hotel to all my friends.
"Yours very cordially,
Turning on his heel, and without even throwing a word of apology to the astonished, and by now indignant, M. Polperro, Chester rushed out of the hall and down the stone steps, below which stood the victoria.
"Well?" cried out Paul de Virieu.
"Come into the house—now, at once!" cried Chester, roughly. "Something extraordinary has happened!"—
The Count jumped out of the carriage, and a moment later the two men stood together in the hall, careless of the fact that M. Polperro was staring at them with affrighted eyes.
"This letter purports to be from Sylvia Bailey," exclaimed Chester hoarsely, "but of course it is nothing of the sort! She never wrote a line of it. It's entirely unlike her handwriting—and then look at the absurd signature! What does it mean, Virieu? Can you give me any clue to what it means?"
The Comte de Virieu raised his head from over the thin sheet of notepaper, and even Chester, frightened and angry as he now was, could not help noticing how the other man's face had changed in the last few moments. From being of a usual healthy sunburn, it had turned so white as to look almost green under the bright electric light.
"Yes, I think I know what it means," said Count Paul between his teeth. "A letter like this purported to come from Madame Wolsky when she disappeared. But do not let us make a scene here. Let us go at once where I believe she is, for if what I fear is true every moment is of value."
He plucked the Englishman by the sleeve, and hurried him out into the grateful darkness.
"Get into the carriage," he said, imperiously. "I will see to everything."
Chester heard him direct the driver to the police-station. "We may need two or three gendarmes," muttered Count Paul. "It's worth the three minutes delay."
The carriage drew up before a shabby little house across which was painted in large black letters the word "Gendarmerie."
The Count rushed into the guard-room, hurriedly explained his errand to the superintendent, and came out, but a moment later, with three men.
"We must make room for these good fellows somehow," he said briefly, and room was made. Chester noticed with surprise that each man was armed, not only with a stave, but with a revolver. The French police do not stand on ceremony even with potential criminals.
"And now," said the Count to the coachman, "five louis, my friend, if you can get us to the Chalet des Muguets in seven minutes—"
They began driving at a breakneck pace, the driver whipping up his horse, lashing it in a way that horrified Chester. The light little carriage rocked from side to side.
"If the man doesn't drive more carefully," cried out the Englishman, "we shall be spilt—and that won't do us any good, will it?"
The Count called out, "If there's an accident you get nothing, my friend! Drive as quickly as you like, but drive carefully."
They swept on through the town, and so along the dimly-lighted shady avenues with which even Chester had become so familiar during the last few days.
Paul de Virieu sat with clenched hands, staring in front of him. Remorse filled his soul—remorse and anguish. If Sylvia had been done to death, as he now had very little doubt Anna Wolsky had been done to death, then he would die too. What was the vice which had meant all to him for so many years compared to his love for Sylvia?
The gendarmes murmured together in quick, excited tones. They scented that something really exciting, something that would perhaps lead to promotion, was going to happen.
At last, as the carriage turned into a dark road, Count Paul suddenly began to talk, at the very top of his voice.
"Speak, Mr. Chester, speak as loud as you can! Shout! Say anything that you like! They may as well hear that we are coming—"
But Chester could not do what the other man so urgently asked him to do. Not to save his life could he have opened his mouth and shouted as the other was now doing.
"We are going to pay an evening call—what you in England call an evening call! We are going to fetch our friend—our friend, Mrs. Bailey; she is so charming, so delightful! We are going to fetch her because she has been spending the evening with her friends, the Wachners. That old she-devil—you remember her, surely? The woman who asked you concerning your plans? It is she I fear—"
"Je crois que c'est ici, Monsieur?" the man turned round on his seat. "I have done it in six minutes!"
The horse was suddenly brought up short opposite the white gate. Was this where the Wachners lived? Chester stooped down. The place looked very different now from what it had looked in the daylight.
The windows of the small, low house were closely shuttered, but where the shutters met in one of the rooms glinted a straight line of light.
"We are in time. Thank God we are in time," said the Count, with a queer break in his voice. "If we were not in time, there would be no light. The house of the wicked ones would be in darkness."
And then, in French, he added, turning to the gendarmes:
"You had better all three stay in the garden, while my friend and I go up to the house. If we are gone more than five minutes, then you follow us up to the house and get in somehow!"
In varying accents were returned the composed answers, "Oui, M'sieur."
There came a check, for the little gate was locked. Each man helped another over very quietly, and then the three gendarmes dispersed with swift, noiseless steps, each seeking a point of vantage commanding the house.
Chester and Paul de Virieu walked quickly up the path.
Suddenly a shaft of bright light pierced the moonlit darkness. The shutters of the dining-room of the Chalet des Muguets had been unbarred, and the window was thrown wide open.
"Qui va la?" the old military watchword, as the Frenchman remembered with a sense of terrible irony, was flung out into the night in the harsh, determined voice of Madame Wachner.
They saw her stout figure, filling up most of the window, outlined against the lighted room. She was leaning out, peering into the garden with angry, fear-filled eyes.
Both men stopped simultaneously, but neither answered her.
"Who goes there?" she repeated; and then, "I fear, Messieurs, that you have made a mistake. You have taken this villa for someone else's house!" But there was alarm as well as anger in her voice.
"It is I, Paul de Virieu, Madame Wachner."
The Count spoke quite courteously, his agreeable voice thickened, made hoarse by the strain to which he had just subjected it.
"I have brought Mr. Chester with me, for we have come to fetch Mrs. Bailey. In Paris Mr. Chester found news making her return home to England to-morrow a matter of imperative necessity."
He waited a moment, then added, raising his voice as he spoke: "We have proof that she is spending the evening with you," and he walked on quickly to where he supposed the front door to be.
"If they deny she is there," he whispered to his companion, "we will shout for the gendarmes and break in. But I doubt if they will dare to deny she is there unless—unless—"
He had hoped to hear Sylvia's voice, but Madame Wachner had shut the window, and a deathly silence reigned in the villa.
The two men stood in front of the closed door for what seemed to them a very long time. It was exactly two minutes; and when at last the door opened, slowly, and revealed the tall, lanky figure of L'Ami Fritz, they both heard the soft, shuffling tread of the gendarmes closing in round the house.
"I pray you to come in," said Monsieur Wachner in English, and then, addressing Bill Chester,
"I am pleased to see you, sir, the more so that your friend, Mrs. Bailey, is indisposed. A moment ago, to our deep concern, she found herself quite faint—no doubt from the heat. I will conduct you, gentlemen, into the drawing-room; my wife and Mrs. Bailey will join us there in a minute," and only then did he move back sufficiently to allow the two men to cross the threshold.
Paul de Virieu opened his lips—but no sound came from them. The sudden sense of relief from what had been agonised suspense gripped him by the throat.
He brushed past Wachner, and made straight for the door behind which he felt sure of finding the woman whom some instinct told him he had saved from a terrible fate....
He turned the handle of the dining-room door, and then stopped short, for he was amazed at the sight which met his eyes.
Sylvia was sitting at a round table; behind her was the buffet, still laden with the remains of a simple meal. Her face was hidden in her hands, and she was trembling—shaking as though she had the ague.
But what amazed Paul de Virieu was the sight of Sylvia's hostess. Madame Wachner was crawling about on her hands and knees on the floor, and she remained in the same odd position when the dining-room door opened.
At last she looked up, and seeing who stood there, staring down at her, she raised herself with some difficulty, looking to the Frenchman's sharpened consciousness, like some monstrous greedy beast, suddenly baulked of its prey.
"Such a misfortune!" she exclaimed in English. "Such a very great misfortune! The necklace of our friend 'as broken, and 'er beautiful pearls are rolling all over the floor! We 'ave been trying, Fritz and myself, to pick them up for 'er. Is not that so, Sylvia? Mrs. Bailey is so distressed! It 'as made 'er feel very faint, what English people call 'queer'. But I tell 'er we shall find them all—it is only a matter of a little time. I asked 'er to take some cognac my 'usband keeps for such bad moments, but no, she would not! Is not that so, Sylvia?"
She stared down anxiously at the bowed head of her guest.
Sylvia looked up. As if hypnotised by the other woman's voice, she rose to her feet—a wan, pitiful little smile came over her white face.
"Yes," she said dully, "the string of my pearls broke. I was taken faint. I felt horribly queer—perhaps it was the heat."
Paul de Virieu took a sudden step forward into the room. He had just become aware of something which had made him also feel what English people call "queer."
That something had no business in the dining-room, for it belonged to the kitchen—in fact it was a large wooden mallet of the kind used by French cooks to beat meat tender. Just now the club end of the mallet was sticking out of the drawer of the walnut-wood buffet.
The drawer had evidently been pulled out askew, and had stuck—as is the way with drawers forming part of ill-made furniture.
Chester came to the door of the dining-room. M. Wachner had detained him for a moment in the hall, talking volubly, explaining how pleasant had been their little supper party till Mrs. Bailey had suddenly felt faint.
Chester looked anxiously at Sylvia. She was oddly pale, all the colour drained from her face, but she seemed on quite good terms with Madame Wachner! As for that stout, good-natured looking woman, she also was unlike her placid smiling self, for her face looked red and puffy. But still she nodded pleasantly to Chester.
It seemed to the lawyer inconceivable that this commonplace couple could have seriously meant to rob their guest. But there was that letter—that strange, sinister letter which purported to be from Sylvia! Who had written that letter, and with what object in view?
Chester began to feel as if he was living through a very disagreeable, bewildering nightmare. But no scintilla of the horrible truth reached his cautious, well-balanced brain. The worst he suspected, and that only because of the inexplicable letter, was that these people meant to extract money from their guest and frighten her into leaving Lacville the same night.
"Sylvia," he said rather shortly, "I suppose we ought to be going now. We have a carriage waiting at the gate, so we shall be able to drive you back to the Villa du Lac. But, of course, we must first pick up all your pearls. That won't take long!"
But Sylvia made no answer. She did not even look round at him. She was still staring straight before her, as if she saw something, which the others could not see, written on the distempered wall.
L'Ami Fritz entered the room quietly. He looked even stranger than usual, for while in one hand he held Mrs. Bailey's pretty black tulle hat and her little bag, in the other was clutched the handle of a broom.
"I did not think you would want to go back into my wife's bed-room," he said, deprecatingly; and Mrs. Bailey, at last turning her head round, actually smiled gratefully at him.
She was reminding herself that there had been a moment when he had been willing to let her escape. Only once—only when he had grinned at her so strangely and deplored her refusal of the drugged coffee, had she felt the sick, agonising fear of him that she had felt of Madame Wachner.
Laying the hat and bag on the table, L'Ami Fritz began sweeping the floor with long skilful movements.
"This is the best way to find the pearls," he muttered; and three of the four people present stood and looked on at what he was doing. As for the one most concerned, Sylvia had again begun to stare dully before her, as if what was going on did not interest her one whit.
At last Monsieur Wachner took a long spoon off the table; with its help he put all that he had swept up—pearls, dust, and fluff—into the little fancy bag.
"There," he said, with a sigh of relief, "I think they are all there."
But even as he spoke he knew well enough that some of the pearls—perhaps five or six—had found their way up his wife's capacious sleeve.
And then, quite suddenly, Madame Wachner uttered a hoarse exclamation of terror. One of the gendarmes had climbed up on to the window-sill, and was now half into the room. She waddled quickly across to the door, only to find another gendarme in the hall.
Sylvia's eyes glistened, and a sensation which had hitherto been quite unknown to her took possession of her, soul and body. She longed for revenge—revenge, not for herself so much as for her murdered friend. She clutched Paul by the arm. "They killed Anna Wolsky," she whispered. "She is lying buried in the wood, where they meant to put me if you had not come just—only just—in time!"
Paul de Virieu took Sylvia's hat off the dining-room table, and placed it in her hand, closing her fingers over the brim. With a mechanical gesture she raised her arms and put it on her head. Then he ceremoniously offered her his arm, and led her out of the dining-room into the hall.
While actually within the Chalet des Muguets Count Paul only once broke silence. That was when Madame Wachner, still talking volubly, held out her hand in farewell to the young Englishwoman.
"I forbid you to touch her!" the Count muttered between his teeth, and Sylvia, withdrawing her half-outstretched hand, meekly obeyed him.
Paul de Virieu beckoned to the oldest of the police officials present.
"You will remember the disappearance from Lacville of a Polish lady? I have reason to believe these people murdered her. When once I have placed Madame Bailey under medical care, I will return here. Meanwhile you, of course, know what to do."
"But M'sieur, ought I not to detain this English lady?"
"Certainly not. I make myself responsible for her. She is in no state to bear an interrogation. Lock up these people in separate rooms. I will send you reinforcements, and to-morrow morning dig up the little wood behind the house."
Behind them came the gruff and the shrill tones of L'Ami Fritz and his wife raised in indignant expostulation.
"Are you coming, Sylvia?" called out Chester impatiently.
He had gone on into the garden, unwilling to assume any responsibility as to the police. After all, there was no evidence, not what English law would recognise as evidence, against these people.
Out in the darkness, with the two men, one on either side of her, Sylvia walked slowly to the gate. Between them they got her over it and into the victoria.
Paul de Virieu pulled out the little back seat, but Chester, taking quick possession of it, motioned him to sit by Mrs. Bailey.
"To Paris, Hotel du Louvre," the Count called out to the driver. "You can take as long as you like over the journey!"
Then he bent forward to Chester, "The air will do her good," he murmured.
By his side, huddled up in a corner of the carriage, Sylvia lay back inertly; but her eyes were wide open, and she was staring hungrily at the sky, at the stars. She had never thought to see the sky and the stars again.
They were now moving very slowly, almost at a foot's pace.
The driver was accustomed to people who suddenly decided to drive all the way back to Paris from Lacville after an evening's successful or, for the matter of that, unsuccessful play. He had been very much relieved to see his two gentlemen come back from the chalet and to leave the gendarmes behind. He had no wish to get mixed up in a fracas, no wish, that is, to have any embarrassments with the police.
They drove on and on, into the open country; through dimly-lit, leafy thoroughfares, through long stretches of market gardens, till they came on to the outskirts of the great city—and still Sylvia remained obstinately silent.
Paul de Virieu leant forward.
"Speak to her," he said in an urgent whisper. "Take her hand and try to rouse her, Mr. Chester. I feel very anxious about her condition."
Chester in the darkness felt himself flushing. With a diffident, awkward gesture he took Sylvia's hand in his—and then he uttered an exclamation of surprise and concern.
The hand he held was quite cold—cold and nerveless to the touch, as if all that constitutes life had gone out of it. "My dear girl!" he exclaimed. "I'm afraid those people frightened you badly? I suppose you began to suspect they meant to steal your pearls?"
But Sylvia still remained obstinately silent. She did not want to speak, she only wanted to live.
It was so strange to feel oneself alive—alive and whole at a time when one had thought to be dead, having been done to death after an awful, disfiguring struggle—for Sylvia had determined to struggle to the end with her murderers.
"My God!" muttered Paul de Virieu. "Do you not understand, Chester, what happened to-night? They meant to kill her!"
"To kill her?" repeated Chester incredulously.
Then there came over him a rush and glow of angry excitement. Good God! If that was the case they ought to have driven back at once to the Lacville police-station!
"Sylvia!" he exclaimed. "Rouse yourself, and tell us what took place! If what the Count says is true, something must be done, and at once!"
He turned to Paul de Virieu: "The police ought to take Mrs. Bailey's full statement of all that occurred without any loss of time!" All the lawyer in him spoke angrily, agitatedly.
Sylvia moved slightly. Paul de Virieu could feel her shuddering by his side.
"Oh, Bill, let me try to forget!" she moaned. And then, lifting up her voice, she wailed, "They killed Anna Wolsky—"
Her voice broke, and she began to sob convulsively. "I would not think of her—I forced myself not to think of her—but now I shall never, never think of anyone else any more!"
Paul de Virieu turned in the kindly darkness, and putting his arm round Sylvia's slender shoulders, he tenderly drew her to him.
A passion of pity, of protective tenderness, filled his heart, and suddenly lifted him to a higher region than that in which he had hitherto been content to dwell.
"You must not say that, ma cherie," he whispered, laying his cheek to hers as tenderly as he would have caressed a child, "it would be too cruel to the living, to those who love you—who adore you."
Then he raised his head, and, in a very different tone, he exclaimed,
"Do not be afraid, Mr. Chester, those infamous people shall not be allowed to escape! Poor Madame Wolsky shall surely be avenged. But Mrs. Bailey will not be asked to make any statement, except in writing—in what you in England call an affidavit. You do not realise, although you doubtless know, what our legal procedure is like. Not even in order to secure the guillotine for Madame Wachner and her Fritz would I expose Mrs. Bailey to the ordeal of our French witness-box."
"And how will it be possible to avoid it?" asked Chester, in a low voice.
Paul de Virieu hesitated, then, leaning forward and holding Sylvia still more closely and protectively to him, he said very deliberately the fateful words he had never thought to say,
"I have an announcement to make to you, Mr. Chester. It is one which I trust will bring me your true congratulations. Mrs. Bailey is about to do me the honour of becoming my wife."
He waited a moment, then added very gravely, "I am giving her an undertaking, a solemn promise by all I hold most sacred, to abandon play—"
Chester felt a shock of amazement. How utterly mistaken, how blind he had been! He had felt positively certain that Sylvia had refused Paul de Virieu; and he had been angered by the suspicion, nay, by what he had thought the sure knowledge, that the wise refusal had cost her pain.
But women are extraordinary creatures, and so, for the matter of that, are Frenchmen—
Still, his feelings to the man sitting opposite to him had undergone a complete change. He now liked—nay, he now respected—Paul de Virieu. But for the Count, whom he had thought to be nothing more than an effeminate dandy, a hopeless gambler, where would Sylvia be now? The unspoken answer to this question gave Chester a horrible inward tremor.
He leant forward, and grasped Paul de Virieu's left hand.
"I do congratulate you," he said, simply and heartily; "you deserve your great good fortune." Then, to Sylvia, he added quietly, "My dear, it is to him you owe your life."