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LAUGHTER OF WOMEN
The door of the omnibus was opened as Duncombe stepped over the low wall into the road. A tall man in a long light Inverness descended.
"Hullo, Duncombe!" he exclaimed, holding out his hand; "I was coming in to see you for a moment."
"Good man!" Duncombe answered. "Bring your friends, won't you?"
He held open the gate hospitably, but Lord Runton shook his head.
"I only wanted a word with you," he said. "We're all starving, and if you don't mind we'll get on as quickly as we can. About to-morrow. You shoot with us, of course?"
"Delighted!" Duncombe answered.
"Cresswell met me at the station," Lord Runton continued. "I'd drawn out a plan for the shoot, but it seems that Cresswell--old fool--hasn't got his harvest in from the two fields by Ketton's Gorse. What I wanted to ask you was if we might take your turnips up from Mile's bottom to the north end of the gorse. We can make our circuit then without a break."
"My dear fellow!" Duncombe protested, "was it worth while asking me such a thing? Of course you can."
"That's settled, then," Lord Runton declared, turning back towards the omnibus. "Let me introduce you to my friends," he added, resting his hand upon the other's shoulder, "and then we'll be off."
Duncombe, in whose ears his friend's cry was still ringing, pressed eagerly forward.
"This is my neighbor, Sir George Duncombe," Lord Runton said, looking into the carriage, "who will shoot with us to-morrow. Miss Fielding and Mr. Fielding, Lady Angrave and the Baron Von Rothe."
Lady Angrave held out her hand.
"Sir George and I are almost old friends," she said, with a somewhat languid smile. "We were both at Castle Holkham last autumn."
Duncombe murmured something conventional as he bowed over her fingers. His whole attention was riveted upon the tall, pale girl in the further corner of the omnibus. Her acknowledgment of his introduction had been of the slightest, and her features were obscured by a white veil. She looked away from him at once and continued a whispered conversation with the white-haired gentleman at her side. Duncombe could think of no excuse for addressing her.
"I shall have the pleasure of meeting you all again to-morrow," he said, closing the door after Lord Runton. "I won't keep you now. I know what the journey is down from town. Good night, Runton!"
"Good night, George. Ten o'clock sharp!"
The carriage rolled off, and Duncombe returned to his own domain. Andrew was waiting for him impatiently by the gate.
"Well!" he exclaimed eagerly, "you have seen her. Well?"
The man was trembling with excitement. There were drops of perspiration upon his forehead. His voice sounded unnatural.
"I saw a young lady in the carriage," Duncombe answered, "or rather I did not see her, for she wore a veil, and she scarcely looked at me. But she was introduced to me as Miss Fielding, and her father was with her."
"Fielding! Fielding!" Andrew repeated. "Never mind that. What was she like! What colored hair had she?"
"I told you that she kept her veil down," Duncombe repeated. "Her hair was a sort of deep, red-brown--what I could see of it. But, seriously, Andrew, what is the use of discussing her? One might as soon expect one of my housemaids to change into Phyllis Poynton, as to discover her with a brand-new father, a brand-new name, and a guest at Runton Place."
Andrew was silent for a moment. He touched his spectacles with a weary gesture, and covered his eyes with his hand.
"Yes," he said, "I suppose you are right. I suppose I am a fool. But--the voice!"
"The laughter of women," said Duncombe, "is music all the world over. One cannot differ very much from the other."
"You are quite wrong, George," Andrew said. "The voices of women vary like the thumb-marks of criminals. There are no two attuned exactly alike. It is the receptive organs that are at fault. We, who have lost one sense, find the others a little keener. The laughter of that girl--George, will you keep me a few days longer? Somehow I cannot bring myself to leave until I have heard her voice once more."
Duncombe laughed heartily.
"My dear fellow," he said, "I shall bless your uncommonly sensitive ears if they keep you here with me even for an extra few days. You shall have your opportunity, too. I always dine at Runton Place after our first shoot, and I know Runton quite well enough to take you. You shall sit at the same table. Hullo, what's this light wobbling up the drive?"
He strolled a yard or so away, and returned.
"A bicycle," he remarked. "One of the grooms has been down to the village. I shall have to speak to Burdett in the morning. I will not have these fellows coming home at all sorts of times in the morning. Come along in, Andrew. Just a drain, eh? And a cigarette--and then to bed. Runton's keen on his bag, and they say that German, Von Rothe, is a fine shot. Can't let them have it all their own way."
"No fear of that," Andrew answered, stepping through the window. "I'll have the cigarette, please, but I don't care about any more whisky. The 'Field' mentioned your name only a few weeks ago as one of the finest shots at rising birds in the country, so I don't think you need fear the German."
"I ought to hold my own with the partridges," Duncombe admitted, helping himself from the siphon, "but come in, come in!"
A servant entered with a telegram upon a silver salver.
"A boy has just brought this from Runton, sir," he said.
Duncombe tore it open. He was expecting a message from his gun-maker, and he opened it without any particular interest, but as he read, his whole manner changed. He held the sheet in front of him long enough to have read it a dozen times. He could not restrain the slight start--a half exclamation. Then his teeth came together. He remembered the servant and looked up.
"There will be no answer to-night, Murray," he said. "Give the boy a shilling and some supper. If he goes home by the Runton gates, tell him to be sure and close them, because of the deer."
"Very good, sir!"
The man departed. Duncombe laid the telegram upon the table. He felt that Andrew was waiting impatiently for him to speak.
"The telegram is from Spencer," Duncombe said.
"He has discovered something?"
"On the contrary," Duncombe answered, "he is asking me for information, and very curious information, too."
"What does he want to know?"
"The telegram," Duncombe said slowly, "is in French. He asks me to wire him at once the names of all the guests at Runton Place."
Andrew struck the table a mighty blow with his clenched fist.
"I knew it!" he cried. "It was her laugh, her voice. Phyllis Poynton is there!"
Duncombe looked at his friend incredulously.
"My dear Andrew," he said, "be reasonable. The young lady and her father in that omnibus were introduced to me by Runton himself as Mr. and Miss Fielding. They are going to his house as his guests. Naturally, therefore, he knows all about them. Miss Poynton, as you have told me more than once, is an orphan."
"Common-sense won't even admit it as a matter of argument," Andrew said. "I know that quite well. But how do you account for Spencer's telegram?"
"Remember that he is a newspaper correspondent," Duncombe said. "He has many interests and many friends with whom he is constantly exchanging information. It is a coincidence, I admit. But the wildest flight of imagination could not make any more of it."
"You must be right," Andrew said quietly. "It all sounds, and is, so convincing. But I wish that I had not heard that laugh!"
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