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MISS FIELDING ASKS A QUESTION
She came into the room a little late, and her entrance created almost a sensation. Duncombe only knew that she wore a black gown and looked divine. Lady Runton murmured "Paquin" with a sigh and frown.
"These girls might at least leave us black," she murmured to her neighbor. "What pearls!"
Duncombe stepped forward to meet her. He could not keep the admiration from his eyes. Her shoulders and slim graceful neck were as white as alabaster, her hair was a gorgeous brown kissed into fine gold glimmering as though with a touch of some hidden fire. She moved with the delightful freedom of absolute naturalness. He murmured something which sounded ridiculously commonplace, and she laughed at him.
"Do you know that you are going to take me in?" she said. "I hope that you are prepared to be very amusing. Do tell me which is your friend."
Then Duncombe remembered Andrew, who was standing by his side. He turned towards him, and the words suddenly died away upon his lips. Andrew's tall frame was shaking as though with some powerful emotion. He was standing with his head thrust forward as though listening intently. Duncombe set his teeth.
"Will you allow me to present my friend Miss Fielding?" he said. "Andrew, this is Miss Fielding. Mr. Pelham, Miss Fielding."
She held out her hand and took his passive fingers.
"I am so glad to know you, Mr. Pelham," she said pleasantly. "Sir George gave me quite a shock to-day when he spoke of you. I was once very nearly engaged to an Andrew Pelham in Baltimore, and I had most distressing visions of all my old sweethearts turning up to spoil my good time here."
Andrew's voice sounded odd and restrained.
"I have never been in America," he said.
"You need not be afraid that I am going to claim you," she declared. "You are at least a foot taller than my Andrew. You don't even inspire me with any tender recollections of him. Baron, I do hope that you have not taken too much exercise."
"My dear young lady," he answered, bowing, "I never felt better in my life! Be thankful that it is not your hard fate to be my dinner companion. I am so hungry I should have no time for conversation."
"On the contrary," she declared, "I--almost regret it! I much prefer to do some of the talking myself, but I seldom get a chance. Will you promise to give me a show to-night, Sir George?"
"As long as you permit me to say two or three things which are in my mind," he answered, lowering his voice a little, "you may do all the rest of the talking."
"Dear me, I am curious already," she exclaimed. "What are the two or three things, Sir George? Why! Do you see--nearly every one has gone," she added suddenly. "Come along!"
She laid her hand upon his arm and led him away. Soon he was by her side at the table. Their companions were uninteresting. Andrew was out of sight. Duncombe forgot everything else in the world except that he was with her.
Their conversation was of trifles, yet intimate trifles. The general talk buzzed all round them. Neither made any effort to arrest it. To Duncombe she seemed simply the image he had created and worshipped suddenly come to life. That it was not in fact her picture went for nothing. There was no infidelity. The girl who had existed in his dreams was here. It was for her that he had departed from the even tenor of his ways, for her he had searched in Paris, for her he had braved the horrors of that unhappy week. Already he felt that she belonged to him, and in a vague sort of way she, too, seemed to be letting herself drift, to be giving color to his unconscious assumption by her lowered tone, by the light in her eyes which answered his, by all those little nameless trifles which go to the sealing of unwritten compacts.
Once her manner changed. Her father, who was on the opposite side of the table a little way off, leaned forward and addressed her.
"Say, Sybil, where did we stay in Paris? I've forgotten the name of the place."
"L'hôtel d'Athènes," she answered, and at once resumed her conversation with Duncombe.
But somehow the thread was broken. Duncombe found himself watching the little gray man opposite, who ate and drank so sparingly, who talked only when he was spoken to, and yet who seemed to be taking a keen but covert interest in everything that went on about him. Her father! There was no likeness, no shadow of a likeness. Yet Duncombe felt almost a personal interest in him. They would know one another better some day, he felt.
"So you've been in Paris lately?" he asked her suddenly.
"For a few days."
"I arrived from there barely a week ago," he remarked.
"I hate the place!" she answered. "Talk of something else."
And he obeyed.
The second interruption came from Andrew. During a momentary lull in the conversation they heard his firm clear voice talking.
"My time was up yesterday, but I find so much to interest me down here that I think I shall stay on for a few more days, if my host remains as hospitable as ever."
"So much to interest him," she murmured. "Are not all places the same to the blind? What does he mean?"
"He is not really blind!" Duncombe answered, lowering his voice. "He can see things very dimly. The doctor has told him that if he wears those glasses for a few more months he may be able to preserve some measure of eyesight. Poor chap!"
"He does not attract me--your friend," she said a little coldly. "What can he find to interest him so much here? Do you see how he keeps his head turned this way? It is almost as though he wished to listen to what we were saying."
"There is a sort of reason for that," Duncombe answered. "Shall I explain it?"
"Pelham lives, as I think I told you, in a small country-house near Raynesworth," Duncombe began. "The hall in his village was occupied by a young man--a boy, really--and his sister. Early in the year the boy, who had never been abroad, thought that he would like to travel a little in Europe. He wandered about some time in Germany and Austria, and was coming home by Paris. Suddenly all letters from him ceased. He did not return. He did not write. He drew no money from his letter of credit. He simply disappeared."
The girl was proceeding tranquilly with her dinner. The story so far did not seem to interest her.
"His sister, who went over to Paris to meet him, found herself quite alone there, and we supposed that she devoted herself to searching for him. And then curiously enough she, too, disappeared. Letters from her suddenly ceased. No one knew what had become of her."
She looked at him with a faint smile.
"Now," she said, "your story is becoming interesting. Do go on. I want to know where you and Mr. Pelham come in."
"Pelham, I think," he continued gravely, "was their oldest friend. He sent for me. We were old college chums, and I went. This trouble with his eyes had only just come on, and he was practically helpless--much more helpless than the ordinary blind person, because it was all new to him. This boy and girl were his old and dear friends. He was longing to be off to Paris to search for them himself, and yet he knew that so far as he was concerned it would be simply wasted time. He showed me the girl's photograph."
"I went in his place."
"And did you find either of them?"
"I wonder," she said, "why you have told me this story?"
"I am going to tell you why," he answered. "Because when Pelham heard you laugh last night he was like a madman. He believed that it was the voice of Phyllis Poynton. And I--I--when I saw you, I also felt that miracles were at hand. Look here!"
He drew a photograph from his pocket and showed it to her. She looked at it long and earnestly.
"Yes," she admitted, "there is a likeness. It is like what I might have been years ago. But will you tell me something?"
"Why do you carry the picture of that girl about with you?"
He leaned towards her, and at that moment Lady Runton rose from her place.
"In the winter garden afterwards," he whispered. "You have asked me the very question that I wanted to answer!"
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