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GEORGE DUNCOMBE'S LIE
There was something strange about Andrew's manner as he moved up to Duncombe's side. The latter, who was in curiously high spirits, talked incessantly for several minutes. Then he came to a dead stop. He was aware that his friend was not listening.
"What is the matter with you, old chap?" he asked abruptly. "You are positively glum."
Andrew Pelham shook his head.
"Nothing much!" he said.
"Rubbish! What is it?"
Andrew dropped his voice almost to a whisper. The words came hoarsely. He seemed scarcely master of himself.
"The girl's voice tortures me," he declared. "It doesn't seem possible that there can be two so much alike. And then Spencer's telegram. What does it mean?"
"Be reasonable, old fellow!" Duncombe answered. "You knew Phyllis Poynton well. Do you believe that she would be content to masquerade under a false name, invent a father, be received here--Heaven knows how--and meet you, an old friend, as a stranger? The thing's absurd, isn't it?"
"Granted. But what about Spencer's telegram?"
"It is an enigma, of course. We can only wait for his solution. I have wired him the information he asked for. In the meantime----"
"Well, in the meantime?"
"There is nothing to be gained by framing absurd hypotheses. I don't mind telling you, Andrew, that I find Miss Fielding the most delightful girl I ever met in my life."
"Tell me exactly, George, how she compares with the photograph you have of Phyllis Poynton."
Duncombe sipped his wine slowly.
"She is very like it," he said, "and yet there are differences. She is certainly a little thinner and taller. The features are similar, but the hair is quite differently arranged. I should say that Miss Fielding is two or three years older than Phyllis Poynton, and she has the air of having travelled and been about more."
"A few months of events," Andrew murmured, "might account for all those differences."
Duncombe laughed as he followed his host's lead and rose.
"Get that maggot out of your brain, Andrew," he exclaimed, "as quickly as possible. Will you take my arm? Mind the corner."
They found the drawing-room almost deserted. Runton raised his eyeglass and looked around.
"I bet those women have collared the billiard table," he remarked. "Come along, you fellows."
They re-crossed the hall and entered the billiard-room. Lady Runton was playing with the Lord Lieutenant's wife, the Countess of Appleton. The others were all sitting about, either on the lounge or in the winter garden beyond. Miss Fielding was standing on the threshold, and Duncombe advanced eagerly towards her. On the way, however, he was buttonholed by an acquaintance, and the master of the hounds had something to say to him afterwards about one of his covers. When he was free, Miss Fielding had disappeared. He made his way into the winter garden, only to find her sitting in a secluded corner with the Baron. She looked up at his entrance, but made no sign. Duncombe reluctantly re-entered the billiard-room, and was captured by his host for a rubber of bridge.
The rubber was a long one. Duncombe played badly and lost his money. Declining to cut in again, he returned to the winter garden. Miss Fielding and the Baron were still together, only they had now pushed their chairs a little further back, and were apparently engaged in a very confidential conversation. Duncombe turned on his heel and re-entered the billiard-room.
It was not until the party broke up that he found a chance of speaking to her. He was sensible at once of a change in her manner. She would have passed him with a little nod, but he barred her way.
"You have treated me shockingly," he declared, with a smile which was a little forced. "You promised to let me show you the winter garden."
"Did I?" she answered. "I am so sorry. I must have forgotten all about it. The Baron has been entertaining me delightfully. Good night!"
He half stood aside.
"I haven't by any chance offended you, have I?" he asked in a low tone.
She raised her eyebrows.
"Certainly not!" she answered. "Excuse me, won't you? I want to speak to Lady Runton before she goes upstairs."
Duncombe stood on one side and let her pass with a stiff bow. As he raised his eyes he saw that Mr. Fielding was standing within a few feet of him, smoking a cigarette. He might almost have overheard their conversation.
"Good night, Mr. Fielding," he said, holding out his hand. "Are you staying down here for long?"
"For two days, I believe," Mr. Fielding answered. "My daughter makes our plans."
He spoke very slowly, but without any accent. Nothing in his appearance, except perhaps the fact that he wore a black evening tie, accorded with the popular ideas of the travelling American.
"If you have an hour to spare," Duncombe said, "it would give me a great deal of pleasure if you and your daughter would walk down and have a look over my place. Part of the hall is Elizabethan, and I have some relics which might interest Miss Fielding."
Mr. Fielding removed the cigarette from his mouth.
"I thank you very much, sir," he said. "We are Lord Runton's guests, and our stay is so short that we could scarcely make any arrangements to visit elsewhere. Glad to have had the pleasure of meeting you all the same."
Duncombe sought out his host.
"Runton, old chap," he said, "do me a favor. Bring that fellow Fielding and his daughter round to my place before they go."
Lord Runton laughed heartily.
"Is it a case?" he exclaimed. "And you, our show bachelor, too! Never mind my chaff, old chap. She's a ripping good-looking girl, and money enough to buy the country."
"I don't mind your chaff," Duncombe answered, "but will you bring her?"
Lord Runton looked thoughtful.
"How the dickens can I? We are all shooting at the Duke's to-morrow, and I believe they're off on Saturday. You're not in earnest by any chance, are you, George?"
"Damnably!" he answered.
Lord Runton whistled softly.
"Fielding doesn't shoot," he remarked, "but they're going with us to Beaumanor. Shall I drop him a hint? He might stay a day longer--just to make a few inquiries about you on the spot, you know."
"Get him to stay a day longer, if you can," Duncombe answered, "but don't give me away. The old chap's none too cordial as it is."
"I must talk to him," Runton said. "Your Baronetcy is a thundering sight better than any of these mushroom peerages. He probably doesn't understand that sort of thing. But what about the girl? Old Von Rothe has been making the running pretty strong, you know."
"We all have to take our chance in that sort of thing," Duncombe said quietly. "I am not afraid of Von Rothe!"
"I'll do what I can for you," Runton promised. "Good night!"
Andrew, who had left an hour or so earlier, was sitting in the library smoking a pipe when his host returned.
"Not gone to bed yet, then?" Duncombe remarked. "Let me make you a whisky and soda, old chap. You look a bit tired."
"Very good of you--I think I will," Andrew answered. "And, George, are you sure that I should not be putting you out at all if I were to stay--say another couple of days with you?"
Duncombe wheeled round and faced his friend. His reply was not immediate.
"Andrew," he said, "you know very well that I haven't a pal in the world I'd sooner have here than you for just as long as you choose to stay, but--forgive me if I ask you one question. Is it because you want to watch Miss Fielding that you have changed your mind?"
"That has a good deal to do with it, George," Andrew said quietly. "If I left without meeting that young lady again I should be miserable. I want to hear her speak when she does not know that any one is listening."
Duncombe crossed the room and laid his hand upon the other's shoulder.
"Andrew, old fellow," he said, "I can't have it. I can't allow even my best friend to spy upon Miss Fielding. You see--I've come a bit of a cropper. Quick work, I suppose, you'd say. But I'm there all the same."
"Who wants to spy upon Miss Fielding?" Andrew exclaimed hoarsely. "She can be the daughter of a multi-millionaire or a penniless adventurer for all I care. All I want is to be sure that she isn't Phyllis Poynton."
"You are not yet convinced?"
There was a moment's silence. Duncombe walked to the window and returned.
"Andrew," he said, "doesn't what I told you just now make a difference?"
"Of course it would," he answered, "but--I'm fool enough to feel the same about Phyllis Poynton."
Duncombe, in the full glow of sensations which seemed to him to give a larger and more wonderful outlook on life, felt his sympathies suddenly awakened. Andrew Pelham, his old chum, sitting there with his huge, disfiguring glasses and bowed head, was surely the type of all that was pathetic. He forgot all his small irritation at the other's obstinacy. He remembered only their long years of comradeship and the tragedy which loomed over the life of his chosen friend. Once more his arm rested upon his shoulder.
"I'm a selfish brute, Andrew!" he said. "Stay as long as you please, and get this idea out of your brain. I'm trying to get Miss Fielding and her father down here, and if I can manage it anyhow I'll leave you two alone, and you shall talk as long as you like. Come, we'll have a drink together now and a pipe afterwards."
He walked across to the sideboard, where the glasses and decanters were arranged. Then for the first time he saw upon the tray awaiting him a telegram. He gave a little exclamation as he tore it open.
Andrew looked up.
"What is it, George?" he asked. "A telegram?"
Duncombe stood with his eyes glued upon the oblong strip of paper. A curious pallor had crept into his face from underneath the healthy tan of his complexion. Andrew, sightless though he was, seemed to feel the presence in the room of some exciting influence. He rose to his feet and moved softly across to the sideboard.
"Is it a telegram, George?" he whispered hoarsely. "Read it to me. Is it from Spencer?"
Duncombe collected himself with an effort.
"It's nothing," he answered with a little laugh, in which all the elements of mirth were lacking, "nothing at all! A note from Heggs, my head-keeper--about some poachers. Confound the fellow!"
Andrew's hand was suddenly upon the sideboard, travelling furtively across its shining surface. Duncombe watched it with a curious sense of fascination. He felt altogether powerless to interfere. He was simply wondering how long it would be before those long, powerful fingers seized upon what they sought. He might even then have swept aside the envelope, but he felt no inclination to do so. The fingers were moving slowly but surely. Finally, with a little grab, they seized upon it. Then there was another moment of suspense.
Slowly the hand was withdrawn. Without a second's warning Duncombe felt himself held in the grip of a giant. Andrew had him by the throat.
"You have lied to me, George!" he cried. "There was a telegram!"
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