Chapter 18




"WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?"


It seemed to Duncombe that time stood still. Andrew's face, wholly disfigured by the hideous dark spectacles, unrecognizable, threatening, was within a few inches of his own. He felt the other's hot breath upon his cheek. For a moment there stole through his numbed senses the fear of more terrible things. And then the grip which held him relaxed. Andrew stood away gasping. The crisis was over.

"You lied to me, George. Why?"

Duncombe did not answer. He could not. It was as though his body had been emptied of all breath.

"You meant to keep the contents of that telegram a secret from me. Why? Was I right after all? Read me that telegram, George. Read it me truthfully."

"The telegram is from Spencer," Duncombe said. "He is coming here."

"Here? Is he giving up the search? Has he failed, then?"

"He does not say," Duncombe answered. "He says simply that he is coming here. He has wired for a motor to meet him at Lynn. He may be here to-night."

A discordant laugh broke from Pelham's lips.

"What about your Miss Fielding, now?" he exclaimed. "Why do you suppose that he is leaving Paris, and coming here? I was right. I knew that I was right."

Duncombe stood up. His expanse of shirt-front was crumpled and battered. His white tie was hanging down in ribbons.

"Listen, Andrew!" he exclaimed. "I am speaking of the girl by whose side I sat to-night at dinner, who calls herself Miss Fielding, who has--in plain words--denied that she knows anything of Phyllis Poynton. I want you to understand this. Whatever she may choose to call herself that shall be her name. I will not have her questioned or bullied or watched. If Spencer comes here to do either I have finished with him. I elect myself her protector. I will stand between her and all suspicion of evil things."

"She has found a champion indeed!" Pelham exclaimed fiercely. "With Miss Fielding I have nothing to do. Yet you had better understand this. If she be Phyllis Poynton she belongs to me, and not to you. She was mine before you heard her name. I have watched her grow up from a child, I taught her to ride and to shoot and to swim. I have watched her listening to the wind, bending over the flowers in her garden. I have walked with her over the moor when the twilight fell and the mists rose. We have seen the kindling of the stars, and we have seen the moon grow pale and the eastern sky ablaze. I have taught her where to look for the beautiful things of life. She has belonged to me in all ways, save one. I am a poor, helpless creature now, George, but, by the gods, I will let no one rob me of my one holy compensation. She is the girl I love; the better part of myself."

"Phyllis Poynton may be all these things to you," Duncombe answered. "I do not know her. I do not recognize her. Find her, if you can; make of her what you will. All that I ask of you is that you divest your mind of these senseless suspicions. Seek Phyllis Poynton where you will, but leave alone the woman whom I love. I will not have her troubled or annoyed by needless importunities. She says she is Miss Fielding. Then she is Miss Fielding. It is enough for me. It must be enough for you!"

"And what about Spencer?" Pelham asked grimly.

"Spencer in this matter is my servant," Duncombe answered. "If his search for Phyllis Poynton entails his annoying Miss Fielding, then he is dismissed. I will have no more to do with the business."

"I have heard of this man Spencer," Andrew answered. "If you think that he is the sort of creature whom you can order about like that, I fancy that you are mistaken. You may try to call him off, if you like, but you won't succeed. He is searching for Phyllis Poynton, and he is coming here. I believe that he will find her."

The windows were wide open, and both men suddenly turned round. There was no mistaking the sound which came to them from the road outside--the regular throb and beat of a perfectly balanced engine. Then they heard a man's voice, cool and precise.

"Here you are, then, and a sovereign for yourself. A capital little car this. Good night!"

The little iron gate opened and closed. A tall man in a loose travelling-coat, and carrying a small bag, entered. He saw Duncombe standing at the open window, and waved his hand. As he approached his boyish face lit up into a smile.

"What luck to find you up!" he exclaimed. "You got my telegram?"

"An hour ago," Duncombe answered. "This is my friend, Mr. Andrew Pelham. What will you have?"

"Whisky and soda, and a biscuit, please," was the prompt reply. "Haven't upset you, I hope, coming down from the clouds in this fashion?"

"Not in the least," Duncombe answered. "You've made us very curious, though."

"Dear me!" Spencer exclaimed, "what a pity! I came here to ask questions, not to answer them. You've set me a regular poser, Duncombe. By Jove! that's good whisky."

"Help yourself," Duncombe answered. "We won't bother you to-night. I'll show you a room as soon as you've had a cigarette. Fair crossing?"

"No idea," Spencer answered. "I slept all the way. Jolly place you've got here, Duncombe. Nice country, too."

"There is just one question," Pelham began.

"Sha'n't answer it--to-night," Spencer interrupted firmly. "I'm dead sleepy, and I couldn't guarantee to tell the truth. And when to-morrow comes--I'll be frank with you--I've very little to say. Pardon me, but where does Mr. Pelham come in in this matter?"

"Pelham," Duncombe said slowly, "was a neighbor of Miss Poynton's, in Devonshire. It was through him that I first went to Paris to search for her."

Spencer nodded.

"Glad to meet him, then," he remarked. "There are a few questions I shall be glad to ask him in the morning."

"There is one," Pelham said, "which you must answer now."

Spencer raised his eyebrows. He was standing with his back to them now, helping himself to sandwiches from a dish upon the sideboard.

"By Jove, your cook does understand these things," he remarked, with his mouth full. "No idea I was so hungry. What was that, Mr. Pelham? A question which must be answered now?"

"Yes. You telegraphed to Duncombe to know the names of Lord Runton's guests, and now you have come here yourself. Why?"

Spencer helped himself to another sandwich.

"I came here," he said, "because I didn't seem to be getting on in Paris. It struck me that the clue to Miss Poynton's disappearance might after all be on this side of the Channel."

Pelham guided himself by the table to the sideboard. He stood close to Spencer.

"Mr. Spencer," he said, "I am almost blind, and I cannot see your face, but I want you to tell me the truth. I expect it from you."

"My dear fellow," Spencer answered. "I'm awfully sorry for you, of course, but I really don't see why I should answer your questions at all, truthfully or untruthfully. I have been making a few inquiries for my friend Duncombe. At present I regret to say that I have been unsuccessful. In their present crude state I should prefer keeping my discoveries, such as they are, to myself."

Pelham struck the sideboard with his clenched fist so that all the glasses rattled upon the tray. His face was dark with passion.

"I will not be ignored in this matter," he declared. "Phyllis Poynton and her brother are nothing to Duncombe. He acted only for me. He cannot deny it. Ask him for yourself."

"I do not need to ask him," Spencer answered. "I am perfectly well aware of the circumstances of the case. All the same, I go about my business my own way. I am not ready to answer questions from you or anybody else."

"You shall tell me this at least," Pelham declared. "You shall tell me why you telegraphed here for the names of Lord Runton's house party."

"Simplest thing in the world," Spencer answered, relinquishing his attack upon the sandwiches, and lighting a cigarette. "I did it to oblige a friend who writes society notes for the 'New York Herald.'"

Duncombe gave vent to a little exclamation of triumph. Pelham for the moment was speechless.

"Awfully sorry if I misled you in any way," Spencer continued. "I never imagined your connecting my request with the disappearance of Phyllis Poynton. Why should I?"

"The fact is," Duncombe interposed, "there is a girl staying at Runton Place whose voice Pelham declares is exactly like Phyllis Poynton's, and whose general appearance, I will admit, is somewhat similar to the photograph I showed you. It is a coincidence, of course, but beyond that it is absurd to go. This young lady is a Miss Fielding. She is there with her father, and they are invited guests, with all the proper credentials."

Spencer nodded.

"I suppose it is because I am not a lady's man," he said carelessly, "but I must admit that all girls' voices sound pretty much alike to me."

"I wish to Heaven that I could see your face!" Pelham exclaimed, "I should know then whether you were telling me the truth."

"The weak point about my temporary profession is," Spencer remarked thoughtfully, "that it enables even strangers to insult one with impunity."

"If I have misjudged you," Pelham said with some dignity, "I am sorry. I am to understand, then, that you have no news whatever to give us about the disappearance of Phyllis Poynton and her brother?"

"Not a scrap!" Spencer answered.

"I will wish you both good night, then," Pelham said. "No, don't trouble, George. I can find my way quite well by myself."

He disappeared, and Duncombe drew a little sigh of relief.

"Excitable person, your friend!" Spencer remarked.

Duncombe nodded.

"Very! I am frightened to death that he will make an ass of himself before Miss Fielding. If he hears her speak he loses his head."

"Nice girl?" Spencer asked.

"Yes--very!"

"What sort of a fellow's the father?"

"Very quiet. I've scarcely spoken to him. They're Americans. Friends of Lord Runton's brother, out in New York. Ever heard of them?"

"Yes. A few times."

"You seem interested."

"I am--very."

Duncombe turned suddenly white.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

Spencer held his cigarette between his fingers and looked at it thoughtfully.

"Mr. Fielding, of New York," he said, "sailed for America from Havre last Saturday. His daughter has gone to Russia with a party of friends."

Duncombe sprang from his seat. His cigarette slipped from his fingers and fell unheeded upon the carpet.

"Then who--who are these people?" he exclaimed.

Spencer shrugged his shoulders.

"I thought it worth while," he said, "to come over and find out."




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