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A WOMAN'S CRY
The three men were sitting at a small round dining-table, from which everything except the dessert had been removed. Duncombe filled his own glass and passed around a decanter of port. Pelham and Spencer both helped themselves almost mechanically. A cloud of restraint had hung over the little party. Duncombe raised his glass and half emptied its contents. Then he set it down and leaned back in his chair.
"Well," he said, "I am ready for the inquisition. Go on, Andrew."
Pelham fingered his own glass nervously. He seemed to find his task no easy one.
"George," he said, "we are old friends. I want you to remember it. I want you also to remember that I am in a hideous state of worry and nerves"--he passed his hand over his forehead just above his eyes as though they were hurting him. "I am not behaving to you as a guest should to his host. I admit it freely. I have lost my temper more than once during the last twenty-four hours. I am sorry! Forgive me if you can, George!"
"Willingly, Andrew," Duncombe answered. "I shall think no more about it."
"At the same time," Pelham continued, "there is another point to be considered. Have you been quite fair to me, George? Remember that Phyllis Poynton is the one person whose existence reconciles me to life. You had never even heard her name before I sent for you. You went abroad, like the good fellow you are, to find her for me. You assure me that you have discovered--nothing. Let me put you upon your honor, George. Is this absolutely true?"
"I have discovered nothing about Phyllis Poynton," Duncombe declared quietly.
"About Miss Fielding then?"
"Phyllis Poynton and Miss Fielding are two very different persons," Duncombe declared.
"That may be so," Pelham said, "although I find it hard to believe that God ever gave to two women voices so exactly similar. Yet if you are assured that this is so, why not be altogether frank with me?"
"What have you to complain of?" Duncombe asked.
"Something has happened at Runton Place, in which Mr. Fielding and his daughter are concerned," Pelham continued. "I have heard all manner of strange rumors. This afternoon I distinctly heard the girl's voice in the lane outside. She was crying out as though in fear. A few minutes later I heard you speaking to some one in the library. Yet when I entered the room you would not answer me."
"Supposing I grant everything that you say, Andrew," Duncombe answered. "Supposing I admit that strange things have happened with regard to Mr. Fielding and his daughter which have resulted in their leaving Runton Place--even that she was there in the lane this afternoon--how does all this concern you?"
"Because," Pelham declared, striking the table with his fist, "I am not satisfied that the girl who has been staying at Runton Place, and calling herself Miss Fielding, is not in reality Phyllis Poynton."
Duncombe lit a cigarette, and passed the box round.
"Do you know what they are saying to-night of Mr. Fielding and his daughter?" he asked quietly.
"That the one is a robber, and the other an adventuress," Duncombe answered. "This much is certainly true. They have both left Runton Place at a moment's notice, and without taking leave of their host and hostess. Remember, I never knew Phyllis Poynton. You did! Ask yourself whether she is the sort of young person to obtain hospitality under false pretences, and then abuse it--to associate herself in a fraud with a self-confessed robber."
"The idea," Pelham said quietly, "is absurd."
"While we are on the subject," Spencer remarked, drawing the cigarettes towards him, "may I ask you a few questions, Mr. Pelham? For instance, had Miss Poynton any relations in France?"
"Not to my knowledge," Pelham answered. "I have known both her and her brother for a great many years, and I never heard either of them mention any."
"Why did she go to Paris, then?"
"To meet her brother."
"And why did he go abroad?"
"It was a whim, I think. Just a desire to see a few foreign countries before he settled down to live the life of a country gentleman."
"You believe that he had no other reason?"
"I think I may go so far as to say that I am sure of it," Pelham answered.
"One more question," Spencer added, intervening.
But the question remained unasked. The butler had opened the dining-room door and was announcing Lord Runton.
Duncombe rose to his feet in surprise. For the moment a sudden fear drew the color from his cheeks.
He looked apprehensively towards his unexpected visitor. Lord Runton, however, showed no signs of any great discomposure. He was wearing his ordinary dinner clothes, and in reply to Duncombe's first question assured him that he had dined.
"I will try a glass of your port, if I may, George," he declared. "Thanks!"
The butler had wheeled a chair up to the table for him, and left the room. Lord Runton filled his glass and sent the decanter round. Then he turned towards Spencer, to whom he had just been introduced.
"Mr. Spencer," he said, "my visit to-night is mainly to you. I dare say you are aware that a somewhat unpleasant thing has happened at my house. My people tell me that you called there this morning and inquired for Mr. Fielding."
"Quite true," he answered. "I called, but did not see him. He appears to have left somewhat hurriedly while I was waiting."
"You did not even catch a glimpse of him?"
"You know Mr. Fielding by sight, I presume?"
"I have seen him in Paris once or twice," Spencer answered.
"You will not think me impertinent for asking you these questions, I am sure," Lord Runton continued apologetically, "but could you describe Mr. Fielding to me?"
"Certainly," Spencer answered. "He was tall and thin, wears glasses, was clean-shaven, bald, and limped a little."
Lord Runton nodded.
"Thank you," he said. "I presume that your visit this morning was one of courtesy. You are acquainted with Mr. Fielding?"
"I have not that pleasure," Spencer answered. "I am afraid I must confess that my visit was purely one of curiosity."
"Curiosity!" Lord Runton repeated.
"Exactly. Do you mind passing those excellent cigarettes of yours, Duncombe?"
Lord Runton hesitated for a moment. He was conscious of a certain restraint in Spencer's answers. Suddenly he turned towards him.
"Mr. Spencer," he said, "may I ask if you are Mr. Jarvis Spencer, of the 'Daily Messenger'--the Mr. Spencer who was mentioned in connection with the investigations into the Lawson estates?"
"Yes," he said, "I am that person."
"Then," Lord Runton continued, "I want to tell you exactly what has happened to-day in my house, and to ask your advice. May I?"
"If our host has no objection," Spencer answered, glancing towards Pelham.
"None whatever," Duncombe answered, also glancing towards Pelham.
There was a moment's silence. Pelham raised his head.
"If Lord Runton desires it, I will withdraw," he said slowly. "At the same time I must confess that I, too, am interested in this matter. If Lord Runton has no objection to my presence I should like to remain. My discretion goes without saying."
Duncombe moved uneasily in his chair. His eyes sought Spencer's for guidance, but found his head averted. Lord Runton raised his eyebrows slightly at what he considered a somewhat vulgar curiosity, but his reply was prompt.
"You are a friend of Duncombe's, Mr. Pelham," he said, "and that is enough. I have to ask not only you, but all three of you, to consider what I am going to tell you as absolutely confidential."
They all signified their assent. Lord Runton continued:--
"Mr. and Miss Fielding came to me with letters from my brother, and with many convincing proofs of their identity. We none of us had the slightest suspicion concerning them. Their behavior was exactly what it should have been. Nothing about them excited remark in any way, except the unusual number of telegrams and telephone messages which Mr. Fielding was always receiving. That, however, was quite in accord with our ideas of an American business man, and didn't seem to us in the least remarkable."
"The telegrams were delivered through a neighboring office?" Spencer asked quietly.
"Yes," Lord Runton answered, "but they were all in code. I happen to know that because the postmaster brought the first one up himself, and explained that he was afraid that he must have made some mistake as the message was incomprehensible. Fielding only laughed, and gave the man a sovereign. The message was absolutely correct, he declared. He told me afterwards that whenever he was speculating he always coded his messages, and it seemed perfectly reasonable."
"Just so!" he murmured.
"This morning," Lord Runton continued, "Mr. Fielding rather upset our plans. We were all to have spent the day at the Duke's, and dined there. There was a big shoot for the men, as you know. At breakfast-time, however, Mr. Fielding announced that he had a man coming over with a motor car from Norwich for them to try, and begged to be excused. So we had to go without them.
"Von Rothe was staying with me, as you know, and just before we started he had a telegram that a messenger from the Embassy was on his way down. He hesitated for some time as to whether he ought not to stay at home so as to be here when he arrived, but we persuaded him to come with us, and promised to send him back after luncheon. When we got to Chestow, however, the wind had become a gale, and it was impossible to shoot decently. Von Rothe was a little uneasy all the time, I could see, so he and I and a few of the others returned here, and the rest went up to Chestow. Just as we arrived Fielding passed us in a great motor car with his daughter behind. When we got to the house Von Rothe inquired for the messenger. He was told that he was in Mr. Fielding's sitting-room, but when we got there we found the door locked, and through the key-hole we could hear a man groaning. We broke the door in and found Von Rothe's messenger half unconscious, and a rifled despatch box upon the floor. He has given us no coherent account of what has happened yet, but it is quite certain that he was attacked and robbed by Mr. Fielding."
"What was stolen?" Spencer asked. "Money?"
"No, a letter," Lord Runton answered. "Von Rothe says very little, but I never saw a man so broken up. He has left for London to-night."
"The matter is in the hands of the police, of course?" Spencer asked.
Lord Runton shook his head.
"Von Rothe took me into his room and locked the door a few minutes after we had discovered what had happened. He implored me to keep the whole affair from the Press and from publicity in any form. His whole career was at stake, he said, and very much more than his career. All that we could do was to follow Mr. Fielding and drag him back by force if we could. Even then he had little hope of recovering the letter. We did our best, but, of course, we had no chance. Mr. Fielding and his daughter simply drove off. Von Rothe is dealing with the affair in his own way."
"It is a most extraordinary story," Spencer said quietly.
Lord Runton turned towards him.
"I have treated you with confidence, Mr. Spencer," he said. "Will you tell me now why you called at my house to see Mr. Fielding to-day?"
Spencer hesitated, but only for a moment.
"Certainly," he said. "I came because I knew that Mr. Fielding was half-way to America, and his daughter in Russia. Some friends of mine were curious to know who your guests could be."
Pelham raised his head.
"You lied to me then!" he exclaimed.
"I had as much right to lie to you," Spencer answered calmly, "as you had to ask me questions. I had----"
He stopped short in the middle of his sentence. The faces of the three men were a study in varying expressions. From some other part of the house there came to them the sound of a woman's sudden cry of terror--the cry of a woman who had awakened suddenly to look into the face of death. Duncombe's uplifted glass fell with a crash upon the table. The red wine trickled across the table-cloth.
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