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LORD RUNTON IS SUSPICIOUS
Duncombe was out of the room in a very few seconds. The others hesitated for a moment whether to follow him or not. Spencer was the first to rise to his feet and moved towards the door. Lord Runton and Pelham followed a moment or two later. Outside in the hall the house was perfectly silent.
Duncombe reached the library door just in time to find himself confronted by half a dozen of the men and women servants coming from the back of the house. With his hand upon the door-knob he waved them back.
"Be so good, Mrs. Harrison," he said to the housekeeper, "as to keep better order in the servants' hall. We could hear some girls calling or laughing in the dining-room."
"Indeed, sir," Mrs. Harrison answered with some dignity, "the noise, whatever it was, did not come from the servants' quarters. We fancied that it came from your library."
"Quite impossible," Duncombe answered coolly. "If I require any one I will ring."
He passed through the door and locked it on the inside. In half a dozen hasty strides he was across the room and inside the smaller apartment where he had left the girl. With a little gasp of relief he realized that she was there still. She was pale, and a spot of color was blazing in her cheeks. Her hair and dress were a little disordered. With trembling fingers she was fastening a little brooch into her blouse as he entered. A rush of night air struck him from a wide-open window.
"What has happened?" he called out.
"I have been terrified," she answered. "I am sorry I called out. I could not help it. A man came here--through the window. He talked so fast that I could scarcely hear what he said, but he wanted that paper. I tried to make him understand that I had not got it, but he did not believe me--and he was rude."
Duncombe shut down the window, swearing softly to himself.
"I cannot stay with you," he said, "just now. The whole house is alarmed at your cry. Listen!"
There was a loud knocking at the library door. Duncombe turned hastily away.
"I must let them in," he said. "I will come back to you."
She pointed to the window.
"He is coming back," she said, "at twelve o'clock."
"Do you wish me to give up the paper?" he asked.
"Very well. I will be with you when he comes--before then. I must get rid of these men first."
He closed the door softly, and drew the curtain which concealed it. Then he opened the library window, and a moment afterwards the door.
"Come in, you fellows," he said. "I scarcely know what I was doing when I locked the door. I fancy one of the housemaids has been seeing ghosts in the garden. I saw something white in amongst the shrubs, but I could find nothing. Come on out with me."
Spencer followed with a perfectly grave face. Lord Runton looked puzzled. Pelham did not attempt to leave the library. Spencer drew his host a little on one side.
"What a rotten liar you are, George!" he said. "I don't think that even Runton was taken in."
"I suppose it sounded a little thin," Duncombe answered coolly. "Put it this way, then, so far as you are concerned. The shriek occurred in my house. I've no explanation to offer to anybody."
"I like the sound of that better, Duncombe," he remarked. "Hullo! What's the matter with Runton?"
Lord Runton was calling to them.
"You've had a visitor who was in a hurry, old chap!" he remarked. "Send for a lantern."
Duncombe concealed his annoyance.
"I don't want to alarm the whole household," he said. "I've a little electric torch in my study. I'll fetch that."
He brought it out. The progress of a man from the road to the small window, towards which Duncombe glanced every now and then apprehensively, was marked by much destruction. The intruder had effected his exit either in great haste or in a singularly unfortunate manner. He had apparently missed the gate, which at this point was only a small hand one, and in clambering over the fence he had broken the topmost strand of wire. He had blundered into a bed of wallflowers, which were all crushed and downtrodden, and snapped off a rose tree in the middle. Below the window were distinct traces of footmarks. Lord Runton, who held the torch, was becoming excited.
"Duncombe," he said, "there is something which I have not told you yet. I have had numerous reports in about the car, and was able to trace it as far as Lynn, but they all agreed in saying that it contained only two persons--the driver and the man who called himself Fielding. What became of the girl?"
"I have no idea," Duncombe answered steadily.
"Of course not," Lord Runton continued, "but don't you think it possible that--without your knowledge, of course--she may be hidden somewhere about here? That cry was not like the cry of a housemaid. Let us have the whole place searched."
Duncombe shrugged his shoulders.
"As you will," he answered. "I am certain, however, that it will be useless. There is no place here where any one could hide."
"Your servants may know something," Runton suggested.
"I have already questioned them," Duncombe answered.
"Come along, Mr. Spencer," Lord Runton exclaimed, "let us search the grounds."
Spencer shook his head.
"Waste of time, Lord Runton," he answered. "If you really want to discover the whereabouts of this missing young lady, and she should by any chance be close at hand, I should recommend you to induce Sir George to let you search the room to which those footsteps lead."
"The library," Duncombe interrupted quickly. "Search it by all means, if you like. I have done so myself already."
Spencer was facing the house.
"The library!" he remarked reflectively. "Ah!"
He stooped down to light a cigarette. Suddenly he felt Duncombe's hot breath upon his cheek. In the momentary glow of the match he caught a silhouette of a pale, angry face, whose eyes were flashing upon him.
"This isn't your affair, Spencer. Shut up!"
Spencer blew out the match deliberately. They both followed Lord Runton to the library. Pelham was standing in the middle of the room. He had the appearance of a man listening intently.
"George," he asked sharply, "what is on the north side of this room?"
"The wall!" Duncombe answered.
"A passage and the billiard-room."
Pelham seemed dissatisfied.
"I fancied," he muttered--"but I suppose it must have been fancy. Do the women servants use that passage?"
"Of course! Upon my word," Duncombe added, with a nervous little laugh, "you all seem to be trying to make my house into a Maskelyne and Cooke's home of mystery. Let us go into the dining-room and have a whisky and soda."
"Not for me, thanks," Lord Runton declared. "I must go back. The real object of my coming here, Duncombe, was to see if the Mr. Spencer who called at Runton Place to-day was really Mr. Jarvis Spencer, and if so to ask him whether he would help me."
"To what extent, Lord Runton?" Spencer asked quietly.
"To the extent of recovering, or attempting to recover, the papers which were stolen from the Baron Von Rothe," Lord Runton said. "The Baron was a guest in my house, and I feel the occurrence very much. He will not let me even mention the matter to the police, but I feel sure that he could not object to Mr. Spencer's taking the matter in hand."
"I think you will find," Spencer said, "that Von Rothe has already placed the matter in the hands of his own people. The German secret service is pretty active over here, you know. I have come in contact with it once or twice."
"Nevertheless, for my own satisfaction," Lord Runton continued, "I should like the matter inquired into by you, Mr. Spencer."
"I am not quite sure whether I am free to help you or not," Spencer said slowly. "May I come and see you to-morrow morning?"
"If you prefer it," Lord Runton said doubtfully. "Come as early as possible. Good night, Duncombe! I should like to know who your nocturnal visitor was."
"If he comes again," Duncombe said, "I may be able to tell you."
He walked to his desk, and taking out a revolver, slipped it into his pocket. Then he rang the bell for Lord Runton's carriage. It seemed to Duncombe that there was a shade of coolness in his visitor's manner as he took his leave. He drew Spencer a little on one side.
"I want you to promise to come and see me in any case to-morrow morning," he said. "There is something which I should prefer saying to you in my own house to saying here."
"Very well," he said, "I will come. I can promise that much at least."
Lord Runton departed. Pelham went off to bed. Spencer and his host were left alone in the library.
"Billiards, or a whisky and soda in the smoke-room?" the latter asked. "I know that you are not a late bird."
"Neither, thanks. Just a word with you here," Spencer answered.
Duncombe paused on his way to the door. Spencer was standing in a reflective attitude, with his hands behind his back, gently balancing himself upon his toes.
"I am very much disposed," he said, "to accept Lord Runton's offer. Have you any objection?"
"Of course I have," Duncombe answered. "You are working for me."
"Was working for you," Spencer corrected gently. "That is all over, isn't it?"
"What do you mean?" Duncombe exclaimed.
Spencer stood squarely upon his feet. He looked a little tired.
"My engagement from you was to find Miss Phyllis Poynton," he said softly. "You and I are perfectly well aware that the young lady in question is--well, a few yards behind that curtain," he said, motioning with his head towards it. "My task is accomplished, and I consider myself a free man."
Duncombe was silent for a moment. He walked restlessly to the window and back again.
"How did you find out that she was here?" he asked.
Spencer looked a little disgusted.
"My dear fellow," he said, "any one with the brains of a mouse must have discovered that. Why, Lord Runton, without any of the intimations which I have received, is a little suspicious. That is merely a matter of A B C. There were difficulties, I admit, and I am sorry to say that I have never solved them. I cannot tell you at this moment how it comes about that a young lady, brought up in the country here, and from all I can learn an ordinary, unambitious, virtuous sort of young person, should disappear from England in search of a missing brother, and return in a few months the companion of one of the most dangerous and brilliant members of the French secret service. This sort of thing is clean beyond me, I admit. I will be frank with you, Duncombe. I have met with difficulties in this case which I have never met with before--peculiar difficulties."
"Go on!" Duncombe exclaimed eagerly.
"I have many sources of information in Paris," Spencer continued slowly. "I have acquaintances amongst waiters, cabmen, café-proprietors, detectives, and many such people. I have always found them most useful. I went amongst them, making careful inquiries about Phyllis Poynton and her brother. They were like men struck dumb. Their mouths were closed like rat-traps. The mention of either the boy or the girl seemed to change them as though like magic from pleasant, talkative men and women, very eager to make the best of their little bit of information, into surly idiots, incapable of understanding or answering the slightest question. It was the most extraordinary experience I have ever come across."
Duncombe was breathlessly interested.
"What do you gather from it?" he asked eagerly.
"I can only surmise," Spencer said slowly, "I can only surmise the existence of some power, some force or combination of forces behind all this, of the nature of which I am entirely ignorant. I am bound to admit that there is a certain amount of fascination to me in the contemplation of any such thing. The murder of that poor girl, for instance, who was proposing to give you information, interests me exceedingly."
Duncombe shuddered at the recollection. The whole scene was before him once more, the whole series of events which had made his stay in Paris so eventful. He laid his hand upon Spencer's arm.
"Spencer," he said, "you speak as though your task were accomplished. It isn't. Phyllis Poynton may indeed be where you say, but if so it is Phyllis Poynton with the halter about her neck, with the fear of terrible things in her heart. It is not you nor I who is the jailer of her captivity. It is some power which has yet to be discovered. Our task is not finished yet. To-night I will try to question her about this network of intrigue into which she seems to have been drawn. If she will see you, you too shall ask her about it. Don't think of deserting us yet."
"My dear Duncombe," Spencer said, "I may as well confess at once that the sole interest I felt in Lord Runton's offer was that it is closely connected with the matter we have been discussing."
"You shall have my entire confidence, Spencer," Duncombe declared. "The man who called himself Fielding was badly wounded, and he passed here almost unconscious. He entrusted the paper or letter, or whatever it was, he stole from Von Rothe's messenger, to his so-called daughter, and she in her turn passed it on to me. It is at this moment in my possession."
Spencer looked very serious.
"My dear fellow," he said, "I congratulate you upon your pluck, but not upon your discretion. You are interfering in what may turn out to be a very great matter--a matter in which a few lives are like the pawns which are swept from the chess-board. Does any one know this?"
"She and I only! You heard her shriek?"
"A man threw up her window and climbed in. He demanded the packet. He searched the room. When he left her he declared that he should return at twelve to-night, and if she did not hand it to him then he threatened her."
Spencer smiled, and rubbed his hands softly together.
"Really," he murmured, "this is most interesting. I am with you, Duncombe. With you altogether! There is only one more question."
"You did not know Phyllis Poynton. You took up this search for her out of your friendship for Pelham. You are a rich man, young, strong, with every capacity for enjoyment. What induces you to risk your life in an adventure of this sort? You see, I don't mince words."
Then Duncombe became grave. His face fell into firm, hard lines. Yet as he spoke there was something boyish about his expression.
"It is a fair question," he answered. "You won't understand me. I don't understand myself. I've a brilliant galaxy of fools behind me. They've made the pages of history interesting. They've been the butt always of wiser men such as you, Spencer. The girl in that room may be Phyllis Poynton or the worst adventuress who ever lied her way through the mazes of intrigue, but I love her! She's in my life--a part of it. If I lose her--well, you know what life is like when the flame has gone and only the embers burn."
Spencer nodded very softly.
"That is sufficient!" he said. "You speak of things that I myself do not understand. But that is nothing. I know that they exist. But----"
"But what about Pelham?"
"Pelham has no prior claim," he answered. "As soon as she is safe he shall know the whole truth. I would tell him at this moment but that I am a little afraid of him. He would never understand, as we can, the intricacy of the situation. And now--to the prosaic."
He rang the bell.
"Groves," he told the butler, "I am hungry. Bring me in anything you can rake up for supper on a tray, and a pint of champagne."
Spencer raised his eyebrows and smiled. Duncombe nodded.
"For her, of course," he said. "I am going to take it in, and I want you to stay here. It is past eleven o'clock already."
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