Chapter 23




HER FIRST KISS


"I was never," she declared, "quite so pleased to see any one in all my life. I was wondering whether it would occur to you that I was starving."

He set the tray down for her, placed a chair in front of the table, and busied himself opening the wine. All the time he was looking at her.

"Whatever have you been doing to yourself?" he asked at length.

She laughed softly.

"Oh, I had to amuse myself somehow," she answered. "I've done my hair a new way, rearranged all my ornaments, and really I don't think a man has a right to such a delightful manicure set. I felt terribly nervous in the lavatory, though. I could hear some one in the billiard-room all the time."

"That's all right!" he declared. "I've locked the door there, and have the key in my pocket. No one can get in from that side."

"Please talk, and don't watch me," she begged. "I'm ashamed to be so hungry."

He smiled and helped her to some more chicken. If he talked he was scarcely conscious of what he said. All the time his eyes kept straying towards her. She had taken off her jacket and was dressed simply enough in a blouse of some soft white material and a dark skirt. Everything, from the ornaments at her neck, the dull metal waistband, and the trim shoes, seemed to him to be carefully chosen, and the best of their sort. She wore no rings, and her fingers had the rosy pinkness of health. If she had seemed graceful to him before in the drawing-room of Runton Place, and surrounded by some of the most beautiful women in the country, she seemed more than ever so now, seated in the somewhat worn chair of his little studio. The color, too, seemed to have come back to her cheeks. She seemed to have regained in some measure her girlishness. Her eyes were ever ready to laugh into his. She chattered away as though the world after all contained nothing more serious for her than for any other girl. Duncombe hated to strike another note, yet he knew that sooner or later it must be done.

"You are quite sure that you will not have anything else?" he asked.

"Absolutely, thanks! I have never enjoyed anything so much in my life."

He glanced at his watch. It was half-past eleven.

"I am afraid," he said, "that I am going to be a nuisance to you, but one's friends often are that. I want to be your friend. I want to prove myself such. I am not an inquisitive person, by any means, but fate has declared that I should be your inquisitor. There are some questions which I am bound to ask you."

Her face grew suddenly grave.

"There is so little," she murmured, "which I can tell you."

"We shall see," he answered. "In the first place, Lord Runton has been here. He is one of my oldest friends, and a very good fellow. He came to tell me that Von Rothe had been robbed in his house of some valuable papers. He came partly to ask my advice. All the time I was sitting opposite to him, with those papers in my pocket."

She looked at him strangely.

"Perhaps," she said quietly, "you gave them up to him."

"I did not," he answered. "You know very well that I did not."

"It was your duty," she said in a low tone.

"Perhaps so. On the other hand," he continued, "you trusted me. The papers are safe."

"Does he know that you have them?" she asked.

"He knows nothing!"

She looked at him steadfastly--not with any appearance of doubting his word, and yet as though she were revolving something in her mind concerning him.

"I am thinking," she said, "how much better it would have been for both of us if we had never met."

"The fates thought otherwise," he answered. "I searched Paris for you, only to find you at my gates. The fates meant you to be my friend. We must be careful not to disappoint them."

She shook her head a little wistfully.

"You have been very good to me," she said, "but you don't understand----"

"Precisely!" he interrupted. "I don't understand. I want to. To begin with--what in this world induced you to throw in your lot even for an hour with the man who called himself Fielding?"

"I can answer no questions concerning myself," she said sadly.

He smiled.

"Come," he said, "it isn't so serious as all that, is it? Sooner or later your friends are sure to find you, and they will not be content with such a statement as that. You were summoned one day to Paris by or on behalf of your brother, who had unaccountably disappeared there. You immediately appear to have followed suit. You had no friends in Paris--neither, I think, had he. I believe I am correct in saying that you had neither of you ever been there before. If your brother has fallen into bad hands, and if those same people are trying to work upon your fears by leading you into this sort of thing--well, I have friends who are powerful enough to bring you safely out of any den of thieves in the world. You are in an impossible situation, my dear young lady. Nature never meant you for an adventuress. There is no necessity for you to become one. Why do you look at me like that?"

There was terror in her face. He had hoped to reassure her, to give her courage. On the contrary every word he spoke only seemed to increase her distress.

"Oh, I am afraid!" she murmured. "I wish I had taken my chance. I ought not to have burdened you for a moment with my affairs. I have given you the right to ask me questions which I cannot answer."

He was perplexed.

"If you have given promises to these people----" he began.

"Oh, there is no question of promises," she interrupted. "I am here of my own free will. I refuse to answer any questions. I pray only if you would be generous that you ask me none, that you keep me until to-morrow, and let me go, not only from this place, but out of your life. Then indeed I will be grateful to you."

He took her hand in his. She yielded it without any attempt at resistance, but it lay in his palm a cold, dead thing.

"I am only concerned for your good," he said gently. "It is your happiness only that I am anxious for. You were not born or trained for a life of lies and crime. I want to save you from it before it is too late."

"What I do," she said slowly, "I do of my own free will."

"Not quite, I think," he answered, "but let that pass. Listen! If you will not talk to me about these things, will you talk to my friend, Jarvis Spencer? He is a gentleman, and a journalist by profession, but he is also one of the cleverest amateur detectives in England."

She held up her hands with a little gesture of horror. Her eyes were alight with fear.

"No!" she cried. "No! A thousand times, no! Don't let him come near me, please. Oh, I wish I could make you understand," she continued helplessly. "You yourself in Paris only a few weeks ago were in terrible danger. A girl who only gave, or meant to give, you information about my brother and me was murdered. You, too, would have been killed if you had found anything out."

He would have answered her lightly, but the memory of Mademoiselle Flossie lying dead upon the bed in that gloomy little room suddenly rose up before him, and the words died away upon his lips. He was silent for a moment, and glanced again at his watch. It wanted only five minutes to twelve. He came and leaned over her chair.

"Phyllis," he said, "what am I to do about you? I cannot let you go out of my life like this. No, you must listen to me for a moment. When Pelham sent for me after you had disappeared he showed me your picture. I am not exactly the sort of man of whom knight-errants are made. I have never gone a mile out of my way to meet any woman in my life. My life here has seemed of all things the best to me. I am a dull, unambitious sort of fellow, you know, since I settled down here, and I expected to go on for the rest of my days pretty much in the same way. And yet when Pelham showed me your picture it was different. I made him give a copy to me. I told him--liar that I was--that I could not carry the memory of your face in my mind, when it was already engraven in my heart. And I went off to Paris, Phyllis, like the veriest Don Quixote, and I came back very sad indeed when I could not find you. Then you came to Runton Place, and the trouble began. I did not care who you were, Phyllis Poynton, Sybil Fielding, or any one else. I let the others dispute. You were--yourself, and I love you, dear. Now do you understand why I cannot let you go away like this?"

He had both her hands in his now, but her face was turned away. Then without any warning, there came a soft rapping at the door which led into the library.

Duncombe reached it in a couple of strides. He opened it cautiously, and found Spencer standing there.

"I thought it best to let you know," he said, "that a carriage has stopped in the lane. If I can be of any assistance I shall be here--and ready."

Duncombe nodded and closed the door. The girl was sitting upright in her chair, with the old look of fear in her eyes.

"Who was that?" she asked quickly.

"Spencer," he answered. "He discovered your presence here, but he is perfectly discreet. He knocked to tell me that a carriage has stopped in the lane outside."

She was white with fear, but he only laughed, and stooping down would have taken her hands once more. But at that moment an unexpected sound intervened. The deep silence of the house was broken by the ringing of the front door bell.

Duncombe started back. The girl half rose to her feet.

"The front door!" he exclaimed. "The servants will have gone to bed. I must answer it myself."

She clung to him with a sudden abandon. She was white to the lips.

"I am afraid," she moaned. "Don't leave me alone."

He glanced towards the window.

"By Jove, it may be a trap!" he exclaimed. "Let them ring. I'll stay here with you."

They stood hand in hand listening. His head was turned towards the door, but the gentle pressure of her fingers drew him round. Her face was upturned to his. Something of the fear had gone. There was an eager, almost desperate, light in her softened eyes, and a tinge of color in her cheeks. He caught her into his arms, and their lips met. She disengaged herself almost immediately.

"I don't care," she said with a little laugh. "That is the first kiss I have ever given to a man, and very likely it will be the last. You won't be able to say that I have gone away without paying my bill. Now go and open the front door, Sir George."

He hesitated for a moment.

"Say only the word, Phyllis, and no one in the world shall ever take you away."

She did not even answer him. He left her with a little sigh.

"Spencer," he said, "if you hear the slightest noise in that room go in and shout for me."

Spencer nodded. The front door bell rang again.




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