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THE EMPTY ROOM
Duncombe unfastened the chain and bolts of the ponderous front door, and looked out into the darkness. A carriage and pair of horses were drawn up outside. A man and a woman, both dressed in long travelling-coats, were standing upon the door-step.
"This is Duncombe Hall, I believe?" the man said. "Is Sir George Duncombe at home?"
"I am Sir George Duncombe," he answered. "Will you come inside?"
They crossed the threshold at once. The man was tall and dark, and his voice and bearing were unmistakable. The woman was fair, petite, and apparently very sleepy. She wore magnificent furs, and she had the air of being in a very bad temper.
"We really are heartily ashamed of ourselves for disturbing you at such an hour, Sir George," the man said, "but you will pardon us when you understand the position. I am the Marquis de St. Ethol, and this is my wife. I have a letter to you from my friend the Duke of Chestow, with whom we have been staying."
Duncombe concealed his astonishment as well as he was able. He bowed to the lady, and led them towards the library. Spencer, who had heard them coming, had hastily concealed his revolver, and was lounging in an easy-chair reading the evening paper.
"I am afraid that my servants are all in bed," Duncombe said, "and I can offer you only a bachelor's hospitality. This is my friend, Mr. Spencer--the Marquis and Marquise de St. Ethol. Wheel that easy-chair up, Spencer, will you?"
Spencer's brow had betrayed not the slightest sign of surprise, but Duncombe fancied that the Marquis had glanced at him keenly. He was holding a note in his hand, which he offered to Duncombe.
"My errand is so unusual, and the hour so extraordinary," he said, "that I thought it would be better for Chestow to write you a line or two. Will you please read it?"
Duncombe tore open the envelope.
"CHESTOW, Wednesday Evening.
"MY DEAR DUNCOMBE,--My friend De St. Ethol tells me that he is obliged, at great personal inconvenience, to execute a commission for a friend which involves a somewhat unceremonious call upon you to-night. He desires me, therefore, to send you these few lines. The Marquis de St. Ethol and his wife are amongst my oldest friends. It gives me great pleasure to vouch for them both in every way.
"The letter, I am afraid," the Marquis said, smiling, "does little to satisfy your curiosity. Permit me to explain my errand in a few words."
"Certainly," Duncombe interrupted. "But won't you take something? I am glad to see that Spencer is looking after your wife."
The Marquise had raised her veil, and was leaning back in a chair, with a sandwich poised in the fingers of one hand and a glass of Burgundy in the other. She was looking a little less bored, and was chatting gayly to Spencer, whose French was equal to her own.
"I thank you very much," the Marquis said. "I will not take anything to drink, but if you have cigarettes--ah, thanks!"
He lit one, and sat on the arm of an easy-chair.
"The facts are these," he said. "I have a great friend in Paris who, knowing that I was at Chestow, and returning to France to-morrow, has, I must say, taken some advantage of my good nature. I am asked to call here and escort home to her friends a young lady, who, I understand, is for the moment a guest under your roof. My friend, I must say, telegraphs in a most mysterious manner, but he is evidently very anxious that we should accede to his request. Our appearance here at this time of night I admit is most unjustifiable, but what were we to do? It is absolutely necessary for my wife to catch the two-twenty from Charing Cross to-morrow. I hope that my friend will some day appreciate my devotion. To come round by your house I have had to borrow a carriage from my friend Chestow. We shall have to drive to Norwich, and catch a train from there to London in the small hours of the morning. I presume the young lady is here?"
"The young lady is here!" Duncombe answered. "May I inquire the name of the friend to whom you are asked to take her?"
The Marquis yawned slightly. He, too, seemed weary.
"My dear Sir George," he said, "I trust that you will appreciate my position in this matter. I do not even know the young lady's name. My eccentric friend in his telegram, which occupied four forms, most specially insisted that I should ask or answer no questions concerning her."
"You are not aware, then, of the circumstances which led to her coming here?" Duncombe asked.
"I am utterly ignorant of them," the Marquis answered. "I am constrained to remain so."
"You no doubt have some message for her," Duncombe said. "Her position here is a little peculiar. She may desire some sort of information as to her destination."
The Marquis knocked the ash off his cigarette.
"If you will produce the young lady," he said, "I think that you will find her prepared to come with us without asking any questions."
Duncombe threw open the door which led into the inner room. The girl stepped forward as far as the threshold and looked out upon them.
"The Marquis and the Marquise de St. Ethol," Duncombe said to her. "They have brought me a letter from the Duke of Chestow, and they have come to take you back to France."
The girl looked fixedly for a moment at the Marquise. If any word or sign passed between them it escaped Duncombe. Phyllis was content, however, to ask no questions.
"I am quite ready," she said calmly.
The Marquise rose.
"Your luggage can be sent on," she remarked.
Duncombe approached Phyllis, and stood by her side.
"These people," he said, "will not tell me where they are taking you to. Are you content to go?"
"I must go," she answered simply.
"You wish me to give you----"
"If you please," she interrupted.
He turned towards the door.
"I have something belonging to Miss--to my guest," he said, "in my own room. If you will excuse me for a moment I will fetch it."
He returned with the sealed envelope which she had given him, and which he placed in her hands. He carried also a fur coat and an armful of wraps.
"You must take these," he declared. "It is cold travelling."
"But how can I return them to you?" she protested. "No, not the coat, please. I will take a rug if you like."
"You will take both," he said firmly. "There need be no trouble about returning them. I shall be in Paris myself shortly, and no doubt we shall come across one another."
Her eyes flashed something at him. What it was he could not rightly tell. It seemed to him that he saw pleasure there, and fear, but more of the latter. The Marquis intervened.
"I trust," he said, "that in that case you will give us the pleasure of seeing something of you. We live in the Avenue de St. Cloud."
"You are very kind," Duncombe said. "I shall not fail to come and see you."
Spencer threw open the door, and they passed out. Phyllis kept by Duncombe's side. He felt her hand steal into his.
"I want you to keep this envelope for me," she whispered. "It contains nothing which could bring you into trouble, or which concerns any one else. It is just something which I should like to feel was in safe keeping."
He thrust it into his pocket.
"I will take care of it," he promised. "And--you won't forget me? We shall meet again--sooner perhaps than you expect."
She shook her head.
"I hope to Heaven that we shall not! At least, not yet," she murmured fervently.
From the carriage window she put out her hand.
"You have been very kind to me," she said. "Good-bye!"
"An impossible word," he answered, with well-affected gayety. "A pleasant journey to you."
Then the carriage rolled away, and Spencer and he were left alone. Duncombe secured the front door, and they walked slowly back to the library.
"You know Paris well," Duncombe said. "Have you ever heard of these people?"
"My dear fellow!" he exclaimed. "De St. Ethol is one of the first nobles in France. I have seen him at the races many times."
"Not the sort of people to lend themselves to anything shady?"
"The last in the world," Spencer answered. "She was the Comtesse de Laugnan, and between them they are connected with half a dozen Royal houses. This business is getting exceedingly interesting, Duncombe!"
But Duncombe was thinking of the empty room.
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