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   Chapter 7 A FRUITLESS APPEAL

The Yellow House By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 15917

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Friday passed without any sign of my father's return, and when on Saturday morning we found no letter from him upon the breakfast table, the vague disquiet of the day before assumed a definite shape. We looked into one another's faces, and we were seriously alarmed.

"We shall be sure to hear from him in an hour or two," Alice said, holding her cup to her lips with shaking hands. "He must have missed the post. We shall have a telegram."

"I hope so," I answered, fervently. "Nothing can have happened to him, of course. It is absurd to feel nervous. But it is too bad of him. He ought to have written. However busy he is, he could have found a minute or two."

"I will never let him go away again without leaving us an address of some sort," Alice declared. "No doubt he will telegraph soon. Still, one cannot help feeling uneasy."

But no telegram arrived. Luncheon time came and passed without a word. The afternoon dragged on. The last train from London was due at the nearest railway station-three miles away-at six o'clock. At eight o'clock he had not returned. More than an hour ago a fly with luggage from the train had passed our gate and gone on to the Yellow House. Alice was as white as a sheet, and commenced to cry softly to herself.

"There is a service to-morrow morning, and no one to help," she moaned. "He must be very ill. What had we better do, Kate?"

Do! How was I to know? Action of any sort would have been a relief, but it was like groping in the dark. He had left no address to which we could write, and, so far as we knew, he did not belong to any club nor had he any friends in London. There was no means of tracing him, not a clue as to the nature of the business which had called him so suddenly to town. Even granting that he had gone to see Mr. Berdenstein, to meet him on his arrival in London, it was hopeless to try and imagine where he might be prosecuting his search. Mr. Berdenstein had denied that he had met him. Without a doubt he would deny it again if I went to him. As he had told me plainly that we were on opposite sides, to look for help from him was utterly futile. We girls were helpless. Alice, whose instincts were largely conventional, was feeling chiefly the scandal which must accrue when his place in the pulpit to-morrow remained empty and service had to be abandoned. For my part, my anxieties were deeper. Chance had placed in my hands the threads of a mystery whose unravelment was threatened with terrible possibilities. I could not tell what the end of it might be. I scarcely dared to let my mind dwell upon it at all. I concentrated my thoughts upon the present dilemma. The first thing to be done was to find my father. There was only one possible shadow of a clue as to his whereabouts. One man knew the secret of that letter which had called him up to London. To this man I resolved that I would go.

But as dusk came on, and I was preparing to start for the Court, I saw his tall figure crossing the park towards the Yellow House. I did not hesitate then any more. To see him there would be easier than to confront him alone at the Court. I threw a cloak over my shoulders and went bareheaded down the drive. The thing which I was proposing to myself to do was simple enough in effect, although with my overwrought nerves it presented itself to me at the time as a somewhat formidable undertaking. I was going to confront them together. I was going to pray for their help.

I walked swiftly across the park and through the plantation to the Yellow House, and after pausing for a moment to regain my breath, I rang the bell. There was no immediate answer, and save that I could see through a chink in the drawn curtains a rose-shaded lamp burning in the drawing room, I should have feared that after all Adelaide Fortress had not returned. But in a few minutes the trim little maid-servant opened the door, letting out a flood of light. She started with surprise to see me standing there, looking no doubt a little ghost-like with my white, anxious face and uncovered head.

"I want to speak to Mrs. Fortress," I said. "Is she in?"

The girl hesitated, but I took her assent for granted, and stepped into the hall. She moved towards the drawing room door. I kept close by her side, and when she opened it I crossed the threshold.

Bruce Deville was there, sitting in a low chair. To my surprise he was wearing evening dress, and he had a book in his hand, from which he appeared to have been reading aloud. At my entrance he rose to his feet at once with a little exclamation of surprise. Adelaide Fortress, whose back had been turned to the door, turned sharply round. She too rose to her feet. A swift look passed between them, which did not escape me.

"Miss Ffolliot!" she exclaimed. "Why, is anything the matter?" The little maid had retreated, and closed the door. I advanced a few steps further into the room. Somehow I became dimly conscious that their attitude towards me, or my mission, if they had surmised its purport, was in a certain sense hostile. I looked into the woman's eyes, and I was perplexed. Something had come between us. Perhaps it was my father's stern words to her, perhaps it was some shadow from those former days concerning which they certainly had some common knowledge. But from whatever cause it arose there was certainly a change. The frank sympathy which seemed to have sprung up between us on that delightful afternoon was altogether a thing of the past, almost as though it had never been. She faced me coldly, with indrawn lips and unfriendly face. I was confused and perplexed; yet even in that same moment a thought flashed in upon me. She was wearing a mask. For some reason or other she was putting away her friendliness. Surely it was the memory of my father's words.

"It was Mr. Deville I wanted to see," I said. "I saw him cross the park on his way here, so I followed. I am in trouble. I wanted to ask him a question."

He stood leaning against the broad mantelpiece, his brows contracted, his face cold and forbidding.

"I am afraid that I cannot help you, Miss Ffolliot," he said. "I cannot conceive any way in which I could be of service to you, I am afraid."

"You can help me if you will, by answering a single question," I interrupted. "You dropped a letter from your pocket on Wednesday morning, and I returned it to you. Tell me whose handwriting it was!"

There was a little crash upon the floor, and the sound of a half-uttered exclamation. Adelaide Fortress had dropped a small china ornament with which she had been playing. She did not even glance towards the pieces at her feet. She was bending slightly towards me, her lips half parted, her cheeks pale. Her appearance fascinated me; I forgot Mr. Deville altogether until the sound of his clear, deep voice broke the silence.

"I had several letters in my pocket, Miss Ffolliot," he said, slowly. "I am not sure that I remember which one it was that you were good enough to restore to me. In any case, how are you interested in the writer of any of them? What has it to do with your present trouble-whatever that may be?"

"I will tell you," I answered, readily. "On Tuesday morning my father received a letter, and whatever its contents were, they summoned him to London. He was to have returned yesterday. He did not come, and he sent no message. All to-day we have had no word from him. The last train from London to-night is in, and he has not come. We do not know where he is, or what has become of him. There are the services to-morrow, and no one to take them. He must be ill, or in trouble of some sort, or he would have returned, that is certain. It has made us terribly anxious."

"I am very sorry to hear this, Miss Ffolliot," he said. "If I could help you I would be glad, but I am afraid I do not quite see-exactly-"

I raised my eyes to his and looked him in the face. The words seemed to die away upon his lips. He was

not actor enough for his part.

"I will tell you why I came to you for help, Mr. Deville," I exclaimed. "The handwriting upon the letter which you dropped was the same handwriting which summoned my father to London."

Then, for the first time, some glimmering of the mystery in which these persons and my father were alike concerned dawned upon me. The man and the women looked at one another; Bruce Deville walked over to the window without answering or addressing me. I had, indeed, asked no direct question. Yet they knew what I wanted. It was the whole truth which I desired.

I stamped my foot upon the floor. Did they know what my sufferings were, those two persons, with their pale, puzzled faces and cold words? I felt myself growing angry.

"Answer me!" I cried. "Who wrote you that letter?"

Still neither the man nor the woman spoke. Their silence maddened me. I forgot my promise to the man at Naselton Hall. I forgot everything except my desire to sting them out of that merciless, unsympathetic silence. So I cried out to them-

"I will tell you who wrote it; it was a man from South America, and his name is Berdenstein. He is at Naselton Hall. I will go to him. Perhaps he will tell me what you will not."

The man stepped forward with outstretched hand. His face was dark with passionate anger, almost I thought he would have struck me. But the woman's was pale as death, and a drop of red blood marked the place where her teeth met her under lip. Then I saw that the man had known, but the woman had not.

"If you know so much," he said, brutally, "you had better go to him and discover the rest. You will find him very sympathetic. Without a doubt he will help you!"

"No! No!"

The woman's negative rang out with a sudden sharp and crisp distinctness. She rose and came over to my side. She laid her hands softly upon my shoulders. Her face amazed me, it was so full of sympathy, and yet so sorrowful. She, too, had received a blow.

"Child," she said, softly, "you must not be impatient. I believe that your father is well. I believe that somehow or other he will contrive to be here in time to take up his duties to-morrow. We could not tell you-either Mr. Deville or I-where he is, but we know perhaps a little more than you do. He is in London somewhere seeking for that person whom you have just mentioned. He will not find him, but he will not give up searching for him till the last moment. But, child, whatever you do, avoid that man Berdenstein like a pestilence. Your father and he are bitter and terrible enemies. Do not dream of going to him. Do not let your father know that he is near. If fate must have it so, they will meet. But God forbid!-but God forbid!"

"Who is he, then, this man, this Berdenstein?" I asked her under my breath. Her words had had a powerful effect upon me. She was terribly in earnest. I knew that she was speaking for my good. I trusted her. I could not help it.

She shook her head. Her eyes were full of horror.

"It is not for me to tell you, child. It is one of those things which God forbid that you may ever know."

Then there was a silence between us. After all this mystery whose shadows seemed to surround me was like a far away thing. My present trouble weighed heaviest upon me. The other was vague, even though it was terrible. My father's disappearance was a real and terrible calamity staring me in the face. It engrossed all my thoughts. They would tell me nothing, those two. I dared not go to Berdenstein. Already I was afraid of him. I remembered his smile when I spoke of my father, and I shuddered. Supposing they had met. Supposing they had come together face to face in some lonely house. Perhaps his letter had been a decoy. The man's face, with its cruel mouth and sardonic smile, suddenly loomed large in my memory. I sprang to my feet with a cry of fear. I was terrified with my own thoughts. Bruce Deville came over to me, and I found him studying my face with a new expression, the meaning of which I could not fathom.

"If you will come to the window, Miss Ffolliot," he said, "I think you will see something which will relieve some part of your anxiety at any rate."

I hastened eagerly to his side. Only a few yards away, walking steadily in the middle of the hard, white road, was a figure in sombre black. His shoulders were bent, and his pale face downcast. His whole appearance was that of a weary and dejected wanderer. These things I realized more completely afterwards; for the present a sense of almost intolerable relief drowned every other motion. It was my father-he had returned.

I should have rushed out to him, but Bruce Deville laid his hand very softly upon my shoulder. I could not have believed that any touch of his could be so gentle.

"I wish you would take my advice, Miss Ffolliot," he said. "Take the path through the plantation home, and don't let your father see you leaving here. It would be better, would it not, Adelaide?" he added.

She looked at me.

"Yes, it would be better," she said. "Do you mind? You will be at home as soon as he is."

I could not but admit that the advice was good, bearing in mind my father's words when he found me there only a few days before. Yet it galled me that it should have been offered. What was this secret shared between these three of which I was ignorant? I declared to myself that I would know as soon as my father and I were alone together. I would insist upon all these things being made clear to me. I would bear it no longer, I was resolved on that. But in the meantime I was helpless.

"Very well," I answered; "perhaps you are right, I will go by the footpath."

I left the room abruptly. Mr. Deville opened the front door for me, and hesitated with his cap in his hand. I waved him away.

"I will go alone," I said. "It is quite light."

"As you will," he answered, shortly. "Good-night."

He turned on his heel and re-entered the room. I crossed the road with soft footsteps. At the opening of the plantation I paused. My father was in the road below walking wearily and leaning upon his stick. At my sudden standstill a twig beneath my feet snapped short. A sudden change seemed to transform his face. He stopped short and turned round with the swift, eager movement of a young man. His hand fumbled for a moment in the pocket of his long clerical coat, and reappeared clutching something which flashed like steel in the dull light. He held it at arm's length, looking eagerly around, peering forward in my direction, but unable to see me owing to the dark shadows of the trees beneath which I stood. But I on the other hand could see his every movement; in the half-light his figure stood out in such marvellous distinctness against the white road and the low, grey line of sky beyond. I could see him, and I could see what it was he carried in his hand. It was a small, shining revolver.

He stood quite still like a man expecting a sudden attack. When none came and the stillness remained unbroken, the strained, eager light died slowly out of his face. He appeared rather disappointed than relieved. Reluctantly he turned around, and with the revolver still in his hand but hidden beneath the skirts of his coat, made his way up the white hill towards the Vicarage. He must have walked quickly, for although I hurried, and my way back was the shorter, he was already at our gate when I emerged from the plantation. As he stooped to adjust the fastening I heard him groan, and bending forward I caught a glimpse of his face. I must have cried out, only my lips seemed palsied as though I were but a sleeping figure in some terrible nightmare. His face was like the face of a dead man. He seemed to have aged by at least a dozen years. As he hastened up the little drive, his walk, usually so dignified and elastic, became a shamble. It seemed to me that this was but the wreck of the man who had left us only a few days before.

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