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   Chapter 19 A HILLSIDE ENCOUNTER

A Maker of History By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 8240

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


A few minutes before ten the following morning a mounted messenger from Runton Place brought the following note for Duncombe:-

"Runton Place, Friday Morning.

"My dear Duncombe,-Fielding has cried off the shoot to-day. Says he has a motor coming over for him to try from Norwich, and his dutiful daughter remains with him. Thought I would let you know in case you cared to come and look them up. Best I could do for you.

"Ever yours sincerely,

"Runton."

Duncombe had breakfasted alone. Pelham had asked for something to be sent up for him, and Spencer, after a cup of coffee in his room, had gone out. Duncombe did not hesitate for a moment. He started at once for Runton Place.

A marvellous change had taken place in the weather since the previous day. The calm splendor of the early autumn seemed to have vanished. A strong north wind was blowing, and the sky was everywhere gray and threatening. The fields of uncut corn were bent, like the waves of the sea, and the yellow leaves came down from the trees in showers. Piled up masses of black clouds were driven across the sky. Scanty drops of rain kept falling, an earnest of what was to come as soon as the wind should fail. Duncombe had almost to fight his way along until, through a private gate, he entered Runton Park. The house lay down in the valley about a mile away. To reach it one had to cross a ridge of hills covered with furze bushes and tumbled fragments of ancient rock.

Half-way up the first ascent he paused. A figure had struggled into sight from the opposite side-the figure of a girl. Her skirts and cloak were being blown wildly about her. She wore a flat Tam-o'-Shanter hat, from under the confines of which her hair was defying the restraint of hatpins and elastic. She stood there swaying a little from the violence of the wind, slim and elegant, notwithstanding a certain intensity of gaze and bearing. Duncombe felt his heart give a quick jump as he recognized her. Then he started up the hill as fast as he could go.

She stood perfectly still, watching him clamber up to her side. Her face showed no sign of pleasure or annoyance at his coming. He felt at once that it was not he alone who had realized the coming of the tragedy.

No words of conventional greeting passed between them as he clambered breathless to her side. The wind had brought no color into her cheeks. There were rims under her eyes. She had the appearance of one who had come into touch with fearsome things.

"What do you want with me?" she asked. "Why are you here?"

"To be with you," he answered. "You know why."

She laughed mirthlessly.

"Better go back," she exclaimed. "I am no fit companion for any one to-day. I came out to be alone."

A gust of wind came tearing up the hillside. They both struggled for breath.

"I came," he said, "to find you. I was going to the house. Something has happened which you ought to know."

She looked back towards the long white front of the house, and there was terror in her eyes.

"Something is happening there," she muttered, "and I am afraid."

He took her gloveless hand. It was as cold as ice. She did not resist his touch, but her fingers lay passively in his.

"Let me be your friend," he pleaded. "Never mind what has happened, or what is going to happen. You are in trouble. Let me share it with you."

"You cannot," she answered. "You, nor any one else in the world. Let me go! You don't understand!"

"I understand more than you think!" he answered.

She turned her startled eyes upon him.

"What do you mean?" she cried.

"I mean that the man whom we employed to trace the whereabouts of Phyllis Poynton and her brother arrived from Paris last night," he answered. "He wanted a list of Lord Runton's house party. Can you guess why?"

"Go on!"

"Mr. Fielding, of New York, left Havre on Saturday--"

"Stop!"

Her voice was a staccato note of agony. Between the fingers which were pressed to her face he could see the slow, painful flushing of her cheeks.

"Why did you come to tell me this?" she asked in a low tone.

"You know," he answered.

"Did you guess last night that we were impostors?" she asked.

"Certainly not," he answered. "Andrew was tortured with doubts about you. He believed that you were Phyllis Poynton!"

"I am!" she whispered. "I was afraid of him all the evening. He must have known."

It seemed to Duncombe that the rocks and gorse bushes were spinning round and the ground was swaying under his feet. The wind, which had kept them both half breathless, seemed full of mocking voices. She was an impostor. These were her own words. She was in danger of detection, perhaps of other things. At that very moment Spencer might have gained an entrance into Runton Place. He felt uncertain of himself, and all the time her eyes watched him jealously.

"Why did you come here?" she cried. "Why do you look at me like that? It is no concern of yours who I am. Why do you interfere?"

"Everything that concerns you concerns me," he answered. "I don't care who you are, or who you say you are. I don't even ask you for any sort of explanation. I came to warn you about Spencer. For the rest, here am I your friend whatever happens. You are terrified! Don't go back to the house. Give me the right to take care of you. I'll do it!"

Then for the first time a really human expression lit up her face. The sick fear passed away. Her features were suddenly softer. The light in her eyes was a beautiful thing.

"You are kind," she murmured, "kinder than I ever dreamed any one could be who-knew. Will you be kinder still?"

"Try me!" he begged.

"Then go away. Forget who I am. Forget who I am not. Shut yourself up in your study for twenty-four hours, and come out without any memories at all. Oh, do this for me-do this!" she begged, with a sudden break in her voice.

She leaned a little towards him. A long wisp of her hair blew in his face. A moment of madness came to him with the gust of wind which blew her almost into his arms. For one exquisite moment he held her. The violets at her bosom were crushed against his coat. Then she tore herself away.

"You are mad," she cried. "It is my fault. Oh, let me go!"

"Never," he answered, passionately clasping at her hand. "Call yourself by what name you will, I love you. If you are in trouble, let me help. Let me go back to the house with you, and we will face it together, whatever it may be. Come!"

She wrung her hands. The joy had all gone from her face.

"Oh, what have I done?" she moaned. "Don't you understand that I am an impostor? The man down there is not my father. I-oh, let me go!"

She wrenched herself free. She stood away from him, her skirt gathered up into her hand, prepared for flight.

"If you would really do me a kindness," she cried, "get Mr. Spencer to stop his search for me. Tell him to forget that such a person ever existed. And you, too! You must do the same. What I have done, I have done of my own free will. I am my own mistress. I will not be interfered with. Listen!"

She turned a white, intent face towards the house. Duncombe could hear nothing for the roaring of the wind, but the girl's face was once more convulsed with terror.

"What was that?" she cried.

"I heard nothing," he answered. "What can one hear? The wind is strong to drown even our voices."

"And those?" she cried again, pointing with outstretched finger to two rapidly moving black specks coming towards them along the winding road which led from the highway to Runton Place.

Duncombe watched them for a moment.

"They are the Runton shooting brakes," he declared.

"I expect Lord Runton and the rest of them are coming back."

"Coming back!" she repeated, with a little gasp.

"But they were going to shoot all day and dine there. They are not expected home till past midnight."

"I expect the shoot is off," Duncombe remarked. "One couldn't possibly hit anything a day like this. I wonder they ever started."

Her face was white enough before, but it was deathly now. Her lips parted, but only a little moan came from them. He heard the rush of her skirts, and saw her spring forward. He was left alone upon the hilltop.

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