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   Chapter 20 MR. FIELDING IN A NEW R LE

A Maker of History By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 11061

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Runton was apparently enjoying the relaxation of having got rid of practically the whole of its guests for the day. The women servants were going about their duties faithfully enough, but with a marked absence of any superfluous energy. Mr. Harrison, the butler, was enjoying a quiet pipe in his room and a leisurely perusal of the morning paper. Mrs. Ellis, the much-respected housekeeper, was also in her room comfortably ensconced in an easy-chair, and studying a new volume of collected menus which a friend had sent her from Paris. The servants were not exactly neglecting their work, but every one was appreciating a certain sense of peace which the emptying of the house from a crowd of more or less exacting guests had brought about.

In one room only things were different, and neither Mrs. Ellis nor Mr. Harrison, nor any of the household, knew anything about that. It was the principal guest-chamber on the first floor-a large and handsomely furnished apartment. Barely an hour ago it had been left in spotless order by a couple of painstaking servants. Just now it had another aspect.

In the middle of the room a man lay stretched upon the floor, face downwards. The blood was slowly trickling from a wound in the side of the head down on to the carpet. With nearly every breath he drew he groaned. Overturned chairs and tables showed that he had taken part in no ordinary struggle. The condition of the other man also testified this.

The other man was Mr. Fielding. He was down on his knees upon the floor, rapidly going through the contents of a dark mahogany box, which was apparently full of papers. Scattered over the carpet by his side were various strange-looking tools, by means of which he had forced the lock. Mr. Fielding was not at all his usual self. His face was absolutely colorless, and every few moments his hand went up to his shoulder-blade and a shiver went through his whole frame. There was a faint odor of gunpowder in the room, and somewhere near the feet of the prostrate man lay a small shining revolver. Nevertheless, Mr. Fielding persevered in his task.

Suddenly there came an interruption. Footsteps outside in the corridor had paused. There was a sharp tapping at the door. The prostrate man groaned louder than ever, and half turned over, proving that he was not wholly unconscious. Mr. Fielding closed the box and staggered to his feet.

He stood for a moment staring wildly at the door. Who could it be? He had asked, as a special favor, that he might not be disturbed, and Mr. Fielding knew how to ask favors of servants. Interruption now meant disaster, absolute and unqualified-the end, perhaps, of a career in which he had achieved some success. Big drops of perspiration stood out upon his forehead, drawn there by the pain and this new fear. Slowly, and on tiptoe, he drew near the door.

"Who is that?" he asked with wonderful calmness.

"It is I! Let me in," came the swift answer, and Mr. Fielding drew a little breath of relief. Nevertheless he was angry. He opened the door and drew the girl in.

"You fool!" he exclaimed. "I sent you out of the way on purpose. Why have you come back?"

She opened her lips, but no words came. The man on the floor groaned again. She swayed upon her feet. It was all so horrible.

"Speak, can't you!" he muttered between his teeth. "Things have gone badly here. I'm wounded, and I'm afraid-I've hurt that chap-pretty badly."

"I was in the park," she faltered, "and saw them. They are all coming back."

"Coming back?"

"They are almost here. Sir George Duncombe told me that they could not shoot because of the wind."

"The car?"

"Downstairs-waiting."

He had forgotten his hurt. He caught up his hat and a coat, and pushed her out of the room. He locked the door, and thrust the key into his pocket. As they walked down the corridor he lit a cigarette.

A footman met them in the hall.

"A gentleman has called to see you, sir-a Mr. Spencer," he announced. "I have shown him into the library."

Mr. Fielding appeared to hesitate for a moment.

"It is the man who wants to sell us the car," he exclaimed, turning towards the girl, "but I haven't even seen it yet. Better tell him to wait for a quarter of an hour," he added, turning towards the footman. "I'll just drive down to the lodge gates and back. Come along, Sybil."

She followed him to the front door. A man was seated at the wheel of the motor car, and turned his head quickly as they approached. Mr. Fielding nodded pleasantly, though his face was white with excruciating pain.

"Kept you waiting, I'm afraid," he said. "Can you drive at all in a wind like this?"

"Jump in, sir, and see," the man answered. "Is the young lady coming?"

Mr. Fielding nodded, and stepped into the front seat. The girl was already in the tonneau. The man slipped in his clutch, and they glided round the broad, circular sweep in front of the entrance. Just as they started the wagonette drew up.

"We sha'n't be more than a few minutes," Mr. Fielding cried out, waving his hand. "Sorry you've lost your day's sport."

"Hold on a minute, and I'll come with you," Runton called out. "That car looks like going."

But Mr. Fielding did not hear.

* * *

Duncombe, who had returned from the park by the fields, was crossing the road to enter his own gates, when a black speck far away on the top of the hill attracted his attention. He stood still gazing at it, and was instantly aware that it was approaching him at an almost incredible s

peed. It gathered shape swiftly, and he watched it with a fascination which kept him rooted to the spot. Above the wind he could hear the throbbing of its engines. He saw it round a slight curve in the road, with two wheels in the air, and a skid which seemed for a moment as though it must mean destruction. Mud and small stones flew up around it. The driver was crouching forward over the wheel, tense and motionless. Duncombe moved to the side of the road to let it pass, with a little exclamation of anger.

Then it came more clearly into sight, and he forgot his anger in his amazement. The seat next the driver was occupied by a man leaning far back, whose face was like the face of the dead. Behind was a solitary passenger. She was leaning over, as though trying to speak to her companion. Her hair streamed wild in the wind, and on her face was a look of blank and fearful terror. Duncombe half moved forward. She saw him, and touched the driver's arm. His hand seemed to fly to the side of the car, and his right foot was jammed down. With grinding of brakes and the screaming of locked wheels, the car was brought to a standstill within a few feet of him. He sprang eagerly forward. She was already upon her feet in the road.

"Sir George," she said, "your warning, as you see, was barely in time. We are adventurer and adventuress-detected. I suppose you are a magistrate. Don't you think that you ought to detain us?"

"What can I do to help you?" he asked simply.

She looked at him eagerly. There were mud spots all up her gown, even upon her face. Her hair was wildly disordered. She carried her hat in her hand.

"You mean it?" she cried.

"You know that I do!"

She turned and looked up the road along which they had come. There was no soul in sight. She looked even up at the long line of windows which frowned down upon them from the back of the Hall. They, too, were empty. She thrust a long envelope suddenly into his hand.

"Guard this for me," she whispered. "Don't let any one know that you have it. Don't speak of it to any one. Keep it until I can send for it."

He thrust it into his inner pocket and buttoned his coat.

"It is quite safe," he said simply.

Her eyes flashed her gratitude upon him. For the first time he saw something in her face-heard it in her tone, which made his heart beat. After all she was human.

"You are very good to me," she murmured. "Believe me, I am not quite as bad as I seem. Good-bye."

He turned with her towards the car, and she gave a low cry. He too started. The car was a mile away, tearing up a hill, and almost out of sight. In the lane behind they could hear the sound of galloping horses. He caught her by the wrist, dragged her through the gate, and behind a great shrub on the lawn.

"Stay there!" he exclaimed hoarsely. "Don't move. I will come back."

Half a dozen horsemen were coming along the lane at steeplechase pace. Lord Runton, on his wonderful black horse, which no man before had ever seen him gallop save across the softest of country, pulled up outside the gate.

"Seen a motor go by, Duncombe?" he called out.

Duncombe nodded.

"Rather!" he answered. "Fielding and Miss Fielding in it. Going like Hell!"

Runton waved his companions on, and leaned down to Duncombe.

"Beastly unpleasant thing happened, Duncombe," he said. "Fielding and his daughter have bolted. Fielding seems to have half killed a messenger who came down from London to see Von Rothe, and stolen some papers. Fact of the matter is he's not Fielding at all-and as for the girl! Lord knows who she is. Sorry for you, Duncombe. Hope you weren't very hard hit!"

He gathered up his reins.

"We've sent telegrams everywhere," he said, "but the beast has cut the telephone, and Von Rothe blasphemes if we talk about the police. It's a queer business."

He rode off. Duncombe returned where the girl was standing. She was clutching at the branches of the shrub as though prostrate with fear, but at his return she straightened herself. How much had she heard he wondered.

"Don't move!" he said.

She nodded.

"Can any one see me?" she asked.

"Not from the road."

"From the house?"

"They could," he admitted, "but it is the servants' dinner hour. Don't you notice how quiet the house is?"

"Yes."

She was very white. She seemed to find some difficulty in speaking. There was fear in her eyes.

"It would not be safe for you to leave here at present," he said. "I am going to take you into a little room leading out of my study. No one ever goes in it. You will be safe there for a time."

"If I could sit down-for a little while."

He took her arm, and led her unresistingly towards the house. The library window was closed, but he opened it easily, and helped her through. At the further end of the room was an inner door, which he threw open.

"This is a room which no one except myself ever enters," he said. "I used to do a little painting here sometimes. Sit down, please, in that easy-chair. I am going to get you a glass of wine."

They heard the library door suddenly opened. A voice, shaking with passion, called out his name.

"Duncombe, are you here? Duncombe!"

There was a dead silence. They could hear him moving about the room.

"Hiding, are you? Brute! Come out, or I'll-by heavens, I'll shoot you if you don't tell me the truth. I heard her voice in the lane. I'll swear to it."

Duncombe glanced quickly towards his companion. She lay back in the chair in a dead faint.

* * *

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