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   Chapter 2 No.2

The Slave of Silence By Fred M. White Characters: 11814

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The guests had assembled at length, the dinner was in full swing. It would have been hard for any onlooker to have guessed that so much misery and heart-burning were there. Sir Charles, smiling, gay, debonair, chatted with his guests as if quite forgetful of the silent watchers by the railings outside. He might have been a rich man as he surveyed the tables and ordered the waiters about. True, somebody else would eventually pay for the dinner, but that detracted nothing from the host's enjoyment.

Beatrice had a fixed smile to her face; she also had disguised her feelings marvellously. There were other girls bidden to that brilliant feast who envied Miss Darryll and secretly wondered why she was dressed so plainly and simply. On her left hand sat Stephen Richford, a dull, heavy-looking man with a thick lip and a suggestion of shiftiness in his small eyes. Altogether he bore a strong resemblance to a prize-fighter. He was quiet and a little moody, as was his wont, so that most of Beatrice's conversation was directed to her neighbour on the other side, Colonel Berrington, a brilliant soldier not long from the East.

A handsome and distinguished-looking man he was, with melancholy droop to his moustache and the shadow of some old sorrow in his eyes. Colonel Berrington went everywhere and knew everything, but as to his past he said nothing. Nobody knew anything about his people and yet everybody trusted him, indeed no man in the Army had been in receipt of more confidences. Perhaps it was his innate feeling, his deep sense of introspection. And he knew by a kind of instinct that the beautiful girl by his side was not happy.

"So this is your last free party, Miss Beatrice," he smiled. "It seems strange to think that when last we met you were a happy child, and now--"

"And now an unhappy woman, you were going to suggest," Beatrice replied. "Is not that so?"

"Positively, I refuse to have words like that put into my mouth," Berrington protested. "Looking round the table I can see four girls at least who are envying you from the bottom of their hearts. Now could any society woman be miserable under those circumstances?"

Beatrice flushed a little as she toyed nervously with her bread. Berrington's words were playful enough, but there was a hidden meaning behind them that Beatrice did not fail to notice. In a way he was telling her how sorry he was; Richford had been more or less dragged into a sporting discussion by the lady on the other side, so that Beatrice and her companion had no fear of being interrupted. Their eyes met for a moment.

"I don't think they have any great need to be envious," the girl said. "Colonel Berrington, I am going to ask what may seem a strange question under the circumstances. I am going to make a singular request. Everybody likes and trusts you. I have liked and trusted you since the first day I met you. Will you be my friend,-if anything happens when I want a friend sorely, will you come to me and help me? I know it is singular--"

"It is not at all singular," Berrington said in a low voice. He shot a quick glance of dislike at Richford's heavy jowl. "One sees things, quiet men like myself always see things. And I understand exactly what you mean. If I am in England I will come to you. But I warn you that my time is fully occupied. All my long leave--"

"But surely you have no work to do whilst you are in England on leave?"

"Indeed I have. I have a quest, a search that never seems to end. I thought that I had finished it to-night, and singularly enough, in this very hotel. I can't go into the matter here with all this chattering mob of people about us, for the story is a sad one. But if ever you should chance to meet a grey lady with brown eyes and lovely grey hair--"

"The stranger! How singular!" Beatrice exclaimed. "Why, only to-night in this very room."

"Ah!" the word came with a gasp almost like pain from Berrington's lips. The laughter and chatter of the dinner-table gave these two a sense of personal isolation. "That is remarkable. I am looking for a grey lady, and I trace her to this hotel-quite by accident, and simply because I am dining here to-night. And you saw her in this room?"

"I did," Beatrice said eagerly. "She came here by mistake; evidently she had quite lost herself in this barrack of a place. She was dressed from head to foot in silver grey, she had just the eyes and hair that you describe. And when I asked her who she was, she merely said that she was the Slave of the Bond and vanished."

Colonel Berrington's entrée lay neglected on his plate. A deeper tinge of melancholy than usual was on his face. It was some time before he spoke again.

"The Slave of the Bond," he echoed. "How true, how characteristic! And that is all you have to tell me. If you see her again--but there, you are never likely to see her again ... I will tell you the story some other time, not before these frivolous creatures here. It is a sad story; to a great extent, it reminds me of your own, Miss Beatrice."

"Is mine a sad story?" Beatrice smiled and blushed. "In what way is it sad, do you think?"

"Well, we need not go into details here," Berrington replied. "You see, Mark Ventmore is an old friend of mine. I knew his father intimately. It was only at Easter that we met in Rome, and, as you say, people are so good as to regard me as worthy of confidence. Beatrice, is it too late?"

Berrington asked the question in a fierce, sudden whisper. His lean fingers clasped over the girl's hand. Sir Charles was leaning back in his chair talking gaily. Nobody seemed to heed the drama that was going on in their midst. Beatrice's eyes filled with tears.

"It is a great comfort to me to know that I have so good and true a friend," she said with her eyes cast down on her plate. "No, I do not want any wine. Why does that waiter keep pushing that wine li

st of his under my nose?"

"Then you are quite sure that it is too late?" Berrington asked again.

"My dear friend, it is inevitable," Beatrice replied. "It is a matter of-duty. Look at my father."

Berrington glanced in the direction of Sir Charles, who was bending tenderly over the very pretty woman on his right hand. Apparently the baronet had not a single care in the world; his slim hand toyed with a glass of vintage claret. Berrington gave him a quick glance of contempt.

"I do not see what Sir Charles has to do with it," he said.

"My father has everything to do with it," Beatrice said. "Does he not look happy and prosperous! And yet you can never tell. And there was a time when he was so very different. And the mere thought that any action of mine would bring disgrace upon him--"

Beatrice paused as she felt Berrington's eyes upon her. The expression of his face showed that she had said enough, and more than enough.

"I quite understand," Berrington said quietly. "You are a hostage to fortune. Honour thy father that his days may be long in the land where good dinners abound and tradesmen are confiding. But the shame, the burning shame of it! Here's that confounded waiter again."

Beatrice felt inclined to laugh hysterically at Berrington's sudden change of tone. The dark-eyed Swiss waiter was bending over the girl's chair again with a supplicating suggestion that she should try a little wine of some sort. He had a clean list in his hand, and even Berrington's severest military frown did not suffice to scare him away.

"Ver' excellent wine," he murmured. "A little claret, a liqueur. No. 74 is what-will madame kindly look? Madame will look for one little moment?"

With an insistence worthy of a better cause, the Swiss placed the card in Beatrice's hand.

It was a clean card, printed in red and gold, and opposite No. 74 was a pencilled note. The girl's eyes gleamed as she saw the writing. The words were few but significant. "In the little conservatory beyond the drawing-room. Soon as possible."

"I shall have to complain about that fellow," Berrington said. "Miss Beatrice, are you not well?"

"I am quite well, quite strong and well," Beatrice whispered. "I implore you not to attract any attention to me. And the waiter was not to blame. He had a message to deliver to me. You can see how cleverly he has done it. Look here!"

Beatrice displayed the card with the pencilled words upon it. Berrington's quick intelligence took everything in at a glance.

"Of course that is intended for you," he said. "A neat handwriting. And yet in some way it seems quite familiar to me. Could I possibly have seen it anywhere before?"

"I should say that it is extremely likely," the girl said. "It is Mark Ventmore's own handwriting."

Berrington smiled. He had all a soldier's love of adventure, and he began to see a very pretty one here.

"I wrote to him a little over a week ago," Beatrice said rapidly. "If he had got my letter then and come, goodness knows what would have happened. I was not quite aware at that hour how close was the shadow of disgrace. I expect Mark has found out everything. Probably he has only just arrived and feels that if he does not see me to-night it will be too late. Colonel Berrington, I must see Mark at once, oh, I must."

Nothing could be easier. Beatrice had merely to say that she was suffering with a dreadful headache, that the atmosphere of the room was insupportable, and that she was going to try the purer air of the conservatory beyond the dining-room.

"No, you need not come," Beatrice said as Richford lounged heavily to his feet. "I do not feel the least in the mood to talk to anybody, not even you."

The listener's sullen features flushed, and he clenched his hands. Beatrice had never taken the slightest trouble to disguise her dislike for the man she had promised to marry. In his heart of hearts he had made up his mind that she should suffer presently for all the indignities that she had heaped upon his head.

"All right," he said. "I'll come into the drawing-room and wait for you. Keep you from being interrupted, in fact. I know what women's headaches mean."

There was no mistaking the cowardly insinuation, but Berrington said nothing. Richford could not possibly have seen the signal, and yet he implied an assignation if his words meant anything at all. It was a cruel disappointment, but the girl's face said nothing of her emotions. She passed quietly along till she came to the little conservatory where presently she was followed by the Swiss waiter, who had given her the card with Mark Ventmore's message upon it.

"Madame is not well," he said. "Madame has the dreadful headache. Can I get anything for Madame? A glass of water, an ice, a cup of coffee, or--"

Beatrice was on the point of declining everything, when she caught the eye of the speaker. Apparently there was some hidden meaning behind his words, for she changed her mind.

"No coffee," she said in a voice that was meant for the lounger in the drawing-room, "but I shall be very glad if you will let me have a cup of tea, strong tea, without milk or sugar."

The waiter bowed and retired. Beatrice sat there with her head back as if utterly worn out, though her heart was beating thick and fast. She looked up again presently as a waiter entered leaving the necessary things on a tray. It was not the same waiter, but a taller, fairer man who bowed as he held out the silver salver.

"The tea, Madame," he said. "May I be allowed to pour it out for you? Steady!"

The last word was no more than a whisper. Beatrice checked the cry that came to her lips.

"Mark," she murmured. "Mark, dear Mark, is it really you?"

The tall waiter smiled as he laid a hand on the girl's trembling fingers.

"Indeed it is, darling," he said. "For God's sake don't say I have come too late!"

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