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   Chapter 5 No.5

The Slave of Silence By Fred M. White Characters: 11960

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

Mark Ventmore repeated his statement three times before anybody seemed to comprehend the dread meaning of his words. The shock was so sudden, so utterly unexpected by the majority of the people there. Of course nobody in that brilliant throng had the least idea of the bride's feelings in the matter, most of them were privileged guests for the reception. They had been bidden to a festive afternoon, a theatre had been specially chartered for the evening, with a dance to follow. This was one of the smart functions of the season.

And now death had stepped in and swept everything away at one breath. People looked at one another as if unable to take in what had happened. There was a strange uneasiness that might have been taken for disappointment rather than regret. Perhaps it partook of both. Somebody a little more thoughtful than the rest gave a sign to the organist who had begun to fill the church with a volume of triumphal music. The silence that followed was almost painful.

Then as if by common consent, every eye was fixed upon the bride. Beatrice had turned and walked down the altar steps in the direction of Mark, who advanced now without further opposition. Beatrice stood there with her hand to her head as if trying to understand it all. She was terribly white, but absolutely composed.

"Did you say that my father was dead?" she asked.

"I am afraid so," Mark stammered. "He-he has been dead for hours. I came on here as fast as I could, hoping to be in time to--"

He paused, conscious of the fact that he was about to say something terribly out of place. Just for an instant Mark had forgotten that he and Beatrice were not alone. He was looking into her beautiful, dilated eyes, oblivious to the fact of the spectators. He was going to say that he had hurried there in the hopes of being in time to stop the ceremony. And Beatrice had divined it, for she flushed slightly. It seemed a terrible thing, but already she had asked herself the same question. The shock of her father's death had not quite gone home to her yet, and she could still think about herself. Was she really married to Stephen Richford? Was the ceremony legally completed? The thought was out of place, but there it was. A mist rose before the girl's eyes, her heart beat painfully fast.

"Don't you think we ought to do something?" Mark asked.

The question startled Beatrice out of her stupor. She was ready for action. It was as if a stream of cold water had been poured over her.

"Of course," she cried. "It is wrong to stand here. Take me home at once, Mark."

It was a strange scene strangely carried out. The bridegroom stood irresolute by the altar, feeling nervously at his gloves, whilst Beatrice, with all her wedding finery about her, clutched Mark by the arm and hurried him down the aisle. The whole thing was done, and the strangely assorted pair had vanished before the congregation recovered from their surprise.

"Come back!" Richford exclaimed. "Surely it is my place to--"

Long before Richford could reach the porch, his wife and Mark had entered a hansom and were on their way to the Royal Palace Hotel. The story had got about by this time; people stopped to stare at the man in tweeds and the bride in her full array in the hansom. To those two it did not seem in the least strange.

"Did you manage to see my father, after all?" Beatrice asked.

"No, I tried to do so; you see, I had to wait for him. He was very late, so I fell asleep. It was after eleven to-day when I awoke to find Sir Charles had not left his room. I ventured to suggest that he had better be roused or he would be too late for your wedding. Nobody could make him hear, so the door was broken in. He was quite dead."

Beatrice listened in a dull kind of way. There was no trace of tears in her eyes. She had suffered so terribly, lately, that she could not cry. The horrible doubt as to whether she was free or not could not be kept out of her mind. Yet it seemed so dreadfully unnatural.

"He died in his sleep, I suppose?" Beatrice asked.

"That nobody can say yet," Mark said. "The doctor we called in was very guarded. Nobody seems to have been in the bedroom, though the sitting-room adjoining is not locked, and last night I saw a lady come out of it, a lady in grey."

"A lady in grey!" Beatrice cried. "What a singular thing, Mark! Do you mean to say it was the same lady who sat next to you in the Paris theatre?"

"Well, yes," Mark admitted. "It was the same. I have not told anybody but you, and it seems to me that nothing will be gained by mentioning the fact."

Beatrice nodded thoughtfully. She could not identify the grey lady, the Slave of Silence, with anything that was wrong. And yet it was strange how that silent woman had come into her life. She must have been known to Sir Charles or she would never have ventured into his sitting-room. If she was still staying in the hotel, Beatrice made up her mind to seek her out. There was some strange mystery here that must be explained. It was uppermost in Beatrice's mind as she descended from the hansom and passed through the curious group of servants into the hall.

The fine suite of rooms was ready for the festive throng; in the dining-room a banquet had been spread out. The scarlet flush of red roses gave a warm note to the room; the sun came streaming through the stained-glass windows, and shone upon the silver and glass and red glow of wine, and on the gold foil of the champagne bottles. In the centre of the table stood a great white tower that Beatrice regarded vaguely as her wedding cake. A shudder passed over her as she looked at it. She longed for something dark and sombre, to hide her diamonds and the sheen of her ivory satin dress.

The place was silent now; the very bareness and desolation of the scene sickened Beatrice to the soul. No guests were here now-they were not likely to be. A polite manager was saying something to the bride, but she did

not seem to heed.

"Mr. Marius is talking to you," Mark said. "He wants to know if he can do anything."

"Mr. Marius is very kind," Beatrice said wearily. "I should like to see the doctor. I suppose that he is still here? May I see him at once?"

The doctor had not gone yet. Mark procured a small plate of dainty sandwiches and a glass of port wine which he forced Beatrice to take. To her great surprise she found that she was hungry. Breakfast she had had none; now that the crisis had passed, her natural healthy appetite had returned. The feeling of faintness that she had struggled against for so long passed away.

The doctor came in, rubbing his hands softly together. He regretted the unfortunate occasion, but when he had been called in, Sir Charles was long past mortal aid. Evidently he had been dead for some hours.

"You are in a position to be quite sure of that?" Beatrice asked.

"Oh, quite," Dr. Andrews replied. "One's experience tells that. Sir Charles was quite stiff and cold. I should say that he had been dead quite four hours when the door was broken down."

Just for an instant the doctor hesitated and his easy manner deserted him.

"I must see Sir Charles's regular medical man before I can be quite definite on that point," he said. "I have no doubt that death was caused by natural means, at least I see no reason at present to believe anything to the contrary. Indeed, if any doubt remains after that, there must be a post mortem, of course. But still I hope that such a course will not be necessary."

In a vague way Beatrice felt uneasy. If this gentleman was not actually concealing something, he was not quite so satisfied as he assumed to be.

"I should like to see my father, if I may," Beatrice said quietly.

The doctor led the way to the bedroom and closed the door softly behind the girl. His face was a little grave and anxious as he walked down the stairs.

"You appear to be a friend of the family," he said to Mark as he stood in the hall. "There are symptoms about the case which frankly I don't like. There was no occasion to lacerate Miss Darryll's feelings unduly, but I must see the family doctor at once. It is just possible that you may happen to know who he is."

Mark was in a position to supply the desired information, and Dr. Andrews drove off, his face still very grave and thoughtful. Meanwhile Beatrice found herself alone with the dead body of her father. He was only partially undressed; he lay on the bed as if he had been overcome with a sudden illness or fatigue. The handsome boyish features were quite composed; there was a smile on the lips, and yet the expression on the face was one of pain. Sir Charles appeared to have died as he had lived-gay, careless, and easy to the last. Always neat, he had placed his studs and tie on the dressing-table; by them stood a little pile of letters which had evidently come by a recent post. They had been carefully cut open with a penknife, so that Beatrice could see they had been read.

There were tears in the girl's eyes now, for Beatrice recalled the time when Sir Charles had been a good father to her in the days before he had dissipated his fortune and started out with the intention of winning it back in the city. Those had been happy hours, Beatrice reflected.

There was nothing further in the room to call for notice. On the carpet, in contrast to the crimson ground, lay what looked like a telegram. It was half folded, but there was no mistaking the grey paper. If there was anything wrong here, perhaps the telegram would throw a light on it. Beatrice picked up the message and flattened it on her hand. Then she read it with a puzzled face. Suddenly a flash of illumination came upon her. Her hand clenched the paper passionately.

"Is it possible," she muttered, "that he could have known? And yet the date and the day! Why, that coward must have known all the time."

A glance at the dead, placid face there recalled Beatrice to herself. Hastily she thrust the message in her corsage and quietly left the room. Some time had elapsed since Beatrice entered the hotel, but as yet the man she called her husband had not returned. It seemed strange, but Beatrice said nothing. She stood regarding her wedding finery with some feeling of disgust.

"I must have a room somewhere and change," she said; "it seems horrible to be walking about like this when my father is lying dead upstairs. Mark, my woman is here somewhere. Will you try and find her and send her to Lady Rashborough for something black and quite plain? Meanwhile, I'll go to a bedroom and get some of this finery off. The mere touch of it fills me with loathing."

Beatrice's maid was discovered at length, and despatched in hot haste to Lady Rashborough's. Beatrice had scarcely entered before Stephen Richford drove up. He looked anxious and white and sullen withal, and he favoured Mark with a particularly malevolent scowl. Richford knew the relationship that had existed at one time between Mark and Beatrice.

"I suppose you must be excused under the circumstances for racing off with my wife in this fashion," he said hoarsely. It seemed to Mark that he had found time to drink somewhere, though, as a rule, that was not one of Richford's failings. "Where is she?"

"She has gone to change," Mark said. "This is a very unfortunate business, Mr. Richford."

Richford shrugged his shoulders with an assumption of indifference. His hand trembled slightly.

"Sir Charles was getting on in years," he said; "and Sir Charles had not troubled to give very great attention to the question of his health. In fact, Sir Charles had gone it steadily. But it seems now to me that so long as the doctors are satisfied as to the cause of death--"

"I am not at all sure the doctor is satisfied," Mark said significantly. "What's the matter?"

"Nothing, nothing," Richford stammered. "Nothing more than a twinge of that confounded neuralgia of mine."

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