« PreviousContinue »
I have told Catherine once for all she is welcome to take charge of my house and everyone in it—indeed she has practically done so without making any bones about it. But, Philippa or no Philippa, I go down to Welwysbere to-morrow, and would to-day only the Sunday trains are so impossible; and I came to tell you, so that everyone should know I have your approval. I suppose you can't disapprove of my wishing to go to—to my poor—oh dear, oh dear!” “The sooner you go the better,’ said Lady Sarah. ‘I knew you would think so,” said Augusta, and she rose with some alacrity and tottered to Lady Sarah's side to take her leave. ‘Let me know the instant you get news.” ‘I will—I will. I’ll come round myself before I start to-morrow to bid you good-bye—if I live,’ sobbed Augusta piously. “I shall not expect you otherwise,’ said Lady Sarah, and she proffered a cold cheek to Augusta's tearful kiss. ‘How profane grandmamma is even at a time like this ' ' murmured poor Lady Adelstane as she groped her way down the narrow staircase of the little house in Curzon Street. ‘Augusta's grief seems to have settled in her legs,’ said Lady Sarah, viewing in a dispassionate manner from the drawing-room window Augusta's departure, and the tender respect with which she was assisted into the carriage by her colossal footman. “She appears unable to walk without help.” ‘I wish you would come and lie down and rest yourself, my lady,” said Tailer very anxiously; for though she was pretty well accustomed to Lady Sarah's ways, yet she thought her composure under the double catastrophe unnatural. ‘Let me bring you some tea. A visit like that is enough to upset your ladyship's heart, and a cup of tea would do you good, my lady.” ‘A cup of tea is all you would require to console you for my demise, Tailer, I am well aware,” said Lady Sarah sardonically. ‘And I may take this opportunity of warning you that the less you say about me over it the better. For if I hear you telling people that you were my confidential friend, or any nonsense of that kind, you may depend upon it I shall haunt you in the most unpleasant manner.” ‘Oh, my lady, what dreadful things you do say ! You make my blood run cold,” said Tailer, horrified, and perhaps also a little conscience-stricken.
‘Leave the door open and the lamp burning all night in the cottage, and do not stir from the house for a moment. Oh, if she should come home and find nobody waiting to welcome her l’ wrote Catherine in a hurried tremulous scrawl which poor Miss Dulcinea, blind with tears, could hardly read. “There has been a clue. They have found a policeman who saw a tall girl in a blue dress and black hat walking in Belgrave Square at about nine o'clock on Saturday morning. He remembers her because he thought of warning her not to carry her purse so openly in her hand; but, seeing she looked very strong and determined and well able to take care of herself, he said nothing after all. There is no doubt it was my darling, for her plain blue serge dress and her black hat are missing from her wardrobe. She carried no bag nor parcel, he is quite certain of that; so, wherever she went, there could have been nothing premeditated. She did not look agitated nor upset in the least, so she cannot have heard the dreadful news of poor Cecil's death. He says he is certain he would have observed anything unusual about her, because he took particular notice of her being such a fine healthy upright young lady; but though she passed close to him he had nothing to say of her beauty, nor did he remember the colour of her hair. Where she was going we cannot tell. Oh, dear Aunt Dulcinea, you can do nothing but pray for her and watch for her, and as you love me, never leave the cottage day or night lest she should come.’
‘David, that woman knows.’
* What woman 2 °
‘What makes you think so 7
‘That is just it. I have no reason that I can ask you or George or anyone else to listen to,” said Catherine almost wildly. “You can call it instinct if you like—a woman's instinct—or a mother's. But directly she touched me I knew, when she put me into the chair by the window last night and I felt her strong hands and saw her dark clever face bending over me, and looking sorry—sorry for me—clever people can’t help being sorry for their victims, you know; it is only fools who don’t pity and who think of nothing but themselves. It flashed across me then that she knew where Philippa was, and that it was her doing. But how can I expect you or George to believe me when I have no better reason to give you than that ? I told the inspector or detective or whoever he is, Mr. Mills, directly he came.’ ‘What did he say?’ She shook her head. “Instinct is sometimes a surer guide than reason,’ said David soothingly. ‘Look here, Catherine,” said George bluntly and kindly, “don’t go worrying about anyone's opinion of the strength of your reasoning, tell us exactly what you think. No one else knows her so well. And don’t stand while you're talking. You look like a washed-out rag ; knocking yourself up won’t do any good.’ Catherine took the chair he pushed forward, and seated herself in mechanical obedience, but she never moved her bright, feverish eyes from David's face. It was in his wit she sought for help ; she trusted George's kindness, but had no belief in his intelligence. ‘I know this,” she said solemnly, ‘ that as for an elopement, as these men suggest—oh, what do they not suggest ?—,’said Catherine almost writhing, ‘a-a clandestine love affair or anything of that kind—it is not in Phil's nature. She would never be persuaded— nobody could persuade her to do a thing she would know to be wrong or improper. In some ways she is the very soul of conscientiousness—of-of conventionality. But this woman—who had so much influence over her— ” ‘Mme. Minart had influence over Philippa She had scarcely known her a fortnight,” said David quickly. “When one is young—a fortnight—a week—a day—is sometimes an age,’ said Catherine ; ‘I have known a girl give her very heart—let her whole life be changed—in a shorter time than that.” The colour of her white face never varied, and she spoke with straightforward simplicity, but both men knew that she was thinking of herself. “From the letters she wrote me I know that Mme. Minart obtained an influence over her directly after she came. Philippa was too guileless to conceal it, even if she had wished. She had formed a friendship for Augusta, but I read between the lines of her dear letters that Augusta had disillusioned her, as was inevitable, and that Mme. Minart had consoled her. Poor child ! At her age one must idealise someone.’ ‘What do you think Mme. Minart has done * * “I believe she has inspired someone to decoy my Phil away. The child would be easily imposed upon, for she would have no suspicions of anyone. And it must be for money; it could not be for anything else. If it were not for the certainty I feel of this I should go mad,” said Catherine, with dry eyes and calm voice. “But it could not be to anyone's interest to harm my darling, even if a woman whom Philippa in her innocence loved and believed in could have the heart to betray her to-anything bad. It could not. She is being hidden away in the hopes of a reward.” ‘It seems the most probable explanation,’ said David. “Can't the woman be arrested on suspicion ?” said George angrily. ‘Mr. Mills says she has given them no excuse whatever for arresting her.’ ‘She is a stranger and a foreigner. Isn't that excuse enough 2' growled George. Catherine smiled wearily. ‘He also thinks in our own interests it is better not. She gave them every information they asked concerning her last interview with Philippa, and never faltered nor contradicted herself. And she said that as she considered herself in charge of Philippa, she courted the fullest inquiry; and gave them the addresses of her last employers, and of her friend at the registry office, and begged them to search her room or her papers or do anything they chose. He warned her that she would be arrested if she made the slightest attempt to leave the house.” “Just to put her on her guard, I suppose,” said George. ‘Perhaps he only said it to frighten her. He is having her watched.” “Suppose we ask to see her,’ said George. “It might be the simplest plan, since she knows she is suspected. We could threaten her with the law, and give her a chance of escaping punishment by an immediate confession.’ Catherine shook her head. “It will be of no use.” ‘How do you know that ?” said David quickly. ‘Because I went on my knees to her this morning,” said Catherine, in the same passionless even tones. ‘If tears would have melted a stone, they would have melted her heart; but they did not. I went into her room where she lay asleep—in the dawn— and I woke her, and I prayed her to tell me, and she answered that I was mad with grief, and pretended to be full of concern and pity; but it was no longer the real pity that I saw in her face that first night. She has hardened her heart.”
David looked at Catherine pitifully. Her gentle face was pinched and colourless, grown old in a single night with misery; her hazel eyes were unnaturally large, and though her manner was calm, it was only by an intense effort of self-control that that calm was sustained. Under his look of compassion her lip quivered suddenly. ‘Help me to find her,” she said, and put a soft, cold hand into his strong fingers. “I’m going to,” he said briefly. “Now you've given me full authority to act for you. But I like my information first hand. I should like to see Mme. Minart myself.” *Yes.” ‘Mr. Mills has given me the facts as he has collected them; let me collect my own.” ‘Very well, send for whom you choose. If I go out meanwhile,” said Catherine, “will you not leave the house till I return ?” “I will not.’ “Then I will go and see if Lady Sarah knows anything. She is very clever,” said Catherine, “but I shall be very quickly back.’ A polite message was sent to Mme. Minart, and she presently came very quietly into the room, bowed to both gentlemen, and accepted the chair that David offered. ‘Am I again to be cross-examined ?’ she said with a faint smile. “If you please,” said David very courteously, “but of course you will understand that we have no authority whatever to ask you questions. I am venturing to assume,” he looked keenly at her, ‘that you are as anxious as we are ourselves that this matter should be cleared up, and the young lady found. We are sure you wish her no harm.’ ‘You do me justice, and you are the first to do so,” said Mme. Minart in a voice of emotion, and her dark, liquid eyes met his gaze. ‘Will you believe me, Monsieur le Colonel, if I tell you that I love this child with all my heart, though I have known her so short a time; that I have never had any pupil to show me so much love, so much candour, so much generosity ?” “Indeed I believe you,” said David warmly, for the ring of sincerity in her beautiful voice was unmistakable. He held out his hand to her. ‘I thank you, Monsieur. You are not then of those who would doubt me, like these stupid police, only because I am a stranger and a foreigner ?’