CHAPTER X THE SENTENCE OF THE COURT
Lavendale was closeted with a Personage, and the interview to which he found himself committed came as something of a shock to him. The Personage was not in the habit of wasting his words, and he spoke succinctly and to the point.
'To sum up, Mr. Lavendale,' he concluded. 'we have received direct and categorical complaints concerning you, forwarded to us through the German Ambassador in Washington. It is stated that whilst enjoying the shelter and privileges of your association with the Embassy here, you have rendered direct aid to a Branch of the French Secret Service in this country, and that you were yourself responsible for the interception of an important communication from Berlin.'
'That's Leonard Johnson,' Lavendale muttered.
'The case of Leonard Johnson has, I believe, been cited,' the Personage admitted, 'but your association with a certain member of the French Secret Service has led you, I am informed, into further enterprises not entirely in accordance with your position as an American official.'
'Am I to understand that you wish me to resign, sir?' Lavendale asked.
'Nothing,' the Personage replied cheerfully, 'is further from my intentions. I wish you to reform. Remember you are an American, that's all. Now go and pay us a visit on the other side. I am coming in to do a little hand-shaking myself presently.'
Lavendale put behind him what he felt might be one of the crises of his life, and made his way to the ambassadorial reception rooms. He paid his respects to his Chief's wife and family and talked for a while to one of the junior secretaries. A clean-shaven man, tall and slim, with gold spectacles and smooth hair, came up to them presently with a smile.
'I hope you haven't quite forgotten me, Mr. Lavendale,' he said. 'I'm Anthony Silburn. Four years before your time, but we've met once or twice in New York.'
'Of course,' Lavendale assented. 'As a matter of fact, we are connections, aren't we? You married my cousin, Lydia Green.'
They sat in a corner and talked for some time of common acquaintances. Mr. Anthony Silburn, besides having the advantage of a frank and engaging manner and a distinct sense of humour, was, as Lavendale very well knew, one of the wealthiest and most enlightened of American millionaires.
'I tell you what it is, young fellow,' Mr. Silburn declared, as they parted, 'you'll have to come down and spend a week-end with us, any time you like. I've got a real old country house in Norfolkleased it before the war broke outHookam Court, near Wells. Bring your guns down. Well, I'm off now to catch the five o'clock train home.'
He departed, with a little farewell nod. Lavendale looked after him thoughtfully.
'One of the most successful men in America,' somebody by his side remarked. 'I wonder what he thinks about the war. He was educated in GermanyI am not sure that he wasn't born there.'
Lavendale made his adieux a little later and walked thoughtfully towards the Milan Court. He sent his name up, but there was no reply from Suzanne's rooms.
'Miss de Freyne went out on Monday night,' the hall-porter told him. 'She was motoring, I think, but she had very little luggage. She hasn't been back since. We've had a great many telephone messages for her.'
The circumstance was not in itself unusual, but Lavendale was conscious of a queer little feeling of uneasiness. Suzanne never left town without letting him know and she had been engaged to dine with him that night.
'I think I'll go up and speak to her maid,' he said.
The man pointed towards the lift.
'There she is, sir, just come in.'
Lavendale crossed the hall and touched the woman on the shoulder. She was a dark-visaged, melancholy-looking person of middle age, with an extraordinary gift for taciturnity.
'Do you know where your mistress is, Anne?' he asked.
The woman appeared to recognize him with some relief. She evaded a direct reply, however.
'Would you be so kind as to come upstairs, sir?' she invited.
Lavendale followed her to Suzanne's suite. She stood on one side for him to enter and closed the door carefully.
'Monsieur,' she began, 'my mistress once told me that if there was trouble I was to come to you.'
'Quite right,' Lavendale assented quickly. 'What is it?'
'Mademoiselle left me at six o'clock on Monday night,' the maid proceeded. 'I know nothing as to her destination except that her journey was decided upon quite suddenly and that she had a motor ride of over a hundred miles. She expected to be back the next day. If not, she promised to send me some instructions. Since then I have heard nothing of her.'
Lavendale reflected for a moment.
'How much are you in your mistress' confidence?' he inquired.
'She has trusted me often with her life,' was the quiet reply.
'You understand her real position?'
'Then do you know,' Lavendale went on, 'if there is any headquarters of the French Secret Service in this countryany one from whom we could get any idea as to her mission?'
The woman shook her head.
'There are others working often with Mademoiselle,' she said. 'I know no namesonly this. In case of the very deepest anxiety, but only in extremes, I have a telephone number here which I could ring up.'
She opened her purse and drew out a slip of paper.
'It is, I believe, a private number,' she continued, 'and not in the book. I made up my mind that if Mademoiselle had not returned this afternoon, I would ring up.'
'Let us do so at once,' Lavendale suggested.
'If monsieur would be so kind,' she begged, pointing to the instrument. 'My English is not good, and I do not know with whom I should speak.'
'Whom am I to ask for?' Lavendale inquired.
'No names are to be mentioned,' the woman replied, 'and the number can only be rung up between five and seven. It is six o'clock now,' she added.
Lavendale took off the receiver and asked for the number. There was a moment's pause. Then a remarkably clear voice answered him.
'It is a friend of Mademoiselle de Freyne who speaks,' Lavendale said.
'That is well,' the voice replied. 'Continue.'
'Miss de Freyne left her rooms at the Milan Court last Monday night, on secret business. She promised to communicate with her maid the next day. She has not done so. She left in a motor-car and with very little luggage. She made the remark that she had a ride of over a hundred miles.'
'That is all you know, Mr. Lavendale?'
Lavendale started a little at the sound of his own name.
'It is all,' he assented.
'Kindly go and repeat what you have told me to Major Elwell, room 17, number 33, Whitehall.'
Lavendale replaced the receiver and turned to Anne.
'I am instructed,' he said, 'to apply to a man whom I know to be in the English Secret Service.'
'It would be well,' the maid advised, 'if monsieur applied there at once.'
Lavendale walked briskly out of the Milan by the back exit, through the Gardens, along the Embankment and into Whitehall. He found number 33 a long, narrow, private house taken over by the Government. Number 17 consisted of a small office in which two men were busy writing, and an inner room. Lavendale made his inquiry and was told that Major Elwell would be back in an hour. He scribbled a note, making an appointment, and walked back to his own rooms. He let himself in, paused to speak for a moment with his servant, who was laying out his clothes, and turned towards the sitting-room. As he opened the door the telephone bell began to ring insistently. He crossed the room, took up the receiver, and tapped the instrument.
'What is it?' he asked. 'Hullo? Hullo?'
Somewhere in the distance he heard a voice say faintly'Trunk call'and for a moment he was patient. Then he gave a little start. A familiar voice, yet unfamiliar, shaking with something like fear, tremulous, hysterical, terrified, murmured his name. His heart leapt with quick sympathy, his fingers shook.
'Ambrose! Ambrose! Is that you? Speak quickly!'
'I am here, Suzanne,' he cried. 'Where are you?'
Suddenly he seemed to hear turmoil and confusion, a man's voice, a woman's shriek.
Then there was silence. The connection had been broken. Lavendale rang up furiously. At last he got the exchange. The young man who answered his inquiry could tell him nothing. He rang through to the inquiry office with little better result. They would make inquiries and let him know from whence the call came. They believed that it was from a call office. He could gain no further information. He set down the instrument at last in despair and walked up and down the room. She was in trouble, danger. 'Hook?' 'Hook?' What was there familiar to him in the commencement of that word? He repeated it feverishly. Then he rememberedHookam CourtAnthony Silburn, whom he had met that afternoon at the Embassy. It was hard to discover any connection, however. He drove back to the Milan Court and found Anne.
'Is there any news, monsieur?' she asked anxiously.
'None at present,' Lavendale replied. 'I cannot see Major Elwell for another half-hour. Tell me, have you ever heard your mistress mention any place of which the first syllable is "Hook"?'
'"Ook,"' Anne repeated dubiously. 'No, monsieur!'
'Hookam Court,' Lavendale went on, 'Anthony SilburnNorfolknone of that is familiar?'
'But no, monsieur!'
He kept the secret of the telephone message to himself and made his way round once more to Whitehall. Major Elwell was seated in his office and received him at once. There was nothing unusual about the place except a large array of telephones. Lavendale told his story quickly. The Major listened without comment.
'Well?' Lavendale asked eagerly, when he had finished.
Major Elwell was occupied in drawing small diagrams with his pencil on the edge of the blotting-paper.
'We must see what can be done,' he remarked at last. 'Hook'that is absolutely all you heard?'
'Absolutely,' Lavendale assured him.
'And you have a friend who lives at Hookam Court in NorfolkMr. Anthony Silburn?' he said meditatively. 'A very remarkable man, Silburnlikely to be President some day, they tell me.'
'Who cares about that!' Lavendale exclaimed, a little curtly. 'What can we do, Major Elwell? I dare say you know as much as I do, and more. Miss de Freyne has been very successful during the last few months, and there is no doubt they'd give anything they could to get hold of her on the other side. But in Englandsurely there can't be any organization over here strong enough for actual mischief!'
'Scarcely,' Major Elwell agreed. 'Scarcely. 'Hdouble OK,' he went on meditatively. 'You see, there are about fifty places in the United Kingdom beginning like that.'
Lavendale felt his courage slipping away. There was something curiously unimpressive in the carefully-dressed, imperturbable Englishman, who was occupied now in polishing his eyeglass.
'Isn't there anything we can be doing instead of sitting here talking?' he asked impatiently.
'Always a mistake,' Major Elwell declared, 'to do things in a hurry. Have a cigarette,' he went on, offering his case. 'I think I'll stroll out and talk with a friend over this little matter.'
'Isn't there a thing I can do?' Lavendale persisted.
'Well,' Major Elwell said thoughtfully, 'you spoke of an invitation to visit your friend Mr. Anthony Silburn at Hookam Court. Why not motor down there to-morrow? It's one of the places in the country that your call might have come from, at any rate.'
A derisive reply quivered upon Lavendale's lips. Then, for some reason or other, he changed his mind and remained silent. Major Elwell, without any appearance of hurrying him, was holding the door open.
'All right,' Lavendale agreed, 'I'll motor down there to-morrow.'
Lavendale was conscious of a queer sensation of unreality as late on the following afternoon he followed the butler across the white-flagged entrance hall of Hookam Court. He felt as though he were an unwilling actor in a play of which the setting was all too perfect. The little party of guests, still in shooting clothes and lounging before the great wood fire, brought into their surroundings a vivid note of flamboyant artificiality. The high walls, with their ecclesiastically-curved frescoes, the row of family portraits, the armour standing in the recesses, even the little local touch afforded by the game-keeper in brown whipcord and gaiters, standing waiting in a distant corner, seemed to him like part of some cinema production in which the men and women were supers and the setting tinsel.
His host's greeting was all that it should have been. He advanced across the hall with outstretched hand, quietly but sincerely cordial.
'Good man, Lavendale!' he exclaimed. 'I was delighted to get your telegram.'
'Very nice of you,' Lavendale murmured. 'I hadn't any idea of being at a loose end so soon when you were kind enough to ask me.'
'It couldn't have happened more fortunately,' Mr. Anthony Silburn assured him. 'I've another man coming down to-night, but I've room for two more guns. Now let me introduce you to those of your fellow-guests whom you don't know. Mr. LavendaleLady Marsham, Mr. Kindersley, Mr. Barracombe, Sir Julius Marsham, Mr. Henry D. Steinletter.'
Lavendale bowed, individually to the women and collectively to the men. Lady Marsham, a stout, dark-haired lady with a heavy jaw, made room for him by her side.
'It is quite a treat, Mr. Lavendale,' she declared, 'to see a young man. One feels that he must be either an American or a hopeless invalid. You are an American, aren't you?'
Lavendale admitted the fact and rose to welcome his hostess, who was coming down the stairs. She suddenly recognized Lavendale and stopped short. For the first time he was conscious of something which freed him from that sense of being part of a carefully concerted picture. There was something absolutely human, entirely spontaneous in his cousin's expression as she recognized him. Her fingers gripped the oak banisters, her lips were parted, her eyes were filled with something which was scarcely a welcoming light. It all passed in a moment and she came into the picture naturally and easily.
'My dear Ambrose, how delightful to see you again! Does Tony know?
Lavendale advanced to meet her and took her hands.
'He asked me down for a few days only yesterday, when I met him in town, and I wired to say that I was coming to-day. I am afraid I didn't give him a chance to turn me down, but I meant to say, although he hasn't given me an opportunity yet, that if it's at all inconvenient I could go on to Norwich and look up some friends near there.
For a single moment she hesitated. Her little laugh was not altogether natural. Again Lavendale had a queer fancy that there was a leaven of insincerity in her welcomethat if it had been possible she would even have sent him away.
'Don't be foolish, Ambrose. Of course we are delighted. I see you people have had tea,' she went on. 'I really couldn't resist a bath and tea-gown.'
'And I was much too lazy,' Lady Marsham yawned, lighting a cigarette. 'I shall go up and change early for dinner.'
Mr. Silburn's voice was heard from the other end of the hall. He was dismissing the game-keeper with a few parting instructions.
'I'll have another covering stand at the long wood, Reynolds,' he was saying. 'You can put it on the extreme left, near the old oak. I'll take that myself, and Mr. Lavendale will shoot from number three. You've got your guns, Lavendale?' he added, strolling up to them.
'They are in the car,' Lavendale replied, 'but I warn you that I haven't shot for two years.'
'I don't think my pheasants will bother you any,' Mr. Silburn promised him. 'Barracombe here finds them on the slow side. We had a very good day to-dayover a thousand head altogether. Sure you won't have some tea or a whisky-and-soda?'
'Then I'll show you your rooms,' his host continued, 'if you'll come this way.'
Lydia Silburn, who had been standing a little irresolutely on the other side of the round tea-table, suddenly turned towards her husband.
'Why didn't you tell me, Tony, that Ambrose was coming?' she inquired.
'I meant to,' her husband admitted. 'As it happens, however, I haven't seen much of you to-day, have I? Orge along, young fellow. Did you bring a servant, by-the-by? No? Well, I've quite a smart second boy who can look after you. We dine at eight. And, Lavendale, just one word,' he concluded, as he glanced around the spacious rooms into which he had ushered his guest, 'we have a sort of unwritten rule to which every one subscribes here. It saves so much unpleasant argument on a subject where our opinions are a little divided. We don't mention the war until half-past ten.'
'Very sound,' Lavendale remarked, 'but why half-past ten?'
'After dinner,' Mr. Silburn promised, 'I will explain that to you. We have a little conversazione sometimesbut just wait.'
Again, an hour or so later, when Lavendale stood once more in the hall talking to one or two of the men, whilst a footman was passing round cock-tails upon a tray, he felt oppressed by that curious sense of unreality. He took himself severely to task for it. He told himself that it must lie simply in the innate incongruity of this occupation of a ducal home by an American millionaire. In every other respect the men and women were obviously fitting figures. One or two of them were even known to him by reputation. The whole atmosphere of their conversation was natural and spontaneous. And then, as he turned resolutely to continue a discussion about wild pheasants with BarracombeBarracombe, whom he knew well to be a great scientific traveller, a man of distinctionit was then that the climax came, the dramatic note which alone was needed to convince him of the spuriousness of his surroundings. He had turned his head quite naturally towards the broad, western corridor on hearing the soft rustling of a woman's skirtsand he talked no more of wild pheasants! It was Suzanne, in a black evening gown and carrying a handful of pink roses in her hand, who was coming slowly across the hall.
'Suzanne! Miss de Freyne!' he exclaimed, taking a quick step forward.
He was conscious of many things in those few seconds, conscious of his host's strenuous regard, of Suzanne's unnatural pallor, of the warning in her eyes. His rush of joy at seeing her, however, was all-conquering. He took her hands in his and held them tightly.
'And to think that no one told me you were here!' he exclaimed.
There was a moment's strained silence. Then a cold wave of doubt, a premonition of evil, suddenly chilled him. In the background he had caught a glimpse of a peculiar smile upon his host's lips, and again there was the warning in Suzanne's eyes.
'I have been down in the neighbourhood for several days,' she told him. 'It is rather a coincidence, is it not?'
Anthony Silburn, who had remained all the time within earshot, strolled over towards them.
'So you young people have discovered one another,' he remarked. 'The gong at last!' he added, with a little burst of enthusiasm. 'Lavendale, as it is your first evening, will you take Lydia in? Miss de Freyne, I am going to give myself the happiness to-night.'
He held out his arm and led Suzanne away. Lavendale loitered behind with his cousin.
'Lydia,' he whispered, as they passed into the great dining-room, 'how long has Miss de Freyne been here?'
'In this house since the day before yesterday,' she answered. 'She was staying before at the Hookam Arms, down in the village.'
'Say, is there anything wrong about this place?' he asked. 'I don't know what it is, but I feel as though I'd come into some sort of a theatrical performance. I suppose you are all alive, aren't you? That really is Barracombe, the traveller, and old Steinletter?'
His tone had been one of half banter, but her reply made him suddenly serious.
'I don't know, Ambrose,' she confessed nervously. 'Sometimes I feel like that myself. Don't talk too loudly.'
Lavendale became a watcher through the progress of the wonderfully served meal. The servants, in a way, were all of the usual type, obviously well-trained and attentive. The dining-room at Hookam had been built out by a favourite of one of the Georges almost in the form of a pagoda, and under the high, domed roof, listening to the somewhat stereotyped conversation of those strangely-assorted guests, Lavendale became slowly conscious of a new sensation, the sensation of restriction. It was hard to believe that outside lay the park; that in the morning he would be wandering about, free to come and go as he pleased; that in the garage was his own car, and a couple of miles away across the park, the road to London. He tried to talk lightly to Lydia of their relatives and friends in America, but he found her distraite and depressed. Dinner was no sooner over, however, than he made a bold attempt to dissipate some of his presentiments.
'Can I use the telephone, Silburn?' he asked.
'With pleasure, my dear boy,' was the unhesitating reply. 'You'll find an instrument this way.'
They were all crossing the hall. The men and the women were to smoke and take their coffee together. Silburn led his young guest into a small waiting-room, comfortably furnished. On a table in the middle of the apartment was a telephone instrument and a book of subscribers. Lavendale took up the receiver.
'Can you get through to London?' he asked.
'Sorry, sir, the line is engaged,' the operator regretted.
'Will it be free presently?'
'I'll ring up as soon as we can get through. What number?'
Lavendale gave the number of his own rooms and rejoined the little group in the hall. He found Barracombe on one side of Suzanne and his host on the other, but he drew a chair as near to her as he could.
'Get through all right?' Silburn inquired.
'I didn't get through anywhere,' Lavendale replied. 'The line was engaged.'
'We've a lot of soldiers down here,' Mr. Silburn explained. 'They are always commandeering the line for military purposes.'
'You seem to get plenty of messages,' Lavendale remarked, as a servant for the third or fourth time brought a slip of folded paper to his master.
'I have a private line,' he announced. 'Sorry I can't ask you to use it, but I have promised the military here that no one else save myself shall communicate by means of it. Are you a bridger, Lavendale?'
Lavendale excused himself, but gained nothing, for Suzanne was almost forced into the game by her host. He wandered about the hall, glancing up at the pictures. Then he went back to the telephone room.
'Line's still engaged, sir,' was the laconic reply to his inquiry.
Lavendale strolled back. He wandered uneasily about the hall for a time and then approached the great front door.
'Think I'll have a look at the night,' he remarked, with his hand upon the bolt.
The servant who was standing by, intervened.
'I beg your pardon, sir,' he said, 'we are not allowed to open the front door after dusk. The military have complained so much about the lights.'
'Show me another way out from the back, then?' Lavendale persisted.
'No one is allowed to leave the house at all until morning,' the man told him.
Lavendale turned slowly round towards the bridge-table.
'Silburn,' he asked, 'are we prisoners?'
'My dear fellow,' his host replied, dealing out a hand, 'it is not I who am to blame, but the English military authorities. Look how closely-curtained we are everywhere. You will find double blinds in every room in the house. Yet even that has not been enough to satisfy them. I have had to promise that no members of my household shall even open a door after dark. "Defence of the Realm Act" they call it, I think.'
Lavendale turned a little discontentedly away. It was difficult to protest further, but he was not in the least satisfied that Silburn's explanation was a genuine one. He talked for a few moments to several of the other guests and then drew a low chair up close to Suzanne. It was evident to him, watching her closely, that she was playing under great tension. More than ever he was convinced that something was wrong. With an excuse about fetching some cigarettes of a particular brand, he made up to his room and searched in his dressing-case. Within a few minutes he found himself face to face with a very grim reality. The revolver which he carried always with him had been removed!
Lavendale, with small hopes of any success, called once more at the telephone room before he rejoined the little party. The reply was almost brusque.
'Line blocked. No chance of getting through to London to-night.'
'Can I ring up Norwich?' Lavendale asked, with a sudden inspiration.
'Line to Norwich engaged,' was the reply.
'Is there anywhere I can speak to?' Lavendale persisted. 'Is there any number upon the exchange I can be connected with?'
There was no reply. He rang again and tapped the wire. There was still silence. Then he replaced the receiver upon the instrument and stood for a moment in the little room, thinking. There was no doubt but that he had simply followed Suzanne into a trap. He rapidly reviewed in his memory the guests. Lady Marsham, it was well known, had been educated in Berlin and had German relatives. Barracombe wore an order conferred upon him by the Kaiser. Steinletter belonged to the greatest German-American banking firm in the world. Kindersley's daughter had married an Austrian prince. Suzanne had succeeded, then, in this last quest of hers, a success which, although inadvertently, he might be said to share. They had in all probability discovered the headquarters of the great Teutonic espionage system in England. How was it going to profit them? His mind rapidly reviewed the situation. They were prisonersof that he was certainyet to what extent? How far was Silburn prepared to go? It was, after all, rather an opera-bouffe sort of trap. If they were caught, there was still the question of silencing them. Then he thought of that abstracted revolver, and a queer little wave of apprehension, not for himself but for Suzanne, suddenly chilled him.
He made his way back into the hall. The rubber was just over and he leaned boldly over the chair in which Suzanne was seated.
'Orge and talk to me for a few minutes,' he begged.
She hesitated. Mr. Silburn, who was playing idly with the cards, glanced at the clock and back again.
'At half-past ten,' he announced, 'in ten minutes, that is to say, we all meet in the cloister room. It is a queer custom, perhaps, but my guests have been kind in conforming to it.'
'Prayers?' Lavendale inquired.
'Not a bad name for our few minutes' serious diversion,' Mr. Silburn remarked dryly.
Lavendale led Suzanne towards a couch at the further end of the hall. He laid his hand upon hers and found it as cold as ice.
'Suzanne,' he said quietly, 'are we in a trap?'
'I believe we are,' she answered. 'It is entirely my fault. I have never been so foolish before in my life. I have always had people behind me who have known my whereabouts and who could come to the rescue, if necessary. This time I told no one. I was selfish. I wanted the whole credit. But tell me of yourselfhow you came here?'
'It was just the merest chance,' he replied. 'Silburn had asked me to shoot here, and then you half told me where you were, over the telephone. I think that the rest must have been instinct. You haven't told me yet, though, how you found your way here?'
'I was down at the village,' she said. 'I followed Mr. Steinletter here. I had a special permit, a military pass. I was supposed to be related to one of the officers quartered at the inn. I made a few inquiries about this place, which increased my suspicions. Then I met Mrs. Silburn outside the lodge gates. She was with the Colonel in command here and they stopped to speak to the officer I was with. She was delightful and asked me to call. I was only too glad to have a chance of obtaining the entre to the house. They made me send for my clothes, to spend the night. That was two days ago. Since then I have tried in vain to get away.'
'Let me understand what you mean by trying to get away?' he begged. 'Surely you could ask for a car to take you to the station?'
'I have done so three times,' she replied, 'always with the same result. They assure me that every car in the garage has been requisitioned by the Government. I go to that dummy telephonethe exchange is in the house, you knowand of course nothing happens. If I start out to walk, I am shadowed by one of the men-servants, and, as you know, it is two miles before one reaches the road.'
'Well, there isn't much they can do with us, dear,' Lavendale assured her coolly. 'Tell me now, have you made any actual discovery?'
'There is a private telegraph and telephone exchange here in the place,' she said, 'and Mr. Silburn gets messages every few hours. There are people always coming and going, all people of the same class. There is not the slightest doubt that this is the place for which we have searched. Ambrose, if only we could stretch out the net now, at this moment, we could make a great haul.'
'Instead of which,' he remarked grimly, 'we seem to be in the meshes ourselves!'
'Tell me,' she begged, 'does any one know that you were coming here?'
'I told ElwellMajor Elwell,' Lavendale replied, with a suddenly inspired flash of memory. 'I told him why I was coming here, too.'
She clutched at his arm. Then suddenly she looked down. 'They are watching us,' she whispered. 'Ambrose, that may save us yet if only he comes in time!'
'In time for what?' Lavendale answered cheerfully. 'I can't look upon this as very serious, dear. Why, Lydia Silburn is my own cousin.'
'She is our only hope,' Suzanne declared. 'As for the rest, I have grown to suspect every one of them.'
'What does this half-past ten business mean?' he asked.
She shook her head.
'At half-past ten they all go into what they call the cloister room,' she said. 'As yet I have not been invited there, but I have an idea that to-night we are both to be present. Yes, here comes Mr. Silburn.'
'Now, you young people,' their host observed pleasantly, 'we are going to let you into a few secrets. This way.'
They both rose. The others were crossing the hall towards the eastern corridor. Mr. Silburn drew Suzanne's arm through his. As they walked his face became more serious. Lavendale had a wild idea, for a moment, of snatching Suzanne away, opening the front door by force and clamouring for freedom. Then he remembered the two miles to the lodge gate and shrugged his shoulders.
'It's rather a queer apartment into which I am going to take you,' Mr. Silburn explained, 'a crazy sort of place, really, but to us Americans this sort of room, I must confess, appeals some. Allow me, Miss de Freyne.'
He motioned them both to precede him. They found themselves in what seemed to be, from the bareness of the walls and the shape of the windows, a small chapel, built on different levels. The larger part of the room, which was below, was wrapped in complete gloom. The smaller part was unfurnished save for a long table, around which was ranged a number of chairs. One by one, the guests seated themselves. Lavendale and Suzanne followed their example as indifferently as possible. Mr. Silburn sat at the head of the table, with Lady Marsham on his right and Mr. Steinletter opposite. There was a certain significance to Lavendale in the fact that his cousin was not present. A somewhat gloomy light was thrown upon the faces of the little company from a heavily-shaded oil lamp suspended by a brass chain from the roof, and, looking around at their mingled expressions, Lavendale for the first time felt a sense of real danger, a thrill of something like fear, not for his own sake but for Suzanne's. He groped for her hand beneath the table and held the icy-cold fingers tightly.
'Courage, dear,' he murmured under his breath.
She smiled at him plaintively, and with the fear still lurking in her dark eyes. Then Mr. Silburn leaned forward in his place and tapped upon the table with his forefinger. His voice in the hollow spaces sounded strangely.
'My friends,' he began, 'few words are best. We live, as you all know, from day to day in danger. No such association as ours could continue to exist without hourly peril. So far we have triumphed over the secret service of every country. So far we have carried on our great work without hindrance or suspicion. Those days I am forced to tell you, are passing. The hour of our supreme peril is close at hand. There are two people here present who have guessed our secret. One of them, this young lady upon my left, Miss de Freyne, is here for no other purpose than to spy upon us.'
Suzanne seemed to have regained her courage. In the moment of trial she was stronger than in the indeterminate hours of suspense. She turned her head towards Silburn.
'What are you all but spies,' she demanded, 'spies of the lowest and most dastardly class? You are here under the shelter of a friendly country to do her all the harm you can, to stab in the dark, to take advantage of your nationalityyour American nationalityto pose as an Anglo-Saxon. You abuse the country which shelters you. You call me a spy! Orgpared with you, all of you, I am the most innocent person who ever breathed.'
A strange impassivity seemed to be reflected from all the faces of the little gathering. Only in Mr. Kindersley's face there trembled for a moment some shadow of sympathy.
'You have heard the young lady,' Mr. Silburn continued calmly. 'We come now to her companion. Mr. Lavendale, although an American by birth, has embraced the cause of this country; doubtless,' he added, with a little satirical bow, 'for reasons upon which I will not enlarge. He has become the ally of mademoiselle. We secured his presence here, I admit, by a ruse. My friends, these two people's knowledge of our secret is fatal to our safety.'
There was a moment's silence. Then Lady Marsham leaned back in her chair.
'I propose,' she said firmly, 'that the same steps be taken with these two people as heretofore.'
There was a little murmur of approval. Only Mr. Kindersley sighed.
'One must remember,' he observed reflectively, 'that it is not only for our own safetyit is for the preservation of a great cause.'
Lavendale took a cigarette from a box in the centre of the table, and lit it.
'I don't know what this penalty is that you propose to inflict upon us,' he remarked, 'but I should just like to remind you that you are living in a very highly civilized country, where people do not disappear.'
'At Hookam,' Mr. Silburn said calmly, 'people have disappeared for the last nine hundred years. Below there, the secret cloisters reach almost to the sea. The cleverest and most astute criminologists who ever breathed might track you to these doors, Lavendale, and search until their hair was grey before they discovered a single trace of you. My servants are mine, body and soul. For my wife's sake, Lavendale'
'Look here,' Lavendale interrupted, 'I am not sure whether you are in earnest or not, but whatever you might be thinking about for me, you couldn't be such brutes'
He stopped short. There was a sudden light in his face. From outside the door they could clearly hear the sound of an angry voice. A little ripple of terrified excitement flashed around the table. Mr. Silburn's teeth came together with a little click. There was a curious tremor of emotion in his tone.
'Lock the door,' he ordered Barracombe.
It was too late. In a long travelling ulster, with his cap still in his hand, Major Elwell stood already upon the threshold. Behind him, still protesting, was Lydia Silburn.
'Elwell!' Lavendale shouted. 'Thank God!'
Major Elwell gazed around at them all through his eye-glass and looked back at the woman by his side. He seemed bewildered.
'What in the name of all that's holy is this?' he demanded.
There was a moment's silence. Lavendale drew a long breath. His arm was stretched out accusingly towards his host. Suddenly the words failed upon his lips. He looked around him, speechless, amazed. It was as though the whole world had gone mad. Mr. Barracombe, from the opposite side of the table, had removed his spectacles from his nose and was wiping the tears from his eyes. Lady Marsham was leaning on one side, doubled up. There was only one common sound everywherelaughter, irresistible, compelling, unmistakable. Mr. Silburn, taking off his pince-nez and struggling for composure, rose to his feet.
'The sentence of the court upon you two,' he declared unsteadily, 'would have been delivered with more solemnity but for the premature arrival of our friend Jack Elwell. I hereby pronounce it, however, finally and irrevocably. It is this, Ambrose Lavendalethat you offer your arm to Miss de Freyne, that you lead the way in to supper, and that you produce your marriage certificate within three weeks.'
Almost as he spoke, lights flashed out from the great room below. A long table was laid for supper. There were servants who seemed to appear like magic, with bottles and dishes. Lavendale turned towards Elwell, looked back at his host and finally down at Suzanne.
'Suzanne,' he exclaimed, 'I believe we're spoofed!'
She shook her head. There were tears of relief in her eyes, but a delicious curve of laughter upon her lips.
'I do not know the word,' she admitted, 'but I believe it is true.'
'Lead the way, young fellow,' Mr. Silburn insisted. 'Forgive us, you two, but when we heard of Miss de Freyne down at the village, making inquiries about uswell, you remember I had to leave Harvard for a practical joke!'
'All the same,' Lydia Silburn declared from the background, 'the sentence of the court is final.'
They took their places, and the supper party very soon became a much gayer meal than the dinner which had preceded it. Towards its close, Lavendale whispered to Suzanne.
'Dear,' he said, 'I'm afraid we'll have to own up that we haven't been quite as astute as usual. Perhaps we are getting a little stale. Supposing we takea holiday?'
She flashed a wonderful smile up at him.
'It was the sentence of the court,' she murmured.