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    Chapter 7

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    Chapter 7
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    Into the Storm

    She went straight up to her room, resolved not to risk a further interview with the man in whose eyes, even in the failing light, she had read the very deeps of human passion. She felt physically sick as she recalled those horrible seconds on the lawn, and she searched the drawer of her bureau for the key of the bedroom door, and, finding it, turned the lock--a thing she had never done before in her life. Then she sat down before her mirror, calmly to review a disturbing evening.

    Predominant of the emotions which the night had called forth was the shock of the discovery about James Morlake. It could not be true; and yet Hamon would not have framed such an accusation unless it was well based.

    She got up from her chair, opened one of the long windows and stepped out on to the stone balcony above the porch. The lightning was flickering whitely in the sky; there came to her ears the low roll and sustained rumble of thunder; but it was not at the sable skies she was looking. Across the park one faint yellow light showed the position of Wold House.

    If all that Hamon said were true, did this strangely isolated man know that he was suspected? Ought he to be told? She uttered a little exclamation of impatience. It was madness on her part, sheer, stark lunacy to think about him. She knew him only as a figure that had often come within the focus of her field-glasses, a remarkable, an attractive face around which she had woven all manner of dreams. Nearer at hand, she would be disillusioned; and just at that moment she particularly desired that, even though she hated Hamon for sowing the first seeds of disenchantment.

    She had never spoken to Morlake, never been within fifty yards of him, knew no more than servants' gossip could tell her, or than she could imagine for herself. If Hamon had spoken the truth, then he was in danger. If it were not true, then, for his own purpose, the financier was hatching some plot which would lead to Morlake's undoing.

    She came back to the room and stared at herself in the mirror.

    "I must be disillusioned," she said slowly and deliberately, and knew, as she spoke, that she was deceiving herself.

    She went to her bureau, took out a long raincoat and a little hat, and laid them on her bed.

    Creith House retired early, but it was not till half-past ten that she heard the front door being locked by Stephens, and the surly voice of Mr. Hamon bid the servant good-night as he came up the stairs on the way to his own room. She listened and heard the thud of Hamon's bedroom door as it closed. A quarter-of-an-hour passed and the house was silent.

    Once more she returned to the balcony. The light was burning at Wold House, and she made her sudden resolve. With the coat over her arm, and holding her hat in her hand, she unlocked the door and stole fearfully down the broad stairway to the hall, where a night-light burnt. Stephens had retired; she could hear only the ticking of the big clock in the hall.

    The key of the front door hung on the wall, a big and ungainly article, and she put this into her bag before she pulled back the bolts gently, unlocked the door and closed it behind her.

    There would be no difficulty in finding her way. The lightning snickered and flashed almost incessantly. With a wildly beating heart she passed down the drive under the shadow of the rustling chestnut trees, through the lodge gates on to the main road.

    She was being a fool, a sentimental idiot ... she was behaving like a romantic school-girl. Reason put out a hundred hands to hold her back. Something which was neither reason nor sentiment, some great instinct more potent than any controlling force of mind or heart, sent her forward eagerly to her strange quest.

    Once she shrank into the shelter of a hedge as a car flashed past, and she wondered what the neighbours would think if they had seen Lady Joan Carston hiding from observation at that hour of the night. At any rate, they would never dream that she was on her way to warn an American crook whom she did not know, and had never met, that his arrest was imminent. She reflected on this with a certain amount of grim amusement.

    Presently she was walking in the shelter of the high redbrick wall that surrounded Wold House. The wrought-iron gates were closed, and she had to fumble for some time before she found the latch that admitted her. The light she had seen had disappeared; the house was in darkness, and she stood in the shadow of a tree, trying to summon up sufficient courage to go on with her self-appointed mission.

    She had taken a step forward when unexpectedly the door of the house opened. A bright light glowed in the passage, and in its rays she saw silhouetted in the doorway the figure of a man, and she drew back again to the cover of the shadow. Behind the man she saw James Morlake. He was talking in a low voice, and, even from where she stood, she felt a little thrill of satisfaction that it was the voice of a gentleman.

    But who was the other? In some indefinite way the figure was strangely familiar to Joan. And then:

    "Feeling better now?"

    "Yes, thanks." She had to guess what the mumbled reply was.

    "You will find the cottage on the road. I don't know Mrs. Cornford, but I believe there is a lady staying there."

    "Awfully foolish of me to come here, but I went to the station bar ... and time passed ... and then this beastly storm came on. I'm afraid I'm rather drunk."

    "I'm afraid you are," said Jim Morlake's voice.

    Mrs. Cornford's lodger! The dipsomaniac. They came down the steps together, the younger man reeling a little till Jim put out his hand and steadied him.

    "Awfully obliged to you, I'm sure--my name is Farringdon--Ferdie Farringdon...."

    And then a flicker of lightning showed his face, white, haggard, unshaven. The girl shrank back, wild-eyed, biting her lip to arrest her scream. Gripping a bough of the laurel bush to hold herself erect, she watched them pass into the gloom. She was still standing motionless, frozen, when Jim returned alone.

    She watched him go into the house, saw the door close, and still she waited. Great drops of rain were splashing down; the thunder was louder, the lightning more vivid.

    She had no longer any thought of warning him. She was absorbed, transfixed by the ghost that had risen from the night. With an effort she stirred herself and ran down the drive.

    She tried to open the gate, but to her horror it was steadfast. Morlake must have locked it after he had seen the other on his way. What should she do?

    She moved stealthily across the lawn, but here the river barred her further movement. She could get over the wall if she knew where a ladder was to be found.

    And then the front door opened again and she drew swiftly into the shadows as somebody came out. It was Morlake: she could not mistake him. He walked quickly down the path, and she heard the clang of the gate as it closed behind him. As soon as the sound of his footsteps had died down, she ran to the gate--it was unlocked, and, with a sigh of thankfulness, she passed through.

    Which way had he gone, she wondered. Probably toward the village. It was hardly likely that any business would take him in the direction of Creith House, unless he was going to the cottage to make sure that Farringdon had returned.

    She had not gone a dozen yards before she was wet through, for the rain was hissing down with torrential fury. The roar and crash of thunder deafened her, the everlasting flutter of blue lightning brought intervals of blindness between each flash. Up to this moment she had not been afraid, but now the terror of the storm came on her and she broke into a run, and at last came in sight of the lodge gates. She felt in her sodden bag for the key--Yes, it was there.

    Quickly she passed up the avenue and had reached the end, when she stopped dead, her eyes wide open in fear. Ahead of her, not a dozen yards away, the lightning revealed the figure of a man in black, standing motionless and in her path. She could not see the face under the brim of the wide sombrero he wore.

    "Who are you?" she asked shakily.

    Before he could reply, there was a blinding burst of flame, a crash as though giant hands had torn a sheet of steel apart; something lifted her from her feet and flung her violently to the earth.

    The man in the path stood paralysed for a second, then, with a cry, he leapt forward, and, lifting the prostrate figure, dragged her from the burning tree. A light had appeared in one of the windows of Creith House, another followed. The household was awake, and the blazing chestnut would bring them into the open.

    He looked round and saw a clump of rhododendrons, and lifting the unconscious girl he carried her into the shadow of the cover just as the butler came out of the house to the porch.

    Who she was the stranger did not know. Possibly some belated servant returning from the village. He did not trouble to examine his burden, and might have been no wiser if he had, for Joan's face was smeared with the soft loam mud into which she had mercifully fallen.

    Evidently nobody intended coming out to fight the flames. He heard a voice from one of the windows demanding that the fire brigade be sent for.

    "'Phone, my dear man, 'phone! And don't bother me till the beastly fire is out."

    It was at that moment that Joan recovered consciousness. She opened her eyes and stared wildly round. Somebody was supporting her head on his knee. Her face was wet with falling rain; above her were the swaying branches of bushes. How did she get there?

    "I think you'll be O.K. now," said a voice, strangely muffled.

    She stared up at him, recognising instantly the voice of James Morlake.

    "What has happened?" she asked, and then she smelt the pungent perfume of burnt wood and shivered.

    The tree under which she had stood had been struck, and by some miracle she had escaped.

    "Thank you ever so much----" she began, and at that moment the lawn was made radiant with a sustained glare of lightning.

    She was looking into a face that was covered from brow to chin with a black silk mask!
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