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    Chapter 8

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    Chapter 8
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    The Robber

    "It is true--true!" she grasped, and he heard the pain in her voice and peered down.

    "What is true?--please don't shout or they will hear you."

    Trembling helplessly, she tried to regain control of her voice.

    "You are a burglar!" she said, and heard his smothered exclamation.

    "You mean ... the mask? I'm afraid you saw it. One mask doesn't make a burglar, you know, any more than one swallow makes a summer! On a wet night like this a man who wishes to keep that school-girl complexion would naturally protect----"

    "Please don't be absurd!"

    She realised, so keen was her sense of humour, that the dignity of her tone did not exactly accord with her own deplorable situation. She was lying uncomfortably on wet grass, her face.... She hoped he could not see her face, and furtively wiped some of the mud away with the slimy corner of her raincoat, which, for some extraordinary reason, she had carried over her arm through the storm.

    "Will you help me up, please?"

    For answer he stooped and lifted her to her feet without any apparent effort.

    "Are you staying at the Hall?" he asked, and there was something so formal and so suggestive of polite small talk about the question that her lips trembled.

    "Yes--I am. Are you ... were you thinking of burgling the Hall?"

    She felt rather than heard him laugh.

    "You won't believe that I am not a burglar----"

    "Are you?"

    There was a challenge in the voice.

    "Really," said James Morlake after a while, "this situation is verging on the grotesque...."

    "Are you?" she asked again, and as she expected, so he replied.

    "I am."

    She would have been bitterly disappointed if he had said anything else. A burglar he might be, a liar he could not be.

    "Well, we've nothing to burgle, Mr.----" She stopped suddenly. Did he know that she had recognised him?

    "Mr.----?" he suggested. "You said just now 'It is true'--meaning it was true that I am a burglar. Were you expecting a visitation to-night?"

    "Yes," she said, having none of his scruples. "Mr. Hamon said that we might be robbed."

    It was the lamest of inventions, but the effect upon the man was unexpected.

    "Oh! You're a visitor at the Hall. I beg your pardon, I thought you were ... er ... well, I didn't exactly know what you were--would you mind looking straight at the house?"

    "Why?"

    "Please----"

    She obeyed naturally and turned her back on him. Somebody was coming out to the smouldering tree. A storm lantern was swaying and the gait of the newcomer suggested a reluctance to investigate at close hand the phenomena of nature.

    "It is Peters," she said, and looked round.

    She was alone; the masked man was gone.

    It was easy to avoid Peters, but as she reached the corridor leading to her room, she suddenly confronted her father.

    "Good God! Joan ... where on earth have you been ... you gave me a fright."

    "I went out to see the tree," she said (she had never lied so easily in her life).

    "What the deuce do you want to go out into the beastly rain to see trees for?" grumbled Lord Creith. "Let Peters see it! Your face is all muddy...."

    She bolted into her room as the door of Hamon's chamber opened and his pyjamaed figure showed.

    "Something struck?" asked Hamon.

    Lord Creith turned his head.

    "One of your trees, my dear fellow," he said with satisfaction. "By Jove! I only just realised that it wasn't my tree!"

    And, consoled by the knowledge that there really was nothing to justify any personal worry, his lordship went back to bed, undisturbed by the cannon of the heavens or the lightning which lit up his room at irregular intervals.

    Joan's was the only room in Creith Hall that possessed the luxury of an adjoining bathroom, and she was sufficiently feminine, as she stripped off her wet clothes, to be absorbed for the moment in the thoroughness of her soaking to the partial exclusion of all thoughts of her adventure.

    She came back to the problem of Mr. Morlake as she sat in bed nursing her knees and watching through the open window the passage of the storm. The chestnut tree was smoking and the lightning gave her a glimpse of two brass-helmetted men gazing impotently at the ruin. The village fire brigade was, in point of costume, an exact replica of its great metropolitan model. It was only on the minor point of efficiency that it fell short.

    Had Morlake recognised her? It was very doubtful. She had never met him, and she guessed that he was so incurious as to the identities of the people of Creith House that he was genuine when he mistook her for a visitor. Who did he think she was? A servant, perhaps.

    "Now I think you are thoroughly and completely disillusioned, Joan Carston," she said soberly. "Your wonder-man is a burglar! And you can only be interested in burglars if your mind is morbid and unwholesome and your outlook is hopelessly decadent. Let this be a lesson to you, young woman! Concentrate upon the normalities of life."

    So saying, she got out of bed, and, craning her neck, looked across the park toward Wold House. The tiny light was burning. Mr. Morlake had returned home.

    Sighing thankfully, she returned to bed, and she was sleeping soundly when James Morlake stepped from the concealment of the rhododendrons and, crossing the lawn, slipped the edge of a small jemmy under the bottom of a window that looked into the dark entrance hall.
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