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The Chink in the Armour Part 53

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But even as he spoke he knew well enough that some of the pearls--perhaps five or six--had found their way up his wife's capacious sleeve.

And then, quite suddenly, Madame Wachner uttered a hoa.r.s.e exclamation of terror. One of the gendarmes had climbed up on to the window-sill, and was now half into the room. She waddled quickly across to the door, only to find another gendarme in the hall.

Sylvia's eyes glistened, and a sensation which had hitherto been quite unknown to her took possession of her, soul and body. She longed for revenge--revenge, not for herself so much as for her murdered friend. She clutched Paul by the arm. "They killed Anna Wolsky," she whispered. "She is lying buried in the wood, where they meant to put me if you had not come just--only just--in time!"

Paul de Virieu took Sylvia's hat off the dining-room table, and placed it in her hand, closing her fingers over the brim. With a mechanical gesture she raised her arms and put it on her head. Then he ceremoniously offered her his arm, and led her out of the dining-room into the hall.

While actually within the Chalet des Muguets Count Paul only once broke silence. That was when Madame Wachner, still talking volubly, held out her hand in farewell to the young Englishwoman.

"I forbid you to touch her!" the Count muttered between his teeth, and Sylvia, withdrawing her half-outstretched hand, meekly obeyed him.

Paul de Virieu beckoned to the oldest of the police officials present.

"You will remember the disappearance from Lacville of a Polish lady? I have reason to believe these people murdered her. When once I have placed Madame Bailey under medical care, I will return here. Meanwhile you, of course, know what to do."

"But M'sieur, ought I not to detain this English lady?"

"Certainly not. I make myself responsible for her. She is in no state to bear an interrogation. Lock up these people in separate rooms. I will send you reinforcements, and to-morrow morning _dig up the little wood behind the house_."

Behind them came the gruff and the shrill tones of L'Ami Fritz and his wife raised in indignant expostulation.

"Are you coming, Sylvia?" called out Chester impatiently.

He had gone on into the garden, unwilling to a.s.sume any responsibility as to the police. After all, there was no _evidence_, not what English law would recognise as evidence, against these people.

Out in the darkness, with the two men, one on either side of her, Sylvia walked slowly to the gate. Between them they got her over it and into the victoria.

Paul de Virieu pulled out the little back seat, but Chester, taking quick possession of it, motioned him to sit by Mrs. Bailey.

"To Paris, Hotel du Louvre," the Count called out to the driver. "You can take as long as you like over the journey!"

Then he bent forward to Chester, "The air will do her good," he murmured.

By his side, huddled up in a corner of the carriage, Sylvia lay back inertly; but her eyes were wide open, and she was staring hungrily at the sky, at the stars. She had never thought to see the sky and the stars again.

They were now moving very slowly, almost at a foot's pace.

The driver was accustomed to people who suddenly decided to drive all the way back to Paris from Lacville after an evening's successful or, for the matter of that, unsuccessful play. He had been very much relieved to see his two gentlemen come back from the chalet and to leave the gendarmes behind. He had no wish to get mixed up in a _fracas_, no wish, that is, to have any embarra.s.sments with the police.

They drove on and on, into the open country; through dimly-lit, leafy thoroughfares, through long stretches of market gardens, till they came on to the outskirts of the great city--and still Sylvia remained obstinately silent.

Paul de Virieu leant forward.

"Speak to her," he said in an urgent whisper. "Take her hand and try to rouse her, Mr. Chester. I feel very anxious about her condition."

Chester in the darkness felt himself flus.h.i.+ng. With a diffident, awkward gesture he took Sylvia's hand in his--and then he uttered an exclamation of surprise and concern.

The hand he held was quite cold--cold and nerveless to the touch, as if all that const.i.tutes life had gone out of it. "My dear girl!" he exclaimed. "I'm afraid those people frightened you badly? I suppose you began to suspect they meant to steal your pearls?"

But Sylvia still remained obstinately silent. She did not want to speak, she only wanted to live.

It was so strange to feel oneself alive--alive and whole at a time when one had thought to be dead, having been done to death after an awful, disfiguring struggle--for Sylvia had determined to struggle to the end with her murderers.

"My G.o.d!" muttered Paul de Virieu. "Do you not understand, Chester, what happened to-night? They meant to kill her!"

"To kill her?" repeated Chester incredulously.

Then there came over him a rush and glow of angry excitement. Good G.o.d!

If that was the case they ought to have driven back at once to the Lacville police-station!

"Sylvia!" he exclaimed. "Rouse yourself, and tell us what took place! If what the Count says is true, something must be done, and at once!"

He turned to Paul de Virieu: "The police ought to take Mrs. Bailey's full statement of all that occurred without any loss of time!" All the lawyer in him spoke angrily, agitatedly.

Sylvia moved slightly. Paul de Virieu could feel her shuddering by his side.

"Oh, Bill, let me try to forget!" she moaned. And then, lifting up her voice, she wailed, "They killed Anna Wolsky--"

Her voice broke, and she began to sob convulsively. "I would not think of her--I forced myself not to think of her--but now I shall never, never think of anyone else any more!"

Paul de Virieu turned in the kindly darkness, and putting his arm round Sylvia's slender shoulders, he tenderly drew her to him.

A pa.s.sion of pity, of protective tenderness, filled his heart, and suddenly lifted him to a higher region than that in which he had hitherto been content to dwell.

"You must not say that, _ma cherie_," he whispered, laying his cheek to hers as tenderly as he would have caressed a child, "it would be too cruel to the living, to those who love you--who adore you."

Then he raised his head, and, in a very different tone, he exclaimed,

"Do not be afraid, Mr. Chester, those infamous people shall not be allowed to escape! Poor Madame Wolsky shall surely be avenged. But Mrs.

Bailey will not be asked to make any statement, except in writing--in what you in England call an affidavit. You do not realise, although you doubtless know, what our legal procedure is like. Not even in order to secure the guillotine for Madame Wachner and her Fritz would I expose Mrs. Bailey to the ordeal of our French witness-box."

"And how will it be possible to avoid it?" asked Chester, in a low voice.

Paul de Virieu hesitated, then, leaning forward and holding Sylvia still more closely and protectively to him, he said very deliberately the fateful words he had never thought to say,

"I have an announcement to make to you, Mr. Chester. It is one which I trust will bring me your true congratulations. Mrs. Bailey is about to do me the honour of becoming my wife."

He waited a moment, then added very gravely, "I am giving her an undertaking, a solemn promise by all I hold most sacred, to abandon play--"

Chester felt a shock of amazement. How utterly mistaken, how blind he had been! He had felt positively certain that Sylvia had refused Paul de Virieu; and he had been angered by the suspicion, nay, by what he had thought the sure knowledge, that the wise refusal had cost her pain.

But women are extraordinary creatures, and so, for the matter of that, are Frenchmen--

Still, his feelings to the man sitting opposite to him had undergone a complete change. He now liked--nay, he now respected--Paul de Virieu. But for the Count, whom he had thought to be nothing more than an effeminate dandy, a hopeless gambler, where would Sylvia be now? The unspoken answer to this question gave Chester a horrible inward tremor.

He leant forward, and grasped Paul de Virieu's left hand.

"I do congratulate you," he said, simply and heartily; "you deserve your great good fortune." Then, to Sylvia, he added quietly, "My dear, it is to him you owe your life."

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