SOON THEY were speeding in a south - westerly direction, and although Mrs Cody was not an entertaining hostess, the girl found plenty to think about, and certainly did not resent the silence of this over - dressed woman. In less than an hour the car swung through a pair of heavy iron gates, up a long avenue, and stopped before a medium - sized house.
Sybil had never met the stout and smiling man who came to meet her.
"Ah! So this is the daughter of my old friend!" he said, almost jovially. "Little Sybil! You don't remember me, of course?"
"I'm afraid I don't, Dr Cody," she said.
"You wouldn't, my dear, you wouldn't." His manner was paternal, but Mrs Cody, who knew her husband much better than most people, and who could detect his most subtle nuances of tone, shot one cold, baleful glare in his direction that was eloquent of her experience.
If Cody saw her, his manner certainly did not change. He took the girl's arm, much against her will, and led her into the handsome library, fussing over her like an old hen with a chick. She must have the best chair and a cushion for her back.
"Tea at once, my dear. You must be tired after your journey."
"I am," said Mrs Cody emphatically. "I'd like a word with you, C."
"Certainly, my dear. Are you quite comfortable, Miss Lansdown?"
"Quite," said the girl, finding it difficult not to smile as she saw Mrs Cody flounce out with a red face and slam the door behind her.
In the hall the chauffeur was lighting a cigarette. He glanced round at the woman as she came out.
"Who's she, aunty?" he asked.
Mrs Cody shrugged her ample shoulders.
"She's the girl the old man was telling you about," she said shortly. "You ask too many questions; he's been complainin' about you."
"I thought she was." He ignored the complaint. "Not a bad - looker. I'm surprised at you leaving them two alone!"
"Never mind what you're surprised at," she said tartly. "Go and put that car in the garridge, and come and see me when it's done."
"There's plenty of time," answered the dutiful nephew coolly. "What's the old man going to do?"
"How do I know?" she snapped.
But he was in no way abashed.
"Has she got the key?"
"Of course she hasn't got the key, you fool!" she stormed. "And don't stand there asking me silly questions. And don't poke your nose into my business. And what do you know about keys?"
Her nephew looked at her meditatively.
"You're a queer couple, you and him," he said. "But it's no business of mine. That girl's certainly a good - looker. I'm going through to the kitchen to have some tea. The old man's given cook and Mrs Hartley a holiday, and the maid's away sick. It's rum that they should all be away together!"
He was strolling to the front door. Then he spoke, and now he turned back.
"Got everybody out of the house." He frowned. "What's the great idea, aunt?"
"Not so much 'aunt'. I'm 'missus' to you, you gaol - bird! I've told you about that before." She was trembling with fury, and he knew her well enough to realize that this was not a moment to provoke her to further anger. For seven years (with a pleasant interregnum) he had preserved the polite fiction of being a pampered menial in the house of Mrs Cody. His wages were good; he knew a little of the private affairs of the widow whom Dr Cody had most unexpectedly married, and for the consideration he received in the shape of a good bed, an excellent allowance, plus the assistance he had in the garage, he was quite willing to be blind to many curious happenings that he had witnessed in that house.
He walked towards his aunt, his cigarette drooping from his big mouth.
"What time am I taking that girl back to town?" he asked.
"She's staying here; you needn't bother."
He looked down at the floor, up at the ceiling, everywhere except at the woman, and then: "Does she know she's staying here?"
"Mind your own business."
"This is my business for once," he said obstinately. "I don't know who she is or what she is; if there's any monkey game going on, I'm not in it. I'll have the car ready to take her back in an hour."
The woman did not answer him. She walked rapidly across the hall and passed up the stairs out of sight. He waited till she had disappeared from view on the landing, and then he went out to the kitchen to his own tea and to meditate upon the strangeness of life at Weald House and the queer fate which, twelve years before, had turned his aunt from a household drudge to a lady of fortune.
It was Mrs Cody who eventually brought in the tea, placed it on the table, and immediately retired. Sybil saw nothing strange in this, thinking that her host had something to say which he did not wish to tell her before his wife. Three times she had made an ineffectual attempt to bring the conversation round to her father and the secret which Mr Cody had to reveal, but on each occasion he skilfully led the talk in another direction. But now, after a pretence of taking refreshment, the girl brought the matter to a head by bluntly asking what he had to tell.
"Well, young lady," Mr Cody coughed, "it's a very long story, and I doubt if I can tell you everything in the time we have. Would it not be an excellent idea if I got on to the telephone to your dear mother and asked her to come down and spend an evening with us?" The girl looked at him in astonishment. "I'm afraid that plan would not work. Mother and I are going to a theatre tonight," she said.
Sybil was ordinarily a very truthful person, but even very truthful people may be permitted to invent excuses for avoiding disagreeable experiences.
"May I not telephone and ask her?" Knowing that her mother would not be back at the flat for another hour, she agreed. He went out of the room and was gone five minutes. When he returned, a broad smile suffused his face and he was rubbing his hands.
"Excellent, excellent!" he said. "Your dear mother has promised to come down this evening. I am sending the car for her. She says she can exchange the theatre tickets for another night."
Sybil listened, petrified with amazement, and into her annoyed amusement there crept a cold thread of fear. The man was lying. The theatre engagement had been invented on the spur of the moment, and her mother was not at the flat, she well knew. Danger! As if a red light had flashed before her eyes she saw it. There was some terrible peril threatening her, and she must temporize.
"I'm so glad," she said, with a calmness she did not feel. And then, in an easy conversational voice: "You have a very pretty house here, Mr Cody."
"Yes, it is a gem," he said complacently. "Would you like to see over it? It has a remarkable history. Originally a dower house, in the gift of a relative of yours - Lord Selford. I leased it many years ago - -"
"You know Mr Havelock, don't you?" she said in surprise. "Hum!" He fingered his chin. "No, I cannot say that I know Mr Havelock very well. I have done business with him; in fact, I once bought an Australian property from him. But in the present case the house was leased to me through a third person, and I very much doubt whether Mr Havelock is aware that I am the leaseholder. Do you know him well?"
"Slightly," she said. All the time her busy brain was working. What should she do? She wanted an excuse for seeing the grounds. A main road passed near the entrance lodge, and she knew there was a village close at hand. Once she was on the road, there would be sufficient excuses to take her into the village and the protection which such a community would offer her.
"You would like to see some of our rooms?"
"No, I don't think so. I would like to see your grounds; I thought I saw a bed of narcissi near the lodge," she said, and rose from her chair, her knees trembling.
"Hum!" said Mr Cody again. "Yes, it is a beautiful spot, but the ground is rather damp for you."
"I would like to go out," she insisted.
"Very good. If you will wait till I have had my second cup of tea." He busied himself with the tray and the teapot. "By the way, you haven't finished yours, and it is cold. Shall I pour you out another?"
"No, no, that will be sufficient, thank you."
What a fool she had been! To accompany a strange woman - a woman against whom every instinct warned her - to an unknown house. Nobody knew whither she had gone.
She took the cup from him, steeling her nerves to steady her hand, drank a little, and was grateful for the liquid, for her mouth had become dry and her throat parched with the consciousness of her position. It was not nice tea, she noticed, there was a salty, metallic taste to it, and with a little grimace she put down the cup.
"Thank you, that is enough," she said.
Perhaps it was the acute tension of the moment which left that queer after - taste in her mouth. She had noticed once before in her life how sensitive the palate becomes in a crisis of fear.
In one corner of the library was a small coat rack, and Mr Cody went leisurely to get his cap. When he looked round, Sybil was holding on to the edge of the table, her face white as death, her eyes glazed. She tried to speak, but could not form the words. And then, as he came to her, she collapsed in his arms.
He half carried, half dragged her to the sofa, and putting a cushion beneath her head, walked out of the library, locking the door behind him.