“Why, yes. I met her at Victoria. She was going to Richmond to see her sister, she said.”
“I am jolly glad to hear it.”
“Because I have not seen her myself since yesterday morning. She went off mysteriously, late in the afternoon, leaving a message with the servants. Naturally I am glad to hear from you that she got into the train all right.”
“I put her in the carriage myself. Have you not heard from her?”
“No. I wired this morning, and expect an answer at any moment. But what is this about the South of France? We go to Leicestershire next week.”
“I can’t say, of course. Your wife seemed to be a little upset about something. She only mentioned her intention casually – in fact, when I asked if we would meet soon.”
The other laughed, a little oddly in the opinion of his astute observer, and dismissed the matter by the remark that the expected message from his wife would soon clear the slight mystery attending her movements during the past eighteen hours.
The two men set themselves to the congenial task of criticizing the horses trotting up and down the straw-covered track, and Sir Charles had purchased a nice half-bred animal for forty guineas when his groom again saluted him.
“Please, sir,” said the man, “here’s another telegram, and Thompson told me to ask if it was the right one.”
Sir Charles frowned at the interruption – a second horse of a suitable character was even then under the hammer – but he tore open the envelope. At once his agitation became so marked that Bruce cried:
“Good heavens, Dyke, what is it? No bad news, I hope?”
The other, by a strong effort, regained his self-control.
“No, no,” he stammered; “it is all right, all right. She has gone somewhere else. See. This is from her sister, Mrs. Talbot. Still, I wish Alice would consider my natural anxiety a little.”
“I opened your message. Alice not here. I have not seen her for over a week. What do you mean by wire? Am coming to town at once. – Edith.”
The baronet’s pale face and strained voice betrayed the significance of the thought underlying the simple question.
“What do you make of it, Claude?”
Bruce, too, was very grave. “The thing looks queer,” he said; “though the explanation may be trifling. Come, I will help you. Let us reach your house. It is the natural centre for inquiries.”
They hailed a hansom and whirled off to Portman Square. They did not say much. Each man felt that the affair might not end so happily and satisfactorily as he hoped.
Lady Dyke had disappeared.
Whether dead or alive, and if alive, whether detained by force or absent of her own unfettered volition, this handsome and well-known leader of Society had vanished utterly from the moment when Claude Bruce placed her in a first-class carriage of a Metropolitan Richmond train at Victoria Station.
At first her husband and relatives hoped against hope that some extraordinary tissue of events had contributed to the building up of a mystery which would prove to be no mystery.
Yet the days fled, and there was no trace of her whereabouts.
At the outset, the inquiry was confined to the circle of friends and relatives. Telegrams and letters in every possible direction suggested by this comparatively restricted field showed conclusively that not only had Lady Dyke not been seen, but no one had the slightest clue to the motives which might induce her to leave her home purposely.
So far as her distracted husband could ascertain, she did not owe a penny in the world. She was a rich woman in her own right, and her banking account was in perfect order.
She was a woman of the domestic temperament, always in close touch with her family, and those who knew her best scouted the notion of any petty intrigue which would move her, by fear or passion, to abandon all she held dear.
The stricken baronet confided the search only to his friend Bruce. He brokenly admitted that he had not sufficiently appreciated his wife while she was with him.
“She was of a superior order to me, Claude,” he said. “I am hardly a home bird. Her ideals were lofty and humanitarian. Too often I was out of sympathy with her, and laughed at her notions. But, believe me, we never had the shadow of a serious dispute. Perhaps I went my own way a little selfishly, but at the time, I thought that she, on her part, was somewhat straight-laced. I appreciate her merits when it is too late.”
“But you must not assume even yet that she is dead.” The barrister was certain that some day the mystery would be elucidated.
“She is. I feel that. I shall never see her on earth again.”
“Oh, nonsense, Dyke. Far more remarkable occurrences have been satisfactorily cleared up.”
“It is very good of you, old chap, to take this cheering view. Only, you see, I know my wife’s character so well. She would die a hundred times if it were possible rather than cause the misery to her people and myself which, if living, she knows must ensue from this terrible uncertainty as to her fate.”
“Scotland Yard is still sanguine.” This good-natured friend was evidently making a conversation.
“Oh, naturally. But something tells me that my wife is dead, whether by accident or design it is impossible to say. The police will cling to the belief that she is in hiding in order to conceal their own inability to find her.”
“A highly probable theory. Are your servants to be trusted?”
“Y – es. They have all been with us some years. Why do you ask?”
“Because I am anxious that nothing of this should get into the papers. I have caused paragraphs to be inserted in the fashionable intelligence columns that Lady Dyke has gone to visit some friends in the Midlands. For her own sake, if she be living, it is best to choke scandal at its source.”
“Well, Bruce, I leave everything to you. Make such arrangements as you think fit.”
The barrister’s mobile face softened with pity as he looked at his afflicted friend.
In four days Sir Charles Dyke had aged many years in appearance. No one who was acquainted with him in the past would have imagined that the loss of his wife could so affect him.
“I have done all that was possible, yet it is very little,” said Bruce, after a pause. “You are aware that I am supposed to be an adept at solving curious or criminal investigations of an unusual class. But in this case, partly, I suspect, because I myself am the last person who, to our common knowledge, saw Lady Dyke alive on Tuesday night, I am faced by a dead wall of impenetrable fact, through which my intellect cannot pierce. Yet I am sure that some day this wretched business will be intelligible. I will find her if living; I will find her murderer if she be dead.”
Not often did Claude Bruce allow his words to so betray his thoughts.
Both men were absorbed by the thrilling sensations of the moment, and they were positively startled when a servant suddenly announced:
“Inspector White, of Scotland Yard.”
A short, thick-set man entered. He was absolutely round in every part. His sturdy, rotund frame was supported on stout, well-moulded legs. His bullet head, with close-cropped hair, gave a suggestion of strength to his rounded face, and a pair of small bright eyes looked suspiciously on the world from beneath well-arched eyebrows.
Two personalities more dissimilar than those of Claude Bruce and Inspector White could hardly be brought together in the same room. People who are fond of tracing resemblances to animals in human beings would liken the one to a grey-hound, the other to a bull-dog.
Yet they were both masters in the art of detecting crime – the barrister subtle, analytic, introspective; the policeman direct, pertinacious, self-confident. Bruce lost all interest in a case when the hidden trail was laid bare. Mr. White regarded investigation as so many hours on duty until his man was transported or hanged.