Chapter IV.
 

"Mr. Voss," said the waiter as he opened the door of the breakfast-room.

Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell left the table hurriedly and went to the parlor. Their visitor was standing in the middle of the floor as they entered.

"Oh, Mr. Voss, have you heard anything of Archie?" exclaimed Mrs. Birtwell.

"Nothing yet," he replied.

"Dreadful, dreadful! What can it mean?"

"Don't be alarmed about it," said Mr. Birtwell, trying to speak in an assuring voice. "He must have gone home with a friend. It will be all right, I am confident."

"I trust so," replied Mr. Voss. "But I cannot help feeling very anxious. He has never been away all night before. Something is wrong. Do you know precisely at what time he left here?"

"I do not," replied Mr. Birtwell. "We had a large company, and I did not note particularly the coming or going of any one."

"Doctor Angier thinks it was soon after twelve o'clock. He saw him come out of the dressing-room and go down stairs about that time."

"How is Frances?" asked Mrs. Birtwell. "It must be a dreadful shock to her in her weak state."

"Yes, it is dreadful, and I feel very anxious about her. If anything has happened to Archie, it will kill her."

Tears fell over Mrs. Birtwell's face and she wrung her hands in distress.

"She is calmer than she was," said Mr. Voss. "The first alarm and suspense broke her right down, and she was insensible for some hours. But she is bearing it better now--much better than I had hoped for."

"I will go to see her at once. Oh, if I knew how to comfort her!"

To this Mr. Voss made no response, but Mrs. Birtwell, who was looking into his, face, saw an expression that she did not understand.

"She will see me, of course?"

"I do not know. Perhaps you'd better not go round yet. It might disturb her too much, and the doctor says she must be kept as quiet as possible."

Something in the manner of Mr. Voss sent a chill to the heart of Mrs. Birtwell. She felt an evasion in his reply. Then a suspicion of the truth flashed upon her mind, overwhelming her with a flood of bitterness in which shame, self-reproach, sorrow and distress were mingled. It was from her hand, so to speak, that the son of her friend had taken the wine which had bewildered his senses, and from her house that he had gone forth with unsteady step and confused brain to face a storm the heaviest and wildest that had been known for years. If he were dead, would not the stain of his blood be on her garments?

No marvel that Mr. Voss had said, "Not yet; it might disturb her too much." Disturb the friend with whose heart her own had beaten in closest sympathy and tenderest love for years--the friend who had flown to her in the deepest sorrow she had ever known and held her to her heart until she was comforted by the sweet influences of love. Oh, this was hard to bear! She bowed her head and stood silent.

"I wish," said Mr. Voss, speaking to Mr. Birtwell, "to get the names of a few of the guests who were here last night. Some of them may have seen Archie go out, or may have gone away at the time he did. I must find some clue to the mystery of his absence."

Mr. Birtwell named over many of his guests, and Mr. Voss made a note of their addresses. The chill went deeper down into the heart of Mrs. Birtwell; and when Mr. Voss, who seemed to grow colder and more constrained every moment, without looking at her, turned to go away, the pang that cut her bosom was sharp and terrible.

"If I can do anything, Mr. Voss, command--" Mr. Birtwell had gone to the door with his visitor, who passed out hastily, not waiting to hear the conclusion of his sentence.

"A little strange in his manner, I should say," remarked Mr. Birtwell as he came back. "One. might infer that he thought us to blame for his son's absence."

"I can't bear this suspense. I must see Frances." It was an hour after Mr. Voss had been there. Mrs. Birtwell rang a bell, and ordering the carriage, made herself ready to go out.

"Mrs. Voss says you must excuse her," said the servant who had taken up Mrs. Birtwell's card. "She is not seeing any but the family," added the man, who saw in the visitor's face the pain of a great disappointment.

Slowly retiring, her head bent forward and her body stooping a little like one pressed down by a burden, Mrs. Birtwell left the house of her oldest and dearest friend with an aching sense of rejection at her heart. In the darkest and saddest hour of her life that friend had turned from the friend who had been to her more than a sister, refusing the sympathy and tears she had come to offer. There was a bitter cup at the lips of both; which was the bitterest it would be hard to tell.

"Not now," Mrs. Voss had said, speaking to her husband; "I cannot meet her now."

"Perhaps you had better see her," returned the latter.

"No, no, no!" Mrs. Voss put up her hands and shivered as she spoke. "I cannot, I cannot! Oh, my boy! my son! my poor Archie! Where are you? Why do you not come home? Hark!"

The bell had rung loudly. They listened, and heard men's voices in the hall below. With face flushing and paling in quick alternations, Mrs. Voss started up in bed and leaned forward, hearkening eagerly. Mr. Voss opened the chamber door and went out. Two policemen had come to report that so far all efforts to find a trace of the young man had been utterly fruitless. Mrs. Voss heard in silence. Slowly the dark lashes fell upon her cheeks, that were white as marble. Her lips were rigid and closely shut, her hands clenched tightly. So she struggled with the fear and agony that were assaulting her life.