The Leading Lady

Copplestone looked up with interest as the door of the private parlour was thrown open, and a tall, handsome young woman burst in with a briskness of movement which betokened unusual energy and vivacity. He got an impression of the old estate agent’s daughter in one glance, and wondered how Chatfield came to have such a good-looking girl as his progeny. The impression was of dark, sparkling eyes, a mass of darker, highly-burnished hair, bright colour, a flashing vivacious smile, a fine figure, a general air of sprightliness and glowing health⁠—this was certainly the sort of personality that would recommend itself to a considerable mass of theatregoers, and Copplestone, as a budding dramatist, immediately began to cast Addie Chatfield for an appropriate part.

The newcomer stopped short on the threshold as she caught sight of a stranger, and she glanced with sharp inquisitiveness at Copplestone as he rose from his chair.

“Oh!⁠—I supposed you were alone, Mrs. Wooler,” she exclaimed. “You usually are, you know, so I came in anyhow⁠—sorry!”

“Come in,” said the landlady. “Don’t go, Mr. Copplestone. This is Miss Adela Chatfield. Your father has just been to see this gentleman, Addie⁠—perhaps he told you?”

Addie Chatfield dropped into a chair at Mrs. Wooler’s side, and looked the stranger over slowly and carefully.

“No,” she answered. “My father didn’t tell me⁠—he doesn’t tell me anything about his own affairs. All his talk is about mine⁠—the iniquity of them, and so on.”

She showed a fine set of even white teeth as she made this remark, and her eyes sought Copplestone’s again with a direct challenge. Copplestone looked calmly at her, half-smiling; he was beginning, in his youthful innocence, to think that he already understood this type of young woman. And seeing him smile, Addie also smiled.

“Now I wonder whatever my father wanted to see you about?” she said, with a strong accent on the personal pronoun. “For you don’t look his sort, and he certainly isn’t yours⁠—unless you’re deceptive.”

“Perhaps I am,” responded Copplestone, still keeping his eyes on her. “Your father wanted to see me about the strange disappearance of Mr. Bassett Oliver. That was all.”

The girl’s glance, bold and challenging, suddenly shifted before Copplestone’s steady look. She half turned to Mrs. Wooler, and her colour rose a little.

“I’ve heard of that,” she said, with an affectation of indifference. “And as I happen to know a bit of Bassett Oliver, I don’t see what all this fuss is about. I should say Bassett Oliver took it into his head to go off somewhere yesterday on a little game of his own, and that he’s turned up at Norcaster by this time, and is safe in his dressing room, or on the stage. That’s my notion.”

“I wish I could think it the correct one,” replied Copplestone. “But we can soon find out if it is⁠—there’s a telephone in the hall. Yet⁠—I’m so sure that you’re wrong, that I’m not even going to ring Norcaster up. Mr. Bassett Oliver has⁠—disappeared here!”

“Are you a member of his company?” asked Addie, again looking Copplestone over with speculative glances.

“Not at all! I’m a humble person whose play Mr. Oliver was about to produce next month, in consequence of which I came down to see him, and to find this state of affairs. And⁠—having nothing else to do⁠—I’m now here to help to find him⁠—alive or dead.”

“Oh!” said Addie. “So⁠—you’re a writer?”

“I understand that you are an actress?” responded Copplestone. “I wonder if I’ve ever seen you anywhere?”

Addie bowed her head and gave him a sharp glance.

“Evidently not!” she retorted. “Or you wouldn’t wonder! As if anybody could forget me, once they’d seen me! I believe you’re pulling my leg, though. Do you live in town?”

“I live,” replied Copplestone slowly and with affected solemnity, “in chambers in Jermyn Street.”

“And do you mean to tell me that you didn’t see me last year in The Clever Lady Hartletop?” she exclaimed.

Copplestone put the tips of his fingers together and his head on one side and regarded her critically.

“What part did you play?” he asked innocently.

“Part? Why, the part, of course!” she retorted. “Goodness! Why, I created it! And played it to crowded houses for nearly two hundred nights, too!”

“Ah!” said Copplestone. “But I’ll make a confession to you. I rarely visit the theatre. I never saw Lady Hartletop. I haven’t been in a theatre of any sort for two years. So you must forgive me. I congratulate you on your success.”

Addie received this tribute with a mollified smile, which changed to a glance of surprised curiosity.

“You never go to the theatre?⁠—and yet you write plays!” she exclaimed. “That’s queer, isn’t it? But I believe writing people are queer⁠—they look it, anyhow. All the same, you don’t look like a writer⁠—what does he look like, Mrs. Wooler? Oh, I know⁠—a sort of nice little officer boy, just washed and tidied up!”

The landlady, who had evidently enjoyed this passage at arms, laughed as she gave Copplestone a significant glance.

“And when did you come down home, Addie?” she asked quietly. “I didn’t know you were here again.”

“Came down Saturday night,” said Addie. “I’m on my way to Edinburgh⁠—business there on Wednesday. So I broke the journey here⁠—just to pay my respects to my worshipful parent.”

“I think I heard you say that you knew Mr. Bassett Oliver?” asked Copplestone. “You’ve met him?”

“Met him in this country and in America,” replied Addie, calmly. “He was on tour over there when I was⁠—three years ago. We were in two or three towns together at the same time⁠—different houses, of course. I never saw much of him in London, though.”

“You didn’t see anything of him yesterday, here?” suggested Copplestone.

Addie stared and glanced at the landlady.

“Here?” she exclaimed. “Goodness, no! When I’m here of a Sunday, I lie in bed all day, or most of it. Otherwise, I’d have to walk with my parent to the family pew. No⁠—my Sundays are days of rest! You really think this disappearance is serious?”

“Oliver’s managers⁠—who know him best, of course⁠—think it most serious,” replied Copplestone. “They say that nothing but an accident of a really serious nature would have kept him from his engagements.”

“Then that settles it!” said Addie. “He’s fallen down the Devil’s Spout. Plain as plain can be, that! He’s made his way there, been a bit too daring, and slipped over the edge. And whoever falls in there never comes out again!⁠—isn’t that it, Mrs. Wooler?”

“That’s what they say,” answered the landlady.

“But I don’t remember any accident at the Devil’s Spout in my time.”

“Well, there’s been one now, anyway⁠—that’s flat,” remarked Addie. “Poor old Bassett⁠—I’m sorry for him! Well, I’m off. Good night, Mr. Copplestone⁠—and perhaps you’ll so far overcome your repugnance to the theatre as to come and see me in one some day?”

“Supposing I escort you homeward instead⁠—now?” suggested Copplestone. “That will at least show that I am ready to become your devoted⁠—”

“Admirer, I suppose,” said Addie. “I’m afraid he’s not quite as innocent as he looks, Mrs. Wooler. Well⁠—you can escort me as far as the gates of the park, then⁠—I daren’t take you further, because it’s so dark in there that you’d surely lose your way, and then there’d be a second disappearance and all sorts of complications.”

She went out of the inn, laughing and chattering, but once outside she suddenly became serious, and she involuntarily laid her hand on Copplestone’s arm as they turned down the hillside towards the quay.

“I say!” she said in a low voice. “I wasn’t going to ask questions in there, but⁠—what’s going to be done about this Oliver affair? Of course you’re stopping here to do something. What?”

Copplestone hesitated before answering this direct question. He had not seen anything which would lead him to suppose that Miss Adela Chatfield was a disingenuous and designing young woman, but she was certainly Peeping Peter’s daughter, and the old man, having failed to get anything out of Copplestone himself, might possibly have sent her to see what she could accomplish. He replied noncommittally.

“I’m not in a position to do anything,” he said. “I’m not a relative⁠—not even a personal friend. I daresay you know that Bassett Oliver was⁠—one’s already talking of him in the past tense!⁠—the brother of Rear Admiral Sir Cresswell Oliver, the famous seaman?”

“I knew he was a man of what they call family, but I didn’t know that,” she answered. “What of it?”

“Stafford’s wired to Sir Cresswell,” replied Copplestone. “He’ll be down here some time tomorrow, no doubt. And of course he’ll take everything into his own hands.”

“And he’ll do⁠—what?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Copplestone. “Set the police to work, I should think. They’ll want to find out where Bassett Oliver went, where he got to, when he turned up to the Keep, saying he’d go and call on the Squire, as he’d met some man of that name in America. By the by, you said you’d been in America. Did you meet anybody of the Squire’s name there?”

They were passing along the quay by that time, and in the light of one of its feeble gas lamps he turned and looked narrowly at his companion. He fancied that he saw her face change in expression at his question; if there was any change, however, it was so quick that it was gone in a second. She shook her head with emphatic decision.

“I?” she exclaimed. “Never! It’s a most uncommon name, that. I never heard of anybody called Greyle except at Scarhaven.”

“The present Mr. Greyle came from America,” said Copplestone.

“I know, of course,” she answered. “But I never met any Greyles out there. Bassett Oliver may have done, though. I know he toured in a lot of American towns⁠—I only went to three⁠—New York, Chicago, St. Louis. I suppose,” she continued, turning to Copplestone with a suggestion of confidence in her manner, “I suppose you consider it a very damning thing that Bassett Oliver should disappear, after saying what he did to Ewbank.”

It was very evident to Copplestone that whether Miss Chatfield had spoken the truth or not when she said that her father had not told her of his visit to the Admiral’s Arms, she was thoroughly conversant with all the facts relating to the Oliver mystery, and he was still doubtful as to whether she was not seeking information.

“Does it matter at all what I think,” he answered evasively. “I’ve no part in this affair⁠—I’m a mere spectator. I don’t know how what you refer to might be considered by people who are accustomed to size things up. They might say all that was a mere coincidence.”

“But what do you think?” she said with feminine persistence. “Come, now, between ourselves?”

Copplestone laughed. They had come to the edge of the wooded park in which the estate agent’s house stood, and at a gate which led into it, he paused.

“Between ourselves, then, I don’t think at all⁠—yet,” he answered. “I haven’t sized anything up. All I should say at present is that if⁠—or as, for I’m sure the fisherman repeated accurately what he heard⁠—as Oliver said he met somebody called Marston Greyle in America, why⁠—I conclude he did. That’s all. Now, won’t you please let me see you through these dark woods?”

But Addie said her farewell, and left him somewhat abruptly, and he watched her until she had passed out of the circle of light from the lamp which swung over the gate. She passed on into the shadows⁠—and Copplestone, who had already memorized the chief geographical points of his new surroundings, noticed what she probably thought no stranger would notice⁠—that instead of going towards her father’s house, she turned up the drive to the Squire’s.