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CHAPTER XII FLIGHT
The Abbé Villari slept at Benny's chalet that night, fearful of the storm, and not a little concerned at the absence of its master. This anxiety he shared with Jack, who suggested a hundred reasons which might have taken Benny to Sierre, but none which could have kept him there—unless it were the storm, which in the case of such a man seemed altogether insufficient.

"He'll have gone down to see if the stuff has come," Jack declared with conviction; "they say at the stables that he engaged a sleigh shortly after ten o'clock. I know he's ordered a lot of things, and he was particularly anxious to have the new steel arms for the frame. If the snow's very bad down there, the fellow who drives the sleigh may have refused to come up, and then Benny would be on his own. That wouldn't matter much to him, though, for he's as tough as old leather, and would just as soon walk up as ride. I can't think why he hasn't done it, Abbé."

The abbé agreed, although he had a poor opinion of some of the coachmen at Andana.

"The fellows like to spend a night in the town," he said, with a suggestion of ascetic regret. "It is difficult for a stranger to think of Sierre in such a light, but, after all, these things are a question of opportunity. A showman with a bear is a great person in a village where they have never seen bears, and so a man with a fiddle is an orchestra for people who have no music. I should imagine that André has refused to come back, and that your brother will remain at the Terminus Hotel. If so, he will be very comfortable, for the wines are excellent, and nobody would quarrel with the cooking. I think we had better say that he has done so, and go on with our work. There is nothing so unprofitable as speculation when time alone can tell us the truth."

Jack admitted the good sense of it, but he did little work, and after they had supped he went some way down to the road toward the village of Andana in the hope that he might discover Benny and the sleigh. It was a vain quest, however, and he returned to tell the abbé that the wind had nearly blown him off his legs, and that if Benny had refused to return from Sierre, he was no fool for his choice. Thereafter they ceased to speak about it, but neither suggested bed; and although they slept a little after twelve o'clock, the dawn found them wide awake and alert for tidings of the wanderer.

Benny was at Sierre—their guess was perfectly correct. Where they were at fault was in the matter of motive, which they failed entirely to comprehend. Which mystery is the better understood by harking back to the bridle track below Vermala, at an hour when a certain foreigner spoke of a strange affair upon the hillside, and those two masters of idiomatic but obsolete French, Bob Otway and Dick Fenton, responded incoherently to his vain appeals.

Benny, it will be remembered, had heard the Frenchman's story, and immediately understood its meaning. His knowledge of Luton Delayne convinced him that such an act of folly was to be expected from a man famous in two counties for the violence of his temper. He perceived that some scandalous affair had set the police upon the baronet's track, that one of them had been set to watch him and had been detected in the act. There had been an exchange of angry words, of abuse upon the one hand and of insolence upon the other—and then the blow. Just as Luton Delayne had invited the contempt of his neighbours at Holmswell by descending to a vulgar arena in which a butcher figured not ingloriously, so here in Switzerland had his temper got the better of him and this blow been struck. What the consequences might be, Benny did not care to ask himself; but he realised that they might be momentous, and remembering that the man was Lily's husband, he went up to Vermala at once and began to search the hillside. Was it possible that the affair had been nothing but an idle fracas after all? Had the gendarme gone off to report the matter to his superiors, as one calling for a prosecution which would amuse the community? It might be that, he said, and disbelieving it utterly, he turned to the heights.

The snow was firm and hard upon the narrow track, and revealed little even to his keen eyes. He perceived that luges had gone up to the hotel, and he could almost say how many. The track itself disclosed but gentle slopes, and none which could be called a precipice even by an imaginative person. The woods harboured deep drifts of snow, and were scarred here and there by the trails of skis; but at one spot alone was there any possible scene for such a drama as the Frenchman had described. This lay immediately below the hotel; a plateau upon which two men could stand side by side, with a sheer wall of rock falling fifty or sixty feet away from it and an arbour of the pines, which the sun could hardly penetrate, at its foot.

Benny climbed to the plateau, and kneeling there he peered down to the depths. A great drift of snow had culminated about the trunks of three trees which appeared to grow straight out of the hillside. On the plateau itself there were footprints which clearly indicated that two people had faced each other, and that a scuffle had taken place. But, and this was the more remarkable thing, save for a curious wraith of snow some twenty feet down the abyss, there was no scar upon the unbroken sheet of white which stretched from the plateau to the trees; not a mark which would have invited the suspicions of the most watchful. Many men, satisfied with the scrutiny, would have gone on at once, convinced that the glen could tell them nothing; but Benny was not that kind of man, and when he had reflected upon it a little while, and had made sure that his acts would not be observed, an idea came to him, and he put it into practice immediately. It was nothing less than this: to descend the precipice by the help of the trees, and to discover for himself the secret of the snow wraith, if secret there were.

The feat was not a little difficult, perhaps really dangerous. But here was a man who had ploughed the "roaring forties" in an old Scotch brig, and had the foot of a goat upon a height. Swinging himself out upon a branch, to which he leaped, Benny climbed over to other branches; then he slid down the trunk of a pine as a sailor down a pole. He was five minutes in the hollow below the plateau, and a quarter of an hour making his way back through the heavy drifts to the path he had quitted. Then he went straight on to the hotel at Vermala—a silent man, with set face and eyes which saw nothing but the track before him.

To the porter who told him that the Englishman, Mr. Faikes, was engaged in his private room Benny merely replied: "Go back, and say he'll have to see me." Thereafter, he waited, standing immobile in the hall, and quite unconscious of the guests who studied him with critical eyes. Some of these knew him for the winner of the Grand Prix down at Andana, and wondered that such a man should interest himself in Alpine sports; but others made a jest upon his earnestness, and said, behind their papers, that he looked like the impersonification of tragedy.

Luton Delayne had a sitting-room looking over toward the Weisshorn, and here Benny discovered him a few moments later. A whisky-and-soda stood at his side, and the ends of innumerable cigarettes lay in a tawdry Swiss ash-tray. Evidently he had but recently returned from the open, for he still wore heavy boots and puttees, and these were wet with the snow. His manner was characteristically aggressive, and his question, "Well, what the devil do you want with me?" quite in the expected tone.

Benny shut the door of the room carefully behind him, and then crossed it on tip-toe, an unnecessary proceeding, but one in keeping with his own desire for secrecy. His hands were thrust deep in his trousers pockets, and he had quite forgotten to take off the old Alpine hat without which his best friends at Andana would not have recognised him. Delayne could not but see that this man had a right to come to him as he did, and his face blanched suddenly.

"You know why I have come here, Sir Luton—none but a d——d fool would ask that question. I've come to save your neck!"

Delayne puffed hard at his cigarette, and then laid the end of it down with the others.

"Oh," he exclaimed in the grand manner; "so you know about the row, then?"

Benny went to the window and looked out. The plateau lay a hundred yards from the hotel, but was hidden by a belt of trees. He wondered if others had already made their way there—searching for what he had found. The minutes were precious if he would save this madman for a woman's sake.

"Yes," he said, swinging round on his heel, "I know about the row. Half the place is talking about it. I suppose you'll be joining in yourself just now—when the police come along. That should be before morning with any luck—it won't be much later anyway."

The baronet rose and walked across to the window. Benny could see that his hands were twitching, while his eyes almost danced in his head.

"The man followed me," he said inconsequently. "It was the most damnably impertinent thing I ever saw in all my life. When I asked him what he wanted, he wouldn't say a word. I warned him to keep off, and he was on my heels again in five minutes. Would you stand that yourself? You're a man, and can judge between us? Would you stand it?"

Benny shrugged his shoulders.

"What we have to stand depends on our footing. The man who grubs in dirty soil mustn't complain that his hands are black. You came to blows, I suppose, and he went over. Is that what you would say?"

"I struck him on the face, and he tried to draw a revolver on me—we were on the plateau, and he went over. If he's hurt, I'll pay compensation. What more do you want?"

Benny looked at him curiously. Was he lying outright, or merely reciting a defence he had rehearsed in the interval? It was difficult to say. The truth must be told without delay, for the truth alone could move him.

"You say the man went over. Did you see him after he fell?"

"See him! What do you mean?"

"I ask if you saw him after he fell—he might have been injured, you know?"

Delayne returned to the table, and took a deep draught from the tumbler there.

"You know something," he said, averting his eyes. "Well, I'm not a child; tell me."

Benny crossed over, and looked him full in the face.

"It's a pity you didn't stop," he said quietly—"the man's dead—!"

Delayne began to tremble, a little at first and then as one stricken by an ague. Reaction had come in an instant—the man's hands were as c............
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