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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Mikado Jewel » CHAPTER II WHAT HAPPENED
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CHAPTER II WHAT HAPPENED
For some moments Patricia stood still, with the box in her hand, and stared into the gloomy fog, behind which the man was retreating. Another man passed her swiftly, as if in pursuit of the first, but halted for one single moment to look at her. She was an indistinct figure in the misty air, but she could feel that his eyes were piercing her through and through. A few seconds later and he disappeared also, but whither he went she could not tell. The whole oddity of the episode startled her, although much that had taken place had been anticipated and described by Mrs. Pentreddle.

As the name flashed across Miss Carrol's brain, she remembered that she had yet to complete her mission by taking back the box to the old lady. Almost mechanically, and with the lantern still burning, she began to retrace her steps in the direction of Bayswater. The fog was growing denser, but by her knowledge of the path and the feel of the hard gravel under her feet, she was enabled to avoid getting lost. A sudden sense of weariness, which no doubt came from the slackening of her nervous tension, overcame her, and she was glad to sink down on the first bench she came to. This was near a gas-lamp, and in the blurred circle of light she felt safe from the attentions of any night-bird. Then a strange thing happened.

It was a sensation and nothing more: one connected with the small box she held so tightly clasped in her hand. As she gripped it, she felt--with her sixth sense, no doubt--that waves of force were radiating from its interior. Patricia's body being Celtic, was strung with extraordinarily delicate nerves, and by these she was made aware of many influences which passed by less highly organized mortals. Nine human beings out of ten would not have felt the radiating influence of whatever was contained in the box, but she did. And as wave after wave extended outward, she felt as though some invisible force was driving back invisible evil. The nervous fears she had hitherto felt--and no wonder, considering the hour and the place and the mission--vanished entirely, and she smiled to think that anything could ever have frightened her. A warm light, felt rather than seen, seemed to envelop her, and within its charmed circle no evil could come. Had a robber attacked her, had an earthquake happened, had a storm of thunder and lightning devastated the air, she would not have felt the least fear. The regular waves of this strange force passed ever outward, repelling all harm, all fear; her body thrilled to the pulsations. It was as though some unseen being was draping her in his mantle of power.

Naturally she connected these weird manifestations with the box, and that with Mrs. Pentreddle. How came it, she asked herself, that so commonplace a woman should be connected with so extraordinary an object? And then she recollected that she had not set eyes on the object, whatever it might be; yet to do so she had only to look into the box. Opening the shutter of the lantern in which the glass was set, so that she could see by the natural light and not by the red glare, she examined the box. It was a common deal case, very small and very roughly made, with the lid held down by a thin wire. In fact, it was only one of those boxes furnished by shopkeepers to customers, so that delicate goods--china, glass, and such-like--might be carried away without danger of breakage; it was not even swathed in paper or bound with string. It seemed strange that if what the box contained were valuable or dangerous more precautions had not been taken in rendering its contents safe. Then, again, the man who had delivered it in so odd a way had been overcome with fear. Patricia guessed that when she remembered his laboured breathing, the backward glance he had thrown over his shoulder, and the hurried way in which he had made off, after thrusting the box into her hand. Finally, there was no doubt that the other man, who had halted for the moment, was in pursuit. Patricia looked up when she arrived at this point of her meditations, but could see no one, although she heard some footsteps dying away and others approaching on the hard gravel. And all the time she was considering things, the waves of power still continued to radiate. As they had banished her fears, they had also stimulated her limbs, and she no longer felt weary. This being the case, she half rose to return to The Home of Art, since there was no longer any reason for delay.

But, being a woman, she was curious, and desired to see what it was that produced these queer sensations. And, indeed, a less inquisitive person would have also acted as she now did, for it is the desire of all to learn the why and the wherefore of the unknown. Almost without thinking, and certainly without consideration, Patricia untwisted the wire and peered into the depths of the box. In the vivid light of the lamp a green radiance flashed upward and outward, and she uttered an exclamation of surprise and delight.

She would scarcely have been a woman had she not done so. At the bottom of the tiny box, and as if it had been hastily thrown in, was a jewel, the like of which she had never set eyes on. With a gasp of pleasure she took it in her hand, never casting a thought to the danger of that public examination, at that dark hour, in that lonely locality. She might easily have been robbed and rendered insensible by a blow, as she sat there spell-bound, gazing at the brilliant object which just covered the palm of her gloved hand. A more lovely thing she had never seen.

The luminous green poured from the heart of a large emerald, perfectly cut and polished. It formed the centre of a flower, the petals of which were cut out of some hard, dull green stone, with exquisite art. As the girl stared, entirely fascinated by the sight, she became aware that the whole lovely jewel represented a chrysanthemum blossom, of which the emerald was the central glory. From this radiated the regular petals of the blossom, layer upon layer in perfect circles, until the outward round extended in delicate points to all quarters of the compass like the corona of the sun. And as this wonderful object lay on her open hand, Patricia felt still more strongly the waves of invisible force which radiated therefrom. It was as if some glorious power was welling up from the depths of the emerald to stream off from every carved petal. It was no wonder that she stared half hypnotized by the marvel. Suddenly even a stranger thing happened.

In a single moment, as it seemed, the force appeared to falter and weaken; the light which she felt was around her died away, and the darkness of the night closed in with uncomfortable swiftness. The radiance vanished from the jewel, and with a rush all her fears came back, as though some magic no longer kept them at bay. She felt no sensation at all; in the carved chrysanthemum, she saw no glory, no charm; it was simply a beautiful ornament and nothing more. Just as she realized this with a murmur of dismay, someone suddenly leaped lightly forward and snatched the jewel from her hand. Before she could rise to her feet, the robber disappeared into the mist, running as delicately and swiftly as a startled cat. The terrified girl was left alone in the fog with the empty box.

For a single moment she remained stunned and motionless, and then, leaving lantern and umbrella and empty box behind, she started to run wildly after the thief, vaguely guessing the direction he had taken. In a few minutes she had completely lost herself amongst the trees, and then became aware with a shock of fear that she had left the path for the grassy spaces of the Park. There was no sign of the robber, peer as she might, here, there and everywhere into the surrounding gloom, and she sank down on the wet sward under a dripping tree, to weep with shame at the failure of her mission. She had betrayed her trust; she had lost the treasure. How could she face Mrs. Pentreddle without that which she had been sent to fetch? But for her curiosity in opening the box, the valuable jewel would not have been stolen. Some thief of the night must have seen her examining its beauty by lantern light, and forthwith had secured it for his own. Or it might be--and this was a second thought--the man who had followed the other, the man who had paused to look at her, piercing the darkness with cat-like vision, was the thief. In that case, there might be a chance of recovering the jewel, as Mrs. Pentreddle might know the name of the person who desired her property. But was it Mrs. Pentreddle's property, and if it was, why should it have been delivered in so mysterious a fashion? And why should the first man have been afraid of the second man who pursued him? Finally--presuming that the pursuer had snatched the ornament from her hand--why should he have done so? Patricia's head buzzed with these questions, and she sat on the watery grass, almost weeping at her inability to answer any one of them. The position was terrible: she had lost the jewel and the five pounds also, as Mrs. Pentreddle certainly would not pay her the money.

But this was not the time for weeping, nor was Patricia Carrol a very tearful person. The only thing to be done was to return to Mrs. Pentreddle and make a clean breast of the whole occurrence. The old lady might know how to deal with the matter, seeing that there was some strange tale connected with the deal box and its contents of which Patricia was unaware. Such knowledge would probably enable Mrs. Pentreddle to take steps for the recovery of her property. The police would be called in, and--but here the girl paused. Would the police be called in, considering the mystery of the whole affair? Patricia, on swift reflection, thought not; but she thought--here her patience gave way, and she rose hastily, unable to put up further with the torment of her vexed brain. The most obvious thing to be done was to see Mrs. Pentreddle at once and explain. There was no other course open to her. But the girl's nerves quivered at the thought of the very unpleasant quarter of an hour she would probably have.

However, it was no use being a coward, and she stumbled as quickly as she could towards the broad path, anxious to reach the bench upon which she had left her umbrella, the lantern and the empty box. But the night was so gloomy and the fog so dense, that she became confused amidst the multiplicity of trees. With some violence she ran against one and falling half stunned to the ground, lay there quite unable to rise. Patricia was a clever and self-reliant girl, accustomed to act immediately and firmly in all emergencies. But this adventure had robbed her of calmness and of all will-power. She felt as though the end of the world had come, and in the cold, damp, lonely darkness she could have cried for help and comfort like a frightened child. But she retained sufficient self-command not to do so, and even exerted her will sufficiently to again stagger to her feet, and strive to find her bearings. With outstretched hands she wandered, trying to gain a glimpse of some light, but all in vain.

Then began a nightmare journey through the gloomy woods. Here was a girl in the heart of London, as wholly lost as a babe in some primeval forest. She stumbled here and groped there in an aimless fashion, until her senses became so confused that she did not know what to do. Several times she dropped, several times she rose, and for hours, as it seemed, she moved onward towards an ever-receding goal. Doubtless she was moving in a circle after the fashion of the lost, and in her vague wanderings she lost all count of time. In her heart she began to wish that the dawn would come to reveal her whereabouts, as in this darkness she certainly would never succeed in escaping from the enchantments of this urban wood. And so Patricia dragged on and the night dragged on, and the effort to get back to light and humanity became a journey in eternity towards--as it seemed to her now bewildered senses--a goal which had no actual existence.

How long she wandered she did not know, having lost count of time, but finally her instinct moved her in the right direction, and she gained the broad path. But it was not the one she had strayed from, as she speedily ascertained when she chanced upon a policeman.

"The path to Bayswater, miss," he said, turning the bull's-eye light on her face and wondering at her haggard looks and bedraggled dress. "Why, you're right on the other side of the Park, miss, near the statoo."

Patricia knew that this was so, for above her in the foggy air rose the lofty pedestal of the Achilles statue. She must have wandered deviously across the vast space of the Park, and said so. The policeman readily accepted her explanation and added one of his own:

"I dessay you've got lost in the fog, miss, and no wonder, for it's as thick as pea-soup hereabouts. Not the night for a young lady to be out, miss," he ended inquisitively, and with a note of interrogation in his voice.

"I came out on an errand," said Miss Carrol faintly, for the adventure had left her weak, "and wandered off the Bayswater path near the Serpentine."

"And it's a mercy, miss, that you didn't fall in. What will you do now, miss?"

Patricia walked with him towards the gate, near the clock. "Call me a cab," she said, for although she could ill afford it, she decided to drive, as it was quite impossible to walk. The fog forbade pedestrianism, let alone that she was much too weary to trudge all the way to Crook Street.

"What; a cab, miss? Certainly, miss, although it will be hard to find one in this fog," and the constable whistled shrilly.

"What is the time, please?" Patricia asked the same question as she had put to the other policeman.

"Half-past eleven, miss."

The girl uttered a cry of astonishment, and well she might. Having left The Home of Art at half-past eight, she must have been wandering about for at least three hours. It seemed centuries, and she hastily made for the cab which drove slowly up, looking like a spectre in the fog. What would Mrs. Pentreddle think of her being absent for so long? But this question was nothing beside the one which the old lady was bound to ask with respect to the lost emerald. "Tell the man to drive to No. III, Crook Street, Bayswater," said Patricia feverishly, and bestowed herself in the hansom; "and here!"--she handed the kindly policeman one of her precious coins, which he accepted with a salute, and gave the necessary direction to the driver. In a few minutes Patricia was on her homeward way, thankful that her strange adventure had not cost her her life, as it might have done.

But her thoughts were extremely unpleasant. She had lost her umbrella, which she could ill afford to do; also the lantern of Mrs. Pentreddle, and, worst of all, the extraordinary jewel she had been sent to fetch. How could she explain? The only answer she could find was the very obvious one, that it would be best to tell the truth. Then she began to think what words she would use, until her head became confused and she dropped into an uneasy sleep. Meanwhile the cab crawled slowly and cautiously through the fog, towards The Home of Art. Patricia was made aware that she had arrived at her destination by the sudden jerk of the vehicle, as it came to a standstill. Then, still sleep-bemused, she alighted in a stumbling manner to find herself in the arms of Mrs. Sellars.

"Oh, my dear! where have you been? It's terrible; it's terrible!" and the good lady wrung her fat hands. "Oh, what is to be done?"

"What is terrible?" asked Patricia stupidly, for her head ached.

"Mrs. Pentreddle, my own sister; poor dear Martha is dead!"

"Dead!" Patricia felt her weary legs give way with sheer terror.

"Dead!" repeated Mrs. Sellars, weeping. "Murdered! Oh, dear! oh, dear!"

"Dead! Murdered!" Patricia echoed the words faintly, then fell unconscious at the feet of the weeping, distracted old actress.

"Why did you go out? Where have you been? Martha is dead--murdered!" she babbled incoherently.


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