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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Owl Taxi » CHAPTER XXII NEMESIS
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On the afternoon of the day following these events Amy and Greg alighted from the flivver at the door of the Stickney Arms. Their pale composed faces masked a great inner excitement for they knew that Francisco de Socotra was at home. It had been Amy's idea thus boldly to beard him in his lair. Ever since she had got up that morning the direction of affairs had been in her hands. Greg looked at the little creature with a new wonder and respect.

The hall-boy Frank received them with a broad grin not unmixed with slyness. The new clothes that Bessie had got Amy made her look like a bride perhaps. Clearly Frank's explanation of this visit was that they were returning, married, for the parental blessing. Therefore he looked both disappointed and puzzled when they sent up their names: Miss Wilmot and Mr. Parr. Word was quickly returned that they were to be shown up.

A new maid opened the door to them, to whom they meant nothing. They were ushered into the handsome living-room of the apartment where Se?or and Se?ora de Socotra were both waiting. Amy was quickly received into the other woman's arms who patted her and wept and babbled incoherently. De Socotra, whatever his feelings were, received them with a happy parental smile that was perfection. His welcome included Greg. Not by the slightest sign did he betray any consciousness of the events of the night before.

Greg thought grimly: "He feels that he can afford to smile since the body of his victim is reduced to ashes, and the damning evidence of the little black book destroyed too. Wait a bit, old fellow!"

While Amy and Se?ora de Socotra murmured together, Se?or Francisco made bland remarks on the weather, his wicked eye twinkling at Greg as if to invite him to enjoy the situation. He offered Greg one of the incomparable cigars. Greg, reflecting that all this was for the benefit of the gentle, kindly little lady who had harmed no one, took it.

"Last night I pointed a gun at him and to-day he comes back with a cigar," he thought. "Life's a funny affair!"

Amy said to Greg deprecatingly: "I am lying to her, poor dear! I am telling her that I was so much better to-day that they allowed me to come out for a little while in your care."

"Admirable!" murmured de Socotra.

Se?ora de Socotra shyly nodded and smiled at Greg, and said something to Amy that was evidently intended to be repeated to him. There was a charming, child-like quality in the little lady that was wholly irresistible.

Amy said: "She asks your pardon that she cannot speak your language. She wishes me to thank you for taking such good care of me."

"She thinks you're one of the keepers," chuckled de Socotra.

Through Amy Greg made his best compliments to Se?ora de Socotra.

Amy soon rose to go. Her adoptive mother clung to her piteously and would not let her go until Amy promised to return the next day, "perhaps to stay." De Socotra accompanied them into the hall, expecting no doubt to learn there the real object of this call. Nor was he disappointed.

"Francisco," said Amy coldly, "it is necessary that Mr. Parr and I discuss with you what is to be done."

"Come into my room," said de Socotra.

"No, we cannot talk here while mamma knows we are still in the house. We want you to come to us in Gibbon Street."

De Socotra elevated his fine eyebrows. "That would be thrusting my head into the lion's mouth!" he said humorously.

"Are you afraid?" taunted Amy.

"My dear, the bravest man has to exercise ordinary prudence or the days of his bravery would be few!"

"Mr. Parr saved your life twice last night."

"Another time he might not be so fortunate."

"Francisco, I pledge you my word that no harm will come to you while you are there, and that you will be allowed to go as freely as you come."

De Socotra looked at Greg.

"I add my word to Miss Wilmot's," said Greg stiffly. "Moreover there is no objection to your bringing any friend or friends with you, as many as you like."

"But if I still feel obliged to decline this charming invitation?" said de Socotra mockingly.

"You will not decline it," said Amy.

"Why will I not?"

"Because in that case I will be obliged to tell mamma the whole truth about what has happened. I am taking all this trouble for the sake of sparing her. If you will not help me in that, then affairs must take their course regardless."

"What affairs?" asked de Socotra with a great parade of innocence.

"What is the use of making pretenses among us three? We know, and you know that we know."

"But no one else knows," was the smiling reply. "And there is no proof in existence."

"You don't know what proof we have. Come to Mrs. Bickle's house and we will lay our case before you. You can then decide whether or not you care to accept the conditions that we lay down."

De Socotra hesitated. Bravado and simple curiosity struggled with the man's sense of prudence. Above all he was a gamester.

"When do you want me to come?"

"It is four now. We will expect you between five and six."

"Very well, I'll be there."

Upon the stroke of half-past five de Socotra drove up to Bessie Bickle's in a taxi-cab. He bade the man wait. Amy and Greg met him at the front door. He came alone.

"You are a bold man, Francisco," said Amy.

Amy had changed to a black dress which set off the unrelieved pallor of her skin like alabaster. The little creature now had a consecrated air like a priestess that added inches to her stature. Greg, who was wretchedly ill at ease, regarded her with a kind of awe. She was the leader now. A strange hush brooded over the little house. The shutters of the store were up.

Amy led the way up-stairs. De Socotra, notwithstanding his pretended assurance, was impressed by the change in her dress and manner. All the way up he talked lightly to conceal his uneasiness.

"What an odd retreat you have chosen! I thought we should never get here. My chauffeur had never heard of Gibbon Street, nor any one else for that matter. What shocking streets we came through. Picturesque though, if one cares for that sort of thing."

No one paid the slightest attention to this babble. At the head of the stairs Amy opened the door of Bessie's bedroom and passed in. De Socotra was still talking as he followed her. Greg was behind him.

"Houston Street reminded me of Rome, Rome in Juvenal's day with its——"

The sentence was caught up on a gasp. It was never completed. Bessie's room had been transformed into a little mortuary chapel. Everything in it had been removed and the walls hung from ceiling to floor in grim black draperies. The effect was startling in the extreme; it had been designed to startle. In the center of the room, the sole object it contained, rested a plain black coffin on a severely draped bier. Six tall candles stood about the head lighting the face of the corpse strangely. It was the face of de Silva—peaceful, waxen, and faintly yellow.

Greg fascinated watched de Socotra. Amy disdained to look at him. Her gaze was bent like Nemesis on the poor clay. De Silva's face showed a dignity it had never known in life. One saw the man he might have been. Stilled now was the wild spirit that had been touched too late by kindness.

De Socotra's bronzed face turned gray, and a network of tiny dark veins showed under his skin. One realized the man's age. He breathed like something hurt. But he kept his back straight and his gaze never faltered from the dead man's face.

"Where did you—where did you—" he began twice, but did not finish.

Amy without speaking pointed to a note pinned on de Silva's breast. De Socotra, seeing that he was expected to read it, came forward. His nostrils twitched, a pained look showed deep in his eyes; one guessed that it afflicted him with nausea to approach the body of his hired assassin, but his iron will was not yet broken. He stooped, and in the light of the candles began to read with a sneer. It was the note de Silva had left for Greg.

As he realized what it implied, de Socotra sharply straightened, and for an instant looked wildly around like a trapped creature. But he quickly controlled himself. He turned his back on the coffin.

"So this is your proof," he said, and God knows what effort it cost him to bring it out so nonchalantly; "but he's dead, too!"

"Follow me," said Amy.

She opened the door that communicated with Bessie's parlor. An overpowering breath of sweetness was wafted forth. She passed in. De Socotra followed to the door, walking steadily, but with a gait somewhat stiffer than his wont. At the door he put out a hand to steady himself. His eyes looked wildly around the next room, and he drew back a little as if his flesh refused to be subjected to a further horror.

This room, too, was a resting-place of the dead, but with a difference. Great, many-branched candlesticks stood around this rich bier flooding the room with a pale gold light. Roses pink and white and red were everywhere; sheaves of roses heaped on the coffin and strewn on the pall.

Amy's expression was very different as she stood beside this bier. She was still a marble woman, but it was a marble head of grief. Her hands involuntarily went to her breast. She gazed down, oblivious alike to de Socotra and to Greg. Greg looked at her and experienced the meaning of adoration.

De Socotra's horror-stricken eyes were fixed on the ceiling. Anon they darted frantically from side to side like rats threatened by fire. In the end he had to look. His eyes were dragged in agony to the dead man's face. A groan was forced from the bottom of his breast. At that moment the debonair scoundrel's spirit broke. His head fell forward, his limp arms dropped to his sides.

He saw the face of Antonio Bareda beautiful in death. The lips seemed to be on the point of breaking into the old friendly smile; there was a slight lift to the eye-brows that suggested light and humor lurking behind the lowered lids. The wrinkles of age were all smoothed out. The happy warrior slept the long sleep.

"Come closer," said Amy remorselessly.

The broken man had no thought but to obey. He approached the coffin's foot on sinking knees. The change in his face was shocking. He saw that the dead man held clasped in his hands the little black book in which was bound up "the happiness of a whole people," but de Socotra regarded that indifferently now.

He whispered hoarsely: "It is enough. I understand you." Turning, he made his way towards the hall door like a man struggling against a crushing power, like a swimmer at the last gasp.

"Wait!" said Amy.

Reaching him, she held out the little shagreen case. "Something of yours that I wish to return to you," she said with dreadful meaning.

Greg shuddered. De Socotra dropped the case in his pocket.

At the foot of the stairs he paused again. Without looking at Amy he murmured: "Will you come back—and stay with mamma?"

"If I do not find Bianca there."

"I shall send her away at once."

"Very well. I shall be there to-night."

When the door closed behind him Greg burst out: "You cannot go! It is too horrible!"

"It must be gone through with," she murmured.

Early next morning Greg, who had paced his room the night through, received the expected summons. Francisco de Socotra had been found dead in his bed. Heart-failure, the doctor said. How should he have noticed the tiny needle prick on the man's throat? The needle itself had been destroyed before he came.

Se?ora de Socotra was a piteous figure. Later in the day she insisted on seeing Greg to thank him for his kindness at so dreadful a moment in a strange land. Overwhelming as was her grief there was no bitterness in it. She spoke of it as simply as a child. Amy with the tears running down her cheeks translated for Greg.

"If you could have known him as I knew him! So good a man, so kind and true! Like a knight of olden times; my knight! I could not live without him, did I not feel that he had left me a work to do. He has left a great fortune, they tell me. Every penny of it shall I devote to good works in his memory! If I cannot be happy I can at least find peace in building a worthy memorial to his dear name."

When they left her Amy said: "You understand now why I acted as I did?"

"I understand," Greg said.


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