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CHAPTER X. WHAT DID SHE KNOW?
Nothing was said for a full minute. Serena stood there, gazing from one to the other as a child might do who finds herself in the presence of two harsh taskmasters. There was something pitiable about her hopelessness; the fighting glint had left her eyes; she stood there downcast and shaking as a slave might do.

"I am afraid I do not understand what you mean," the woman said.

In a way Jack was feeling very sorry for Serena. Ever since he had known Anstruther and been a friend of the household the woman had held a certain subtle fascination for him. Though Jack had not made as yet much progress in the paths of literature, he had all the quick dramatic feeling which is essential to the making of a successful novelist.

It had often occurred to him that so mysterious a figure as Serena would have made a splendid character for a strong novel. He watched the woman carefully now; he saw how her breast was heaving, and what a great fight she was making to keep her emotions under control.

"I am afraid I must press you for an answer," Jack said. "Signor Padini can be nothing to you, and yet you start and cry out when his name is mentioned as if I had struck you a blow. Now, tell me, was the man I speak of a visitor to this house last night? What time did he come?"

"My master's business is my master's business," Serena said sullenly. "He tells me nothing--he tells nobody anything. And who am I, a humble servant like me, to ask questions of my master?"

Rigby shrugged his shoulders hopelessly. He began to see that there was nothing to gain here. He nodded to Jack and half turned away. But Jack was not to be so easily suppressed.

"But, surely," he urged, "you would be doing no harm in telling us if a foreign gentleman called here last night?"

"I will tell you nothing," Serena cried. "Why do you come and bully a poor woman like this?"

And yet, at the same time, though Jack knew how faithful she was to her master, he could not but feel that she was not antagonistic to Claire and himself. With a sudden impulse he pushed his way into the hall, followed by Rigby.

"We all make mistakes sometimes," he said. "Now, are you quite sure you have made no mistake about your master? Mr. Anstruther is a law unto himself; he comes and goes as he likes, and it is just possible that he might have returned without you being aware of the fact. There is nothing to be frightened about; we are not here to murder him for the sake of his Apostle spoons."

As Jack ceased to speak he made a swift sign to Rigby behind the woman's back, and the latter understood. He would go off to the library and see for himself if Anstruther had returned. As the hall door closed behind him, Serena rushed impulsively forward and threw herself headlong at Jack's feet. Her attitude had entirely changed; she was no longer the half-dumb slave of circumstance, no longer a mere machine answering to the call of her master, but a living, palpitating woman. The change was so quick, so dramatic and unexpected, that Jack had no voice of protest left to him.

"For heaven's sake, do not do it!" Serena whispered hoarsely; "and, if not that, for your own sake I implore you to stay your hand. Oh, I am not so blind and foolish as you think--I am not the dull, stupid creature that my master takes me to be. You can deceive him where love and honor are concerned, but you cannot blind my eyes, because I have loved, alas! too well myself. Do not think that I pry and watch, for such is not my nature. And yet I know as well as if you had told me in so many words that Miss Claire and yourself are something more than friends. I cannot speak more plainly because I dare not; but if you would save the girl you love from the terrible danger that hangs over her, you will be blind to all that goes on in this dreadful house."

The words which had begun so hoarsely and quietly came at the finish with the torrential force of a mountain stream. Surprised as he had been, Jack's self-possession had not quite deserted him. Hitherto he had regarded the silent Serena as an old woman, but now that her face was transformed and glowing with emotions he could see that she was still comparatively young. He could see also, and the fact gave him a vague sense of satisfaction, that this woman's sympathies were entirely with Claire and himself.

"Will you get up, please?" he said, and his own voice was just a little shaky. "It is not right for a woman to kneel to a man like that. Serena, you are not what you seem. You are not a servant in the ordinary acceptation of the word; you spoke just now like a refined and educated woman. You may say that is no business of mine, and, indeed, I do not wish to pry into your past, but you must see that this matter cannot possibly stop here. You denied just now that Signor Padini had been here at all. You denied the presence of your master, and yet I can hear his voice on the other side of the study door at this moment. You will perhaps also deny that you heard of No. 4, Montrose Place."

It was merely a bow drawn at a venture, but the shaft seemed to strike home to the feather. Serena had risen painfully and slowly to her knees; she staggered back against the table and contemplated Jack with dilated eyes.

"Oh, you have gone further than I dreamed," she moaned. "You are a strong, masterful man, and I see now that nothing I can say will turn you from your purpose."

"Since you have made up your mind to that," Jack said grimly, "perhaps you had better be candid with me and tell me all you know. For some time past I have felt a strong conviction that Anstruther is no better than a consummate scoundrel. Discreet as he is, I have come to the conclusion that this is no house for Miss Helmsley. I am quite certain that you would find both of us more sincere friends than the man you call your master. Why not, therefore, leave him and throw in your lot with us?"

The woman wrung her hands piteously; Jack could see the tears rolling down her face.

"Oh, if I only could--if I only dared," she whispered; "and yet I cannot, even if it were only for your sakes. If you only knew what was hanging over you--but I must say no more. When that man comes to me, when I stand before him with his eyes looking into mine, I am compelled to give him up the secrets of my very soul. I wish from the bottom of my heart that----"

Serena clutched at her throat with a quivering hand, as if something choked her, and rushed impulsively from the room. She had said nothing, and yet she had said so much. Her very reticence, her hesitation to speak definitely against her master, had proved conclusively to Jack what a consummate scoundrel Anstruther was. He was still debating the matter in his mind when Rigby came back to him. The latter did not speak; instead of that, he took Jack by the arm and piloted him quietly and firmly to the front door. They were in the street before Jack could ask the meaning of this cautious conduct.

"One can't be too cautious in a case like this," Rigby explained. "It was just as I had expected. Anstruther was at home; he, indeed, had not been out all day, which fact was proved by his still being in dressing-gown and slippers. Our usually self-contained friend had either been dissipating last night or he has had disturbing news; at any rate, he was very pale and shaky, and did not seem in the least pleased to see me. Not that I think that he was in the least suspicious of my visit."

"Did you happen to see anything of Padini?" Jack asked eagerly. "Well, I did and I did not," Rigby explained. "At any rate, the Italian was not in the study, though he had been there, from the simple fact that a music case and a rather jaunty-looking Homburg hat rested on a side table. Did you happen to notice if Padini was wearing a Homburg hat this afternoon?"

Jack was able to reassure his friend on that point, whereupon Rigby proceeded to ask if anything had happened during the time he was left alone with Serena. Rigby listened with interest to all that Jack had to say.

"That's a woman we ought to get hold of," he said thoughtfully. "Unless I am greatly mistaken, she can tell us all we want to know. As a matter of fact, she has told us a great deal, though perhaps without knowing it. At any rate, from what you say, she is quite aware of the fact that something uncanny is going on at 4, Montrose Place. I feel perfectly certain that the body of Nostalgo was smuggled away via
that empty house; we know perfectly well that Anstruther is in the habit of going there, and we are equally sure that the very mention of the house filled Serena with terror. As we have plenty of time on our side, and there seems to be no immediate hurry, you and I are going to keep our eye on that place. You were very anxious last night to know what I had seen there. Well, you have plenty of pluck and courage of your own; you shall come with me presently and verify the thing for yourself."

"Do you mean to say we are going to keep a vigil there to-night?" Jack asked.

"That's about the size of it," Rigby answered coolly. "You had better come round to my rooms not a moment later than half-past ten. Mind you, we are not going there as ourselves, but you can leave a disguise quite safely to me. Don't bring a revolver or anything noisy of that kind; something in the way of a thick stick would be much safer. By the way, didn't you tell me that you were going to see Miss Helmsley to-night? Take my advice, call there and dine as if nothing had happened, and directly Anstruther makes an excuse to return to his study, slip away from the house without the formality of leave-taking and come to my place at once."

It was not easy work for a straightforward fellow like Jack to sit with Anstruther on the other side of the table, discussing trivial topics as if there was nothing grim and terrible behind this picture of refined home life. Jack was conscious of carrying himself off fairly well, what time Anstruther rose from the table with an excuse that he had work to do.

"Please don't think I am avoiding your company," Anstruther said pleasantly, "and don't be annoyed if you hear the sound of my violin presently. As a matter of fact, my thoughts are always clearest when inspired by the sounds of music."

Jack muttered something suitable to the occasion, and exchanged glances with Claire directly Anstruther left the room.

Just as that genius had prophesied, the sweet strains of the violin stole from the study presently. Claire listened with an interest which was vivid and thrilling beyond words.

"Now, listen to that," she cried. "Did you ever hear anything like it? Did you ever hear Mr. Anstruther play in that style and manner before? Note the little slurs, the half hesitation, which is at once so dramatic and artistic. If you close your eyes, you might swear that you are listening to Padini himself."

"It really is amazing," Jack murmured. "Padini to the life; the Italian to a semitone. And yet we know perfectly well that it cannot be Padini, because at this very moment he is waiting to take his turn at the Queen's Hall concert. Claire, you must try to get to the bottom of this. I cannot possibly believe that this infernal juggling is conceived merely to satisfy the vanity of Anstruther, for, in the first place, we form so small an audience. There is something behind this much more serious than the soothing of a clever man's vanity. And now I must be off."

Claire pleaded with her lover to stay a little longer, but, mindful of Rigby's strict injunctions, he was fain to refuse. In the light of recent knowledge he had no occasion to feel sure that Anstruther was still on the premises, despite the fact of those exquisite strains of music emanating from the library. He had not forgotten the strange experience in that direction two nights before. Still, the sweet, melancholy melody could be distinctly heard by Jack as he crossed the road.

Rigby was impatiently awaiting his friend, and he had all the disguises sent up to his bedroom. He listened eagerly to all Jack had to say whilst artistically making himself up as a news-vender. A glance at himself in the glass reassured Jack; he felt pretty sure in his mind that no one could possibly recognize him attired as he was now.

"What's the programme?" he asked, completing the illusion with a short clap pipe. "Are we going straight away to Montrose Place?"

Rigby replied that that was the intention. It was getting near to eleven o'clock before the friends reached Montrose Place; so far as they could see they had the terrace entirely to themselves. A policeman strode majestically down the road, flashing his lantern here and there, and finally disappeared from sight.

"Now's our time," Rigby said eagerly; "no chance of being interrupted for the next ten minutes. You stand at the top of the steps whilst I sneak down and open the window. We 'shall have to fumble our way up-stairs, because it is by no means safe to use matches. Still, I have the geography of the house quite clear in my mind. Come along."

They were in the grim, dusty house at last. Jack was conscious only of the intense darkness and musty smell of the place. Carefully piloted by Rigby, he reached the second floor landing at length, and there Rigby grasped his arm significantly. There was no sound at first save the scratching of mice behind the panel or the flutter of some ragged blind swayed in the piercing draught. Then suddenly it seemed to Jack that a solemn footfall sounded in a room close by, a door opened with a pop like a pistol crack, and a long slit of light, dazzling in its brilliancy, fell like a lance upon the dusty floor. Somebody laughed somewhere, a laugh that sounded so near and yet so far away; then the door opened wider, and a partial view of the interior of the room could be seen.

Utterly taken by surprise, moved and horrified to the depths of his soul, Jack could have cried out, but for the hand clapped upon his mouth like a steel trap.

"Not a sound," Rigby whispered sternly. "For heaven's sake, restrain yourself, and look, look!"


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