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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Yellow Face » CHAPTER XI. THE SHADOW ON THE WALL.
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Jack needed no second bidding; he was only too anxious and eager to follow the direction of Rigby's outstretched finger. He was by no means lacking in the nerve and pluck which generally go to a young man of fine physique and clean habit. But there was something about the whole of this affair, a creeping suggestion of diabolical crime, such as one only encounters in the wildest realms of fiction.

And yet it seemed to Jack that his reading of the daily press recalled things just as vile in every-day life. With teeth clenched firmly, with a stern resolution to do nothing very likely to precipitate what might have been a terrible catastrophe, Jack looked into the room before him. As the door was half open and the two friends were hidden in the blackish shadow, it was possible to watch without the slightest chance of being seen.

For an empty house, dusty and gloomy and deserted as it was, the room in front of our two adventurers presented a striking contrast to the rest of the place. There was no window, or at least, where the window ought to have been, something in the way of an iron shutter stood, and over this a great wealth of silken hangings was artistically arranged. As to the rest of the apartment, the furniture was directly in keeping with the abode of a millionaire. Jack did not fail to notice the rich Persian carpet, the luxurious chairs and settees of the First Empire period, the fine pictures on the walls. The walls, too, had been recently decorated, so that there was not a single jarring note to mar the harmonious whole. There were flowers, too, grouped in the corners of the room and piled cunningly around the electrolier standing on the centre table.

"Now, that is a strange thing," Jack whispered. "So far as I could see, so far as I can see now, there is no sign whatever of the electric lighting in any other part of the house. Do you suppose that these people have taken this house in the ordinary way, or is it possible that----"

"Not a bit of it," Rigby replied. "They're not the sort of people to do anything as foolish as that. Nor would there be any occasion to go to the expense. Depend upon it, they know all about the character of the owner of this property, and that it is not in the least likely to let unless put thoroughly in order."

"Then, what about the electric light?" Jack suggested. "That would have to be put in by somebody. These people could not tap the main, or anything of that kind."

"There's a much simpler way than that, my dear fellow. Dr. Adamson lives next door, and I know perfectly well that he has electric light. It does not require much technical knowledge to wire a house, and anybody with a small amount of common sense could easily drill a small hole through a partition and attach a wire to one of the main lines next door. I think that explains the problem."

Jack had no further question to ask for the moment. His full attention now was concentrated on the occupants of the room. There were three of them altogether, two being dressed like superior mechanics, and were evidently there for some purpose connected with machinery. The third man, superior in every way to his companions, had his back turned to the door, so that it was impossible to get a glimpse of his features. He had in front of him an ingenious-looking arrangement, not unlike a magic lantern or a contrivance for throwing cinematograph pictures on a screen. At a sign from him, one of the workmen drew back the silken draperies covering what ought to have been the window, and a white sheet stood confessed.

"Give me the third slide by your left hand," the operator commanded. "That will do. Now switch out the light."

There was a click and a jerk, and immediately the whole room was plunged in darkness save for the fierce disc of blinding light that flashed upon the screen. Almost immediately a dazzling disc was transformed to the face of a man. Jack clutched at the arm of his companion.

"By heaven! do you see that?" he whispered. "It is nothing more nor less than the face of Nostalgo. Do you think this is merely a development of some novel form of advertisement, or is it possible that these fellows have hit upon some novel way of putting in posters?"

But Rigby had nothing to say. He was too deeply interested in the spectacle before him. It had occurred to him for the moment that there might have been something in what Jack suggested. It was just possible also that what he took to be a large sheet was no more than a wide stretch of paper.

At any rate, there was no hurry. There would be plenty of time to ascertain whether the supposed sheet on the wall was paper or not. Rigby had made no reply to Jack's cogent question, but he seemed to be quite as interested as his friend.

"Hang me if I know what to think of it," he said at length. "It seems to me as if these fellows were trying to work out something quite new in the way of lantern slides. Mind you, it is just possible that we are mistaken altogether in our assumption that Anstruther is carrying out some cunning rascality. These men may, after all, be no more or less than honest workmen."

"I can't quite see that point," Jack replied. "Honest workmen do not, as a rule, come in this furtive way to an empty house. Besides, look at them."

"That is all very well," Rigby argued. "But supposing that you were engaged upon some secret process which you did not want anybody to know anything about. And, besides, Anstruther is quite a genius in his way, and there is no reason why he should not be engaged upon inventing some new process of lithography."

"In that case," Jack said, "is it not a strange coincidence that they should be manufacturing these Nostalgo posters? I grant you that Anstruther is absolutely a genius, but his talents always take a sinister bent; in fact, I don't think the fellow could be honest if he tried. Still, we have plenty of time to find out."

"Do you really think that is paper?" Rigby asked. "It looks to me like it."

"It looks to me like it, too," Jack said; "but we shall have to possess our souls in patience."

"Hang me if I don't go and see," he said. "No, I don't see that there is any great danger unless they should happen to turn up the light again, and I do not suppose they will do that until the experiment is finished."

"For goodness' sake, do nothing rash," Jack implored. "From what we have already seen, we have to do with a gang who would not hesitate to cut our throats if it served their purpose."

The thing, after all, was not so hazardous as Jack had imagined. Just for an instant, as if by accident, one of the shaded electrics on the wall flashed out in a pin-point of diamond light.

"You clumsy fool!" growled the man behind the lantern. "What did you do that for? You might have spoilt all my work by your blundering folly."

The erring workman grunted out something in the way of an apology and a promise that he would be more careful in the future. Here, then, was Rigby's opportunity. He knew now that there was no likelihood of the light being turned on again for some time to come. All he had to do, therefore, was to creep cautiously, wriggling like a snake across the floor, until he could touch the huge screen and ascertain whether it were paper or cloth.

He took a penknife from his pocket and opened a small blade. So dense was the darkness of the room by contrast with the vivid lane of light thrown upon the screen that the journey was practically devoid of peril, so long as no one touched the switch of the electrics. Therefore Rigby crept along, his nerves braced to the highest tension and an exhilarating sense of danger strong upon him. He could see now that the white sheet extended from floor to ceiling, the edges of it seeming black and firm like an iron plate in contrast with the brilliant white centre.

He was close to it now, so close indeed that, with a cautious movement of his arm, he could touch the sheet. A single prick with a sharp point of his knife gave him all the information that he needed. It was a sheet of paper surely enough. A moment later Rigby was standing by Jack's side once more.

"Paper," he whispered. "Really, this adventure is likely to prove prosaic after all. Don't you think we are rather making a mountain out of a molehill? We know that Anstruther is a great rascal, but at the same time he is an exceedingly clever man, and, as you know, inclined to be secretive. Now, isn't it just possible that our friend has hit upon some new process of photo-lithography, and that we are witnessing an experiment to demonstrate the value of the new idea."

"I don't think so," Jack replied. "Indeed, since you have been away, I have made something in the way of a discovery also. Mark well the picture thrown upon the screen yonder. You know what it represents, of course?"

"Well, naturally. I have seen the diabolical face of Nostalgo on too many posters not to be absolutely familiar with his ugly mug. Depend upon it, those fellows are printing the famous poster in some way known to themselves. Maybe we shall see that self-same sheet on some hoarding to-morrow."

"But that is not what I meant at all," Jack proceeded to explain. "If you are as familiar with the poster as you say you are, you will notice a considerable difference in this one. In the first place, the face is a little more in profile, and surely you must notice the difference in the hands."

"Right you are," Rigby replied. "In the present instance the hands are half-extended, as if in the act of clutching something. Strange that I had not noticed that before. What do you make it out to be?"

"Hush!" Jack whispered. "I think our ingenious friend behind the lantern will explain that for himself."

The leading operator in the room gave a short curt sign and the brilliant lights flashed up once more. The slide was also drawn from the lantern, but the sinister features of the dark, repulsive face upon the screen did not vanish as might have been expected. On the contrary, the grim face frowned down as if it had been brushwork from the pencil of some imaginative artist. One of the workmen approached the sheet and dragged it to the floor. Then the three men in the room bent over the poster and examined it critically.

"It seems to me that the hand is a little out of drawing," the leader of the trio remarked critically. "Give me the paints--the white paint, I mean."

The speaker took a brush heavily charged with some white pigment and proceeded to touch up the hand. He cut this portion from the sheet and placed it in the slide of the lantern. Then another large sheet of paper was erected in front of the window, and the lights turned out again. Almost immediately there appeared upon the disc the shadow of a huge, bony hand uplifting a dagger in a menacing attitude. A grunt of approval came from the man behind the lantern, and once more the lights were turned up.

"There, what did I tell you?" Jack asked eagerly. "I am sure the different attitudes of that man's hand are meant for signs."

"Indeed, it would seem so," Rigby was forced to admit. "We'd better stay here and await developments."

For the next hour or so the mysterious process of printing the posters continued. It was exactly as Jack's ingenious mind had forecast. In every instance, although the dark and sinister features remained the same, the attitude of the hand was different. It was a strange and most important discovery that the two friends had made; but, instead of making their task easier, the problem had become still more intricate. Was all this part of some cunning device for attracting public attention, something absolutely new in the way of advertisement, or did it signify a deeper and more sinister purpose?

Jack recollected now how frequently Anstruther had alluded in his hearing to the ramifications of secret societies. With his intimate knowledge of criminality, and having every assistance from the police always at his disposal, Anstruther's acquaintance with the seamy side of life was extensive and peculiar. But was he now helping the police as usual, or was he engaged himself upon some ingenious conspiracy for the aggrandizement of himself and his satellites?

It was difficult to say, it was still more difficult to prove anything, seeing that the work of printing was still proceeding in silence. If these men would only speak, if they would only utter some word which might give a clue to what they were doing, the spies would have been more satisfied. Their only hope was to watch and wait on the off-chance of a careless word.

They were listening so eagerly indeed that they almost failed to notice the sound of a footstep which now echoed on the stairs. They were so close to the door that any one reaching their landing from below could hardly fail to make out the outline of their figures. Rigby had barely time to drag his companion back into the velvety darkness beyond before the newcomer was past them and had entered the room.

"How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags?" the newcomer cried. "How are you getting on? Nobody interrupting you--seen nothing of the police or anything of that kind?"

"No doubt as to who that is," Rigby whispered. "I should recognize Anstruther's voice anywhere. I told you he was at the bottom of this business."

Anstruther stood before them, tall and distinguished in his evening dress, and there was no sign about him that he was doing anything more than pursuing a quite normal occupation.

"Not at all a bad evening's work," he said. "Are we all here, or is Carrington late again? Confound that fellow! I begin to wish we hadn't taken him into the business at all. But I do not think he is at all likely to play me false; it will be a bad day's work for him if he does."

"Carrington, too," Jack muttered significantly; "that is your rich banker friend, Dick. The plot thickens apace. It seems impossible for anybody to come in contact with Anstruther and retain his respectability."


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