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CHAPTER XIII. THE PARABLE.
There was no help for it; they could only wait to see what circumstances had in store for them. It would have been just as well, however, to have known what was in Anstruther's mind when he locked the door. So far as the prisoners could judge, Anstruther had spoken with a kind of jocular contempt, and had apparently acted more to soothe Padini's nervous fears than as if he had moved on the spur of his own suspicions. Rigby had not failed to notice this, and Jack was inclined to agree with him as they discussed the matter in whispers. At any rate, a quarter of an hour passed without any signs without.

"Well, my friend," Rigby muttered, "you always were fond of adventures, even as a boy, and now you seem likely to get your fill of them."

"I don't call this an adventure at all," Jack replied; "not much chance of action here. The prospect of being locked up all night in this cell of a place is not at all alluring. Just try that door again."

But the attempt proved abortive. It was pitch dark there, a darkness like that of Egypt, which could be felt. The mere fact of the sense of sight being suspended seemed to increase the hearing of the prisoners, for they did not fail to note every word that was passing in that room across the corridor. It was plainly evident that the business arrangements which had brought those people here to-night were practically finished, for presently Anstruther could be heard walking down the stairs, shouting his final instructions as he went. A moment later the fine slit of light which gleamed like a thread under the door of the vacant house died away swiftly, therefore proving to Jack and Rigby that the house had been plunged into darkness. It was a proof also that the conspirators had left the premises.

"I think this is where we come in," Jack muttered; "we'll give them another five minutes or so, and then we will run the risk of striking a light. I suppose you have got some matches in your pocket?"

Rigby had purchased an extra-sized box of vestas as he came along, so that there was no trouble on that score. The liberal five minutes had expired before the scratching of a match, and a spurt of blue flame illuminated the room. It was by no means an inviting apartment, being absolutely devoid of furniture save for a tattered carpet on the floor. The carpet had obviously been a good one in its day, in spite of the dust which lay so thickly upon it; the decorations of the walls had evidently been an expensive business. At the same time, it was quite patent that the room had been used for the storage of valuables, seeing that the door fitted close and was lined on the inside with steel. The window, too, was barred heavily, though it was far enough from the ground.

"Well, we are in a nice mess," Jack muttered. "So far as I can see, we shall have to wait here till morning and then summon assistance by means of the window. In the meantime we can devote our energies to making up some ingenious story with a view to deceiving the police. So long as it is daylight, I don't think we have much to fear from Anstruther and Co. Do you think the light shows through the window?"

There appeared to be no fear of that, seeing that the curtain was a comparatively thick one. Over the mantelpiece were the pipe and bracket of a solitary gas-jet. In a fit of idle curiosity Rigby turned on the tap and applied a match to the burner. Much to his surprise, a blue fishtail flame spurted out bright and clear.

"Well, these people don't seem to have half done it," he exclaimed; "they've evidently tapped the gas much in the same way that they tap the electric light, but why they want both beats me."

"Doubtless for something like business purposes," Jack suggested. "It is pretty evident that these people have a lot of mechanical contrivances here, therefore something in the way of heaters would be necessary. My word, how close this room is!"

Rigby was emphatically of the same opinion. He turned off the roaring flame of gas and pulled back the curtain from the window. He successfully fumbled for the catch, and at length managed to raise the sash. The cool, sweet night breeze was grateful to a degree after the stifling atmosphere of the room.

There were no lights to be seen, for the simple reason that they were at the back of the house, and looking down into a dreary sort of forecourt formed by the houses on either side and a big building beyond. As their eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, it was possible to note the fact that the forecourt had at one time been carefully cultivated, for a broken fountain could be made out, and what appeared at one time to have been a well-tended rose garden.

"There's somebody down there," Rigby whispered. "Unless I am greatly mistaken the said somebody is smoking a most excellent cigar. Can't you smell it?"

"Of course I can," Jack responded. "These seem to be rather an aristocratic type of rascal. If you look across to the far corner, beyond that fountain place, you will see the tip of a cigar glowing like a star."

It was exactly as Jack had said. They could see the cigar glowing and fading as the smoker inhaled or exhaled the fragrant tobacco, and a moment later they saw something more. Out of the gloom there approached the figure of a woman, tall, slender, and bareheaded, her dress hidden by a long black cloak that reached to the ground. She spoke quickly and hurriedly, so quickly indeed that the two men at the window found it impossible to follow what she said. They could see pretty plainly, however, and did not fail to notice the fact that the strange woman appeared to be pleading for some favor. She stretched out her long, bare arms to her companion in an attitude of supplication; her long-cloak fell away from her shoulders, disclosing an evening dress of some pale, transparent material. There were diamonds, too, in her fair hair.

"What is the use of wasting my time like this?" the man with the cigar demanded. "You ought to have been at your destination long ago."

"But I couldn't go, I really couldn't, until I had seen you again. Besides, there is no place like this, and no better spot for an interview that one wants to keep a profound secret. For instance, it is hardly possible that any prying eyes are overlooking us. I can't imagine anybody being hidden in this old house. When Anstruther locked that bedroom door just now, do you really suppose he imagined there was anybody on the premises?"

The smoker responded with a contemptuous grunt; it was evident that he entertained no suspicions on that score.

"Perhaps I am unduly nervous and excited to-night," the woman went on. "But I could have almost imagined that there were spies following Anstruther to-night. If I were alone and had no more pressing thing to do, I would go back into the house and unlock that door. Imagine my feelings if I really did find two spies there."

"What confounded nonsense you are always talking!" the smoker burst out. "I suppose this comes of writing poetry. Who on earth do you suppose is in the house?"

"How can I possibly tell? The police, perhaps, or perhaps somebody who is interested in Anstruther's beautiful ward, Claire Helmsley. I am fond of Claire, and would suffer much so that she should escape injury. Really, I could make a story out of this, Richard. I would find Mr. Jack Masefield in that room, together with his friend Dick Rigby. I would whisper to them that it would be safer for them to stay where they were for the present, and that later on I would come back and release them. Oh, what nonsense I am talking, to be sure!"

The smoker affirmed this in a manner none too complimentary.

"You are without exception the wildest sentimentalist I ever came across. You are trying my patience a bit too high. Why don't you go about your business and leave me to mine?"

The woman laughed softly to herself as if she was half amused by her own secret thoughts. She did not seem to notice, or perhaps she wanted to ignore, the brutal outspokenness of her companion. For some reason or other it occurred to the listeners that she was trying to gain time. At any rate, there was no longer room for doubt that she was doing her best to warn the listeners.

"Can you make nothing of her features?" Jack asked eagerly. "My eyes are pretty keen, as a rule, but I can discern no more than the shimmering outline of her dress. If fortune is on our side presently, we must follow her and ascertain where she lives."

"That wouldn't be at all a bad move," Rigby said. "She may be a sentimentalist, and a poet into the bargain, but that does not prevent her from being an 'exceedingly clever woman. She is deceiving that bullying fellow in a way that is worthy of the best diplomatist."

"She is going to speak again," Jack whispered. "What did she say? I quite failed to get that last sentence."

Rigby replied that he had failed to catch it, too, for the words were spoken in low tones which did not carry to the window above. The man laughed in the same brutal fashion, and begged the woman begone, as she was only a hindrance there.

"I am going," she said . "Take care of yourself, Richard, and don't imagine that Anstruther is likely to be of much use to you when the time of danger comes. He has ever been the blighting curse that hangs over us, and something tells me that he will be your curse as well as ours."

The man laughed scornfully. He did not seem to be afraid.

"Evidently that woman is a very great deal cleverer than my friend gives her credit for," said Rigby. "Don't you see that she was talking to us? Her speech was merely a kind of parable. I don't know who she is or whence she derived an inspiration, but one thing I am absolutely certain about--she knows perfectly well that the pair of us are locked in this room, and she is equally aware of the fact of our identity. All we have got to do now is to smoke a cigarette each and quietly wait till our fair friend comes and effects our release."

"Haven't you any idea who she is?" Jack asked. "At any rate, there is nothing common about her. She speaks like a lady, and is most assuredly dressed like one."

"I should think you are more likely to know that than I," said Rigby. "Whoever that woman is, or whatever gang of scoundrels she is mixed up with, it is quite evident that she knows Miss Helmsley well, and that she is a great friend of hers. You must know surely pretty well the full extent of Claire Helmsley's acquaintances. Can't you recognize the voice? Does not the outline of her figure give you something to go on?"

"I am afraid you have me there," Jack said. "You see, Anstruther is an exceedingly popular man, he goes a great deal into society, and naturally Claire generally accompanies him. She could not have less than a hundred acquaintances she has made in this way."

"Then you can't help me out in this way?" Rigby asked.

Jack was emphatically of the opinion that he could not. He ran his mind over a score or two of Claire's most cherished acquaintances. But not one of them tallied in the least degree with the lady down below. Besides, the darkness rendered an actual recognition almost impossible.

All the friends had to do now was to possess their souls in patience and await the time when their mysterious friend should come to their assistance. That she would come they felt absolutely certain. She might have been the wild, sentimental creature which the man with the cigar had called her; but, at the same time, she had both coolness and courage, or she would not have hit upon the ingenious method of speaking indirectly to them as she had done.

"Unless I am greatly mistaken," Rigby said thoughtfully, "we are going to make a real useful friend here. What is that I see down below? Surely there is something like a carriage driven into the yard."

Surely enough, it was a vehicle of some kind, painted black, and with not too much glittering varnish about it. So far as could be seen in the gloom, the conveyance in question was a brougham of some kind. It came into the yard with a strange suggestion of ghostliness about it, for the tires were thickly coated with rubber; the horse itself appeared to be similarly shod.

"I fancy we have seen something like that before," Jack suggested drily.

"Right you are," Rigby responded. "Of course, one can't be quite absolutely sure, but that looks very like the vehicle used by those people the other night. You know what I mean--the brougham I saw used by the deaf mute and her companions the night we ran against one another at Carrington's."

"Right beyond the shadow of a doubt," Jack said. "Who is this mystic conveyance for, I wonder--the man or the woman?"

Evidently it was for the woman, for she stood with her long wrap fastened closely about her whilst the man with the cigar opened the door. The horse was turned round, and vanished as it had come, without the slightest noise; indeed, the whole thing might have been a figment of the imagination.

"I hope that does not mean that our last chance has gone," Rigby suggested. "But we must have faith in our fair friend. One thing is pretty certain--if she means to come to our assistance she is not going very far away."


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