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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Yellow Face » CHAPTER XIV. NOSTALGO AGAIN.
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CHAPTER XIV. NOSTALGO AGAIN.
There was silence for some time between the friends. They had speculated as far as possible on the chances of the future, and now there was no more to be said. At the same time, the situation was not devoid of elements of interest, seeing that the man with the cigar had not as yet departed. Evidently he was waiting for somebody, for he lighted a fresh cigar from the stump of his old one, and sat down on the edge of the fountain with the air of a man who knows how to possess his soul in patience. He sat thus for some time; then he stood up at length with an air of strained attention and gave a grunt of relief. Out of the shadows there emerged another man, muffled to the eyes and wearing a big slouch hat upon his head.

"So you have come at last," the man with the cigar muttered. "I thought you were going to keep me here all night."

"It is all very well for you," the newcomer said. "You can walk about the world with your head held up; you have no occasion to hide yourself from the light of day. If only this business was done and over, you would never find me in one of Anstruther's schemes again."

There was something exceedingly striking in the voice of the speaker; it was by no means an unmusical voice; the enunciation was clear and defined. But there was a peculiar rasping ring in it, a jarring, metallic discord as if some one had struck two plates of steel together. It was a commanding voice, too, and the man with the cigar seemed to feel it.

"I suppose you know your own business best," he muttered in a tone which was plainly intended to be that of an apology. "Funny thing, isn't it, that you and I should be conspiring here, within a pistol shot of Shannon Street police station? Those chaps yonder are still scratching their heads over the disappearance of the man they call Nostalgo."

The other man laughed; his voice rang as an echo rings in a cave. He laughed again a little more gently.

"Yes," he said, "we could throw a very blinding light on that mystery. Have they offered any reward for the discovery of the body?"

"Oh, dear, yes," the other man chuckled. "Two hundred pounds and a free pardon to any accomplice not actually connected with the outrage. Wouldn't it be a fine thing to earn that reward?"

"I'll think it over and see if we can't manage it," said the newcomer. "Fancy hoodwinking the police in that way! All the same, I don't quite like this reward business; it's just the thing to appeal to that scoundrel Redgrave. Anstruther never made a greater mistake than when he took Redgrave into his confidence. That fellow would do anything for a few hundred pounds."

"Well, you will have an opportunity of sounding him presently. He is coming to see you about those West African bonds. As for myself, I have business of greatest importance in the East-End. I only stayed here till you came because Anstruther said that it was absolutely imperative for you to have these papers to-night."

So saying, the speaker took a small packet from his pocket and handed it over to his companion. He turned away, and a moment later had vanished into the night. The sole remaining man appeared to be restless and ill at ease. As he paced up and down the ragged and deserted forecourt, the two friends, cautiously peeping through the up-stairs window, could see that he was lame and that one shoulder was higher than the other. He was muttering to himself, too, in some foreign language that conveyed nothing to the listeners.

He came to a pause presently, and, fumbling in his long coat, produced a cigarette case and a box of matches.

"I wonder if I really dare," he muttered, this time speaking in English slightly flavored with a foreign accent. "Surely no one can see me; surely I shall be safe in this well of a place. If only I could manage without matches."

But there has been no way yet invented of lighting tobacco without matches. As the match flared out the stranger's face was picked out clean and clear against the velvet background of the night. As if in full enjoyment of his tobacco, the man threw his head back and filled his lungs with the fragrant smoke. He had not yet dropped the match, so that its rays caught full the upturned face. So clearly did the face stand out that the whole action might have been conceived with the idea of giving the watchers a perfect view of it.

"What do you make of that?" Jack whispered excitedly. "Don't ask me to say, because I know the man as well as I know my own father. The point is, do you know him?"

"I should say that everybody in London does," Rigby responded, "seeing that the face has been glaring down on London for the past two months. Yonder man is Nostalgo and none other."

"No mistake about that," Jack said. "In that strange, weird light, what an awful face it is! And yet there is something about it, too, some half-pathetic suggestion that almost removes one's feelings of repulsion."

"I have noticed that, too," Rigby said. "But why did you not tell me that our mysterious friend was practically a hunchback?"

"But he wasn't," Jack protested. "I am absolutely certain that the man I found apparently dead close to Panton Square three nights ago was as straight and well set up as you or I. Why, I helped to put him in the ambulance; I saw his body laid out in the mortuary at Shannon Street police station. I am prepared to swear that that man was without a physical blemish, and I am quite sure that Inspector Bates will bear me out in this. And yet that man down there smoking his cigarette is as misshapen as Richard III."

As to this point there was no question. The man below was pacing quietly up and down the forecourt in the full enjoyment of his cigarette, and little heeding the curious watchers overhead. It was easy to see that, so far as physical development was concerned, he had been but ill-favored by fortune. One leg was considerably longer than the other, causing the fellow to shuffle along with a sideways motion not unlike that of a crab.

"Unless that fellow is a bold contortionist, we have evidently two Nostalgos to deal with," Rigby said thoughtfully. "And yet it seems impossible there can be two faces like that in the world. One thing is pretty certain--the supposed dead body you conveyed to Shannon Street police station the other night must have been very much alive. If we could only get away from here to follow him."

"Not much occasion to trouble about that, I am thinking," Jack said. "This man is evidently a tool or accomplice of Anstruther's. I am certain we shall see him in Panton Square sooner or later. As to the man Redgrave they were speaking about just now, I happen to know all about him. He used to be in Anstruther's employ as a kind of secretary--a clever, well-educated fellow, whose weakness was drink. Ha, here comes another one."

Surely enough, another figure crept into the forecourt. Nostalgo, if he it was, paid no heed to the stranger for a moment or two. In a half-timid fashion the man who had just entered the forecourt bowed to his misshapen companion and intimated that he awaited his pleasure. Nostalgo turned upon him with a snarl.

"So they have sent you, after all," he said. His clear, ringing voice vibrated with contempt. "Is this the best thing Anstruther can do at a critical moment like this? I want a man, not a miserable coward like you. Besides, I don't trust you; I never shall trust you again. And, unless I am greatly mistaken, you have been drinking."

"We are in luck again," Jack whispered. "This is the very man I spoke about, Redgrave in the flesh. Are we going to learn anything, I wonder?"

The newcomer protested whiningly that not one drop of ardent liquor had passed his lips that day.

"You miserable, prevaricating hound!" Nostalgo cried. "Go back to Anstruther, and say that I will have none of you. Tell your master that my time is short, and that an hour from now will make all the difference. He knows that I dare not stay; he knows what hideous disaster even the slightest delay may produce, and yet he sends you of all men to help me in this crisis."

"But Anstruther cannot possibly do anything else," Redgrave whined. "It is absolutely imperative that he should be at Carrington's by midnight. Carrington is not to be trusted; he wants watching as carefully as a cat watches a mouse. You will have to put up with me, sir."

Nostalgo paced up and down the dreary forecourt with the air of a man who is deep in thought. His limp and straggling gait was by no means lost upon the watchers overhead. He came to a halt at length and sat on the edge of the broken fountain, his head upon his hands, deeply immersed in thought. He might have been a graven statue, so rigid and still was his figure.

The effect of this upon the cowering, watching Redgrave was peculiar. There was something of the cat in his own movements as he came inch by inch nearer to Nostalgo. It was as if a child was timidly making overtures to a dog of uncertain temper. Near and nearer Redgrave came, till he was standing directly over the bent figure of his companion. He might have been miles away for all the heed that Nostalgo gave him.

Then quick as thought, and with a snarling, savage cry that echoed strangely between the four walls of the forecourt, Redgrave fell furiously and with headlong impetuosity upon the doubled-up figure of his prey.

"I have got you now, you misshapen devil!" he screamed. "You are going to be worth at least two hundred pounds to me to-night."

Utterly taken by surprise, Nostalgo collapsed under the sudden and furious assault. Something gleamed and flashed in the uncertain light, and the horrified onlookers from the window above saw that Redgrave had a knife in his hand.

"You poisonous scoundrel!" Rigby yelled. "drop it, I say--drop it, or it will be the worse for you."

But Rigby might have been speaking to the wind. He yelled again and again, yet the two men below, locked in a deadly embrace, did not appear to heed; indeed, it was more than probable that they could hear nothing at all. More by great good fortune than anything else, Nostalgo had managed to grip the hand that held the knife and was holding it in a tenacious clutch. Over and over the pair rolled, like two hungry dogs fighting for a bone, their clothes torn and mud-stained, their features grimed almost beyond recognition. It was a grim and gruesome sight to the two eager watchers. A sense of helplessness, a wild desire to do something was upon them; but they might just as well have been fettered prisoners for all the use they were.

"If only we could open this door," Rigby sighed passionately. "If only that mysterious lady could come to our assistance."

It was like a prayer that was answered. There was a click, a sudden wide swinging open of the door, and the lady in evening dress came headlong into the room.

"Quickly, quickly!" she panted. "Oh, it does not matter who I am or where I came from! If you would not have the destruction of a man's soul on your conscience, come with me at once."



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