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CHAPTER XV. LADY BARMOUTH.
Quick as the whole thing had been, the action on the part of the fair stranger had not taken Rigby by surprise. He had half expected some development of this kind; he was ready for the dramatic moment, and took full advantage of it. Almost before the lady was in the room he had applied a match to the gas burner, and turned it full on. There was a quick, flashing vision of some one magnificently attired, for the white diaphanous drapery and the gleaming diamonds showed from where her wrap had parted at the neck. Perhaps she dimly comprehended the significance of Rigby's man?uvre, for she turned somewhat scornfully from the hissing gas jet.

"Oh, there is no time for that!" she cried. "It can matter little or nothing who I am, at any rate for the present. Did you follow me just now? I hope you understood that I was speaking to you?"

"We gathered that, madam," Rigby said politely; "but really we are wasting time in idle compliments."

The stranger's face fairly beamed with gratitude. She turned and pointed in the direction of the door. There was no need whatever for further words; the friends knew exactly what she wanted.

The gesture was eloquent enough. The lady who had so strangely and unexpectedly come to the assistance of the friends intimated to them as plainly as words could speak that there was no time to be lost, and that the sooner they were off the premises the better. Jack did not wish to delay; he had no desire to be caught like a rat in a trap, nor for a moment did he forget the fact that this woman who spoke in parables had risked much to come to their assistance. On the other hand, Rigby, being cooler and more collected than his friend, and, like a journalist, more prone to go into details, was disposed to linger for explanations. His hesitation was by no means lost on the fair stranger. Once more she pointed to the door, this time with an imperious gesture.

"Oh! why do you hesitate?" she murmured. "Why do you stand like a schoolboy staring into a shop window? I know you are here for some desperate purpose; I can more than guess the reason for your visit. You are men of intellect and understanding, therefore you must clearly see the danger of even an instant's delay."

The lady turned away as if she had finished. Jack might have found it in his heart to be a little ashamed of Rigby, but, after all, the temptation to give way to curiosity was absolutely overwhelming. Jack pulled himself together at length, and dragged angrily at Rigby's arm. He felt just a little inclined to flush under the contemptuous gaze of their beautiful rescuer.

"Oh, do come along," he said. "My dear Dick, you are positively guilty of bad taste in this matter."

"Really, I beg your pardon," Rigby said humbly. "But you can quite understand my feelings. Good-night, madam."

Despite the wild hurry-scurry and the excitement of the moment, Jack had not failed to notice the exquisite beauty of the strange woman's face. She was quite young, about twenty-five or thereabouts, and yet her fair face, without a line or wrinkle in it had a suggestion of the Madonna, as of one who had suffered much. She flew down the stairs, heedless of the darkness, and into the forecourt beyond.

"Pray to heaven we are not too late," she said . "It seemed to me just now that I was barely in time, but surely----"

The woman stopped, and passed her hand across her face just as one does who wakes from an evil dream. And in sooth she had cause enough for her astonishment. Where two bodies had been locked in a death struggle a minute before, only one remained now. The other had vanished utterly. And it needed only a cursory glance to see that the form lying there was not the misshapen outline of Nostalgo.

"This is amazing," the fair stranger said, as she bent over the body of the unconscious man. She did not appear to be the least afraid now; all her coolness had come back to her; she suggested a trained nurse on the battlefield. "Surely my eyes did not deceive me, surely I saw two men in a death struggle there as I came into the courtyard?"

"There is not the slightest doubt about that," Jack murmured. "Why, we were actually watching the fight at the very moment you opened the door. Do you know who this fellow is?"

The lady shook her head, but Jack noticed that she did not repudiate all knowledge of the stricken man.

"I can tell you if you want to know," she said , "but we can discuss that point later on. What we want to know now is how far this man has suffered from his injuries."

Heedless of the dust and dirt, heedless of her resplendent attire, the lady had thrown herself on her knees beside the prostrate body. She laid her hand upon his heart, and bent her head down listening intently.

"At all events he is not dead," she said , "neither can I see any sign of a wound. He has evidently been stunned by some tremendous blow. Ah! see, he stirs."

The injured man opened his eyes in a feeble, spasmodic kind of way, and gazed languidly about him. Rigby, fully alive to the possibilities of the situation, grasped Jack by the arm.

"My dear fellow," he exclaimed, "you say you know that man, and naturally he knows you. Do you think it wise to remain in sight, and thus give him a chance to recognize you?"

Redgrave lay as if lost to all consciousness once more. Despite her dreamy, Madonna-like face, the strange lady was not blind to the danger of the situation.

"I think you are quite right," she whispered hurriedly. "It would never do for this man to recognize you. I feel sure that heaven has sent you both to be my friends in the hour of my deepest despair. Who and what I am can be explained presently. But that man is coming to very fast, and it were far better if he did not see you."

Rigby nodded his emphatic approval. Together with Jack he withdrew behind the shelter of a clump of bushes where it was possible to hear everything without being seen. Meanwhile Redgrave had raised himself to a sitting position, and, with his back to the fountain, was stupidly contemplating the fair figure before him.

"I suppose you can understand what is said to you?" the lady asked. "For instance, you can tell me what brings you here to-night?"

"I dare say I could if I liked," Redgrave groaned, "but I am not going to do anything of the kind. This comes of having women mixed up in a business like ours."

"Woman or not, that has nothing to do with your murderous assault on a harmless stranger just now. It is absurd for you to deny any knowledge of me. You have heard of Lady Barmouth before."

Behind the shelter of the bushes Jack nipped Rigby's arm significantly. He had learned something now.

"Did you hear that?" he whispered. "Of course you have heard of Lady Barmouth often enough. I have never met her myself, but I have often heard Claire speak about her. A beautiful South American girl, I believe, married to a sulky brute who never goes outside his house from one year's end to another. I don't know whether he drinks or what it is, but I fear that Lady Barmouth has a very bad time of it."

Jack would have probably volunteered more information on this point, only the cross-examination of Redgrave had begun again, and he did not wish to miss a word that he said.

"It is idle to prevaricate with me," Lady Barmouth was saying. "I will ask you nothing as to your late encounter, because it is evident that you had greatly the worst of it, and that your would-be victim has escaped. But what is more to the point, I want to know what has become of my brother?"

"Your brother!" Redgrave stammered, as if utterly taken aback by the suddenness of the question. "I--I don't know in the least what you mean."

"Oh, what is the use of wasting your time and mine like this?" Lady Barmouth cried. "My brother came here by special appointment to meet Mr. Spencer Anstruther, and I came on my own self-initiative to see what my brother was doing."

Here was fresh information for Jack and his companion. It mattered little for the present who Lady Barmouth's brother was, but evidently she had greatly mistrusted him; hence her appearance in the courtyard to-night. It was, therefore, by no means difficult for the friends to guess that the aforesaid brother had been the man who had so lately accused Lady Barmouth of being a sentimental fool. The night's work was being by no means wasted.

"I know nothing whatever about your brother," Redgrave said sulkily, "and I know nothing about Anstruther either. The man who was here just now--the man who made that murderous attack on me, I mean--was a perfect stranger. But this is no place for a lady like you; you had better go home, and keep out of this sort of scrape for the future.

"So saying, Redgrave scrambled painfully to his feet, and lurched off in the direction of the doorway leading to the lane beyond. It was only when they were satisfied that he had absolutely departed, that Rigby and Masefield emerged from their hiding place and joined Lady Barmouth. There was a sad, wistful expression on her face.

"You heard all that," she said . "Mind you, I am assuming that you are no parties to the vile conspiracy of which Anstruther is the head. I should like to have your assurance on that point before I proceed any further."

"If there is one man in the world whom we desire to expose and render harmless for the future, it is Spencer Anstruther," Jack said vehemently. "But how did you know we were here at all?"

"Because I happened to be in the house when you came," Lady Barmouth explained. "I caught sight of your faces as you moved in front of the light proceeding from that room up-stairs, and I divined by a sort of instinct that you did not belong to Anstruther's gang. Then it came to me that I had seen one of you gentlemen before in the company of Miss Helmsley. I think, sir, I may be pardoned if I assume that Miss Helmsley is something more than a friend of yours."

"To be perfectly candid with you, we are engaged to be married, only it is a profound secret at present," Jack explained. "After telling you so much, I think you might be equally candid with us."

"Indeed I will!" Lady Barmouth exclaimed. "Any one to whom Claire Helmsley has given her heart must be a good and true man. As I told you just now, I saw you on the stairs; I also heard what that strange man said about there being spies in the house; I saw you creep into the room, and I saw Anstruther lock the door upon you. The rest you know for yourselves."

"But that does not explain why you are here," Rigby ventured to suggest.

"Why I am here to-night I cannot even tell you," Lady Barmouth said, in low, nervous tones. "The secret is not mine; it concerns one I love more than anybody else in the world. One thing I can tell you: Claire Helmsley is in great danger so long as she remains where she is living now. You must get her away, Mr. Masefield; you must get her away at any cost."

Jack nodded gravely; he had not been blind to this danger for some time. What he wanted to know now was if Lady Barmouth had any idea of the identity of the man who had successfully got the better of Redgrave. But on that head Lady Barmouth could say nothing; she had returned for the express purpose of relieving Masefield and Rigby from their awkward situation, and in so doing she had come quite unexpectedly upon the combatants. Even in the dim light she had seen that a murderous struggle was taking place, and this being so, had hastened headlong up-stairs with a view to securing assistance. More than this she could not possibly say.

"What we want to do," Rigby suggested, "is to go away quietly somewhere, and discuss this matter thoroughly. I need not point out to your ladyship the manifest danger of staying here. Anstruther or any of his tribe may be back at any time, and then we shall be caught like rats in a trap."

"That matter is easily settled," Lady Barmouth replied. "Could you come home with me? It is by no means late yet, and you would not be long in getting rid of those disguises of yours. They are excellent disguises, but they did not prevent me recognizing you, Mr. Masefield."

"There is no deceiving a clever woman," Jack smiled. "I should like nothing better than a chance to discuss this matter at length--but Lord Barmouth? Would he not think it somewhat singular that two strangers like ourselves----"

"Nothing of the sort!" Lady Barmouth cried eagerly. "My husband never goes outside the house; he is suffering from a trouble so terrible that I try not to think of it if I can. I may, however, tell you that his trouble is intimately connected with the black business that brings us here to-night. It may seem to you that I am a mere frivolous society butterfly. Ah, if you only knew!"

The trio had worked their way into the street by this time. A private hansom stood a little way down the road. Lady Barmouth smiled a little as she contemplated her two companions.

"I am afraid we should be a suspicious-looking party in the eye of a passing policeman," she said . "No, I think it would be just as well if I walked to my hansom alone. Then you can go back to your rooms and attire yourselves as English gentlemen should be attired at this time of the evening. Then you can come to my house; I will tell the servants I am expecting two friends to supper. You know the address."

Jack intimated that he knew the address perfectly well. The suggestion was by no means a bad one; there could be no possible suspicion aroused by the fact that Lady Barmouth was having two friends to share her late meal. The clocks were striking twelve as Jack and his companion walked up the steps of the big house in Belgrave Square.


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