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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Yellow Face » CHAPTER XVI. THE BOSOM OF HER FAMILY.
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A resplendent footman took the names of the callers, and preceded them to the drawing-room. It was no uncommon thing for Lady Barmouth to invite a score or so of friends to supper after a reception or theatre. The footman intimated that his mistress was alone now, and that she was at present in the hands of her maid; therefore the callers had ample time to study the surroundings of so mysterious a person as Lord Barmouth.

That remarkable man, as everybody knew, had only been married a little over two years. Two years ago he himself had been a more or less popular figure in society. In the first place he was exceedingly rich, by no means ill looking, in fact he was a remarkably fine type of an all-round athlete. He was a triple blue at Oxford, a wonderfully keen shot, and a dashing polo player. At his house in the Shires his hunters were noted, as likewise were his coverts. Two years ago any man would have esteemed it a privilege to call himself Lord Barmouth's friend, and be free of his guns and his horses.

But now all this was changed. Barmouth had gone away to South America with a view of something new in the way of sport. Naturally his movements were followed carefully by the society papers. They chronicled all his doings faithfully, and presently Belgravia was officially informed of the fact that Barmouth was in Mexico, where he had become engaged to be married to the daughter of a settler there--an Englishman of good family who had taken unto himself a Mexican wife. Three months later the announcement of Barmouth's marriage was in the Times. It was understood that he was not coming home quite yet; indeed, something like two years elapsed before the big house in Belgrave Square was set in order for the owner and his bride. The strange whisperings and muttered scandal began at once. But on one point society was in perfect accord--whatever trouble hung over the household, it could not possibly be a fault of Lady Barmouth's. The woman was a lady to her finger-tips; she took her part naturally and easily in society; she fell into her place like one to the manner born. As everybody expected, there was nothing lacking in the lavish hospitality which had always been a tradition of the Barmouths. Men went down to their country houses in the winter to shoot and hunt, men and women came to Belgrave Square to lunch and dance and dinner--there was no more popular figure in society than Lady Barmouth.

And there it seemed to end. From the day of his arrival in England until the present moment not a soul had looked upon Lord Barmouth with the exception of his wife and his faithful valet. What was the source of the trouble nobody knew, and nobody guessed. It was in vain to try to bribe the servants, for they were just as much in the dark as anybody else. It was perhaps a mistake to say that nobody had ever seen Lord Barmouth, for occasionally he entered the dining or drawing-rooms when some very old friends were there, but previous to his entry the lights were always turned out. Whether this was due to some strange form of disease, or perhaps some phase of madness, was a point never explained. Lady Barmouth, beyond a cold statement that her husband was suffering from a peculiar malady, said nothing, and, indeed, it would have been in very bad taste to have asked. It had only been a nine days' wonder after all, and it mattered little to society in general so long as the hospitality of the house of Barmouth did not suffer.

It was under the roof of a man like this that Rigby and Jack found themselves as a fitting end to a night of amazing adventure. There was nothing to denote a discordant spirit in the house. Here was the magnificent suite of drawing-rooms brilliantly lighted and luxurious to a degree, on the walls of which were pictures of price. There was about the house the decorous, smooth, velvety silence which seems to be tradition in all well-ordered establishments. It seemed almost impossible to believe that the sinister wing of tragedy should hang over a home like this. A few minutes later Lady Barmouth came into the room.

"I am sorry to keep you waiting," she said , "but I have been having a little chat with my husband. As I have already intimated to you, his misfortunes are not altogether unconnected with this Anstruther business. My dear husband has suffered cruelly at the hands of certain people; indeed, so cruelly has he suffered that he seems to have lost all life and hope altogether. Ah, if you had only seen him as I saw him for the first time two years ago! There is one thing, however, I will ask you to do--pray do not say a word to him as to the circumstances in which we met to-night."

"Then we are to have the pleasure of seeing Lord Barmouth," Jack exclaimed. "I quite understood that he----"

"This is an exceptional case altogether. In the strict sense of the word you will not see my husband, but he desires the privilege of a few words with you. Now, let us go into the dining-room and talk this matter over. There will be no servants present--it is the one meal of the day which I prefer to partake of without the presence of one's domestics."

The dining-room was not the usual apartment devoted to state feasts, but a small room on the first floor, cozily and comfortably furnished, and more with an eye to confidences than anything else. The servants were absent as Lady Barmouth had intimated, so that it was possible to discuss the events of the evening without the chance of being overheard.

"Now tell me candidly," Lady Barmouth said at length, "have you any ideas to offer as to that mysterious disappearance from Shannon Street police station? I am asking you this, Mr. Masefield, because it was you who actually found the body of the man who most people speak of as Nostalgo. Really, now, was that unfortunate man so very like the wonderful poster of which London has had to say so much of late?"

"The likeness was amazing," Jack explained. "It quite frightened me. Talking about the poster in question, there is another likeness that I have not failed to note. Of course, if you put the man I mean and the poster side by side, nobody could possibly see the resemblance. But in moments of anger, there is a strong likeness between the poster and Spencer Anstruther. Don't laugh at me, Lady Barmouth; I assure you it is absolutely true."

But Lady Barmouth was by no means in the way of laughing at Masefield. Her pale face took on a still more creamy pallor, the pupils of her dark eyes were strangely dilated. "That is a most strange and wonderful thing," she said , as if speaking to herself. "Mr. Masefield, it is most fortunate that we met to-night. You have just told me something which will prove of the utmost value later on. We will not discuss that now, there is no time. But there is one thing that I am going to ask you to do for me; I want you to influence Claire Helmsley in my favor. I have taken a great fancy to her; indeed, I like her far more than any girl in London. This is all the stranger because I believe I am in a position to do her a great service. I know that I am in a position to do her one. But one stipulation I make, and that is--she must be told everything."

Jack hesitated. It would be indeed a dangerous thing to acquaint Claire with all that had happened so long as she was under the same roof as Spencer Anstruther. She was not accustomed to restrain her feelings and emotions, and with his swift, subtle instincts, Anstruther would find out that there was something wrong immediately. Jack pointed this out to Lady Barmouth at some length.

"I don't think so," she said thoughtfully. "Claire is a clever girl, she is in splendid health, and not the least likely to fear Anstruther or anybody else. It is, of course, not nice to have to play a part, but think of the information that Claire could glean for us so long as Anstruther regards her as little more than a child and behaves to her accordingly."

"Believe me, I am only too anxious to get at the bottom of this dreadful business," Jack said earnestly, "and there is nobody more anxious than I am to get Claire outside the sphere of Anstruther's influence altogether. Still, I am quite willing to try. I will see Claire to-morrow, and tell her everything."

Lady Barmouth's face beamed with a delight that was almost childish. She looked and acted like one who had had a great weight taken off her mind. That Jack had come to a wise decision she felt certain. She was saying so, speaking very briskly and freely, when the lights of the room were extinguished by some invisible agency, and the apartment left in utter darkness save for the wood-fire which smouldered on the hearth.

"I do hope you have all finished," Lady Barmouth cried. "It is quite evident that my husband thinks so, or the lights would not have been extinguished by turning off the switch outside the door."

Both Jack and Rigby muttered something to the effect that they had finished. Lady Barmouth produced a tiny silver spirit lamp from the sideboard, the blue flame of which was little larger than a pin's point, sufficient to light a cigarette, but insufficient to illuminate a scrap of paper a foot away. In silence the cigarettes were handed round, and the well-trained voice of a servant was heard announcing Lord Barmouth. A closely muffled figure crept into the room, and proceeded to bury itself in a big armchair by the side of the wood-fire.

"These are my friends, Mr. Rigby and Mr. Masefield," Lady Barmouth said cheerfully. "I have told them that you would like to have a few words with them, George. You will find these gentlemen willing to speak quite freely."

"That is indeed good of you." The deep, clear ringing voice came from the fireplace. "I have been praying for something like this for the last twelve months. Still, it is more with Mr. Masefield than Mr. Rigby that I wish to speak. You have made a great discovery to-night, I understand. You have found out the source of those Nostalgo posters?"

"I think I have done more than that," Jack explained. "I have not only discovered their source, but I know where they are printed, and the process of their manufacture. If you like to put yourself in my hands and accompany me to-morrow night, you shall see the whole scheme for yourself."

Lord Barmouth was of opinion that it was not wise in the circumstances to take any such step. He cross-examined Jack at considerable length, his questions being pointed with marked intelligence. At the same time he said little or nothing about himself. Lady Barmouth sat there smiling behind the cover of the darkness, infinitely glad to see her husband taking an interest in the affairs of life once more.

"Don't you think it is rather late to-night?" she suggested; "besides, we are going too fast. With your intimate knowledge of the situation, and with the help of these gentlemen, surely we can devise some scheme for getting the better of that fiend Anstruther."

"Ay, you are right," Barmouth said, his deep voice ringing through the room. "I see a way now, a way as clear as daylight."

In his passionate emotion he dashed his foot forward so that the point of his shoe came with force against one of the logs in the grate. A blue flame spurted up, and died as suddenly as it had come. Jack and Rigby rose to leave. No sooner were they outside than Jack clutched his companion's arm eagerly.

"Did you see nothing?" Jack whispered. "By heaven, Lord Barmouth and the Nostalgo we saw in the forecourt to-night are one and the same person!"


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