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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Yellow Face » CHAPTER XVIII. THE EMPTY ROOM.
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Jack went off, bent upon putting his discovery to the test. There was not the slightest trouble in ascertaining where Padini had passed the hours between eleven and one of the previous evening. As Masefield had anticipated, the artist had been persuaded to lend his services to the Bohemia Clef Club, where he had been the lion of the evening. The fact Jack ascertained at the club itself, a musical member affording him all the information he desired. The previous night's talent had been of a very middle class nature, so that Padini had found himself in great request. He had been exceedingly obliging, so Jack's informant said, and had practically played straight away for a couple of hours. Jack jotted down the names of the various items executed by Padini, and on comparing them with the list given him by Claire, found that they tallied exactly.

"The plot thickens," he murmured, as he walked rapidly away in the direction of the Planet office, there to lay his most recent discoveries before Rigby. "What an ingenious rascal we have to deal with, to be sure!"

Rigby was emphatically of the same opinion. He did not see how it was possible to better Jack's suggestion that he should dine at Anstruther's that night and ascertain all he could as to Anstruther's past, and especially as to whether the latter had ever been in Mexico.

"There is one little thing we have quite overlooked," Jack suggested as he rose to depart. "We have got to get inside that study. Anstruther's game is to lock himself in and pretend that his violin soothes his mind and induces a proper train of thought. That's his story, of course. I have ascertained that Padini is doing nothing to-night, but that will not prevent the music going on all the same. Now if you could hit upon some scheme whereby----"

"I know exactly what you mean," Rigby said; "you want to see the inside of the study just at the critical moment. I think our game is to make a diversion outside. I'll just turn over the matter in my mind, and if I can see a really artistic way of doing it, I will send you a telegram just before you go to dinner. The diversion, of course, will come from the outside of the house."

Jack felt sure that the matter was quite safe in the capable hands of Dick Rigby. He was surer still when a little before eight o'clock his landlady handed him a telegram containing just three words from Rigby. Before he slept that night, Jack felt pretty sure that the mystery of Anstruther's violin practice would be a secret from him no longer.

It was hard work to keep his feelings under control, to sit in the drawing-room before dinner was announced and exchange commonplaces with his brilliant host. Anstruther had rarely been in better form; he had the air and mien of a man with whom the world goes very well indeed; success seemed to stand out in big letters upon him. Usually Anstruther was a man of moods; to-night he was merely a society creature with apparently no heed of the morrow.

If Jack had any misgivings on the subject of Claire's behavior towards her guardian, his uneasiness was speedily set at rest. The most critical observer could not have detected the slightest jarring note. It was all the same through dinner: Anstruther monopolized most of the conversation, and Claire followed every word with flattering attention. Dessert was on the table at length before Jack carefully led up the conversation to foreign travel. He had seen much of the world himself, so that there were several places of mutual interest to be discussed with Anstruther.

"There is one part of the world, however," Jack said, as he carelessly peeled a peach, "that I have always been curious to see. I allude to the land of the Aztecs, those wonderful ruined cities of Mexico, of which we know so little and profess to know so much. Now, don't you think that those people must have been of an exceedingly high state of civilization?"

The question was so innocently asked, and Jack's artistic deference was so subtly conveyed, that Anstruther fell headlong into the trap.

"I should say there is not the slightest doubt about it," the host responded. "I have been there; indeed, I spent a goodish part of my time in and about Montezuma."

"And about when would that be?" Jack asked.

Anstruther explained, without giving definite dates, that it was about two years before. Jack proceeded to discuss the matter in a casual kind of way. He was anxious to know whether any of the old customs of the Aztecs still prevailed; he had heard that to a great extent the religion of these people had been built up on freemasonry. Did, for instance, Anstruther believe in the legends of terrible revenges which these people used to inflict upon their enemies?

But Anstruther declined to put his head further into the lion's mouth; he seemed to become suddenly a little uneasy and suspicious and changed the conversation to safer grounds. Still, Jack had learned quite as much as he had expected to learn, and Anstruther's very reticence confirmed Jack in the feeling that his host knew everything there was to know about the terrible misfortunes of the man or men called Nostalgo.

It was getting fairly late now, and Jack was beginning to wonder whether the hour had not yet arrived for Rigby's promised diversion. If it came now it would be merely wasted, seeing that nothing could be gained by Rigby's ingenious device until Anstruther was safe in his study. He showed no signs, however, of any disposition to move; his face had grown placid again, and he was talking with all his old charm of manner on various topics of interest.

Jack did not fail to notice the figure of Serena as she flitted noiselessly about the room. It had not escaped his notice, either, that the woman had appeared more than usually anxious and eager when Mexico had been mentioned. Serena disappeared from the room a moment in her soft, flitting manner, coming back a moment later with a telegram, which she laid silently by her master's side. Anstruther opened the envelope carelessly, and glanced at the contents.

Just for an instant his face grew dark as a thunder-cloud, and something like an oath escaped his lips. It was all like a lightning flash, but the swift change had not been lost on Jack. Anstruther twisted up the telegram carefully, and thrust it in one of the shaded candles before him, as if he needed a light for his cigar. Jack felt that he would have given much for a sight of that telegram, but already it was a little pile of gray ashes upon Anstruther's dessert plate.

"A great nuisance," the latter said airily; "that is the worst of being a man of science. But I am not going out to-night for anybody. I have got some new music I want to try over presently."

Jack murmured something appropriate to the occasion. Claire had already left the table, with the suggestion that perhaps the men would like coffee in the drawing-room.

"You stay here and smoke," said Anstruther; "you won't mind my leaving you, of course, especially as I am so anxious to get back to my music."

So saying, Anstruther pitched his cigar end on the ash tray, and moved off in the direction of his study. He had a gay, debonair manner now; he hummed a fragment of an operatic air as he walked along. There was the jangle of a telephone bell presently; almost immediately afterwards the study door was heard to shut and lock, and the music began.

"It seems almost impossible to believe that that can be Anstruther," Jack said to himself. "No man could improve like that in so short a time. I wonder what Rigby is doing. I hope he won't spoil the pretty scheme by over-haste. Probably in the course of half an-hour he will deem it time to begin."

Evidently Rigby had been of the same opinion, for a full half-hour elapsed before a sound came from outside the house. Anstruther was well into his second theme before there was a sudden knocking and hammering on the front door, and a stentorian voice burst into cries of "Fire! Fire!"

So spontaneous and natural was the whole thing, that Jack was taken absolutely aback for a moment. It occurred to him, of course, that a fire had broken out inside the house, and that some passer-by had discovered it. Again came the hammering on the door and the strident shouts of those outside. Jack made a leap for the hall, and raced up-stairs to the drawing-room three steps at a time. Claire had thrown her book aside, and stood, pale and startled, demanding to know what was the matter.

"Somebody outside is calling 'fire,'" Jack explained hurriedly; "not that I fancy there is much the matter--the kitchen chimney or something of that kind. There they go again!"

Once more the hammering and yelling were upraised; a frightened servant crept across the hall to the front door and opened it. And yet, despite all this turmoil, the beautiful soft strains of music below were continuing. Not for a second did they cease; the player was evidently too wrapped in his music to be conscious of outside disturbances. Not that the clamor lacked force and volume, for now that the front door was open the din was absolutely deafening. Through the break in the disturbance the sweet, liquid strains of music went on. Fond of his instrument as Anstruther might have been, he could be wide awake and alert enough on ordinary occasions, as Jack knew only too well. Why, then, was he so callous on this occasion?

"Had not you better go down and arouse my guardian?" Clare suggested; "surely he is the proper man to look to a thing like this."

Jack tumbled eagerly down the stairs, and thundered with both fists on the study door. As he had more than half expected, no response came to his summons. The music had become still more melodious and dreamy; the player might have been far away. As Jack turned, he saw that some half-dozen men were standing in the hall, one of whom gave him a palpable wink. It was Rigby's wink, and Jack detected it instantly.

"There don't seem to be so very much the matter, sir," Rigby said. "No more than the kitchen fire. Only we thought we'd drop in and let you know. You chaps go to the kitchen and see what you can do."

"How on earth did you manage that?" Jack asked.

"Only a matter of burning a little magnesium light by the back door," Rigby explained, with a grin; "but it seems to me only part of our duty to acquaint the master of the house with the fact that something is wrong. Is that him playing now, Jack?"

"Nobody else," Jack replied. "Isn't it wonderful? Anybody would think he was a great artist absolutely lost to all sense of his surroundings. Still, as you say, it is our duty to let him know what is going on, even if we have to break in the door."

Rigby grinned responsively. Secure in his disguise, he was not afraid of being taken for anything else but a street loafer eager to earn a more or less honest shilling. He tried the door and found it locked; he ran back a pace or two and hurled himself with full force against the oak door. Crack went the door on its hinges, the woodwork gave inwardly, and the room was disclosed to view.

The music had not stopped or faltered for an instant, the whole apartment was flooded with a delicate melody. Jack stood there puzzled and bewildered, and with a feeling that he would wake presently and find that it was all a dream.

"Absolutely stupendous!" he cried; "music fit food for the gods, and not a sign of the player!"

For the room was absolutely empty!


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