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CHAPTER XXI. A LEADER OF SOCIETY.
It was a most important discovery that Jack had made, and Rigby did not fail to see what developments it was likely to lead to. If what Masefield had said was true--and Rigby saw no reason to doubt it--here they had Anstruther directly connected with crime.

"Do you really think that our friend actually engineered that business at Lord Longworth's?" Rigby asked.

"I can come to no other conclusion," Jack replied. "You must understand that Anstruther is a kind of a specialist in crime; he has frequently been consulted by the police, and, I believe, has brought off some wonderful results. He has even written a book on the subject. Now, we know Anstruther to be an unscrupulous rascal. The police looked upon him as a brilliant aid to themselves. If a man like this chooses to play the part of a criminal Dupuin, see what marvelous opportunities he has. He knows everything about the movements of the police; he can anticipate all their schemes. It is as if Bates himself had turned burglar. Whatever Mrs. Montague might say, it is pretty certain that the embroidered scarf belongs to Anstruther. Quite inadvertently he left it at Lord Longworth's last night, where he was passing in the crowd as an invited guest."

"I know that sort of thing is done," Rigby said. "A very impudent example came under my notice the other day. The thing is much easier done than one would imagine."

"Do you mean to say," Jack asked, "that it is possible for a gentlemanly scoundrel to walk into the house of some great society lady giving a reception, and not be spotted immediately for what he is? It seems absurd!"

"Not a bit of it!" Rigby replied. "To the audacious everything is possible. Supposing a duchess is giving a reception. She has asked perhaps a thousand guests. Half-way through the evening she is so tired and worn out that she does not know or care to whom she may be speaking. Here is the chance for the gentlemanly swindler we are talking about. Of course he is perfectly dressed; he has the most exquisite manners. He lounges up to his hostess, and, after the usual greetings, makes some confidential remark about some friend of the family, which immediately stamps him as one of a certain set. All he has got to do now is to saunter along as if the whole place belonged to him, and help himself to such costly trifles as his mind inclines to."

"Did you ever know of a case in point?" Jack asked.

"My dear chap, I not only know of a case, but I was more or less party to it. It was done for a bet, and I was one of the losers. It was so easily managed that I should not in the least mind trying it myself."

"Well, it seems very odd to me," Jack murmured. "Still, if you know it has been done, there is an end of it."

"Well, it has been shown pretty conclusively," said Rigby, "that Anstruther must have been there last night."

"Quite so," Jack went on. "At any rate the scarf was left behind. I recognized it as soon as ever I saw it in Bates's hand; therefore I was absolutely sure that Anstruther had been at the reception. That is why I suggested that paragraph in the Planet. It is just the sort of silly gossip that papers publish after a sensational crime, and is calculated to hamper the police more than help them. I felt quite sure that somebody or other would bring that paragraph to Anstruther's notice, and that he would lose no time in trying to recover the scarf. I dare say there are other scarves like it in existence, but they are not so common that Anstruther could afford to take any risk. That he realized the gravity of the situation is proved by the fact that he has lost no time in calling at Lord Longworth's to recover the missing property. I think I have made my case very clear."

"Nothing could be clearer," Rigby replied. "Anstruther is at the bottom of this business. I should say he is the cleverest rascal in London at the present moment. And mark the cunning of the beast. Don't you see how easy he can prove an alibi? If he were met face to face now, and taxed with the fact that he was at Lord Longworth's last night he would politely deny it, and, if pressed, have not the slightest difficulty of demonstrating that he was elsewhere."

"But I don't quite see," Jack interrupted, "exactly how that----"

"Clear as mud," Rigby said. "Why he has only got to call his servants and Miss Helmsley to prove that he was in the study all the evening playing his violin."

"How stupid of me," Jack muttered. "The full beauty of that little scheme had been lost on me. There is a good deal we have to learn yet. But I can't stay talking to you any longer this morning, as I promised Claire that I would go and see Lady Barmouth. I have told Claire nearly everything there is to learn, and she is quite willing to be a friend of Lady Barmouth's and share her troubles. I will see you later on in the day."

Jack went off in the direction of Lord Barmouth's house. He had some little hesitation in calling so early in the day, but then the matter was imperative, and he knew that Lady Barmouth would be glad to hear Claire's decision. The lady in question was sitting in her boudoir, accompanied by two secretaries, who appeared to be tremendously busy with a long visiting list and some exquisitely-designed cards of invitation to a masked ball. But Lady Barmouth, heedless of Jack's apologies, declared that she had always time to spare for him.

"It is not I who am so busy," she said ; "in fact, this is merely mechanical work. I am giving my great party of the season, and now that I have made out the list of intended guests, the rest is merely mechanical."

So saying, Lady Barmouth led the way into an inner drawing-room, the door of which she carefully closed.

"You have some news for me," she cried eagerly. "I am quite sure you have come straight to me from Miss Helmsley."

"That is the fact," Jack said gravely. "Rather against my better judgment, I have told Claire everything. She knows now the class of man her guardian is; she knows that she will have to be terribly careful lest he should suspect. But Claire has a courage and determination which came quite as a surprise to me. I think the secret will be safe in her hands."

"Yes! yes!" Lady Barmouth cried; "but what about me?"

"I was coming to that. It seems to be a case of mutual sympathy between you. As a matter of fact it seems to me that Claire likes you as well as you like her. Anyway, she is going to see you this afternoon, when you can talk matters over without reserve. But tell me, does Lord Barmouth take any kind of interest in these festivities of yours?"

"He is goodness and kindness itself," Lady Barmouth said warmly. "He has always insisted that his misfortunes should not interfere with my personal enjoyment. At a dinner, or a reception, or an ordinary dance, my husband never shows himself. Despite his terrible misfortunes he thoroughly enjoys his amusements; he likes to mingle with people, seeing everything, and not being seen himself. That is why I give so many of these masked balls. This is going to be an extra smart affair, and I am asking my lady friends to wear as many jewels as possible."

"Claire told me something about it," Jack said. "I gathered that she is to be one of the invited guests."

"I am asking both Miss Helmsley and Mr. Anstruther," Lady Barmouth explained. "There is some danger in asking the latter, but one has to take these risks."

Jack murmured something that sounded sympathetic. Had Lady Barmouth only known it, the risk was far greater than she imagined. If Jack's suspicions were correct that Anstruther was mixed up with a gang of expert thieves, here then was a golden opportunity. The mere fact of it being a masked ball simply added to his opportunities. So deeply did Jack ponder over this, that it was some little time before he grasped the fact that Lady Barmouth was still giving him details of the forthcoming function.

"I am asking a lot of most prominent actresses," she said , "together with a number of leading musicians, and they are getting up a kind of morris dance. Of course, the music will be supplied by a small band of famous artists, and I am getting this new man Padini to be present."

Here was more news with a vengeance. But there was nothing to be gained by telling Lady Barmouth what had been elicited with regard to Padini.

"I presume I shall be honored with an invitation," Jack suggested. "I see from the expression of your face that I am to be a guest. Might I beg the favor of a card for a friend of mine?"

"More mysteries!" Lady Barmouth laughed. "Oh, you need not tell me unless it is absolutely necessary. You shall take the card away with you if you like, and deliver it to your friend personally."

Jack was seeing his way pretty clearly by this time. He was anticipating more than one important discovery during the progress of the masked dance. The card he had begged was, of course, for Rigby, and it would go hard if between them they did not discover something of importance.

"Now, I am going to speak to you on a more or less painful topic," Jack said gravely. "And I am going to ask you to be exceedingly candid with me. I want you to tell me what is the exact connection between Lord Barmouth and the Nostalgo posters which are so prominent in London at present."

The jeweled pen with which Lady Barmouth had been scribbling on the two invitation cards fell from her fingers on to the blotting pad. There were trouble and unhappiness in her eyes, her face had turned deadly pale; it was some little time before she spoke.

"Must I really tell you that?" she almost pleaded. "You are striking directly at the root of the unhappiness which poisons this house. It is not as if you really knew anything----"

"But indeed I know more than you give me credit for," Jack urged. "It was of no seeking of mine; it was not the result of any vulgar curiosity; but last night when your husband was here I caught one glimpse of his face in the light of the log fire. And there I saw at once that I was face to face with Nostalgo. Believe me, it is with the greatest possible regret that I have to speak like this, but I am near to the heart of the mystery, and if you are plain and frank with me I am sanguine enough to believe that I can remove your unhappiness altogether."

"But the secret is not my own," Lady Barmouth faltered.

"Then let us assume that I have wrested it from you," Jack murmured. "It is no fault of yours that I know so much. It is no fault of yours that you are in some way under an obligation to somebody--an obligation which compelled you to be in Montrose Place last night. Luckily for us you kept your appointment. But there was somebody else also keeping an appointment in the courtyard. Whether he came there dragged by the force of circumstances, or whether he came to watch, matters little. But as he paused to light a cigarette and the pallid blue of the flame shone on his face I recognized--Lord Barmouth."

The listener said nothing; she merely bowed her head over the blotting pad before her.

"Ah! I feel the circumstances are too strong for me," she said . "It is as if you were pushing me over the edge of a precipice. I cannot decide this matter on my own initiative."

"That is exactly the line I hoped you would take," Jack cried eagerly. "After his interview with us last night, Lord Barmouth must be perfectly sure of the fact that Rigby and myself are actuated by the kindest motives towards him. Go and see him now, tell him all that I have said to you, and ask him if he will be good enough to grant me a ten minutes' private conversation. I am sure he will do this; indeed, if he refuses, there are others interested in the matter who may cause him to say in public what he declines to admit in private."

"I will do as you suggest," Lady Barmouth replied, "though I fear you will be met with a refusal as firm as it is courteous. If you will excuse me for a moment----"

Lady Barmouth said no more, but turned hurriedly and left the room. That she was very deeply moved Jack could see for himself. She came back presently, with a wan, white ghost of a smile on her lips, and a remark to the effect that Lord Barmouth was not prepared to accede to Jack's request offhand, but that he would give it his earnest consideration, and send his decision in the course of a quarter of an hour.

"It is exceedingly awkward for me," Jack said; "you can see how delicate the ground is I stand upon. But believe me I am only being cruel to be kind. I am sure that when I have finished my interview with Lord Barmouth he will be exceedingly glad that he has consented to see me."

"Oh, I quite understand your feelings," Lady Barmouth exclaimed. "It must be dreadful for a gentleman to appear obtruding like this. But are you quite sure that the figure you saw in the courtyard at Montrose Place last night was my husband? You seem to have forgotten the other Nostalgo who was supposed to have been found dead by yourself in Panton Square the other night."

Jack admitted readily enough that there were many sides to the mystery as yet unsolved. He was still discussing the point, when the footman entered, and gravely announced that Lord Barmouth was waiting to see Mr. Masefield. Lady Barmouth rose to her feet at once, and escorted Jack to a small room at the end of the corridor. The apartment was in complete darkness; it was just possible to discern the outline of a figure in an armchair.

"I am pleased to see you, Mr. Masefield. I think you will find an armchair on the other side of the fireplace. My dear, I shall be pleased if you will leave Mr. Masefield and myself alone together."


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