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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Yellow Face » CHAPTER XXV. ON THE TRACK.
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The man standing there showed not the slightest trace of alarm. There was just the suggestion of a smile on his face, as if he felt confident of his position. Jack could even see that he was fingering a cigarette case, as if he were thinking more about tobacco than anything else. He advanced a little nearer to his pursuer, and the suggestion of a smile broadened to a look of absolute amusement.

"It seems to me that we have met before," he said, with an accent that left no doubt as to his nationality. "But I have just reminded you of the fact. The question is, what are you going to do?"

"Well, you are a very cool hand," Jack replied. "My obvious duty is to hand you over to the police for the attempted murder of Mr. Spencer Anstruther."

"Instead of which you are going to do nothing of the kind," the stranger replied. "Besides, you are quite wrong. I am prepared to admit the assault on Mr. Anstruther, but as to murdering him--nothing of the kind. Besides, you know perfectly well you are consumed with curiosity to know all about my mysterious self."

Jack smiled to himself despite the gravity of the situation. The stranger had hit off his thoughts exactly.

"You are naturally anxious to know," he said, "what happened to me after you were good enough to escort my unconscious body to Shannon Street police station. I see you are a little dubious as to whether I am the right man or not; but if you looked at me carefully, you would see there is no mistake whatever."

Jack advanced a few paces nearer the speaker, and surveyed him closely in the blinding light of the lantern. There was no doubt whatever that this was one and the same Nostalgo. There was a certain mark in the shape of a crescent scar on his chin, the same scantiness of eyebrow, and the same peculiar droop of the lids.

"I am quite satisfied that you are the same man," Jack said.

"That's all right," the stranger cried, eagerly. "Of course, I know quite well that you are deeply interested in this Nostalgo mystery, and good fortune has placed you in the position to find out all about it. Get rid of those fellows, and call me a hansom. As a guarantee of good faith, here is my card. The address leaves a great deal to be desired, but I assure you my quarters are a great deal more comfortable than the locality would convey. If you have not yet dined, perhaps you would not mind partaking of my bread and salt."

Jack did not hesitate a moment longer. It was, perhaps, playing it rather low down on the police, but it seemed almost a criminal folly to waste so golden an opportunity as this. If the man had been given in custody for the murderous assault upon Spencer Anstruther, there would be long and tedious investigations, which would not only delay the solution of the trouble, but perhaps scare away others who were more or less party to the mystery. After all said and done, Anstruther was not a penny the worse for his adventure, and no harm could be done in defeating the so-called ends of justice.

"You stay where you are," Jack said, "and I will see what I can do for you. The police are On three sides of the square, leaving this side open to me. It is only a matter of a little patience, and the thing is accomplished."

Jack emerged cautiously into the road and looked about him. So far as he could see the street was deserted, though he could hear the constables making signs to one another on the other three sides of the square. Whilst he was still debating in his mind what to do, an empty hansom crawled towards him. Jack ran back and signed to the driver not to stop.

"You can earn a sovereign if you like," he said. "Don't ask any questions, but do exactly what I tell you. Turn back, go just to the corner of the square, and then return slowly; when you are opposite the gates, pull up as if there was something the matter with your horse. Then a man will come out and jump into your cab. You are to drive him to the address which I am going to give you without asking any questions. Here is your sovereign, and now listen carefully to the address. That's all."

Jack returned hurriedly to the gardens, at the same time whistling loudly as if he had need of assistance. It was not long before the three constables came swarming over the railings, guided to the right spot by the flash of Jack's lantern.

"Now's your time," he whispered hurriedly. "There is a hansom waiting for you by the gate, and the driver knows exactly what to do and where to take you. He is already paid his fare."

The man Nostalgo smiled and vanished. It was an easy matter to satisfy the police that their quarry had eluded Masefield, and that he was still hiding somewhere in the gardens. Jack left them to their search presently under the plea that he had no further time to waste. He walked as far as Albany Street, and there took a cab to Mare Street, Hackney.

It was not a particularly desirable neighborhood, as the man Nostalgo had pointed out. The destination was a side street of great dingy houses, which a generation or two back had been inhabited by wealthy tradesmen and the like. Now the large houses had been cut up into small flats and tenements, and for the most part were occupied by artisans and the like. The gutter swarmed with children, disheveled-looking women stood gossiping on the door-steps; round a flaming gin palace a group of loafers had gathered. It seemed to Jack high time to dismiss his hansom, for evidently vehicles of that kind were not frequent visitors to the street. More than one of the loafers lounging heavily against the greasy walls looked pointedly at Jack, but he was not the class of man to be tackled single-handed, and therefore he was allowed to proceed unmolested to No. 14, where he asked for Mr. James Smith.

A surly-looking porter, evidently considerably the worse for drink, replied that Smith lived on the fifth floor.

"Not that I have ever seen him," he growled, propitiated by Jack's half-crown; "sort of secretive chap, only goes out after dark and all that sort of thing. Shouldn't wonder if the police came and walked off with him any day; but that's no business of mine, so long as he pays his rent regularly and don't give no trouble. Keeps a couple of servants, he does; but they ain't English, and we don't have no truck with them."

Unenlightened by this fragment of a biography, Jack made his way up the greasy staircase. There must have been scores of families living in the self-same house, for Jack could hear the cries of children, and an occasional oath from some angry man. He came at length to the fifth floor, the outer door of which was closed, and on this he knocked. He knocked a third time before the door was cautiously opened, and the sallow, almond-eyed face of a Chinaman peered out. Apparently the Celestial was satisfied as to his visitor, for he merely bowed and stood aside so that Jack might enter. Then the door was closed again and locked. There was another door at the end of a dingy passage, the walls of which had not been papered for years; but a passage through this revealed a different state of affairs entirely.

It was idle to enquire by what magic this thing had been brought about, but here, in this home of wretchedness and desolation, was a luxurious and comfortable home. In what appeared to be the hall was a remarkably fine specimen of Persian carpet. There were Moorish hangings, luxurious lounges and divans--the whole illuminated by a shaded lamp which depended from the ceiling. Jack could see other rooms beyond, quite as luxuriously furnished. In one of them a table had been laid out with a fair white cloth, and on the snowy damask appeared to be what was a perfectly appointed meal.

Jack could see the shaded lights falling on the flowers and silver, upon gold-necked bottles, and ruby wines in cut-glass decanters. A negro dressed like an English butler came silently from the room, carrying a silver coffee service in his hand. It was a fairy kind of dream, coming as it did upon the edge of stern reality. Jack would have been surprised had he not been long past that emotion. As it was, he allowed the Chinese servant to relieve him of his hat and coat, after which he was escorted to a small room at the back, where his queer host was smoking something quite exceptional in the way of a cigar.

"I thought you would come," he said. It was only when he stood up under the full light of the lamps that Jack could see what a fine figure of a man he was. "Sit down and try one of these cigars--dinner will not be ready for quite a quarter of an hour. You are rather surprised to find anything of this kind here, eh?"

"Well, rather," Jack said drily; "you hardly expect eastern palaces in the slums. I won't be vulgarly curious and ask why a man of your apparent means prefers to take up his quarters here, but what I want to know is this--how on earth did you manage to get all this luxury and refinement here without arousing the suspicions of your neighbors? There are men--ay, and women, too--under the same roof who would murder you cheerfully, if only to get hold of your silver coffee service."

"Oh, that's explained easily enough," Nostalgo cried. "My two servants are very faithful to me; they practically know no English, and when they go out they are dressed very very differently to what you see them now. As to the rest, we smuggled the things here a few at a time, and we did the papering and upholstering between us. As to why I choose to live here--ah, that is quite another matter."

The stranger finished with a stern abruptness that told Jack pretty plainly he was not expected to ask any further questions on that head. "You will know more about me presently," he said. "Meanwhile, I dare say you are curious to know what brought me lying apparently dead near Panton Square, and how my body disappeared from the police station. Of course, you suspect Anstruther of being at the bottom of the whole business; in fact, I presume Lord Barmouth told you all about that."

Here was another surprise, but Jack did not express it in words. He merely nodded, as if he took the whole thing for granted.

"We will let that pass," he said. "But why did Anstruther desire to have you put out of the way like that?"

"Well, it was either Anstruther or myself," the stranger said coolly. "To give you some idea of the feelings I entertain towards Anstruther, I will ask you to kindly look at that craotint over the mantelpiece. You may not believe it, but that picture represents me before I came under the baneful influence of the man we are discussing. Will you please look at it carefully?"

It was barely possible to recognize in those handsome features the almost repulsive ugliness of Nostalgo. Perhaps he read something of this passing through Jack's mind, for he smiled with exceeding bitterness.

"Yes, I don't think I need much justification. You know all about that business in Mexico, but Lord Barmouth was not the only victim. I also was left penniless and mutilated, and I swore that if ever fortune favored me, I would be even with Anstruther before I died. Fortune has favored me, and I am here with one set purpose before me."

"To kill Spencer Anstruther," Jack cried.

"Oh, dear, no," Nostalgo said; "do you suppose that I can think of no more terrible revenge than that? When you saw me holding that scoundrel to-night I had quite another purpose in my mind. If everything had gone well with me, London would have been startled to-morrow to hear of the strange disappearance of Spencer Anstruther. But you were good enough to prevent me, and I cannot blame you for that. But I am talking about myself, though you would like to hear more of other matters. I promised to tell you how I got away from Shannon Street police station. I expect my case puzzled the doctor, did it not?"

"You puzzled him exceedingly," Jack said. "How did you manage it?"

"I was shot in a peculiar manner, and with a peculiar weapon," Nostalgo explained. "The whole device was an invention of Anstruther's--in fact, I saw it in operation in Mexico. It is a kind of air gun arrangement that propels a sort of poisoned bullet encased in celluloid. The bullet penetrates a part not necessarily vital and dissolves there. There is practically no wound, the virulent poison in the bullet spreads all over the system and speedily does its work. But in my instance the shots fired were not fatal, for the simple reason that I am wearing a thin coat of highly-tempered chain mail."

"But the doctor did not notice that," Jack exclaimed.

Nostalgo made no reply for a moment; he seemed to be thinking about something else. His varying moods had not been lost upon Jack. He was stern and silent, then again happy and cheerful, and once more grim and sardonic. If he did not care to speak now, Jack had no desire to press him. He felt quite sure that the stranger had taken a liking to him, or he would not be enjoying his present novel situation. Nostalgo broke the silence at length as if he had suddenly realized that he was not alone.

"You have not traveled much, I presume?" he asked.

"No," Jack replied. "Only the usual Continental trips and all that kind of thing. Mine has been a very prosaic life up to now, and I have never found myself in the heart of a great adventure before. Now it seems to me as if I were going to have enough mystery to last me forever."

"Ah, as Shakespeare says, 'There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.' Had you lived my life, and knew the world as I know it, you would not be astonished at anything. Probably if you had read what I have told you in a novel, of the sensational kind, you would have pitched the book aside with a laugh of contempt. And now, confess it, have you ever heard before of a decadent modern man walking about in a mail shirt and being plugged by mysterious bullets, and all this in the streets of London?"

"Well, I confess that it does seem a little strange and outlandish," Jack admitted. "But when I come to think of it, and when I look at you, I can no longer hesitate. Some men are born for picturesqueness and adventure, and you are one of them. But all the same the doctor was utterly deceived."


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