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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Yellow Face » CHAPTER XXVII. IN THE SMOKING-ROOM.
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CHAPTER XXVII. IN THE SMOKING-ROOM.

The woman looked about her as if half expecting to see somebody 'there who had come with evil intent. Jack could not fail to notice the extreme nervousness and agitation of her face. She was no longer quiet and subdued, as he had been accustomed to see her in Panton Square; she seemed as if some force had dragged her there against her will. She advanced towards the table, and, taking up a hat and coat lying there, proceeded to put them on as if she had finished her task whatever it was. If anything had frightened her, it was not, at any rate, the suggestion of burglars, for there was nothing of physical fear to be detected about her.

So far as Jack could discern, his companion appeared to be equally disconcerted. But there would be plenty of time presently to learn what Nostalgo knew about Serena. Events were moving rapidly now, and Jack felt that he would have plenty to tell Rigby later on. They stood aside till Serena had left the house, making sure that the latch was down, and that no one could enter the premises without a key. Jack turned to Nostalgo with an interrogative glance.

"The more we go into this thing," he said, "the more do we find one mystery piled upon another. Do you know that unfortunate lady?"

"If you do not mind, I would much rather you did not press that question," Nostalgo said, coldly. "I am going to help you all I can; I am going to do everything in my power both for your sake and mine; but there are some things which will not bear discussion, and this is one of them."

Jack turned away, feeling just a little hurt and disappointed. He would have found it difficult to say why, but he had taken a strange liking to the man by his side, perhaps because the man was suffering more from terrible misfortune than from his own imprudence.

"We will let it stand over for the present," he said, "but to be more candid than you are, I am greatly interested in that poor woman. I have known her for a long time now, and, as a novelist, I am bound to say that she greatly fascinates me. She always strikes me as a woman who has been tamed--she is so like a performing lion or tiger, if you will permit me the simile."

"I think I know what you mean," Nostalgo said. "The class of animal you speak of paces restlessly about its cage, a picture of moody discontent and more or less physical fear. And then the time comes when all the old savage instincts burst forth, and years of cruel treatment are avenged in the course of a moment."

"And so it would be with Serena," Jack said. "I have seen her cower and tremble before her master; I have seen her hand him a knife in the humblest possible fashion. And then I have seen her hands clench on the handle, and a gleam come into her eyes--on more than one occasion I have half expected to see her lean over and cut her master's throat from ear to ear. After this, perhaps, you may be disposed to say more on the subject?"

"We have never met, we have never been introduced," Nostalgo explained; "but I know who she is and all about her just the same. Do not press me more at present; the secret is not entirely my own. I can only tell you this: it was a great shock to me to meet that unfortunate lady to-night. But perhaps you know who she is?"

"I know perfectly well who she is," Jack said, "though the knowledge has come to me quite recently. Up to a day or two ago I regarded her in the prosaic light of Anstruther's housekeeper. She has always interested me, because she has always seemed to me to be a kind of wild animal who has been cleverly tamed. I have seen her like a tiger ready to spring; I have seen the lurking demon of passion in her eyes, as if she could destroy Anstruther and rejoice in the deed. And then a word from him or a glance, and she has cowered as timidly as the wife of the veriest bully in the world."

"But that isn't telling me who she is," Nostalgo said, impatiently.

"Well, she is Lady Barmouth's sister, to begin with," Jack said. "Now, perhaps, you may be inclined to be more communicative."

Nostalgo shook his head in a sorrowful manner, and proceeded to lead the way up-stairs. It was not lost upon Jack that his companion seemed to know his way about the house just as one would who had lived there for some time. He even seemed to know where to lay his hand upon each electric switch; in fact, his familiarity with the surroundings was apparent to the meanest understanding.

"One more word before we leave the subject," Jack said. "I showed you to-night the man who calls himself Padini. You recognized him as a man whom you had known in Mexico, and you left me to understand that he was as great a scoundrel as Anstruther, only that he lacked the necessary courage to carry his schemes into effect. Would it surprise you to know that this Padini is the husband of the poor woman who has just gone out?"

Nostalgo shook his head with the air of a man who is not hearing anything for the first time. As he had intimated before, the secret was not his own, and he showed no inclination to go into the matter now. He led the way to the first landing, from which the living-rooms branched off. Here was the fine, spacious hall where Jack had found himself on the night he had met Rigby there; the big ferns and palms were still scattered about; the evidences of luxury were plain. Only a rich man could have occupied so fine a suite of apartments. Nostalgo smiled as all these objects of art and luxury met his eye.

"All is not gold that glitters," he said; "in fact, nothing that glitters is gold. All this kind of thing would be calculated to impress any client who came along, but the British public is getting to understand the value of outside show. Let me see--this used to be the drawing-room in the old days, when----

"Nostalgo flicked up the lights, and there, bathed brilliantly by the flashing rays, was a room that would not have disgraced a palace. Carrington was a man of taste and feeling; his pictures were good, and his china would have fetched much money at Christie's. The lights were down again, and Nostalgo walked away in the direction of the dining-room. He might have been some contemptuous servant displaying his master's treasures to the admiring eye of a colleague. Everywhere the foot sank deeply into velvety carpets. Many fine sets of armor graced the corridor. There were one or two pictures of price here, also; a Corot, a dainty little Meissonier, a sketch or two from the brush of same other modern painters. Deeply interested as he was in the adventure, Jack did not fail to note and do justice to Carrington's taste.

"A whited sepulchre," Nostalgo murmured. "It is a poor jewel, after all, that lives in this perfect setting. Now, here is the dining-room. What do you think of it--old oak and old blue china with Flemish pictures of the best school? Elegant, is it not? You need not wonder why the women run after Carrington. But we will give them something to talk about presently."

With the assured step of one who knows every inch of the way, Nostalgo moved on to a small apartment behind the dining-room. This was fitted in the form of a smoking-room, with deep and cozy armchairs and comfortable divans against the Moorish walls. The whole thing was Moorish, from the decorations on the walls and the wonderful brass lamps depending from the painted ceiling. At the far end of the room were two double stained glass doors leading into a conservatory. The warmth here was grateful, and seemed to touch the senses drowsily. As to the rest, the conservatory was filled with masses of graceful feathery palms and ferns, beyond which was tier upon tier of red geraniums. The whole effect was wonderfully pleasing and artistic, and Jack did not hesitate to say so.

Nostalgo was not so enthusiastic.

"I wasn't thinking so much about that," he said drily. "I was regarding this little garden more in the light of a hiding place. You and I are going to play the eavesdropper, my friend. It is not a congenial occupation, I know; but there is precious little of anything congenial about this business. Carrington will be here presently, and probably Anstruther will accompany him."

"You are a bit of a detective in your way," Jack smiled.

"The conclusion is only what any one would call obvious," Nostalgo replied. "In the first place, all the servants have gone to bed, or that poor woman whom we saw down-stairs would not have been so careful to see that the door could not be opened without a latch-key. On the table behind you is a big silver salver with two glasses, a couple of syphons of soda-water, and a spirit-stand. What other conclusion do you come to than that Carrington is returning presently, and is bringing a friend with him?"

"I quite follow you," Jack said, "but there is one thing I don't understand. How is it that you can find your way about this house in so familiar a manner?"

"Ah, that is not so obvious," Nostalgo replied. "And yet the explanation is perfectly simple. Before I went to Mexico I was a friend of Carrington's. In those days his father was still alive, and he had not succeeded to so large a share of the business. As a matter of fact, Carrington and myself lived here together. He frequently discussed with me the improvements he would make here when once he was in a position to do so. The place where we are standing now used to be my dressing-room."

It seemed to Jack that Carrington must have been a cool hand indeed, and he suggested something of this to Nostalgo.

"Cool with the courage of despair," the latter said. "The night I came home and called on Carrington here, I thought he would have had a fit of apoplexy. Disfigured as I am, I am certain that he recognized me, but The Yellow Face 198 he was not slow to take advantage of my misfortunes. Directly he had recovered himself he became painfully polite, though he refused to acknowledge me as his quondam friend. You can quite see the point of that--so long as I could not prove my identity, he was able to keep me out of my property. But we have already discussed that point. And now you know why I am so familiar with the house, and how it comes about that I have a latch-key to fit the front door."

Nostalgo was apparently prepared to say more, only his quick hearing detected a suspicious sound below. He strode swiftly across the room, and switched out the light that had illuminated the room and the conservatory. It was an easy matter to find the hiding place amidst that tangle of ferns and flowers, and the two had hardly done so before the smoking-room door opened and Carrington came in, closely followed by Anstruther and Padini. The latter seemed to be terribly put out about something, for he flung his hat and coat upon the floor and dropped into a chair with an attitude of defiance.

"It is all very well for you," he exclaimed heatedly. "We do all the work and take all the risks, and you walk off with the profit. I tell you it is absolutely dangerous to work a scheme like ours from the Great Metropolitan Hotel."

There was a sneer on Anstruther's face as he helped himself to a cigarette and poured out a carefully-moderated dose of whiskey and soda.

"You little rascal," he said. He had the air of a man who, having tamed lions, was now contemptuously engaged in subduing less noble animals. "If you talk to me like this I will let you down altogether. You cannot injure me, but I can ruin you, body and soul. Go to your kennel, you hound."

Padini cowered before the flashing anger in Anstruther's eyes, and he muttered something to himself that might have been an apology; but the "listeners were a little too far away to hear.

"It is all very well for you," Padini whimpered. "You can call me a coward if you like--I am. It is not like you to run any risks at all. So long as I am at the Great Metropolitan Hotel, so sure is there danger."

"Send him off about his business," Carrington growled. "Why did you allow him to follow us here at all? He ought to have been in his own room by this time carrying on his share of the programme."

"Well, give me a programme," Padini said, with some show of spirit. "How am I to know what Anstruther wants unless he tells me beforehand? Is it to be nothing but Chopin to-night?"

In the same way that one humors a spoiled child, Anstruther took a note-book from his pocket and jotted a few names upon it.

"I think that will about do," he said. "Start with the 'Grand Polonaise,' and take the 'Fantasie in F' afterwards; then stick steadily to the programme I have marked on that sheet of paper."

Padini rose obediently enough now, and donned his hat and coat. He would have helped himself to a small modicum of refreshment, only Anstruther put him sternly aside. "None of that," he said, "and not one spot of anything till you have finished your night's work. We know what you are when you start. Now go at once."


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