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The Yellow Face written by Fred M. White This book was published in 1907. And now republish in ebook format. We believe this work is culturally important in its original archival form. While we strive to adequately clean and digitally enhance the original work, there are occasionally instances where imperfections such as missing pages, poor pictures or errant marks may have been introduced due to either the quality of the original work. Despite these occasional imperfections, we have brought it back into print as part of our ongoing global book preservation commitment, providing customers with access to the best possible historical reprints. We appreciate your understanding of these occasional imperfections, and sincerely hope you enjoy reading this book.
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The Yellow Face
Fred M. White
CHAPTER I. NOSTALGO.
CHAPTER II. THE CHOPIN NOCTURNE.
CHAPTER III. THE MYSTERY OF THE STRINGS.
CHAPTER IV. THE SPEAKING LIKENESS.
CHAPTER V. A VANISHED CLUE.
CHAPTER VI. VANISHED!
CHAPTER VII. NO. 4, MONTROSE PLACE.
CHAPTER VIII. THE CHOPIN FANTASIE.
CHAPTER IX. THE MAN WITH THE FAIR MOUSTACHE.
CHAPTER X. WHAT DID SHE KNOW?
CHAPTER XI. THE SHADOW ON THE WALL.
CHAPTER XII. LOCKED IN!
CHAPTER XIII. THE PARABLE.
CHAPTER XIV. NOSTALGO AGAIN.
CHAPTER XV. LADY BARMOUTH.
CHAPTER XVI. THE BOSOM OF HER FAMILY.
CHAPTER XVII. WHICH MAN WAS IT?
CHAPTER XVIII. THE EMPTY ROOM.
CHAPTER XIX. A BROKEN MELODY.
CHAPTER XX. THE MOUSE IN THE TRAP.
CHAPTER XXI. A LEADER OF SOCIETY.
CHAPTER XXII. THE PORTRAIT.
CHAPTER XXIII. FACE TO FACE.
CHAPTER XXIV. IN THE SQUARE.
CHAPTER XXV. ON THE TRACK.
CHAPTER XXVI. SERENA AGAIN.
CHAPTER XXVII. IN THE SMOKING-ROOM.
CHAPTER XXVIII. THE LAMP GOES OUT.
CHAPTER XXIX. THE SILVER LAMP.
CHAPTER XXX. BEDROOM 14.
CHAPTER XXXI. A CHANCE ENCOUNTER.
CHAPTER XXXII. LADY BARMOUTH'S JEWELS.
CHAPTER XXXIII. GEMS OR PASTE?
CHAPTER XXXIV. IN THE VAULT.
CHAPTER XXXV. THE CELLINI PLATE.
CHAPTER XXXVI. A STROKE OF POLICY.
CHAPTER XXXVII. A PREGNANT MESSAGE.
CHAPTER XXXVIII. THE CRY IN THE NIGHT.
CHAPTER XXXIX. PREPARING THE WAY.
CHAPTER XL. THE MAGICIAN SPEAKS.
CHAPTER XLI. THE WORM TURNS.
CHAPTER XLII. A PIECE OF MUSIC.
CHAPTER XLIII. THE TRAP IS BAITED.
CHAPTER XLIV. THE SUBSTITUTE.
CHAPTER XLV. CAUGHT!
CHAPTER XLVI. THE MUSIC STOPS.
CHAPTER XLVII. "A WOMAN SCORNED."
CHAPTER XLVIII. THE PROOF OF THE CAMERA.
CHAPTER XLIX. PROOF POSITIVE.
CHAPTER L. ON THE BRINK.
CHAPTER LI. AGAINST THE WORLD.
CHAPTER LII. THE END OF IT ALL.
The flickering firelight fell upon the girl's pretty, thoughtful face; her violet eyes looked like deep lakes in it. She stood with one small foot tapping the polished brass rail of the fender. Claire Helmsley was accounted fortunate by her friends, for she was pretty and rich, and as popular as she was good-looking. The young man by her side, who stood looking moodily into the heart of the ship-log fire, was also popular and good-looking, but Jack Masefield was anything but rich. He had all the brain and all the daring ambition that makes for success, but he was poor and struggling yet, and the briefs that he dreamed of at the Bar had not come.
But he was not thinking of the Bar now as he stood by Claire Helmsley's side. They were both in evening dress, and obviously waiting for dinner. Jack's arm was around Claire's slender waist, and her head rested on his shoulder, so that by looking up she could just see the shadow on his clean-cut face. Though the pressure of his arm was strong and tender, he seemed as if he had forgotten all about the presence of the girl.
"Why so silent?" the girl said. "What are you thinking about, Jack?"
"Well, I was thinking about you, dearest," Jack replied. "About you and myself. Also of your guardian, Anstruther. I was wondering why he asks me so often and leaves us so much together when he has not the slightest intention of letting me marry you."
The girl colored slightly. The expression in her violet eyes was one of pain.
"You have never asked my guardian," she said . "We have been engaged now for over six months, Jack, and at your request I have kept the thing a dead secret. Why should we keep the matter a secret? You are certain to get on in your profession, and you would do no worse if the world knew that you had a rich wife. My guardian is kindness itself. He has never thwarted me in a single wish. He would not be likely to try and cross my life's happiness."
Jack Masefield made no reply for a moment. It was perhaps a singular prejudice on his part, but he did not like the brilliant and volatile Dr. Spencer Anstruther, who was Claire's guardian. He would have found it impossible to account for this feeling, but there it was.
"My guardian has plenty of money of his own," Claire said, as if reading his thoughts.
"There you are mistaken," Jack replied. "This is a fine old house, filled with beautiful old things. Anstruther goes everywhere; he is a favorite in the best society. Men of letters say he is one of the finest talkers in the world. But I happen to know that he has very little money, for a lawyer told me so. That being so, the £2,000 a year you pay him till you marry or come of age is decidedly a thing to take care of. On the whole, dearest, we had better go on as we are."
Claire had a smile for her lover's prejudices. Personally she saw nothing amiss with her guardian. She crossed over to the window, the blinds of which had not yet been drawn, and looked out. She looked across the old-fashioned garden in front of the house to the street beyond, where a few passengers straggled along. On the far side of the road stood an electric standard holding a flaring lamp aloft. The house opposite was being refaced, so that it was masked in a high scaffold.
As was the custom in London, the scaffolding had been let out to some enterprising bill-posting company. It was a mass of gaudy sheets and placards puffing a variety of different kinds of wares. In the centre, bordered by a deep band of black, was one solitary yellow face with dark hair and starting eyes. At the base was the single word "Nostalgo."
An extraordinary vivid and striking piece of work for a poster. The face was strong and yet evil, the eyes were full of a devilish malignity, yet there was a kind of laugh in them too. Artists spoke freely of the Nostalgo poster as a work of positive genius, yet nobody could name the author of it. Nobody knew what it meant, what it foreshadowed. For two months now the thing had been one of the sensations of London. The cheap Press had built up legends round that diabolically clever poster; the head had been dragged into a story. The firm who posted Nostalgo professed to know nothing as to its inner meaning. It had become a catchword; actors on the variety stage made jokes about it. But still that devilish yellow face stared down at London with the malignant smile in the starting eyes.
"Jack, they have put up a fresh 'Nostalgo' poster on the hoarding opposite," Claire said. "I wish they hadn't. That face frightens me. It reminds me of somebody."
"So it does me," Jack replied, with sudden boldness. "It reminds me of your guardian."
Claire smiled at the suggestion. The guardian was a large, florid man, well-groomed and exquisitely clean. And yet as Jack spoke the yellow face opposite seemed to change, and in some way the illusion was complete. It was only for an instant, and then the starting eyes and the queer smile that London knew so well were back again.
"You make me shudder," Claire said in a half-frightened way. "I should never have thought of that. But as you spoke the face seemed to change. I could see my guardian dimly behind it. Jack, am I suddenly growing nervous or fanciful? The thing is absurd."
"Not a bit of it," Jack said stoutly. "The likeness is there. It may be a weird caricature, but I can see it quite plainly. Don't you recall how Anstruther breaks out into yellow patches when he is excited or angry? I tell you I hate that man. I may be nonsensical, but——"
Jack paced up and down the room as if lost in thought. The light was shining on the face on the hoarding—it seemed to look at him with Spencer Anstruther's eyes.
"There is something wrong in this house," he said. "I feel it. You may laugh at me, you may say that I am talking nonsense, but there it is. The strange people who come here——"
"Sent by the police mainly. Don't forget that my guardian is one of the greatest criminologists of our time. There is no man in London who can trace the motive of a crime quicker than Mr. Anstruther. There was that marvelous case of those missing children, for instance——"
"Oh, I know," Jack said, with some suggestion of impatience in his voice. "And yet, if you don't mind, we will say nothing of our engagement at present."
Claire contested the point no longer. After all she was very happy as things stood. She had plenty of chances of meeting her lover, and Mr. Anstruther seemed to be altogether too wrapped up in his scientific studies to notice what was going on under his very eyes. He came into the room at the same moment humming a fragment of some popular opera.
There was nothing whatever about the man to justify Jack Masefield's opinions. Spencer Anstruther was calculated to attract attention anywhere. The man was tall and well set up, he had a fine commanding face softened by a tolerant and benign expression. People looked after him as he walked down the street and wondered which popular statesman he was. In society Anstruther was decidedly welcome, amongst men of learning he was a familiar figure. His scientific knowledge was great, certain publications of his were regarded in the light of text-books. Altogether he was a man to cultivate.
"I am afraid that I am late, young people," he said in a smooth, polished voice. "I hope you have been able to amuse yourselves together in my absence. You look moody, Jack. Don't those briefs come in as freely as you would like? Or have you been quarreling?"
"No, sir," Jack replied. "We never quarrel; we are too good friends for that. We have not the excuse in that way that lovers are supposed to possess."
"We have been studying that awful poster," Claire said. "I wish somebody would take it away. Jack is always seeing some likeness in it. He says that you——"
The girl paused in some confusion. Anstruther smiled as he put up his glasses.
"It is a complex face," he said. "Whose features does it remind you of just now, Jack?"
"Yours," Jack said boldly. He flashed the word out suddenly. Half to himself he wondered why he always felt a wild desire to quarrel with this man. "I hope you won't be offended, sir, but I can see a grotesque likeness to you in the famous repellent Nostalgo."
Claire looked up in some alarm. She was wondering how her guardian would take it. The log fire in the grate shot up suddenly and illuminated Anstruther's face. Perhaps it was the quick flare that played a trick on Claire's fancy, for it seemed to her that suddenly Anstruther's face was convulsed with rage. The benign pink expression had gone, the features were dark with passion, the fine speaking eyes grew black with malignant hatred. Claire could see the hands of the man clenched so hard that the knuckles stood out white as chalk. And there with it all was the likeness to Nostalgo that Jack had so boldly alluded to. The fire dropped and spurted again, and when it rose for the second time the face of Spencer Anstruther was smooth and smiling.
Claire passed her handkerchief across her eyes to concentrate the picture of fiendish passion that she had seen. Was it possible that imagination had played some trick on her? And yet the picture was as vivid as a landscape picked out and fixed upon the retina by a flash of lightning on a dark night. The girl turned away and hid her white face.
"I should like to meet the artist who drew that face," Anstruther said, with a smile. "One thing I am quite certain of—it is not the work of an Englishman. Well, it has found London something to talk about, and the advertisement is a very clever one. I dare say before long we shall discover that it is exploited in the interest of somebody's soap."
"I am inclined to favor the view that Nostalgo is something novel in the way of a thought-reader or a spiritualist," Jack said. "It seems to me——"
The dining-room door was thrown open by a woman servant, who announced that dinner was served. They passed across the hall into a large dark-walled room, the solitary light of which was afforded by a pair of handsome candelabra on the table. There were not many flowers, but they were all blood red, with a background of shiny, metallic green. The woman who waited passed from one plate to another without making the slightest sign. As she came into the rays of the shaded candles from time to time Jack glanced at her curiously. She was dressed in sombre, lustreless black, with no white showing at all. There was no cap on her head—nothing but a tangle of raven-black hair. Her brows were black and hairy, her skin as dark, so that her faded eyes were in striking contrast to her swarthy appearance. Her hands were very strong and capable, the mouth firm to the verge of cruelty. And yet there was something subdued, something beaten about the woman, as if she had been taken in a wild state and tamed. Anstruther seldom addressed an order to her in words; a motion of the hand, the raising of an eyelid seemed to be sufficient for those pale, tired eyes, which somehow never for one instant relaxed their vigilance.
The woman was a mystery of the house; she seemed to be entirely dominated by her master's will. And yet there were strength and passion there, Jack felt certain. The fanatic only slumbered. A pansy fell from one of the flower vases, and Jack started out his hand to replace it.
"Did you ever see the evil face in the heart of a pansy blossom?" he asked, for there was a pause in the conversation. "It is a demon face—and familiar too. Miss Helmsley, whose face does this saffron heart of the pansy remind you of?"
Claire took the pansy from Jack's hand and studied it with a frown on her pretty face.
"Why, of course," she cried. "I see what you mean. It is Nostalgo, the man with the yellow face."
Claire gave the desired assurance, and rose from the table. She would have Jack's coffee saved for him in the drawing-room, she said. Anstruther lit a cigarette, and began to talk of crime. Crime and criminals had a fine fascination for him. Scotland Yard offered valuable inspiration for his new book on the criminal instinct, and in return he had been in a position to give the officials yonder one or two useful hints. The case he had on hand just now was a most fascinating one, but, of course, his lips were sealed for the present. Jack forgot his dislike in the fascination of the present.
"Stay here and finish your cigar," Anstruther said as he rose and pitched his cigarette into the fire. "I'll go into my study and work this thing out with the aid of my violin. I may be an hour or so, or I may be longer. If I have finished before eleven o'clock I'll come up with my fiddle, and we'll get Claire to play. If you require any more claret you can ring the bell."
Jack sat there for a time smoking and thinking matters over. Presently, from the study beyond, came the sound of music. Really, Anstruther was a wonderful man—he seemed able to do anything. He was not perhaps a great performer on the violin—his playing was a little too mechanical, and seemed to lack soul—but the execution was brilliant enough. Jack opened his cigarette case only to find that it was empty. There was a fresh supply in the pocket of his overcoat, which was hanging in the hall. He would be just in time for one more, and then he would join Claire in the drawing-room. The hall light had been turned low, so that, as Jack stood in the vestibule fumbling in his coat pocket, he was not visible, though he could see what was going on in the hall behind him.
There was a spot of light at the head of the staircase. Somebody was standing there looking down into the hall—somebody in a rough jacket buttoned to the throat and wearing a pair of rubber-soled shoes, for the intruder made not the slightest noise. Jack wondered if some impudent burglar was raiding the house at this hour. If so, he would get a warm reception presently. Jack stood there as the figure came down the stairs and turned along a corridor to the left of the drawing-room. But there was no challenge and no fight, for the simple reason that in the hall light, as the stranger passed, Jack recognized the face of Spencer Anstruther. There was no doubt about it; there was no possibility of a mistake here.
Inside the study the music once more began. Very gently Jack tried the handle of the door, but it was locked. Under ordinary circumstances this would have excited no suspicion; perhaps there was another way into the room by way of the corridor. But if so that did not explain why Anstruther was creeping about his own house in the semblance of a burglar, and wearing rubber-soled shoes. There was something creepy about the whole business. Jack returned to the vestibule again, and from there he passed into the garden. The study was at the side of the house, and a belt of shrubs outside afforded a pretty good cover. There was the study under with the blinds down and a strong light inside. Jack noted that it was a French window, a window frequently used, because the stone step outside had been worn by the pressing of many feet.
The smooth melody of Chopin was playing on inside. Jack stooped down to where he could see the lace flowers on the blind, and looked into the room. There was a little slit in the blind where the sun had worn it, and by this slit the whole of the room could be seen. The music had softened down to a piano passage taken very slowly. But Jack was not thinking of the music now at all, though the strains were soothing and flowing enough.
He rubbed his eyes to make sure that they did not deceive him. No, the room was plain enough, so was the sound of the music. And with it all the room was absolutely empty!
It was the most extraordinary thing in the world. Beyond question the room was absolutely empty. Jack could see to the far side; he noted the pictures and the flowers and the vases on the mantelpiece. His view was naturally narrowed by a small spyhole, but there was no portion of the room hidden from him, though he could not quite see the whole of it at one time.
The music was proceeding quite smoothly, though with pauses now and again. It was followed now and then by what sounded like subdued applause.
Jack stepped back from the window. He wanted to make certain that he had not mistaken the room. No, the sounds of music came from the study right enough. At the risk of being discovered he crept back into the house again and tried the study door. It was locked, and what was more, the key was in the lock, as the application of an eye testified.
And the music was proceeding quite swiftly again. The mystery was absolutely maddening. Jack wondered if there was some cabinet in the study hidden from view where the player had taken up his stand. At any rate somebody was playing Chopin's music—playing it very well. There was no magic about the thing.
The hall of the house was very quiet, nobody seemed to be about. Occasionally there came the sound of mirth from the servants' hall, but nothing more. Fully determined to get to the bottom of this mystery, Jack returned to the garden again. Once more his eye was glued to the slit in the blind. He could make nobody out in the room. There was little fear of his being detected, because a belt of shrubs hid the window from the road.
Without the slightest warning a figure appeared in the room. It was impossible to see where she came from, but of necessity she must have entered by the door. Jack was a little uncertain on that head, for his glance was not directed towards the door for the moment.
He saw the figure of a woman, young and exceedingly well dressed. She was wearing an evening gown of white satin that showed up the creamy pallor of her skin, for her neck and shoulders were bare. The neck was rather thin, Jack noted, and the shoulders more inclined to muscle than beauty. For a young girl it struck Jack that the upper part of her body looked old. But the face was dark and wholesome, and against the deep eyes and swarthy complexion the girl's hair was dazzling. It was beautiful, rippling hair, changing color as the light flashed upon it.
"Well, this is a bit of an adventure," the watcher told himself. "But where's the person in the room who let the young lady in? Somebody must have let her in, because the door was locked and the key on the inside. I saw it there, so I can swear to that fact. But who is she?"
There were many answers to the problem, for Spencer Anstruther was a man who had countless strange visitors. His vast knowledge of crime and the ramifications of human depravity brought him in contact with large numbers of people. Men and women in distress often came to him, and they came in increasing numbers since Anstruther had got the better of a gang of scoundrels in a recent famous blackmailing case. Sometimes these people came on their own initiative, sometimes they were sent by the police. But Anstruther never said anything about them. He looked upon himself as a confidential agent. Claire could have told of many curious visitors at all hours, though Anstruther never so much as alluded to them afterwards.
But this girl did not look in the least like anybody in trouble. Her dark features were almost expressionless; there was no display of violent emotions there. Her gaze slowly wandered round the room as if looking for something; she had much the aspect of a pupil whose attention is called to a blackboard by a master. As Jack watched, it seemed to him that he had seen this girl before. He could not recollect anybody in the least like her; that contrast of dark skin and fair hair was striking enough to impress itself upon the most careless mind, and yet Jack could not give the face a name. He could not permit himself to believe that he had made a mistake. He knew perfectly well that the expressionless features were quite familiar to him.
The girl stood for some little time, as if waiting for her lesson. Jack's eyes were glued so closely upon her that he did not notice the coming of another person—a man this time. He was a young man, with sleek, well-brushed brown hair, and dark, well-groomed moustache turned up after the fashion affected by the German Emperor. The man was perfectly well appointed, his evening dress and white waistcoat were faultless. His face was strong, but it did not convey anything intellectual. There were scores of such men to be seen any day during the London season, all groomed the same, all apparently finished in the same machine.
The man bowed and smiled to the lady, and she bowed and smiled in return. It was rather a graceful bow; it seemed to Jack that she looked at her companion to see if it were quite correct. Then the two proceeded to talk in dumb show, partly by signs and partly by fingers. The mystery was getting deeper—one of these two was a deaf mute, perhaps both of them. Was this one of Anstruther's cases, or did it possess a far deeper significance?
The solution was beyond Jack Masefield. He might have been on the track of a mystery, and on the other hand he might merely be doing a little vulgar eavesdropping. If it was the latter, and Anstruther found him out, he need not hope to visit Claire at home any more. Anstruther was most particular about these things, as Jack knew; but he set his teeth together and decided to take the risk. He felt pretty sure that there was something here that touched the household deeply.
He turned just for the moment, with an idea that somebody was behind him. But the strip of lawn was quite clear. Jack could see through the belt of trees to the street again beyond, with its great arc light flaring on the yellow face of the mysterious Nostalgo and his starting, half-laughing eyes. That weird face seemed to form a fitting background to the room mystery.
But Jack had his eyes to the slit in the blind again. Inside the pantomime in show was still going on. The girl seemed to be getting a lesson of some kind, and her tutor appeared to be pleased, for he smiled and clapped his hands from time to time. Then he took out his watch and consulted it with a frown. As he glanced up the girl crossed the room to the mantelpiece and opened the face of the clock. With a quick movement she put it back half-an-hour.
The man in the faultless evening dress nodded approval. There was a little pause before he approached the window and stood so that his shadow was picked out clean against the strong light of the room. Then he rapidly signaled with his arm. One arm went up, there was a noise of rings and a flutter of drapery, and then a heavy curtain was jerked over the window, and Jack could see no more. Try as he would, no ray of light could he make out. It was as if the lights had been switched off, leaving the room in utter darkness.
What on earth did it all mean? Beyond doubt the young man in evening dress had signaled to somebody outside when he stood close against the window and raised his arm. Jack congratulated himself on the fact that the slit in the blind was low down, so that he had not to stand against the light. He slipped into the belt of shrubs and watched for a moment, but no further sign came.
What were those people inside going to do? The solution flashed upon Jack instantly. They had not come there so perfectly dressed for the mere sake of seeing Spencer Anstruther. They had not been spending the evening anywhere, dining and that kind of thing beforehand, for they looked too spruce and fresh for that. The woman's toilette in particular had evidently been just donned, as if fresh from the hands of her maid. And she had put the clock back half-an-hour.
"They are going somewhere in half-an-hour," Jack decided. "Hang me if I don't follow them. By the right time it is half-past ten. Anstruther said he should not come up if he failed to get his business finished before eleven, at which time he will expect me to go. I'll go up to the drawing-room and talk to Claire for a little time just to avert suspicion."
He crept back into the house without being seen, he finished his claret, and dropped the stump of his cigarette on to his dessert plate. As he made his way up the stairs the music began again. That music was not the least maddening part of the mystery.
"What a time you have been," Claire said as she tossed her book aside. "All by yourself down there! Really, Jack, you modern young men are so cold-blooded that——"
"I'm not so far as you are concerned, dearest," Jack, said as he kissed the girl. "I had something to do; I was working out a case that puzzled me."
"A case in some way connected with the law, I suppose?" Claire asked.
"Well, yes," Jack replied. He quite believed that the case was connected with the law. "I begin to see my way to its solution. I suppose there is not the slightest chance of your guardian coming up to-night?"
Claire replied that it did not look like it. Evidently the solution of the music problem was not an easy one, for the violin was going again as if it had only just begun.
"It makes me feel creepy," Claire exclaimed. "Fancy the idea of tracking a criminal by means of divine melody like that! Jack, don't you notice something strange about it?"
"I should say that I do," Jack said. "Why, the whole thing—really, I beg your pardon, darling. I—I was thinking about something else. It was the case I alluded to just now."
"My dear boy, you are very strange in your manner to-night," Claire said. "You look pale and distracted. Trust the eyes of love to see anything like that. You haven't bad news for me, Jack?"
Masefield forced a smile to his lips. It was hard work to maintain his ordinary manner in the face of the strange scene that he had witnessed that night.
"I have certainly heard no news since dinner time," he said. "What did you expect me to say?"
"I thought that perhaps you had mentioned me to my guardian; that you had changed your mind, and told him that you and I were going to be married some time."
"No, your name was never mentioned, dearest. Anstruther was full of his case and gave me no opportunity. He went off directly he had finished his tobacco. As a matter of fact, Claire, I am more resolved than ever to say nothing about our engagement to Mr. Anstruther."
"It is very strange that you mistrust him like that, Jack."
"Perhaps it is, little woman. Call it instinct, if you like. I know that women are supposed to hold the monopoly of that illogical faculty. They dislike a man or a woman without being able to say why, and in the course of time that man or woman turns out to be a villain. There is no denying the fact that I feel the same way towards your guardian. I am convinced that once he knows the truth you will be in danger. I said before that he is a poor man, and the enjoyment of your £2,000 during the time——"
"My dear Jack, you are perfectly horrid," Claire murmured. "If I were a nervous girl you would frighten me. As it is, I feel certain that you are utterly wrong. My guardian is one of the most delightful of men. If he were not, plenty of clever people would have found it out. And, besides, why do so many unfortunate people come to him to advise them, which he does with great trouble to himself and no hope of reward?"
Jack admitted that perhaps he was wrong. And he had no desire either to frighten Claire. He had not the slightest intention of telling her what he had discovered that night.
"Let us be less personal," he said. "What was the strange thing that you noticed about your guardian's playing?"
"That it is so much better than usual," Claire said. "There seemed more passion and feeling in the music. My guardian is a brilliant violin player, but I have not hitherto noticed much feeling in his style. Now, listen to the thing that he is playing at present."
"Chopin's Fantasie in F," Jack muttered. "I know it very well indeed. It is a favorite of mine."
There was certainly plenty of expression and feeling in the music. Jack was bound to admit that. The fantasie came to an end with a crash of two chords, and Claire clapped her hands.
"Beautiful!" she cried. "I must really compliment my guardian on the improvement in his style. You are not going already, Jack? It's not quite eleven yet."
"I'm very sorry, dear, but I have that case to look into to-night," Jack said, with perfect truth. He saw that the hands of the big clock on the mantelpiece were creeping on to the hour. "Anstruther won't come up to-night; he said he should be here by eleven if he were. And he gave me a hint not to stay later. I shall see you at the Warings' to-morrow night. Good-night, darling."
Claire put up her red lips to be kissed. She would have seen Jack to the door, but he pointed out that the night was chilly and Claire's dress thin. Neither would he have the butler summoned. His coat and hat were in the hall, and he would get them himself. A moment or two later and he was standing in the garden behind the strip of shrubs. He was quite free to act now; he had nobody in the way. As he stood there, a distant church clock boomed the hour of eleven.
"Now we shall see what we shall see," Jack muttered. "I'm going to find whether there is a mystery of the house or whether these people are merely Anstruther's clients. Oh!"
As he spoke the dark curtain over the study window was pulled back, and the figure of the young man in the evening dress was clean cut against the light. Then a black arm pulled for the catch of the window, and the young man, pushing the blind aside, came out. He was wearing an overcoat now, and a tall hat. He seemed to be waiting for somebody.
Then the figure of the dark-faced, fair-haired girl came out. She was cloaked from head to foot in a blue wrap trimmed with feathers; her fair hair was not covered. No word was spoken, but Jack could see that they were conversing still by signs.
The watcher wondered if he had time to get inside the room. But that little idea was dismissed at the outset, for the young man pushed the window to carefully and the latch clicked. It was quite evident that the long sash closed with a spring lock, which was a most unusual thing for French windows to do. As the strange pair went down the side path Jack stepped into the open. He wanted to assure himself as to the window being fastened. He pulled at it hard, but it did not yield. At the same moment from the window of the room came a strange, brilliant crash of music. Yet that room was absolutely empty, as Jack would have been prepared to swear in any court of England.
"I'll wake up either from a dream or in a lunatic asylum presently," he muttered. "And now for those other people. Good thing they had no idea of being followed."
Jack was in the road now, and taking his way through the quiet nest of squares between Bloomsbury and Regent's Park. He could see his quarry a hundred yards or so before him; there was nobody else, and there was not the slightest chance of those in front being lost. A horse's hoof clicked on the wood pavement as a well-appointed hansom passed the tracker. Then he saw the hansom pull up by the curb and the deaf mutes in front jump in, as if the whole thing had been arranged, and drive off.
The thing was so sudden and unexpected that Jack was nonplused for a moment. There was no chance of following these people, for there probably was not another hansom within half-a-mile of the spot. Jack stood hesitating in the silence of the road; he could hear the steady flick-flack of the horse's hoofs as the rubber-tired hansom hurried on, and then suddenly the horse's hoofs stopped. They had not died out in the distance; they had merely stopped.
Jack hurried forward; he had not given up all hope yet. He might overtake the hansom and by good luck meet an empty one going towards the Strand. As he turned a corner, he saw to his surprise the figure of the young man in evening dress come silently towards him on the other side of the road. Then the stranger crossed the road and turned down the far side of the square as if he were going to complete the circuit and join his cab again. As the man vanished Jack heard a thudding sound, followed by a sound like the tearing of stiff paper, like the rattle of peas on a drum, a queer stifled cry, and then silence. On the impulse of the moment, Jack turned and followed.
At the angle stood a row of houses, some of them being repaired. Jack heard somebody speak to somebody else a little way down the road. He looked across at the opposite houses to see that they were in scaffolding and that they were plastered with bills. A little way above the ground in front of the centre house being repaired was one of the repulsive, clever Nostalgo posters with the yellow face looking out.
But there was something else lying there at full length on the pavement, the body of a man with his face up to the stars. With a little cry Jack crossed the road. Almost instantly a policeman stood by his side.
"Drunk," he said. "A gentleman who's just gone down the road told me a man was lying drunk on the pavement. My word, sir, but he's got the complaint pretty bad."
"He has," Jack said, with a catch in his voice. "The man isn't drunk; he's dead. He's been murdered. Shot through the head and breast. Show your lantern here, officer."
The officer flashed the strong, searching rays on the face of the dead man. As he did so he gave a cry, and pointed to the hoarding behind him with a finger that shook a little.
"Dead, sir, and murdered, beyond doubt," he said. "But that's not the strangest part of it. Look at his face and the expression of his eyes; look at the yellow face and——"
"Good heaven!" Jack cried. "The yellow face, the face of the diabolical poster behind you. As I am a living man, we have found Nostalgo in the flesh."
The dead man grinned up, the poster grinned down. And the face of the dead and the face in the print were exactly the same!
Masefield looked at the figure on the pavement in a dazed kind of way. Beyond all question there lay the embodiment of the famous Nostalgo poster. London had been discussing the mystery of the poster for weeks already. The amazing hideous cleverness of it had struck the popular imagination, the artistic side of it had appealed to those of culture. Nobody had the least idea what it was intended to convey. Every daily paper promising a correct solution on a certain day would have added tremendously to its circulation.
Then there had been those who had declared that the poster was a portrait; they had held that no artist could imagine a face quite like that. And here was dread confirmation of the theory. Absolutely the poster and the dead man were identical. The same long, thin nose, the same starting eyes, the same suggestion of diabolical cunning in the smile.
In the poster Nostalgo wore a turn-down collar and a loosely-knotted red tie. It was the same with the dead man on the pavement. As to the rest, his dress was conventional enough—a frock coat and gray trousers, a tall silk hat which had rolled into the road.
"Don't you think that you had better search his pockets?" Jack suggested.
The constable replied that it was not a bad idea. But a close examination produced no definite result. There were no papers on the body, nothing beyond a handful of money—gold and silver and coppers all mixed up together in the trousers pocket. There was not even a watch.
"This game's beyond me," the officer muttered, as he blew his whistle. "We must get this poor chap conveyed to the police station. Foreigner, ain't he?"
But Jack could not say. The sweeping, coarse black hair pushed back from the bulging forehead, and the yellow, guinea-colored face suggested the Orient. But the lips were thin like the nose, and these might have belonged to some Spanish hidalgo. It was impossible to decide.
"You were close by," the policeman said. "Didn't you see anything, sir?"
"Nothing whatever," said Jack. "I was just passing along on the side of the square at right angles with this spot. I certainly saw a young man come along, but I didn't notice him much. I expect he was the young man who told you that a 'drunk' awaited you here."
"I expect he was, sir; young man with his moustache turned up like the German Emperor's."
Jack started, but said nothing. It was not for him to say anything of the strange sight that he had seen in Spencer Anstruther's study. The young man in question had left his hansom; probably he had come back for something forgotten; therefore, on the whole, Jack felt that he could not in any way connect him with this mystery.
And yet Spencer Anstruther's young friend must have been close by at the very moment the murder was committed. It seemed impossible to believe that he had not heard that choking cry, and that strange noise like the tearing of calico or the scatter of peas on a tray. But, on the other hand, the murdered man had been shot, and shooting implies noise. Certainly Jack had heard nothing that in any way would be connected with the firing of a revolver.
And yet there was that tearing sound, and the strange fact that the Nostalgo of the poster had tears in him in exactly the same place as the real man who had been wounded. There was a plot calculated to puzzle Spencer Anstruther himself, and Jack said so aloud.
"I don't think as even he'd guess this," the policeman said. "Friend of yours by any chance, sir?"
"I had not left his house five minutes before I found that body," Jack said. "If you like, I will go back and bring Mr. Spencer Anstruther here."
Here was a chance to get at the other business, the mystery of the strange music. It was a legitimate errand enough, but the policeman shook his head. He did not want to take anything so important upon his own shoulders, his inspector being "down on that kind of thing." Two constables with the ambulance came at length. They asked no questions, but hoisted the body up and turned immediately in the direction of Shannon Street police station.
"I think you had better come along, sir," the first policeman suggested to Jack. "It's just possible that the inspector may want to ask you a few questions."
Masefield followed. He smiled just a little as he noted the speaker's tone. If not exactly in custody, he was at least expected to give a good account of himself. To his great relief he found the inspector not in the least disposed to assume the official manner; on the contrary, he seemed rather a timid man, though his eyes were steady enough.
"I have told you everything, sir," Jack said at length. "I only wish it might have been more. If there is any further way in which I can be of assistance to you——"
"You are very good, sir," the inspector said. "What we have to do now is to push the matter forward before the scent gets cold. It is very imperative that we discover who this man is. The first person to apply to is the firm of advertising contractors who posted those bills. Did anybody happen to notice the firm whose hoarding the deceased man was found against?"
"As a matter of fact, I did," Jack said, as the officer shook his head. "Not that that is a sure find for you, Mr. Inspector, seeing that those bills appeared on the hoardings of all the bill-posting firms in London. Still, they may have emanated in the first place from one firm, and perhaps that firm was Freshcombe & Co."
"That being the name on the top of the hoarding we are speaking of?" the inspector asked. "You have a keen eye for detail, sir; it was very smart of you to notice that."
"Not at all; it was almost an accident. The mere fact of finding the prototype of the famous Nostalgo poster was sufficiently startling to brace all one's faculties. In glancing at the hoarding I saw the name of Freshcombe & Co. on the top. The name was impressed upon my memory by the fact that quite recently I appeared for Freshcombe & Co. in an action they brought against a rival firm for damages. That is why I have the name so exact."
The inspector smiled with the air of a man who is well pleased with himself. In that case Mr. Masefield practically knew the head of Freshcombe & Co., and where he lived. In that event the inspector proposed to go direct to the gentleman in question and ask for a few particulars.
"There I can help you again," Jack said. "I had several interviews with Mr. Freshcombe through his solicitor, and one of them took place in Mr. Freshcombe's own house in Regent's Park Crescent."
The inspector waited to hear no more. One of his men would call a cab, and perhaps Mr. Masefield would be good enough to go as far as Regent's Park Crescent and smooth the way. It was getting late now, but Jack had no objection. He was keenly interested in this mystery, and he must get to the bottom of it if he could. He had a few questions to ask as the cab rolled away, but none of them struck the inspector as being to the point. But Jack knew better.
Fortunately Mr. Freshcombe had not gone to bed, though the house was in darkness. The stout little prosperous-looking man of business started as he caught sight of the inspector's uniform. Something in connection with burglary rose uppermost in his mind as he asked his visitors' business.
"I hope there is nothing wrong," he stammered. "Ah, how do you do, Mr. Masefield? Will you gentlemen be so good as to step inside. There is a fire in the dining-room. Anything in the way of a cigar, or——"
But the inspector came to business at once. It was plain that his story interested the listener, for he followed with eyes of rounded astonishment. He punctuated the story with surprised grunts.
"Bless my soul!" he explained. "Whoever would have thought it? I never expected that there was anybody like that famous poster. I had two thousand of them through my hands in the way of business, and they struck me as clever, very clever indeed. Personally, I regarded them as theatrical bills."
"Then you can't tell us anything about them?" the inspector asked, with an air of chagrin.
"Nothing whatever," Freshcombe replied promptly. "As I said before, the posters came to us in the ordinary way of business. There was an air of secrecy about the whole thing."
"Which did not attract your attention? Did not appeal to your suspicions, I mean?"
"Not a bit of it. The advertiser wanted to create an air of mystery and sensation. How well that has been managed I leave you to guess. Being, moreover, exceedingly shrewd, the advertiser did not mean his name to leak out. I received a note one day asking my terms for displaying a thousand of those posters on all the hoardings in London, and my people sent in a quotation."
"That letter came from another business house, I presume, sir?" the inspector asked.
"No, it didn't. It was from a certain Mr. John Smith, and was written from the Hôtel Royale, and on the official paper of the hotel. Three days later the posters arrived per a firm of carriers, and the same afternoon a check drawn by John Smith on the City and Provincial Bank. We cashed the check and posted the bills. I may say that, in the usual course of business, I should not have known this; but I was a little struck by the posters and their mystery, so I made inquiries. I assure you that I have not time to go into these minor details as a rule."
"I am rather disappointed," the inspector said. "I hardly expected this. The mystery of the posters——"
"Was part of the cleverness of the scheme," Freshcombe interrupted. "As a rule, these things leak out and spoil the game. Why, half-a-dozen newspaper men have been asking questions in my office."
"Then you don't even know who printed the posters?" Jack asked. "Have you any more left?"
"I fancy the posters were French," Freshcombe said. "They had evidently been repacked before they came to me. No, we have none left; they were all posted last week. I haven't even one as a specimen."
Mr. Freshcombe would have pushed his hospitality, but the others declined. The inspector was not going to give up the chase like this. Could Mr. Freshcombe find a London Directory, or in any way help him to ascertain the name and address of the manager of the City branch of the City and Provincial Bank? Mr. Freshcombe could supply both details. The bank manager in question was a large shareholder in the firm and enjoyed an important position. As to his residence, it was in Piccadilly, over the bank's branch there. Mr. Carrington was a man of fashion, so that, if he were at home, it was unlikely that he had gone to bed. A moment later and the cab was proceeding towards Piccadilly.
Mr. Carrington was not only at home, but he was entertaining friends. There were lights in all the windows of the handsome suite of rooms over the bank, and a chatter of voices assailed the ears of the callers as soon as the mahogany door was opened. Mr. Carrington was giving an evening party, the footman explained, and he did not like to be disturbed. But the sight of the inspector's uniform was not without its effect, and the intruders were ushered into a little room at the top of the stairs. The door was not quite closed, so that the strangers could see down a handsome corridor into a fine drawing-room beyond. Jack could recognize some of the guests, whereby he knew that Mr. Carrington kept very good company.
"I feel like an intruder," Jack said, as he stood looking out of the room. In his evening dress he might have passed for a guest himself. "If Mr. Carrington is in a position——"
Jack paused suddenly. He was face to face with the third great surprise to-night. For there in the corridor, and coming towards him now, was the fair-haired, dark-skinned girl whom he had seen with the young man in Spencer Anstruther's study. There was no mistake here, no illusion. The girl walked along with her head down, making a sign from time to time to the man by her side. He was a perfect stranger to Jack, who dismissed him from the situation altogether as a mere vacuous man about town. If the woman was here, the youth with the imperial moustache was not far off, Jack thought. "I think that you were going to say something, sir," the inspector ventured. But Jack had quite recovered himself by this time. He made some commonplace remark, and then Mr. Carrington came into the room. He was polite, but not at all anxious for his visitors to remain. Would they be so good as to get to the point. The inspector told his story with considerable brevity. Mr. Carrington was pleased to be interested. It was a strange and startling romance as it stood, but the bank manager did not see his way to afford any solution of this mystery. "I haven't quite finished, sir," the inspector said quietly. "That bill-posting was paid for by a check drawn on your City branch, of which you are manager, by one John Smith. Now, this John Smith——"
"Which John Smith?" Mr. Carrington asked, with a smile. "My good sir, do you know that we have some two thousand five hundred accounts at our City branch? Probably the name of John Smith is the commonest in the world. Without making any very definite statement, I should say that we have over two hundred accounts in the name of Smith, and probably a third of them John Smith. I can quite understand your anxiety to get on the track of the right man without delay, but that could not possibly be done to-night. I could not even get at the ledgers without two of the cashiers being present. But I will make it a point to be at the bank at ten o'clock to-morrow morning and meet you there. It is impossible to do any more to-night."
The inspector nodded his head somewhat sadly. He quite saw the force of what Mr. Carrington was saying. He could do no more than make an appointment for the following day. He wished Carrington good-night and turned to go, followed by Masefield. In the corridor somebody called Jack by name. He turned to see a colleague of the junior Bar standing before him.
"Hullo!" the latter said, "where did you turn up from? I had an idea that you were a friend of Carrington's. Get your coat off and join us in a game of bridge." The situation was just a little embarrassing, but Carrington came to the rescue. Masefield was dressed for the part, so to speak, and would he not remain? There would be dancing presently, and——
But Jack decided promptly. He whispered the inspector to precede him and wait for him in the cab. Carrington passed on as Jack stood just a moment chatting with his old friend and school-fellow.
"I came here to-night on rather important business," he said. "There is no occasion to go into that now. But I want you to do something for me, my dear fellow. In hunting up one mystery I feel pretty sure that I have come on the track of another. There is a deaf and dumb girl here—there she is, with that Johnny chap in the resplendent white waistcoat. I want you to find out who she is and where she comes from."
"That's all right," Richard Rigby responded. "Nice-looking girl, with fair hair and dark eyes. Sort of striking theatrical get-up, don't you think?"
"Well, now you mention it, perhaps it is rather in that way. But that isn't all, Dick; unless I am greatly mistaken, the girl came here with a fair chap whose moustache is turned up after the fashion of the German Emperor. Find out all about him, too, and I'll look you up at your chambers the first thing in the morning. I must not keep my friend waiting. Good-night."
Jack passed along the corridor in the direction of the staircase. There were many palms and ferns there, with screens behind which people could sit and not be seen except by their partners. Jack paused with his foot on the thick pile of the carpet, for just in front of him was the girl with the southern face and fair hair. Her head was still bent low, her fingers were working. What her companion was like Jack could not quite make out, for his back was turned. The girl looked up at him with a flash of anger in her eyes, her lips moved, and sound certainly came from them. Jack could just catch the words.
"Don't drive me too far," she said. "Take care and not drive me too far, because——"
The girl suddenly lapsed into silence again and her fingers began to work. The couple passed behind a screen of palms and ferns, and Jack could see them no more.
"Well, this has been a night and a half," he said. "Where is it going to end? I wonder if my friend the inspector will be disposed to accept my suggestion?"
The inspector gave Jack's suggestion the most careful attention. He had not thought of it before.
"We'll go back to the scene of the murder," Jack said. "There is a strong electric light in front of the hoarding, and the Nostalgo poster is only a few feet from the ground. Moreover, it has only recently been put up, and it is quite clean and fair. Depend upon it, there is some trade-mark upon the bill, even if it is only a cipher. Of course, you see the importance of finding out who posted that bill?"
"Of course, sir. How do you propose to get at the facts?"
"By examining the bill with the aid of a strong magnifying glass. I have no doubt that, being a detective, you have such a thing in your pocket at the present moment? Good. Then, all you have to do is to order the cab to drive to the corner of Panton Street and stop there."
The cab arrived at length and the occupants dismounted. They did not take the cab quite as far as the scene of the murder for obvious reasons, but walked on there alone. It was quite still now, and nobody was about save a passing policeman, who had orders to give notice if anybody was coming. It was just as well that the curiosity of passers-by should not be aroused.
"Now for it," Jack said, breathing a little faster in his excitement. "Perhaps we had better have the assistance of your lantern as well. I thought that the poster was there. It was there. I'll swear that that is the very spot, just where that picture of the pretty girl taking the pills is. Good heavens, man, the poster has gone! It has been covered up since we were here before by that mustard advertisement. At the hour after midnight the thing has been done. But the right thing must be underneath. See! The poster is wet!"
Jack advanced to tear the poster down, but the inspector pulled him roughly aside.
"Don't touch it," he said hoarsely. "Whatever you do, don't touch it. Wait!"
Jack Masefield paused for Inspector Bates to say more. Possibly the officer was possessed of some brilliant idea, but after the first glance at his face it was easy to see that he was as nonplused as Jack himself. It was only the professional caution that spoke; there was no illumination at the back of the policeman's brain.
"I had hoped that perhaps you had discerned something," Masefield said.
"Not quite that, sir," Bates admitted. "So far I am as much in the dark
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