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   Chapter 20 No.20

The Slave of Silence By Fred M. White Characters: 11560

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


The immaculately dressed young man in the office turned Field's card over doubtfully. He had every desire to oblige, he said, but really the house was packed to its utmost capacity. Also the well-dressed young man hoped that there would be nothing to disturb the harmony of the proceedings.

"You may make your mind quite easy on that score," said Field with a reassuring smile. "There will be no disturbance as far as I am concerned. I want to identify somebody whom I believe is in the house, and when that is done my work is finished. Never mind about a seat-let me stand by the side of the stalls so that I can pass for an official."

There was no difficulty whatever about this, and therefore Field stepped into the house as the curtain was going up on the last of the brilliant trifles of the evening. The house was packed to its utmost capacity with an audience that seemed decidedly to appreciate the bill of fare that had been prepared for their delectation.

Field glanced round the house with his usual blank way that nevertheless took in everything. Most of the people in the stalls were known by sight to him. In an upper box on the prompt side he saw the dark face and eager eyes of the Rajah of Ahbad. He seemed to be looking for somebody, for his glasses were constantly in use. There was a restless air, too, about the Rajah, that showed that he was not altogether at his ease.

"We live and learn," Field told himself. "I wonder what yonder wily oriental would think if he knew all that I have discovered lately. I suppose one of his favourite ballet girls is in the piece. Pretty piece, too, and pretty music."

Field laid himself out for enjoyment for the next quarter of an hour. The heroine of the piece in the form of Miss Adela Vane was late in appearing. The thing was dragging, too, or so it seemed to Field. All at once there were voices at the back of the stage as if somebody was quarrelling. Suddenly the bright tuneful chorus broke off altogether and a female voice screamed. A little puff of smoke came from the stage.

In the twinkling of an eye the whole house rose and shuddered. There was a sharp crack-crackle, followed by smoke, and forked tongues of flame licked the imitation forest, and with a swish all the chorus fled from the stage. Far away up in the gallery somebody was roaring "Fire!" A rush to the doors was already taking place.

From the stalls rose a tall man with a military air, who commanded everybody to wait. There was no danger, he cried, if the audience only kept their heads. On the stage a manager, with a white face and a perspiring forehead, announced the fact that the appliances for dealing with the fire were of the finest possible description, and that there was no danger at all.

But it was all too late. The panic had already gripped the audience, and a yelling, frightened crowd pressed to the exits. The smoke was getting thicker and blacker; the flames were making the place unpleasantly warm. Field could feel the heat on his face. He had been close to the stalls exit, and might have slipped away at once, but he had held his ground. It was he who stood with his back to the door now.

"I'll knock down the first man who tries to pass me," he cried. "There is plenty of time. For God's sake, control yourselves. Come quietly. Don't you know that the whole theatre can be emptied in three minutes if people will only go quietly? Now come along and don't press." The stern, hard tones were not without their effect. Field looked so calm and collected and confident himself, that the feeling spread quickly all over the stalls. The fireproof curtain had not been dropped for the simple reason that it would not work, as is often the case with appliances of the kind. The stage was burning furiously.

But in the pit and dress circles and in the higher parts of the house other cool and collected men had risen to the occasion. Women were crying and sobbing, and more than one had fainted, but the mad panic was over, and something like order had been restored. The stalls were moving quietly along now, and it was marvellous to see how quickly the place was being deserted. In the vestibule a long queue of police had gathered and stood to prevent people huddling together. In less time than it takes to tell, everybody was outside. Like magic an engine had appeared, and men in helmets were jumping nimbly over the stalls laying their hose down. As Field turned to go a little cry from the stage attracted his attention.

A girl stood there, dressed as a Watteau shepherdess. She seemed absolutely dazed and frightened, a pretty and pathetic little figure in her great golden wig.

"Go back," Field yelled. "You'll have that blazing scenery on top of you. Why don't you go back to the stage door?"

The actress turned at last and shook her head. Tears were rolling down her face.

"I can't," she said. "The fire is too great. I was in my dressing-room, and I did not know. Oh, why doesn't somebody save me?"

It was quite clear that the little girl was too dazed and frightened to do anything. Without any further loss of time Field jumped into the orchestra and scrambled onto the stage. The hot flames drove him back for the moment; he could see already that the wig of the pretty little shepherdess was being scorched by the hot fiery breath. He lifted the girl in his arms and made a bold leap over the orchestra into the stalls. Then he carried her out into the street and called for a cab. The air of the night was not without effect on the frightened actress.

"Where shall I tell the man to drive?" Field asked.

"I shall remember presently," the girl said. "I am altogether dazed and stupid for the moment. I can see nothing but fire and smoke. Let me think. Oh, y

es, it is coming back to me. Yes, Mrs. Marsh, 124, Copeland Avenue, Regent's Park. Oh, it is very good and kind of you. Will you let me tender my thanks when I am better?"

"I have done nothing," Field said modestly. A sudden idea occurred to him, accustomed as he was to think matters out quickly and in all kinds of startling surroundings. "If I may, I will call upon you to-morrow morning. Good-night."

The cab was whirled away, and Field went thoughtfully down the Strand. It seemed to him that he had seen the pretty little actress before, but then such queer sensations are frequent in times of danger and excitement, Field reflected. At the same time he could not quite rid himself of the idea that he had seen the girl before. He pondered over the matter until another idea filled his mind.

"By Jove," he exclaimed, "I had quite forgotten the Colonel's message. I was to go to Edward Street near the Borough and wait to see what I should see. I'll just go and hang about there for half an hour or so on the off chance, though I am as tired as a dog already. It seems to me that I can't do better than take a cab."

A cab accordingly whirled Inspector Field to the upper end of Edward Street, which is by no means a bad type of street for the Borough. The houses are of a respectable class for the most part, the class of houses that let lodgings to medical students and the like. It is not the sort of thoroughfare that is generally given over to adventures, and Field loitered about there for a long time before his search was rewarded.

He was chatting to a policeman on the beat, seeing that he could not loaf there without arousing the suspicions of the intelligent officer on duty, without disclosing his identity, when a couple passed him. The man wore a long fawn overcoat and a silk hat; he was a well-dressed man, as Field could see by his smartly cut trousers and patent leather boots. He was not alone, for he had a lady with him, a lady with a handsome wrap. There was a genuine West End air about these people that did not tally at all with Edward Street, as Field did not fail to notice. People of that stamp generally had a cab when there was any outing to be done at that time of night.

"Pull those people up and ask them some question," Field whispered to the officer. "I want to get a good look at their faces."

The matter was managed quite easily, though the man in the fawn coat was short and inclined to be curt in his replies. But it sufficed for Field, who expressed no astonishment as he recognized the features of the man called "Reggie," and the woman called "Cora," whom he had seen the night before at No. 100, Audley Place. In other words, he was once more hot upon the scent of Countess de la Moray and General Gastang.

"Very good, indeed, Watson," he said. "That's a bit of luck I hardly expected. I'll just follow these people and make certain. Good night."

Field had not far to go, seeing that the man in the fawn coat produced a latchkey and let himself into a house a little farther down the road. The house was an ordinary looking one enough, with plain green venetian blinds and muslin curtains below. In the drawing-room window there was a card to the effect that lodgings were to be let there. It was pretty late still, but a light in the basement testified to the fact that the housekeeper, or landlady, or whoever she was, had not yet gone to bed.

"It's late, but I'll try it," Field said to himself. "So here goes."

The inspector walked up the steps and rang the bell. After a little time a tall slatternly woman came to the door and looked sleepily out. She seemed by no means pleased to be disturbed, and the way she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand suggested the fact that she had been taking some of a pleasing and not altogether unintoxicating fluid with her supper.

"And what may you want at this time of night?" she asked suspiciously.

"Lodgings," Field said promptly. "I've just come to London, and I find the hotels so expensive. I'm prepared to pay an advance-a matter of five and twenty shillings a week or a little more, as it's only for so short a time. You see I am at the hospital."

"Well, if you are at the hospital you'd better stay there," the woman said with a laugh. "We don't let lodgings at this time of night, and besides, I settled with a party to-day. I'm not going to stand gossiping here all night. Be off with you."

The door closed, but not before Field had got a glimpse of the inside. The house was most beautifully furnished, as he could see. There was an atmosphere of hothouse flowers and fruit, and the like; a suggestion of exquisite cigars. A man in evening dress, with a diamond flashing in his shirt, crossed the hall; somebody was laughing in a well-bred voice. All of this Field did not omit to note as the door closed on him.

"That card about lodgings is a blind," he said. "That place must be watched. I'll get to bed, for I'm dead tired. In the morning I'll go and see my actress friend. Probably she can tell me all about Miss Adela Vane."

It was a little after eleven the next day before Field found time to visit the little actress. He had stupidly forgotten to ask her name, but he seemed to be expected. He waited for some time in a small prettily furnished room till the lady of the last night's adventure came down. She arrived presently, bright and pretty and smiling, her hand outstretched-words of gratitude on her lips.

"But I shall never be able to thank you properly," she said. "The public came very near last night to losing their dear, dear Adela Vane."

"You are Adela Vane?" Field gasped. "Really you are Adela Vane?"

For Adela Vane was the girl who had been closeted the night before with Carl Sartoris!

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