Copyright
Fred M. White.

The Crimson Blind online

. (page 1 of 27)
Online LibraryFred M. WhiteThe Crimson Blind → online text (page 1 of 27)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Produced by Juliet Sutherland, Mary Meehan, and the Project
Gutenberg Online Distributed Proofreading Team










THE CRIMSON BLIND

By FRED. M. WHITE

1905







CONTENTS


CHAPTER


I. "WHO SPEAKS?"
II. THE CRIMSON BLIND
III. THE VOICE IN THE DARKNESS
IV. IN EXTREMIS
V. "RECEIVED WITH THANKS"
VI. A POLICY OF SILENCE
VII. No. 218, BRUNSWICK SQUARE
VIII. HATHERLY BELL
IX. THE BROKEN FIGURE
X. THE HOUSE OF THE SILENT SORROW
XI. AFTER REMBRANDT
XII. "THE CRIMSON BLIND"
XIII. "GOOD DOG!"
XIV. BEHIND THE BLIND
XV. A MEDICAL OPINION
XVI. MARGARET SEES A GHOST
XVII. THE PACE SLACKENS
XVIII. A COMMON ENEMY
XIX. ROLLO SHOWS HIS TEETH
XX. FRANK LITTIMER
XXI. A FIND
XXII. "THE LIGHT THAT FAILED"
XXIII. INDISCRETION
XXIV. ENID LEARNS SOMETHING
XXV. LITTIMER CASTLE
XXIV. AN UNEXPECTED GUEST
XXVII. SLIGHTLY FARCICAL
XXVIII. A SQUIRE OF DAMES
XXIX. THE MAN WITH THE THUMB AGAIN
XXX. GONE!
XXXI. BELL ARRIVES
XXXII. HOW THE SCHEME WORKED OUT
XXXIII. THE FRAME OF THE PICTURE
XXXIV. THE PUZZLING OF HENSON
XXXV. CHRIS HAS AN IDEA
XXXVL. A BRILLIANT IDEA
XXXVII. ANOTHER TELEPHONIC MESSAGE
XXXVIII. A LITTLE FICTION
XXXIX. THE FASCINATION OF JAMES MERRITT
XL. A USEFUL DISCOVERY
XLI. A DELICATE ERRAND
XLII. PRINCE RUPERT'S RING
XLIII. NEARING THE TRUTH
XLIV. ENID SPEAKS
XLV. ON THE TRAIL
XLVI. LITTIMER'S EYES ARE OPENED
XLVII. THE TRACK BROADENS
XLVIII. WHERE IS RAWLINS?
XLIX. A CHEVALIER OF FORTUNE
L. RAWLINS IS CANDID
LI. HERITAGE IS WILLING
LII. PUTTING THE LIGHT OUT
LIII. UNSEALED LIPS
LIV. WHERE IS THE RING?
LV. KICKED OUT
LVI. WHITE FANGS
LVII. HIDE AND SEEK




THE CRIMSON BLIND.




CHAPTER I

"WHO SPEAKS?"


David Steel dropped his eyes from the mirror and shuddered as a man who
sees his own soul bared for the first time. And yet the mirror was in
itself a thing of artistic beauty - engraved Florentine glass in a frame
of deep old Flemish oak. The novelist had purchased it in Bruges, and now
it stood as a joy and a thing of beauty against the full red wall over
the fireplace. And Steel had glanced at himself therein and seen murder
in his eyes.

He dropped into a chair with a groan for his own helplessness. Men have
done that kind of thing before when the cartridges are all gone and the
bayonets are twisted and broken and the brown waves of the foe come
snarling over the breastworks. And then they die doggedly with the stones
in their hands, and cursing the tardy supports that brought this black
shame upon them.

But Steel's was ruin of another kind. The man was a fighter to his
finger-tips. He had dogged determination and splendid physical courage;
he had gradually thrust his way into the front rank of living novelists,
though the taste of poverty was still bitter in his mouth. And how good
success was now that it had come!

People envied him. Well, that was all in the sweets of the victory. They
praised his blue china, they lingered before his Oriental dishes and the
choice pictures on the panelled walls. The whole thing was still a
constant pleasure to Steel's artistic mind. The dark walls, the old oak
and silver, the red shades, and the high artistic fittings soothed him
and pleased him, and played upon his tender imagination. And behind there
was a study, filled with books and engravings, and beyond that again a
conservatory, filled with the choicest blossoms. Steel could work with
the passion flowers above his head and the tender grace of the tropical
ferns about him, and he could reach his left hand for his telephone and
call Fleet Street to his ear.

It was all unique, delightful, the dream of an artistic soul realised.
Three years before David Steel had worked in an attic at a bare deal
table, and his mother had £3 per week to pay for everything. Usually
there was balm in this recollection.

But not to-night, Heaven help him, not to-night! Little grinning demons
were dancing on the oak cornices, there were mocking lights gleaming from
Cellini tankards that Steel had given far too much money for. It had not
seemed to matter just at the time. If all this artistic beauty had
emptied Steel's purse there was a golden stream coming. What mattered it
that the local tradesmen were getting a little restless? The great
expense of the novelist's life was past. In two years he would be rich.
And the pathos of the thing was not lessened by the fact that it was
true. In two years' time Steel would be well off. He was terribly short
of ready money, but he had just finished a serial story for which he was
to be paid £500 within two months of the delivery of the copy; two novels
of his were respectively in their fourth and fifth editions. But these
novels of his he had more or less given away, and he ground his teeth as
he thought of it. Still, everything spelt prosperity. If he lived, David
Steel was bound to become a rich man.

And yet he was ruined. Within twenty-four hours everything would pass out
of his hands. To all practical purposes it had done so already. And all
for the want of £1,000! Steel had earned twice that amount during the
past twelve months, and the fruits of his labour were as balm to his soul
about him. Within the next twelve months he could pay the debt three
times over. He would cheerfully have taken the bill and doubled the
amount for six months' delay.

And all this because he had become surety for an absconding brother.
Steel had put his pride in his pocket and interviewed his creditor, a
little, polite, mild-eyed financier, who meant to have his money to the
uttermost farthing. At first he had been suave and sympathetic, until he
had discovered that Steel had debts elsewhere, and then -

Well, he had signed judgment, and to-morrow he could levy execution.
Within a few hours the bottom would fall out of the universe so far as
Steel was concerned. Within a few hours every butcher and baker and
candle-stick-maker would come abusively for his bill. Steel, who could
have faced a regiment, recoiled fearfully from that. Within a week his
oak and silver would have to be sold and the passion flower would wither
on the walls.

Steel had not told anybody yet; the strong man had grappled with his
trouble alone. Had he been a man of business he might have found some way
out of the difficulty. Even his mother didn't know. She was asleep
upstairs, perhaps dreaming of her son's greatness. What would the dear
old mater say when she knew? Well, she had been a good mother to him, and
it had been a labour of love to furnish the house for her as for himself.
Perhaps there would be a few tears in those gentle eyes, but no more.
Thank God, no reproaches there.

David lighted a cigarette and paced restlessly round the dining-room.
Never had he appreciated its quiet beauty more than he did now. There
were flowers, blood-red flowers, on the table under the graceful electric
stand that Steel had designed himself. He snapped off the light as if the
sight pained him, and strode into his study. For a time he stood moodily
gazing at his flowers and ferns. How every leaf there was pregnant with
association. There was the Moorish clock droning the midnight hour. When
Steel had brought that clock -

"Ting, ting, ting. Pring, pring, ping, pring. Ting, ting, ting, ting."

But Steel heard nothing. Everything seemed as silent as the grave. It was
only by a kind of inner consciousness that he knew the hour to be
midnight. Midnight meant the coming of the last day. After sunrise some
greasy lounger pregnant of cheap tobacco would come in and assume that he
represented the sheriff, bills would be hung like banners on the outward
walls, and then. -

"Pring, pring, pring. Ting, ting, ting, ting, ting, ting, ting, ting.
Pring, pring, pring."

Bells, somewhere. Like the bells in the valley where the old vicarage
used to stand. Steel vaguely wondered who now lived in the house where he
was born. He was staring in the most absent way at his telephone, utterly
unconscious of the shrill impatience of the little voice. He saw the
quick pulsation of the striker and he came back to earth again.

Jefferies of the _Weekly Messenger_, of course. Jefferies was fond of a
late chat on the telephone. Steel wondered grimly, if Jefferies would
lend him £1,000. He flung himself down in a deep lounge-chair and placed
the receiver to his ear. By the deep, hoarse clang of the wires, a
long-distance message, assuredly.

"From London, evidently. Halloa, London! Are you there?"

London responded that it was. A clear, soft voice spoke at length.

"Is that you, Mr. Steel? Are you quite alone? Under the circumstances you
are not busy to-night?"

Steel started. He had never heard the voice before. It was clear and
soft and commanding, and yet there was just a suspicion of mocking
irony in it.

"I'm not very busy to-night," Steel replied. "Who is speaking to me?"

"That for the present we need not go into," said the mocking voice. "As
certain old-fashioned contemporaries of yours would say, 'We meet as
strangers!' Stranger yet, you are quite alone!"

"I am quite alone. Indeed, I am the only one up in the house."

"Good. I have told the exchange people not to ring off till I have
finished with you. One advantage of telephoning at this hour is that one
is tolerably free from interruption. So your mother is asleep? Have you
told her what is likely to happen to you before many hours have elapsed?"

Steel made no reply for a moment. He was restless and ill at ease
to-night, and it seemed just possible that his imagination was playing
him strange tricks. But, no. The Moorish clock in its frame of
celebrities droned the quarter after twelve; the scent of the Dijon roses
floated in from the conservatory.

"I have told nobody as yet," Steel said, hoarsely. "Who in the name of
Heaven are you?"

"That in good time. But I did not think you were a coward."

"No man has ever told me so - face to face."

"Good again. I recognise the fighting ring in your voice. If you lack
certain phases of moral courage, you are a man of pluck and resource.
Now, somebody who is very dear to me is at present in Brighton, not
very far from your own house. She is in dire need of assistance. You
also are in dire need of assistance. We can be of mutual advantage to
one another."

"What do you mean by that?" Steel whispered.

"Let me put the matter on a business footing. I want you to help my
friend, and in return I will help you. Bear in mind that I am asking you
to do nothing wrong. If you will promise me to go to a certain address in
Brighton to night and see my friend, I promise that before you sleep the
sum of £1,000 in Bank of England notes shall be in your possession."

No reply came from Steel. He could not have spoken at that moment for the
fee-simple of Golconda. He could only hang gasping to the telephone. Many
a strange and weird plot came and went in that versatile brain, but never
one more wild than this. Apparently no reply was expected, for the
speaker resumed: -

"I am asking you to do no wrong. You may naturally desire to know why my
friend does not come to you. That must remain my secret, our secret. We
are trusting you because we know you to be a gentleman, but we have
enemies who are ever on the watch. All you have to do is to go to a
certain place and give a certain woman information. You are thinking that
this is a strange mystery. Never was anything stranger dreamt of in your
philosophy. Are you agreeable?"

The mocking tone died out of the small, clear voice until it was
almost pleading.

"You have taken me at a disadvantage," Steel said. "And you know - "

"Everything. I am trying to save you from ruin. Fortune has played you
into my hands. I am perfectly aware that if you were not on the verge of
social extinction you would refuse my request. It is in your hands to
decide. You know that Beckstein, your creditor, is absolutely merciless.
He will get his money back and more besides. This is his idea of
business. To-morrow you will be an outcast - for the time, at any rate.
Your local creditors will be insolent to you; people will pity you or
blame you, as their disposition lies. On the other hand, you have but to
say the word and you are saved. You can go and see the Brighton
representatives of Beckstein's lawyers, and pay them in paper of the Bank
of England."

"If I was assured of your bona-fides," Steel murmured.

A queer little laugh, a laugh of triumph, came over the wires.

"I have anticipated that question. Have you Greenwich time about you?"

Steel responded that he had. It was five-and-twenty minutes past twelve.
He had quite ceased to wonder at any questions put to him now. It was all
so like one of his brilliant little extravanganzas.

"You can hang up your receiver for five minutes," the voice said.
"Precisely at half-past twelve you go and look on your front doorstep.
Then come back and tell me what you have found. You need not fear that I
shall go away."

Steel hung up the receiver, feeling that he needed a little rest. His
cigarette was actually scorching his left thumb and forefinger, but he
was heedless of the fact. He flicked up the dining-room lights again and
rapidly made himself a sparklet soda, which he added to a small whisky.
He looked almost lovingly at the gleaming Cellini tankard, at the pools
of light on the fair damask. Was it possible that he was not going to
lose all this, after all?

The Moorish clock in the study droned the half-hour.

David gulped down his whisky and crept shakily to the front door with a
feeling on him that he was doing something stealthily. The bolts and
chain rattled under his trembling fingers. Outside, the whole world
seemed to be sleeping. Under the wide canopy of stars some black object
picked out with shining points lay on the white marble breadth of the top
step. A gun-metal cigar-case set in tiny diamonds.

The novelist fastened the front door and staggered to the study. A
pretty, artistic thing such as David had fully intended to purchase for
himself. He had seen one exactly like it in a jeweller's window in North
Street. He had pointed it out to his mother. Why, it was the very one! No
doubt whatever about it! David had had the case in his hands and had
reluctantly declined the purchase.

He pressed the spring, and the case lay open before him. Inside were
papers, soft, crackling papers; the case was crammed with them. They were
white and clean, and twenty-five of them in all. Twenty-five Bank of
England notes for £10 each - £250!

David fought the dreamy feeling off and took down the telephone receiver.

"Are you there?" he whispered, as if fearful of listeners. "I - I have
found your parcel."

"Containing the notes. So far so good. Yes, you are right, it is the
same cigar-case you admired so much in Lockhart's the other day. Well,
we have given you an instance of our bona-fides. But £250 is of no use
to you at present. Beckstein's people would not accept it on
account - they can make far more money by 'selling you up,' as the poetic
phrase goes. It is in your hands to procure the other £750 before you
sleep. You can take it as a gift, or, if you are too proud for that, you
may regard it as a loan. In which case you can bestow the money on such
charities as commend themselves to you. Now, are you going to place
yourself entirely in my hands?"

Steel hesitated no longer. Under the circumstances few men would, as he
had a definite assurance that there was nothing dishonourable to be
done. A little courage, a little danger, perhaps, and he could hold up
his head before the world; he could return to his desk to-morrow with
the passion flowers over his head and the scent groves sweet to his
nostrils. And the mater could dream happily, for there would be no
sadness or sorrow in the morning.

"I will do exactly what you tell me," he said.

"Spoken like a man," the voice cried. "Nobody will know you have left
the house - you can be home in an hour. You will not be missed. Come, time
is getting short, and I have my risks as well as others. Go at once to
Old Steine. Stand on the path close under the shadow of the statue of
George IV. and wait there. Somebody will say 'Come,' and you will follow.
Goodnight."

Steel would have said more, but the tinkle of his own bell told him that
the stranger had rung off. He laid his cigar-case on the writing-table,
slipped his cigarette-case into his pocket, satisfied himself that he had
his latch-key, and put on a dark overcoat. Overhead the dear old mater
was sleeping peacefully. He closed the front door carefully behind him
and strode resolutely into the darkness.




CHAPTER II

THE CRIMSON BLIND


David walked swiftly along, his mind in a perfect whirl. Now that once he
had started he was eager to see the adventure through. It was strange,
but stranger things had happened. More than one correspondent with queer
personal experiences had taught him that. Nor was Steel in the least
afraid. He was horribly frightened of disgrace or humiliation, but
physical courage he had in a high degree. And was he not going to save
his home and his good name?

David had not the least doubt on the latter score. Of course he would
do nothing wrong, neither would he keep the money. This he preferred
to regard as a loan - a loan to be paid off before long. At any rate,
money or no money, he would have been sorry to have abandoned the
adventure now.

His spirits rose as he walked along, a great weight had fallen from his
shoulders. He smiled as he thought of his mother peacefully sleeping at
home. What would his mother think if she knew? But, then, nobody was to
know. That had been expressly settled in the bond.

Save for an occasional policeman the streets were deserted. It was a
little cold and raw for the time of year, and a fog like a pink blanket
was creeping in from the sea. Down in the Steine the big arc-lights
gleamed here and there like nebulous blue globes; it was hardly possible
to see across the road. In the half-shadow behind Steel the statue of the
First Gentleman in Europe glowed gigantic, ghost-like in the mist.

It was marvellously still there, so still that David could hear the
tinkle of the pebbles on the beach. He stood back by the gate of the
gardens watching the play of the leaf silhouettes on the pavement,
quaint patterns of fantastic designs thrown up in high relief by the
arc-light above. From the dark foggy throat of St. James's Street came
the tinkle of a cycle bell. On so still a night the noise seemed bizarre
and out of place. Then the cycle loomed in sight; the rider, muffled and
humped over the front wheel, might have been a man or a woman. As the
cyclist flashed by something white and gleaming dropped into the road,
and the single word "Come" seemed to cut like a knife through the fog.
That was all; the rider had looked neither to the right nor to the left,
but the word was distinctly uttered. At the same instant an arm dropped
and a long finger pointed to the gleaming white square in the road. It
was like an instantaneous photograph - a flash, and the figure had
vanished in the fog.

"This grows interesting," Steel muttered. "Evidently my shadowy friend
has dropped a book of rules in the road for me. The plot thickens."

It was only a plain white card that lay in the road. A few lines were
typed on the back of it. The words might have been curt, but they were to
the point: -

"Go along the sea front and turn into Brunswick Square. Walk along the
right side of the square until you reach No. 219. You will read the
number over the fanlight. Open the door and it will yield to you; there
is no occasion to knock. The first door inside the hall leads to the
dining-room. Walk into there and wait. Drop this card down the gutter
just opposite you."

David read the directions once or twice carefully. He made a mental note
of 219. After that he dropped the card down the drain-trap nearest at
hand. A little way ahead of him he heard the cycle bell trilling as if in
approval of his action. But David had made up his mind to observe every
rule of the game. Besides, he might be rigidly watched.

The spirit of adventure was growing upon Steel now. He was no longer
holding the solid result before his eyes. He was ready to see the thing
through for its own sake. And as he hurried up North Street, along
Western Road, and finally down Preston Street, he could hear the purring
tinkle of the cycle bell before him. But not once did he catch sight of
the shadowy rider.

All the same his heart was beating a little faster as he turned into
Brunswick Square. All the houses were in pitchy darkness, as they
naturally would be at one o'clock in the morning, so it was only with
great difficulty that Steel could make out a number here and there. As he
walked slowly and hesitatingly along the cycle bell drummed impatiently
ahead of him.

"A hint to me," David muttered. "Stupid that I should have forgotten the
directions to read the number over the fanlight. Also it is logical to
suppose that I am going to find lights at No. 219. All right, my friend;
no need to swear at me with that bell of yours."

He quickened his pace again and finally stopped before one of the big
houses where lights were gleaming from the hall and dining-room windows.
They were electric lights by their great power, and, save for the hall
and dining-room, the rest of the house lay in utter darkness. The cycle
bell let off an approving staccato from behind the blankety fog as Steel
pulled up.

There was nothing abnormal about the house, nothing that struck the
adventurer's eye beyond the extraordinary vividness of the crimson
blind. The two side-windows of the big bay were evidently shuttered,
but the large centre gleamed like a flood of scarlet overlaid with a
silken sheen. Far across the pavement the ruby track struck into the
heart of the fog.

"Vivid note," Steel murmured. "I shall remember that impression."

He was destined never to forget it, but it was only one note in the gamut
of adventure now. With a firm step he walked up the marble flight and
turned the handle. It felt dirty and rusty to the touch. Evidently the
servants were neglectful, or they were employed by people who had small
regard for outward appearances.

The door opened noiselessly, and Steel closed it behind him. A Moorish
lantern cast a brilliant flood of light upon a crimson carpet, a chair,
and an empty oak umbrella-stand. Beyond this there was no atom of
furniture in the hall. It was impossible to see beyond the dining-room
door, for a heavy red velvet curtain was drawn across. David's first
impression was the amazing stillness of the place. It gave him a queer
feeling that a murder had been committed there, and that everybody had
fled, leaving the corpse behind. As David coughed away the lump in his
throat the cough sounded strangely hollow.

He passed into the dining-room and looked eagerly about him. The room was
handsomely furnished, if a little conventional - a big mahogany table in
the centre, rows of mahogany chairs upholstered in morocco, fine modern
prints, most of them artist's proofs, on the walls. A big marble clock,
flanked by a pair of vases, stood on the mantelshelf. There were a large
number of blue vases on the sideboard. The red distemper had faded to a
pale pink in places.

"Tottenham Court Road," Steel smiled to himself. "Modern, solid,
expensive, but decidedly inartistic. Ginger jars fourteen guineas a pair,
worth about as many pence. Moneyed people, solid and respectable, of the
middle class. What brings them playing at mystery like this?"

The room was most brilliantly lighted both from overhead and from the
walls. On the shining desert of the dining-table lay a small, flat parcel
addressed to David Steel, Esq. The novelist tore off the cover and
disclosed a heap of crackling white papers beneath. Rapidly he fluttered
the crisp sheets over - seventy-five Bank of England notes for £10 each.

It was the balance of the loan, the price paid for Steel's presence. All
he had to do now was to place the money in his pocket and walk out of the
house. A few steps and he would be free with nobody to say him nay. It
was a temptation, but Steel fought it down. He slipped the precious notes
into his pocket and buttoned his coat tightly over them. He had no fear
for the coming day now.



Online LibraryFred M. WhiteThe Crimson Blind → online text (page 1 of 27)