A Crime on Canvas - Fred M. White - ebook

A Crime on Canvas ebook

Fred M White

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Opis

Frederick Merrick White has written many novels or short stories, many related to London. Modest stories in his spirit. A Clue in Wax is a simple, kind story. The story that even in a dark London place a bright life can occur.

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Liczba stron: 446

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Contents

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

IX

X

XI

XII

XIII

XIV

XV

XVI

XVII

XVIII

XIX

XX

XXI

XXII

XXIII

XXIV

XXV

XXVI

XXVII

XXVIII

XXIX

XXX

XXXI

XXXII

XXXIII

XXXIV

XXXV

XXXVI

XXXVII

XXXVIII

XXXIX

XL

XLI

XLII

XLIII

XLIV

XLV

XLVI

XLVII

XLVIII

XLIX

L

I. PRIDE OF BIRTH

THERE is no more distinguished family in England than the Blantyres of Glenallan. Its very name is a sufficient passport into the best society. Nevertheless, those who know shrug their shoulders, glance significantly at one another, and leave the rest to discreet silence. Be that as it may, however, the Blantyres are still important people in their own neighbourhood. Their estates are as extensive as ever, and their revenues have suffered no diminution, even in these democratic days, when few old families can boast of the power and influence they wielded a hundred years ago.

At the time the story opens the Blantyre estates and title were vested in Sir Arthur Blantyre, an elderly man of somewhat close and eccentric habits. No one could say anything against him; no breath of scandal dimmed his fame. And yet there was not a single tenant or neighbour on the estate who had not some strange story to tell in regard to his landlord.

Perhaps this was mainly because Sir Arthur Blantyre kept entirely to himself. He could hardly expect to be popular, seeing that he had not succeeded to the title till late in life; and when he came into the grand old house and still grander estates, he was accompanied only by a young girl, who addressed him as grandfather. The late baronet had been a bachelor–one of the hard- living, hard-riding school, who, when he did speak of his successor, always alluded to him in terms of contempt; indeed, until Sir Arthur Blantyre first crossed the threshold of Glenallan he had never even seen the home of his ancestors. He was known to have been poor before his accession, and rumour had it that before the old Squire’s death he had lived for the most part in France. Certainly his dress and manner supported this report, for the new baronet was not in the least like his predecessors. He was tall and slight. He wore his snow-white hair rather long. There was something Continental about his white moustache and imperial. He took not the slightest interest in field sports and the other matters that go to make a country gentleman popular with his neighbours. And as to his estates, he handed over their management to an agent in an adjacent town, while, so far as he himself was concerned, his time was devoted to his library. At the end of four or five years there were outlying tenants on the estate who could say with truth that they had never even spoken to their landlord. In the country all this makes for unpopularity, and it was no exaggeration to say that Sir Arthur Blantyre was disliked by his subordinates and tenants.

Not that this seemed to trouble the baronet much. There were people who averred that he had troubles and worries enough of his own. His health was good. He enjoyed a princely income. But he was never seen to smile. A look of melancholy and unhappiness never left his face, and from time to time in his dark eyes there was the shadow of fear.

At first the neighbours had called in plenty. But one and all were chilled with their reception, and gradually the flow of visitors ceased. For the last two years or so no neighbour had ever come up the famous avenue of elms leading to the house. Ever since she had been under that roof Ethel Blantyre had never known what it was to have a friend. At the beginning Sir Arthur had seemed disposed to be on fairly good terms with the vicar of the parish and one other person, a Frenchman named Le Blanc. But the vicar was dead. There had been some scandal in connexion with a son of his of which people spoke in whispers, though Ethel could never understand what it meant. And she had a distinct recollection of a terrible quarrel between her grandfather and Le Blanc, during which blows were struck and blood was shed. This had taken place at dead of night in Glenallan library, and Ethel had been a more or less unwilling witness of the scene. Once she had ventured to speak to her grandfather about it, but the lightning flash of rage in his eyes and the lurid anger on his face warned her not to pursue the topic. For three years she had held her peace, wondering if she were ever to see Lawrence Hatton, the son of the old vicar, again. He had been her only friend and playmate, so that her heart still held a tender place for him; indeed, these two had been something more than friends, though Sir Arthur Blantyre would have laughed the notion to scorn.

There was no one to tell Ethel anything. She had to ferret out information from the servants as best she could. All she knew was that Lawrence Hatton had been tried for some offence, and that he was now working out his sentence in gaol. It seemed incredible, almost monstrous, and Ethel was filled with indignation whenever she thought of it. But facts are inexorable things. The unhappy vicar had gone down to his grave in shame and humiliation, and the prison taint lay heavily on his only son. There had been another young man, too, whom Ethel remembered vividly–the son of the Frenchman Le Blanc. He was handsomer, more brilliant and more fascinating than young Hatton, but Ethel had never liked him, and even as an innocent child there was something about him that chilled and repelled her and warned her to keep him at a distance. There were people who said that Le Blanc the younger was making a great reputation as an artist. But as to that Ethel neither knew nor cared.

And so her dreary life went on in that cold, desolate house which seemed to be full of ghosts and shadows. Glenallan was a show-place in its way. It was full of magnificent pictures and furniture. The place was replete with historic memories. And yet Ethel would have cheerfully exchanged its splendour and beauty, its well-kept gardens and noble environment, for a cottage where she might have a little warmth and love and sunshine. She was no longer afraid as once she had been. She had grown accustomed to those gloomy corridors. They did not seem to be full of ghosts and spectres as when she had first come. She had her own recreations and amusements. But, all the same, she was exceedingly lonely. For Sir Arthur was in the habit of mysteriously disappearing periodically and remaining away for weeks. Where he went and what he did he told nobody. But every time he returned Ethel thought he looked more careworn and more anxious than before.

What this gloom was and what it meant the girl did not know, for her grandfather said little or nothing to her. He seemed to regard her merely as a girl, as a more or less necessary adjunct to the house. And yet there were moments when his eyes turned upon her appealingly, as if he would fain take her into his confidence and seek the benefit of her assistance and advice. But these intervals were rare.

And so in summer and winter alike the dreary life went on with nothing to break its black monotony. Occasionally Ethel would have welcomed any diversion, however serious. Anything would be better than the weariness and desolation of her present existence. What, she wondered, was the mystery that hung over the house? In the midst of all this wealth and luxury, what was it that caused her grandfather to look so pale and haggard, that hung about him like some cursed thing?

Ethel was pondering the matter as she sat at the breakfast-table making her grandfather’s coffee. The little cedar-panelled room was gay with flowers which she had looted from the conservatories. The sun shone in through the rose windows, making a cosy picture which to the casual eye suggested envy and admiration. This did not serve to elevate Ethel’s spirits in the least. One day was so like another that even the presence or absence of the blessed sunshine counted for nothing. Sir Arthur was not down yet. His pile of letters lay unopened by his plate. He came in by and by and kissed his granddaughter carelessly. Then, without a word, he began to open his correspondence. There were dark lines under his eyes. His hand shook like that of a man who had been drinking heavily the previous night. But Sir Arthur indulged in no dissipation. He held it in the deepest abhorrence.

He murmured something more or less polite as he turned over his letters. He slipped his coffee daintily, though he made a mere pretence of eating his breakfast. Ethel could see his slim hands with their sparkling rings tremble as he slipped open the envelopes of his letters with a pocket-knife. Then, from one of them, he took what appeared to be a small piece of folded canvas and opened it languidly. All at once the words he was speaking seemed to freeze upon his lips. His face congealed and glazed with horror. One quivering hand was outstretched, so that he might look on the scrap of cloth as if to make sure of the evidence of his senses.

“God in Heaven!” he murmured, and his voice trembled like that of a man in the grip of intense physical agony, “to think that after all this time––”

The words trailed off into a broken whisper. With an incoherent stammer, Sir Arthur half rose to his feet. His coffee cup fell with a crash. Then he, too, sank silently to the floor.

II. THE PAINTED FACE

ETHEL uttered no cry, nor summoned assistance. In some vague, intangible way she felt as if she had gone through the whole thing before, as if she were acting exactly as her grandfather would wish. She knew what a self-contained man he was, and how annoyed he would be were his servants to see him at that moment. It appeared to Ethel, too, as if, sooner or later, this black thing was inevitable. No man could go on for ever with such a cloud hanging over him as seemed to overshadow the life of Sir Arthur Blantyre.

The girl was cool and collected. She leant down by her grandfather’s side and raised his head from the floor. Already a little colour was creeping back into his face, the whiteness was leaving his lips. As he sat up, half unconscious and oblivious to his surroundings, he still clutched the fragment of cloth in a tenacious grip. Ethel would have been less than human if she had not glanced at the innocent-looking object which had been the cause of all this emotion. Her grandfather must have been moved to the very depths of his being to give way like this.

The old Adam surging up in Ethel’s heart took possession of her, and she looked eagerly at the strip of canvas in Sir Arthur’s hand. What could there be in it to cause such an agitation? For the scrap of canvas contained nothing more repulsive than a lovely, innocent face, painted by a master hand. It was little more than a miniature, though, to judge from its ragged edges and oval shape, it might have been cut with a pair of scissors from a frame. As to the rest, it was a girl’s face, fair and smiling, radiantly beautiful, with eyes dark, appealing and pathetic. Ethel’s knowledge of art matters was limited. But it needed no critic to tell her that this was no idealization of the painter’s dream, but a true and faithful portrait. Despite the beauty of the drawing and the sweet simplicity of the face, the artist in some subtle way had made the features suggest trial and suffering.

As Ethel gazed intently upon this picture her feeling of curiosity gave way to another and different emotion. She seemed to have seen that face before. It was impossible, of course, but she could not rid herself of the impression that here was no stranger to her. Then there burst upon her a vivid flash of illumination. Given a little difference in age, in dress and expression and the picture would pass for a likeness of herself. There was no mistaking this fact when once it had come home to her. Who, then, was the stranger?

Still dazed by this startling discovery the girl was staring at the picture when Sir Arthur opened his eyes and suddenly grasped what was going on. He realized by instinct what Ethel was doing, struggled painfully to his feet and crushed the offensive painting convulsively in his hands. Then he turned almost sternly to his granddaughter.

“Give me some coffee,” he gasped, “and get me some brandy from the sideboard. Now tell me the truth. Have you seen this accursed thing? I must know.”

“I looked at it, of course,” Ethel said with a slight accession of colour in her cheeks. “I don’t want to pry into your secrets, but I couldn’t very well help seeing it. But, please, drink this coffee before you say another word.”

Sir Arthur appeared as if about to speak, then changed his mind. He sipped his coffee slowly and thoughtfully, his dark eyes brooding over the past.

“How old are you?” he demanded abruptly.

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