Shot With Crimson - George Barr Mccutcheon - ebook
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FOR thirty seconds no one moved.An odd sort of paralysis seemed to have gripped every one in the room,—paralysis of the mind as well as of the body.Then puzzled, wondering looks were exchanged.A man sitting near the fireplace glanced sharply, apprehensively at the huge beams in the ceiling and muttered:“What was it! Sounded as though something had smashed in the roof. There’s a tremendous wind. It may have got that big tree at the corner of the locker room.”“It couldn’t have been thunder,—not at this time of the year,” said one of the women, sending a nervous, frightened look at her husband who sprawled ungracefully in a big Morris chair at the end of a table littered with newspapers and magazines.“‘Gad, did you feel the house rock?” exclaimed he, sitting up suddenly, his eyes narrowing as with pain. “Like an earthquake.“It couldn’t have been an earthquake,” interrupted his wife, starting up from her chair.“Why couldn’t it?” he demanded crossly, and then glanced around at the other occupants of the room,—ten or a dozen men and women seated in a wide semi-circle in front of the huge logs blazing in the fireplace. “What do you think it was, Zimmie?”

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Table of contents

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER I

FOR thirty seconds no one moved.An odd sort of paralysis seemed to have gripped every one in the room,—paralysis of the mind as well as of the body.Then puzzled, wondering looks were exchanged.A man sitting near the fireplace glanced sharply, apprehensively at the huge beams in the ceiling and muttered: “ What was it! Sounded as though something had smashed in the roof. There’s a tremendous wind. It may have got that big tree at the corner of the locker room.” “ It couldn’t have been thunder,—not at this time of the year,” said one of the women, sending a nervous, frightened look at her husband who sprawled ungracefully in a big Morris chair at the end of a table littered with newspapers and magazines. “‘ Gad, did you feel the house rock?” exclaimed he, sitting up suddenly, his eyes narrowing as with pain. “Like an earthquake. “ It couldn’t have been an earthquake,” interrupted his wife, starting up from her chair. “ Why couldn’t it?” he demanded crossly, and then glanced around at the other occupants of the room,—ten or a dozen men and women seated in a wide semi-circle in front of the huge logs blazing in the fireplace. “What do you think it was, Zimmie?” “ We’ll find part or all of the roof gone,” answered the man addressed. As he spoke, he rose quickly and started across the room in the direction of the door leading to the steward’s pantry. “I’ll have a look from the back of the—”He stopped short. The dull, ripping crash that had startled them was repeated, this time a little louder and more prolonged than before. The club-house shook. Several of the men sprang to their feet in alarm. A look of comprehension shot among them. “ By Gad! An explosion!” cried one of them. “The damned beasts!” “ The Reynolds Works!” cried another, gripping the back of his chair with tense fingers. “Sure as you’re alive! It’s only a few miles from here. Nothing else could have—” “ Let’s go home, Ned. The children—something may have happened—you never can tell—” “ Don’t get excited, Betty,” cried the man in the Morris chair. She was shaking his arm. “The children are in New York, twenty miles away. They’re all right, old girl. Lord! What a smash it was!”The group was silent, waiting with bated breath for the third and perhaps more shocks to come.The club steward came into the room, bearing a tray of bottles and glasses. His face was ashen; there was a set expression about it, as one who controls his nerves with difficulty. “ Did you hear it, Peter?” was the innocuous inquiry of one of the men, a dapper young fellow in corduroys. “ Yes, Mr. Cribbs. I thought at first it was the roof, sir. The chef said it was the big chimney—” “ Never mind the drinks, Peter,” said a tall, greyish man as the steward placed the glasses on the table. “We’ve lost what little thirst we had. Where are the Reynolds Works from here?”Peter looked surprised. “South, sir,—beyond the hills. About five miles, I should say, Mr. Carstairs.” “ And which way is south?” inquired one of the women. “I am always turned around when I am in the country.” She was a singularly pallid, clear-featured woman of perhaps forty-five. One might surmise that at twenty she had been lovely, even exquisite. “ This way, Mrs. Carstairs,” said the steward, starting toward the windows at the lower end of the lounge.The man who had been addressed as Zimmie was already at one of the broad windows, peering out into the black, windy night. “ Can’t see a thing,” he said, as the others crowded about him. “The shops are off there in a direct line with the home green, I should say.” “ I happen to know that the Allies have a fifteen million dollar contract with the Reynolds people,” said Carstairs, looking hard into the blackness. “ If they’d string up a few of these infernal—There! See the glow coming up over the hill? She’s afire! And with this wind,—‘gad, she’ll go like waste paper! My God, I wish the whole German Army was sitting on top of those buildings right now.” It was little Mr. Cribbs who spoke. He was shaking like a leaf. “ I’d rather see a million or two of these so-called German-Americans sitting there, Cribbs,” said Carstairs, between his teeth. “There’d be some satisfaction in that.”His wife nudged him sharply. He turned and caught the warning look in her eye and the slight movement of her head in the direction of the man called Zimmie. “ Oh, that’s all right,” cried Carstairs carelessly. “You needn’t punch me, dear. Zimmie ‘s as good an American as any of us. Don’t think for a moment, Zimmie, old chap, that I include you in the gang I’d like to see sitting on that pile of shells over there.”The man at the window turned, and smiled affably. “ Thanks, old man. Being, as you say, as good an American as any of you, I may be permitted to return the compliment. I shouldn’t like to see Mrs. Carstairs sitting on that pile of shells.”Carstairs flushed. An angry light leaped to his eyes, but it was banished almost instantly. Mrs. Carstairs herself replied. “ I can’t imagine anything more distasteful,” she drawled. “ But Mrs. Carstairs isn’t a German,” put in little Mr. Cribbs, somewhat tartly for him. “ You’re always saying the wrong thing, Cribbs,—or the right thing at the wrong time,” said Carstairs. “Mrs. Carstairs is not German. Her father and mother were, however. She’s in the same fix as Zimmerlein, and she isn’t ashamed of it any more than Zimmie is.” “ I had—er—no idea that Mrs. Carstairs was—” “ What were your parents, Mr. Cribbs?” asked Mrs. Carstairs calmly. “ Nebraskans,” said Cribbs, stiffening. “My grandfather was a Welshman.” “ And so you have absolutely nothing to reproach yourself with,” said she. “How fortunate in these days.” “ I’m sorry, Mrs. Carstairs, if I—” “ I was born in the United States,” she said, without a trace of annoyance, “but not in Nebraska. You have the advantage of me there, I fear. And of poor Mr. Zimmerlein, too. He was born in Boston,—were you not?” “ In Marlborough Street,” said Zimmerlein, drily. “My father was Irish, as you can tell by me name, and me poor mither was Irish too. Her name before marriage was Krausshof.” Mr. Cribbs’s face was scarlet. To cover his confusion, he wedged his way a little closer to the windows and glared at the dull red light that crept slowly out of the darkness off to the south. The crests of the hills were beginning to take shape against a background shot with crimson. “ Just the same,” he muttered, “I’d like to see the men who are responsible for that fire over there burning in hell.” “ I think we can agree on that point, at least, Mr. Cribbs,” said Zimmerlein, with dignity. “ Who wants to run over there with me in my car?” cried the other, excitedly. “It’s only a few miles, and it must be a wonderful sight. I can take six or seven—” “ Stay where you are, Cribbs,” said Carstairs sharply. “When those shells begin to go off—Why, man alive, there’s never been anything on the French front that could hold a candle to it. Don’t forget what happened when Black Tom pier was blown up. Pray do not be alarmed, ladies. There isn’t the slightest danger here. The shells they are making at the Reynolds plant are comparatively small. We’re safely out of range.” “ What size shells were they making, Carstairs?” inquired one of the men. “ Three inch, I believe—and smaller. A lot of machine-gun ammunition, too. Cox, the general manager, dined with us the other night. He talked a little too freely, I thought,—didn’t you, Frieda?” “ He boasted, if that is what you mean,” said Mrs. Carstairs. “ Well,” said a big, red-faced man on the outer edge of the group, “it’s time some of these blooming fools learned how to keep their mouths shut. The country’s full of spies,—running over with ‘em. You never know when you’re talking to one.”Silence followed his remark. For some time they all stood watching the crimson cloud in the distance, an ever-changing, pulsing shadow that throbbed to the temper of the wind.They represented the reluctant element of a large company that had spent the afternoon and early evening at the Black Downs Country Club,—the element that is always reluctant to go home. There had been many intimate little dinner parties during the evening. New York was twenty miles or more away, and there was the Hudson in between. The clock above the huge fireplace had struck eleven a minute or two before the first explosion took place. Chauffeurs in the club-garage were sullenly cursing their employers. All but two or three waiters had gone off to the railway station not far away, and the musicians had made the 10:30 up-train. Peter, the steward, lived on the premises with the chef and several house employes.The late-staying guests were clad in sport clothes, rough and warm and smart,—for it was one of the smartest clubs in the Metropolitan district.A fierce October gale was whining, cold and bitter and relentless, across the uplands; storm-warnings had gone out from the Weather Bureau; coast-wise vessels were scurrying for harbours and farmers all over the land had made snug their livestock against the uncertain elements.If it turned out to be true that the vast Reynolds munitions plant had been blown up, the plotters could not have chosen a more auspicious night for their enterprise. No human force could combat the flames on a night like this; caught on the wings of the wind there would be no stopping them until the ashes of ruin lay wet and sodden where the flight had begun.Mrs. Carstairs was the first to turn away from the windows. She shuddered a little. A pretty, nervous young wife sidled up to her, and laid a trembling hand on her arm. “ Wouldn’t it be dreadful if there were a lot of people at work over there when—when it happened?” she cried, in a tense, strained voice. “Just think of it.” “ Don’t think about it, Alice dear. Think of what they are going through in France and Belgium.” “ But we really aren’t fighting them yet,” went on the other, plaintively. “Why should they blow up our factories? Oh, these dreadful, terrible Germans.” Then suddenly, in confusion: “I—I beg your pardon.”Mrs. Carstairs smiled pleasantly. “That’s all right, my dear. A good many of us suffer for the sins of the fathers. Besides, we are in the war, and have been for six months or more.” “ We all hate the Kaiser, don’t we?” pleaded the younger woman.Mrs. Carstairs pressed her arm. “None more so than those of us whose parents left Germany to escape such as he.” “ I’m glad to hear you say that.” “ Beg pardon,” said Peter the steward, at Mrs. Carstairs’ elbow. “I think this is yours. You dropped it just now.” “ Thank you, Peter,” said she, taking the crumpled handkerchief he handed her. “I shan’t drop it again,” she went on, smiling as she stuffed it securely in the gold mesh bag she was carrying. “ Peter is such a splendid man, isn’t he?” said her young companion, lowering her voice. “So much more willing and agreeable than old Crosby. We’re all so glad the change was made.” “ He is most efficient,” said Mrs. Carstairs.The admirable Peter approached Mr. Carstairs and Zimmerlein, who were pouring drinks for themselves at the table. “ Preparedness is the word of the hour,” Carstairs was saying, as he raised his glass. “It’s a long, cold ride home.” “ Excuse me, gentlemen, shall I call up Central at Bushleigh and see if they can give us any news!” asked Peter. “ You might try. I don’t believe you can get a connection, however. Everything must be knocked galley-west over on that side of the ridge.” “ I think your wife is signalling you, Car-stairs,” said Zimmerlein, looking over the other’s shoulder.Carstairs tossed off the contents of the glass, and reached out his hand for the check. Zimmerlein already had it in his fingers. ‘“ I’ll sign it, old chap,” he said. “Give me your pencil, Peter.” “ None of that, Zimmie. I ordered the—” “ Run along, old man, your wife—He’s coming, Mrs. Carstairs,” called out Zimmerlein.As Carstairs turned away, Zimmerlein scratched his name across the check, and handed it back to the steward. “ Under no circumstances are you to call up Bushleigh,” fell in low, distinct tones from his lips. “Do you understand?”Peter’s hand shook. His face was livid. “ Yes, sir,” he muttered. “What shall I say to Mr. Carstairs?” “ Say that no one answers,” said the other, and walked away.The company had recovered its collective and individual power of speech. Every one was talking,—loudly, excitedly, and in some cases violently. Some were excoriating the Germans, others were bitterly criticizing the Government for its over-tenderness, and still others were blaming themselves for not taking the law in their own hands and making short work of the “soap-boxers,” the “pacifists,” and the “obstructionists.” Little Mr. Cribbs was the most violent of them all. He was for organizing the old-time Vigilantes, once so efficacious in the Far West, and equipping them with guns and ropes and plenty of tar and feathers. “ Nothing would please me more than to lead such a gang,” he proclaimed. “Lead ‘em right into these foul nests where——What’s that, Judge?” “ I repeat—How old are you, Cribbs?” “ Oh, I guess I’m old enough to shoot a gun, or pull a rope or carry a bucket of tar,” retorted the young man. “ I’ll put it the other way. How young are you?” “ I’m twenty-nine.” “ I see. And how did you escape the draft?” “ They haven’t reached my number yet,” said Mr. Cribbs, with dignity. “ Well, that’s good. There’s still hope,” said the Judge, grimly. “They need just such fire-eaters as you over there in France with Pershing.”Carstairs turned to Zimmerlein, who was being helped into his fur-coat by one of the attendants. “ Can’t we take you to the city, Zimmerlein? There is plenty of room in the car.” “ No, thank you, Carstairs. I’m going in by train. Mr. and Mrs. Prior will drop me at the station. Good night. Oh, here’s Peter. What did you hear?” “ I could get no answer, Mr. Zimmerlein,” said the steward steadily. “Wires may be down, sir.” “ Good night, Mrs. Carstairs.” Zimmerlein held out his hand. She hesitated an instant, and then took it. Her gaze was fixed, as if fascinated, on his dark, steady eyes.

CHAPTER II

HOARSE, raucous-voiced newsboys were crying the “extras” soon after midnight. They were doing a thriving business. The destruction of the great Reynolds plant, more spectacular and more appalling than any previous deed perpetrated by the secret enemies of the American people, was to drive even the most sanguine and indifferent citizen to a full realizaton of the peril that stalked him and his fellow-man throughout the land. Complacent security was at last to sustain a shock it could not afford to scorn. Up there in the hills of Jersey a bombardment had taken place that rivalled in violence, if not in human toll, the most vivid descriptions of shell-carnage on the dripping fronts of France.Huge but vague headlines screamed into the faces of quick-breathing men and wide-eyed women the first details of the great disaster across the River.