Step in the Dark - Ethel Lina White - ebook

Step in the Dark ebook

Ethel Lina White

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The story „Step in the Dark”, written by Ethel Lina White about the novelist, Georgia Yeo, who has a successful career. However, she is timid and hesitantly makes decisions that may further have consequences. The novelist meets a charming nobleman. But is he really what he seems?

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Liczba stron: 313

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Contents

I. REFLECTIONS

II. BEHIND THE CURTAIN

III. THE COUNTESS LEAVES TOWN

IV. SIGNATURE

V. INTRODUCTION TO THE ISLAND

VI. FLOWERS FOR THE BRIDE

VII. DISCREET INQUIRIES

VIII. TOUCH WOOD

IX. PRESENTIMENT

X. SWEDEN IN A DAY

XI. A VIKING'S BRIDE

XII. THE VISITOR

XIII. RECOGNITION

XIV. A DARK LADY

XV. THE PLOT

XVI. NO RETURN

XVII. HAPPY EYES

XVIII. FICTION

XIX. A "GOOD" HORROR

XX. THE MESSAGE

XXI. THE LOST LUCK

XXII. THE PRISONER

XXIII. ENTER MRS. YATES

XXIV. SEA-TRIP

XXV. THE EXECUTIONER

XXVI. A POSTCARD FROM BRUGES

XXVII. THE FEE

I. REFLECTIONS

ACROSS the table, Georgia Yeo looked at her hostess with timid admiration.

“I wonder,” she thought, “if the time will ever come when that face will be familiar to me, at meals?”

She was acutely nervous, for she realized that the little dinner-party was a formal occasion when she was on exhibition. This was her great moment–her chance to grasp a future which blinded her with its brilliancy.

At present, she felt almost breathless by the rush of events, as though she were another Alice, whirled relentlessly through the air. It was only ten days since she had left England, for the first time in her life. Since then, much had happened–and it had happened too quickly.

She had come to Brussels and met the Count.

History was made on her first night. She chose to stay at an old-established hotel, patronised by those who preferred an atmosphere of tradition to ultramodern plumbing. Once the mansion of a wealthy family, it preserved its original grandeur of yellowed marble walls and vast gilt-framed mirrors as a background for solid nineteenth-century furniture.

It was situated in the town, amid a tangle of dark narrow streets, so that Georgia was able to gaze through the revolving doors of the lounge and watch the people passing outside. A fine rain was falling so imperceptibly that it was visible only as a sliver through the darkness. It glistened on a procession of umbrellas and the statuary of a fountain, set in the middle of the road.

Inside was the brilliancy of branching electric lights–a constant flux of visitors–a babel of voices speaking an unfamiliar language. As she sat and watched, the novelty of her surroundings thrilled her to excited expectancy. For six years she had looked out, at twilight, always upon the same scene–an empty grey waste, with a distant white line of crawling foam, marking the sea.

She opened her cigarette case, which was the signal for the Count literally to leap into her life, forestalling the waiter with a match.

“Can it be really true?” he asked a minute later. “The clerk at the Bureau tells me that you are Mrs. Yeo–the celebrated writer of so many detective thrillers?”

Faster, faster... When she admitted her identity, the Count swept her away on the current of his exuberant spirits. In his stimulating company, she saw Brussels as a whirling confusion of ancient buildings, cobbled streets, statues, still life paintings of carcasses and dark arcaded dress-shops.

Out of the swarm of impressions there emerged a few indelible impressions. The mellow glory of the gilded houses of the Grand Place seen in a red, watery sunset. The twin towers of St. Gudule’s floating in a silvery mist. The massive grandeur of the Palais de Justice, challenging the shock of Judgment Day. The soaring figure of St. Michael glittering in the morning sun. The horror of a picture in the Wiertz Museum–“The Age of Innocence”–which depicted two children burning a butterfly’s wings.

Faster, faster... The Count rushed her from place to place, with cyclonic energy. He remained volatile, impersonal and adventurous–running risks with regulations and stamping on convention up to the moment when he formally expressed his wish that she should meet his family.

The pace increased to a breathless whirl after his relatives arrived at the hotel. Mrs. Vanderpant–aunt to the Count–was the widow of a wealthy and distinguished American. She was accompanied by an impressive-looking scientist–Professor Malfoy–and a youth named “Clair”–both connections on the American side. They were installed in the most expensive suite, from whence issued the fateful invitation.

Then, with a grinding jar, everything stopped still and Georgia found herself stationary at the dinner-table.

She was on approval.

The meal was laid in the private sitting-room, which was a chill apartment with a vast expanse of waxed parquet flooring. Starched white net curtains hung at the three long windows, framing narrow slices of cobalt-blue night sky. The golden glow of candlelight was reflected in a large Regency mirror upon the wall.

Georgia could see herself in it–small and very fair, in a backless black dinner-gown. She always looked younger than her age, but to-night, in spite of her efforts at sophistication, she appeared too immature for her writing record.

She moved her head and her reflection vanished.

“I’ve gone inside,” she thought. “That mirror has swallowed so many faces–so many scenes.”

Her dislike of seeing herself in the glass dated from her childhood, when her nurse used to hold her up before a large old-fashioned mirror. One night, she dreamed that, instead of seeing her familiar nursery, she looked into a dark smoky place, where strange people with depraved faces drank and played cards.

Her father, who always explained the connection between cause and effect, pointed out that the dream was the logical result of looking at a forbidden volume of Hogarth’s engravings.

Although she accepted the moral, she always believed that the mirror had yielded up an evil page from the past.

At the present time, she was in a super-sensitive condition which was a prelude to the temperature she usually ran, as a penalty of excitement. To counteract its effect, she had taken a draught and, as a result, did not feel quite normal.

With the momentary detachment of a spectator, she looked at the others sitting round the table. Her hostess, Mrs. Vanderpant, was elderly, with a clear-cut arrogant face, pinched austere features, and a sunken mouth, expressive of intolerance and pride. In contrast with her chill personality, the Professor’s vast florid clean-shaven face was benignant and his voice a melodious gong, although he rarely spoke. He had a shock of snowy curls which shadowed his black eyes, twinkling behind gold-rimmed pince-nez.

The youth, Clair, was too young to count with her. She was conscious of him merely as a sharp-faced youth, in a dinner-jacket. He spoke with an American accent, although his small hands and feet, in conjunction with smooth blue-black hair, suggested a Latin type.

There was another guest, her literary agent, Harvey Torch. He was a pleasant man, but entirely dwarfed by his neighbour. The Count’s high-voltage personality eclipsed the rest of the party. He was unusually fair, with sparkling blue eyes and glittering white teeth, so that, whenever he moved or spoke, there was a constant flash and gleam.

Georgia shifted her position in order to see them reflected in the mirror–a reduced but vivid company. Above all, she was conscious of the Count flickering across the dimness of old glass, like streaks of luminous paint glimmering in the darkness.

Her vision blurred and her head began to swim.

“This moment must last,” she thought. “One day–perhaps a thousands years hence–some one will look into that glass and see us all sitting round the table, just as we are now... And by then, everything that is going to happen to us, will have happened. We can do nothing then, to help or hinder.”

It was this sense of imminent and unknown destiny which weighted down her spirit. She awoke to reality at the sound of her hostess’s voice, which, in spite of her effort to be gracious, remained harsh and grating.

“Are you going to visit any other part of Belgium?”

“No,” replied Georgia. “I’m going to stay in Brussels, all the time. At the beginning of my visit, I motored through part of the Ardennes.”

“You saw some fine scenery.”

“Yes, but it was too old and too cruel. There were so many ruins and prisons with horrible oubliettes. They depressed me.”

“This is really amusing,” laughed the Count. “You are sorry for people who have been comfortably dead for hundreds of years. Yet you are utterly ruthless to your poor characters.”

“That’s different. I can control my situations. My prisoners are already released.”

“But some prisons are quite comfortable. At least, I have been assured so by financial, or rather, high-financial friends... Besides, you told me you had been shut up in one small place, all your life. You’ve been living in one room. Where is the difference?”

Although she knew he was teasing her, Georgia answered the Count’s question seriously.

“The difference is this. I can leave my prison whenever I like... But it must be ghastly to know you have got to stay in one place for ever. Always seeing the same scene, like Napoleon on St. Helena.”

As she spoke the room was momentarily blotted out, and she seemed to be looking at the last red gleam of a setting sun reflected on long lines of grey waves, rolling out towards the horizon.

On–on... They moved ceaselessly, but she had to stay and watch that sullen waste of water. A scene of stark desolation. No ray of hope. Doom inexorable... A prisoner.

As though he sensed his client’s discomfort, Torch came to her relief with a remark on a topical subject. Released from taking further part in the conversation, she became aware that the youth, Clair, was staring at her with hard, curious eyes. Their hostile expression told her that, for some unknown reason, he disliked her intensely.

Even as the certainty flashed across her mind, she realised that the antipathy was not only mutual, but–in her case–intensified by instinctive repulsion.

His merciless scrutiny turned the meal to a social ordeal. It was a formal and elaborate affair of many courses and wines, with two waiters in constant attendance. The table was decorated with orchids and covered with a cloth of handmade lace.

As she looked at it nervously, Georgia was plunged back into her childhood, when she had been taken to lunch at the Bishop’s Palace. She could see again the white damask cloth, patterned with shamrock, as well as spattered with damson juice, which was her own shameful contribution.

Still under the spell of the past, her hand shook so violently when she raised her glass, that she was childishly afraid of spilling her wine. In this company, any slip or lapse from perfect manners might ruin her hopes. She felt overwhelmed by the importance of the issue at stake–crushed by the fact that the Count’s relatives were persons of birth, rank and wealth.

“I’m aiming too high,” she thought hopelessly. “I’m nothing. Nobody.”

She was grateful for the moral support of her agent–Harvey Torch. Although he had been annoyed by the Count’s invitation, he had accepted it in obedience to his instinct to protect the interests of others. On this occasion, he was concerned lest his most lucrative client had become friendly with adventurers.

In his character of critical observer he studied his company, excepting Clair, whom he considered negligible. Mrs. Vanderpant looked a typical example of inbreeding during centuries of social prestige, while the Professor bore the hallmark of the Mayflower. The Count, too, appeared a perfect specimen of super-vitality and physical fitness. Although he was middle-aged, it was possible to picture him in earlier years, as a blond youth, running around a stadium with a flaming torch.

The agent decided that they were almost too genuine, besides having the advantages of a successful stage-setting and candlelight. Consequently, he subjected them to his usual method of debunking, which was, to dress them up–in his imaginations–in different clothes.

The mental exercise was justified by results. Stripped of his evening suit and with his hair shorn, the Professor could shape in the ring as a heavyweight bruiser. The boy, Clair, was changed into a vicious young apache, by a dirty jersey and a beret; while the Count could be any type of pleasant scoundrel, common to every quarter of the globe.

Mrs. Vanderpant, alone, defied his efforts to degrade her dignity. Although he reduced her to sordid circles of vice and squalor, she remained triumphantly, the perfect lady in adversity.

As a momentary pause jammed the flow of conversation, the social occasion was marred by a disconcerting incident. Clair, who had never removed his eyes from Georgia’s face, suddenly broke his silence with a barrage of questions.

“D’you know Brussels well?” he asked.

“No,” Georgia confessed. “This is my first visit.”

“Gosh, how did you miss it? Haven’t you travelled?”

“No. I–I’ve never been abroad before.”

“Where d’you live?”

“In a small village, on the east coast of England.”

“Why?”

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