The Crimson Blind - Fred M. White - ebook

The Crimson Blind ebook

Fred M White

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Opis

Many people go through financial difficulties. The popular detective novelist David Steele finds himself in a difficult financial situation and accepts an invitation from an unknown mysterious lady who offers to help with his debts. Instead, she wants him to solve her unpleasant situation. He performs his part of the deal. Upon arrival home, he discovers a corpse.

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Liczba stron: 586

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Contents

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

XXVI. 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

XXXVI. 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. HEARING 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

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.

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