The House of the Schemers - Fred M. White - ebook

The House of the Schemers ebook

Fred M White

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There were various rumors about house No.13. There were no lights, badly painted blinds were always lowered, windows were black over the years. The feeling of loneliness and secrecy permeated the interior of No.13. Surprisingly there lived a young beautiful lady, about 20 years old. However, she was very frightened. And all this darkness was displayed on it.

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Liczba stron: 548

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Contents

I.—THE SHADOW OF A FEAR

II.—THE PORTRAIT

III.—JOHN STERN

IV.—THE LADY NEXT DOOR

V.—BEHIND THE CURTAINS

VI.—AT THE WINDOW

VII.—INSPECTOR BURLES

VIII.—IN THE EARLY MORN

IX.—THE SNAKE RING AGAIN

X.—THE MESSAGE FROM HIGH STREET

XI.—AILSA’S QUEST

XII.—IN CONFIDENCE

XIII.—“LA BELLE ATALANTA.”

XIV.—A LETTER OF IMPORTANCE

XV.—A SUDDEN FEAR

XVI.—WAITING ON EVENTS

XVII.—BURLES ON THE MOVE

XVIII.—AN UNEXPECTED VISIT

XIX.—THE MASKED BALL

XX.—BEYOND THE BARRIER

XXI.—SUSPICIONS

XXII.—THE LADY OF THE FAN AGAIN

XXIII.—THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS

XXIV.—A CLOSE CALL

XXV.—A GLIMMER OF THE TRUTH

XXVI.—OLD SUSAN COMES OUT

XXVII.—CONSTERNATION!

XXVIII.—TRYING IT ON

XXIX.—A WINDFALL

XXX.—A REVELATION

XXXI.—A LEAF FROM THE PAST

XXXII.—NEARLY LOST

XXXIII.—A COMPLICATION

XXXIV.—SIR CHARLES COMES OUT

XXXV.—COLVILLE INTERVENES

XXXVI.—NO THOROUGHFARE

XXXVII.—NEWS FROM PARIS

XXXVIII.—A BAFFLED GUEST

XXXIX.—THE WRONG WOMAN

XL.—FLIGHT!

XLI.—A FRIEND IN NEED

XLII.—AN UNEXPECTED ALLY

XLIII.—SUICIDE

XLIV.—FOUND!

XLV.—GATHERED THREADS

XLVI.—TOWARDS THE GOAL

XLVII.—“THE SONG THAT REACHED MY HEART.”

XLVIII.—PEACE

I. THE SHADOW OF A FEAR

Only in the great Metropolis could the house have passed, silent, mystic, and unnoticed, without the wagging of tongues and the prying of idle curiosity. It was not as if No. 13 stood apart–Vernon-terrace was a smart row of houses, where for the most part people of mains resided. The other homesteads were bright and clean, there were boxes of flowers in the windows, and silk blinds behind. Lights gleamed in them at night, glittering carriages stood before the open doors.

So the rustiness and neglect of No. 13 were all the more remarked. It was like one horribly black, decayed tooth in an otherwise perfect set. No lights showed there, the ill-painted blinds were always down, the front steps were greasy, the panes were black with the passing of years. The neighbours occasionally alluded to No. 13 in a careless kind of way; they believed that a gentleman called Colville lived there. He was understood to be a scientific man or something of that sort. But nobody really knew, and nobody cared. Nobody had ever been inside the house, which was understood to be only partly furnished. The same sense of loneliness and mystery pervaded the interior of No. 13. The noble reception rooms on the first floor were never opened; indeed, for years they had not seen the light of day. A sense of mystery, the brooding spirit of some immeasurable trouble lay every where. And yet the black dust and hanging cobwebs rested on priceless pictures and works of art, on old tapestry, furniture, and Eastern carpets. Somebody years ago had filled an old Cellini epergne with flowers, and the blackened stalks still remained. So much could be seen by the girl who stood there looking fearsomely around with a solitary candle in her hand.

It was a kind of tradition in Vernon-terrace that an exceedingly pretty girl had been seen occasionally at No. 13. For once tradition was right, for Ailsa Lefroy was a very pretty girl indeed. Her dress was of the simplest, her hair was caught up in a very severe fashion; but all this did not detract from the girl’s beauty, or rob her deep violet eyes of the sweetness of their expression. Her face was a little pale, yet the skin was clear and healthy, the little red lips were unsteady now. In age, Ailsa might have been taken for one-and-twenty. Anybody who guessed that would not have been far wrong, for she would be twenty-one on the morrow.

Five years she had spent under the roof of Archibald Colville since her father died. Five years in a dreary prison house with nobody for company but her books and her painting, the strange taciturn old servants, and an occasional glimpse of the man who called himself her guardian. Other girls tasted the delights of life, Ailsa had none of them. And the time was close at hand when she would be own mistress. Many things would be made plain to-morrow. Ailsa was looking forward to the morrow with mingled feelings.

She had naturally a high courage of her own, but the old house frightened and depressed her. Strange things happened from time to time in the dead of night. Afterwards Ailsa wondered if she had been dreaming. Once she had stepped into the corridor from her bedroom and listened. She had heard blows and cries, a prayer for mercy, and silence. And then she had seen old Susan, the cast-iron housekeeper, come along the corridor wringing her hands and crying bitterly. Yes, over all these things hung the shadow of a fear.

Ailsa had her dinner in solitary state, served by the taciturn Susan, and cleared away by the equally taciturn Thomas, the butler. She would go to bed early and sleep till the fateful morrow. Ailsa hardly dared to ask herself what to-morrow would produce. Somebody was knocking loudly at the front door, a heavy hand jangled at the bell. Such a thing had never happened before in the recollection of the girl. She caught her breath quickly with a sudden premonition of fear.

It was only a telegram, after all, directed to Ailsa. It was a curt intimation from Archibald Colville, despatched from Birmingham, to the effect that the sender could not possibly return to London on the morrow, and that Thomas was to take the midnight train to Birmingham and there meet his master with the gladstone bag.

“You had better give this to Thomas, Susan,” Ailsa said as she handed over the flimsy sheet of paper. “I dare say he would know what it means.”

Susan’s hard, corrugated features grew suddenly pale and ghastly. Something like a groan escaped from her lips. She stiffened again as she became aware of Ailsa’s widely opened, questioning eyes. She snatched the paper almost angrily.

“Oh, yes, I know,” she said hoarsely. “More curses on this cursed house. And him to go away on this of all nights of the year! The hand of the Lord is heavy on some of us... You go to bed, missy, and forget what I’ve been saying.”

But Ailsa did not move. The dread fascination of the old house was upon her as it had never been before. Hitherto she had closed her eyes to the suggestion of wrong-doing: now her senses were alert and awake. She had never seen old Susan in this mood before. Usually, the aged servitor had been taciturn and sullen to the last degree. She had encouraged no advances on the part of Ailsa.

“I do not quite understand you,” the girl said. “What do you mean? You seem to be in great trouble about something that I––”

“I’m in no trouble about anything,” Susan retorted. “You go off to bed and mind your own business, my pretty little soul. Ask no questions, and you will be told no lies, as they used to tell me when I was a child. If you were not so pure and innocent you would know that things are going on in this house––”

“Not wrong things?” Ailsa interrupted. “Not crime and wickedness! Susan, I am afraid that something has upset you very much to-night. Does Thomas ill-treat you–is he unkind at times?”

“Unkind! He is the greatest–– But, there, I am letting my silly tongue run too fast. Never you get married, miss. Never trust your happiness to any man, however kind he seems to be. But what do you know of that kind of thing?”

Ailsa flushed a vivid crimson. She could have told a tale had she pleased.

“It’s the men that make us what we are,” the old woman croaked. “Don’t let one of them spoil your life. And now be off, for you have no business here.”

The last words were almost kindly spoken, but the hard, grim, wrinkled face did not relax again. The old, strange heavy silence settled on the house again, broken presently by the tramp of heavy feet in the hall, and the sullen banging of the front door. Thomas had departed on his mysterious errand, evidently; Ailsa was alone in the house with Susan. Suppose the old woman was taken ill in the night and died? Ailsa put the thought away from her. It seemed to her that she could hear noises everywhere; stealthy footsteps in the great reception-rooms overhead. It was pure fancy, of course; nobody was likely to come there. All the same, Ailsa took one of the candlesticks from the polished surface of the mahogany table and walked upstairs to the great room above.

Nobody there; nothing but silence and dust, and the scratching of mice behind the panels. It was not once a year that Ailsa entered these rooms; their grandeur overpowered her. She did not know that the blackened ornaments here and there represented some of the most priceless old silver in England. Ailsa paused just a moment before a portrait hanging between two of the shuttered windows. It was the presentment of Archibald Colville, done ten years ago by one of the most famous painters of his day.

Ailsa had never carefully noticed the picture before. She felt sure that there had been a speaking likeness at the time it was painted. A dark, rather hard face, as if it had been soured by trouble and misfortune rather than the hand of Nature. Yet the eyes and mouth were sad, the folded hands had a suggestion of resignation about them. They were slim, yet resolute hands; on the one little finger was a curious snake ring of diamonds with ruby eyes. Ailsa had often seen that ring on the hand of her guardian, and in some queer way it always fascinated her. It fascinated her now so that she almost forgot to wonder why Archibald Colville had changed from black to absolute grey in ten years.

“I wonder why,” Ailsa mused aloud. “Perhaps it was old Susan who set me thinking, but I never connected my grim old guardian with a romance before. Perhaps all the love went out of his life calmly and left it grey and colourless. Do we all suffer in the same way, I wonder? And what would Archibald Colville say if he knew that I too had loved and lost! And yet it seems almost absurd, seeing that I was but a child the last time I parted with Ronald Braybrooke! I wonder if he guessed how much the child of sixteen cared for him!”

Ailsa stopped, conscious of the fact that she was talking aloud. In that old home the echo of her own voice almost frightened her.

Still, the broken romance was yet very fresh and pure in her heart. Ailsa was not the girl to pine and die over a thing like that, but her heart ached at times when the happy old days rose up before her mental vision. And she was very restless and uneasy to-night.

It seemed to her that she could hear stealthy footsteps overhead, and again that somebody was down in the kitchen talking in whispers to old Susan. Ailsa let her mind run riot until she could hear the blood running through her veins. She had never been so restless and uneasy since she had come to the old house. Perhaps it was the anticipation of the morrow that so strangely affected her.

“I am positively ridiculous,” the girl told herself. “Really, I should like something out of the common to happen! Better than rusting out like this, or becoming slowly and gradually melancholy. What a blessed thing is bed!”

Ailsa made her way slowly down the stairs again. She wished that the house was not quite so still. She could hear the roll and rattle of cabs outside, the jingle of harness, and presently soft laughter in girlish voices. Evidently the people next door were giving a party of some kind.

It was no use sitting there; far better to be in bed and asleep. Presently old Susan shuffled about downstairs, putting the lights out. Ailsa could still hear the rattle of carriages next door as she dropped off into unconsciousness. It seemed to her that no time hardly had passed before she was sitting up again listening intently to the cry of somebody near at hand. Presently the cry was stopped.

Ailsa was out of bed in her dressing-gown in a moment. It required courage to open her door and look out, but the girl did not hesitate. The moaning cry was repeated from somewhere downstairs, and Ailsa called out to know who was there. Again came the cry–to Ailsa’s unutterable relief, and the croaking voice of old Susan.

Ailsa flew downstairs on the wings of the wind. What was going to happen if this woman was ill or dying? She lay huddled up at the foot of the basement stairs. Ailsa wondered vaguely what she was doing here at this hour, for a clacking old clock somewhere struck the hour of two. There was an ugly bruise on the side of Susan’s head.

“I slipped,” she moaned. “I–I had toothache, and I came to get some of the stuff that I rub on my gums. I believe that I have broken something.”

It was impossible to get the woman upstairs, a task to help her to the kitchen. She flopped on to a chair, and rocked to and fro with her head in her hands.

“He didn’t hit me,” she muttered, “I swear that it was an accident. I’ll take my oath that it was my own fault, so there! Get me some brandy!”

“Where is the brandy to be found?” Ailsa asked.

The old woman looked up suddenly, as if she had just come back to the consciousness that she was not alone. There was a little brandy in a medicine bottle in her room, she muttered. Right at the top of the house. Then she fell to muttering incoherently again, and Ailsa could make nothing of what she said.

There was no help for it; the brandy must be procured without delay. Ailsa crept up the stairs, her bare feet making no sound on the thick, dusty carpets. She had not the slightest idea where Susan’s bedroom was, but she did not doubt that she could find it. It was somewhere at the top of the big, silent house.

Doubtless a window was open somewhere, for a door banged suddenly, a fierce draught caused Ailsa’s candle to weep and gutter. Then there was a fiercer draught and Ailsa’s light went out altogether. It was like being stranded in a strange land to Ailsa, and she stood irresolute. There was no help for it but to feel her way down and get a box of matches.

Before Ailsa could turn the draught stopped, and a door was shut quietly. She could hear the handle turn, so that it was no agency of the wind here. Immediately Ailsa felt for a doorway, and stood within it waiting for developments. She was quite sure now that she could hear somebody moving overhead. Her heart stood still for a moment. There was a stumble, and somebody muttered something in a half-angry voice.

Those footsteps were feeling their way and descending the stairs. Could Susan possibly know that anybody was there? If so, would she have sent Ailsa for the brandy? The girl decided not; evidently this was some midnight marauder. She stood there with trembling limbs and a heart that beat quite loudly.

The stranger was near to her now, so near that she could hear him breathing. He stumbled again, and said something that the girl could not catch. She could hear the striking of a match on a box, and a small ring of flame spurted out. It was only for a moment, and then it was gone again. Ailsa checked a cry.

She could make nothing of the man, whose face was hidden in a slouch hat. But she had just for one instant seen the flash of a ring on the left hand as he shaded the match. And the ring that Ailsa had seen was the gem of gold and rubies and diamonds that she had seen so often on the little finger of her guardian!

II. —THE PORTRAIT

Ailsa stood there with a certain curious exultation in the knowledge that she was no longer afraid. Here was a real and tangible danger, so different to those suggested by the utter loneliness of the dreary old home. This was no spirit from the other world, but a real, live man, who had no business here. He was a burglar, after some of the valuables with which the house was crammed, and it was Ailsa’s obvious duty to hand him over to the police without delay.

But was he no more than the average burglar? It seemed absurd to think so; but Ailsa’s instinct told her that there was something more than met the eye. As she stood there she could hear the passing cabs outside and the tramp of a policeman trudging along his beat. It would have been so easy for Ailsa to slip quietly down the stairs and call the officer in.

And yet she stood there, hesitating, curious, and not afraid. If this man had been a real burglar he could have filled his pockets and departed as quietly as he had come. But he seemed to be looking about him for some definite object. As he moved again presently it struck Ailsa that he must be familiar with the house. There was none of that fumbling hesitation about the stranger. Perhaps he had forgotten his bearings for a moment, hence the striking of the match. A discharged servant, perhaps? But discharged servants do not wear diamond rings of price.

Then a sharp and sudden thought came to Ailsa. Had this man anything to do with the injury to the old woman lying in the kitchen? Susan had declared that her hurt had been caused by an accident; she had been unnecessarily emphatic on this point. Even in her semi delusion she had seemed very anxious to shield somebody. Ailsa made up her mind that she would go downstairs to make sure. It was easy to feel her way to the handrail and creep down noiselessly in her stockinged feet.

Old Susan still sat in her chair with her eyes closed. She was breathing more easily now; she seemed to have fallen into a deep sleep, the heavy sleep of intoxication as it appeared. But Ailsa knew that there was nothing of the kind here. It might be a cruel thing to do, but she laid a hand on Susan’s shoulder and shook her forcibly. The old woman opened her eyes, and glared round her as if in terror.

“You’ll be found out,” she whispered. “He is certain to find out, and you’ll go to gaol. Mind you, nothing can save you from that. But it was quite an accident.”

The woman repeated the last sentence fiercely, as if trying to convince others of what she did not herself believe. Ailsa waited for the fit of anger to pass.

“What is that man doing upstairs?” she asked sternly. “Tell me at once.”

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