The Red Ledger - Frank L. Packard - ebook

The Red Ledger ebook

Frank L. Packard

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Ewen Stranway answers an advertisement to meet an old gentleman Henri Raoul Charlebois who has told him that he is in debt. At his flat, he removes from his safe a large book bound in red morocco in which it lists his debts. When he was very poor, Stranway’s father had given him a dime. Now, fabulously wealthy, he desires to pay back all those who helped him as well as those who did not and he recruits Stranway to continue when he is too old to handle it himself. All those who done him well, will be protected and secured, but those who done him wrong will live to regret it... Frank Packard (1877-1942) authored many popular novels, several of which were made into movies, including a series in which he originated the idea of a heroic crime fighter with a secret double identity.

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Liczba stron: 425

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Contents

I. C,305

II. 2½ DOMINIC COURT

III. A MONTH LATER

IV. THE ACCOMPLICE

V. AGAINST TIME

VI. FOR VALUE RECEIVED

VII. A MATTER OF IDENTITY

VIII. THE COUNTERMOVE

IX. STRANWAY RECEIVES A PACKAGE

X. THE DEBT

XI. THE LAST DAY OF GRACE

XII. IN WHICH A TRAP IS BAITED

XIII. THE MAN IN THE CHECKED SUIT

XIV. THE VOICE ON THE WIRE

XV. THE ACCUSATION

XVI. STACKED CARDS

XVII. AS PER ACCOUNT RENDERED

XVIII. THE ART OF PIQUET

XIX. THE ROAD THROUGH THE WOODS

XX. THE BARGAIN

XXI. THE ACCRUED INTEREST

XXII. ON THE DEBIT SIDE

XXIII. THE WARNING

XXIV. ON NARROW MARGIN

XXV. THE MESSAGE

XXVI. THE OLD MANUSCRIPT

XXVII. ALL BUT ONE

XXVIII. THE LONE HOUSE

XXIX. ON THE TOP FLOOR

XXX. THE FIGHT

XXXI. AT MIDNIGHT

CHAPTER I

C,305

Ewen Stranway slid his knife blade into the paper, and cut from the “personals” of the evening edition of the Times-Press the few lines at which he had been staring with startled eyes. And then, as though to focus the words and convince himself that it was not some astounding hallucination, he held the clipping nearer to him to read it again:

“If Ewen Stranway, son of the late John J. and Mary Stranway, of Kenora, Midland County, Pennsylvania, will communicate by mail with C,305, care of this paper, enclosing his photograph, he will hear from one who is in his debt.”

What did it mean? A stranger in the city, and arrived but a few hours before, there was not a soul in New York he knew–none who knew him! What did it mean? What was it? A game? A plant? Debt? There was certainly no one in his debt, worse luck! It was quite the other way around! A photograph! Why a photograph? What did it mean?

Stranway frowned as he got up from his chair, and walking to the window stood looking out on that section of Sixteenth Street, just west of Eighth Avenue, where he had taken a room that afternoon on his arrival. Only one thing was certain. The author of the “personal” was not jumping in the dark. Whoever had written it had, to a certain extent at least, an intimate knowledge of his, Stranway’s, recent family affairs. Events in the last two weeks had surged upon him with blinding force: the telegram that had summoned him home from college; his parents’ death in a motor accident; his father’s estate found to be deeply involved, and, in consequence, himself, at twenty-four, reduced from affluence to sudden penury–and now, as a climax, this mysterious advertisement greeting him before he had literally had time to unpack his trunk and settle himself in the new surroundings that he had chosen as promising most in opportunity for the future.

What did it mean? There was something that seemed almost uncanny about it. One person, and one only knew that he was in New York–Redell, the old family lawyer. But he had left Redell in Kenora only that morning. Redell was out of the question. Who, then?

Stranway turned abruptly from the window and began to pace up and down the room, his brows furrowed, his strong, firm jaws a little out-flung, his broad, athletic shoulders squared back with a hint of aggressiveness. Suddenly, a new thought struck him. He swung quickly to the door, opened it, went down the stairs and passed out into the street. He walked rapidly to the avenue, purchased a copy of every evening paper on the news-stand and returned to his room.

He spent ten minutes over these, and then, in spite of himself, laughed a little nervously. Each and every one of them contained the same advertisement word for word. Certainly, whoever had written it was leaving nothing to chance; certainly, whoever had written it was in grim earnest.

The laugh died away and his lips tightened. He crossed the room and lifted the lid of his trunk.

“I don’t know what it means,” he muttered; “but I’ll find out, or know the reason why!”

After a little search he found a photograph of himself; then, scribbling a short note, he made a mailing package of the two, and addressed it, according to directions, to C,305, Times-Press. This done, he went out and posted it–and pending developments, tried to shake the matter from his mind.

But it would not “shake.” It clung like an obsession, obtruding itself again and again at odd moments throughout that evening–and in the morning every paper again faithfully reproduced the “personal!”

C,305! Who was C,305? What, in Heaven’s name, was at the bottom of it?

At one o clock, when Stranway returned to his boarding house for lunch–after a morning spent in an unsuccessful attempt to find anything in the way of a position that offered him more than a mere opening for the moment, for Stranway, with characteristic determination, had made up his mind to hold out, unless his resources became exhausted first and compelled him to do otherwise, for something that would afford both an opportunity for advancement and ultimate success–his first question was for a letter or message. There was nothing; and he smiled a little mirthlessly at himself for the hold he had allowed the thing, unexplainable though it was, to obtain on him. It was too soon, of course, to expect any reply!

After lunch he went out again. He made his way across town, reached Sixth Avenue, walked down two blocks, turned east into Fourteenth Street–and the next instant he had halted as though rooted to the ground, and was staring about him in all directions. The crowd was thick on every side: women, men, children, flower girls, lace vendors, a line of pedlars banking the curb. People pushed by him; some with ungracious haste, others flinging a curious look his way. Stranway, stock-still, continued to gaze, confounded, and it was a long minute before he realised the futility of it. Some one, with quick, deft fingers, had thrust an envelope into his hand–and was gone. The man in overalls, the messenger boy with jaunty cap, that well-gowned woman there–the act had been so sudden and adroit that, so far as Stranway could tell, it might have been done by any one of these, or any one of a score of others.

He glanced now at the envelope. It was plain, sealed, unaddressed. He made his way out of the press into the entrance of a building, and opened it. The sheet within contained but a single line, written in an angular, crabbed, masculine hand:

“Come at once to 2½ Dominic Court. C,305.”

But now, apart from the amazing manner in which he had received it, the message caused Stranway no further surprise, as, from the moment he had felt the envelope thrust into his hand, he had sensed intuitively that it was a communication from the author of the “personal” in the papers. Nor did he now waste time in speculating over the peculiar and curious method of its delivery, for that was at least in keeping with what had gone before, and he had indulged in enough speculation already, too much of it, indeed, for his own peace of mind. Besides, the solution was obviously imminent now; and action, once there was something concrete to base it on, was Stranway’s way of doing things.

He looked again at the paper to make sure of the address, folded the sheet, slipped it into his pocket, and walked back to the corner of Sixth Avenue. Here, he accosted an officer.

“Can you tell me where Dominic Court is?” he inquired.

The patrolman pointed down the avenue.

“Four blocks down, right-hand side,” he answered tersely.

“Thank you,” said Stranway, and crossing over the avenue, walked briskly in the direction indicated.

He walked four blocks, six–and reached the Jefferson Market. Either the officer had misdirected him, or he had passed Dominic Court without recognising it. He wheeled and retraced his steps slowly. Half-way back up the second block he paused before a lane, or passageway, that apparently led to the rear premises of the not over-inviting buildings that bordered it on both sides, and turned to a passer-by.

“Can you tell me if Dominic Court is anywhere about here?” he asked.

“Dominic Court?” repeated the other. “I don’t know. I never heard of it.”

“That’s queer,” said Stranway–but he was to learn in the days to come that Dominic Court, though well worth the knowing, was unknown to many others as well, very many others amongst whom were those who prided themselves on their intimate knowledge of New York’s nooks and crannies, many others of those even who passed it daily in thousands going to and from their work.

With a courteous word of thanks to the man, Stranway, puzzled, stepped into a dingy little second-hand store in front of him, and for the third time since receiving the message repeated his question.

The proprietor, who had hastened unctuously from the rear upon Stranway’s entrance, grunted in dissatisfaction on learning his visitor’s business, and grudgingly directed him to the lane.

“H’m!” Stranway muttered facetiously to himself, as he stepped out on the street and turned into the passageway. “So this is it, eh? Well, I can’t say it looks very promising for a debtor’s abode! I–hello!„ His lips pursed into a low whistle of astonishment, and he halted abruptly.

He had come to the end of the passageway, a bare twenty-five yards from the street–and the transition was utter and complete. It was as though he had been suddenly transported from the whirl and bustle of modern metropolitan life with its high-strung, nervous tension, its endless, jarring roar of traffic, to some quiet, sequestered section of a quaint old foreign town. True, at his right, making the north side of the court and continuing the line of the lane, the ugly red brick walls, windowless, of a building rose high in air; but apart–

“By Jove!” Stranway exclaimed in amazement.

A board walk at his left circled up to a row of small, old-fashioned wooden houses set back on the west side of the court. They were built in old Dutch style, were indeed relics, probably, of the old Dutch settlers themselves, two stories high, with slanting roofs, half curved, pierced with a series of diminutive dormer windows like a row of little turrets. Over all, ivy climbed in profusion, cool and green and refreshing. The court itself was grass-covered, neatly kept, and a driveway leading from the lane made a circuit around it. Fences, ivy-clothed like the dwellings, enclosed the court on the other two sides, shutting out the rear of the abutting buildings.

Stranway started forward along the walk.

The first house was numbered 1; the next, 1½. There were four in the row. No. 2½, therefore, would be the one at the far end.

And now, for the first time, as he passed close by the several front doors, an air of desertion about the place struck him unpleasantly. The court, in the early afternoon sun, was in shadow, but every blind in every window was closed, and not a soul was to be seen anywhere.

A sudden feeling of misgiving came over him. Before, where the quiet and peace of the place had appealed to him, it now seemed strangely unnatural and foreboding. For an instant Stranway hesitated, and then, with a shrug of his shoulders, he mounted the three steps to the stoop of No. 2½, which he had now reached, and lifting the heavy brass knocker, banged loudly several times upon the door.

CHAPTER II

2½ DOMINIC COURT

Stranway’s knock was answered almost on the moment. The door swung back seemingly of its own volition, and a dim, narrow hallway was revealed. Stranway stepped inside–and the door closed behind him. Startled, he smiled the next instant. It was simple enough, the door was operated by a cord attachment, that was all.

“This way! This way!” a man’s voice called to him from an open door just down the hall.

Stranway moved forward, turned into the room–and came to an abrupt stop barely across the threshold.

Before him, in the centre of the room, stood a clean-shaven little old man in a red velvet smoking jacket, his feet encased in red leather slippers, his scanty fringe of hair surmounted by a red skull-cap with bobbing tassel.

“What,” demanded this personage sharply, as he fixed Stranway with bright, steel-blue eyes, “what is your favourite colour–h’m?”

Stranway drew suddenly back. So this was it! This was what was behind it all–a madman!

“No,” said the little old man quickly. “No; you are quite wrong. I am not at all mad. It is a question I always ask. I see you have not studied the significance of colour. I recommend it to you as both instructive and of great value. There is no surer guide to the temperament than colour. For instance, blue is a cold colour, whereas orange is warm.”

“Oh!” said Stranway; and then, with a whimsical smile at the red slippers, the red jacket, and the red skull-cap: “And red–what is red?”

“Red?” replied the little old man instantly. “Red is neither warm nor cold.”

Stranway, again taken aback, stared for an instant, nonplussed, at the other; then, mechanically, his eyes swept around the room. It was as curious as its occupant–and here, too, red was everywhere predominant. The heavy silken portière, that hid what was, presumably, another door opposite to the one by which he had entered; the carpet, a rich fabric of the Orient; the curtains which were drawn back from the single window that evidently gave upon the rear, since the shutters there were swung wide open to admit the light; the bookshelves, that filled in the spaces beneath and around the window as also the entire length and breadth of one side of the room; the huge safe in one corner; the upholstery of the chairs–all were red. It was very strange! A disordered pile of books on the floor, and the sliding ladder before the shelves suggested the student; a ponderous, large and very modern filing cabinet, together with the two telephones upon the desk suggested the busy man of affairs; the desk itself suggested the dilettante–it was of very old mahogany, with slender curving legs, and wondrously inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

The little old man came abruptly nearer and gazed into Stranway’s face.

“Yes, yes,” he said; “the photograph had the Stranway features; your father’s mouth, your mother’s nose. You are the original of the photograph. I am perfectly satisfied. You are Ewen Stranway. Sit down, sit down in that chair.” He pointed to one facing the desk chair, which latter he took himself.

“And you,” suggested Stranway bluntly, as he seated himself, “would you mind introducing yourself? I suppose you are C,305. But that, you will admit, is a trifle vague and unsatisfactory.”

“Yes, I am C,305.” The little old man chuckled dryly. “My name, however, is Charlebois, Henri Raoul Charlebois, descendant”–he drew himself up with a quaint air of pride–”of the Norman Counts of Charlebois.”

“You speak like an American,” commented Stranway.

“I should”–the blue eyes twinkled–”for I am an American, as was also my father before me.”

Stranway now settled easily back in his chair. In spite of the bizarre nature of his surroundings, the bizarre appearance of this Henri Raoul Charlebois himself, there was something about the old fellow that appealed to him and attracted him strongly.

“Ah! You feel, too, that we shall get along together!” The assertion came swiftly, instantly pertinent to Stranway’s thoughts.

Keen and alert of brain himself, Stranway shot a curious, appreciative glance at the other; but when he spoke it was with quiet irrelevancy.

“You seem to know a good deal about me, a good deal that I don’t understand. That advertisement, the note–how did you know I was in New York, how was I recognised on the street, and what is this debt you speak of? What does it mean?”

A hard, almost flint-like expression had crept into Charlebois’ face.

“It means,” he replied, a sudden harshness in his voice, “that for once I have failed–and I do not often fail. I did not know that your father was in difficulties. I believed him to be rich and prosperous.”

Stranway stared in wonder.

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