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SHADOWS ON THE BLIND
The landlady of Denzil was a rather uncommon specimen of the class. She inclined to plumpness, was lively in the extreme, wore very fashionable garments of the brightest colours, and—although somewhat elderly—still cherished a hope that some young man would elevate her to the rank of a matron.
At present, Miss Julia Greeb was an unwedded damsel of forty summers, who, with the aid of art, was making desperate but ineffectual efforts to detain the youth which was slipping from her. She pinched her waist, dyed her hair, powdered her face, and affected juvenile dress of the white frock and blue sash kind. In the distance she looked a girlish twenty; close at hand various artifices aided her to pass for thirty; and it was only in the solitude of her own room that her real age was apparent. Never did woman wage a more resolute fight with Time than did Miss Greeb.
But this was the worst and most frivolous side of her character, for she was really a good-hearted, cheery little woman, with a brisk manner, and a flow of talk unequalled in Geneva Square. She had been born in the house she occupied, after the death of her father, and had grown up to assist her mother in ministering to the exactions of a continuous procession of lodgers. These came and went, married and died; but not one of the desirable young men had borne Miss Greeb to the altar, so that when her mother died the fair Julia almost despaired of attaining to the dignity of wifehood. Nevertheless, she continued to keep boarders, and to make attempts to captivate the hearts of such bachelors as she judged weak in character.
Hitherto all her efforts had been more or less of a mercantile character, with an eye to money; but when Lucian Denzil appeared on the scene, the poor little woman really fell in love with his handsome face. But, in strange contrast to her other efforts, Miss Greeb never for a moment deemed that Lucian would marry her. He was her god, her ideal of manhood, and to him she offered worship, and burnt incense after the manner of her kind.
Denzil occupied a bedroom and sitting-room, both pleasant, airy apartments, looking out on to the square. Miss Greeb attended to his needs herself, and brought up his breakfast with her own fair hands, happy for the day if her admired lodger conversed with her for a few moments before reading the morning paper. Then Miss Greeb would retire to her own sitting-room and indulge in day dreams which she well knew would never be realised. The romances she wove herself were even more marvellous than those she read in her favourite penny novelettes; but, unlike the printed tales, her romance never culminated in marriage. Poor brainless, silly, pitiful Miss Greeb; she would have made a good wife and a fond mother, but by some irony of fate she was destined to be neither; and the comedy of her husband-hunting youth was now changing into the lonely tragedy of disappointed spinsterhood. She was one of the world's unknown martyrs, and her fate merits tears rather than laughter.
On the morning after his meeting with Berwin, the young barrister sat at breakfast, with Miss Greeb in anxious attendance. Having poured out his tea, and handed him his paper, and ascertained that his breakfast was to his liking, Miss Greeb lingered about the room, putting this straight and that crooked, in the hope that Lucian would converse with her. In this she was gratified, as Denzil wished to learn details about the strange man he had assisted on the previous night, and he knew that no one could afford him more precise information than his brisk landlady, to whom was known all the gossip of the neighbourhood. His first word made Miss Greeb flutter back to the table like a dove to its nest.
"Do you know anything about No. 13?" asked Lucian, stirring his tea.
"Do I know anything about No. 13?" repeated Miss Greeb in shrill amazement. "Of course I do, Mr. Denzil. There ain't a thing I don't know about that house. Ghosts and vampires and crawling spectres live in it—that they do."
"Do you call Mr. Berwin a ghost?"
"No; nor nothing half so respectable. He is a mystery, sir, that's what Mr. Berwin is, and I don't care if he hears me commit myself so far."
"In what way is he a mystery?" demanded Denzil, approaching the matter with more particularity.
"Why," said Miss Greeb, evidently puzzled how to answer this leading question, "no one can find out anything about him. He's full of secrets and underhand goings on. It ain't respectable not to be fair and above board—that it ain't."
"I see no reason why a quiet-living old gentleman should tell his private affairs to the whole square," remarked Lucian drily.
"Those who have nothing bad to conceal needn't be afraid of speaking out," retorted Miss Greeb tartly. "And the way in which Mr. Berwin lives is enough to make one think him a coiner, or a thief, or even a murderer—that it is!"
"But what grounds have you to believe him any one of the three?"
This question also puzzled the landlady, as she had no reasonable grounds for her wild statements. Nevertheless, she made a determined attempt to substantiate them by hearsay evidence. "Mr. Berwin," said she in significant tones, "lives all alone in that haunted house."
"Why not? Every man has the right to be a misanthrope if he chooses."
"He has no right to behave so, in a respectable square," replied Miss Greeb, shaking her head. "There's only two rooms of that large house furnished, and all the rest is given up to dust and ghosts. Mr. Berwin won't have a servant to live under his roof, and Mrs. Kebby, who does his charing, says he drinks awful. Then he has his meals sent in from the Nelson Hotel round the corner, and eats them all alone. He don't receive no letters, he don't read no newspapers, and stays in all day, only coming out at night, like an owl. If he ain't a criminal, Mr. Denzil, why does he carry on so?"
"He may dislike his fellow-men, and desire to live a secluded life."
Miss Greeb still shook her head. "He may dislike his fellow-men," she said with emphasis, "but that don't keep him from seeing them—ah! that it don't."
"Is there anything wrong in that?" said Lucian, contemptuous of these cobweb objections.
"Perhaps not, Mr. Denzil; but where do those he sees come from?"
"How do you mean, Miss Greeb?"
"They don't go in by the front door, that's certain," continued the little woman darkly. "There's only one entrance to this square, sir, and Blinders, the policeman, is frequently on duty there. Two or three nights he's met Mr. Berwin coming in after dark and exchanged friendly greetings with him, and each time Mr. Berwin has been alone!"
"Well! well! What of that?" said Denzil impatiently.
"This much, Mr. Denzil, that Blinders has gone round the square, after seeing Mr. Berwin, and has seen shadows—two or three of them—on the sitting-room blind. Now, sir," cried Miss Greeb, clinching her argument, "if Mr. Berwin came into the square alone, how did his visitors get in?"
"Perhaps by the back," conjectured Lucian.
Again Miss Greeb shook her head. "I know the back of No. 13 as well as I know my own face," she declared. "There's a yard and a fence, but no entrance. To get in there you have to go in by the front door or down the aiery steps; and you can't do neither without coming past Blinders at the square's entrance, and that," finished Miss Greeb triumphantly, "these visitors don't do."
"They may have come into the square during the day, when Blinders was not on duty."
"No, sir," said Miss Greeb, ready for this objection. "I thought of that myself, and as my duty to the square I have inquired—that I have. On two occasions I've asked the day policeman, and he says no one passed."
"Then," said Lucian, rather puzzled, "Mr. Berwin cannot live alone in the house."
"Begging your pardon, I'm sure," cried the pertinacious woman, "but he does. Mrs. Kebby has been all over the house, and there isn't another soul in it. No, Mr. Denzil, take it what way you will, there's something that ain't right about Mr. Berwin—if that's his real name, which I don't believe it is."
"Why, Miss Greeb?"
"Just because I don't," replied the landlady, with feminine logic. "And if you think of having anything to do with this mystery, Mr. Denzil, I beg of you not to, else you may come to something as is too terrible to consider—that you may."
"Oh, I don't know," cried Miss Greeb, tossing her head and gliding towards the door. "It ain't for me to say what I think. I am the last person in the world to meddle with what don't concern me—that I am." And thus ending the conversation, Miss Greeb vanished, with significant look and pursed-up lips.
The reason of this last speech and rapid retreat lay in the fact that Miss Greeb could bring no tangible charge against her opposite neighbour; and therefore hinted at his complicity in all kinds of horrors, which she was quite unable to define save in terms more or less vague.
Lucian dismissed such hints of criminality from his mind as the outcome of Miss Greeb's very lively imagination; yet, even though he reduced her communications to bare facts, he could not but acknowledge that there was something queer about Mr. Berwin and his mode of life. The man's self-pity and self-condemnation; his hints that certain people wished to do him harm; the curious episode of the shadows on the blind—these things engaged the curiosity of Denzil in no ordinary degree; and he could not but admit to himself that it would greatly ease his mind to arrive at some reasonable explanation of Berwin's eccentricities.
Nevertheless, he held that he had no right to pry into the secrets of the stranger, and honourably strove to dismiss the tenant of No. 13 and his tantalising environments from his mind. But such dismissal of unworthy curiosity was more difficult to effect than he expected.
For the next week Lucian resolutely banished the subject from his thoughts, and declined to discuss the matter further with Miss Greeb. That little woman, all on fire with curiosity, made various inquiries of her gossips regarding the doings of Mr. Berwin, and in default of reporting the same to her lodger, occupied herself in discussing them with her neighbours. The consequence of this incessant gossip was that the eyes of the whole square fixed themselves on No. 13 in expectation of some catastrophe, although no one knew exactly what was going to happen.
This undefinable feeling of impending disaster communicating itself to Lucian, stimulated his curiosity to such a pitch that, with some feeling of shame for his weakness, he walked round the square on two several evenings in the hope of meeting Berwin. But on both occasions he was unsuccessful.
On the third evening he was more fortunate, for having worked at his law books until late at night, he went out for a brisk walk before retiring to rest. The night was cold, and there had been a slight fall of snow, so Lucian wrapped himself up well, lighted his pipe, and proceeded to take the air by tramping twice or thrice round the square. Overhead the sky was clear and frosty, with chill glittering stars and a wintry moon. A thin covering of snow lay on the pavement, and there was a white rime on the bare branches of the central trees.
On coming to the house of Berwin, the barrister saw that the sitting-room was lighted up and the curtains undrawn, so that the window presented a square of illuminated blind. Even as he looked, two shadows darkened the white surface—the shadows of a man and a woman. Evidently they had come between the lamp and the window, and so, quite unknowingly, revealed their actions to the watcher. Curious to see the end of this shadow pantomime, Lucian stood still and looked intently at the window.
The two figures seemed to be arguing, for their heads nodded violently and their arms waved constantly. They retreated out of the sphere of light, and again came into it, still continuing their furious gestures. Unexpectedly the male shadow seized the female by the throat and swung her like a feather to and fro. The struggling figures reeled out of the radiance and Lucian heard a faint cry.
Thinking that something was wrong, he rushed up the steps and rang the bell violently. Almost before the sound died away the light in the room was extinguished, and he could see nothing more. Again and again he rang, but without attracting attention; so Lucian finally left the house and went in search of Blinders, the policeman, to narrate his experience. At the entrance of Geneva Square he ran against a man whom he recognised in the clear moonlight.
To his surprise he beheld Mark Berwin.
AN UNSATISFACTORY EXPLANATION
"Mr. Berwin!" cried Lucian, recognising the man. "Is it you?"
"Who else should it be?" replied Berwin, bending forward to see who had jostled him. "Who else should it be, Mr. Denzil?"
"But I thought—I thought," said the barrister, unable to conceal his surprise, "that is, I fancied you were indoors."
"Your fancy was wrong, you see. I am not indoors."
"Then who is in your house?"
Berwin shrugged his shoulders. "No one, so far as I know."
"You are mistaken, sir. There was a light in your room, and I saw the shadows of a man and a woman struggling together thrown on the blind."
"People in my house!" said Berwin, laying a shaking hand on the arm of Lucian. "Impossible!"
"I tell you it is so!"
"Come, then, and we will look for them," said Berwin in a tremulous voice.
"But they have gone by this time!"
"Yes," said Denzil rapidly. "I rang the bell, as I fancied there was some fatal quarrel going on within. At once the light was put out, and as I could attract no one to the door, I suppose the man and woman must have fled."
For a moment or so Berwin said nothing, but his grip on Lucian's arm relaxed, and he moved forward a few steps. "You must be mistaken, Mr. Denzil," said he in altered tones, "there can be no person in my house. I locked the door before I went out, and I have been absent at least two hours."
"Then I must be mad, or dreaming!" retorted Lucian, with heat.
"We can soon prove if you are either of the two, sir. Come with me and examine the house for yourself."
"Pardon me," said Denzil, drawing back, "it is none of my business. But I warn you, Mr. Berwin, that others are more curious than I am. Several times people have been known to be in your house while you were absent, and your mode of life, secretive and strange, does not commend itself to the householders in this neighbourhood. If you persist in giving rise to gossip and scandal, some busybody may bring the police on the scene."
"The police!" echoed the old man, now greatly alarmed, as would appear from his shaking voice. "No! no! That will never do! My house is my castle! The police dare not break into it! I am a peaceful and very unfortunate gentleman, who wishes to live quietly. All this talk of people being in my house is nonsense!"
"Yet you seemed afraid when I told you of the shadows," said Lucian pointedly.
"Afraid! I am afraid of nothing!"
"Not even of those who are after you?" hinted Denzil, recalling the conversation of the previous occasion.
Berwin gave a kind of eldritch shriek and stepped back a pace, as though to place himself on his guard. "What—what do you know about such—such things?" he panted.
"Only so much as you hinted at when I last saw you."
"Yes, yes! I was not myself on that night. The wine was in and the wit was out."
"The truth also, it would seem," said Lucian drily, "judging by your agitation then and now."
"I am an unfortunate gentleman," whimpered Berwin tremulously.
"If you will excuse me, sir, I shall leave you," said Lucian ceremoniously. "It seems to be my fate to hold midnight conversations with you in the cold, but I think this one had better be cut short."
"One moment," Mr. Berwin exclaimed. "You have been good enough to place me on my guard as to the talk my quiet course of life is causing. Pray add to your kindness by coming with me to my house and exploring it from attic to basement. You will then see that there are no grounds for scandal, and that the shadows you fancy you saw on the blind are not those of real people."
"They can't be those of ghosts, at all events," replied Lucian, "as I never heard, to my knowledge, that spirits could cast shadows."
"Well, come and see for yourself that the house is empty."
Warmly as this invitation was given, Lucian had some scruples about accepting it. To explore an almost unfurnished mansion with a complete stranger—and one with an ill reputation—at the midnight hour, is not an enterprise to be coveted by any man, however bold he may be. Still, Lucian had ample courage, and more curiosity, for the adventure, as the chance of it stirred up that desire for romance which belongs peculiarly to youth. Also he was anxious to satisfy himself concerning the blind shadows, and curious to learn why Berwin inhabited so dismal and mysterious a mansion. Add to these reasons a keen pleasure in profiting by the occurrence of the unexpected, and you will guess that Denzil ended by accepting the strange invitation of Berwin.
Being now fully committed to the adventure, he went forward with cool courage and an observant eye, to spy out, if possible, the secret upon which hinged these mysteries.
As on the former occasion, Berwin inducted his guest into the sitting-room, and here, as previously, a dainty supper was spread. Berwin turned up the lamp light and waved his hand round the luxuriously furnished room, pointing particularly to the space between table and window.
"The figures whose shadows you saw," said he, "must have struggled together in this space, so as to be between the lamp and the blind for the performance of their pantomime. But I would have you observe, Mr. Denzil, that there is no disturbance of the furniture to show that such a struggle as you describe took place; also that the curtains are drawn across the window, and no light could have been thrown on the blind."
"The curtains were, no doubt, drawn after I rang the bell," said Lucian, glancing towards the heavy folds of crimson velvet which veiled the window.
"The curtains," retorted Berwin, stripping off his coat, "were drawn by me before I went out."
Lucian said nothing, but shook his head doubtfully. Evidently Berwin was trying, for his own ends, to talk him into a belief that his eyes had deceived him; but Denzil was too clear-headed a young man to be so gulled. Berwin's explanations and excuses only confirmed the idea that there was something in the man's life which cut him off from humanity, and which would not bear the light of day. Hitherto, Lucian had heard rather than seen Berwin; but now, in the clear light of the lamp, he had an excellent opportunity of observing both the man and his quarters.
Berwin was of medium height, and lean, with a clean-shaven face, hollow cheeks, and black, sunken eyes. His hair was grey and thin, his looks wild and wandering, and the hectic colouring of his face and narrow chest showed that he was far gone in consumption. Even as Lucian looked at him he was shaken by a hollow cough, and when he withdrew his handkerchief from his lips the white linen was spotted with blood.
He was in evening dress, and looked eminently refined, although worn and haggard in appearance. Denzil noted two peculiar marks about him; the first, a serpentine cicatrice extending on the right cheek from lip almost to ear; the second, the loss of the little finger of the left hand, which was cut off at the first joint. As he examined the man a second and more violent fit of coughing shook him.
"You seem to be very ill," said Lucian, pitying the feebleness of the poor creature.
"Dying of consumption—one lung gone!" gasped Berwin. "It will soon be over—the sooner the better."
"With your health, Mr. Berwin, it is sheer madness to dwell in this rigorous English climate."
"No doubt," replied the man, pouring himself out a tumbler of claret, "but I can't leave England—I can't leave this house, even; but on the whole," he added, with a satisfied glance around, "I am not badly lodged."
Lucian agreed with this speech. The room was furnished in the most luxurious manner. The prevailing hue was a deep, warm red—carpet, walls, hangings, and furniture were all of this cheerful tint. The chairs were deep, and softly cushioned; on the walls were several oil paintings by celebrated modern artists; there were dwarf bookcases filled with well-chosen books, and on a small bamboo table near the fire lay magazines and papers.
The mantelpiece, reaching nearly to the ceiling, was of oak, framing mirrors of bevelled glass; and on the numerous shelves, cups, saucers, and vases of old and valuable china were placed. There was also a gilt clock, a handsome sideboard, and a neat smoking-table, on which stood a cut-glass spirit-stand and a box of cigars. The whole apartment was furnished with taste and refinement, and Lucian saw that the man who owned such luxurious quarters must be possessed of money, as well as the capability of using it in the most civilised way.
"You have certainly all that the heart of man can desire in the way of material comforts," said he, looking at the supper table, which, with its silver and crystal and spotless covering, glittered like a jewel under the brilliant lamplight. "My only wonder is that you should furnish one room so finely and leave the others bare."
"My bedroom and bathroom are yonder," replied Berwin, pointing towards large folding doors draped with velvet curtains, and placed opposite to the window. "They are as well furnished as this. But how do you know the rest of this house is bare?"
"I can hardly help knowing it, Mr. Berwin. Your contrast of poverty and riches is an open secret in this neighbourhood."
"No one has been in my house save yourself, Mr. Denzil."
"Oh, I have said nothing. You turned me out so quickly the other night that I had no time for observation. Besides, I am not in the habit of remarking on matters which do not concern me."
"I beg your pardon," said Berwin weakly. "I had no intention of offending you. I suppose Mrs. Kebby has been talking?"
"I should think it probable."
"The skirling Jezebel!" cried Berwin. "I'll pack her off right away!"
"Are you a Scotchman?" asked Denzil suddenly.
"Why do you ask?" demanded Berwin, without replying.
"You used an essentially Scotch word—'skirling.'"
"And I used an essentially American phrase—'right away,'" retorted the man. "I may be a Scot, I may be a Yankee, but I would remind you that my nationality is my own secret."
"I have no wish to pry into your secrets," said Denzil, rising from the chair in which he had seated himself, "and in my turn I would remind you that I am here at your invitation."
"Don't take offense at a hasty word," said Berwin nervously. "I am glad of your company, although I seem rather brusque. You must go over the house with me."
"I see no necessity to do so."
"It will set your mind at rest regarding the shadows on the blind."
"I can trust my eyes," said Lucian, drily, "and I am certain that before I met you a man and a woman were in this room."
"Well," said Berwin, lighting a small lamp, "come with me and I'll prove that you are mistaken."
MRS. KEBBY'S DISCOVERY
The pertinacity which Berwin displayed in insisting that Lucian should explore the Silent House was truly remarkable. He appeared to be bent upon banishing the idea which Denzil entertained that strangers were hiding in the mansion.
From attic to basement, from front to back premises, he led the way, and made Lucian examine every corner of the empty rooms. He showed him even the unused kitchen, and bade him remark that the door leading into the yard was locked and bolted, and, from the rusty condition of the ironwork, could not have been opened for years. Also, he made him look out of the window into the yard itself, with its tall black fence dividing it from the other properties.
This exploration finished, and Lucian being convinced that himself and his host were the only two living beings in the house, Berwin conducted his half-frozen guest back to the warm sitting-room and poured out a glass of wine.
"Here, Mr. Denzil," said he in good-natured tones, "drink this and draw near the fire; you must be chilled to the bone after our Arctic expedition."
Lucian willingly accepted both these attentions, and sipped his wine—it was particularly fine claret—before the fire, while Berwin coughed and shivered, and muttered to himself about the cold of the season. When Lucian stood up to take his departure, he addressed him directly:
"Well, sir," said he, with a sardonic smile, "are you convinced that the struggling shadows on yonder blind were children of your heated fancy?"
"No," said Denzil stoutly, "I am not!"
"Yet you have seen that there is no one in the house!"
"Mr. Berwin," said Lucian, after a moment's thought, "you propose a riddle which I cannot answer, and which I do not wish to answer. I cannot explain what I saw to-night, but as surely as you were out of this house, some people were in it. How this affects you, or what reason you have for denying it, I do not ask. Keep your own secrets, and go your own way. I wish you good-night, sir," and Lucian moved towards the door.
Berwin, who was holding a full tumbler of rich, strong port, drank the whole of it in one gulp. The strong liquor reddened his pallid face and brightened his sunken eyes; it even strengthened his already sonorous voice.
"At least you can inform my good neighbours that I am a peaceful man, desirous of being left to lead my own life," he said urgently.
"No, sir! I will have nothing to do with your business. You are a stranger to me, and our acquaintance is too slight to warrant my discussing your affairs. Besides," added Lucian, with a shrug, "they do not interest me."
"Yet they may interest the three kingdoms one day," said Berwin softly.
"Oh, if they deal with danger to society," said Denzil, thinking his strange neighbour spoke of anarchistic schemes, "I would——"
"They deal with danger to myself," interrupted Berwin. "I am a hunted man, and I hide here from those who wish me ill. I am dying, as you see," he cried, striking his hollow chest, "but I may not die quickly enough for those who desire my death."
"Who are they?" cried Lucian, rather startled by this outburst.
"People with whom you have no concern," replied the man sullenly.
"That is true enough, Mr. Berwin, so I'll say good-night!"
"Berwin! Berwin! Ha! ha! A very good name, Berwin, but not for me. Oh, was there ever so unhappy a creature as I? False name, false friend, in disgrace, in hiding! Curse everybody! Go! go! Mr. Denzil, and leave me to die here like a rat in its hole!"
"You are ill!" said Lucian, amazed by the man's fury. "Shall I send a doctor to see you?"
"Send no one," cried Berwin, commanding himself by a visible effort. "Only go away and leave me to myself. 'Thou can'st not minister to a mind diseased.' Go! go!"
"Good-night, then," said Denzil, seeing that nothing could be done. "I hope you will be better in the morning."
Berwin shook his head, and with a silent tongue, which contrasted strangely with his late outcry, ushered Denzil out of the house.
As the heavy door closed behind him Lucian descended the steps and looked thoughtfully at the grim mansion, which was tenanted by so mysterious a person. He could make nothing of Berwin—as he chose to call himself—he could see no meaning in his wild words and mad behaviour; but as he walked briskly back to his lodgings he came to the conclusion that the man was nothing worse than a tragic drunkard, haunted by terrors engendered by over-indulgence in stimulants. The episode of the shadows on the blind he did not attempt to explain, for the simple reason that he was unable to find any plausible explanation to account therefor.
"And why should I trouble my head to do so?" mused Lucian as he went to bed. "The man and his mysteries are nothing to me. Bah! I have been infected by the vulgar curiosity of the Square. Henceforth I'll neither see nor think of this drunken lunatic," and with such resolve he dismissed all thoughts of his strange acquaintance from his mind, which, under the circumstances, was perhaps the wisest thing he could do.
But later on certain events took place which forced him to alter his determination. Fate, with her own ends to bring about is not to be denied by her puppets; and of these Lucian was one, designed for an important part in the drama which was to be played.