The Crimson Blind

       Fred M. White / Mystery & Detective
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The Crimson Blind
THE CRIMSON BLIND

By FRED. M. WHITE

1905

CONTENTS

CHAPTER

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 XXIV. 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 XXXVL. 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. NEARING 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

THE CRIMSON BLIND.

CHAPTER I

”WHO SPEAKS?”

David Steel dropped his eyes from the mirror and shuddered as a man whosees his own soul bared for the first time. And yet the mirror was initself a thing of artistic beauty--engraved Florentine glass in a frameof deep old Flemish oak. The novelist had purchased it in Bruges, and nowit stood as a joy and a thing of beauty against the full red wall overthe fireplace. And Steel had glanced at himself therein and seen murderin his eyes.

He dropped into a chair with a groan for his own helplessness. Men havedone that kind of thing before when the cartridges are all gone and thebayonets are twisted and broken and the brown waves of the foe comesnarling over the breastworks. And then they die doggedly with the stonesin their hands, and cursing the tardy supports that brought this blackshame upon them.

But Steel's was ruin of another kind. The man was a fighter to hisfinger-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 goodsuccess was now that it had come!

People envied him. Well, that was all in the sweets of the victory. Theypraised his blue china, they lingered before his Oriental dishes and thechoice pictures on the panelled walls. The whole thing was still aconstant pleasure to Steel's artistic mind. The dark walls, the old oakand silver, the red shades, and the high artistic fittings soothed himand pleased him, and played upon his tender imagination. And behind therewas a study, filled with books and engravings, and beyond that again aconservatory, filled with the choicest blossoms. Steel could work withthe passion flowers above his head and the tender grace of the tropicalferns about him, and he could reach his left hand for his telephone andcall 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 dealtable, and his mother had L3 per week to pay for everything. Usuallythere was balm in this recollection.

But not to-night, Heaven help him, not to-night! Little grinning demonswere dancing on the oak cornices, there were mocking lights gleaming fromCellini tankards that Steel had given far too much money for. It had notseemed to matter just at the time. If all this artistic beauty hademptied Steel's purse there was a golden stream coming. What mattered itthat the local tradesmen were getting a little restless? The greatexpense 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 wastrue. In two years' time Steel would be well off. He was terribly shortof ready money, but he had just finished a serial story for which he wasto be paid L500 within two months of the delivery of the copy; two novelsof his were respectively in their fourth and fifth editions. But thesenovels of his he had more or less given away, and he ground his teeth ashe thought of it. Still, everything spelt prosperity. If he lived, DavidSteel was bound to become a rich man.

And yet he was ruined. Within twenty-four hours everything would pass outof his hands. To all practical purposes it had done so already. And allfor the want of L1,000! Steel had earned twice that amount during thepast twelve months, and the fruits of his labour were as balm to his soulabout him. Within the next twelve months he could pay the debt threetimes over. He would cheerfully have taken the bill and doubled theamount 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, alittle, polite, mild-eyed financier, who meant to have his money to theuttermost farthing. At first he had been suave and sympathetic, until hehad 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 asSteel was concerned. Within a few hours every butcher and baker andcandle-stick-maker would come abusively for his bill. Steel, who couldhave faced a regiment, recoiled fearfully from that. Within a week hisoak and silver would have to be sold and the passion flower would witheron the walls.

Steel had not told anybody yet; the strong man had grappled with histrouble alone. Had he been a man of business he might have found some wayout of the difficulty. Even his mother didn't know. She was asleepupstairs, perhaps dreaming of her son's greatness. What would the dearold mater say when she knew? Well, she had been a good mother to him, andit 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. Therewere flowers, blood-red flowers, on the table under the graceful electricstand that Steel had designed himself. He snapped off the light as if thesight pained him, and strode into his study. For a time he stood moodilygazing at his flowers and ferns. How every leaf there was pregnant withassociation. There was the Moorish clock droning the midnight hour. WhenSteel 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 wasonly by a kind of inner consciousness that he knew the hour to bemidnight. Midnight meant the coming of the last day. After sunrise somegreasy lounger pregnant of cheap tobacco would come in and assume that herepresented the sheriff, bills would be hung like banners on the outwardwalls, 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 vicarageused to stand. Steel vaguely wondered who now lived in the house where hewas born. He was staring in the most absent way at his telephone, utterlyunconscious of the shrill impatience of the little voice. He saw thequick pulsation of the striker and he came back to earth again.

Jefferies of the _Weekly Messenger_, of course. Jefferies was fond of alate chat on the telephone. Steel wondered grimly, if Jefferies wouldlend him L1,000. He flung himself down in a deep lounge-chair and placedthe receiver to his ear. By the deep, hoarse clang of the wires, along-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 youare not busy to-night?”

Steel started. He had never heard the voice before. It was clear andsoft and commanding, and yet there was just a suspicion of mockingirony 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. ”Ascertain old-fashioned contemporaries of yours would say, 'We meet asstrangers!' 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 havefinished with you. One advantage of telephoning at this hour is that oneis tolerably free from interruption. So your mother is asleep? Have youtold 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 easeto-night, and it seemed just possible that his imagination was playinghim strange tricks. But, no. The Moorish clock in its frame ofcelebrities droned the quarter after twelve; the scent of the Dijon rosesfloated in from the conservatory.

”I have told nobody as yet,” Steel said, hoarsely. ”Who in the name ofHeaven 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 lackcertain 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, notvery far from your own house. She is in dire need of assistance. Youalso are in dire need of assistance. We can be of mutual advantage toone another.”

”What do you mean by that?” Steel whispered.

”Let me put the matter on a business footing. I want you to help myfriend, and in return I will help you. Bear in mind that I am asking youto do nothing wrong. If you will promise me to go to a certain address inBrighton to night and see my friend, I promise that before you sleep thesum of L1,000 in Bank of England notes shall be in your possession.”

No reply came from Steel. He could not have spoken at that moment for thefee-simple of Golconda. He could only hang gasping to the telephone. Manya strange and weird plot came and went in that versatile brain, but neverone more wild than this. Apparently no reply was expected, for thespeaker resumed:--

”I am asking you to do no wrong. You may naturally desire to know why myfriend does not come to you. That must remain my secret, our secret. Weare trusting you because we know you to be a gentleman, but we haveenemies who are ever on the watch. All you have to do is to go to acertain place and give a certain woman information. You are thinking thatthis is a strange mystery. Never was anything stranger dreamt of in yourphilosophy. Are you agreeable?”

The mocking tone died out of the small, clear voice until it wasalmost 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 youinto my hands. I am perfectly aware that if you were not on the verge ofsocial extinction you would refuse my request. It is in your hands todecide. You know that Beckstein, your creditor, is absolutely merciless.He will get his money back and more besides. This is his idea ofbusiness. 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 orblame you, as their disposition lies. On the other hand, you have but tosay the word and you are saved. You can go and see the Brightonrepresentatives of Beckstein's lawyers, and pay them in paper of the Bankof 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 allso 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 Ishall go away.”

Steel hung up the receiver, feeling that he needed a little rest. Hiscigarette was actually scorching his left thumb and forefinger, but hewas heedless of the fact. He flicked up the dining-room lights again andrapidly made himself a sparklet soda, which he added to a small whisky.He looked almost lovingly at the gleaming Cellini tankard, at the poolsof light on the fair damask. Was it possible that he was not going tolose 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 afeeling on him that he was doing something stealthily. The bolts andchain rattled under his trembling fingers. Outside, the whole worldseemed to be sleeping. Under the wide canopy of stars some black objectpicked out with shining points lay on the white marble breadth of the topstep. A gun-metal cigar-case set in tiny diamonds.

The novelist fastened the front door and staggered to the study. Apretty, artistic thing such as David had fully intended to purchase forhimself. He had seen one exactly like it in a jeweller's window in NorthStreet. He had pointed it out to his mother. Why, it was the very one! Nodoubt whatever about it! David had had the case in his hands and hadreluctantly declined the purchase.

He pressed the spring, and the case lay open before him. Inside werepapers, soft, crackling papers; the case was crammed with them. They werewhite and clean, and twenty-five of them in all. Twenty-five Bank ofEngland notes for L10 each--L250!

David fought the dreamy feeling off and took down the telephone receiver.

”Are you there?” he whispered, as if fearful of listeners. ”I--I havefound your parcel.”

”Containing the notes. So far so good. Yes, you are right, it is thesame cigar-case you admired so much in Lockhart's the other day. Well,we have given you an instance of our bona-fides. But L250 is of no useto you at present. Beckstein's people would not accept it onaccount--they can make far more money by 'selling you up,' as the poeticphrase goes. It is in your hands to procure the other L750 before yousleep. You can take it as a gift, or, if you are too proud for that, youmay regard it as a loan. In which case you can bestow the money on suchcharities as commend themselves to you. Now, are you going to placeyourself entirely in my hands?”

Steel hesitated no longer. Under the circumstances few men would, as hehad a definite assurance that there was nothing dishonourable to bedone. A little courage, a little danger, perhaps, and he could hold uphis head before the world; he could return to his desk to-morrow withthe passion flowers over his head and the scent groves sweet to hisnostrils. And the mater could dream happily, for there would be nosadness or sorrow in the morning.

”I will do exactly what you tell me,” he said.

”Spoken like a man,” the voice cried. ”Nobody will know you have leftthe house--you can be home in an hour. You will not be missed. Come, timeis getting short, and I have my risks as well as others. Go at once toOld Steine. Stand on the path close under the shadow of the statue ofGeorge IV. and wait there. Somebody will say 'Come,' and you will follow.Goodnight.”

Steel would have said more, but the tinkle of his own bell told him thatthe stranger had rung off. He laid his cigar-case on the writing-table,slipped his cigarette-case into his pocket, satisfied himself that he hadhis latch-key, and put on a dark overcoat. Overhead the dear old materwas sleeping peacefully. He closed the front door carefully behind himand strode resolutely into the darkness.


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