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THE CRIMSON CLOWN
The little gate in the old stone wall, half shrouded in elusive, flickering shadows, was swinging open slowly, furtively, and as though moved by phantom fingers.
There was something uncanny in the thing, Delton Prouse told himself. It gave him a sort of creepy feeling. He watched it closely, fascinated by its movement, tingling to the reaction of a thrill as it slipped outward silently inch by inch.
Delton Prouse was certain that the gate was opening and that was about all of which he could be certain. For, on this narrow cross thoroughfare bordered by huge trees, the street lighting was not so good as on the busy main road a hundred yards away. Queer shadows flitted across the faces of the buildings and along the pavement. Ordinary things took on grotesque and fantastic shapes, according to the imagination of the person who viewed them, and seemed to pass from the realm of reality to the land of spectres.
But Delton Prouse could be certain about the movement of the gate. Despite the shadows, he could see it clearly. There was no breeze to blow it open. Human agency alone was thrusting it outward. Yet Prouse could not see the hand that moved it.
There was nothing unusual in the gate being opened, but there was something queer in the manner of it, taking into consideration the fact that it was a little after eight o’clock at night. It was not being pushed open quickly as though by some honest man taking his leave of the premises after an innocent visit. Nor was it being opened deliberately, as though by an owner or tenant. It was being thrust outward slyly, cautiously, a few inches at a time, and silently.
On the inside of that gate, Delton Prouse supposed, there was somebody lurking in the darkness of the small garden. It might be a highwayman in wait for him, or any wayfarer from whom a purse might be lifted. Or it might be somebody who wished to slip out into the street without being seen leaving that particular place.
Delton Prouse decided that it was a moment which called for caution as far as he was concerned. There was no other pedestrian in the road. Silently he stepped closer to the wall, where there was a mass of dark shadows that engulfed him completely. He dropped his cigarette upon the pavement and trod upon it, so that neither glowing butt nor smoke odour would betray his presence in the neighbourhood.
Prouse knew this place well from the outside. There was a low wall that ran in front of an old stone house that once had been a pretentious mansion in a fashionable district. The district had marched on, improvements had come, but the old house remained as a landmark of former glorious days, surrounded now by modern buildings, yet retaining its old atmosphere. There was something dismal about the house, something mysterious that the ancient, creeper-covered wall seemed to imprison.
As Delton Prouse slipped quietly along the wall through the shadows, the gate was thrust outward for a distance of another six inches. Now it was open wide enough for whoever was on the inside to dart out whenever it pleased him to do so.
Prouse paused again and waited. He expected to see a human head put out cautiously, and flattened himself against the wall so that he would not be seen. But suddenly a girl slipped out into the street like a shadow. She did not delay to close the gate behind her. She glanced around as though frightened, but did not see Delton Prouse. Then she started towards the main road, walking briskly.
She passed beneath the street lamp on the first corner, and so Prouse, who was following silently, got a good look at her face. Her furtive manner had intrigued him. He found himself wondering what sort of girl would be creeping from that dismal old house at that hour of the night, her manner much that of a prisoner making an escape.
And now he saw that the expression in her face was that of a person under the spell of fear. Her manner was highly nervous, her eyes were wide and she seemed to be breathing heavily, as though labouring under some strong emotion.
“That girl is scared!” Delton Prouse told himself. “Pretty girl, too. About twenty-three, I should judge. Blonde hair and fair complexion. I didn’t get a good look at her eyes, but I’ll bet that they are blue. Dresses well! And scared!”
She hurried on down the street as though eager to put as much distance as possible between herself and the old house. Delton Prouse continued to follow her at a short distance.
Prouse had the well-set-up appearance of a young gentleman of thirty out for an evening stroll. His body was that of an athlete, and he had the athlete’s springy stride. The stick that he carried was not necessary as a prop, but was the final touch of a well-dressed gentleman’s attire.
Nor did Delton Prouse look like the sort of man who would follow or accost a young woman alone on the street at night. However, he was certainly following this girl, watching her closely and wondering at her state of excitement.
As she passed beneath the street lamp on the second corner from the old house, she turned her head and caught sight of him. She seemed startled. She hurried on, but Delton Prouse was well aware that she glanced back again, as he passed beneath the light in turn, and so got a good look at his features.
Whether she slackened her pace then or he quickened his unconsciously he could not be sure. But he found himself overtaking her rapidly. She did not turn to look at him again, however. She was nearing the main road now, with its well-lighted shops and thronged pavement, its rushing traffic and city roar.
“She doesn’t seem to be scared now,” Delton Prouse mused. “Perhaps she was only afraid of the dark.” He chuckled immediately after this observation. He could not imagine a girl as modern as this one appeared to be and coming from that mysterious old house being afraid of the dark.
She approached the corner and seemed to be walking slower. Finally she came to the window of a chemist’s shop and hesitated before it for an instant, as though looking at the wares displayed there. Once more she turned and glanced at Delton Prouse. But there was nothing personal in the look. Nothing in the expression of her face invited him to her side. Then she whirled round and went on.
But, as she whirled, she dropped something upon the pavement. She was round the corner and into the midst of the passing crowd before Delton Prouse could reach the spot. He stooped over and picked up a sealed envelope. He went quickly to the corner with the determination of finding the girl and returning the envelope to her.
But he found that she had disappeared. He did not know whether she had entered one of the shops that remained open or had hurried ahead and was lost in the throng. For a few minutes he looked around for her, then decided that she could not be found.
And now, for the first time, he looked closely at the envelope which she had dropped and he had recovered, and which he retained in his hand. If it was a stamped and addressed letter, he would drop it into a pillar-box for her. But it was not stamped, and the address was an unusual one: To the Person who Picks this up.
Delton Prouse grinned. “I suppose that means me, under the circumstances,” he told himself. “I picked it up, all right. Old game of some sort, I suppose. But having nothing else to do at the moment, I'll get the bottom of this little adventure. I wonder whether she dropped this note purposely for me to pick up, dropped it for anybody at all to pick up, or lost it accidentally! I'd give a lot to know.”
He smiled again and walked over to the kerb, out of the jostling throng, tucked his stick beneath his arm, and ripped the envelope open. From it he extracted a folded piece of paper.
“We are about to have the mystery revealed to us,” Prouse told himself. “This is perhaps the moment for which we long have waited. Ah, ha! A couple of ‘ah, ha’s!’ Is this an appeal for aid and succour? Is it a suggestion that I would do well to investigate the merits of Blank’s Pills, or purchase Bunko Oil shares? Let us continue the investigation!”
He unfolded the sheet of paper quickly. He found that it was indeed a note—and pinned to the note was the half of a ten-pound note.
Delton Prouse’s eyes contracted a little as he looked at the piece of mutilated currency. He turned the accompanying message towards the light and read it swiftly:
To the Person Who Picks This Up: If this letter happens to be found by a man who has courage enough for a certain enterprise, he may have the other half of this ten-pound note, and another whole one, by calling immediately at the address written below.
Delton Prouse's lips curled in a whimsical smile as he read the note a second time. Then he glanced at the address at the bottom of it. He folded the note deliberately, returned it to the envelope, and put it into his coat pocket. He looked up and down the street once more, but saw nothing of the girl.
Presently he turned and walked slowly back along the road, fighting his way through the crowd, for the current of people was against him. And presently a woman’s whisper reached his ear.
“Don't answer that note!” it said.
Delton Prouse stopped and turned quickly. He saw the girl, and for an instant their eyes met, and he knew that it was she who had whispered to him. Now she was trying to get away from his vicinity, possibly to avoid answering questions. He started after her, but the crowd interfered. He saw her dart into the front door of a shop on the corner.
The shop was crowded, and Prouse could see the girl making her way as rapidly as possible along one of the busy aisles. He started to follow, lost sight of her and sought to locate her again, peering over the heads of those about him.
“I’m an ass!” he told himself, after a time. “She went out by the side door, of course. Now I wonder what the deuce all this means.”
Delton Prouse could easily manage to struggle along without the other half of that ten-pound note. But he saw the beckoning finger of Adventure. And it seemed to him that his courage also was being called question.
“I’d like to see that girl again, and find out a few things about her,” he mused. “After dropping that note, why should she watch me, and warn me not to answer it? I think that I'd like to find out. So I’ll just give her ample time to get home, if that is where she is going, and then answer this epistle in person. He went out into the street and ignited a fresh cigarette. He smiled again. He knew about how much time to give her, granting that she would return home immediately. For the address written at the bottom the note was that of the old, mysterious house on the cross street.
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