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Authors: Patricia Wentworth

Red Shadow

BOOK: Red Shadow
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Red Shadow

Patricia Wentworth

CHAPTER I

Jim Mackenzie came into the bare room with the office table set on one side of it to catch the dingy light of the winter afternoon. It was only two o'clock, but the sky was dark with snow clouds and the air tense with frost. The room was cold in spite of the stove in the corner, but the place from which Jim Mackenzie came had been colder. The icy chill of it was in his bones, and the horrible rank stench of it in his nostrils. This cold, bare office room felt warm as he came into it—warm, and full of clean air. His eyes went to the patch of leaden sky before he looked at the man behind the office table.

A yard inside the door he stood still, because the men on either side of him stood still. He wished that they would stand farther off, because the reek of the prison was upon them, as it was upon him. He wanted as much clean air as he could get. He had had ten days of the sort of prison which is reserved for political offenders in Russia, and now he supposed that he was to be shot. He stood still with his guards on either side of him and watched the man at the office table.

A small man, rather like an ant, with an ant's big head and an ant's restless activity. He had taken no notice of the opening door or of the prisoner's entrance. He wrote with feverish haste, snatching one paper after another from a pile on his left, scribbling some marginal note, and then thrusting the paper upon a growing pile to his right.

Jim was wondering why he had been brought here at all. It was ten days since he had been arrested, a week since he had been told that he was to be shot without the formality of a trial, a week since he had written to Laura. He wondered whether she would ever get the letter. He had been assured that it would reach her. If the assurance was worth anything, the letter might very well have reached her by now. His brows drew together in an involuntary frown of pain. His heart said “
Laura
”; and all at once it was as if she was there in the cold, bare room, bringing with her all those things from which a Bolshevist bullet would presently divorce him.

A man's senses are sharp on the edge of death. To Jim Mackenzie, Laura Cameron was for that instant exquisitely and unforgettably present. There was a sweetness, and a something that was like the bloom on light. There was the way she smiled, and the turn of her head. She did not smile like any other woman that he had ever known. Her eyes smiled first; you could watch a kind of dancing joy come up in them like light coming up through dark water. And then her lips quivering, and the smile come and gone before you could catch your breath. He caught it now. The sense of her presence was strong. It pierced him with an agony beyond anything he had known. To die with Laura waiting for him, with their wedding set for a bare week ahead! To leave her comfortless! He had a strange irrational feeling that it would not be so bad if he could be there to comfort her. He rocked for a moment on the verge of the impossible——

The little man at the table thrust a paper violently upon the right-hand pile, and said without looking up,

“Come nearer—I can't speak to you over there.”

Jim advanced. The guards advanced. They stood still again, all three of them, about a yard from the table.

The little man looked up, pen in hand. His eyes, behind powerful lenses, were small, intent, and highly intelligent. The tip of his nose moved, sniffed.

“Those prisons are insanitary,” he said in an irritable voice.

“Undoubtedly,” said Jim Mackenzie.

The eyes focused on him. At a sign the guards fell back towards the door.

“You are James Mackenzie?”

“I am.”

“You are a Russian subject.”

“Certainly not.”

The little man plucked a paper from an open file, slammed it down on the desk in front of him, stabbed at it with a quivering finger, and repeated,

“You are a Russian subject!”

“I am a British subject,” said Jim Mackenzie.

Both men spoke Russian. Both men spoke it as men speak their own language.

The little man banged a fist on the paper before him.

“You were born in Russia—your father was born in Russia—your grandfather and your father were married in Russia. You are a Russian subject!”

“I haven't got a drop of Russian blood in my veins!” said Jim Mackenzie. He stood up straight and stuck his chin in the air.

It was a blunt chin. All his features were blunt and rather heavily moulded. He had fair hair that curled thickly, and a short fair stubble of eyelash and eyebrow. His strong neck rose from powerful shoulders. He had not been able to shave or wash since his arrest.

You cannot turn a Scot into a Russian by arranging for him to be born in Russia. Jim Mackenzie was at this moment full of the Scot's arrogant contempt for lesser nations. Inwardly he said, “And be damned to you!”—and for twopence he would have said it aloud. There was a bullet waiting for him anyhow. He smiled rather grimly, then shut his lips and let his eyes speak for him.

The little man made a marginal note.

“You are a Russian subject. You have been engaged in counter-revolutionary activities.”

“I have not!”

The little man made another marginal note.

“You have been engaged in counter-revolutionary activities. The sentence is death. You were informed of this a week ago.”

The room was as cold as a tomb. The patch of sky was leaden dark. The little man leaned sideways and touched a switch; a bright unsparing light stripped the room to its bare, ugly bones. Jim Mackenzie faced it impassively. The eyes behind the strong lenses watched him.

“The sentence is death,” the little man repeated. “In certain circumstances it is possible that the sentence might be commuted.” He paused, and then darted a sharp question. “You do not say anything?”

Jim Mackenzie stood like a rock. The sudden assault of hope tried his defences high, but he stood. He thrust the thought of Laura down, down, into those depths which were secret even to himself. He faced the white light and the keen intelligent eyes and smiled.

“Is there anything to say?”

The telephone bell rang sharply. The little man picked up the receiver. There was a buzzing and a thrumming from the instrument.

The little man said, “Yes;” and after a while, just before he hung up the receiver, he nodded and said in an emphatic manner, “Immediately—I understand.” Then he pushed away the instrument and once more fixed his eyes on Jim Mackenzie.

“This morning you saw Mr Trevor?”

“Yes.”

“He made a report on you,” said the little man.

“Did he?”

He had been surprised that they had allowed him to see Trevor. The interview had not lasted more than two minutes. He had been unable to conceive its purpose, but Trevor had promised to write to Laura—to give messages—

The thought broke off as a jerked thread breaks. The little man was speaking.

“The special circumstances have arisen. You are free to go.”

The blood rushed to Jim Mackenzie's head. He could feel it pounding against his ears. He said in a hard voice which he himself could scarcely hear,

“What do you mean?”

“Your sentence is commuted—on conditions. You are free.”

There was some snag then. The pounding lessened. He said,

“What conditions?”

“You are to leave Russia.”

A gale of inward laughter shook his self-control. It wavered. What would happen if he burst out laughing in the Insect's bespectacled face?

“That is one condition.” The little man was speaking. “You are to leave Russia. And the second condition is this. You will go straight to Berlin, and from Berlin you will telephone to a lady who is anxious to have news of you.”

Jim Mackenzie's self-control gave way. He said, “
What?
” in a voice that caused the guards to make a tentative step forward.

The little man waved them back impatiently.

“You will telephone to Miss Laura Cameron,” he said.

CHAPTER II

Laura Cameron stood looking at herself in the slender mirror which had belonged to her great-grandmother, another Laura Cameron. It hung between two tall and slender poles. The poles were gracefully fluted, and their feet were shod with old dim brass. The mirror was of an oblong shape with brass corners and a very narrow line of gilding between the glass and the mahogany frame. Laura had brought it out of her bedroom and set it at the far end of the sitting-room.

Very little light came through the sitting-room windows. A yellowish fog hung across them like a curtain. The houses opposite were blotted out. Laura had switched on both the lights, the one in the alabaster bowl, and the one in the reading-lamp with the orange shade. These two colours of light, warm white, and glowing, filled the mirror and shone on the image of Laura in her wedding dress. Behind her to the right and left, sometimes in the picture, and sometimes merely in the room, were the figures of Amelia Crofts in her black dress and white apron, and of Jenny Carruthers in her bridesmaid's frock, which had a tight green bodice and a very long and spreading green skirt. The green was shot with a silver thread which repeated the colour of Jenny's ash-blonde hair.

By every canon of the heart Laura Cameron was beautiful. The very air of beauty surrounded her, and under its influence classic standards were discarded. Her face was oval, the dark line of her eyebrows like slender wings, her nose of a charming irregularity, lips sensitive and deeply coloured parting over teeth that were very white and a little uneven. Her ears were beautifully shaped, and beautifully set on a gracefully carried head. Her eyes had dreams in them. Her skin was soft with a downy bloom and quick with colour. All this the world could see. The tender sweetness of Jim Mackenzie's Laura was for him alone.

BOOK: Red Shadow
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