Read CHAPTER I of The Film of Fear , free online book, by Arnold Fredericks, on ReadCentral.com.

Ruth Morton finished her cup of coffee, brushed a microscopic crumb from her embroidered silk kimono, pushed back her loosely arranged brown hair, and resumed the task of opening her mail.

It was in truth a task, and one that consumed an inordinate amount of her valuable time. And her time was extremely valuable. Computed upon the basis of her weekly salary of one thousand dollars, it figured out just $142.85 per day, or very nearly $6 per hour, or 10 cents per minute, for each minute and hour of the twenty-four. As a motion picture star, she had the satisfaction of knowing that she was paid a slightly larger salary than had been, until recently, received by the President of the United States.

The opening of the huge batch of letters that greeted her daily across her dainty breakfast table was very much of a duty. It was not that she felt any keen interest in the numberless notes from admirers, both male and female, from Portland, Me., to Los Angeles, Cal., to say nothing of South Bend, Opeloosa and Kicking Horse between. These might readily have been consigned to the depths of the wastebasket unopened, unread. But there was always the chance that, intermingled with this mass of adulation, there might be a real letter, from a real friend, or a business communication of importance from some picture company possibly, prepared to offer her two thousand dollars per week, instead of one thousand, at the expiration of her present contract. So the mail had to be carefully opened, at least, even if the bulk of it was tossed aside unread.

Her mother usually assisted her in this daily task, but to-day Mrs. Morton, oppressed by a slight attack of indigestion, slept late, and Ruth proceeded with the operation alone.

She was a singularly attractive girl, combining a wholesome and quite unassumed innocence with a certain measure of sophistication, gained by daily contact with the free and easy life of the studios. Her brown eyes were large and wondering, as though she still found it difficult to realize that within four years she had stepped from comparative poverty to the possession of an income which a duke or a prince might readily have envied. Her features, pleasing, regular, somewhat large, gave to her that particular type of beauty which lends itself best to the eccentricities of the camera. Her figure, graceful, well modeled, with the soft roundness of youth, enabled her to wear with becoming grace almost any costume, from the simple frock of the school girl to the costly gowns of the woman of fashion. Add to this a keen intelligence and a delightful vivacity of manner, and the reason for Ruth Morton’s popularity among motion picture “fans” from coast to coast was at once apparent.

She sat in the handsomely appointed dining-room of the apartment on Fifty-seventh Street which she and her mother had occupied for the past two years. The room, paneled in dull ivory, provided a perfect setting for the girl’s unusual beauty. In her kimono of Nile green and gold, she presented a figure of such compelling charm that Nora, her maid, as she removed the empty coffee-cup, sighed to herself, if not with envy, at least with regret, that the good God had not made her along lines that would insure an income of over fifty thousand dollars a year.

Ruth sliced open half a dozen more letters with her ivory paper knife and prepared to drop them into the waste basket. One was from a manufacturer of cold cream, soliciting a testimonial. Two others were from ungrammatical school girls, asking her how they should proceed, in order to become motion picture stars. Another was an advertisement of a new automobile. The fifth requested an autographed picture of herself. She swept the five over the edge of the table with a sigh of relief. How stupid of all these people, she thought, to take up their time, and her own, so uselessly.

The sixth letter, from its external appearance, might readily have been of no greater interest than the other five, and yet, something intangible about it caused her to pause for a moment before inserting the point of the knife beneath the flap of the envelope. It was a large envelope, square, formal-looking. The address upon it was typewritten. Unlike the majority of the other letters, forwarded from the studio, it bore the street and number of the apartment house in which she lived. The envelope was postmarked New York, and was sealed with a splotch of black sealing wax, which, however, contained the imprint of no monogram or seal, but was crossed both vertically and horizontally by a series of fine parallel lines, dividing its surface into minute squares.

Ruth observed these several peculiarities of the letter she was about to open, with growing interest. The usual run of her correspondence was so dull and uninteresting that anything out of the ordinary was apt to attract her attention. Slipping the ivory blade of the paper knife quickly beneath the flap of the envelope, she cut it open.

The letter within, written on the same heavy paper as that composing the envelope, contained but three typewritten lines. It was not these, however, that instantly attracted Ruth’s attention, but the signature appended to them. This signature did not consist of a name, but of an astonishing seal, imprinted upon a bit of the same black sealing wax with which the envelope had been fastened. And the device, as Ruth bent over it to make out its clearcut but rather fine lines, filled her with a sudden and overwhelming dismay.

It was a grinning death’s head, about half an inch in width, with eye-sockets staring vacantly, and grisly mouth gaping in a wide and horrible smile, made the more horrible by the two rows of protruding teeth. The girl almost dropped the letter, as full realization of the significance of the design swept over her.

Hastily she recovered herself, and with trembling fingers raised the letter from her lap. The three typewritten lines upon the sheet were, if anything, more horrifying than the device beneath them. “Your beauty has made you rich and famous,” the letter read. “Without it you could do nothing. Within thirty days it shall be destroyed, and you will be hideous.”

For a long time Ruth sat gazing at the words before her. In spite of their ghastly significance she could with difficulty bring herself to believe that she had an enemy in the world sufficiently ruthless, sufficiently envious of her beauty and her success, to be capable of either threatening her in this brutal way, or of carrying such a threat into execution. So far as she knew, there was not a single person of all her acquaintance who wished her ill. Her own nature was too sweet, too sympathetic, too free from malice and bitterness, to conceive for a moment that the very charms which had brought her fame, success, might also be the means of bringing her envy and hatred in like proportion. She cast about in her mind for some possible, some reasonable explanation of the matter, but try as she would, she was unable to think of anyone with whom she had ever come in contact, capable of threatening her in this terrible way. She had about decided that the whole thing must be some stupidly conceived practical joke, when she saw her mother cross the hall and come into the room.

Mrs. Harriet Morton was a woman of fifty, handsome and youthful in spite of her gray hair, her years. That she had once been extremely good-looking could have been told at a glance; anyone seeing mother and daughter together experienced no difficulty in determining the source of Ruth Morton’s charms.

“Well, dear,” said the older woman, with a pleasant smile. “Haven’t you finished your letters yet?” She glanced toward the clock on the mantel. “You’ll have to leave for the studio in half an hour.” Ruth nodded, gazing at her mother rather uneasily.

“You’ll have to open the rest of them, mother,” she said, indicating the pile of letters. “I I’m tired.”

Mrs. Morton came up to her daughter and passed her hand over the girl’s glossy hair.

“What’s wrong, Ruth? You look as though something had frightened you.” Then her eyes fell upon the letter lying in the girl’s lap, and she paused suddenly.

Ruth handed her mother the sheet of paper.

“I I just got this,” she said, simply.

Mrs. Morton took the letter quickly from her daughter’s hand and proceeded to read it. A look of apprehension crept into her eyes, but she did her best to appear unconcerned.

“Some crank,” she said, after she had mastered the sudden fear that swept over her. “I shouldn’t pay any attention to it, if I were you, my dear. There are a lot of people in the world that have nothing better to do, than play silly jokes like that.”

“Then you don’t think it amounts to anything?” Ruth asked, somewhat relieved.

“Certainly not. Just a stupid plan to frighten you. Pay no attention to it. No” she folded the letter as the girl put out her hand “I’ll take charge of this. Now you’d better hurry and get ready. The car will be waiting for you at nine, and Mr. Edwards expects to start that new picture to-day, doesn’t he?”

“Yes.” The girl rose. “It’s a beautiful part. I’m the daughter of an old music teacher, who dies in Brooklyn, and leaves me in poverty. And later on, it turns out he was the heir to the throne of Moravia, and I’m a princess. Lots of adventures, and spies, and all that. Ralph Turner is the lover. He’s awfully good-looking, don’t you think?”

Mrs. Morton assented in rather a preoccupied way, as her daughter left the room. She was still thinking of the brutal threat which the girl had just received, and of the possible dangers to which she might as a result be exposed. Mrs. Morton by no means felt the matter to be a joke, in spite of the assurances she had given Ruth. The tone of the letter, the evident care which had been taken to prevent the identity of the writer from becoming known, filled her with the gravest alarm.

As she sat pondering the matter, Nora came into the room, with Ruth’s dust coat and parasol in her hands. Mrs. Morton beckoned to the girl, then spoke to her in a low voice.

“Nora,” she said, “Miss Ruth received a letter this morning, from somebody who is envious of her beauty and success. I pretended to make light of the matter, but there may be something back of it. I want you to watch her carefully while you are away from the house. Be on your guard every moment of the time. Don’t let anyone come near her. They might try to throw acid, or something of the sort. I shan’t feel safe until she is home again.”

The maid’s face lit up with a significant smile. From her manner it was clear that she fairly worshiped her young mistress.

“I’ll not let anyone do her any harm, Mrs. Morton,” she said, earnestly. “You may be sure of that.”

“And don’t let her know,” Mrs. Morton added hastily, in a low voice, as she saw Ruth come to the door, “that I am at all worried. She must not have a threat like that on her mind.”

The maid nodded, then turned toward the door where Ruth stood.

“Well, mother, good-by,” the latter exclaimed with a laugh. “You can open all the rest of the letters, and if you come across any more like that last one, please keep them. I think I’ll begin a collection.”

Mrs. Morton forced herself to join in the girl’s laughter.

“There won’t be any more, dear,” she said, kissing the girl fondly. “Don’t bother your head about such things. They’re not worth it. And come home as soon as you get through.”

“All right, mother. We’re going to the theater to-night, aren’t we? Don’t forget to get the tickets.” With a smile she left the room, and a few moments later Mrs. Morton heard the rumble of the descending elevator.

She sat in silence for a long time, thinking, a great fear clutching at her heart. Her life, she reflected, had held, until recently, but little of happiness. The long, weary days of poverty, when her husband, incapacitated by a paralytic stroke, had seen his savings slowly dwindle away; the death of her son, and then that of Mr. Morton himself passed before her mental vision. Only Ruth had been left to her, and in the girl’s happiness and success lay Mrs. Morton’s whole life and being. Now, that things had at last taken a turn, and the future seemed clear and assured ahead of her, was some dreadful tragedy to change all her joy to sorrow? She turned to the pile of still unopened letters with a sigh, afraid, almost to proceed with the task of reading them. Yet, an hour later, when they had all been disposed of without further threats against Ruth having been discovered, she breathed more easily. Perhaps, after all, the horrible letter was merely a silly joke. She took it out and examined it again with the greatest care, but no clue to the identity of the writer rewarded her scrutiny. The message remained clear, terrible, full of sinister meaning. “Within thirty days it shall be destroyed, and you will be hideous!” The grinning death’s head seal stared up at her, fascinatingly horrible. Mrs. Morton quickly placed the letter in her bosom.

Rising, she left the room, and proceeded to that occupied by Ruth. It pleased her, notwithstanding the servants, to take care of it herself. Mrs. Morton was passionately devoted to her beautiful daughter. In her, the sun rose and set.

She glanced about the daintily furnished room with a smile. The appointments were simple, almost girlish, in spite of their owner’s large salary. Mrs. Morton began to set the room to rights. She had finished making the bed, and had gone over to the dressing table to arrange the articles upon it, when a square of white upon the floor attracted her attention.

It lay upon the rug in front of the dressing table, and appeared to be a letter of some sort.

Supposing it to be something that the girl had dropped in the hurry of leaving, Mrs. Morton stooped and picked it up. Then a queer feeling of dismay came over her. The large square white envelope, the typewritten address, bore a singular and disquieting resemblance to the one in which the threatening letter had been received so short a time before.

With trembling hands, Mrs. Morton tore the envelope open and removed the folded sheet of paper within. When her eyes fell upon the contents of the latter, she shuddered, and stood white with fear.

There was a message in typewritten characters upon the sheet, and Mrs. Morton read it with a groan of despair.

Only twenty-nine days more!” the message said. “We shall not fail.” Below the words grinned the frightful death’s head seal.