Book II. The Lone Wolf's Daughter
XXI. Ventre a Terre
 

With exceeding care to avoid noise, Sofia unlocked the door and for the second time since midnight let herself stealthily out into the darkened corridor; but now with the difference that she did what she did in full command of all her wits and faculties, with no subjective war of wills to hinder and confuse her, and with a definite object clearly visioned--a goal no less distant than the railway station.

Lanyard had promised that Karslake should come for her within an hour or two and take her away with him, back to London and the arms of the father whom, although so recently revealed and accepted, she had already begun to love; if indeed it were not true that she had in filial sense fallen in love with Lanyard at first sight, through intuition, that afternoon in the Cafe des Exiles so long, so very long ago!

Well: she might as well await Karslake at the station. It would be simpler, she would be more at ease there, would breathe more freely once she turned her back on Frampton Court and all its hateful associations. Where Victor was, she could not rest.

If she had feared the man before, now she hated him; but hatred had added to her fear instead of replacing it, she remained afraid, desperately afraid, so that even the thought of continuing under the same roof with him was enough to make her prefer to tramp unknown roads alone in the mirk of that storm-swept night.

Though she went in trembling, she felt sure nobody spied upon her going; and in this confidence crept to the great staircase, down to the entrance hall, and on to the front doors; and a good omen it seemed to find these not locked, but simply on the latch. And if the night into which she peered was dark and loud with wind and rain, its countenance seemed kindlier, more friendly far than that of the world she was putting behind her. Without misgivings Sofia stepped out.

It was like stepping over the edge of the universe into the eternal night that bides beyond the stars. Neither did waiting seem to habituate her vision to the lack of light.

Still, the feel of gravel underfoot ought to guide her down the drive to the great gateway; and once outside the park, clear of its overshadowing trees, one would surely find mitigation of darkness sufficient to show the public road.

She took one tentative step out of the recessed doorway and into Victor's arms.

That they were Victor's she knew instantly, as much by the crawling of her flesh as by the choking terror that stifled the scream in her throat and froze body and limbs with its paralyzing touch.

And then his ironic accents:

"So good of you to spare me the trouble of coming for you!"

Before she could reply or even think, other hands than his were busy with her. A folded cloth was whipped over the lower half of her face, sealing her lips, and knotted at the nape of her neck. Stout arms clipped her knees and swung her off her feet, leaving her body helpless in Victor's tight embrace. And despite her tardy recovery and efforts to struggle, she was carried swiftly away, a dozen paces or so, then tumbled bodily in upon the floor of a motor-car.

The door closed as she tried to pick herself up, the smooth purring of the motor became a leonine roar while she was still on her knees, gears clashed, and the car leaped with a jerk that drove her headlong against the cushions of the seat. Then the dome light was switched on, and she saw Victor with a bleak face sitting over her, an automatic pistol naked in his hand.

"Get up!" he said, grimly, "and if there's any thought of fight left in you, think better of it, remember your mother paid with her life the price of defying me, and yours means even less to me. Up with you and sit quietly beside me--do you hear?"

He lent her a hand that wrenched her arm brutally and wrung a cry which Victor mocked as Sofia fell upon the seat and cringed back into the corner.

For perhaps thirty seconds, while the car raced away down the drive, he continued to hold her in the venom of her sneer; then his gaze veered sharply, and leaning over he switched off the light.

With the body of the car again the dwelling-place of darkness, objects beyond its rain-gemmed glass--the heads of the Chinese maid and chauffeur, the twin piers of the nearing gateway--attained dense relief against the blue-white glare of two broad headlight beams, that of the limousine boring through the gateway to intersect at right angles that of another car approaching on the highroad but as yet hidden by the wall of the park.

In one breath and the same the lights of the second car swerved in toward the gateway, and consternation seized hold of Sofia's intelligence and wiped it clear of all coherence.

Already the strange lamps were staring blankly in between the piers--and the momentum of Victor's car was too great to be arrested within the distance. The girl cried out, but didn't know it, and crouched low; the horn added a squawk of frenzy to a wild clamour of yells; all prefatory to a scrunching, rending crash as, in the very mouth of the gateway, a front fender of the incoming car ripped through the rear fender above which Sofia was sitting. Thrown heavily against Victor, then instantly back to her place, she felt the car, with brakes set fast, turn broadside to the road, skid crabwise, and lurch sickeningly into the ditch on the farther side.

For an interminable time, while the ponderous fabric rocked and toppled, threatening very instant to crash upon its side, the rear wheels spun madly and the chain-bound tires tore in vain at greasy road metal.

Without clear comprehension of what was happening, Sofia heard shouts from the other car, now at a standstill, and an oddly syncopated popping. The window in the door on Victor's side rang like a cracked bell, shivered, and fell inward, clashing. With a growl of rage, Victor bent forward and levelled an arm through the opening. From his hand truncated tongues of orange flame, half a dozen of them, stabbed the gloom to an accompaniment of as many short and savage barks.

Then the chains at last bit through to a purchase, the car scrambled to the crown of the road and lunged precipitately away; and the lights of the other dropped astern in the space of a rest between heartbeats.

Sitting back, Victor turned on the dome light again, and extracting an empty magazine clip from the butt of his automatic pistol, replaced it with another, loaded.

From this occupation he looked up with lips curling in contempt of Sofia's terror.

"Your friends," he observed, "were a thought behindhand, eh? When you come to know me better, my dear, you'll find they invariably are--with me."

Aftermath of fright made her tongue inarticulate; and Victor's sneer took on a colour of mean amusement.

"Something on your mind?"

She twisted her hands together till the laced fingers hurt.

"Wha-what are you go-going to do with me?"

"Make good use of you, dear child," he laughed: "be sure of that!"

"What do you mean?"

"What do you think?"

"I don't know ..."

"Really not? But there I think you do injustice to your admirable intelligence."

The jeering laugh sounded as he put out the light again, in darkness the derisive voice pursued:

"If you must know in so many words--well, I mean to keep you by me till the final curtain falls. As long as it lasts, yours will be an interesting life--I give my word."

"And you call yourself my father!"

"Oh, no! No, indeed: that's all over and done with, the farce is played out; and while I'm aware my role in it wasn't heroic, I shan't play the purblind fool in the afterpiece--pure drama--upon which the curtain is now rising. Neither need you. Oh, I'll be frank with you, if you wish, lay all my cards on the table."

A deliberate pause ended in a chuckle.

"I have at present precisely two uses for my precious little Sofia: She will serve excellently as insurance against further persecution on the part of her accomplished and energetic father--with whom I shall deal in my good leisure--and ... But need one be crudely explicit?"

Sofia answered nothing to that, for a long time she said nothing, but sat pondering....

And Victor was speedily provided with another interest which engrossed him to the exclusion of further efforts to bait a victim defenseless against his insolence.

When for the third time after that narrow scrape at the gates the man roused up to peer back through the rear window of the limousine, Sofia heard a harshly sibilant intake of breath between shut teeth, and surmised the discovery that the car which had so narrowly missed blocking their escape had picked up the trail, and was now in hot chase.

Even youth, however, could distill but slender hope from this. The pace was too terrific at which Victor's car was thundering through the night-bound countryside, it seemed idle to dream that another could overhaul it, even though driven with as much skill and maniacal recklessness. And Sofia returned to thoughts to which Victor's innuendo had given definite shape and colour, if with an effect far from that of his intention. Threatened, the spirit of the girl responded much as sane young flesh will to a cold plunge. She had forgotten to tremble, and though still tense-strung in every fibre was able to sit still, look steadily into the face of peril, and calculate her chances of cheating it.

Presently, in a tone so even it won begrudged admiration, she asked:

"Where are you taking me?"

"Do you really care?"

"Enough to ask."

"But why should I tell you?"

"No reason. I presume it doesn't really matter, I'll know soon enough."

"Then I don't mind enlightening you. We're bound for the Continent by way of Limehouse. A launch is waiting for us in Limehouse Reach, a yacht off Gravesend. Oh, I have forgotten nothing! By daybreak we'll be at sea."

"We?"

"You and I."

"You deceive yourself, Prince Victor. I shan't accompany you."

"How amusing! And is it a secret, how you propose to stand against my will?"

Sofia was silent for a little; then, "I can kill myself," she said, quietly.

"To be sure you can! And when I tire of you, perhaps I'll humour your morbid inclinations--if they still exist."

"You are a fool," Sofia returned, bluntly, "if you think I shall go aboard that yacht alive."

"Brava!" Victor laughed, and clapped his hands. "Brava! brava!"

He sat up for another look out of the rear window, sucked at his breath even more sharply than before, and snatching up the speaking-tube pronounced urgent words in Chinese.

The head of the chauffeur, in stark silhouette against the leading glow, bent toward the tube, and nodded rapidly. And to the deep-throated roar of an unmuffled exhaust, the heavy car leaped, like a spirited animal stung by whip and spur, and settled into a stride to which what had gone before was as a preliminary canter to the heartbreaking drive down to the home-stretch.

Lights began to dot the roadside. Widely spaced at first, unbroken ranks were soon streaking past the tear-blind windows. Outskirts of London were being traversed; but neither driving sheets of rain against which human vision failed, nor the chance of encountering belated traffic, worked any slackening of the pace. Only when a corner had to be negotiated did the car slow down, and then never to the point of sanity; and the turn once rounded, its flight would again become headlong, lunatic, suicidal.

The stringed lamps wove a wavering luminous ribbon without end; a breeze laden with the wet fragrance of London drove great gusts of rain in stringing showers through the broken window. Turns and twists grew more frequent, apparently favouring the pursuit.

Victor now knelt constantly on the back seat, his face in the fitful play of light and shadow uncannily resembling that of a hunted jungle cat. On the polished steel of his pistol sinister gleams winked and faded. From his snarling lips foul oaths fell, a steady stream, black blasphemies spewed up from the darkest dives of the Orient--most of them happily couched in the tongues of their origin and so unintelligible to his one auditor. As it was, she heard and understood enough, too much.

Nevertheless, the man was not too completely absorbed in watching the shifting fortunes of the race to be unmindful of the girl. And when once she sat up to ease cramped limbs, he misread her intention and, catching her viciously by an arm, threw her back into her corner and advised her not to play the giddy little fool.

After that Sofia was at pains to stir as seldom as possible, and bided her time quietly enough, but never for an instant relaxed her watchfulness or lost heart.

The shouldering houses that hedged their course discovered a profile, ragged, black against a sky whose purple dimness held the first dull presage of dawn.

In the wild rush of a marauding tomcat the car crossed a broad public square and sped up the graded approach to a bridge. The smell of the Thames was unmistakable, the far-flung lamps of the Embankment were pearls aglow upon violet velvet.

Leaving the bridge, the limousine took a turn on two wheels, and immediately something happened, seemingly some attempt to stop it was made. Vociferous voices hailed it, only to induce an augmented bellow of the exhaust with an instantaneous acceleration of impetus. Then something was struck and tossed aside as a bull might toss a dog--a dark shape whirling and flopping hideously; and an agonized screaming made the girl cower, sick with horror, and cover her ears with her hands.

Before she was able to forget those qualms many more minutes of frantic driving had flung to the rear many a mile of silent streets.

Of a sudden she heard an inhuman cry and, looking up, saw Victor dash the butt of his pistol through the glass, then reversing the weapon pour through the opening a fusillade whose effect was presumably gratifying, for he laughed to himself when the pistol was empty, laughed briefly but with vicious glee.

That laugh levelled the last barrier of doubt and fear and nerved Sofia finally to test the forlorn hope she had been nursing ever since Victor had let her see a little way into his mind as to her fate.

Until he could reload, only the tradition of the sexes lent him theoretical superiority; whereas he was in fact a man well on the thither side of middle-age, his virility sapped by long indulgence of unbridled appetites; while Sofia was a woman in the fullest flush of her first mature powers.

Gathering herself together, she inched forward and made ready to spring, bear him down, overpower him--by some or any means put him hors de combat long enough for her to fling a door open and herself out into the street....

With squealing brakes the car shaved an acute corner and slid on locked wheels to a dead halt so unexpected that it was Sofia who plunged floundering to the floor, while Victor only by a minor miracle escaped catapulting through the front windows.

The next instant, as Sofia struggled to her knees, the door behind her was wrenched open from without and, at a sign from Victor, rough hands laid hold of the girl and dragged her out bodily.

In a passion of despair, she lost her senses for a time and like a madwoman fought, shrieking, biting, kicking, clawing, scratching....

With returning lucidity she found herself, panting and dishevelled, arms pinned to her sides, struggling on for all that, being hustled by some half a dozen men across a narrow sidewalk of uneven flagstones.

Simultaneously the shutter of perceptions snapped, photographing permanently upon the super-sensitized film of conscious memory the glimpsed vista of a grim, mean street whose repellent uglinesses grinned through the boding twilight like lineaments of some monstrous mask of evil.

Then she tripped on a low stone step, stumbled, and was half-carried, half-thrown into a narrow and malodorous hallway.

Between her and the sweet liberty of the rain-washed air a door crashed like the crack of doom.