Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book I. A Chapter from the Youth of Monsieur Michael Lanyard
VII. Family Reunion
The London night was normal: that is to say, wet. Darkness had transformed the streets into vast sheets of black satin shot with golden strands and studded with lamp-posts like sturdy stems for ethereal blooms of golden haze. Within their areas of glow the air teemed with atoms of liquid gold. The ring of hoofs on wet pavements was at once disturbing and inspiriting.
Alone in her hired hansom the Princess Sofia sat with the window raised, drinking deep of the soft damp air, finding it as heady as strange wine. Under cover of the veil her eyes were brilliant with awareness of her audacity, her lips were parted with the promise of a smile.
She loved it all, she adored this mood of London: its nights of rain were sheer enchantment, arabesque, nights of secrecy and stealth, mystery, and romance under the rose. On nights such as this lovers prospered, adventures were to the venturesome, brave rewards to the bold.
For herself she was unafraid, she foretasted entire success. How should it be otherwise? Consider how famously chance had prospered her designs, playing into her hands the information that this Monsieur Lanyard was not at home, might not return till very late, and was expecting a call from somebody whom he desired to await his return in his rooms!
With such an open occasion, how could one fail?
Sofia asked only three minutes alone with the painting....
And if by any mishap she were caught, still she would not be dismayed. The letters were hers, were they not? They had been stolen from her, he had no right title to them who had purchased only the picture which had served as their hiding-place. By all means, let him keep that stupid canvas; he could hardly refuse to let her have her letters, not if she pleaded her prettiest. And even if he should prove obtuse, ungenerous....
Her smile was definite and confident. She was beautiful--and Monsieur Lanyard was aware of that. Had she not, that afternoon, in the auction room, without his knowledge detected admiration in his eyes, a look warm with something more than admiration only?
He was impressionable, then. And it would be no distasteful task to play upon his susceptibilities. He was not only personally attractive ("magnetic" was the catch-word of the period), but if half that Lady Diantha had hinted concerning him were true, to make a conquest of Michael Lanyard would be a feather in the cap of any woman, to attempt it a temptation all but irresistible to one--like Sofia--in whose veins ran the ichor of progenitors to whom the scent of danger had been as breath of life itself. It was hardly conceivable; even now Sofia must smile at her friend's amiable endeavours to identify this mysterious monsieur with a celebrated and preposterous criminal.
It might be true that, as Lady Diantha had declared, wherever Michael Lanyard showed himself in open pursuit of his avowed avocation as a collector of rare works of art--in London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, or where-not--there in due sequence the Lone Wolf would consummate one of his fantastic coups.
And it was indisputable that Lanyard was at present living in London, where for some time past the Lone Wolf had been perniciously busy; or else his bad name had been taken in vain by a baffled and exasperated Scotland Yard.
Again: Diantha had insisted that the Lone Wolf was by every evidence completely woman-proof; and there might be something in her contention that such an elusive yet spectacularly successful thief could hardly have won the high place he held in the annals of criminology and in the esteem of the sensation-loving public, if he were one who maintained normal relations with his kind.
Sooner or later (so ran Diantha's borrowed reasoning) the criminal who has close friends, a wife, a mistress, children, family ties of any sort, or even body-servants, must willy-nilly repose confidence in one of these, and then inevitably will be betrayed. Depend upon envy, jealousy, spite, or plain venal disloyalty, if accident or inadvertence fail, to lay the law-breaker by the heels.
Therefore (Diantha argued) the Lone Wolf must be a confirmed solitary and misogynist--very much like this Monsieur Lanyard, according to reports which declared the latter to be a man who kept to himself, had many acquaintances and not one intimate, and was positively insulated against wiles of woman.
But--granting all this--it was none the less true that the utmost diligence, spurred by the pique, ill-will, and ambition of the police of all Europe, had failed as yet to forge any link between the supercriminal of the age and the distinguished connoisseur of art. Other than Lady Diantha and the gossips whose arguments she was retailing, never a soul (so far as Sofia knew) had ventured to breathe a breath of suspicion upon the good repute of Monsieur Lanyard.
In short, Diantha's conjectures had been entirely second-hand, and not even meant to be taken seriously.
And yet the suggestion had fastened firm hold upon the imagination of the Princess Sofia.
If it were true ... what an adventure!
There was unaccustomed light of daring in the eyes of the princess, unwonted colour tinted her cheeks.
The hansom stopped, discharged the fairest fare it had ever carried, and rattled off, leaving Sofia just a trifle daunted and dubious, the animation of her anticipations something dashed by the uncompromising respectability, the self-conscious worthiness of Halfmoon Street.
Enfolded in the very heart of Mayfair, its brief length bounded on the north by Curzon Street (its name alone sufficient voucher for its character), on the south by Piccadilly (hereabouts somewhat oppressive with its hedge of stately clubs, membership in any one of which is equivalent to two years' unchallenged credit) Halfmoon Street is largely given over to furnished lodgings. But it doesn't advertise the fact, its landlords are apt to be retired butlers to the nobility and gentry, its lodgers English gentlemen who have brought home livers from India, or assorted disabilities from all known quarters of the globe, and who desire nothing better than to lead steady-paced lives within walking distance of their favourite clubs. So Halfmoon Street remains quietly estimable, a desirable address, and knows it, and doggedly means to hold fast to that repute.
A strange environment (Sofia thought) for an adventurer like the Lone Wolf.
But then--of course!--Diantha's innuendoes had been based on flimsiest hearsay. The chances were that Michael Lanyard was an utterly uninteresting person of blameless life.
So thinking, the Princess Sofia was sensible of a pang of regret, and tried to be prepared against bitter disappointment as she rang the bell. Either she would fail to obtain admittance (perhaps the lady whom he was really expecting had forestalled her) or else Lanyard would fail to come home in time to catch her! Quite probably it would turn out to be a dull and depressing evening, after all....
The servant who admitted her in manner and appearance lent colour to these forebodings. A creature hopelessly commonplace, resigned, and unemotional, to her enquiry for Monsieur Lanyard he returned the discounted response: Mister Lanyard was hout, 'e might not be 'ome till quite lite, but 'ad left word that if a lidy called she was to be awsked to wite. The princess indicating her desire to wite, the man turned to the nearest door (Lanyard's rooms were on the street level), opened it with a pass-key, stepped inside to make a light, and when Sofia entered silently bowed himself out.
Now when the latch clicked behind him, the Princess Sofia forgot that the simplicity of her success thus far was almost discouraging. Her heart began to beat more quickly, and a little tremor shook the hands that lifted and threw back her veil. After all, she was committing an act of lawless trespass, she was on the errand of a thief; if caught the penalty might prove most painful and humiliating.
Of a sudden she lost appetite entirely for a piquant encounter with the prepossessing tenant of these rooms. Now she desired nothing so dearly as to consummate her business and escape with all possible expedition.
A swift and searching survey of the living-room descried nothing that seemed apt to hinder or detain her. A large room, unusually wide and deep, it had two windows overlooking the street, with a curtained doorway at the back that led (one surmised) to a bedchamber. It was furnished in such excellent taste that one suspected Monsieur Lanyard must have brought in his own belongings on taking possession. The handsome rug, the well-chosen draperies, the several excellent pictures and bronzes, were little in character with the furnished lodgings of the London average, even with those of the better sort.
She had no time, however, to squander on appreciation of artistic atmosphere, however pleasing, and needed to waste none searching for the object of her desires. It faced her, distant not six paces from the door--that shameless little "Corot"!--resting on the arms of a straight-backed chair.
A low laugh of delight on her lips, she went swiftly to the chair and laid hold of the picture by its frame. In that act she checked, startled, transfixed, the laugh freezing into a gasp of alarm.
Brass rings slithered on a pole supporting the portieres at the back of the room. These parted. Through them a man emerged.
Her grasp on the picture relaxed. It struck a corner against the chair and clattered on the floor--the canvas on its stretcher simultaneously flying out of the frame.
"Sweet of you to remember me!"
He advanced slowly with that noiseless, cat-like tread of his which she had always hated, perceiving in it a true index to his character: the prowl of a beast of prey, furtive, cowardly, cruel. It was so: Victor was as feline and as vicious as a jungle-cat. Watching him with this thought in mind, one could almost credit old tales of beasts bewitched and walking in human guise.
Near by he paused, alertly poised, prepared to spring. The slotted black eyes glimmered malignantly. His lips drew back in mockery from his teeth. His hands were hidden in the pockets of his dinner-coat; but she could guess how they were held, like claws, in that concealment, claws itching for her throat. She dared not stir lest she feel them there, digging deep into her soft white flesh.
Witless, in the extremity of her terror, she stammered: "What do you want?"
A nod indicated the picture that lay between them, at their feet.
"My errand," the man said in a silken tone that gloved grimmest menace, "is much the same as yours--quite naturally--but more fortunate; for I shall get not only what I came for, but something more."
"The opportunity to plead with you, face to face. I think you will hardly refuse to listen to me now."
"How--how did you get in?"
"Oh, secretly! By the window, if you must know; but quite unseen. You see, I had no invitation."
"I never thought you had--"
"Nor did I think you had--till now."
Puzzled, she faltered: "I don't understand--"
"Surely you don't wish me to believe my pretty Sofia has turned thief?"
That stung her pride. She drew upon an unsuspected store of spirit, confronting him bravely.
"What is it to me, what you choose to think?"
"I refuse to think that of you. My reason will not let me believe it."
She saw that he was shaking with rage; so she shrugged and drawled: "Oh, your reason--!"
"It tells me you for one did not come here to-night uninvited." He was rapidly losing grip on his temper. "Oh, it's plain enough! I was a fool not to understand, there in the auction room, when my face was slapped with proof of your liaison with this Lanyard!"
She said in mild expostulation: "But you are quite mad."
"Perhaps--but not so as to be blind to the truth. You had him there this afternoon to bid that picture in for you if your own means failed. Why else should the man, who knows pictures as I know you, pay twenty thousand guineas for a footling copy of a Corot that wouldn't deceive a--a Royal Academician! Yes: he bid it in for you--the sorry fool!--bought with his own money the evidence of your infatuation for his predecessor in your affections--and expects you here to-night to receive it from him and--pay him his price! Ah, don't try to deny it!"
He growled like a very animal, beside himself. "Why else should you be admitted to these rooms without question in his absence?"
Without visible resentment, the Princess Sofia nodded thoughtfully into those distorted features.
"Yes," she commented: "quite, quite mad."
As if she had offered without warning to strike him, Victor recoiled and for an instant stood gibbering. And she took advantage of this moment in one lithe bound to put the table between them.
The manoeuvre sobered him. He did not move, but in two breaths forced himself to cease to tremble, and subdued every symptom of his passion. Only his face remained sinister.
"Graceful creature!" he observed, sardonic. "Such agility! But what good will that do you, do you think? Eh? Tell me that!"
It was her turn to shiver, and inwardly she did, who was never quite able to combat the fear which Victor could inspire in her by such demonstrations of the power of his will. The self-control which he had always at his command was something that passed her understanding; it seemed inhuman, it terrified her.
Nevertheless, so exigent was this strait, she continued to confront him with a face of unflinching defiance.
In a voice whose steadiness surprised her she declared: "The letters are mine. You shan't have them."
"Undeceive yourself: I'll have them though you never leave this room alive."
More to give herself time to think than in any hope of moving him, she began to plead:
"Let me have them, Victor--let me go."
Smiling darkly, he shook his head.
"The letters mean nothing to you. What good--?"
He interrupted impatiently: "I shall publish them."
"But I shall."
Aghast, she protested: "You can't mean that!"
"Why not? The world shall know your true reason for leaving me--that you were the mistress of another man--and who that man was!"
Staring, she uttered in a low voice: "Never!"
"Or," he amended, deliberately, "you may keep them, burn them, do what you will with them--on fair terms--my terms."
She said nothing, but her dilate eyes held fixedly to his. He moved a pace or two nearer, his voice dropped to a lower key, the light she had learned to loathe flickered in the depths of his eyes.
"Come back to me, Sofia! I can't live without you ..."
Her lips moved to deny him, but made no sound. Now it was revealed to her, the way.
"Come back to me, Sofia!"
His hand crept along the edge of the table and lifted, quivering, to capture hers. She steeled herself to endure its touch, against sickening repulsion she fought to achieve a smile that would carry a suggestion of at least forgetfulness.
"And if I do--?" she murmured.
He gave a violent start, blood suffused his face darkly, his arms leapt out to enfold her. She stepped back, evading him with a movement of coquetry that served, as it was intended, to inflame him the more.
"Wait!" she insisted. "Answer me first: If I return to you--then what?"
"Everything shall be as you wish--everything forgotten--I will think of nothing but how to make you happy--"
"And I may have my letters?"
He nodded, swallowing hard, as if the concession well-nigh choked him.
Under his gloating gaze her flesh crawled. Only by supreme effort did she succeed in resisting a mad impulse to risk a rush for door or windows, and whipped her will into maintaining what seemed to be frank response.
"Very well," she said; "I agree."
Again he offered to touch her, again she moved slightly, eluding him.
"No," she stipulated with an arch glance--"not yet! First prove you mean to make good your word."
"Let me go--with my letters--and call on me to-morrow."
His look clouded. "Can I trust you?" He was putting the question to himself more than to her. "Dare I?" He added in a tone colourless and flat: "I've half a mind to take you at your word. Only--forgive my doubts--appearances are against you--you seem almost too keen for the bargain. How can I know--?"
"What proof do you want?"
"Something definite.... You pledge yourself to me?" A movement of her head assented. "You will give yourself back to me?" He came nearer, but she contrived to repeat the sign of assent. "Wholly, without reserve?"
An invincible disgust shook her as the full sense of his insistence struck home. Still she whipped herself to play out the scene--and win!
"As you say, Victor, as you will...."
He moved still nearer. She became conscious of his nearness as if a palpable aura of vileness emanated from his person.
"Then give me proof--here and now."
He laughed a throaty, evil laugh. "Need you ask? Not much, my Sofia ... only a little ... something on account..." Suddenly she could no more: memories unspeakable rose like disturbed dregs to the surface of her consciousness. Involuntarily, not knowing what she did, she flung out an arm and struck down his hands.
The epithet was like a knout cutting through the decayed fibre of the man and raising a livid welt on his diseased soul. Galled beyond endurance, his countenance convulsed with fury, he struck wickedly; and the vicious blow of his open palm across her mouth brought flecks of blood to the lips as her teeth cut into the tender flesh.
It did far more, it shattered at one stroke the brittle casing of self-command with which centuries of civilization had sought to veneer the Slav. In a trice a woman whose existence neither of them had suspected was revealed, a fury incarnate flew at the dismayed prince, clawing, tearing, raining blows upon his face and bosom. Overcome by surprise, blinded, dazed, staggered, he gave ground, stumbled, caught at a chair to steady himself.
As abruptly as it had begun, the assault ceased. Panting and frantic, the girl fell back, paused, renewed her grasp upon herself, gazed momentarily in contempt on that dashed and quaking figure, then swiftly swooped down to retrieve the picture, and madly pelted toward the door.
In an instant, Victor was after her. His clutching fingers barely missed her shoulder but caught a flying end of the veil that swathed her throat and head. With finger-tips touching the door-knob Sofia was checked and twitched back so violently that she was all but thrown off her feet.
She tried desperately to regain her balance, but the pressure round her throat, tightening, bade fair to suffocate her; and reeling, while her hands tore ineffectually at the folds of the veil, she was drawn back and back, and tripped, falling half on, half off the table.
Already her vision was darkening, her lungs were labouring painfully, her head throbbed with the revolt of strangulated arteries as if sledge hammers were seeking to smash through her skull.
Through closing shadows she saw that savage mask which hovered over her, moping and mowing, as Victor twisted and drew ever more tight the murderous bindings round her throat.
A groping hand encountered something on the table, a lump of metal, cold and heavy. She seized and dashed it brutally into that hateful face, saw his head jerk back and heard him grunt with pain, and struck again, blindly, with all her might.
Instantly the pressure upon her throat was eased. She heard a groan, a fall ...