Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book I. A Chapter from the Youth of Monsieur Michael Lanyard
VIII. Greek vs. Greek
She found herself standing, partly resting upon the table. Great, tearing sobs racked her slight young body--but at least she was breathing, there was no more constriction of her windpipe; Her head still ached, however, her neck felt stiff and sore, and she remained somewhat giddy and confused.
She eyed rather wildly her hands. One held torn and ragged folds of the veil ripped from her throat, the other the weapon with which she had cheated death: a bronze paperweight, probably a miniature copy of a Barye, an elephant trumpeting. The up-flung trunk was darkly stained and sticky....
With a shudder she dropped the bronze, and looked down. Victor lay at her feet, supine, grotesquely asprawl. His face was bruised and livid; the cheek laid open by the bronze was smeared with scarlet, accentuating the leaden colour of his skin. His mouth was ajar; his eyes, half closed, hideously revealed slender slits of white. More blood discoloured his right temple, welling from under the matted, coarse black hair.
He was terribly motionless. If he breathed, Sofia could detect no sign of it.
In panic she knelt beside the body, threw back Victor's dinner-coat, and laid an ear above his heart.
At first, in her mad anxiety, she could hear nothing. But presently a beating registered, slow and harsh but steady-paced.
With a sob of relief she sat back on her heels, and after a little while got unsteadily to her feet.
The house door closed with a dull bang, and from the entrance hallway came a sound of voices. She stood petrified in dread till the voices fell and she heard stairs creak under an ascending tread.
Thus reminded that Lanyard's return might occur at any moment, she made all haste to patch up the disarray of veil and coiffure. Fortunately her costume, protected by the cloak of heavy and sturdy stuff, was quite undamaged.
Not till on the point of leaving did she remember the painting. It lay unharmed where it had fallen when Victor seized her veil. She was calm enough now to consider herself fortunate in finding it so poorly secured in its frame; without the latter it would be far easier to smuggle the canvas away under her cloak.
In the final glance she bent upon Victor's beaten and insensible body there was no pity, no regret, no trace of compunction. What he had suffered he had ten times--no, a hundred, a thousand--earned. Long before she left him Sofia had lost count of the blows she had taken at his hands, the insults worse than blows, the lesser indignities innumerable.
But in those abolished days she had never once struck back, she had been faint of heart, cowed and terrified, and had lacked what two years of separation had given her, that spiritual independence which never before had been able to realize itself, lift up its head, and grow strong in the assurance of its own integrity.
Two years ago she would not have dared to lift a hand to Victor, no matter how sore the provocation. To-night--if she had one regret it was that she had struck so feebly: not that she desired his death, but that she knew it was now her life or his. She knew the man too well to flatter herself that he would rest before he had compassed such revenge as the baseness of his degenerate soul would deem adequate. Half the world were not too much to put between them if she were now to sleep of nights in comfortable consciousness of security from his quenchless hatred.
Callously enough she switched off the lights and left him lying there, in darkness but for the ash-dimmed glimmer of a dying fire.
In the entrance hallway she hesitated, coldly composed and alert. But seemingly the noise of their struggle had not carried beyond the door. There was no one about.
With neither haste nor faltering, without the least misadventure, she let herself quietly out into the empty, silent, rain-swept street, and scurried toward the lights of Piccadilly.
Before long a cruising four-wheeler overhauled her. In its obscure and stuffy refuge she sat hugging her precious canvas and pondering her plight.
It was borne in upon her that she would do well to leave London, yes, and England, too, before Victor recovered sufficiently to scheme and put a watch upon her movements.
She had need henceforth to be swift and wary and shrewd....
A singular elation began to colour her temper, a quickening sense of emancipation. Necessity at a stroke had set her free. Because she must fly and hide to save her life, society had no more hold upon her, she need no longer fight to keep up appearances in spite of her status as a woman living apart from her husband, little better than a divorcee--an estate anathema to the English of those days.
She experienced, through the play of her imagination upon this new and startling conception of life, an intoxicating prelibation of freedom such as she had never dreamed to savour.
That waywardness which was a legitimate inheritance from generations of wilful forebears, impatient of all those restraints which a fixed environment imposes upon the individual, an impatience which had always been hers though it slumbered in unsuspected latency, asserted itself of a sudden, possessed her wholly, and warmed, her being like forbidden wine.
In this humour she was set down at her door.
None saw her enter. In a moment of vaguely prophetic foresight she had bidden Therese not to wait up for her and to tell the other servants there was no necessity for their doing so. She might be detained, Heaven alone knew how late she might be; but she had her latch-key and was quite competent to undress and put herself to bed.
And Therese had taken her at her word.
She was glad of that. In event that anything should leak out and be printed by the newspapers concerning the theft of Monsieur Lanyard's famous "Corot" by a strange, closely veiled woman, it was just as well that none of the servants was about to see her come in with the canvas clumsily hidden under her cloak.
So she exercised much circumspection in shutting and bolting the door, mounted the stairs without making any unnecessary stir, and at the door of her boudoir waited, listening, for several moments, in the course of which she heard, or fancied she heard, a slight noise on the far side of the door which made her suspect Therese might after all still be up and about.
The sound was not repeated, but to make sure Sofia slipped out of her cloak and wrapped it round the canvas before she went in; which last she did sharply, with head up and eyes flashing ominously beneath scowling brows--prepared to give Therese a rare taste of temper if she found she had been disobeyed.
But though the maid had left the lights on, she was nowhere to be seen. Nor did she answer from the bedchamber when the princess called her.
With a sigh of relief that ran into the chuckle of a child absorbed in mischief, Sofia threw the cloak across a chaise-longue, and bore her prize in triumph to the escritoire.
It was her intention to rip the canvas off with a knife, to get at the letters; and a long, thin-bladed Spanish dagger that now did service as a paper-knife was actually in her hand when she noticed how slightly the painting was tacked to its stretcher, and for the first time was visited by premonition.
Dropping the knife, she caught a loose edge of the canvas and with one swift tug stripped it clear of the unpainted fabric beneath.
The cry that disappointment wrung from her was bitter with protest and chagrin.
Fortune had failed her, then, the jade had tricked her heartlessly. With success within her grasp, it had trickled like quicksilver through her fingers. Victor had been beforehand with her, had purloined the letters and restored the canvas to its frame. She might have suspected as much if she had only had the wit to draw a natural inference from the way the painting had parted company with its frame when she dropped it.
So the letters for which she had risked and suffered so much must be back there, in Lanyard's lodgings, in Victor's possession--lost irretrievably, since she would never find the courage to go back for them, even if she dared assume that Victor had not yet recovered and escaped or that Lanyard had not yet come home.
If only she had thought to rifle Victor's pockets ...
"Too late," she uttered in despair.
"Ah, madame, never say that!"
She swung round but, shocked as she was to the verge of stupefaction, made no outcry.
The intruder stood within arm's-length, collected, amiable, debonair, nothing threatening in his attitude, merely an easy and at the same time quite respectful suggestion of interest.
His bow was humorous without mockery: "Madame la princesse does me much honour."
She was silent another instant, in a wide stare comprehending the incredible, the utterly impossible fact of his presence there. The one conceivable explanation voiced itself without her volition:
"The Lone Wolf!"
"Oh, come now!" he remonstrated, indulgently--"that's downright flattery."
She moved aside, lifting a hand toward the bell-cord.
Involuntarily she deferred, her arm dropped. Then, appreciating that she had yielded where he had no right to command, she mutinied.
"Why?" she demanded, resentfully.
"Why ring?" he countered, smiling.
"To call my servants--to have them call in the police."
"But surely madame la princesse must appreciate the police might be at a loss to know which housebreaker to arrest."
He cocked an eye of mocking significance toward the purloined "Corot," and in sharp revulsion of feeling Sofia had need to bite her lip to keep from laughing. She hesitated. He was right and reasonable enough, this impudent and imperturbable young elegant. Yet she could not afford to concede so much to him. She was quick to accept his gage.
"Who knows," she enquired, obliquely, "why Monsieur the Lone Wolf brought with him this counterfeit Corot when he broke in to steal--"
"The counterfeit jewels of a titled adventuress!"
An interruption brusque enough to silence her; or else it was its innuendo that struck the princess dumb with indignation. Lanyard's laugh offered amends for the rudeness, as if he said: "Sorry--but you asked for it, you know." He stepped aside, caught up a handful of her jewels that had been left, a tempting heap, openly exposed on her dressing-table (as much her own carelessness as anybody's, Sofia admitted) and tossed them lightly upon the face of the fraudulent canvas.
"Birds of a feather," was his comment, whimsical; "coals to Newcastle!"
"My jewels!" The princess gathered them up tenderly and faced him, blazing with resentment. He returned a twisted smile, an apologetic shrug.
"Madame la princesse didn't know? I'm so sorry."
"How dare you say they're paste?"
"I'm sorry," he repeated; "but somebody seems to have taken advantage of madame's confidence. Excellent imitations, I grant you, but articles de Paris none the less."
"It isn't true!" she stormed, near to tears.
"But really, you must believe me. A knowledge of jewels is one of my hobbies: I know!"
She looked down in consternation at the exquisite trinkets he had condemned so bluntly. Then in a fit of temper she flung them from her with all her might, threw herself upon the chaise-longue, and wept passionately into its cushions. Then the young man proved himself tolerably instructed in the ways of womankind. He said nothing more, made no offer to comfort her by those futile and empty pats on the shoulder which are instinctive with man on such occasions, but simply sat him down and waited.
In time the tempest passed, Sofia sat up and dabbled her eyes with a web of lace and linen. Then she looked round with a tentative smile that was wholly captivating. She was one of those rare women who can afford to cry.
"It's so humiliating!" she protested with racial ingenuousness--one of her most compelling charms. "But it's ridiculous, too. I was so sure no one would ever know."
"No one but an expert ever would, madame."
"You see"--apparently she had forgotten that Lanyard was anything but a lifelong friend--"I needed money so badly, I had them reproduced and sold the originals."
"Madame la princesse--if she will permit--commands my profound sympathy."
"But," she remembered, drying her eyes, "you called me an adventuress, too!"
"But," he contended, gravely, "you had already called me the Lone Wolf."
"But what do you expect, monsieur, when I find you in my rooms--?"
"But what does madame la princesse expect when I find she had been to mine--and brought something valuable away with her, too!"
"I had a reason--"
"So had I."
"What was it?"
"Perhaps it was to see madame la princesse alone--secretly--without exciting the jealousy, which I understand is supernormal, of monsieur le prince."
"But why should you wish to see me alone?" she demanded, with widening eyes.
"Perhaps to beg madame's permission to offer her what may possibly prove some slight consolation."
She weighed his words in dark distrust. What was this consolation? What his game? His attitude remained consistently too deferential and punctilious for one to suspect that by consolation he meant love-making.
"But how did you get in?"
"By the front door, madame. I find it ajar--one assumes, through oversight on the part of one of the servants--it opens to a touch, I walk in--et voila!"
His levity was infectious. In spite of herself, she smiled in sympathy.
"And what, pray, is this wonderful consolation you would offer me?"
He produced from a pocket a packet of papers.
"I think madame la princesse is interested in these," he said. "If she will be so amiable as to accept them from me, with my compliments and one little word of advice...."
"Ah, monsieur!" Look and tone thanked him more than words could ever. "You are too kind! And your advice--?"
"They tell too much, madame, those letters. And I see you have a fire in the grate ..."
"Monsieur has reason...."
She rose, went to the fireplace and, half kneeling, thrust the letters one by one into the incandescent bed of coals. A ceremony of sentiment at any other time, but not now: her thoughts were far from the man with whose memory these letters were linked, they were in fact not wholly articulate. Just what was passing through her mind she herself would have found it hard to define; she was mainly conscious of a flooding emotion of gratitude to Lanyard; but there was something more, a feeling not unakin to tenderness....
The reaction of her vital young body from a desperate physical conflict, the rapid play of her passions from anger and despair through triumph and delight to gratification and content, from the bitterest sense of frustration and peril to one of security; the uprush of those strange instincts which had lain dormant till roused by the knowledge that she was free at length from the maddening stupidity of social life, together with her recent, implicit self-dedication to a life in all things its converse: these influences were working upon her so strongly as to render her mood more dangerous than she guessed.
Disturbed in her formless reverie, an aimless groping through a bewildering maze of emotions but vaguely apprehended, she started up, faced round and saw Lanyard, topcoat over arm and hat in hand, about to open the door.
He looked back, coolly quizzical. "Madame?"
"What are you doing?"
"Taking my unobtrusive departure, madame la princesse, by the way I came."
He shrugged agreeably, released the door-knob, and stood before her, or rather over her--for he was the taller by a good five inches--looking down, quietly at her service.
"I haven't thanked you."
"For what, madame? For treating myself to an amusing adventure?"
"It has cost you dear!"
"The fortunes of war ..."
Her hands rose unconsciously, with an uncertain movement. Her face was soft with an elusive bloom of unwonted feeling. Her eyes held a puzzled look, as if she did not quite understand what was moving her so deeply.
"You are a strange man, monsieur...."
"And what shall one say of madame la princesse?"
She could but laugh; and laughter rings the death-knell of constraint.
But Lanyard remembered uneasily that somebody--Solomon or some other who must have led an interesting life--had remarked that the lips of a strange woman are smoother than oil.
"None the less, monsieur, I am deeply in your debt."
His smile of impersonal courtesy failed. He was becoming more sensitive than he liked to her charm and the warm sentiment she was giving out to him. This strange access in her of haunting loveliness, the gentle shadows that lay beneath her wide--yet languorous eyes, the almost imperceptible tremor of her sweetly fashioned lips, all troubled him profoundly. He exerted himself to break the spell upon his senses which this woman, wittingly or not, was weaving. But the effort was at best half-hearted.
"I am well repaid," he said a bit stiffly, "by the knowledge that the honour of madame la princesse is safe."
Sofia laughed breathlessly. Somehow her hands had found the way to his. Her glance wavered and fell.
"But is it?" she asked in a tone so intimate that it was barely audible. And she laughed once more. "I am not so sure ... as long as monsieur is here."
Lanyard's mouth twitched, slow colour mounted in his face, the light in his eyes was lambent. He found himself looking deep into other eyes that were like pools of violet shadow troubled by a deep surge and resurge of feeling for which there was no name. Aware that they revealed more than he ought to know, he sought to escape them by bending his lips to Sofia's hands.
Sighing softly, she resigned them to his kisses.