Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book I. A Chapter from the Youth of Monsieur Michael Lanyard
IX. Paid in Full
It was late when Lanyard got home, but not too late: when he entered his living-room enough life lingered in the embers in the grate to betray to him a feline shape on all-fours creeping toward his bedchamber door. As he switched up the lights it bounded to its feet and dived through the portieres with such celerity that he saw little more of it than coat-tails level on the wind.
Dropping hat and canvas, Lanyard gave chase and overhauled the marauder as he was clambering out through the open window, where a firm hand on his collar checked his preparations to drop half a dozen feet to the flagged court.
Victor swore fretfully and lashed out a random fist, which struck Lanyard's cheek a glancing blow that carried just enough sting to kindle resentment. So the virtuous householder was rather more than unceremonious about yanking the princely housebreaker inside and lending him a foot to accelerate his return to the living-room; where Victor brought up, on all-fours again, in almost precisely the spot from which he had risen.
He bounced up, however, with a surprising amount of animation and ambition, and flew back to the offensive with flailing fists. In this his judgment was grievously in fault. Lanyard sidestepped, nipped a wrist, twitched it smartly up between the man's shoulder-blades (with a wrench that won a grunt of agony), caught the other arm from behind by the hollow of its elbow, and held his victim helpless--though ill-advised enough to continue to hiss and spit and squirm and kick.
A heel that struck Lanyard's shin earned Victor a shaking so thoroughgoing that he felt the teeth rattle in his jaws. When it was suspended, he was breathless but thoughtful, and offered no objection to being searched. Lanyard relieved him of a revolver and a dirk, then with a push sent Victor reeling to the table, where he stood panting, quivering, and glaring murder, while his captor put the dagger away and examined the firearm.
"Wicked thing," he commented--"loaded, too. Really, monsieur le prince should be more careful. One of these fine days, if you don't stop playing with such weapons, one of these will go off right in your hand--and the next high-light in your history will be when the judge says: 'And may the Lord have mercy on your soul!'"
Victor confided his sentiments to a handkerchief with which he was mopping his face. Lanyard sat down and wagged a reproving head.
"Didn't catch," he said; "perhaps it's just as well, though; sounded like bad words. Hope I'm mistaken, of course: princes ought to set impressionable plebeians a better pattern."
He cocked a critical eye. "You're a sight, if you don't mind my saying so--look as if the sky had caved in on you. May one ask what happened? Did it stub its toe and fall?"
Victor suspended operations with the handkerchief to bend upon his tormentor a louring, distrustful stare. His head was still heavy, hot, and painful, his mental processes thick with lees of coma; but now he began to appreciate, what naturally seemed apparent, that Lanyard must be unacquainted with the cause of his injuries.
A searching look round the room confirmed him in this error. The canvas lay where Lanyard had dropped it on entering, not in the spot where Victor remembered seeing it last, but where conceivably an unheeded kick might have sent it in the course of his struggle with Sofia. She must have forgotten it, then, when she fled from what she probably thought was murder, and what might well have been.
He was much too sore and shaken to be subtle; and the general trend of his conjectures was perfectly legible to Lanyard, who without delay set himself to conjure away any lingering suspicion of his guilelessness.
"Not squiffy, are you, by any chance?" he enquired with the kindliest interest. "You look as if you'd wound up a spree by picking a fight with a bobby. Your cheek's cut and all (shall we say, in deference to the well-known prejudices of the dear B.P.?) ensanguined. Sit down and pull yourself together before you try to explain to what I owe this honour--and so forth."
He got up, clapped a hand on Prince Victor's shoulder, and steered him into an easy chair.
"Anything more I can do to put you at your ease? Would a brandy and soda help, do you think?"
The suggestion was acceptable: Victor signified as much with an ungracious mumble. Lanyard fetched glasses, a decanter, a siphon-bottle, and supplied his guest with a liberal hand before helping himself.
Victor took the drink without a word of thanks and gulped it down noisily. Lanyard drank sparingly, then crossed the room to a bell-push. Seeing his finger on it Prince Victor started from his chair, but Lanyard hospitably waved him back.
"Don't go yet," he pleaded. "You've only just dropped in, we haven't had half a chance to chat. Besides, you mustn't forget I've got your pistol and your dirk and the upper hand and a sustaining sense of moral superiority and no end of other advantages over you."
"Why," the prince demanded, nervously--"why did you ring?"
"To call a cab for you, of course. I don't imagine you want to walk home--do you?--in your present state of shocking disrepair. Of course, if you'd rather ... But do sit down: compose yourself."
"Let me be," the other snapped as Lanyard offered good-naturedly to thrust him back into the chair. "I am--quite composed."
"That's good! Excellent! Hand steady enough to write me a cheque, do you think?"
"What the devil!"
"Oh, come now! Don't go off your bat so easily. I'm only going to do you a service--"
"Damn your impudence! I want no services of you!"
"Oh, yes you do!" Lanyard insisted, unabashed--"or you will when you learn what a kind heart I've got. Now do be nice and stop protesting! You see, you've touched my heart. I'd no idea you were so passionate about that painting. If I had for one instant imagined you cared enough about it to burglarize my rooms ... But now that I do understand, my dear fellow, I wouldn't deny you for worlds; I make you a free present of it, at the price I paid--twenty thousand and one hundred guineas--exacting no bonus or commission whatever. You'll find blank cheques in the upper right-hand drawer of my desk there; fill in one to my order, and the Corot's yours."
For a moment longer the prince stared, hate and perplexity in equal measure tincturing his regard. Then slowly the look of doubt gave way to the ghost of a crafty smile.
What a blazing fool the fellow was (he thought) to accept a cheque on which payment could be stopped before banking hours in the morning--!
Such fatuity seemed incredible. Yet there it was, egregious, indisputable. Why not profit by it, turn it to his own advantage? To secure what he had sought, the letters concealed between the canvases, and turn them against Sofia, and to play this Lanyard for a fool, all at one stroke--the opportunity was too rich to be slighted.
He dissembled his exultation--or plumed himself on doing so.
"Very well," he mumbled, sulkily. "I'll draw the cheque."
"That's the right spirit!" Lanyard declared, and escorted him to the desk.
A knock sounded. Lanyard called: "Come in!" A sleepy manservant, half-dressed and warm from his bed, entered.
"You rang, sir?"
"Yes, Harris." Lanyard tossed him a sovereign. "Sorry to rout you out so late, but I need a cab. Whistle up a growler, will you?"
The man retired cheerfully, rewarded for many a night of broken slumber. Prince Victor got up from the desk and proffered Lanyard the cheque.
"I fancy," he said with a leer, "you'll find that all right."
Lanyard scrutinized the cheque minutely, nodded his satisfaction.
"Thanks ever so ... No, not a word!" He forbade inflexibly a wholly imaginary interposition on the part of Prince Victor. "You don't know how to thank me--do you? Then why try? I know I'm too good, but I really can't help it, it's my nature--and there you are! So what's the good of bickering about it?... Now where did you leave your coat and hat? On my bed, as you came in?"
He smiled charmingly and darted through the portieres, returning with the articles in question. "Do let me help you."
The prince struggled into the coat and grunted an acknowledgment of the service. Lanyard pressed the hat into his hand, picked up the canvas, replaced it in its frame, and tucked both under the princely arm.
Another knock: Harris returned.
"The four-wheeler is w'iting, sir."
"Thanks, Harris. Half a moment: I want a word with you. You see this gentleman?" Lanyard caught Victor's look of angry resentment and interrupted himself. "Don't forget yourself, monsieur le prince. Remember ..."
He patted significantly the pocket which held the revolver, and turned back to Harris.
"This gentleman," he said, consulting the signature to the cheque, "is Prince Victor Vassilyevski. Please remember him. You may have to bear witness against him in court."
"What insolence is this?" Victor demanded, hotly.
"Calm yourself, monsieur le prince." Lanyard repeated the warning gesture. "He is a nobleman of Russia, or says he is, and--strangely enough, Harris!--a burglar. I caught him burglarizing my rooms when I came home just now. You may judge from his appearance what difficulty I had in subduing him."
"'E do seem fair used up, sir," Harris admitted, eyeing Victor indignantly. "Would you wish me to call a bobby and give 'im in charge?"
"Thanks, no. Prince Victor and I have compromised. He doesn't relish going to jail, and I've no particular desire to send him there. But he does want what he broke in to steal--that painting you see under his arm--and I've agreed to sell it to him. Here's the cheque he has just given me. Providing payment is not stopped on it, Harris, you will hear no more of this incident. But if by any chance the cheque should come back from his bank--I may ask you to testify to what you have seen and heard here to-night."
"It is a lie!" Prince Victor shrilled. "You brought me in with you, assaulted me, blackmailed that cheque out of me! Nobody saw us--"
"Sorry," Lanyard cut in; "but it so happens, that the gentleman who has the rooms immediately above came in when I did, and can testify that I was alone. That's all, monsieur le prince. Your carriage waits."
Harris opened the door. Choking with rage, the prince shuffled out, Lanyard politely escorting him to the curb. There, with a foot lifted to enter the four-wheeler, Prince Victor turned, shaking an impassioned hand in Lanyard's face.
"You'll pay me for this!" he spluttered. "I'll square accounts with you, Lanyard, if I have to follow you to the gates of hell!"
"Better not," Lanyard warned him fairly, "if you do, I'll push you in ... Bon soir, monsieur le prince!"