Chapter VII.
 

For a short time the sounds of cruel exultation came over from Flanagan's; then all was still.

"Sal's put her mark on you," said Norah, looking steadily into Pinky's face, and laughing in a cold, half-amused way.

Pinky raised her hand to her swollen cheek. "Does it look very bad?" she asked.

"Spoils your beauty some."

"Will it get black?"

"Shouldn't wonder. But what can't be helped, can't. You'll mind your own business next time, and keep out of Sal's way. She's dangerous. What's the matter?"

"Got a sort of chill," replied the girl, who from nervous reaction was beginning to shiver.

"Oh, want something to warm you up." Norah brought out a bottle of spirits. Pinky poured a glass nearly half full, added some water, and then drank off the fiery mixture.

"None of your common stuff," said Norah, with a smile, as Pinky smacked her lips. The girl drew her handkerchief from her pocket, and as she did so a piece of paper dropped on the floor.

"Oh, there it is!" she exclaimed, light flashing into her face. "Going to make a splendid hit. Just look at them rows."

Norah threw an indifferent glance on the paper.

"They're lucky, every one of them," said Pinky. "Going to put half a dollar on each row--sure to make a hit."

The queen gave one of her peculiar shrugs.

"Going to break Sam McFaddon," continued Pinky, her spirits rising under the influence of Norah's treat.

"Soft heads don't often break hard rocks," returned the woman, with a covert sneer.

"That's an insult!" cried Pinky, on whom the liquor she had just taken was beginning to have a marked effect, "and I won't stand an insult from you or anybody else."

"Well, I wouldn't if I was you," returned Norah, coolly. A hard expression began settling about her mouth.

"And I don't mean to. I'm as good as you are, any day!"

"You may be a great deal better, for all I care," answered Norah. "Only take my advice, and keep a civil tongue in your head." There was a threatening undertone in the woman's voice. She drew her tall person more erect, and shook herself like a wild beast aroused from inaction.

Pinky was too blind to see the change that had come so suddenly. A stinging retort fell from her lips. But the words had scarcely died on the air ere she found herself in the grip of vice-like hands. Resistance was of no more avail than if she had been a child. In what seemed but a moment of time she was pushed back through the door and dropped upon the pavement. Then the door shut, and she was alone on the outside--no, not alone, for scores of the denizens who huddle together in that foul region were abroad, and gathered around her as quickly as flies about a heap of offal, curious, insolent and aggressive. As she arose to her feet she found herself hemmed in by a jeering crowd.

"Ho! it's Pinky Swett!" cried a girl, pressing toward her. "Hi, Pinky! what's the matter? What's up?"

"Norah pitched her out! I saw it!" screamed a boy, one of the young thieves that harbored in the quarter.

"It's a lie!" Pinky answered back as she confronted the crowd.

At this moment another boy, who had come up behind Pinky, gave her dress so violent a jerk that she fell over backward on the pavement, striking her head on a stone and cutting it badly. She lay there, unable to rise, the crowd laughing with as much enjoyment as if witnessing a dog-fight.

"Give her a dose of mud!" shouted one of the boys; and almost as soon as the words were out of his mouth her face was covered with a paste of filthy dirt from the gutter. This, instead of exciting pity, only gave a keener zest to the show. The street rang with shouts and peals of merriment, bringing a new and larger crowd to see the fun. With them came one or two policemen.

Seeing that it was only a drunken woman, they pushed back the crowd and raised her to her feet. As they did so the blood streamed from the back of her head and stained her dress to the waist. She was taken to the nearest station-house.

At eleven o'clock on the next morning, punctual to the minute, came Mrs. Dinneford to the little third-story room in which she had met Mrs. Bray. She repeated her rap at the door before it was opened, and noticed that a key was turned in the lock.

"You have seen the woman?" she said as she took an offered seat, coming at once to the object of her visit.

"Yes."

"Well?"

"I gave her the money."

"Well?"

Mrs. Bray shook her head:

"Afraid I can't do much with her."

"Why?" an anxious expression coming into Mrs. Dinneford's face.

"These people suspect everybody; there is no honor nor truth in them, and they judge every one by themselves. She half accused me of getting a larger amount of money from you, and putting her off with the paltry sum of thirty dollars."

Mrs. Bray looked exceedingly hurt and annoyed.

"Threatened," she went on, "to go to you herself--didn't want any go-betweens nor brokers. I expected to hear you say that she'd been at your house this morning."

"Good Gracious! no!" Mrs. Dinneford's face was almost distorted with alarm.

"It's the way with all these people," coolly remarked Mrs. Bray. "You're never safe with them."

"Did you hint at her leaving the city?--going to New Orleans, for instance?"

"Oh dear, no! She isn't to be managed in that way--is deeper and more set than I thought. The fact is, Mrs. Dinneford"--and Mrs. Bray lowered her voice and looked shocked and mysterious--"I'm beginning to suspect her as being connected with a gang."

"With a gang? What kind of a gang?" Mrs. Dinneford turned slightly pale.

"A gang of thieves. She isn't the right thing; I found that out long ago. You remember what I said when you gave her the child. I told you that she was not a good woman, and that it was a cruel thing to put a helpless, new-born baby into her hands."

"Never mind about that." Mrs. Dinneford waved her hand impatiently. "The baby's out of her hands, so far as that is concerned. A gang of thieves!"

"Yes, I'm 'most sure of it. Goes to people's houses on one excuse and another, and finds out where the silver is kept and how to get in. You don't know half the wickedness that's going on. So you see it's no use trying to get her away."

Mrs. Bray was watching the face of her visitor with covert scrutiny, gauging, as she did so, by its weak alarms, the measure of her power over her.

"Dreadful! dreadful!" ejaculated Mrs. Dinneford, with dismay.

"It's bad enough," said Mrs. Bray, "and I don't see the end of it. She's got you in her power, and no mistake, and she isn't one of the kind to give up so splendid an advantage. I'm only surprised that she's kept away so long."

"What's to be done about it?" asked Mrs. Dinneford, her alarm and distress increasing.

"Ah! that's more than I can tell," coolly returned Mrs. Bray. "One thing is certain--I don't want to have anything more to do with her. It isn't safe to let her come here. You'll have to manage her yourself."

"No, no, no, Mrs. Bray! You mustn't desert me!" answered Mrs. Dinneford, her face growing pallid with fear. "Money is of no account. I'll pay 'most anything, reasonable or unreasonable, to have her kept away."

And she drew out her pocket-book while speaking. At this moment there came two distinct raps on the door. It had been locked after Mrs. Dinneford's entrance. Mrs. Bray started and changed countenance, turning her face quickly from observation. But she was self-possessed in an instant. Rising, she said in a whisper,

"Go silently into the next room, and remain perfectly still. I believe that's the woman now. I'll manage her as best I can."

Almost as quick as thought, Mrs. Dinneford vanished through a door that led into an adjoining room, and closing it noiselessly, turned a key that stood in the lock, then sat down, trembling with nervous alarm. The room in which she found herself was small, and overlooked the street; it was scantily furnished as a bed-room. In one corner, partly hid by a curtain that hung from a hoop fastened to the wall, was an old wooden chest, such as are used by sailors. Under the bed, and pushed as far back as possible, was another of the same kind. The air of the room was close, and she noticed the stale smell of a cigar.

A murmur of voices from the room she had left so hastily soon reached her ears; but though she listened intently, standing close to the door, she was not able to distinguish a word. Once or twice she was sure that she heard the sound of a man's voice. It was nearly a quarter of an hour by her watch--it seemed two hours--before Mrs. Bray's visitor or visitors retired; then there came a light rap on the door. She opened it, and stood face to face again with the dark-eyed little woman.

"You kept me here a long time," said Mrs. Dinneford, with ill-concealed impatience.

"No longer than I could help," replied Mrs. Bray. "Affairs of this kind are not settled in a minute."

"Then it was that miserable woman?"

"Yes."

"Well, what did you make out of her?"

"Not much; she's too greedy. The taste of blood has sharpened her appetite."

"What does she want?"

"She wants two hundred dollars paid into her hand to-day, and says that if the money isn't here by sundown, you'll have a visit from her in less than an hour afterward."

"Will that be the end of it?"

A sinister smile curved Mrs. Bray's lips slightly.

"More than I can say," she answered.

"Two hundred dollars?"

"Yes. She put the amount higher, but I told her she'd better not go for too big a slice or she might get nothing--that there was such a thing as setting the police after her. She laughed at this in such a wicked, sneering way that I felt my flesh creep, and said she knew the police, and some of their masters, too, and wasn't afraid of them. She's a dreadful woman;" and Mrs. Bray shivered in a very natural manner.

"If I thought this would be the last of it!" said Mrs. Dinneford as she moved about the room in a disturbed way, and with an anxious look on her face.

"Perhaps," suggested her companion, "it would be best for you to grapple with this thing at the outset--to take our vampire by the throat and strangle her at once. The knife is the only remedy for some forms of disease. If left to grow and prey upon the body, they gradually suck away its life and destroy it in the end."

"If I only knew how to do it," replied Mrs. Dinneford. "If I could only get her in my power, I'd make short works of her." Her eyes flashed with a cruel light.

"It might be done."

"How?"

"Mr. Dinneford knows the chief of police."

The light went out of Mrs. Dinneford's eyes:

"It can't be done in that way, and you know it as well as I do."

Mrs. Dinneford turned upon Mrs. Bray sharply, and with a gleam of suspicion in her face.

"I don't know any other way, unless you go to the chief yourself," replied Mrs. Bray, coolly. "There is no protection in cases like this except through the law. Without police interference, you are wholly in this woman's power."

Mrs. Dinneford grew very pale.

"It is always dangerous," went on Mrs. Bray, "to have anything to do with people of this class. A woman who for hire will take a new-born baby and sell it to a beggar-woman will not stop at anything. It is very unfortunate that you are mixed up with her."

"I'm indebted to you for the trouble," replied. Mrs. Dinneford, with considerable asperity of manner. "You ought to have known something about the woman before employing her in a delicate affair of this kind."

"Saints don't hire themselves to put away new-born babies," retorted Mrs. Bray, with an ugly gurgle in her throat. "I told you at the time that she was a bad woman, and have not forgotten your answer."

"What did I answer?"

"That she might be the devil for all you cared!"

"You are mistaken."

"No; I repeat your very words. They surprised and shocked me at the time, and I have not forgotten them. People who deal with the devil usually have the devil to pay; and your case, it seems, is not to be an exception."

Mrs. Bray had assumed an air of entire equality with her visitor.

A long silence followed, during which Mrs. Dinneford walked the floor with the quick, restless motions of a caged animal.

"How long do you think two hundred dollars will satisfy her?" she asked, at length, pausing and turning to her companion.

"It is impossible for me to say," was answered; "not long, unless you can manage to frighten her off; you must threaten hard."

Another silence followed.

"I did not expect to be called on for so large a sum," Mrs. Dinneford said at length, in a husky voice, taking out her pocket-book as she spoke. "I have only a hundred dollars with me. Give her that, and put her off until to-morrow."

"I will do the best I can with her," replied Mrs. Bray, reaching out her hand for the money, "but I think it will be safer for you to let me have the balance to-day. She will, most likely, take it into her head that I have received the whole sum from you, and think I am trying to cheat her. In that case she will be as good as her word, and come down on you."

"Mrs. Bray!" exclaimed Mrs. Dinneford, suspicion blazing from her eyes. "Mrs. Bray!"--and she turned upon her and caught her by the arms with a fierce grip--"as I live, you are deceiving me. There is no woman but yourself. You are the vampire!"

She held the unresisting little woman in her vigorous grasp for some moments, gazing at her in stern and angry accusation.

Mrs. Bray stood very quit and with scarcely a change of countenance until this outburst of passion had subsided. She was still holding the money she had taken from Mrs. Dinneford. As the latter released her she extended her hand, saying, in a low resolute voice, in which not the faintest thrill of anger could be detected,

"Take your money." She waited for a moment, and then let the little roll of bank-bills fall at Mrs. Dinneford's feet and turned away.

Mrs. Dinneford had made a mistake, and she saw it--saw that she was now more than ever in the power of this woman, whether she was true or false. If false, more fatally in her power.

At this dead-lock in the interview between these women there came a diversion. The sound of feet was heard on the stairs, then a hurrying along the narrow passage; a hand was on the door, but the key had been prudently turned on the inside.

With a quick motion, Mrs. Bray waved her hand toward the adjoining chamber. Mrs. Dinneford did not hesitate, but glided in noiselessly, shutting and locking the door behind her.

"Pinky Swett!" exclaimed Mrs. Bray, in a low voice, putting her finger to her lips, as she admitted her visitor, at the same time giving a warning glance toward the other room. Eyeing her from head to foot, she added, "Well, you are an object!"

Pinky had drawn aside a close veil, exhibiting a bruised and swollen face. A dark band lay under one of her eyes, and there was a cut with red, angry margins on the cheek.

"You are an object," repeated Mrs. Bray as Pinky moved forward into the room.

"Well, I am, and no mistake," answered Pinky, with a light laugh. She had been drinking enough to overcome the depression and discomfort of her feelings consequent on the hard usage she had received and a night in one of the city station-houses. "Who's in there?"

Mrs. Bray's finger went again to her lips. "No matter," was replied. "You must go away until the coast is clear. Come back in half an hour."

And she hurried Pinky out of the door, locking it as the girl retired. When Mrs. Dinneford came out of the room into which he had gone so hastily, the roll of bank-notes still lay upon the floor. Mrs. Bray had prudently slipped them into her pocket before admitting Pinky, but as soon as she was alone had thrown them down again.

The face of Mrs. Dinneford was pale, and exhibited no ordinary signs of discomfiture and anxiety.

"Who was that?" she asked.

"A friend," replied Mrs. Bray, in a cold, self-possessed manner.

A few moments of embarrassed silence followed. Mrs. Bray crossed the room, touching with her foot the bank-bills, as if they were of no account to her.

"I am half beside myself," said Mrs. Dinneford.

Mrs. Bray made no response, did not even turn toward her visitor.

"I spoke hastily."

"A vampire!" Mrs. Bray swept round upon her fiercely. "A blood-sucker!" and she ground her teeth in well-feigned passion.

Mrs. Dinneford sat down trembling.

"Take your money and go," said Mrs. Bray, and she lifted the bills from the floor and tossed them into her visitor's lap. "I am served right. It was evil work, and good never comes of evil."

But Mrs. Dinneford did not stir. To go away at enmity with this woman was, so far as she could see, to meet exposure and unutterable disgrace. Anything but that.

"I shall leave this money, trusting still to your good offices," she said, at length, rising. Her manner was much subdued. "I spoke hastily, in a sort of blind desperation. We should not weigh too carefully the words that are extorted by pain or fear. In less than an hour I will send you a hundred dollars more."

Mrs. Dinneford laid the bank-bills on a table, and then moved to the door, but she dared not leave in this uncertainty. Looking back, she said, with an appealing humility of voice and manner foreign to her character,

"Let us be friends still, Mrs. Bray; we shall gain nothing by being enemies. I can serve you, and you can serve me. My suspicions were ill founded. I felt wild and desperate, and hardly knew what I was saying."

She stood anxiously regarding the little dark-eyed woman, who did not respond by word or movement.

Taking her hand from the door she was about opening, Mrs. Dinneford came back into the room, and stood close to Mrs. Bray:

"Shall I send you the money?"

"You can do as you please," was replied, with chilling indifference.

"Are you implacable?"

"I am not used to suspicion, much less denunciation and assault. A vampire! Do you know what that means?"

"It meant, as used by me, only madness. I did not know what I was saying. It was a cry of pain--nothing more. Consider how I stand, how much I have at stake, in what a wretched affair I have become involved. It is all new to me, and I am bewildered and at fault. Do not desert me in this crisis. I must have some one to stand between me and this woman; and if you step aside, to whom can I go?"

Mrs. Bray relented just a little. Mrs. Dinneford pleaded and humiliated herself, and drifted farther into the toils of her confederate.

"You are not rich, Mrs. Bray," she said, at parting, "independent in spirit as you are. I shall add a hundred dollars for your own use; and if ever you stand in need, you will know where to find an unfailing friend."

Mrs. Bray put up her hands, and replied, "No, no, no; don't think of such a thing. I am not mercenary. I never serve a friend for money."

But Mrs. Dinneford heard the "yes" which flushed into the voice that said "no." She was not deceived.

A rapid change passed over Mrs. Bray on the instant her visitor left the room. Her first act was to lock the door; her next, to take the roll of bank-bills from the table and put it into her pocket. Over her face a gleam of evil satisfaction had swept.

"Got you all right now, my lady!" fell with a chuckle from her lips. "A vampire, ha!" The chuckle was changed for a kind of hiss. "Well, have it so. There is rich blood in your veins, and it will be no fault of mine if I do not fatten upon it. As for pity, you shall have as much of it as you gave to that helpless baby. Saints don't work in this kind of business, and I'm not a saint."

And she chuckled and hissed and muttered to herself, with many signs of evil satisfaction.