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Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance

Part 5 out of 5

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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

"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

"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

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

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."


"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

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

"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

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

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.



Into a space perhaps four feet in width from wall to wall and seven deep
from the front door to the foot of a cramped flight of crazy wooden stairs,
some ten people were crowded, Sofia and the maid Chou Nu in a knot of
excited men.

In the saffron glow of an ill-trimmed paraffin lamp smoking in a wall
bracket, desperate faces, yellow and brown and white, consulted one another
with rolling eyeballs and strange tongues clamorous. Sofia heard the broken
rustling of heavy respirations; she saw uncouth gesticulations carve the
shadows; her nostrils were revolted by effluvia of unclean bodies, garments
saturate with opium smoke and curious cookery, breaths sour with alcohol.

Two were busy at the door, under the direction of Prince Victor, setting
stout bars into iron sockets. When they had finished, Victor elbowed them
out of his way and thrust back the slide of a narrow horizontal peephole,
through which he reconnoitred.

The tall, thin body stiffened as he looked, and without turning he flung an
open hand behind him and snapped a demand in Chinese. Somebody slipped a
revolver into his palm. Levelling it he sent a volley crashing through the
peephole. Yells responded, and in the hush that fell upon the final shot a
noise of fugitive feet scraping and stumbling on cobbles. A bullet struck
the door a sounding thump and all but penetrated, raising a bump on the
inner face of its thick oaken panels; and Victor shut the slide and turned

Subservient silence saluted him. He spoke in Chinese, issuing (Sofia
gathered) instructions for the defense of the house. One by one the men
designated dropped out of the group about her. Three shuffled off into a
room adjoining the hallway. Two others ran briskly up the stairs. A sixth
Victor directed to stand by the barred door. His chauffeur and another
Chinaman he told off for his personal attendance.

The maid Chou Nu was left to shift for herself, and while Sofia could see
her she did not shift a finger from her pose of terror, flattened to the
wall. When Sofia came back that way, the girl had vanished, however. Nor
was she seen again alive.

Her arms held fast, Sofia was partly led and partly dragged down the hall,
Victor herding the group on past the staircase and into a bare room at the
back of the house, where a solitary lamp burning on a deal table discovered
for all other furnishing broken chairs, coils of tarred rope, a rack of
ponderous oars and boat-hooks, a display of shapeless oilskins and
sou'westers on pegs. The windows were boarded up from sills to lintels,
the air was close and dank with the stale flavour of foul tidal waters.

Here Victor took charge of Sofia, the chauffeur holding the lamp to light
the other Chinaman at his labours with a trap-door in the floor, a slab of
woodwork so massive that, when its iron bolts had been drawn, it needed
every whit of the man's strength to lift and throw it back upon its hinges;
and its crashing fall made all the timbers quake and groan.

Through the square opening thus discovered Sofia saw a ladder of several
slimy steps washed by black, oily waters that sucked and swirled sluggishly
round spiles green with weed and ooze.

Down these steps the Chinaman crept gingerly, but halfway paused with a
cry, then cringed back to the head of the ladder, yellow face blanched,
slant eyes piteous with fear, as he exhibited an end of stout mooring line
whose other end was made fast to a ring bolt in one of the joists.

With a smothered oath Victor snatched the rope's end from the trembling
hand and examined it closely. Even Sofia could see that it had been cleanly
severed by a knife.

Victor's countenance was ablaze as he dropped the rope. Before the tempest
of his wrath the Chinaman bent like a reed, with faint, protesting bleats
and feebly weaving hands.

But in full tide the tirade faltered, Victor seemed to forget his anger or
else to remind himself it was puerile in contrast with the mortal issues
that now confronted him.

He turned to Sofia eyes of cold fire in a wintry countenance.

"So," he pronounced, slowly, "it appears you are to have your way, after
all, and more speedily than either of us reckoned. You are to die, and so
am I, this day--you in my arms. Well, it is time, I daresay, when I permit
myself to be duped and overreached by police spies like your persevering
father and lover. Yes; I am ready to pay the price of my fatuity--but not
until they had paid me for their victory--and dearly. Come!"

He motioned to the Chinese to reclose and fasten the trap-door, and
grasping Sofia's wrist with cruel fingers hurried her back through the

Repeated breaks of pistol-fire guided them to the front room, a racket
echoed in diminished volume from the street.

In an atmosphere already thick with acrid fumes of smokeless powder two men
held the windows, firing through loopholes in iron-bound blinds of oak. At
their feet a third squatted, reloading for them as occasion required. As
Sofia and Victor entered one man dropped his weapon and, grunting, fell
back from his window to nurse a shattered hand. Releasing the girl without
another word, Victor caught up the pistol and took the vacant post.

Instantly, on peering out, he fired once, then again. Evidently missing
both shots, he settled to await a better target, eyes intent to the
loophole. In the course of the next few minutes he changed position but
once, when, after firing several more shots, he tossed the empty weapon to
the man on the floor and received a loaded one in exchange.

Seeing him thus employed, altogether forgetful, Sofia began to back toward
the hall, step by cautious step, keeping her attention fixed to Victor
throughout. But he seemed to be completely preoccupied with his
markmanship, and paid her no heed.

Nevertheless, when she at length found courage to swing and dart away
through the door, Victor flung three curt words to the fellow at his feet,
who grunted, rose, and glided from the room in close chase.

The guard at the front door was not so busy as Sofia had hoped to find him,
not too interested in the progress of siege operations outside to note her
approach and look round from his peephole with a menacing grin of welcome;
and his unmistakable readiness, as pistol in hand he took a single step
toward her, drove the girl back to the foot of the stairs.

Then the other came swiftly after her, and Sofia swung in panic and
stumbled up the steps. There were others up above, two to her certain
knowledge, possibly many more of Victor's creatures; but if only she could
find some sort of refuge in the uppermost fastnesses of the rookery,
perhaps ...

Like a shape of smoke wind-driven, she sped up the first flight, then the
second, only pausing at the head of the third and last flight to throw
hunted glances right, left, and behind her.

Overhead a skylight with dingy panes diffused a dull blue glimmer which
discovered a yawning door at her elbow, a pocket of black mystery beyond,
and on the uppermost steps of the staircase her patient yellow shadow, his
upturned eyes inscrutable but potentially revolting with their very
concealment of the intent behind them.

Impossible that a worse thing could await her beyond that dark

She crossed it in one stride, swung the door to, and set her shoulders
against it.

Outside she heard the shuffling footfalls pause. The knob rattled. But
instead of the inward thrust against which she stood braced, there came the
least of outward pulls, as if to make sure that the latch had caught; and
after a brief pause a key grated in the lock, was withdrawn, and the
slippered feet withdrew in turn.

When her lungs ceased to labour painfully, she took her courage in both
hands and began to explore, groping blindly through darkness, encountering
nothing till she blundered into a table which held a glass lamp for
paraffin oil, like those in use below.

Fumbling over the top of the table, she found matches, struck one, and set
its fire to the wick.

The flame waxed and grew steady in a crusted chimney, revealing a room with
a slant ceiling and two dormer windows, boarded; in one corner a cot-bed
with tumbled blankets, near this a low wooden stand, with a pipe, spirit
lamp, and other paraphernalia of an opium smoker--no chairs, not another
stick of furniture of any kind.

Removing the lamp, the girl set it on the floor, and pushed the table over
against the door. By not so long as half a minute would its reinforcement
delay Victor when he made up his mind to get in. But in such emergencies
the human kind is not impatient of the most futile expedients.

There was nothing more she could do. She stood still, listening. The rattle
of pistol fire three floors below continued in fits and starts, but the
sound of it was oddly unreal, resembling more stammering explosions of a
string of firecrackers than snaps of the whiplash of Death.

She tried one of the windows without encouragement, but at the other found
a board with a loose end, which she pried aside, till through begrimed
glass she could see a ghastly, weeping sky of daybreak and, by craning her
neck, peer down into the dark gully of the street.

At first she thought it empty; but presently her straining vision made out
two huddled shapes upon the farther sidewalk, close under the walls of a
public house whose sign she could just barely decipher: the Red Moon.

Then, about to draw back from the window, she saw five men, oddly
foreshortened figures from that lofty coign of view, leave the Red Moon by
one of its bar entrances, bearing between them a heavy beam of wood, and
with this improvised battering-ram aimed at the door to the besieged house,
charge awkwardly across the cobbles.

The house spat fire from door and windows, a withering blast. In the middle
of the street the beam was abandoned, three of its fool-hardy bearers took
to their heels, each shaping an individual course, while one lay still upon
the wet black stones, and another, apparently wounded in the legs, sought
pitifully to drag himself by his arms, inch by inch, out of the zone of
fire. But presently his efforts grew feeble, then he, too, lay stirless,
prone in the sluicing rain.

The girl shrank back from the window, hiding her eyes as if to blot out
that picture.

The light, that is to say the absence of it in true sense, the angle of
view, and the distance, all had conspired to prevent her from making sure
that neither her father nor Karslake were of those four whose broken bodies
cluttered the street. But the fear and uncertainty were maddening....

She wheeled suddenly toward the door: the ancient stairs were creaking
beneath a measured tread. She made an offer to add her weight to that of
the table, but checked and fell back immediately, seeing the folly of
sacrificing her strength, the wisdom of saving it to serve her when

The creaking ceased, the wards of the lock grated, the knob turned, the
door was thrust open--the table offering little hindrance if any. From the
threshold Victor eyed the girl with a twitching grin.

"The time is at hand," he announced with a parody of punctilio. "We have
beaten them off in the street, but they have found the tunnel from the
cellar of the Red Moon, and are attacking from the river besides. So, my
dear, it ends for us...."

In silence, shoulders to the wall farthest from the door, Sofia watched him
unwinking. The lamp at her feet painted the tensely poised young body and
bloodless face with quaint, stagey shadows.

Victor's glance ranged the cheerless room.

"I think you understand me," he said.

She might have been a waxwork dummy out of Madame Tussaud's.

A white blaze of madness transfigured Victor's countenance. He took one
step toward Sofia.

In movements so precisely coordinated that they seemed one and
instantaneous, the girl stooped, caught up the lamp, and threw it with all
her might. Victor ducked his head. The lamp sailed on, described a
descending curve through the open doorway into the well of the staircase,
struck, and exploded. In the clutches of the maniac, Sofia was aware of the
lurid glare, momentarily gaining strength, that filled the rectangle of the

In through this last, while iron hands tightened on her throat and
consciousness grew dark with closing shadows, a man's shape passed, then

The grip on her throat grew lax, the hands left it free. She reeled, but
somebody caught her up and bore her swiftly from the room, leaving two who
fought together like beasts on the floor, locked in each other's arms,
rolling and squirming, rearing and flopping....

The scorch of flames stung her cheek, but she forgot that when their broken
light made visible the features of Karslake above the arms wherein she lay

Turning aside from the staircase, Karslake bore her to the ladder leading
to the skylight, whose broken glass crunched beneath his heels at every

In the open air he pulled up for a moment's rest, but continued to hold
Sofia in his arms. The wind raved about them, buffeted them, tore their
breath away, rain pelted them like birdshot; but they clung to each other
and were unaware of reason for complaint.

Presently, however, Karslake remembered, and anxiously endeavoured to
disengage from these tenacious arms.

"Let me go, dearest," he muttered. "I must go back--I left your father to
take care of Victor, and--"

As if evoked by his very solicitude Lanyard emerged from the skylight
hatch, waved a hand in gay salute, then turned to stare down into the
flaming pit from which he had climbed.

After a little he fell back a pace. Then slowly, with the laboured
movements of exhaustion, Victor worked head and shoulders through the
opening and dragged himself out upon the roof.

On all fours he held in doubt, his head moving from side to side like the
head of a stricken beast, seeking his enemy with dazzled eyes. Then he made
Lanyard out and, pulling himself together for the supreme effort, launched
at his throat with the pounce of a great cat.

Lanyard met him halfway, caught him in the middle of his bound, wound wiry
arms round the man and held him helpless.

His voice rang clear above the crackle of flames:

"Victor! have you forgotten how you threatened one night, twenty years ago,
to follow me to the very gates of Hell, and what I promised you--that, if
you did, I'd push you inside? Or did you think I would forget?"

He cast the man from him, backward, down into the hungry maw of that

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