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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
street....

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.



XXII

THE SEVEN BRASS HINGES


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
back.

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
hallway.

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.



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