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Panting and frantic, the
girl fell back, paused, renewed her grasp upon herself, gazed momentarily
in contempt on that dashed and quaking figure, then swiftly swooped down to
retrieve the picture, and madly pelted toward the door.

In an instant, Victor was after her. His clutching fingers barely missed
her shoulder but caught a flying end of the veil that swathed her throat
and head. With finger-tips touching the door-knob Sofia was checked and
twitched back so violently that she was all but thrown off her feet.

She tried desperately to regain her balance, but the pressure round her
throat, tightening, bade fair to suffocate her; and reeling, while her
hands tore ineffectually at the folds of the veil, she was drawn back and
back, and tripped, falling half on, half off the table.

Already her vision was darkening, her lungs were labouring painfully, her
head throbbed with the revolt of strangulated arteries as if sledge hammers
were seeking to smash through her skull.

Through closing shadows she saw that savage mask which hovered over her,
moping and mowing, as Victor twisted and drew ever more tight the murderous
bindings round her throat.

A groping hand encountered something on the table, a lump of metal, cold
and heavy. She seized and dashed it brutally into that hateful face, saw
his head jerk back and heard him grunt with pain, and struck again,
blindly, with all her might.

Instantly the pressure upon her throat was eased. She heard a groan, a
fall ...



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 divorcée--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 Thérèse 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 Thérèse 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 Thérèse 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 Thérèse 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.

"Monsieur Lanyard!"

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.



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