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'B.S.'--if I'm not
sadly in error--was enough to convince any one that you needed a
friend's good offices?"

"So," she said softly, with glimmering eyes--"so for that you followed
me here, Mr. Sybarite!"

"I wish I might claim it. But it wouldn't be true. No--I didn't follow
you."

"Please," she begged, "don't mystify me--"

"I don't mean to. But to tell the truth, my own head is still awhirl
with all the chapter of accidents that brought me here. Since you
flew off with B.S., following afoot, I've traversed a vast deal of
adventure--to wind up here. If," he added, grinning, "this is the
wind-up. I've a creepy, crawly feeling that it isn't...."

"Miss Blessington," he pursued seriously, "if you have patience to
listen to what I've been through since we parted in Thirty-eighth
Street--?" Encouraged by her silence he went on: "I've broken the bank
at a gambling house; been held up for my winnings at the pistol's
point--but managed to keep them. I've been in a raid and escaped only
after committing felonious assault on two detectives. I then
burglarised a private residence, and saved the mistress of the house
from being murdered by her rascally husband--blundered thence to
the deadliest dive in New York--met and slanged mine ancient enemy,
the despoiler of my house--took part in a drunken brawl--saved my
infatuated young idiot of a cousin, Peter Kenny, from assassination--took
him home, borrowed his clothing, and impudently invited myself to this
party on the mere suspicion that 'Molly Lessing' and Marian Blessington
might be one and the same, after all!... And all, it appears, that I
might come at last to beg a favour of you."

"I can't think what it can be," breathed the girl, dumfounded.

"To forgive my unpardonable impertinence--"

"I've not been conscious of it."

"You'll recognise it immediately. I am about to transgress your
privacy with a question--two, in fact. Will you tell me, please, in
confidence, why you refused my cousin, Peter Kenny, when he asked you
to marry him?"

Colouring, she met his eyes honestly.

"Because--why, it was so utterly absurd! He's only a boy. Besides, I
don't care for him--that way."

"You care for some one else--'that way'?"

"Yes," said the girl softly, averting her face.

"Is it--Mr. Bayard Shaynon?"

"No," she replied after a perceptible pause.

"But you have promised to marry him?"

"I once made him that promise--yes."

"You mean to keep it?"

"I must."

"Why?"

"It was my father's wish."

"And yet--you don't like him!"

Looking steadily before her, the girl said tensely: "I loathe him."

"Then," cried P. Sybarite in a joyful voice, "I may tell you
something: you needn't marry him."

She turned startled eyes to his, incredulous.

"_Need_ not?"

"I should have said _can_ not--"

Through the loud hum of voices that, filling the room, had furnished a
cover for their conversation, sounded the opening bars of music for
the final dance.

The girl rose suddenly, eyes like stars aflame in a face of snow.

"He will be coming for me now," she said hurriedly. "But--if you mean
what you say--I must know--instantly--why you say it. How can we
manage to avoid him?"

"This way," said P. Sybarite, indicating the wide window nearby.

Through its draped opening a shallow balcony showed, half-screened by
palms whose softly stirring fronds, touched with artificial light,
shone a garish green against the sombre sky of night.

Immediately Marian Blessington slipped through the hangings and,
turning, beckoned P. Sybarite to follow.

"There's no one here," she announced in accents tremulous with
excitement, when he joined her. "Now--_now_ tell me what you mean!"

"One moment," he warned her gently, turning back to the window just as
it was darkened by another figure.

The man with the twisted mouth stood there, peering blindly into the
semi-obscurity.

"Marian...?" he called in a voice meant to be ingratiating.

"Well?" the girl demanded harshly.

"I thought I saw you," he commented blandly, advancing a pace and so
coming face to face with the bristling little Mephistophelean figure,
which he had endeavoured to ignore.

"My dance, I believe," he added a trace more brusquely, over the
little man's head.

"I must ask you to excuse me," said the girl coldly.

"You don't care to dance again to-night?"

"Thank you--no."

"Then I will give myself the pleasure of sitting it out with you."

"I'm afraid you'll have to excuse me, Bayard," she returned,
consistently inflexible.

He hesitated. "Do I understand you're ready for me to take you home?"

"You're to understand that I will neither dance nor sit out the dance
with you--and that I don't wish to be disturbed."

"Bless your heart!" P. Sybarite interjected privately.

The voice of the younger Shaynon broke with passion.

"This is--the limit!" he cried violently. "I've reached the end of my
endurance. Who's this creature you're with?"

"Is your memory so short?" P. Sybarite asked quietly. "Have you
forgotten the microbe?--the little guy who puts the point in
disappointment?"

"I've forgotten nothing, you--animal! Nor that you insulted my father
publicly only a few minutes ago, you--"

"That is something that takes a bit of doing, too!" affirmed P.
Sybarite with a nod.

"And I want to inform you, sir," Shaynon raged, "that you've gone too
far by much. I insist that you remove your mask and tell me your
name."

"And if I refuse?" said the little man coolly.

"If you refuse--or if you persist in this insolent attitude,
sir!--I--I'll--"

"_What?_ In the name of brevity, make up your mind and give it a name,
man!"

"I'll thrash you within an inch of your life--here and now!" Shaynon
blustered.

"One moment," P. Sybarite pleaded with a graceful gesture. "Before
committing yourself to this mad enterprise, would you mind telling me
exactly how you spell that word _inch_? With a capital _I_ and a final
_e_--by any chance?"




XVII

IN A BALCONY


Bewilderment and consternation, working in the man, first struck him
dumb, aghast, and witless, then found expression in an involuntary
gasp that was more than half of wondering fear, the remainder rage
slipping its leash entirely:

"_What?_"

He advanced a pace with threatening mien.

Overshadowed though he was, P. Sybarite stood his ground with no least
hint of dismay. To the contrary, he was seen to stroke his lips
discreetly as if to erase a smile.

"The word in question," he said with exasperating suavity, "is the
common one of four letters, to-wit, _inch_; as ordinarily spelled
denoting the unit of lineal measurement--the twelfth part of a foot;
but lend it a capital _I_ and an ultimate _e_--my good fellow!--and it
stands, I fear too patiently, for the standard of your blackguardism."

Speechless, the younger Shaynon hesitated, lifting an uncertain hand
to his throat, as if to relieve a sense of strangulation.

"Or what if I were to suggest--delicately--that you're within an Inche
of the end of your rope?" the little man pursued, grimly playful.
"Give you an Inche and--what will you take, eh?"

With an inarticulate cry, Shaynon's fist shot out as if to strike his
persecutor down; but in mid-air P. Sybarite's slim, strong fingers
closed round and inflexibly stayed his enemy's wrist, with barely
perceptible effort swinging it down and slewing the man off poise, so
that perforce he staggered back against the stone of the window's deep
embrasure.

"Behave!" P. Sybarite counselled evenly. "Remember where you are--in a
lady's presence. Do you want to go sprawling from the sole of my foot
into the presence of more than one--or over this railing, to the
sidewalk, and become food for inch-worms?"

Releasing Shaynon, he stepped back warily, anticipating nothing less
than an instant and disgraceful brawl.

"As for my mask," he said--"if it still annoys you--"

He jerked it off and away.

Escaping the balustrade, it caught a wandering air and drifted
indolently down through the darkness of the street, like an errant
petal plucked from some strange and sinister bloom of scarlet
violence.

"And if my face tells you nothing," he added hotly, "perhaps my name
will help. It's Sybarite. You may have heard it!"

As if from a blow, Shaynon's eyes winced. Breathing heavily, he
averted a face that took on the hue of parchment in the cold light
striking up from the electric globes that march Fifth Avenue. Then
quietly adjusting his crumpled cuff, he drew himself up.

"Marian," he said as soon as he had his voice under control, "since
you wish it, I'll wait for you in the lobby, downstairs. As--as for
you, sir--"

"Yes, I know," the little man interrupted wearily: "you'll 'deal with'
me later, 'at a time and a place more fitting.'...Well, I won't mind
the delay if you'll just trot along now, like a good dog--"

Unable longer to endure the lash of his mordacious wit, Shaynon turned
and left them alone on the balcony.

"I'm sorry," P. Sybarite told the girl in unfeigned contrition.
"Please forgive me. I've a vicious temper--the colour of my hair--and
I couldn't resist the temptation to make him squirm."

"If you only knew how I despised him," she said, "you wouldn't think
it necessary to excuse yourself--though I don't know yet what it's all
about."

"Simply, I happen to have the whip-hand of the Shaynon conscience,"
returned P. Sybarite; "I happened to know that Bayard is secretly the
husband of a woman notorious in New York under the name of Mrs.
Jefferson Inche."

"Is that true? Dare I believe--?"

Intimations of fears inexpressibly alleviated breathed in her cry.

"I believe it."

"On what grounds? Tell me!"

"The word of the lady herself, together with the evidence of his
confusion just now. What more do you need?"

Turning aside, the girl rested a hand upon the balustrade and gazed
blankly off through the night.

"But--I can't help thinking there must be some mistake--some terrible
mistake."

"If so, it is theirs--the Shaynons', father and son."

"But they've been bringing such pressure to bear to make me agree to
an earlier wedding day--!"

"Not even that shakes my belief in Mrs.



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