IN the French quarter, west of Sixth Avenue and well down Twenty-sixth Street, stands a little hotel and restaurant unknown to fame as La belle Nivernaise. It is dingy, gray with age and smoke, and the aroma of many savory dinners floats perceptibly on the air. One huge window fronts the street, adorned by a flowery balcony without, and clean white curtains within, through which may be divined, rather than seen, dozens of small tables, each bearing its white cloth, its half-yard of bread, its tapering celery-glass of graccinni (in deference to the Italian habitués), and wonderfully folded napkins foliating from portly and unbreakable goblets. The narrow steps are steep and few that lead to the door on the left of the window, and above the hospitable entrance swings a weather-beaten sign,—a rain-washed damsel, pointing with a grimacing smile to a much dimmed tricolor. The hallway within is not spacious, and the stair leading to the floor above is inclined at the angle of Jacob s-ladder, and covered by a frayed ingrain carpet of uncertain color. On the second story, a hallway, dark as Erebus, gives access to the rooms of the locataires. There are four such rooms on the side and one at the end, offering the same general aspect—dark papers of the fashion of thirty years ago, walnut furniture, iron bedsteads, each boasting two fat eider-down pillows, covered with turkey red and further decorated with squares of Nottingham lace. The black-framed mirrors that hang above each wash-stand present a varied assortment of discolorations. To contemplate one's self therein is by no means a tribute to vanity; on the contrary, it is conducive to serious thoughts upon the precariousness of human existence, so green, distorted, and scarred is the reflection that meets the eye. The gas-brackets, protruding aggressively, are so many dark and shapely hands of bronze, emerging from frilled bronze cuffs, and uplifting tiny torches of the same metal, upon which bulge engraved globes of a "hunted deer pattern." The accommodations of La belle Nivernaise are not palatial.
In the second room to the right, at the top of the landing, a new locataire had just moved in. As Gustave, the waiter, told Hortense, "la dame au douze" was of a reticence of a silenceness not to be believed! But she had insisted upon knowing who her neighbors were—the "monsieur du quatorze" and "les petites sceurs du dix!"
"She had pulled at the communicating doors, acted very strangely, and given him a piece of fifty cents for carrying up her hand-bags—and they of a lightness!"
"Was the monsieur du quatorze in his room?" Hortense inquired.
But Gustave did not know—he thought not. A bang at the hall door brought them both to the curtain at the end of the passage. Ah, to be sure, the gentleman himself—a nice gentleman, but with habits extraordinary. For the little he used his room he might as well have no room at all. For days at a time he never showed up. A "commis traveller," of course. But he was not gay and happy as are the voyageurs, and then, besides, he had no sample-trunk.
Gustave chucked Hortense under her dimpled chin with a superior air. "And dost thou not know, grosse bête, that he is agent for automobiles?—in a sample-trunk!—Violà! that was droll!"
"Tiens!" cried Hortense, "there is the patronesse who rings!" and she flew to the summons of Madame Guisard, formerly la belle Nivernaise, now grown fat beyond belief, red-faced and choleric.
The "monsieur du quatorze" tramped on up-stairs, unlocked his door, entered, and slipped the bolt. Then he threw his soft hat upon the bed, slipped angrily out of his overcoat, flung himself upon the frowzy satin rocker, and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, his chin in his hands. His face was white and pinched, and his eyes discolored and miserable, for the "gentleman of travel with the habits extraordinary" had received bad news. In his hand he clutched a crumpled paper, which he presently spread out upon his knee, and read:
"Both of them nabbed—jig's up. Have skipped. Lay low!"
This communication had been pressed into his hand by a sharp-faced, ragged street arab, who had met him, quite by accident, as he came out of "Brodie's." Valdeck smoothed the paper absently, and continued in deep meditation. The bubble had burst. It was his first real setback, and he took it hard. But he was not the man to lie down under misfortune. His ready brain had comprehended the full extent of the catastrophe. At once he recognized the impossibility of snatching his chestnuts from the fire, and turned to his plans for the future. Thank goodness, only half the New Orleans swag was in the despatch-box; the rest was already safely conveyed to London, where he could look it up on his arrival, and the Amsterdam firm stood ready to relieve him of his precious stones at a fairly decent figure. The question was now how, when, and where to strike for the other side. He turned over the possibilities. If his schemes had not so disastrously failed at the last moment, he would have quietly embarked for the English capital and lost himself at once. He knew himself to be watched, thanks to the unforeseen raking up of the Breton episode; but he had outwitted keener hunters before, and had little or no fear of the police. Captain Brady was his friend, and if the worst came to the worst, he could depend on timely warning. Obviously, this time, though, the straightaway run would be useless. The Auray affair would be pressed half-heartedly, but to complicate matters, they were on to the Orleans trouble, and rewards were out for that—rewards sufficient to make the chase remunerative. There remained, then, as next choice, old Bordenten and the Bonnie Dundee bound for Glasgow. Bordenten, who believed him a whiskey smuggler, and heartily approved of the trade—a hint dropped to the effect that the authorities "wanted" him, would be taken by the captain as a suggestion that a stowaway would be no trouble. Valdeck saw himself quietly secreted, with a bottle of "white-horse" and a stock of back-number magazines, while the old sea-dog defied the law and indignantly defended the honor of his native land. Like a prudent general, he had saved this particular avenue of escape for the day of need, and until now had bestowed favors on the grisly old salt without ever asking for a return.
The only trouble was the ten days that must be passed before the Bonnie Dundee was scheduled. If Bordenten would only take him on board now he reflected, but recalled at once that the gay Lothario was in Massachusetts visiting his American family.
Valdeck got up, rammed his hands deep in his pockets, and went to the window. He looked out upon the brick ugliness of an extension to the house next door, and a tumbled vista of back yards, separated by high white fences, upon which prowled and cuddled numberless cats of all colors and sizes. A network of clothes-lines cobwebbed the grassless gardens, and from them depended every sort and condition of underwear, from the rainbow-hued, belaced, China silk creations of the lady opposite, to the red flannels and numberless pinafores of No. 347's second-floor back. The hunted man took in the common-place surroundings at a glance, shrugged his shoulders, and, turning his back, began a slow pacing up and down his dingy cell.
Better stay where he was, at least for the present. He had his landlady by the scruff, so to speak. There were some spots in the career of the erstwhile belle Nivemaise,—but, no matter,—she was devoted. Until recently no suspicion had been attached to him, and since the horizon had so visibly darkened, he had taken good care to stick by his charming little rooms in East Fortieth Street, and not to jeopardize his present retreat. Decidedly this abode was as good as any, at least for a day or two, when he could quietly lose himself in the labyrinth of the Polish Jew quarter. Thank goodness, there was always this disguise open to him. For his mother had been a Pole, and a beauty in her day. The memory of Judith Grosifa was still green in the police and polite annals of Vienna.
Having decided upon his mode of procedure, he flung himself upon the bed and turned his mind to other details of his trouble. What of Eugenia, the faithful? He twisted uneasily. Eugenia must have brought this down on her own head, he surmised. But how on earth had they connected her—a sudden light dawned on him, and he almost sat up. Of course—she was wanted for the Auray affair. Damn the business! The police had stumbled on the New Orleans stuff in their hunt for the accessory to the burglary in the hotel.
A wave of hate inundated him. That Claudel girl!—why should she have appeared now, at the most crucial point of his career, to turn his triumph to defeat—to break the wonderful thread of luck that had led him from fortune to fortune, till he had wealth, power, and honesty within his grasp? The superstitious element in his nature awoke and nudged him. There was something uncanny in all this—there was a sequence—Fate! Was it vengeance of the saints, for whom the countess's jewels had been intended? What else could have made him so foolish, so blind?
A clear vision of Victoria rose before his eyes— strong, vigorous, fearless. Into his brain her level, piercing look seemed to penetrate. He felt the atmosphere of vitality, power, and satirical humor, that made up her personality and charm—felt it, and realized with a sudden shock, that there, of all the world, was the woman he might have loved—loved mightily and forever!
This sudden turn of his emotions startled his whole being; undreamt of, in his fight for survival, her splendid truth and physical energy had dominated his imagination. In spite of the trick he had played her, in spite of the mud he had thrown upon her, in spite of the fact that she it was who had set the machinery in motion that now threatened to crush him—he loved her!—yes, loved her!—and a savage, evil joy possessed him that her name had been coupled with his—her fair name brought close in contact with the soil and stain of his own! Victoria! the proud, the self-willed, the defiant!—at least the thread of their lives had met and crossed, and woven an episode.
He spoke the name aloud, rejoicing in its sound, that suggested trumpets and pageant.
Then his mood relaxed and he lay back, the vision of the girl's strong face still before him. Her proud look was scornful and aloof. She seemed to thrust him back, back away from her. She was Vengeance Victrix! Justice outraged! A thrill as of impending danger electrified him.
He got up, and opening the door, called for Gustave in no pleasant tones.
A prompt "Oui, monsieur, tout de suite, monsieur!" came from below, and the waiter sprang up the steps and stood, all attention.
"Tell madame to send me up a bottle of whiskey," he ordered, shortly, and stepped back.
Gustave obeyed with alacrity, and presently returned with the bottle and a corkscrew. "A siphon?—no? A soda?—no?—bien!" and he skipped lightly from the lowering presence.
Valdeck poured out a full three fingers and tossed it down. He was not a drinking man, and he gagged at the sharp, burning taste. But his nerve had been taxed to the uttermost, and the stiff dose barely restored his mental equilibrium.
The early twilight had already settled down. The room was mysterious with dusk. Outside, the world was blue and strange, with squares of yellow gaslight marking the illuminated windows. On the fences, sleep-sodden cats stretched and yawned, whisked a velvet paw over a drowsy face and started out upon the evening's wanderings. The clothes-lines sagged no longer above their wind-inflated loads. Now and again a jangling piano sent a shower of ill-tuned waltz-notes on the air, and somewhere in the distance a melancholy cornet wailed forth the familiar melody of the "Trompeter von Säkkingen," "Behüt, dich Gott, es war zu schön gewesen, behüt, dich Gott, es hat nicht sollen sein."
He shivered and turned once more to the whiskey-bottle.
Twilight settled into night, while smells of dinner cookery pervaded everything; sage, onions, a whiff of garlic swamped in a nameless vague sauce piquant aroma. From the restaurant on the first floor, noise and tumult arose. A busy clatter of dishes, knives and forks, as the first courses of the "fifty-cent-dinner,—wine-included," were being served. Then, animal appetites satisfied, a babel of tongues arose—louder and louder as the California claret began to take effect. Valdeck could see it all as plainly as if he were occupying one of the little white-clothed tables now being wine-spotted by the hungry horde,—fat, paunchy men, with small, round features and pig eyes, who wielded dexterous knives, gesticulating, enthusiastic, with clothes-brush pompadours and bristly moustaches; elderly and overflowing matrons, with black lace bonnets and lavish breastpins, chaperoning slim slips of daughters of marriageable age, mildly and fearfully regarding a fiancé of papa's choosing—always a young man with a crumpled white waistcoat and a black satin tie, designed to imitate a "cravat," and adorned by a gilt safety-pin. Sometimes he was blond, sometimes brunette, but the uniform was invariable. There, too, the inevitable tenth-rate viveur, with pimpled face, gray hair, and a lean lecherousness, accompanied by his tenth-rate concomitant—a girl with painted cheeks, and bandeau tresses surmounted by a flaring velvet hat of faded plumage—the usual habitués of the French quarter restaurant café. Later there would be petits verres and dominoes until eleven. Valdeck knew it all to the sickening point. He could not help contrasting it with the surroundings and life in which he had so lately figured. Brought up as he had been, in the lavish, careless luxury of his beautiful but nomadic mother, he had from earliest childhood consorted with men of fashion and women of that nameless world, where good manners are by no means unusual, and where luxury is a necessity. Later, as he grew old enough to be observing, and also a living remark upon the age of the lovely Judith Grosifa, he had been sent away to school in England, till the woeful day when the master learned of his antecedents and turned him out. Then two years at a Lycée in Paris, till at fourteen he found himself an orphan, with but little to his name, and that name uncertain. He had known it all in his life of three and thirty years—good and ill, poverty and riches, ambitions, hopes and fears, hardly a rung in life's ladder but at some time had supported him. He was used to changes, but somehow his gorge rose at his surroundings, and he longed desperately to be on a level with that distant image of all good—Victoria.
The thought of Philippa and her green boudoir intruded. He smiled half in amusement, half in scorn, and wondered at himself for choosing so poor a tool. What was it, unless remorseless Fate, that made him select that shallow, prating fool? Did he not know the vanity of woman well enough by this time to comprehend that she must be envied by some one before she can enjoy any possession—most of all a secret? He might have known that Philippa would talk too much, would overdo the part assigned to her, would trip and tangle him in his own net.
Truly it was Fate. And Fate had not yet done with him. He felt it again, that terrible haunting presence of danger. He shook it from him, and once more his mind went back to Victoria. He would put her right before he disappeared from her world and life.
He lit the gas, took out his pencil, and on the back of an envelope wrote:
He read it over. He was rather proud of his English. He could write it fluently even if his accent in speaking betrayed the foreigner.
A tap at the door startled him. Hastily folding the scrap of paper, he thrust it in his pocket, and went to the door.
"Who's there?" he demanded, sharply.
"Gustave. Does not monsieur desire dinner?"
Valdeck hesitated. "Yes," he decided. "Bring me something here—anything."
The servant knocked at the adjoining room.
"Does madame desire dinner?"
"Yes," answered a woman's voice. "Some toast and coffee."
"Bien, madame," and Gustave's heavy tread announced his descent into the region of edibles.
"So," considered Valdeck, "the room next door is occupied. It is the first time. The voice is educated. Let us see our neighbor."
He cautiously slipped to the keyhole, and, stooping, tried to reconnoitre. No use, the key-hole was closed by something, possibly the key. At this time everything and everybody boded danger until otherwise proven. He listened attentively for any sound, however slight, that might betray the age, nature, or occupation of the woman next door. All was silent.
Presently the waiter returned, knocked, and was admitted. He could hear the soft swish of a silk petticoat as its owner moved toward the door. But there was no response to Gustave's voluble comments. Then the door closed again, and the knocking was repeated, this time at his own room. He opened to the summons and watched the officious little Frenchman as he set down the tray.
"Number 12 was taken, then," Valdeck remarked, "and who might the lady be?"
"Oh, elderly, elderly," Gustave commented, as if to allay any hopes on the part of Number 14. "A woman at least of fifty, and of a silentness, not to say abruptness. Would it be believed, she arrived with only two hand-bags, and appeared not at all to care what she spent. Had it been, now, the little sisters of Number 10, one might understand, but this white-haired woman—and in mourning, and of a deepness!—truly she wore as much crêpe as the funeral pomps—"
"What's her name?" inquired Valdeck, impatiently.
"Oh, a Madame Duval. Very ordinary name—from Marseilles—very ordinary place. Would monsieur have cognac with his coffee?—no?—Would monsieur have the obligeance to put the tray outside the door when finished?—a thousand thanks," and Gustave pounded his way down-stairs once more.
Valdeck, left alone, dismissed the thought of his neighbor, as he took a long drink from the now half-emptied bottle. His ears were ringing and his oppression and anxiety lifted a little. He ate with more relish than he had expected, and pushing back his chair, lighted a cigarette. Gradually the world receded, the blue rings of smoke spread and hung gently in the air, his brain was tranced in a not unpleasant numbness. He was still conscious that he was menaced in some way, but he no longer clung to details. Only the face of Victoria, haloed in cigarette smoke, looked vividly down on him. He stretched himself, and yawned. The liquor drowsed through his veins. He was very, very tired, and glad to forget his troubles. He disapproved of drinking, particularly at crucial moments. It was a very pernicious habit—but—after all—when one's thoughts were all disagreeable, why not muddle them?
The noise had ceased down-stairs. No longer the clink of china, nor the wrangling of argumentative voices, no longer the cheerful shout of Gustave, or Hortense, down the dumb-waiter, "Deux bœuf a la mode, trois haricots, une demi-tasse." He fumbled for his watch, and glanced at the time. Half-past ten. Stumblingly he rose, and made his way to the window, threw up the sash, and gazed uncertainly out. Across the way silhouettes came and went upon the drawn-down shades; further on he saw the blurred outline of the lady of the amazing lingerie. The stars overhead shone with a palpitating, uneven light. But, oh, how good was the fresh night air upon his face. He glanced once more at the bed. It was inviting with its red eider-down pillows—he would give up and go to sleep. He undressed recklessly, throwing his garments, or leaving them where they dropped, secured his door, took a final swig of whiskey, and after turning off the gas, tumbled into bed.
The night wore on. The last patron was turned out, the last bolt fastened. Madame Guisard had removed all the pins in her edifice of hair and lace. Gustave had neatly plaited the napkins for the next day's tables, and Hortense, candle in hand, had yawned her way to her little attic cubby-hole.
The outer world, too, had gone to rest. Only the cats now crawled and fought along the gutters and on the narrow fence-tops. At intervals the bells of the little French church rang out the hour, which the Skye terrier of the lady opposite heralded with a shrill howl. Even the distant buzz of the elevated was stilled.
Valdeck slept heavily. The stroke of two still hung vibrating in the air. when the communicating door between 12 and 14 opened slowly.The light burned brightly in the woman's room and showed her dark form sharply. In her hand she carried a ring and skeleton keys. She paused
"THE LIGHT BURNED BRIGHTLY IN THE WOMAN'S ROOM AND SHOWED HER DARK FORM SHARPLY."
On the bureau lay her opened hand-bag, and upon the marble table-top, sole ornament of the room, stood a silver figure of St. Anne. The woman advanced to the statue, knelt with fervent devotion, crossing herself over and over, muttering and questioning. Suddenly she arose and stood listening, nodding her head as if in acquiescence to directions given. A deeper fire glowed in her eyes. Catching up the silver figure, she kissed its foot passionately, and then turned to her hand-bag. From it she took a cloth and a small bottle, smiling wisely all the while. Stealthily she crept into the adjoining room, made her way to the bed, and stood over the unconscious sleeper.
Valdeck slept on, his usual acute senses drugged into stupidity.
She leaned over him long, as if to make sure.
"Yes," she murmured, "that is the man! He is the one who was pointed out to me—he is the one I have followed, and the good St. Anne says I am right."
Once more she nodded gravely, then, with swift, mechanical movements, she inundated the cloth, and clapped it over the upturned face. There was a short struggle, a gasp, and the sleeper passed into the blinding, buzzing unconsciousness of chloroform.
Deliberately the woman went about her work. She shut down the open window carefully, then, drawing the blind, she lighted the gas. Coldly, with no wavering now, she closed the transom and stuffed the crack beneath the door with the overcoat, pushing its folds close, that no air might penetrate. There remained only her own door. Valdeck's silk handkerchief and muffler were upon the table. Taking both, she laid them lengthwise about the wooden door in such fashion that in shutting the door the tiny crack would be sealed.
A moan from the bed brought her quickly over. She bent above Valdeck for a moment, lifted the cloth, and contemplated the handsome face with a look of inhuman satisfaction. Again she saturated the bandage, laying it back almost tenderly. The bottle itself she put down upon the pillow. Raising her hand, she deliberately turned out the gas, and waited a moment before turning it on in full.
The room slowly filled with poisonous vapor. She stood, till her brain was dizzy, watching the form upon the bed. At last, as if tearing herself away from some entrancing spectacle, she turned to her own room, carefully shutting and locking the door. The last avenue of ventilation was closed.
The mad countess sat down to listen—and wait.