If Sinners Entice Thee - William Le Queux - ebook

If Sinners Entice Thee ebook

William Le Queux

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Opis

Then it’s an entire mystery? „Yes, Phrida.” „But it’s astounding! It really seems so utterly impossible,” declared my well-beloved, amazed at what I had just related. „I’ve simply stated hard facts.” „But there’s been nothing about this affair in the papers.” „For certain reasons the authorities are not exactly anxious for any publicity. It is a very puzzling problem, and they do not care to own themselves baffled,” I replied.

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Liczba stron: 364

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Contents

I. ZERTHO

II. A BEGGAR ON HORSEBACK

III. "WE MUST NOT MARRY!"

IV. HAIRPINS

V. CAPTAIN BROOKER'S OBJECTION

VI. OUTSIDERS

VII. THE MISSING MARIETTE

VIII. THE PROMENADE DES ANGLAIS

IX. THE WAY OF TRANSGRESSORS

X. MASK AND DOMINO

XI. MONTE CARLO

XII. LIANE'S SECRET

XIII. LIP-SALVE

XIV. A WOMAN'S STORY

XV. HELD IN BONDAGE

XVI. THE GOLDEN HAND

XVII. THE HOUSE OF THE WICKED

XVIII. SINNED AGAINST

XIX. THE MINIATURE

XX. AT CROSS LANE

XXI. RED AND BLACK

XXII. CONCLUSION

I. ZERTHO.

“NO, Zertho. You forget that Liane is my daughter, the daughter of Brooker of the Guards, once an officer, and still, I hope, a gentleman.”

“Gentleman!” sneered the other with a curl of his lip.

Erle Brooker shrugged his shoulders, but did not reply.

“Yet many women would be eager enough to become Princess d’Auzac if they had the chance,” observed the tall, dark-bearded, handsome man, speaking English with a slight accent as he leaned easily against the edge of the table, and glanced around the shabby, cheaply-furnished little dining-room. Sallow-faced, dark-eyed, broad-shouldered, he was aged about forty–with full lips and long tapering hands, white as a woman’s.

“Both of us know the world, my dear fellow,” answered Captain Erle Brooker at last, standing astride before the fireplace in which a gaudy Japanese umbrella had been placed to hide its ugliness. “Surely the five years we spent together were sufficient to show us that there are women–and women?”

“Of course, as I expected,” the other cried cynically. “Now that you’re back again in England, buried in this sleepy country village, you are becoming sentimental. I suppose it is respectable to be so; but it’s hardly like you.”

“You’ve prospered. I’ve fallen upon evil days.”

“And you could have had similar luck if only you would have continued to run with me that snug little place in Nice, instead of showing the white feather,” he said.

“It was entirely against my grain to fleece those beardless boys. I’ll play fair, or not at all.”

“Sentiment again! It’s your curse, Brooker.”

“The speculation no doubt proved a veritable gold mine, as of course it must. But I had a second reason in dissolving our partnership.”

“Liane urged you?”

“Yes.”

“And you took her advice, the advice of a mere girl!” he laughed contemptuously.

“Luck is always with her,” the Captain answered. “She sat beside me and prompted me on the occasion of my last big coup at roulette.”

“A sort of sorceress, eh?”

Brooker smiled coldly, but again made no reply. “Well,” continued his companion. “Do you intend to accept my proposal?”

“Certainly not,” replied the luckless gamester. “I’ll never sacrifice my daughter’s happiness.”

“Rubbish!”

“I have already decided.”

Zertho was silent; his features became fierce and authoritative. His was an arrestive face, indicating rare, possibly prodigious, mental and also bodily activity, an activity that, unless curbed and restrained by carefully cultivated habits, might become distorted, and thus become injurious to himself as well as to others. Two rows of strong white teeth redeemed a large mouth from the commonplace, but those teeth were seldom seen–never, indeed, unless their owner laughed, and if smiles were rare, laughter still more rarely disturbed the steady composure of that saturnine countenance. Yet there was an individuality about the man which produced interest, though not always an agreeable interest, much less liking. He made an impression; he produced an effect upon the imagination that was not easily forgotten. Again, regarding the Captain keenly, he asked:

“Don’t you think I’m straight?”

“As straight as you ever were, Zertho,” the other answered ambiguously, with a light laugh. “But if you want a wife, surely you can fancy some other girl besides Liane. I’m afraid we know a little too much of each other to trust one another very far.”

There was another long silence. The golden sunset streamed in at the open window, which revealed an old-fashioned garden filled with fragrant roses, and a tiny lawn bounded by a hedgerow beyond. Through the garden ran a paved path to the white dusty road. The afternoon had been hot and drowsy. Upon the warm wind was borne in the sound of children at play in the village street of Stratfield Mortimer, while somewhere in the vicinity the shoe-smith’s hammer fell upon his anvil with musical clang. The house stood at the east end of the long straggling village, towards Reading, a small, old-fashioned cottage, picturesque in its ivy mantle, with deep mullions, diamond panes, and oaken doors. A year ago an old maiden lady, who had resided there for a quarter of a century, had died, and the village had been thrown into a state of commotion, as villages are wont to be, by the arrival of new comers–Captain Erle Brooker, his daughter Liane, and Nellie Bridson, her companion. The latter was daughter of Jack Bridson, a brother officer of Brooker’s. Left an orphan at nine years of age she had been brought up by the Captain, and throughout her whole life had been Liane’s inseparable friend. Soon, however, the village gossips found food for talk. The furniture they brought with them bore the distinct impress of having been purchased secondhand, the maid-of-all-work was a buxom Frenchwoman who bought stuff, for soups and salads, and the two girls habitually spoke French when together, in preference to English. Hence they were at once dubbed “fine, finnikin’ foreigners,” and regarded with suspicion by all the country folk from Beech Hill away to Silchester.

The thin-faced vicar made a formal call, as vicars will, but, as might be expected, received but a cold welcome from the ex-cavalry officer, and this fact spreading rapidly throughout the district, no one else ever crossed their threshold. This social ostracism annoyed Brooker, not for his own sake, but for that of the girls. The reason he had decided to live in the country in preference to London, was, first because it was cheaper, and secondly, because he had a vague idea that both girls would enter a pleasant and inexpensive circle where the dissipations would be mainly in the form of tea and tennis. In this, however, he and they had been sorely disappointed.

Zertho had spoken the truth. Stratfield Mortimer was indeed deadly dull after Ostend or the Riviera. He was getting already tired of posing as a half-pay officer, and speaking to nobody except the postmistress or the garrulous father of the local inn-keeper. Yet the one thing needful was money, and since he had renounced gambling, he had had scarcely sufficient to live from hand to mouth. Yet, although he had hardly a sou in his pocket, his imperturbable good humour never deserted him. His career had, indeed, been full of strange vicissitudes; of feast and fast, of long nights and heavy play, of huge stakes won and lost with smile or curse, of fair game and sharping, of fleecing youngsters and bluffing his elders in nearly every health-resort in Europe. Easy-going to a fault, he bore his fifty years merrily, with scarcely a grey hair in his head, and although his ruddy, well-shaven face bore no sign of anxiety it was a trifle blotchy, caused by high living and long nights of play, while twenty years of an existence on his wits, had so sharpened his intelligence that in his steel-grey eyes was a keen penetrating look that had long become habitual. As careless and indolent now as he had ever been, he nevertheless dressed just as carefully, walked as lightly, and held his head just as high as in the days of his prosperity when a smart cavalry officer, younger son of a well-known peer, he could draw a cheque for thirty thousand. When he reflected upon his present position, hampered by the two girls dependent upon him, he merely laughed a strange cynical laugh, the same that he had laughed across the roulette-table when he had flung down and lost his last louis.

“What’s your game, burying yourself in this abominable hole?” inquired his whilom partner, presently. “I called at the National Sporting Club as soon as I got to London, expecting to see something of you, but the hall-porter told me that you lived down in this Sleepy-Hollow, and never came to town. So I resolved to run down and look you up.”

“Can’t afford to live in London,” the Captain answered, rolling a cigarette carefully between his fingers, before lighting it.

“Hard up! yet you refuse my offer!” observed Zertho, laughing. “You’re an enigma, Brooker. Money would put you on your legs again, my dear fellow.”

“I don’t doubt it,” the other replied. “But I have reasons.”

Zertho d’Auzac knit his dark brows, glancing at the Captain with a look of quick suspicion.

“You have expectations for Liane–eh?”

No reply escaped Brooker’s lips. He was thinking deeply.

“Any other man wouldn’t make you such an offer,” the other continued, in a tone of contempt.

Instantly there was an angry glint in the Captain’s eyes.

“I tell you, Zertho, I’ll never let my daughter marry you. You, of all men, shall not have her–no, by Heaven! not for a hundred thousand pounds.”

The other’s face darkened in anger. But he turned away, giving vent to a short, harsh laugh, and with feigned good humour advanced towards the window, and whistling softly, took out his cigarette-case, a plain silver one, whereon his coronet and monogram were engraved.

At that moment two graceful, bright-faced girls entered the gate from the road, sauntering leisurely up the path towards the house. Dressed alike in dark well-made skirts, cool-looking blouses of cream crêpon and straw sailor hats with black bands, they walked together, the sound of their laughter ringing through the room. The taller of the pair was Liane Brooker, slim, with infinite grace, a face undeniably beautiful, a pair of clear grey eyes the depths of which seemed unfathomable, nose and mouth that denoted buoyancy of spirits and sincerity of heart, hair dressed neatly in the latest mode, and that easy swing about her carriage peculiar alone to Frenchwomen. Her warmth of Southern blood and large expressive eyes she inherited from her mother, who came from St Tropez in the Var, and her strange cosmopolitan education had already made her a thorough woman of the world. Her character was altogether a curiously complex one. Though fresh, bright and happy, she, the daughter of an adventurer, had seen a good deal of the seamy side of life, where the women were déclassée, and the men rogues and outsiders; yet, in fairness to her father, it must be admitted that, even in his most reckless moments, he had always exerted towards both girls keen solicitude. Her beauty was peerless. Hundreds of men had said so among themselves. Such a face as hers would have made a fortune on the stage; therefore it was little wonder that she should be desired as wife by Prince Zertho d’Auzac, the man who under the plain cognomen of Zertho d’Auzac was once a fellow blackleg with her father, and now a wealthy personage by reason of his inheritance of the great family estates in Luxembourg. Well he knew what a sensation her beauty would create in Berlin or St Petersburg, and with the object of obtaining her he had travelled to England. Pure and good, full of high thoughts and refined feeling, Liane Brooker existed amid strangely incongruous surroundings. She had been reared in the worst atmosphere of vice and temptation to be found in the whole of Europe, yet had passed through unscathed and uncorrupted.

Her companion was fair, with bright pink-and-white complexion, rosy, delicate cheeks, and merry blue eyes. Nelly was scarcely as handsome perhaps as Liane, yet hers was an almost perfect type of English beauty. Her hands were not quite so small or refined as her friend’s, and in contrast with the latter’s carriage hers was not quite so graceful, nor was her figure so supple; yet the mass of fluffy blond curls that peeped beneath her hat, straying across her brow, gave softness to her features, and her delicate pointed chin added a decided piquancy to a face that was uncommonly pretty and winning.

Both girls, catching sight at the same moment of Zertho’s heavy watch-chain at the window, muttered together in an undertone. That day the Prince had arrived unexpectedly to lunch, sat down to their meagre dish of cold mutton, as he had often done in the old days when funds had been low, and having indicated his desire to talk business alone with the Captain, they had gone out together to post a letter at the little grocery store at the opposite end of the village.

When they discovered him still there, both pulled wry faces. He had never been a favourite of either. Liane had always instinctively disliked this man, who was the scapegrace of a noble family. His cynical look and sly manner had caused her to distrust him, and it had been mainly on this account that her father had dissolved his partnership in the private gaming-house they had carried on during the previous winter in Nice, an institution remembered with regret by many a young man who had gone to the Riviera for health and pleasure, only to return ruined. Zertho was not entirely unconscious of Liane’s antipathy towards him; he well knew that without her father’s aid his cause must be foredoomed to failure. But he never on any single occasion acted in undue haste. It was his proud boast that if ever he set his heart upon doing a thing he could quietly possess his soul in patience, for years if necessary, till the right moment arrived when he could execute his plans with success. Judging from the light, pleasant greeting he gave both girls as they entered, it was the tactics of craft and cunning he now intended to follow.

He chaffed Liane upon becoming a village belle, whereupon she, quick at repartee, tossed her handsome head, her heart beating fast, almost tumultuously, as she answered:

“Better that than the old life, M’sieur.”

“Oh, so you, too, have settled and become puritanical!” he laughed. “You English, you are always utterly incomprehensible. Have you yet joined the Anti-Gambling League?”

“We are very happy here,” she replied, heedless of his taunt. “I have no desire to return to the Continent, to that old life of feast one day and fast the next.”

“Nor I,” chimed in Nellie, full of fun and vivacity. “This place is sometimes horribly dull, it’s true; but we always get our dinner, which we didn’t on many occasions when we were abroad. Look at our house! Surely this place, with its little English garden, is better than those dingy rooms on the third floor in the Rue Dalpozzo in Nice. Besides, the Captain never swears now.”

“Very soon he’ll become a teacher in the local Sunday School, I suppose,” sneered Zertho.

“I cannot understand your reason for coming here to jeer at our poverty,” Liane exclaimed angrily, drawing herself up quickly. “At least my father lives honestly.”

“I sincerely beg your pardon, and your father’s also, mademoiselle,” answered the Prince, bowing stiffly in foreign manner. “If my remarks have annoyed you I’m sure I will at once withdraw them with a thousand apologies. I had no intention, I assure you, of causing one instant’s pain. I was merely joking. It all seems so droll.”

“I know you well enough, Zertho, not to be annoyed at anything you may say,” the Captain interrupted, good-humouredly as always. “However, speak what you have to say to me alone, not before the girls.”

“The ladies will, I know, forgive me if I promise not to again offend,” the Prince said. His eager eyes scanned Liane with such intense anxiety that they seemed to burn in their sockets, yet mingled with this fiery admiration, there was a strange covered menace in their expression. Taking out his watch a second later he added, “But I’m late, I see. Ten minutes only to catch my train back to London, and I don’t know the way. Who’ll guide me to the station? You, Liane?”

“No,” answered her father. “Nelly shall go. I want Liane to deliver a message for me.”

Prince d’Auzac bit his lip. But next instant he laughed gaily and saying: “Then come along Nelly,” shook hands with Liane and her father, bade them “Au revoir” with a well-feigned bonhomie, and lounged out of the room.

Meanwhile, Nelly wheeled out her cycle, and announcing her intention of piloting their visitor to the station, and afterwards riding over to Burghfield village to make some purchase, mounted her machine and rode slowly on besides the Prince, chatting merrily.

As soon as they had left, Liane inquired of her father what she should do; but he told her briefly that it had been merely an excuse to prevent her going to the station, as he knew she disliked Zertho’s society.

“Yes, father,” she answered with a slight sigh, “I think him simply hateful. I’m convinced that he’s neither your friend, nor mine.”

Then glancing at the clock, she passed out of the house humming to herself as she walked slowly down the garden path, into the white dusty high road.

For a long time Brooker stood twirling his moustache, gazing aimlessly out into the crimson blaze of the dying day.

“I can’t think why Zertho should have taken this trouble to look me up again,” he murmured to himself. “I had hoped that he had cut me entirely, and believed that terrible incident was forgotten. The excuse about Liane is all very well. But I know him. He means mischief–he means mischief.”

And his face grew ashen pale as his eyes were lost in deep and serious contemplation.

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