The Woman of Gratz was very human. But to Bartholomew she seemed a thing of ice, passionless, just a beautiful woman who sat stiffly in a straight-backed chair, regarding him with calm, questioning eyes. They were in her flat in Bloomsbury on the evening of the day following his interview with Menshikoff. Her coolness chilled him, and strangled the very passion of his speech, and what he said came haltingly, and sounded lame and unconvincing.
“But why?” that was all she asked. Thrice he had paused appealingly, hoping for encouragement, but her answer had been the same.
He spoke incoherently, wildly. The fear of the Four on the one hand and the dread of the Reds on the other, were getting on his nerves.
He saw a chance of escape from both, freedom from the four-walled control of these organizations, and before him the wide expanse of a trackless wilderness, where the vengeance of neither could follow.
Eden in sight—he pleaded for an Eve.
The very thought of the freedom ahead overcame the depression her coldness laid upon him.
“Maria—don’t you see? You are wasting your life doing this man’s work—this assassin’s work. You were made for love and for me!” He caught her hand and she did not withdraw it, but the palm he pressed was unresponsive and the curious searching eyes did not leave his face.
“But why?” she asked again. “And how? I do not love you, I shall never love any man—and there is the work for you and the work for me. There is the cause and your oath. Your comrades——”
He started up and flung away her hand. For a moment he stood over her, glowering down at her upturned face.
“Work!—Comrades!” he grated with a laugh. “D’ye think I’m going to risk my precious neck any further?”
He did not hear the door open softly, nor the footfall of the two men who entered.
“Are you blind as well as mad?” he went on brutally. “Don’t you see that the thing is finished? The Four Just Men have us all in the hollow of their hands! They’ve got us like that!” He snapped his fingers contemptuously. “They know everything—even to the attempt that is to be made on the Prince of the Escorials! Ha! that startles you—yet it is true, every word I say—they know.”
“If it is true,” she said slowly, “there has been a traitor.”
He waved his hand carelessly, admitting and dismissing the possibility.
“There are traitors always—when the pay for treachery is good,” he said easily; “but traitor or no traitor, London is too hot for you and me.”
“For you,” corrected the girl.
“And for you,” he said savagely; he snatched up her hand again. “You’ve got to come—do you hear—you beautiful snow woman—you’ve got to come with me!”
He drew her to him, but a hand grasped his arm, and he turned to meet the face of Starque, livid and puckered, and creased with silent anger.
Starque was prepared for the knife or for the pistol, but not for the blow that caught him full in the face and sent him staggering back to the wall.
He recovered himself quickly, and motioned to François, who turned and locked the door.
“Stand away from that door!”
Starque, breathing quickly, wiped the blood from his face with the back of his hand.
Wait, he said in his guttural tone; “before you go there is a matter to be settled.”
“At any time, in any place,” said the Englishman.
“It is not the blow,” breathed Starque, “that is nothing; it is the matter of the Inner Council—traitor!”
He thrust out his chin as he hissed the last word.
Bartholomew had very little time to decide upon his course of action. He was unarmed; but he knew instinctively that there would be no shooting. It was the knife he had to fear and he grasped the back of a chair. If he could keep them at a distance he might reach the door and get safely away. He cursed his folly that he had delayed making the coup that would have so effectively laid Starque by the heels.
“You have betrayed us to the Four Just Men—but that we might never have known, for the Four have no servants to talk. But you sold us to the Embassy—and that was your undoing.”
He had recovered his calm.
“We sent you a message telling you of our intention to destroy the Bank of England. The Bank was warned—by the Four. We told you of the attempt to be made on the Grondovitch—the captain was warned by the Embassy—you are doubly convicted. No such attempts were ever contemplated. They were invented for your particular benefit, and you fell into the trap.”
Bartholomew took a fresh grip of the chair. He realized vaguely that he was face to face with death, and for one second he was seized with a wild panic.
“Last night,” Starque went on deliberately, “the Council met secretly, and your name was read from the list.”
The Englishman”s mouth went dry.
“And the Council said with one voice….” Starque paused to look at the Woman of Gratz. Imperturbable she stood with folded hands, neither approving nor dissenting. Momentarily Bartholomew”s eyes too sought her face—but he saw neither pity nor condemnation. It was the face of Fate, inexorable, unreasoning, inevitable.
“Death was the sentence,” said Starque in so soft a voice that the man facing him could scarcely hear him. “Death….”
With a lightning motion he raised his hand and threw the knife….
“Damn you …” whimpered the stricken man, and his helpless hands groped at his chest … then he slid to his knees and François struck precisely…
Again Starque looked at the woman.
“It is the law,” he stammered, but she made no reply.
Only her eyes sought the huddled figure on the floor and her lips twitched.
“We must get away from here,” whispered Starque.
He was shaking a little, for this was new work for him. The forces of jealousy and fear for his personal safety had caused him to take upon himself the office that on other occasions he left to lesser men.
“Who lives in the opposite flat?”
He had peeped through the door.
“A student—a chemist,” she replied in her calm, level tone.
Starque flushed, for her voice sounded almost strident coming after the whispered conference between his companion and himself.
“Softly, softly,” he urged.
He stepped gingerly back to where the body was lying, made a circuit about it, and pulled down the blind. He could not have explained the instinct that made him do this. Then he came back to the door and gently turned the handle, beckoning the others. It seemed to him that the handle turned itself, or that somebody on the other side was turning at the same time.
That this was so he discovered, for the door suddenly jerked open, sending him staggering backward, and a man stood on the threshold.
With the drawn blind, the room was in semi-darkness, and the intruder, standing motionless in the doorway, could see nothing but the shadowy figures of the inmates.
As he waited he was joined by three others, and he spoke rapidly in a language that Starque, himself no mean linguist, could not understand. One of his companions opened the door of the student”s room and brought out something that he handed to the watcher on the threshold.
Then the man entered the room alone and closed the door behind him, not quite close, for he had trailed what looked like a thick cord behind him and this prevented the shutting of the door.
Starque found his voice.
“What do you want?” he asked, quietly.
“I want Bartholomew, who came into this room half an hour ago,” replied the intruder.
“He has left,” said Starque, and in the darkness he felt at his feet for the dead man—he needed the knife.
“That is a lie,” said the stranger coolly; “neither he nor you, Rudolph Starque, nor the Woman of Gratz, nor the murderer François has left.”
“Monsieur knows too much,” said Starque evenly, and lurched forward, swinging his knife.
“Keep your distance,” warned the stranger, and at that moment Starque and the silent François sprang forward and struck….
The exquisite agony of the shock that met them paralysed them for the moment. The sprayed threads of the “live” wire the man held before him like a shield jerked the knife from Starque”s hands, and he heard Francois groan as he fell.
“You are foolish,” said the voice again, “and you, madame, do not move, I beg—tell me what has become of Bartholomew.”
A silence, then:
“He is dead,” said the Woman of Gratz.
She heard the man move.
“He was a traitor—so we killed him,” she continued calmly enough. “What will you do—you, who stand as a self-constituted judge?”
He made no reply, and she heard the soft rustle of his fingers on the wall.
“You are seeking the light—as we all seek it,” she said, unmoved, and she switched on the light.
He saw her standing near the body of the man she had lured to his death, scornful, defiant, and strangely aloof from the sordidness of the tragedy she had all but instigated.
She saw a tanned man of thirty-five, with deep, grave eyes, a broad forehead, and a trim, pointed beard. A man of inches, with strength in every line of his fine figure, and strength in every feature of his face.
She stared at him insolently, uncaring, but before the mastery of his eyes, she lowered her lids.
It seemed the other actors in the drama were so inconsiderate as to be unworthy of notice. The dead man in his grotesque posture, the unconscious murderer at his feet, and Starque, dazed and stunned, crouching by the wall.
“Here is the light you want,” she went on, “not so easily do we of the Red Hundred illuminate the gloom of despair and oppression——”
“Spare me your speech-making,” said Manfred coldly, and the scorn in his voice struck her like the lash of a whip. For the first time the colour came to her face and her eyes lit with anger.
“You have bad counsellors,” Manfred went on, “you, who talk of autocrats and corrupt kingship—what are you but a puppet living on flattery? It is your whim that you should be regarded as a conspirator—a Corday. And when you are acclaimed Princess Revolutionary, it is satisfactory to your vanity—more satisfactory than your title to be hailed Princess Beautiful.”
He chose his words nicely.
“Yet men—such men as these,” he indicated Starque, “think only of the Princess Beautiful—not the lady of the Inspiring Platitudes; not the frail, heroic Patriot of the Flaming Words, but the warm flesh and blood woman, lovable and adorable.”
He spoke in German, and there were finer shades of meaning in his speech than can be exactly or literally translated. He spoke of a purpose, evenly and without emotion. He intended to wound, and wound deeply, and he knew he had succeeded.
He saw the rapid rise and fall of her bosom as she strove to regain control of herself, and he saw, too, the blood on her lips where her sharp white teeth bit.
“I shall know you again,” she said with an intensity of passion that made her voice tremble. “I shall look for you and find you, and be it the Princess Revolutionary or the Princess Beautiful who brings about your punishment, be sure I shall strike hard.”
“That is as it may be,” he said calmly; “for the moment you are powerless, if I willed it you would be powerless forever—for the moment it is my wish that you should go.”
He stepped aside and opened the door.
The magnetism in his eyes drew her forward.
“There is your road,” he said when she hesitated. She was helpless; the humiliation was maddening.
“My friends——” she began, as she hesitated on the threshold.
“Your friends will meet the fate that one day awaits you,” he said calmly.
White with passion, she turned on him.
“You!—threaten me! a brave man indeed to threaten a woman!”
She could have bitten her tongue at the slip she made. She as a woman had appealed to him as a man! This was the greatest humiliation of all.
There is your road,” he said again, courteously but uncompromisingly.
She was scarcely a foot from him, and she turned and faced him, her lips parted and the black devil of hate in her eyes.
“One day—one day,” she gasped, “I will repay you!”
Then she turned quickly and disappeared through the door, and Manfred waited until her footsteps had died away before he stooped to the half-conscious Starque and jerked him to his feet.