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Karlov, upon forcing his way past Kitty's barricade, stared at her doubtfully. This was a clever girl; she had proved her cleverness frequently. She might have some reason other than fear in keeping him out. So he put a fresh candle in the sconce and began to prowl. He pierced the attic windows with a ranging glance; no one was in the yard or on the Street. The dust on the windows had not been disturbed.
To Kitty the suspense was intolerable. At any moment Cutty might tap a query to her. How to warn him that all was not well? A scream would do it; but in that event when Cutty arrived there would be no Kitty Conover. Something that would sound unusual to Cutty and accidental to Karlov. She hit upon it. She seized a plank from her barricade, raised it to a perpendicular position, then flung it down violently. Would Cutty hear and comprehend that she was warning him? As a matter of fact, Cutty never heard the crash, for at that particular minute he was standing up to get the kinks out of his knees.
Karlov whirled on his heels, ran to Kitty, and snatched her wrist. "Why did you do that?"
Kitty remained mute. "Answer !" - with a cruel twist.
"You hurt!" she gasped. Anything to gain time. She tried to break away.
"Why did you do that?"
"I was going to thrust it through a window to attract attention. It was too heavy."
This explanation was within bounds of reason. It is possible that Karlov - who had merely come up with a fresh candle - would have departed but for a peculiarly grim burst of humour on the part of Fate.
Tap - tap - tap? inquired the unsuspecting man on the roof - exactly to Kitty like some innocent, inquisitive child embarrassing the family before company.
Karlov flung her aside roughly, stepped under the trap, and cupped an ear. He required no explanations from Kitty, who shrank to the wall and remained pinned there by terror. Karlov's intuition was keen. Men on the roof held but one significance. The house was surrounded by Federal agents. For a space he wavered between two desires, the political and the private vengeance.
A call down the stairs, and five minutes afterward there would be nothing on the spot but a jumble of smoking wood and brick. But not to see them die!
His subsequent acts, cold and methodical, fascinated Kitty. He took a step toward her. The scream died in her throat. But he did not go beyond that step. The picture of her terror decided his future actions. He would see them die, here, with the girl looking on. A full measure. Well enough he knew who were digging away the cement of the trap. What gave lodgment to this conviction he did not bother to analyze. The man he had not yet seen, who had balked him, now here, now there, from that first night; and who but the last of that branch of the hated house should be with him? To rend, batter, crush, kill! If he were bound for hell, to go there with the satisfaction of knowing that his private vengeance had been cancelled. The full reckoning for Anna's degradation: Stefani Gregor, broken and dying, and all the others dead!
He would shoot them as they dropped through the trap. Not to kill, but to maim, render helpless; then he would taunt them and grind his heels in their faces. Up there, the two he most hated of all living men!
First he restored Kitty's barricade - to keep assistance from entering before his work was completed. The butt of the first plank he pushed under the door knob. The other planks he laid flat, end to end, with the butt of the last snug against the brick chimney. The door would never give as a whole; it would have to be smashed in by axes. He then set the candle on the floor, backed by an up-ended soapbox. His enemies would drop into a pool of light, while they would not be able to see him at once. The girl would not matter. Her terror would hold her for some time. These manoeuvres completed, he answered the signal, sat down on another box and waited, reminding Kitty of some grotesque Mongolian idol.
Kitty saw the inevitable. Thereupon her terror ceased to bind her. As Cutty flung back the trap she would cry out a warning. Karlov might - and probably would - kill her. Her share in this night's work - her incredible folly - required full payment. Having decided to die with Cutty, all her courage returned. This is the normal result of any sublime resolve. But with the return of her courage she evolved another plan. She measured the distance between herself and Karlov, calculating there would be three strides. As Cutty dropped she would fling herself upon the madman. The act would at least give Cutty something like equal terms. What became of Kitty Conover thereafter was of no importance to the world.
Sounds. She became conscious of noises elsewhere in the house. The floor trembled. There came a creaking and snapping of wood, and she heard the trap fall. Karlov stood up, menacing, terrible. She saw where Cutty would drop, and now understood the cunning of the manoeuvre of placing the candle in front of the soapbox. Cutty would be an absolute mark for Karlov, protected by the shadow. She set herself, as a runner at the tape.
Karlov was not the type criminal, which when cornered, thinks only of personal safety. He was a political fanatic. All who opposed his beliefs must not be permitted to survive. There was a touch of Torquemada of the Inquisition in his cosmos. He could not kill directly; he had to torture first.
He knew by the ascending sounds that there would be no way out of this for him. To the American, Russia was an outlaw. He would be treated as a dangerous alien enemy and locked up. Boris Karlov should never live to eat his heart out behind bars.
Unique angle of thought, he mused. He wanted mud to trample them in, Russian mud. The same mud that had filled the mouth of Anna's destroyer.
He was, then, a formidable antagonist for any two strong men; let alone two one of whom was rather spent, the other dizzy with pain, holding himself together by the last shreds of his will. They dropped through the trap, Cutty in front of the candle, Hawksley a little to one side. The elder man landed squarely, but Hawksley fell backward. He crawled to his feet, swaying drunkenly. For a space he was not sure of the reality of the scene.... Torches and hobnailed boots!
"So!" said Karlov.
The torturer must talk; he must explain the immediate future to double the agony. He could have maimed them both, then trampled them to death, but he had to inform them of the fact. He pointed the automatic at Cutty because he considered this man the more dangerous of the two. He at once saw that the other was a negligible factor. He spoke slowly.
"And the girl shall witness your agonies," he concluded.
Cutty, bereft of invention, could only stare. Death! He had faced it many times, but always with a chance. There was none here, and the absolute knowledge paralyzed him.
Had Cutty been alone Kitty would have rushed at the madman; but the sight of Hawksley robbed her of all mobility. His unexpected appearance was to her the Book of Revelation. The blind alley she had entered and reentered so many times and so futilely crumbled.... Johnny Two-Hawks!
As for Hawksley, he knew he had but little time. The floor was billowing; he saw many candles where he knew there was only one. He was losing his senses. There remained but a single idea - to do the old thoroughbred one favour for the many. Scorning death - perhaps inviting it - he lunged headlong at Karlov's knees.
This reckless challenge to death was so unexpected that Karlov had no time to aim. He fired at chance. The bullet nipped the left shoulder of Hawksley's coat and shattered the laths of the partition between the attic and the servant's quarters. Under the impact of the human catapult Karlov staggered back, desperately striving to maintain his balance. He succeeded because Hawksley's senses left him in the instant he struck Karlov's knees. Still, the episode was a respite for Cutty, who dashed at Karlov before the latter could set himself or raise the smoking automatic.
Kitty then witnessed - dimly - a primordial, titanic conflict which haunted her dreams for many nights to come. They were no longer men, but animals; the tiger giving combat to the gorilla, one striking the quick, terrible blows of the tiger, the other seeking always to come to grips.
The floor answered under the step and rush. Rare athletes, these two; big men who were light on their feet. Kitty could see their faces occasionally and the flash of their bare hands, but of their bodies little or nothing. Nor could she tell how the struggle was going. Indeed until the idea came that they might be trampling Johnny Two-Hawks there was no coherent thought in her head, only broken things.
She ran to the soapbox and kicked it aside. She saw Hawksley on his face, motionless. At least they should not trample his dead body. She caught hold of his arms and dragged him to the wall - to discover that she was sobbing, sobs of rage and despair that tore at her breast horribly and clogged her throat. She was a woman and could not help; she could not help Cutty! She was a woman, and all she could do was to drag aside the lifeless body of the man who had given Cutty his chance!
She knelt, turning Hawksley over on his back. There was a slight gash on one grimy cheek, possibly caused by contact with the latchets of Karlov's boots. She raised the handsome head, pressed it to her bosom, and began to sway her body from side to side. Tumult. The Federal agents were throwing their bodies against the door repeatedly. In the semi-darkness Cutty fought for his life. But Kitty neither heard nor saw. The world had suddenly contracted; there was only this beautiful head in her arms; beyond and about, nothing.
Cutty felt his strength ebbing; soon he would not be able to wrench himself loose from those terrible arms. He knew all the phases of the fighting game. Chivalry and fair play had no part in this contest. Clear light, to observe what his blows were accomplishing; a minute or two of clear light! Half the time his blows glanced. The next time those arms wound about him, that would be the end. He was growing tired, winded; he had not gone into battle fresh. He knew that many of his blows had gone home. Any ordinary man would have dropped; but Karlov came on again and again.
And all the while Karlov was not fighting Cutty; he was endeavouring to remove him. He was an obstacle. What Karlov wanted was that head the girl was holding in her arms; to grind his heel into it. Had Cutty stepped aside Karlov would have rushed for the other man.
"Kitty, the door, the door!" Cutty shouted in despair, taking a terrible kick on the thigh. "The door!"
Kitty did not stir.
A panel in the door crushed in. The sole of a boot appeared and vanished. Then an arm reached in, groping, touched the plank propped under the door knob, wrenched and tugged until it fell. Immediately the attic became filled with men. It was time. Karlov had Cutty in his arms.
This turn in the affair roused Kitty. Presently she saw men in a snarl, heaving and billowing, with a sudden subsidence. The snarl untangled itself; men began to step back and produce pocketlamps. Kitty saw Cutty's face, battered and bloody, appear and disappear in a flash. She saw Karlov's, too, as he was pulled to his feet, his hands manacled. Again she saw Cutty. With shaking hand he was trying to attach the loose end of his collar to the button. The absurdity of it!
"Take him away. But don't be rough with him. He's only a poor devil of a madman," said Cutty.
Karlov turned and calmly spat into Cutty's face. A dozen fists were raised, but Cutty intervened.
"No! Let him be. Just take him away and lock him up. He's a rough road to travel. And hustle a comfortable car for me to go home in. Not a word to the newspapers. This isn't a popular raid."
As soon as the attic was cleared Cutty limped over to Molly Conover's daughter. The poor innocent! The way she was holding that head was an illumination. With a reassuring smile - an effort, for his lips were puffed and burning - he knelt and put his hand on Hawksley's heart.
"Done in, Kitty; that's all."
"He isn't dead?"
"Lord, no! He had nine lives, this chap, and only one of 'em missing to date. But I had no right to let him come. I thought he was fairly fit, but he wasn't. Saved my life, though. Kitty, your Johnny Two-Hawks is a real man; how real I did not know until to-night. He has earned his American citizenship. Fights like he fiddles - on all four strings. All our troubles are at an end; so buck up."
"Alive? He is alive?"
The wild joy in her voice! "Yes, ma'am; and we two can regularly thank him for being alive also. That lunge gave me my chance. He's only stunned. Perhaps he'll need a nurse again. Anyhow, he'll be coming round in a minute or two. I'll wager the first thing he does is to smile. I should."
Suddenly Kitty grew strangely shy. She became conscious of her anomalous position. She had promised to marry Cutty, promised herself that she would be his true wife - and here she was, holding another man's head to her heart as if it were the most precious head in all the world. She could not put that head upon the floor at once; that would be a confession of her embarrassment; and yet she could not continue to hold Hawksley while Cutty eyed her with semi-humorous concern. Cutty was merciful, however. "Let me hold him while you make a pillow out of your coat." After he had laid Hawksley's head on the coat he said: "He'll come about quicker this way. We've had some excitement, haven't we?"
"I don't want any more, Cutty; never any more. I've been a silly, romantic fool!"
"Not silly, only glorious."
"Your poor face!"
"Banged up? Well, honestly, it feels as it looks, Kitty, this chap was going to give himself up in exchange for you. Not a word of protest, not a question. All he said was: 'I am ready.' That's why I'm always going to be on his side."
"He did that - for me?"
"For you. Did it never occur to you that you're the sort folks always want to do things for if you'll let them?"
"God bless you, Cutty!"
"He's always blessing me, Kitty. He blessed me with your mother's friendship, now yours. Kitty, I'm going to jilt you."
"Jilt me?" - her heart leaping.
"Yes, ma'am. We can't go through with that mummery. We aren't built that way. I'll figure it out in some other fashion. But marriage is a sacred contract; and this farce would have left a scar on your honest mind. You'd have to tell some man. Your kind can't go through life without being loved. Would he understand? I wonder. He'll be human or you wouldn't fall in love with him; and always he'll be pondering and bedevilling himself with queer ideas - because he'll be human. Of course there's a loophole - you can sue me for breach of promise."
"Please, Cutty; don't laugh! You're one of those men they call Greathearts. And now I'm going to tell you something. It wasn't going to be a farce. I intended to become your true wife, Cutty, make you as happy as I could."
Cutty patted her hand and got up. Lord, how bruised and sore his old body was! ... His true wife! She might have been his if he had not missed that train. But for this hour, hot with life, she might never have discovered that she loved Hawksley. His true wife! Ah, she would have been all of that - Molly's girl!
"Will you mind waiting here until I see where old Stefani Gregor is?"
"No," answered Kitty, dreamily.
Cutty limped to the door. Outside he leaned against the partition. Done in, body and soul. Always opening the gates of paradise for somebody else... His true wife! Slowly he descended the stairs.
Alone, Kitty smoothed back the dank hair from Hawksley's brow, which she kissed. Benediction and good-bye.
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