Chapter XXII. The Strangle-Hold




Less than a month later Rita was in a state of desperation again. Kazmah's prices had soared above anything that he had hitherto extorted. Her bank account, as usual, was greatly overdrawn, and creditors of all kinds were beginning to press for payment. Then, crowning catastrophe, Monte Irvin, for the first time during their married life, began to take an interest in Rita's reckless expenditure. By a combination of adverse circumstances, she, the wife of one of the wealthiest aldermen of the City of London, awakened to the fact that literally she had no money.

She pawned as much of her jewellery as she could safely dispose of, and temporarily silenced the more threatening tradespeople; but Kazmah declined to give credit, and cheques had never been acceptable at the establishment in old Bond Street.

Rita feverishly renewed her old quest, seeking in all directions for some less extortionate purveyor. But none was to be found. The selfishness and secretiveness of the drug slave made it difficult for her to learn on what terms others obtained Kazmah's precious goods; but although his prices undoubtedly varied, she was convinced that no one of all his clients was so cruelly victimized as she.

Mollie Gretna endeavored to obtain an extra supply to help Rita, but Kazmah evidently saw through the device, and the endeavor proved a failure.

She demanded to see Kazmah, but Rashid, the Egyptian, blandly assured her that "the Sheikh-el-Kazmah" was away. She cast discretion to the winds and wrote to him, protesting that it was utterly impossible for her to raise so much ready money as he demanded, and begging him to grant her a small supply or to accept the letter as a promissory note to be redeemed in three months. No answer was received, but when Rita again called at old Bond Street, Rashid proposed one of the few compromises which the frenzied woman found herself unwilling to accept.

"The Sheikh-el-Kazmah say, my lady, your friend Mr. Gray never come to him. If you bring him it will be all right."

Rita found herself stricken dumb by this cool proposal. The degradation which awaits the drug slave had never been more succinctly expounded to her. She was to employ Gray's foolish devotion for the commercial advantage of Kazmah. Of course Gray might any day become one of the three wealthiest peers in the realm. She divined the meaning of Kazmah's hitherto incomprehensible harshness (or believed that she did); she saw what was expected of her. "My God!" she whispered. "I have not come to that yet."

Rashid she knew to be incorruptible or powerless, and she turned away, trembling, and left the place, whose faint perfume of frankincense had latterly become hateful to her.

She was at this time bordering upon a state of collapse. Insomnia, which latterly had defied dangerously increased doses of veronal, was telling upon nerve and brain. Now, her head aching so that she often wondered how long she could retain sanity, she found herself deprived not only of cocaine, but also of malourea. Margaret Halley was her last hope, and to Margaret she hastened on the day before the tragedy which was destined to bring to light the sinister operations of the Kazmah group.

Although, perhaps mercifully, she was unaware of the fact, representatives of Spinker's Agency had been following her during the whole of the preceding fortnight. That Rita was in desperate trouble of some kind her husband had not failed to perceive, and her reticence had quite naturally led him to a certain conclusion. He had sought to win her confidence by every conceivable means and had failed. At last had come doubt--and the hateful interview with Spinker.

As Rita turned in at the doorway below Margaret's flat, then, Brisley was lighting a cigarette in the shelter of a porch nearly opposite, and Gunn was not far away.

Margaret immediately perceived that her friend's condition was alarming. But she realized that whatever the cause to which it might be due, it gave her the opportunity for which she had been waiting. She wrote a prescription containing one grain of cocaine, but declined firmly to issue others unless Rita authorized her, in writing, to undertake a cure of the drug habit.

Rita's disjointed statements pointed to a conspiracy of some kind on the part of those who had been supplying her with drugs, but Margaret knew from experience that to exhibit curiosity in regard to the matter would be merely to provoke evasions.

A hopeless day and a pain-racked, sleepless night found Kazmah's unhappy victim in the mood for any measure, however desperate, which should promise even temporary relief. Monte Irvin went out very early, and at about eleven o'clock Rita rang up Kazmah's, but only to be informed by Rashid, who replied, that Kazmah was still away. "This evening he tell me that he see your friend if he come, my lady." As if the Fates sought to test her endurance to the utmost, Quentin Gray called shortly afterwards and invited her to dine with him and go to a theatre that evening.

For five age-long seconds Rita hesitated. If no plan offered itself by nightfall she knew that her last scruple would be conquered. "After all," whispered a voice within her brain, "Quentin is a man. Even if I took him to Kazmah's and he was in some way induced to try opium, or even cocaine, he would probably never become addicted to drug-taking. But I should have done my part--"

"Very well, Quentin," she heard herself saying aloud. "Will you call for me?"

But when he had gone Rita sat for more than half an hour, quite still, her hands clenched and her face a tragic mask. (Gunn, of Spinker's Agency, reported telephonically to Monte Irvin in the City that the Hon. Quentin Gray had called and had remained about twenty-five minutes; that he had proceeded to the Prince's Restaurant, and from there to Mudie's, where he had booked a box at the Gaiety Theatre.)

Towards the fall of dusk the more dreadful symptoms which attend upon a sudden cessation of the use of cocaine by a victim of cocainophagia began to assert themselves again. Rita searched wildly in the lining of her jewel-case to discover if even a milligram of the drug had by chance fallen there from the little gold box. But the quest was in vain.

As a final resort she determined to go to Margaret Halley again.

She hurried to Dover Street, and her last hope was shattered. Margaret was out, and Janet had no idea when she was likely to return. Rita had much ado to prevent herself from bursting into tears. She scribbled a few lines, without quite knowing what she was writing, sealed the paper in an envelope, and left it on Margaret's table.

Of returning to Prince's Gate and dressing for the evening she had only a hazy impression. The hammer-beats in her head were depriving her of reasoning power, and she felt cold, numbed, although a big fire blazed in her room. Then as she sat before her mirror, drearily wondering if her face really looked as drawn and haggard as the image in the glass, or if definite delusions were beginning, Nina came in and spoke to her. Some moments elapsed before Rita could grasp the meaning of the girl's words.

"Sir Lucien Pyne has rung up, Madam, and wishes to speak to you."

Sir Lucien! Sir Lucien had come back? Rita experienced a swift return of feverish energy. Half dressed as she was, and without pausing to take a wrap, she ran out to the telephone.

Never had a man's voice sounded so sweet as that of Sir Lucien when he spoke across the wires. He was at Albemarle Street, and Rita, wasting no time in explanations, begged him to await her there. In another ten minutes she had completed her toilette and had sent Nina to 'phone for a cab. (One of the minor details of his wife's behavior which latterly had aroused Irvin's distrust was her frequent employment of public vehicles in preference to either of the cars.)

Quentin Gray she had quite forgotten, until, as she was about to leave:

"Is there any message for Mr. Gray, Madam?" inquired Nina naively.

"Oh!" cried Rita. "Of course! Quick! Give me some paper and a pencil."

She wrote a hasty note, merely asking Gray to proceed to the restaurant, where she promised to join him, left it in charge of the maid, and hurried off to Albemarle Street.

Mareno, the silent, yellow-faced servant who had driven the car on the night of Rita's first visit to Limehouse, admitted her. He showed her immediately into the lofty study, where Sir Lucien awaited.

"Oh, Lucy--Lucy!" she cried, almost before the door had closed behind Mareno. "I am desperate--desperate!"

Sir Lucien placed a chair for her. His face looked very drawn and grim. But Rita was in too highly strung a condition to observe this fact, or indeed to observe anything.

"Tell me," he said gently.

And in a torrent of disconnected, barely coherent language, the tortured woman told him of Kazmah's attempt to force her to lure Quentin Gray into the drug coterie. Sir Lucien stood behind her chair, and the icy reserve which habitually rendered his face an impenetrable mask deserted him as the story of Rita's treatment at the hands of the Egyptian of Bond Street was unfolded in all its sordid hideousness. Rita's soft, musical voice, for which of old she had been famous, shook and wavered; her pose, her twitching gestures, all told of a nervous agony bordering on prostration or worse. Finally:

"He dare not refuse you!" she cried. "Ring him up and insist upon him seeing me tonight!"

"I will see him, Rita."

She turned to him, wild-eyed.

"You shall not! You shall not!" she said. "I am going to speak to that man face to face, and if he is human he must listen to me. Oh! I have realized the hold he has upon me, Lucy! I know what it means, this disappearance of all the others who used to sell what Kazmah sells. If I am to suffer, he shall not escape! I swear it. Either he listens to me tonight or I go straight to the police!"

"Be calm, little girl," whispered Sir Lucien, and he laid his hand upon her shoulder.

But she leapt up, her pupils suddenly dilating and her delicate nostrils twitching in a manner which unmistakably pointed to the impossibility of thwarting her if sanity were to be retained.

"Ring him up, Lucy," she repeated in a low voice. "He is there. Now that I have someone behind me I see my way at last!"

"There may, nevertheless, be a better way," said Sir Lucien; but he added quickly: "Very well, dear, I will do as you wish. I have a little cocaine, which I will give you."

He went out to the telephone, carefully closing the study door.

That he had counted upon the influence of the drug to reduce Rita to a more reasonable frame of mind was undoubtedly the fact, for presently as they proceeded on foot towards old Bond Street he reverted to something like his old ironical manner. But Rita's determination was curiously fixed. Unmoved by every kind of appeal, she proceeded to the appointment which Sir Lucien had made--ignorant of that which Fate held in store for her--and Sir Lucien, also humanly blind, walked on to meet his death.



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