If Sinners Entice Thee

       William Le Queux / Mystery & Detective
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If Sinners Entice Thee Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

If Sinners Entice Thee, by William Le Queux.

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________________________________________________________________________IF SINNERS ENTICE THEE, BY WILLIAM LE QUEUX.

CHAPTER ONE.

ZERTHO.

”No, Zertho. You forget that Liane is my daughter, the daughter ofBrooker 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 theyhad the chance,” observed the tall, dark-bearded, handsome man, speakingEnglish with a slight accent as he leaned easily against the edge of thetable, and glanced around the shabby, cheaply-furnished littledining-room. Sallow-faced, dark-eyed, broad-shouldered, he was agedabout forty--with full lips and long tapering hands, white as a woman's.

”Both of us know the world, my dear fellow,” answered Captain ErleBrooker at last, standing astride before the fireplace in which a gaudyJapanese umbrella had been placed to hide its ugliness. ”Surely thefive years we spent together were sufficient to show us that there arewomen--and women?”

”Of course, as I expected,” the other cried cynically. ”Now that you'reback again in England, buried in this sleepy country village, you arebecoming sentimental. I suppose it is respectable to be so; but it'shardly like you.”

”You've prospered. I've fallen upon evil days.”

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

”It was entirely against my grain to fleece those beardless boys. I'llplay fair, or not at all.”

”Sentiment again! It's your curse, Brooker.”

”The speculation no doubt proved a veritable gold mine, as of course itmust. 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 laughedcontemptuously.

”Luck is always with her,” the Captain answered. ”She sat beside me andprompted 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 hiscompanion. ”Do you intend to accept my proposal?”

”Certainly not,” replied the luckless gamester. ”I'll never sacrificemy daughter's happiness.”

”Rubbish!”

”I have already decided.”

Zertho was silent; his features became fierce and authoritative. Hiswas an arrestive face, indicating rare, possibly prodigious, mental andalso bodily activity, an activity that, unless curbed and restrained bycarefully cultivated habits, might become distorted, and thus becomeinjurious to himself as well as to others. Two rows of strong whiteteeth redeemed a large mouth from the commonplace, but those teeth wereseldom seen--never, indeed, unless their owner laughed, and if smileswere rare, laughter still more rarely disturbed the steady composure ofthat saturnine countenance. Yet there was an individuality about theman which produced interest, though not always an agreeable interest,much less liking. He made an impression; he produced an effect upon theimagination that was not easily forgotten. Again, regarding the Captainkeenly, 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 someother girl besides Liane. I'm afraid we know a little too much of eachother to trust one another very far.”

There was another long silence. The golden sunset streamed in at theopen window, which revealed an old-fashioned garden filled with fragrantroses, and a tiny lawn bounded by a hedgerow beyond. Through the gardenran a paved path to the white dusty road. The afternoon had been hotand drowsy. Upon the warm wind was borne in the sound of children atplay in the village street of Stratfield Mortimer, while somewhere inthe vicinity the shoe-smith's hammer fell upon his anvil with musicalclang. The house stood at the east end of the long straggling village,towards Reading, a small, old-fashioned cottage, picturesque in its ivymantle, with deep mullions, diamond panes, and oaken doors. A year agoan 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, asvillages are wont to be, by the arrival of new comers--Captain ErleBrooker, his daughter Liane, and Nellie Bridson, her companion. Thelatter 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 theCaptain, and throughout her whole life had been Liane's inseparablefriend. Soon, however, the village gossips found food for talk. Thefurniture they brought with them bore the distinct impress of havingbeen purchased secondhand, the maid-of-all-work was a buxom Frenchwomanwho bought stuff, for soups and salads, and the two girls habituallyspoke French when together, in preference to English. Hence they wereat once dubbed ”fine, finnikin' foreigners,” and regarded with suspicionby all the country folk from Beech Hill away to Silchester.

The thin-faced vicar made a formal call, as vicars will, but, as mightbe expected, received but a cold welcome from the ex-cavalry officer,and this fact spreading rapidly throughout the district, no one elseever crossed their threshold. This social ostracism annoyed Brooker,not for his own sake, but for that of the girls. The reason he haddecided to live in the country in preference to London, was, firstbecause it was cheaper, and secondly, because he had a vague idea thatboth girls would enter a pleasant and inexpensive circle where thedissipations 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 dullafter Ostend or the Riviera. He was getting already tired of posing asa half-pay officer, and speaking to nobody except the postmistress orthe garrulous father of the local inn-keeper. Yet the one thing needfulwas money, and since he had renounced gambling, he had had scarcelysufficient to live from hand to mouth. Yet, although he had hardly asou in his pocket, his imperturbable good humour never deserted him.His career had, indeed, been full of strange vicissitudes; of feast andfast, of long nights and heavy play, of huge stakes won and lost withsmile or curse, of fair game and sharping, of fleecing youngsters andbluffing his elders in nearly every health-resort in Europe. Easy-goingto a fault, he bore his fifty years merrily, with scarcely a grey hairin his head, and although his ruddy, well-shaven face bore no sign ofanxiety it was a trifle blotchy, caused by high living and long nightsof play, while twenty years of an existence on his wits, had sosharpened his intelligence that in his steel-grey eyes was a keenpenetrating look that had long become habitual. As careless andindolent now as he had ever been, he nevertheless dressed just ascarefully, walked as lightly, and held his head just as high as in thedays of his prosperity when a smart cavalry officer, younger son of awell-known peer, he could draw a cheque for thirty thousand. When hereflected upon his present position, hampered by the two girls dependentupon him, he merely laughed a strange cynical laugh, the same that hehad laughed across the roulette-table when he had flung down and losthis last louis.

”What's your game, burying yourself in this abominable hole?” inquiredhis whilom partner, presently. ”I called at the National Sporting Clubas soon as I got to London, expecting to see something of you, but thehall-porter told me that you lived down in this Sleepy-Hollow, and nevercame to town. So I resolved to run down and look you up.”

”Can't afford to live in London,” the Captain answered, rolling acigarette carefully between his fingers, before lighting it.

”Hard up! yet you refuse my offer!” observed Zertho, laughing. ”You'rean enigma, Brooker. Money would put you on your legs again, my dearfellow.”

”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 lookof 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, ina tone of contempt.

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

”I tell you, Zertho, I'll
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