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The Powers and Maxine By A. M. Williamson Characters: 13453

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

"How long a time do you think I had been in this room, Monsieur," she asked, "before you-rather rudely, I must say-broke in upon my conversation with my friend?"

"You had been here exactly three minutes," replied the Commissary of Police.

"As much as that? I should have thought less. We had to greet each other, after having been parted for many months; and still, in the three minutes, you believe that we had time to concoct a plot of some sort, and to find some safe corner-all the while in semi-darkness-for the hiding of a thing important to the police-a bomb, perhaps? You must think us very clever."

"I know that you are very clever, Mademoiselle."

"Perhaps I ought to thank you for the compliment," she answered, allowing anger to warm her voice at last; "but this is almost beyond a joke. A woman comes to the rooms of a friend. Both of them are so placed that they prefer her call not to be talked about. For that reason, and for the woman's sake, the friend chooses to take a name that isn't his-as he has a right to do. Yet, just because that woman happens unfortunately to be well-known-her face and name being public property-she is followed, she is spied upon, humiliated, and all, no doubt, on account of some silly mistake, or malicious false information. Ah, it is shameful, Monsieur! I wonder the police of Paris can stoop to such stupidity, such meanness."

"When we have found out that it is a mistake, the police of Paris will apologise to you, Mademoiselle, through me," said the Commissary; "until then, I regret if our duty makes us disagreeable to you." Then, turning to his two gendarmes, he directed them to search the room, beginning with all possible places in which a paper parcel or large envelope might be hidden, within ten metres of the spot where Mademoiselle and Monsieur had stood talking together when the police opened the door.

Maxine did not protest again. With her head up, and a look as if the three policemen were of no more importance to her than the furniture of the room, she walked to the mantelpiece and stood leaning her elbow upon it. Weariness, disgusted indifference, were in her attitude; but I guessed that she felt herself actually in need of the physical support.

The two gendarmes moved about in noiseless obedience, their faces expressionless as masks. They did not glance at Maxine, giving themselves entirely to the task at which they had been set. But their superior officer did not once take his eyes from the pure profile she turned scornfully towards him. I knew why he watched her thus, and thought of a foolish, child's game I used to play twenty years ago, at little-boy-and-girl parties: the game of "Hide-the-Handkerchief." While one searched for the treasure, those who knew where it was stood by, saying: "Now you are warm. Now you are hot-boiling hot. Now you are cool again. Now you are ice cold." It was as if we were five players at this game, and Maxine de Renzie's white, deathly smiling face was expected to proclaim against her will: "Now you are warm. Now you are hot. Now you are ice cold."

There was a table in the middle of the room, with one or two volumes of photographs and brightly-bound guide books of Paris upon it, as well as my hat and gloves which I had tossed down as I came in. The gendarmes picked up these things, examined them, laid them aside, peered under the table; peeped behind the silk cushions on the sofa, opened the doors and drawers of a bric-à-brac cabinet and a small writing desk, lifted the corners of the rugs on the bare, polished floor; and finally, bowing apologies to Maxine for disturbing her, took out the logs from the fireplace where the fire was ready for lighting, and pried into the vases on the mantel. Also they shook the silk and lace window curtains, and moved the pictures on the walls. When all this had been done in vain, the pair confessed with shrugs of the shoulders that they were at a loss.

During the search, which had been conducted in silence, I had a curious sensation, caused by my intense sympathy with Maxine's suffering. I felt as if my heart were the pendulum of a clock which had been jarred until it was uncertain whether to go on or stop. Once, when the gendarmes were peering under the sofa, or behind the sofa cushions, a grey shadow round Maxine's eyes made her beautiful face look like a death-mask in the white electric light, which did not fail now, or spare her any cruelty of revelation. She was smiling contemptuously still-always the same smile-but her forehead appeared to have been sprinkled with diamond dust.

I saw that dewy sparkle, and wondered, sickeningly, if the enemy saw it too. But I had not long to wait before being satisfied on this point. The keen-eyed Frenchman gave no further instructions to his baffled subordinates, but crossing the room to the sofa stood staring at it fixedly. Then, grasping the back with his capable-looking hand, instead of beginning at once a quest which his gendarmes had abandoned, he searched the face of the tortured woman.

Unflinching in courage, she seemed not to see him. But it was as if she had suddenly ceased to breathe. Her bosom no longer rose and fell. The only movement was the visible knocking of her heart. I felt that, in another moment, if he found what she had hidden, her heart would knock no longer, and she would die. For a second I wildly counted the chances of overpowering all three men, stunning them into unconsciousness, and giving Maxine time to escape with the letter-case. But I knew the attempt would be useless. Even if I could succeed, the noise would arouse the hotel. People would come. Other policemen would rush in to the help of their comrades, and matters would be worse with us than before.

The Frenchman, having looked at Maxine, and seen that tell-tale beating of her bodice, deliberately laid the silk cushions on the floor. Then, pushing his hand down between the seat and the back of the sofa, he moved it along the crevice inch by inch.

I watched the hand, which looked cruel to me as that of an executioner. I think Maxine watched it, too. Suddenly it stopped. It had found something. The other hand sprang to its assistance. Both worked together, groping and prying for a few seconds: evidently the something hidden had been forced deeply and firmly down. Then, up it came-a dark red leather case, which was neither a letter-case nor a jewel-case, but might be used for either. My heart almost stopped beating in the intense relief I felt. For this was not the thing I had come from London to bring Maxine.

I could hardly keep back a cry of joy. But I did keep it back, for suspense and anxiety had left me a few grains of sense.

"Voila!" grunted the Commissary of Police. "I said that you were clever, Mademoiselle. But it would have been as well for all concerned if you had spared us this trouble."

"You alone are to blame for the trouble," answered Maxine. "I never saw that thing before in my life."

I was astonished that there was no ring of satisfaction in her voice. It sounded hard and defiant, but there was no triumph in it, no joy that, so far, she was saved-as if by a miracle. Rather was her tone that of a woman at bay, fighting to the last, but without hope. "Nor did I ever see it before." I echoed her words.

She glanced at me as if with gratitude. Yet there was no need for gratitude. I was not lying for her sake, but speaking the plain truth, as I thought that she must know.

For the first time the Commissary of Police condescended to laugh. "I suppose you want me to believe that the last occupant of this room tucked some valued possession down into a safe hiding place-and then forgot all about it. That is likely, is it not? You shall have the pleasure, Mademoiselle-and you, Monsieur-of seeing with me what that careless person left behind him."

He had laid the thing on the table, and now he tapped it, aggravatingly, with his hand. But the strain was over for me. I looked on with calmness, and was amazed when at last Maxine flew to him, no longer scornful, tragically indifferent in her manner, but imploring-a weak, agonized woman.

"For the love of God, spare me, Monsieur," she sobbed. "You don't understand. I confess that what you have there, is mine. I have held myself high, in my own eyes, and the eyes of the world, because I-an actress-never took a lover. But now I am like the others. This is my lover. There's the price I put on my love. Now, Monsieur, I ask you on my womanhood to hold what is in that leather case sacred."

I felt the blood rush to my face as if she had struck me across it with a whip. My first thought, to my shame, was a selfish one. What if this became known, this thing that she had said, and Diana should hear? Then indeed all hope for me with the girl I loved would be over. My second thought was for Maxine herself. But she had sealed my lips. Since she had chosen the way, I could only be silent.

"Mademoiselle, it is a grief to me that I must refuse such a prayer, from such a woman. But duty before chivalry. I must see the contents of that case," said the Commissary of Police.

She caught his hand and rained tears upon it. "No-no!" she implored. "If I were rich, I would offer you thousands to spare me. I've been extravagant-I haven't saved, but all I have in the world is yours if-."

"There can be no such 'if,' Mademoiselle," the man broke in. And wrenching his hand free, he opened the case before she could again prevent him.

Out fell a cascade of light, a diamond necklace. It flashed to the floor, where it lay on one of the sofa cushions, sending up a spray of rainbow colours.

"Sacré bleu!" muttered the Frenchman, under his breath, for whatever he had expected, he had not expected that. But Maxine spoke not a word. Shorn of hope, as, in spite of her prayers and tears, the leather case was torn open, she was shorn of strength as well; and the beautiful, tall figure crumpling like a flower broken on its stalk, she would have fallen if I had not caught her, holding her up against my shoulder. When the cataract of diamonds sprang out of the case, however, I felt her limp body straighten itself. I felt her pulses leap. I felt her begin to live. She had drunk a draught of hope and life, and, fortified by it, was gathering all her scattered forces together for a new fight, if fight she must again.

The Commissary of Police turned the leather case wrong side out. It was empty. There had been nothing inside but the necklace: not a card, not a scrap of paper.

"Where, then, is the document?" Crestfallen, he put the question half to himself, half to Maxine de Renzie.

"What document?" she asked, too wise to betray relief in voice or face. Hearing the heavy tone, seeing the shamed face, the hanging head that lay against my shoulder, who-knowing a little less than I did of the truth-would have dreamed that in her soul she thanked God for a miracle? Even I would not have been sure, had I not felt the life stealing back into her half-dead body.

"The contents of the case are not what I came here to find," admitted the Enemy.

"I do not know what you came to find, but you have made me suffer horribly," said Maxine. "You have been very cruel to a woman who has done nothing to deserve such humiliation. All pleasure I might have taken in my diamonds is gone now. I shall never have a peaceful moment-never be able to wear them joyfully. I shall have the thought in my mind that people who look at me will be saying: 'Every woman has her price. There is the price of Maxine de Renzie.'"

"You need have no such thought, Mademoiselle," the man protested. "We shall never speak to anyone except those who will receive our report, of what we have heard and seen in this room."

"Won't you search further?" asked Maxine. "Since you seemed to expect something else-"

"You would not have had time to conceal more than one thing, Mademoiselle," said the policeman, with a smile that was faintly grim. "Besides, this case was what you did not wish us to find. You are a great actress, but you could not control the dew which sprang out on your forehead, or the beating of your heart when I touched the sofa, so I knew: I had been watching you for that. There has been an error, and I can only apologise."

"I don't blame you, but those who sent you," said Maxine, letting me lead her to a chair, into which she sank, limply. "I am thankful you do not tell me these diamonds are contraband in some way. I was not sure but it would end in that."

"Not at all, Mademoiselle. I wish you joy of them. It is you who will adorn the jewels, not they you. Again I apologise for myself and my companions. We have but done our duty."

"I have an enemy, who must have contrived this plot against me," exclaimed Maxine, as if on a sudden thought. "It is said that 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.' But what of a man who has been scorned-by a woman? He knew I wanted all my strength for to-night-the night of the new play-and he will be hoping that this has broken me. But I will not be broken. If you would atone, Messieurs, for your part in this scene, you will go to the theatre this evening and encourage me by your applause."

All three bowed. The Commissary of Police, lately so relentless, murmured compliments. It was all very French, and after what had passed, gave me the sensation that I was in a dream.

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