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Alias The Lone Wolf
by Louis Joseph Vance
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"Let us hope, however," the Comtesse de Lorgnes interposed sweetly, "by that time this so dreadful tempest will have moderated."

"One has that hope," her husband uttered in a sepulchral voice.

"But, if the storm continue," Madame de Sevenie said, "you must not think of travelling farther—on such a night. The chateau is large, there is ample accommodation for all..."

There was a negligible pause, during which Duchemin saw the long lashes of the Comtesse de Lorgnes curtain momentarily her disastrous violet eyes: it was a sign of assent. Immediately it was followed by the least of negative movements of her head. She was looking directly at Phinuit, who, so far as Duchemin could see, made no sign of any sort, who neither spoke nor acted on the signals which, indubitably, he had received. On the other hand, it was Monk who acknowledged the proffered courtesy.

"Madame de Sevenie is too good, but we could not dream of imposing ... No, but truly, madame, I am obliged to ask my guests to proceed with me to Millau to-night regardless of the weather. Important despatches concerning my business await me there; I must consider them and reply by cable to-night without fail. It is really of the most pressing necessity. Otherwise we should be honoured..."

Madame de Sevenie inclined her head. "It must be as monsieur thinks best."

"But Monsieur Monk!" madame la comtesse exclaimed with vivacity: "do you know what I have just discovered? You and Madame de Montalais are compatriots. She is of your New York. You must know each other."

"I have been wondering," Monk admitted, bowing to Eve, "if it were possible I could be misled by a strong resemblance."

Eve turned to him with a look of surprise. "Yes, monsieur?"

"It is many years ago, you were a young girl then, if it was truly you, madame; but I have a keen eye for beauty, I do not soon forget it ... I was in the private office of my friend, Edmund Anstruther, of Cottier's, one afternoon, selecting a trinket with his advice, and—"

"That was my father, monsieur."

"Then it was you, madame; I felt sure of it. You came in unannounced, to see your father. He made me known to you as a friend of his, and requested you to wait in an adjoining office. But that was not necessary, I had already made up my mind, I left almost immediately. Do you by any chance remember?"

The effort of the memory knitted Eve's brows; but in the end she shook her head. "I am sorry, monsieur—"

"But why should you be? Why should you have remembered me? You were a young girl, then, as I say, and I already a man of middle age. You saw me once, for perhaps two minutes. It would have been a miracle had I remained in your memory for as long as a single day. Nevertheless, I remembered."

"I am so glad to meet a friend of my father's, monsieur."

"And I to recall myself to his daughter. I have often wondered ... Would you mind telling me something, Madame de Montalais?"

"If I can..."

"Your father and I entertained one passion in common, one which he was better able than I to gratify, for good diamonds and emeralds. I have often wondered what became of his collection. He had some superb stones."

"I inherited them, monsieur."

"They did not find their way into Cottier's stock, then?"

The Comtesse de Lorgnes gave a gesture of excitement. "But what a fortunate woman! You truly have those magnificent emeralds, those almost matchless diamonds, of which one has heard—the Anstruther collection?"

"I have them, Madame la Comtesse," said Eve with a smiling nod—"yes."

"But, one presumes, in Paris, in some impregnable strong-box."

"No, madame, here."

"But not here, Madame de Montalais!" To this Eve gave another nod and smile. "But are you not afraid—?"

"Of what, madame? That they will be stolen? No. They have been in my possession for years—indeed, I should be unhappy otherwise, for I have inherited my father's fondness for them—and nobody has ever even attempted to steal them."

"But what of the affair at Montpellier the other night?" enquired the Comte de Lorgnes—"that terrible attack upon you of which Madame de Sevenie has just told us? Surely you would call that an attempt to steal."

"Simple highway robbery, if you like, monsieur le comte. But even had it proved successful, I had very few jewels with me. All that mattered, all that I would have minded losing, were here, in a safe place."

"Nevertheless," said Monk—"if you will permit me to offer a word of advice—I think you are very unwise."

"It may be, monsieur."

"Nonsense!" Madame de Sevenie declared. "Who would dare attempt to burglarise the Chateau de Montalais? Such a thing was never heard of."

"There is always the first time for everything, Madame," Monk suggested gently. "I fancy it was your first experience of the sort, at Montpellier."

"A rascally chauffeur from Paris, a few low characters of the department. Since the war things are not as they were."

"That is the very reason why I suggest, madame—"

"But, monsieur, I assure you all my life I have lived at Montalais. Monsieur le cure will tell you I know every face hereabouts. And I know that these poor country-folk, these good-natured dolts of peasants have not the imagination, much less the courage—"

"But what of criminals from outside, from the great cities, from London and Paris and Berlin? They have the imagination, the courage, the skill; and if they ever get wind of the fortune Madame de Montalais keeps locked up here..."

"What of the Lone Wolf?" the Comtesse de Lorgnes added. "I have heard that one is once more in France."

Duchemin blinked incredulously at the speaker. "But when did you hear that, madame la comtesse?"

"Quite recently, monsieur."

"I had understood that the monsieur in question had long since retired."

"Only for the duration of the war, monsieur, I am afraid."

"It is true, according to all reports," the Comte de Lorgnes said: "Monsieur Lanyard—that was the name, was it not?"

"If memory serves, monsieur le comte," Duchemin agreed.

"Yes." The count screwed his chubby features into a laughable mask of gravity. "Now one remembers quite well. He passed as a collector of objets d'art, especially of fine paintings, in Paris, for years before the War—this Monsieur Michael Lanyard. Then he disappeared. It was rumoured that he was of good service to the Allies as a spy, acting independently; and after the Armistice, I have heard, he did well for England in the matter of a Bolshevist conspiracy over there. But not long ago, according to my information, Monsieur the Lone Wolf resigned from the British Secret Service and returned to France—doubtless to resume his old practices."

"Perhaps not," Duchemin suggested. "Possibly his reformation was genuine and lasting."

The Comtesse de Lorgnes laughed that laugh of light derision which is almost exclusively the laugh of the Parisienne of a certain class. Remarking this, Duchemin eyed her mildly.

"Madame la Comtesse does not believe that. Well—who knows?—perhaps she is right. Possibly she knows more of the nature and habits of the criminal classes than we, sharing as she does, no doubt, the apparently accurate and precise sources of information of monsieur le comte."

"At all events," Phinuit put in promptly, "I know what I would do if I possessed a little fortune in jewels, and learned that a thief of the ability of this Lone Wolf was at large in France: I would charter an armoured train to convey the loot to the strongest safe deposit vault in Paris."

"Thereby advertising to the Lone Wolf the exact location of the jewels, monsieur, so that he might at his leisure make his plans perfect to burglarise the vaults?"

"Is that likely?" Phinuit jeered.

Duchemin gave a slight shrug.

"One has heard that the fellow had real ability," he said.

The servant Jean came in, caught the eye of Madame de Sevenie, and announced:

"The chauffeur of Monsieur Monk wishes me to say he has completed repairs on the automobile, and the rain has ceased."



VII

TURN ABOUT

Duchemin took back with him to Nant, that night, not only monsieur le cure in the hired caleche, but food in plenty for thought, together with a nebulous notion, which by the time he woke up next morning had taken shape as a fixed conviction, that he had better resign himself to stop on indefinitely at the Grand Hotel de l'Univers and ... see what he should see.

That fatality on which he had so bitterly reflected when; acting as emergency coachman en route from Montpellier-le-Vieux to La Roque-Sainte-Marguerite, had him now fairly by the heels, as it were his very shadow, something as tenacious, as inescapable. Or he had been given every excuse for believing that such was the case. Impossible—and the more so the longer he pondered it—to credit to mere coincidence the innuendoes uttered at the chateau by Mr. Monk and his party.

No: there had been malice in that, Duchemin was satisfied, if not some darker purpose which perplexed the most patient scrutiny.

Now malice without incentive is unthinkable. But Duchemin searched his memory in vain for anything he could have said or done to make anybody desire to discredit him in the sight of the ladies of the Chateau de Montalais. Still the attempt so to do had been unmistakable: the Lone Wolf had been lugged into the conversation literally by his legendary ears.

Surely, one would think, that nocturnal prowler of pre-War Paris had been so long dead and buried even the most ghoulish gossip should respect his poor remains and not disinter them merely to demonstrate that the Past can never wholly die!

Had he, then, some enemy of old hidden under one of those sleek surfaces?

An excellent visual memory reviewed successively the physical characteristics of Messieurs Monk, Phinuit and de Lorgnes, and their chauffeur Jules; with the upshot that Duchemin could have sworn that he had never before known any of these.

And Madame la Comtesse? In respect of that one memory again drew a blank, but remained unsatisfied. When one thought of her some remote, faint chord of reminiscence thrilled and hummed, but never recognisably. Not that there was anything remarkable in this: if one cared to look for them, the world was thronged with women such as she, handsome, spirited, well-groomed animals endued with some little distinction of manner, native or acquired, with every appeal to the senses and more or less, generally spurious, to the intelligence. They made the theatre possible in France, leavened the social life of the half-world, fluttered conspicuously and often disastrously through circles of more sedate society, had their portraits in every Salon, their photographs in every issue of the fashionable journals. Some made history, others fiction: either would be insufferably dull lacking their influence. But they were as much alike as so many peas, out of their several shells, and the man who saw one inevitably remembered all.

Setting aside then the theory of positive personal animus, what other reason could there be for the effort to fasten upon Duchemin suspicion of identity with the late Lone Wolf?

A sinister consideration, if any, and one, Duchemin suspected, not unconnected with the much-talked-about jewels of Madame de Montalais...

But it was absurd to believe that persons fostering a design of such nature would so deliberately and obviously advertise their purpose!

Cheerfully admitting that he was an imbecile to think of such a thing, Duchemin set his mental alarm for six the following morning, rose at that hour, and by eight had tramped the five miles between Nant and the nearest railway station, Combe-Redonde; where he despatched a code telegram to London, requesting any information it might have or be able to obtain concerning Mr. Whitaker Monk of New York and the several members of his party; the said information to be forwarded in code to await the arrival of Andre Duchemin at the Hotel du Commerce, Millau.

And then, partly to kill time, partly to get himself in trim for to-morrow's trip, which he meant to make strictly in character as the pedestrian tourist, he walked round three sides of a square in returning to Nant—by way, that is, of Sauclieres and the upper valley of the Dourbie.

In the rich sunshine that fell from a cloudless sky—even the twin peaks that stood sentinel over Nant had shamelessly put off their yashmaks for the day—the rain-fresh world was sweet to see; and Duchemin found himself consuming leagues with heels strangely light; or he thought their lightness strange until he discovered the buoyance of his heart, which wasn't strange at all. He knew too well the cause of that; and had given over fretting about the inevitable. The sum of his philosophy was now: What must be, must .It would have been difficult to be unhappy in the knowledge that one retained still the capacity to love generously, honourably, expecting nothing, exacting nothing, regretting nothing, not even in anticipation of the ultimate, inevitable heartache.

Toward mid-afternoon a solitary mischance threw a passing shadow upon his content. As he trudged along the river road, on the last lap of his journey—Nant almost in sight—he heard a curious, intermittent rumble on a steep hillside whose foot was skirted by the road, and sought its cause barely in time to leap for life out of the path of a great boulder that, dislodged from its bed, possibly by last night's deluge, was hurtling downhill with such momentum that it must have crushed Duchemin to a pulp had he been less alert.

Striking the road with an impact that left a deep, saucer-shaped dent, with one final bound the huge stone, amid vast splashings, found its last resting place in the river.

Duchemin moved out of the way of the miniature avalanche that followed, and for some minutes stood reviewing with a truculent eye the face of the hillside. But nothing moved thereon, it was quite bare of good cover, little more than a slant of naked earth and shale, dotted manywhere with boulders, cousins to that which sought his life—none, however, so large. If human agency had moved it, the stone had come from the high skyline of the hill; and by the time one could climb to this last, Duchemin was sure, there would be nobody there to find.

The remainder of the afternoon was wasted utterly on the terrasse of the Cafe de l'Univers, with the chateau ever in view, wishing it were convenable to make one's duty call without more delay. But it wasn't; not to wait a decent interval would be self-betraying, since Duchemin had no longer any immediate intention of moving on from Nant; finally, he rather hoped to get news at Millau that would strengthen a prayer to Eve de Montalais to be sensible and remove her jewels to a place of safe-keeping before it was too late.

Millau, however, disappointed. At the end of a twenty-mile walk on a day of suffocating heat, Duchemin plodded wearily into the Hotel du Commerce, engaged a room for the night, and was given a telegram from London which rewarded decoding to some such effect as this:

"MONK AMERICAN INDEPENDENT MEANS GOOD REPUTE NO INFORMATION AS TO OTHERS HAVE ASKED SURETE CONCERNING LORGNES WOULD GIVE SOMETHING TO KNOW WHAT MISCHIEF YOU ARE MEDDLING WITH THIS TRIP AND WHY THE DEUCE YOU MUST."

Few things are better calculated to curdle the milk of human kindness than to find that one's fellow-man has meanly contrived to keep his reputation fair when one is satisfied it should be otherwise. Duchemin used bitter language in strict confidence with himself, disliked his dinner and, after conscientiously loathing the sights of Millau for an hour or two, sought his bed in the devil's own humour.

Though he waited till eleven of the following forenoon, there was no supplementary telegram: London evidently meant him to understand that the Surete in Paris had communicated nothing to the discredit of Monsieur le Comte de Lorgnes and his consort.

Enquiry of the administration of the Hotel de Commerce elicited the information that the Monk party had stopped there on the night of the storm, doubled back in the morning to visit Montpellier-le-Vieux, returning for midday dejeuner, and had then proceeded for Paris, just like any other well-behaved company of tourists.

There was nothing more to be done but go back to Nant and—what made it even more disgusting—nothing to be done there except ... wait...

Thoroughly disgruntled, more than half persuaded he had staked a claim for a mare's-nest, he took the road in the heat of a day even more oppressive than its yesterday. In the valley of the Dourbie the air was stagnant, lifeless. After eight miles of it Duchemin was guilty of two mistakes of desperation.

In the first instance he paused in La Roque-Sainte-Marguerite and, tormented by thirst, refreshed himself at the auberge where the barouche and guide had been hired to convey the party from Montalais on to Montpellier. The landlord remembered Duchemin and made believe he didn't, serving the wayfarer with a surly grace the only drink he would admit he had to sell, an atrociously acid cider fit to render the last stage of thirst worse than the first.

Duchemin, however, thought it safer than the water of the place, when he had spied out the associations of the well.

He drank sitting on a bench outside the door of the auberge. He could hear the voice of the landlord inside, grumbling and growling, to what purport he couldn't determine. But it wasn't difficult to guess; and before Duchemin was finished he had testimony to the rightness of his surmise, finding himself the cynosure of more than a few pair of eyes set in the ill-favoured faces of natives of La Roque.

One gathered that the dead guide had enjoyed a fair amount of local popularity.

While Duchemin drank and smoked and pored over a pocket-map of the department, a lout of a lad shambled out of the auberge wearing a fixed scowl in no degree mitigated by the sight of the customer. In the dooryard, which was also the stableyard, the boy caught and saddled a dreary animal, apparently a horse designed by a Gothic architect, mounted, and rode off in the direction of Nant.

Then Duchemin committed his second error of judgment, which consisted in thinking to find better and cooler air on the heights of the Causse Larzac, across the river, together with a shorter way to Nant—indicated on the pocket-map as a by-road running in a tolerably direct line across the plateau—than that which followed the windings of the stream.

Accordingly he crossed the Dourbie, toiled up a zig-zag path cut in the face of the frowning cliff, reached the top in a bath of sweat, and sat down to cool and breathe himself.

The view was splendid, almost worth the climb. Duchemin could see for miles up and down the valley, a panorama wildly picturesque and limned like a rainbow. Across the way La Roque-Sainte-Marguerite stood out prominently and with such definition in that clear air that Duchemin identified the figure of the landlord, standing in the door of the auberge with arms raised and elbows thrust out on a level with his eyes: the pose of a man using field-glasses.

Duchemin wondered if he ought to feel complimented. Then he looked up the valley and saw, far off, a tiny cloud of dust kicked up by the heels of the horse ridden by the boy from the auberge, making good time on the highway to Nant. And again Duchemin wondered...

Having rested, he picked himself up, found his road, a mere trail of wagon tracks, and mindful of the cooling drinks to be had in the Cafe de l'Univers, put his best foot foremost.

After a time something, call it instinct, impelled him to look back the way he had come. Half a mile distant he saw the figure of a peasant following the same road. Duchemin stopped and waited for the other to come up, thinking to get a better look at him, perhaps some definite information about the road and in particular as to his chances of finding drinkable water. But when he stopped the man stopped, sat him down upon a rock, filled a pipe, and conspicuously rested.

Duchemin gave an impatient gesture and moved on. After another mile he glanced overshoulder again. The same peasant occupied the same relative distance from him.

But if the fellow were following him with a purpose, he could readily lose himself in that wild land before Duchemin could run him down; and if, on the contrary, he proved to be only a peaceable wayfarer, he was bound to be a dull companion on the road, and an unsavory one to boot. So Duchemin did nothing to discourage his voluntary shadow; but looking back from time to time, never failed to see that squat, round-shouldered figure in the middle distance of the landscape, following him with the doggedness of Fate. Toward evening, however, of a sudden—between two glances—the fellow disappeared as completely and mysteriously as if he had fallen or dived into an aven.

Thus definite mental irritation was added to the physical discomforts he suffered. For if anything it was hotter on the high causse than it had been in the valley. An intermittent breeze imitated to vicious perfection draughts from a furnace. And if this were a short cut to Nant, Duchemin's judgment was gravely at fault.

Otherwise the journey was not unlike an exaggerated version of his walk from Meyrueis to Montpellier-le-Vieux, except that the road was clearly marked and he found less climbing to do. He saw neither hamlets nor farmsteads, and found no water. By the middle of the afternoon his thirst had become sheer torture.

In dusk of evening he stumbled down into the valley again and struck the river road about midway between the Chateau de Montalais and Nant. At this junction several dwellings clustered, in that fading light dark masses on either side of the road. Duchemin noticed a few shadowy shapes loitering about, but was too far gone in fatigue and thirst to pay them any heed. He had no thought but to stop at the first house and beg a cup of water. As he lifted a hand to knuckle the door he was attacked.

With no more warning than a cry, the signal for the onslaught, and the sudden scuffling noise of several pair of feet, he wheeled, found himself already closely pressed by a number of men, and struck out at random. His stick landed on somebody's head with a resounding thump followed by a yell of pain. Then three men were grappling with him, two more seeking to aid them, and another lay in the roadway clutching a fractured skull and spitting oaths and groans.

His stick was seized and wrenched away, he was over-whelmed by numbers. The knot of struggling figures toppled and went to the dust, Duchemin underneath, so weighed down that he could not for the moment move a hand toward his pistol.

Half-stifled by the reek of unwashed flesh, he heard broken phrases growled in voices hoarse with effort and excitement:

"The knife!" ... "Hold him!" ... "Stand clear and let me—!" ... "The knife!"

Struggling madly, he worked a leg free and kicked with all his might. One of his assailants howled aloud and fell back to nurse a broken shin. Two others scrambled out of the way, leaving one to pin him down with knees upon his chest, another to wield the knife.

Staring eyes caught a warning gleam on descending steel. Duchemin squirmed frantically to one side, and felt cold metal kiss the skin over his ribs as the blade penetrated his clothing, close under the armpit.

Before the man with the knife could strike again, Duchemin, roused to a mightier effort, threw off the ruffian on his chest, got on his knees and, raining blows right and left as the others closed in again, somehow managed to scramble to his feet.

Fist-work told. For an instant he stood quite free, the centre of a circle of uncertain assassins whose cowardice gave him time to whip out his pistol. But before he could level it a man was on his back, his wrist was seized and the weapon twisted from his grasp.

A cry of triumph was echoed by exclamations of alarm as, disarmed, Duchemin was again left free, the thugs standing back to let the pistol do its work. In that instant a broad sword of light swung round a nearby corner and smote the group: the twin, glaring eyes of a motor car flooded with blue-white radiance that tableau of one man at bay in the middle of the road, in a ring of merciless enemies.

Duchemin's cry for help was uttered only an instant before his pistol exploded in alien hands. The headlights showed him distinctly the face of the man who fired, the same face of fat features black with soot that he had seen by moonlight at Montpellier-le-Vieux.

But the bullet went wild, and the automobile did not stop, but drove directly at the group and so swiftly that the flash of the shot was still vivid in Duchemin's vision when the car swept between him and those others, scattering them like chickens.

Simultaneously the brakes were set, the dark bulk began to slide with locked wheels to a stop, and a voice cried: "Quickly, monsieur, quickly!"—the voice of Eve de Montalais.

In two bounds Duchemin overtook the car and before it had come to a standstill leaped upon the running-board and grasped the side. He had one glimpse of the set white face of Eve, en profile, as she bent forward, manipulating the gear-shift. Then the pistol spat again, its bullet struck him a blow of sickening agony in the side.

Aware that he was dangerously wounded, he put all that he had left of strength and will into one final effort, throwing his body across the door. As he fell sprawling into the tonneau consciousness departed like a light withdrawn.



VIII

IN RE AMOR ET AL.

In the course of two weeks or so Duchemin was able to navigate a wheeled chair, bask on the little balcony outside his bedchamber windows in the Chateau de Montalais, and even—strictly against orders—take experimental strolls.

The wound in his side still hurt like the very deuce at every ill-considered movement; but Duchemin was ever the least patient of men unless the will that coerced him was his own; constraint to another's, however reasonable, irked him to exasperation; so that these falterings in forbidden ways were really (as he assured Eve de Montalais when, one day, she caught him creeping round his room, one hand pressed against the wall for support, the other to his side) in the nature of a sop to his self-respect.

"You've only got to tell me not to do a thing often enough," he commented as she led him back to his chair, "to fill me with unholy desire to do it if I die in the attempt."

"Isn't that a rather common human failing?" she asked, wheeling the invalid chair through one of the french windows to the balcony.

"That's what makes it all seem so unfair."

Smiling, the woman turned the back of the chair to the brightest glare of sunshine, draped a light rug over the invalid's knees, and seated herself in a wicker chair, facing him.

"Makes all what seem so unfair?"

"The indignity of being born human." He accepted a cigarette and waxed didactic: "The one thing that the ego can find to reconcile it with existence is belief in its own uniquity."

"I don't think," she interrupted with a severe face belied by amused eyes, "that sounds quite nice."

"Uniquity? Because it sounds like iniquity? They are not unrelated. What makes iniquity seem attractive is as a rule its departure from the commonplace."

"But you were saying—?"

"Merely it's our personal belief that our emotions and sensations and ways of thought are peculiar to ourselves, individually, that sometimes makes the game seem worth the scandal."

"Yes: one presumes we all do think that..."

"But no sooner does one get firmly established in that particular phase of self-complacence than along comes Life, grinning like a gamin, and kicks over our pretty house of cards—shows us up to ourselves by revealing our pet, exclusive idiosyncrasies as simple infirmities all mortal flesh is heir to."

"Monsieur is cynic..."

"Madame means obvious. Well: if I patter platitudes it is to conceal a sense of gratification." Eve arched her eyebrows. "I mean, you have shown me that I share at least one quality with you: instinctive resentment of the voice of reason."

She pronounced a plaintive "Mon Dieu!" and appealing to Heaven for compassion declared: "He means again to wrestle spiritually with me about the proper disposition of my jewels."

"No, madame: pardon. I am contemplating a long series of exhaustive arguments designed to prove it your duty to leave your jewels where they are, in all their noble insecurity. This in the firm belief that to plead with you long enough to adopt this course will result in your going and doing otherwise out of sheer..."

"Perversity, monsieur?"

"Humanity, madame!"

Eve de Montalais laughed the charming, low-keyed laugh of a happily diverted woman.

"But spare yourself, monsieur. I surrender at discretion: I will do as you wish."

"Truly? Rather than listen to my discourse, you actually agree to remove your jewels to a safe place?"

"Even so, monsieur. As soon as you are able to get about, and the Chateau de Montalais lacks a guest, I will leave Louise to take care of madame ma mere for a few days while I journey to Paris—"

"Alone?"

"But naturally."

"Taking your jewels with you?"

"Why else do I go?"

"But, madame, you must not—"

"And why?"

"You, a woman! travel alone to Paris with a treasure in jewels? Ah, no! I should say not!"

"Monsieur is emphatic," Eve suggested demurely.

"Monsieur means to be. Rather than let you run such a risk I would steal the jewels myself, convey them to Paris, put them in safe keeping, and send you the receipt."

"What a lot of trouble monsieur would save me, if he would only be so kind as to do as he threatens."

"And how amusing if he were arrested en route," Duchemin supplemented with a wry smile.

"I am quite confident of your ability to elude the police, monsieur."

"Do I hear you compliment me?"

"If you take it so..."

"But suppose you were not confident of my good will?"

"Impossible."

"Madame is too flattering; one is sure she is too wise to put so great a temptation in the way of any man."

"Monsieur is the reverse of flattering; he implies that one does not know where one can repose trust."

"I must warn madame there are those in this world who would call her faith misplaced."

"Doubtless. But what of that? Am I to distrust you because others might who do not know you so well?"

"But—madame—you can hardly claim to know me well.

"Listen, my friend." Eve de Montalais flicked away her cigarette and sat forward, elbows on knees, hands laced, her level gaze holding his. "It is true, our acquaintance is barely three weeks old; but you do injustice to my insight if you assume I have learned nothing about you in all that time. You have not been secretive with me. The mask you hold between yourself and the world, lest it pry into what does not concern it, has been lowered when you have talked with me; and I have had eyes to see what was revealed—"

"Ah, madame!"

"—the nature of a man of honour, monsieur, simple of heart and generous, as faithful as he is brave."

Eve had spoken impulsively, with warmth of feeling unrealised until too late. Now slow colour mantled her cheeks. But her eyes remained steadfast, candid, unashamed. It was Duchemin who dropped his gaze, abashed.

And though nothing had any sense in his understanding other than the words which he had just heard from the lips of the woman who held his love—as he had known now these many days—some freak of dual consciousness made him see, for the first time, in that moment, how oddly bleached and wasted seemed the powerful, nervous, brown hands that rested on his knees. And he thought: It will be long before I am strong again.

With a troubled smile he said: "I would give much to be worthy of what you think of me, madame. And I would be a poor thing indeed if I failed to try to live up to your faith."

"You will not fail," she replied. "What you are, you were before my faith was, and will be afterwards, when..."

She did not finish, but of a sudden recollected herself, lounged back in her chair, and laughed quietly, with humorous appeal to his sympathy.

"So, that is settled: I am not to be permitted to take my jewels to Paris alone. What then, monsieur?"

"I would suggest you write your bankers," said Duchemin seriously, "and tell them that you contemplate bringing to Paris some valuables to entrust to their care. Say that you prefer not to travel without protection, and request them to send you two trusted men—detectives, they may call them—to guard you on the way. They will do so without hesitation, and you may then feel entirely at ease."

"Not otherwise, you think?"

"Not otherwise, I feel sure."

"But why? You have been so persistent about this matter, monsieur. Ever since that night when those curious people stopped here in the rain.... Can it be that you suspect them of evil designs upon my trinkets?" Duchemin shrugged. "Who knows, madame, what they were? You call them 'curious'; for my part I find the adjective apt."

"I fancy I know what you thought about them..."

"And that is—?"

"That they rather led the conversation to the subject of my jewels."

"Such was my thought, indeed."

"Perhaps you were right. If so, they learned all they needed to know."

"Except possibly the precise location of your strong box."

"They may have learned even that."

"How, madame?"

"I don't know; but if they were what you suspect they were, they were clever people, far more clever than poor provincials like us." She took a moment for thought. "But I am puzzled by their harping on the subject of—I think they called him the Lone Wolf. Now why should they do that?"

Duchemin was constrained to take refuge in another shrug. "Who knows?" he iterated. "If they were as clever as we assume, doubtless they were clever enough to have a motive even for that."

"He really existed, this Lone Wolf? He was more than a creature of fable?"

"Assuredly, madame. For years he was the nightmare and the scourge of people of wealth in every capital of Europe."

"Why did they call him the Lone Wolf, do you know?"

"I believe some imaginative Parisian journalist fixed that sobriquet on him, in recognition of the theory upon which, apparently, he operated."

"And that was—?"

"That a criminal, at least a thief, to be successful must be absolutely anonymous and friendless; in which case nobody can betray him. As madame probably understands, criminals above a certain level of intelligence are seldom caught by the police except through the treachery of accomplices. The Lone Wolf seems to have exercised a fair amount of ingenuity and prudence in making his coups; and inasmuch as he had no confederates, not a living soul in his confidence, there was no one who could sell him to the authorities."

"Still, in the end—?"

"Oh, no, madame. He was never caught. He simply ceased to thieve."

"I wonder why..."

"I believe because he fell in love and considered good faith with the object of his affections incompatible with a career of crime."

"So he gave up crime. How romantic! And the woman: did she appreciate the sacrifice?"

"While she lived, yes, madame. Or so they say. Unfortunately, she died."

"And then—?"

"So far as is known the converted enemy to Society did not backslide; the Lone Wolf never prowled again."

"An extraordinary story."

"But is not every story that has to do with the workings of the human soul? What one of us has not buried in him a story quite as strange? Even you—"

"Monsieur deceives himself. I am simply—what you see."

"But what I see is not simple, but complex and intriguing beyond expression. A woman of your sort walling herself up in a wilderness, renouncing the world, renouncing life itself in its very heyday—!"

"But hardly that, monsieur."

"Then I am stupid..."

"I will explain." The sleekly coiffured brown head bent low over hands that played absently with their jewels. "To a woman of my sort, monsieur, life is not life without love. I lived once for a little time, then love was taken out of my life. When my sorrow had spent itself, I knew that I must find love again if I were to go on living. What was I to do? I knew that love is not found through seeking. So I waited..."

"Such philosophy is rare, madame."

"Philosophy? No: I will not call it that. It was knowledge—the heart wise in its own wisdom, surpassing mine, telling me that if I would but be patient love would one day seek me out again, wherever I might wait, and give me once more—life."

She rose and went to the window, paused there, turning back to Duchemin a face composed but fairer for a deepened flush.

"But this is not writing to my bankers, monsieur," she said in a changed but steady voice. "I must do that at once if I am to get the letter in to-day's post."

"If madame will accept the advice of one not without some experience..."

"What else does monsieur imagine I am doing?"

"Then you will write privately and burn your blotting paper; after which you will post the letter with your own hands, letting nobody see the address."

"And when shall I say I will make the journey?"

"As soon as your bankers can send their people to the Chateau de Montalais."

"That will be in three days..."

"Or less."

"As soon as your bankers can send their people to the Chateau de Montalais."

"That will be in three days..."

"Or less." "But you will not be strong enough to leave us within another week."

"What has that to do—?"

"This: that I refuse positively to go away while you are our guest, monsieur. Somebody must watch over you and see that you come to no harm."

"But madame—!"

"No: I am quite resolved. Monsieur has too rare a genius for getting in the way of danger. I shall not leave the chateau before you do. So I shall set this day week for the date of my journey."



IX

BLIND MAN'S BUFF

In short, Monsieur Duchemin considered convalescence at the Chateau de Montalais one of the most agreeable of human estates, and counted the cost of admission thereunto by no means dear; and with all his grousing (in respect of which he was conscientious, holding it at once a duty and a perquisite of his disability) he was at heart in no haste whatever to be discharged as whole and hale. The plain truth is, the man malingered shamelessly and even took a certain pride in the low cunning which enabled him to pose on as the impatient patient when he was so very well content to take his ease, be waited on and catered to, and listen for the footsteps of Eve de Montalais and the accents of her delightful voice.

These last he heard not often enough by half. Still, he seldom lacked company in the long hours when Eve was busy with the petty duties of her days, and left him lorn. Madame de Sevenie had taken a flattering fancy to him, and frequently came to gossip beside his bed or chair. He found her tremendously entertaining, endowed as she was with an excellent and well-stored memory, a gift of caustic characterization and a pretty taste in the scandal of her bygone day and generation, as well as with a mind still active and better informed on the affairs of to-day than that of many a Parisienne of the haute monde and half her age.

During the first bedridden week, Georges d'Aubrac visited Duchemin at least once each day to compare wounds and opinions concerning the inefficiency of the local gendarmerie. For that body accomplished nothing toward laying by the heels the authors of the attacks on d'Aubrac and Duchemin, but (for all Duchemin can say to the contrary) is still following "clues" with the fruitless diligence of so many American police detectives on the trail of a bank messenger accused of stealing bonds.

A decent, likable chap, this d'Aubrac, as reticent as any Englishman concerning his part in the Great War. Duchemin had to talk round the subject for days before d'Aubrac confessed that his record in the French air service had won him the title of Ace; and this only when Duchemin found out that d'Aubrac was at present, in his civilian capacity, managing director of an establishment manufacturing airplanes.

At the end of that week he left to go back to his business; and Louise de Montalais replaced him at Duchemin's side, where she would sit by the hour reading aloud to him in a voice as colourless as her unformed personality. Nevertheless Duchemin was grateful, and with the young girl as guide for the nth time sailed with d'Artagnan to Newcastle and rode with him toward Belle Isle, with him frustrated the machinations of overweening Aramis and yawned over the insufferable virtues of that most precious prig of all Romance, Raoul, Vicomte de Bragelonne.

But the third week found Duchemin mending all too rapidly; the time came too soon when the word "to-morrow" held for him all the dread significance, he assured himself, that it holds for a condemned man on the eve of execution.

To-morrow the detectives commissioned by Madame de Montalais's bankers would arrive. To-morrow Eve would set out on her journey to Paris. To-morrow Andre Duchemin must walk forth from the Chateau de Montalais and turn his back on all that was most dear to him in life.

On that last day he saw even less of Eve than usual. She was naturally busy with preparations for her trip, a trifle excited, too; it would be only the third time she had left the chateau for as long as overnight since returning to it after her husband's death. When Duchemin did see her, she seemed at once exhilarated and subdued, and he thought to detect in her attitude toward him a trace of apprehensiveness.

She knew, of course; Duchemin at thirty-eight was too well versed in lore of women to dream he had succeeded in keeping his secret from the fine intuition of one of thirty. But—he told himself a bit bitterly—she ought to know him well enough by this time to know more, that she need not fear he would ever speak his heart to her. The social gulf that set their lives apart was all too wide to be spanned but by a miracle of love requited; and he had too much humility and naivete of soul to presume that such a thing could ever come to pass. And even if it should, there remained the insuperable barrier of her fortune, in the face of which the pretensions of a penniless adventurer could only seem silly....

He was permitted to be about the house in the afternoon and to dine with Eve and Louise in the draughty, shadow-haunted dining hall. Madame de Sevenie was indisposed and kept to her room; she suffered from time to time from an affection of the heart, nothing remarkable in one of her advanced age and so no excuse for unusual misgivings. But the presence of the young girl in some measure, and the emotions of the others in greater, lent the conversation a constraint against which Duchemin's attempts at levity could not prevail. The talk languished and revived fitfully only when some indifferent, impersonal topic offered itself. The weather, for example, enjoyed unwonted vogue. It happened to be drizzling; Eve was afraid of a rainy morrow. She confessed to a minor superstition, she did not really like to start a journey in the rain...

She smoked only one cigarette with Duchemin in the drawing-room after dinner, then excused herself to wait on Madame de Sevenie and finish her packing. It was time, too, for Duchemin to remember he was still an invalid and subject to a regime prescribed by his surgeon: he must go early to his bed.

"I am sorry, mon ami," the woman said, hesitating after she had left her chair before the fire; whose play of broken light was, perhaps, responsible for some of the softness of her eyes as she faced Duchemin and gave him her hand—"sorry our last evening together must be so brief. I am in the mood to sit and talk with you for hours to-night..."

"If you could only manage even one, madame!" She shook her head gently, with a wistful smile. "There will never be another night..."

"I know, I know; and the knowledge makes me very sad. I have enjoyed knowing you, monsieur, even under such distressing circumstances..."

"My wound? You tempt me to seek another!"

"Don't be absurd." He was still holding her hand, and she made no move to free it, but seeming forgetful of it altogether, lingered on. "I shall miss you, monsieur. The chateau will seem lonely when I return, I shall feel its loneliness more than I have ever felt it."

"And the world, madame," said Duchemin—"the world into which I must go—it, too, will seem a lonely place,—a desert, haunted..."

"You will soon forget ... Chateau de Montalais."

"Forget! when all I shall have will be my memories—!"

"Yes," she said, "we shall both have memories..." And suddenly the rich, deep voice quoted in English: "'Memories like almighty wine.'"

She offered to disengage her hand, but Duchemin tightened gently the pressure of his fingers, bowing over it and, as he looked up for her answer, murmuring: "With permission?" She gave the slightest inclination of her head. His lips touched her hand for a moment; then he released it. She went swiftly to the door, faltered, turned.

"We shall see each other in the morning—to say au revoir. With us, monsieur, it must never be adieu."

She was gone; but she had left Duchemin with a singing heart that would not let him sleep when he had gone to bed, stared blankly at the last chapter of Bragelonne for an hour, and put out his candle.

Till long after midnight he tossed restlessly, bedevilled alternately by melancholy and exhilaration, or lay staring blindly into the darkness, striving to focus his thoughts upon the abstract, a hopeless effort; trying to think where to go to-morrow, whither to turn his feet when the gates of Paradise had closed behind him, and knowing it did not matter, he did not care, that hereafter one place and another would be the same to him, so that they were not the place of her abode.

The chateau was as still as any castle of enchantment; only an old clock in the drawing room, two floors below, tolled the slow hours; and through the open windows came the mournful murmur of the river, a voice of utter desolation in the night.

He heard the clock strike two, and shortly after, in a fit of exasperation, thinking to discipline his mind with reading, lighted the candle on the bedside stand, found his book, and fumbled vainly in the little silver casket beside the candlestick for a cigarette.

Now a sincere smoker can do without smoking for hours on end, as long as the deprivation is voluntary. But let him be without the wherewithal to smoke if he have the mind to, and he must procure it instantly though the heavens fall. It was so then with Duchemin. And what greater folly could there be than to want a cigarette and do without one when there were plenty in the drawing-room, to be had for the taking?

He rose, girdled about him his dressing-gown, took up the candlestick, opened his door. The hallway was as empty and silent as he had expected to find it. He had no fear of disturbing the household, for his slippers were of felt and silent and the stairs were of stone and creakless.

Shielding the candle flame with his hand, and somewhat dazzled by the light thus cast into his face, he passed the floor on which the three ladies of the chateau had each her separate suite of rooms, and gained the drawing-room as noiselessly as any ghost.

The fire had died down till only embers glowed, faint under films of ash, like an old anger growing cold with age.

The cigarettes were not where he had expected to find them, near one end of a certain table. Duchemin put down the candlestick and moved toward the other end, discovering the box he sought as soon as his back was turned to the light. In the same breath this last went out.

He stood for a moment transfixed in astonishment. There were no windows open, no draughts that he could feel, nothing to account for the flame expiring as it had, suddenly, without one flicker of warning. An insane thing to happen to one, at such an hour, in such a place...

Involuntarily memory harked back to the night of his first dinner in the chateau, when the shadows had danced so weirdly, and the strange notion had come to him that they were like famished spectres, greedy of the lights, yearning to spring and snatch and feed upon them, as wolves might snatch at chops.

A mad fancy...

When he turned hack to relight the candle, it was gone.

At least he must have been mistaken as to the exact spot where he had placed it. Perplexed, he pawed over all that end of the table. But no candlestick was there.

He straightened up sharply, and stood quite still, listening. No sound...

His vision spent itself fruitlessly against the blackness, which the closed window draperies rendered absolute but for those dull, sardonic eyes of dying embers.

In spite of himself he knew a moment when flesh crawled and the hair seemed to stir upon the scalp; for Duchemin knew he was not alone; there was something else in the room with him, something nameless, stealthy, silent, sinister; having knowledge of him, where he stood and what he was, while he knew nothing of it, only that it was there, keeping surveillance over him, itself unseen in its cloak of darkness.

Then with a resolute effort of will he mastered his imagination, reminding himself that spirits gifted in the matter of moving material objects such as candlesticks, frequent only the booths of seance mediums.

Without a sound he stepped back one pace, then two to one side, away from the table. They were long strides; when he paused he was well away from the spot where he had stood when the light was extinguished and where, consequently, a hostile move might be expected to develop. Otherwise his plight was little bettered; he did not quite know where he was in relation to the doors and the pieces which furnished the room. That old-time habit of memorising the arrangement of furniture in a room immediately on entering it had failed through disuse in course of years. He was acquainted with the plot of this drawing-room in a general way but by no means with such accuracy as was needed to serve him now.

So he waited, straining to cheat that opaque pall of night of one little hint as to his whereabouts who had removed the light. Resurrecting another old trick, he measured time by pulse-beats, and stood unstirring and all but breathless for three full minutes. But perceptions stimulated to extra sensibility by apprehension of danger detected nothing. And his hearing was so keen, he told himself, no breath could have been drawn in that time without his having knowledge of it. Still, he knew he was not alone. Somewhere in that encompassing murk an alien and inimical intelligence skulked.

Baffled by powers of patience and immobility that mocked his own, he moved again, edging toward the entrance-hall, a progress so gradual he could have sworn it must be imperceptible. Yet he had a feeling, a suspicion, perhaps merely a fear, that he did not stir a finger without the other's knowledge.

A hand extended about a foot encountered the back of an upholstered chair, which he identified by touch. Assuming the chair to be occupying its usual position, he need only continue in a line parallel with the line of its back to find the entrance-hall in about six paces.

Within three he stopped dead, as if paralysed by sudden instinctive perception of that other presence close by.

Whether he had drawn near to it, inch by inch, or whether it, seeing him about to make good his escape, had crept up on him, he could not say. He only knew that it was there, within arm's-length, waiting, tense, prepared, and somehow deadly in its animosity.

Digging the nails deep into the palms of his hands, until the pain relieved his nervous tension, he waited once more, one minute, two, three.

But nothing ...

Then very slowly he lifted an arm, and swept it before him right and left. At one point of the arc, a trifle to his left, his finger-tips brushed something. He thought he detected a stir in the darkness, a stifled sound, stepped forward quickly, clawing the air, and caught between his fingers a wisp of some material, like silk, sheer and glace, a portion of some garment.

Simultaneously he heard a smothered cry, of anger or alarm, and the night seemed to split and be rent into fragments by a thousand shooting needles of coloured flame.

Smitten brutally on the point of the jaw, his head jerked back, he reeled and fell against a chair, which went to the floor with a muffled crash.



X

BUT AS A MUSTARD SEED...

Duchemin woke up in his bed, glare of sunlight in his eyes.

From the latter circumstance he reckoned, rather groggily, it must be about the middle of the forenoon; for not till about that time did the sun work round to the windows.

Still heavy with lees of slumber, his wits occupied themselves sluggishly with questions concerning the enervation that oppressed him, the reason for his oversleeping, why he had not been called. Then, reminded that noon was the hour set for Eve's departure, fear lest she get away without his bon voyage brought him sharply up in a sitting position.

He groaned aloud and with both hands clutched temples that promised to split with pain that crashed between them, stroke upon stroke, like blows of a mighty hammer.

A neatly fastened bandage held in place, above one ear, a wad of cotton once saturated with arnica, now dry. Duchemin removed these and with gingerly fingers explored, discovering a noble swelling on the side of his head, where the cotton had been placed.

Also, his jaw was stiff, and developed a protesting ache whenever he opened his mouth.

Then Duchemin remembered ... That is to say, he recalled clearly all that had led up to that vicious blow from out of the darkness which had found his jaw with such surprising accuracy; and he was visited by one or two rather indefinite memories of subsequent events.

He remembered labouring up the stairs, half walking, half supported by the strong arms of the footman, Jean, who was in shirt, trousers and slippers only, while in front of them moved the shape of Madame de Montalais en negligee, carrying a lighted candle and constantly looking back.

Then he had an impression of being lifted into his bed by Jean, and of having his head and shoulders raised by the same arms some time later, so that he might drink a draught of some concoction with a pleasant aromatic taste and odour, in a glass held to his lips by Eve de Montalais.

And then (Duchemin had a faint smile of appreciation for a mental parallel to the technique of the cinema) a singularly vivid and disturbing memory of her face of loveliness, exquisitely tender and compassionate, bended so near to his, faded away into a dense blank of sleep ...

Somewhat to his surprise he found the watch on his wrist ticking away as callously as though its owner had not experienced a prolonged lapse of consciousness. It told him that Eve would leave the chateau within another hour.

He got up hastily, grunting a bit—though his headache was no longer so acute; or else he was growing accustomed to it—and ringing for the valet-de-chambre ordered his petit dejeuner. Before this was served he spent several thrilling minutes under an icy shower and emerged feeling more on terms with himself and the world.

The valet-de-chambre brought with his tray the announcement that Madame de Montalais presented her compliments and would be glad to see monsieur at his convenience in the grand salon. So Duchemin made short work of his dressing, his cafe-au-lait and half a roll, and hurried down to the drawing-room.

Seated in an easy chair, in the tempered light of an awninged window which stood open on the terrasse, nothing in her pose—she was waiting quietly, hands folded in her lap—and nothing in her countenance, in the un-lined brow, the grave, serene eyes, lent any colour to his apprehensions. And yet in his heart he had known that he would find her thus, and alone, no matter what had happened....

Her profound reverie disturbed by his approach, she rose quickly, advancing to meet Duchemin with both hands offered in sympathy.

"My dear friend! You are suffering—?"

He met this with a smiling denial. "Not now; at first, yes; but since my bath and coffee, I'm as right as a trivet. And you, madame?"

"A little weary, monsieur, otherwise quite well."

She resumed her chair, signing to Duchemin to take one nearby. He drew it closer before sitting down.

"But madame is not dressed for her journey!"

"No, monsieur. I have postponed it—" a slight pause prefaced one more word—"indefinitely."

At this confirmation of the fears which had been haunting him, Duchemin nodded slightly.

"But the men sent here by your bankers—?"

"They have not yet arrived; we may expect them at any moment now."

"I see," said Duchemin thoughtfully; and then—"May I suggest that we continue our conversation in English. One never knows who may overhear..."

Her eyebrows lifted a little, but she adopted the suggestion without other demur.

"The servants?"

He nodded: "Or anybody."

"Then you have guessed—?"

"Broadly speaking, everything, I fancy. Not in any detail, naturally. But one puts two and two together ... I may as well tell you to begin with: I was wakeful last night, and finding no cigarettes in my room, came down here to get some. I left my candle on the table—there. As soon as my back was turned, somebody took it away and put it out. A few minutes later, while I was trying to steal out of the room, I ran into a fist..."

"Yes," she said thoughtfully; and with some hesitation added: "I, too, found it not easy to sleep. But I heard nothing till that chair crashed. Then I got up to investigate ... and found you lying there, senseless. In falling your head must have struck the leg of the table."

"You came down here—alone?"

"I listened first, heard no sound, saw no light; but I had to know what the noise meant..."

"Still, you came downstairs alone!"

"But naturally, monsieur."

"I don't believe," said Duchemin sincerely, "the world holds a woman your peer for courage."

"Or curiosity?" she laughed. "At all events, I found you, but could do nothing to rouse you. So I called Jean, and he helped me get you upstairs again."

"Where does Jean sleep?"

"In the servants' quarters, on the third floor, in the rear of the house."

"It must have taken you some time..."

"Several minutes, I fancy. Jean sleeps soundly."

"When you came back with him—or at any time—did you see or hear—?"

"Nothing out of the normal—nobody. Indeed, I at first believed you had somehow managed to overexert yourself and had fainted—or had tripped on something and, falling, hurt your head."

"Later, then, you found reason to revise that theory?"

"Not till early this morning."

"Please tell me..."

"Well, you see ... It all seemed so strange, I couldn't sleep when I went back to bed, I lay awake, puzzled, uneasy. It was broad daylight before I noticed that the screen which stands in front of my safe was out of place. The safe is built into the solid wall, you know. I got up then, and found the safe door an inch or so ajar. Whoever opened it last night, closed it hastily and neglected to shoot the bolts."

"And your jewels, of course—?"

She pronounced with unbroken composure: "They have left me nothing, monsieur."

Duchemin groaned and hung his head. "I knew it!" he declared. "No credit to me, however. Naturally, whoever stole my candle and knocked me out didn't break into the house for the fun of it ... I imagine that, what with finding me insensible, waking Jean up, and getting me back in my room, you must have been away from yours fully half an hour."

"Quite that long."

"It couldn't have been better arranged for the thieves," he declared. "If only I had stayed in my room—!"

"If you had, it might possibly have been worse—mightn't it? The burglar—or burglars—knew precisely the location of the safe. They were coming to my room, and if they had found me awake ... I think it quite possible, my friend, that your appetite for cigarettes may have saved my life."

"There's consolation in that," he confessed—"if it's any to you, who have lost so much."

"But perhaps I shall get my jewellery back."

"What makes you think that?"

"There's always the chance, isn't there? And I believe I have a clue, as they call it, an indefinite one but something to work from, perhaps."

"What is that?"

"It seems to me it must have been what the police at home call 'an inside job'; because whoever it was apparently knew the combination of the safe."

"You mean it wasn't broken open. That signifies nothing. I've never seen yours, but I know something about safes, and I'll undertake to open it without the combination within ten minutes."

"You, Monsieur Duchemin?"

He nodded gloomily. "It's no great trick, once one knows it; with an ordinary safe, that is, such as you're apt to find in a private home. Have you looked for finger-prints?"

"Not yet."

"Have you any idea how the thieves broke in?"

"Through this very window, I imagine. You see, I was up early and, in my agitation, dressed hurriedly and came downstairs hours before I usually do. The servants were already up, but hadn't opened the living rooms for the day. I myself found this window unlatched. The fastening is insecure, you see; it has been out of order for some time."

Duchemin was on his feet, examining the latch. "True," he said; "but might not the wind—?"

"There was no wind to speak of last night, monsieur, and what there was didn't blow from that quarter." She added as Duchemin stepped out through the window: "Where are you going?"

"To look for footprints on the tiling. It was misting when I went to bed, and with the mud—"

"But there was a heavy shower just before daybreak. If the thieves had left any tracks on the terrasse, the rain must have washed them clean away. I have already looked."

With a baffled gesture, Duchemin turned back to her side.

"You have communicated with the police, of course."

She interrupted with an accent almost of impatience: "I have told nobody but you, monsieur, not even my mother and Louise."

"But why?"

"I wanted to consult you first, and..." She broke off sharply to ask: "Yes, Jean: what is it?"

The footman had entered to bring her cards over which Eve de Montalais arched her brows.

"Show the gentlemen in, please."

The servant retired.

"The men from Paris, madame?"

"Yes. You will excuse me—?"

Duchemin bowed. "But one word: You can hardly do better than put the case in the hands of these gentlemen. They are apt to be of a good order of intelligence when selected to serve bankers, you know."

"I understand," she replied in her cool, sweet voice.

She went to meet the men in the middle of the room. Duchemin turned back to the window, where, standing in the recess, with the light behind him, he could watch and reflect without his interest or emotions, becoming too apparent. And he was grateful for that moment of respite in which to compose and prepare himself. Within an hour, he knew, within a day or so at most, he must be under arrest, charged with the theft of the Montalais jewels, damned by his yesterday as much as by every turn of circumstantial evidence....

The men whom Jean ushered in proved to be, outwardly, what Duchemin had expected: of a class only too well-known to him, plain men of the people, unassuming, well-trained and informed, sceptical; not improbably shrewd hands in the game of thief-taking.

Saluting Madame de Montalais with calculated ceremony, one acting as spokesman offered to present their credentials. Duchemin had a start of surprise to dissemble when he saw the woman wave these aside.

"It is not necessary, messieurs," she said. "I regret very much to have inconvenienced you, although of course it will make no difference in your bill; but I have brought you here to no purpose. The necessity for my contemplated journey no longer exists."

There were expressions of surprise to which she put an end with the words, accompanied by a charming smile: "Frankly, messieurs, I am afraid you will have to make allowances for the traditional inconsistency of my sex: I have simply changed my mind."

There was nothing more to be said. Openly more than a little mystified, the men withdrew.

The smile with which she dismissed them lingered, delightful and enigmatic, as Eve recognised the stupefaction with which Duchemin moved to remonstrate with her.

"Madame!" he cried in a low voice of wonder and protest—"why did you do that? Why let them go without telling them—?"

"I must have had a reason, don't you think, Monsieur Duchemin?"

"I don't understand you, madame. You treat the loss of jewels as if it must be a secret private to ourselves, to you and to me!"

"Possibly that is my wish, monsieur." He gave a gesture of bewilderment. "Perhaps," she continued, meeting his blank stare with eyes in which amusement gave place to a look almost apologetic yet utterly kind—"perhaps I have more faith in you..."

Duchemin bowed his head over hands so tightly knitted that the knuckles were white with strain.

"You would not have faith," he said in a low voice, "if you knew—"

She interrupted in a gentle voice: "Are you sure?"

"—What I must tell you!"

"My friend," she said: "tell me nothing that would distress you."

He did not immediately reply; the struggle going on within him was only too plainly betrayed by engorged veins upon his forehead and exceeding pallor of countenance.

"If you had told those detectives," he said at length, without looking up, "you must have known very soon. They must have found me out without too much delay. And who in the world would ever believe anybody else guilty when they learned that Andre Duchemin, your guest for three weeks, was only an alias for Michael Lanyard, otherwise the Lone Wolf?"

"But you are wrong, monsieur," she replied, without the long pause of surprise he had anticipated. "I should not have believed you guilty."

Dumb with wonder, he showed her a haggard face. And she had for him, in the agony and the abasement of his soul, still quivering from the rack of emotion that alone could have extorted his confession—she had for him the half-smile, tender and compassionate, that it is given to most men to see but once in a lifetime on the lips and in the eyes of the woman beloved. "Then you knew—!"

"I suspected."

"How long—?"

"Since the night those strange people were here and tried to make you unhappy with their stupid talk of the Lone Wolf. I suspected, then; and when I came to know you better, I felt quite sure..."

"And now you know—yet hesitate to turn me over to the police!"

"No such thought has ever entered my head. You see—I'm afraid you don't quite understand me—I have faith in you."

"But why?"

She shook her head. "You mustn't ask me that."

At the end of a long moment he said in a broken voice: "Very well: I won't ... Not yet awhile ... But this great gift of faith in me—I can't accept that without trying to repay it."

"If you accept, my friend, you repay."

"No," said Michael Lanyard—"that's not enough. Your jewels must come back to you, if I go to the ends of the earth to find them. And"—man's undying vanity would out—"if there's anyone living who can find them for you, it is I."



XI

AU REVOIR

Early in the afternoon Eve de Montalais made it possible for Lanyard to examine the safe in her boudoir without exciting comment in the household. He was nearly an hour thus engaged, but brought back to the drawing-room, in addition to the heavy magnifying glass which he had requisitioned to eke out his eyesight, only a face of disappointment.

"Nothing," he retorted to Eve. "Evidently a gentleman of rigidly formal habits, our friend of last night—wouldn't dream of calling at any hour without his gloves on.... I've been over every inch of the safe, outside and in, and the frame of the screen too, but—nothing. However, I've been thinking a bit as well, I hope to some purpose."

The woman nodded intently as he drew up his chair and sat down.

"You have made a plan," she stated rather than enquired.

"I won't call it that, not yet. We've got too little to go on. But one or two things seem fairly obvious, therefore must not be left out of consideration. Assuming for the sake of argument that Mr. Whitaker Monk and his lot had a hand in this—"

"Ah! you think that?"

"I admit I'm unfair. But first they quarrel with my sense of the normal by being too confoundedly picturesque, too rich and brilliant, too sharp and smart and glib, too—well!—theatrical; like characters from the cast of what your American theatre calls a crook melodrama. And then, if their intentions were so blessed pure and praiseworthy, what right had they to make so many ambiguous gestures?"

"Leading the talk up to my jewels, you mean?"

"I mean every move they made: all too suspiciously smooth, too well rehearsed in effect. That stop to dine in Nant with the storm coming on, when they could easily have made Millau before it broke: what else was that for but to stage a 'break-down' at your door at a time when it would be reasonable to beg the shelter and hospitality of your roof? Then Madame la Comtesse de Lorgnes—whoever she is—must get her feet wet, an excellent excuse for asking to be introduced to your boudoir, so she may change her shoes and stockings and incidentally spy out the precise location of your safe. And when their ear is hauled into the garage, Mr. Phinuit must go to help, which gives him a chance to stroll at leisure through the lower part of the house and note every easy way of breaking in. Mr. Monk casually notes your likeness to the little girl he once met, he says, in your father's office; something you tell me you don't recall at all. And that places you as the veritable owner of the Anstruther jewels, and no mistake. Then—Madame de Lorgnes guiding the conversation by secret signals which I intercept—somebody recognises me as the Lone Wolf, in spite of the work of years and a new-grown beard; and you are obliquely warned that, if your jewels should happen to disappear it's more than likely the Lone Wolf will prove to be the guilty party. At any rate, they will be ever so much obliged if you'll believe he is, it'll save so much trouble all around. Finally: when your ex-chauffeur—what's his name—?" "Albert Dupont."

"A name as unique in France as John Smith is in England ... When Albert Dupont tries to take my life, as a simple and natural act of vendetta—"

"You really think it was that?"

"I recognised the beast when he let off that pistol at my head. I was in his way here, and he owed me one besides for my interference at Montpellier that night.... When Dupont half murders me and I'm laid up on your hands for nearly a month, our friends with designs on your jewels thoughtfully wait before they strike till I am able to be up and about, consequently in a position to be accused of a crime which no one would put past the Lone Wolf. Oh, I think we can fairly count Mr. Monk and his friends in on this coup!"

"I am sure of it," said Eve de Montalais. "But Albert: is he one of them, their employee or confrere?"

"Dupont? I fancy not. I may be wrong, but I believe he is entirely on his own—quite independent of the Monk party."

"But his attack on us at Montpellier, and later on you here, coming at about the same time as their visit—"

"Coincidence, if you ask me. The weight of probability is against any collusion between the two parties."

"Please explain..."

"Dupont is an Apache of Paris. The language he used to me when we fought in that carriage at Montpellier was the slang of the lowest order of Parisian criminal, used spontaneously, under stress of great excitement, with no intent to mislead. These other people were—if anything but poor misjudged lambs—swell mobsmen, the elite of the criminal world. The two castes never work together because they can't trust each other. The swell mobsman works with his head and only kills when cornered. The Apache kills first, as a matter of instinct, and then thinks—to the best of his ability. The Apache knows the swell mobsman can outwit him. The swell mobsman knows the Apache will assassinate him at the first hint of a suspicion of his good faith. So they rarely if ever make use of each other."

"You say 'rarely.' But possibly in this instance?"

"I think not. Dupont was employed as your chauffeur, you've told me, upwards of a month. He had ample opportunity to familiarise himself with the premises and pass the information on, if acting in connivance with those others. But we know he didn't, or they would never have shown themselves here in order to secure information they couldn't have got otherwise."

"I see, monsieur," said the woman. "Then you think the thief may have been any one of the Monk party—"

"Or several of them acting in concert," Lanyard interrupted, smiling.

"Or Albert."

"Not Dupont. Unless I underestimate him gravely he is incapable of such finesse. He is a thug first, a thief afterwards. He would have killed me out of hand if it had been he who had me at his mercy, down here, in the dark. Nor would he have been able to open the safe without using an explosive. That, indeed, is why, as I understand him, Dupont attacked you at Montpellier. If he could have disposed of you there, he would have returned here to work upon the safe and blow it at his leisure, fobbing the servants off with some yarn, or if they proved too troublesome intimidating them, killing one or two if necessary."

"But why has he made no other attempt—?"

"You forget the police have been making the neighbourhood fairly warm for him. Besides, he wanted me out of the way before he tried housebreaking. If he had succeeded in murdering me that night, I don't doubt he would have burglarised the chateau soon after. But he failed; the police were stirred up to renewed activity; and if Monsieur Dupont is not now safely back in Paris, hiding in some warren of Montmartre or Belleville, I am much mistaken in the man—a type I know well."

"Eliminating Albert then—"

"There remains the Monk lot."

"You are satisfied that one or all of its members committed the theft last night?"

"Not less than two, probably; say Phinuit, at a venture, and his alleged brother, Jules, the chauffeur, both Americans, adventurous, intelligent and resourceful. Yes; I believe that."

"And your plan of campaign is based on this conclusion?"

"That's a big name"—Lanyard's smile was diffident, a plea for suspended judgment on his lack of inventiveness—"for a lame idea. I believe our only course is to let them believe they have been successful in every way, and so lull them into carelessness with a false sense of security."

A wrinkle appeared between the woman's eyebrows. "How do you propose to accomplish that?" she asked in a voice that betrayed ready antagonism to what her intuition foresaw.

"Very simply. They hoped to shift suspicion on to my shoulders. Well, let them believe they have done so."

The waiting hostility developed in a sharp negative: "Ah, no!"

"But yes," Lanyard insisted. "It's so simple. Nobody here knows as yet that your jewels have been stolen, only you and I. Very well: you will not discover your loss and announce it till to-morrow morning. By that time Andre Duchemin will have disappeared mysteriously. The room to which he will retire to-night will be found vacant in the morning, his bed unslept in. Obviously the scoundrel would not fly the chateau between two suns without a motive. Inform the police of the fact and let them draw their own conclusions: before evening all France will know that Andre Duchemin is suspected of stealing the Montalais jewels, and is a fugitive from justice."

"No, monsieur," the woman iterated decidedly.

"You will observe," he continued, lightly persuasive, "it is Andre Duchemin who will be accused, madame, not Michael Lanyard, never the Lone Wolf! The heart of man is in truth a dark forest, and vanity the only light to guide us through its mazes. I confess I am jealous of my reputation as a reformed character. But Andre Duchemin is merely a name, a nom de guerre; you may saddle him with all the crimes in the calendar if you like, and welcome. For when I say he will disappear to-night, I mean it quite literally: Andre Duchemin will nevermore be heard of in this world."

She had a smile quivering on her lips, yet shook her head.

"Monsieur forgets I learned to know him under the name of Duchemin."

"Ah, madame! do not make me think too kindly of the poor fellow; for whether we like it or not, he is doomed. And if madame, in her charity, means to continue to know me, it must be Michael Lanyard whom she suffers to claim a little portion of her friendship."

Her smile grew wistful, with a tenderness he had the grace not to recognise. Abashed, incredulous, he turned aside his gaze. Then without warning he found her hand at rest in his. "More than a little, monsieur, more than a little friendship only!"

He closed the hand in both his own.

"Then be kind to me, madame, be still more kind; give me this chance to find and restore your jewels. It is the only way, this plan of mine. If we adopt it no one will suffer, only an old alias that is no longer useful. If we do not adopt it, I may not succeed, for the true authors of this crime may prove too wary for me; and the end will be that my best friends will believe the worst of me; even you, madame, even you will not be sure your faith was not misplaced."

"Enough!" the woman begged in a stifled voice. "It shall be as you wish—if you will have it so."

She sought to take away her hand; but Lanyard kissed it before he let it go. And immediately she rose with a murmured, half articulate excuse, and went from the room, leaving him to struggle with himself and that which was in him which was stronger than himself, his hunger for her love, to deny stubbornly the evidence of his senses and end by persuading himself against his will that he was nothing to her more than an object of common kindness such as she would extend to anyone in similar plight.

Because he never could be more....

Those few last hours in the chateau passed swiftly enough, most of them in making plans for his "escape," something which demanded a deal of puzzling over maps and railway guides in the seclusion of his room. Since the next noon must find Andre Duchemin a criminal published and proscribed, he had need to utilise every shred of cunning at his command if he were to reach Paris without being arrested and without undue loss of time.

To take a train at Millau would be simply to invite pursuit; for that was the likeliest point an escaping criminal would strike for, a stopping place for all trains north and southbound. Telegraphic advices would cause every such train to be searched to a certainty. Furthermore, Lanyard had no desire to enter Paris by the direct route from Millau. Not the police alone, but others, enemies even more dangerous, might be expecting him by that route.

On the other hand, the nearest railway station, Combe-Redonde, was equally out of the question, since to gain it one must pass through Nant, where Andre Duchemin was known, and risk being seen, while at Combe-Redonde itself the station people would be apt to remember the monsieur who had recently created a sensation by despatching a code telegram to London.

There was nothing for it, then, but a twenty-mile walk due west across the Causse Larzac by night to Tournemire, where one could get trains in any one of four directions.

Constraint marked that last dinner with Eve de Montalais. They were alone. Louise was dining by the bedside of Madame de Sevenie, who remained indisposed, a shade more so than yesterday. The ill health of this poor lady, indeed, was the excuse Eve had given for putting off her trip to Paris.

Their talk was framed in stilted phrases, inconsecutive. They dared not converse naturally, each fearing to say too little or too much. For the memory of that surge of emotion, transient though it had been, in which their discussion had culminated, that afternoon, stood between them like a warning ghost, an implacable finger sealing its lips and theirs with the sign of silence.

But talk they must, for the benefit of the servants, and talk they did after an uneasy fashion, making specious arrangements for Lanyard's departure on the morrow, when Eve was to drive him to Millau to catch the afternoon rapide for Paris.

Nor was it much better after dinner in the drawing-room. Consciousness of each other and consciousness of self, as each fought to master the emotions inspired by thoughts of their near parting, drove both into the refuge of a dry, insincere, cool impersonality. Lanyard communicated nothing of his plans, though aware his failure to do so might be misconstrued, instil an instinctive if possibly unconscious resentment to render the situation still more difficult. The truth was, he could barely trust himself to speak lest mere words work on his guard like tiny streams that sap the strength of the dike till it breaks and looses the pent and devastating seas.

At half past nine, ending a long silence, Lanyard sat forward in his chair, hesitated, and covered his hesitation by lighting a cigarette.

"I must go now," he said, puffing out the match.

He was aware of her almost imperceptible start of surprise.

"So soon?" she breathed.

"The moon rises not long after ten, and I want to get away without being seen either by the servants or by—anybody who might happen to be passing. You understand."

She nodded. He lingered, frowning at his cigarette.

"With permission, I will write..."

"Please."

"When I have anything to report."

She turned her head full face to him, letting him see her fluttering, indulgent smile.

"You must wait for that?"

"Perhaps," he faltered—"at least, I hope—it won't be long."

"You must wait for that?"

"Perhaps," he faltered—"at least, I hope—it won't be long." "I shall be waiting," she told him simply—"watching every post for word from you. I shan't worry, only for you."

He got up slowly from his chair, and stood half choking with unutterable words.

"I know no way to thank you," he managed to say at last.

"For what?"

"For everything—kindness, charity, sympathy—"

"What are those things?" she demanded with a nervous little laugh. "Words! Just words that you and I use to hide behind, like timid children..." She rose suddenly and offered him her hand. "But I don't think it's any use, my friend, I'm quite sure that neither of us is deceived. No: say nothing more; the time is not yet and—we both can wait. Only know I understand ... Go now"—her fingers tightened round his—"but don't stay away any longer than you must, don't be influenced by silly traditions, false and foolish standards when you think of me. Go now"—she freed her hand and turned away—"but oh, come safely back to me, my dear!"



XII

TRAVELS WITH AN ASSASSIN

Under a sky whose misty silver pulsed with waves of violet light and dim glimmerings of gold, Lanyard, grey with the dust and weariness of twenty leagues of heavy walking, trudged into the sleeping streets of the town of Tournemire.

In the railway station—whose buvette served him such listless refreshment as one may find at railway lunch-counters and nowhere else the world over—a train was waiting with an apathetic crew and a sprinkling of sleepy passengers, for the most part farm and village folk of the department. There was nowhere in evidence any figure resembling that of an agent de police.

Lanyard made enquiry, found that the train was destined for Le Vigan, on the eastern slope of the Cevennes, and purchased a ticket for that point.

Making himself as comfortable as might be in a depressingly third-rate second-class compartment (there was no first class, and the third was far too richly flavoured for his stomach) he cultivated a doze as the train pulled out. But, driven as provincial trains habitually are, in a high spirit of devil-may-care, its first stop woke him up with a series of savage, back-breaking jolts which were translated into jerks when it started on again and fiendishly reiterated at every suspicion of a way-station on the course. So that he presently abandoned all hope of sleep and sought solace in tobacco and the shifting views afforded by the windows. Penetrating the upper valley of the Cernon, the railroad skirted the southern boundary of the Causse Larzac, then laboriously climbed up to the plateau itself; and Lanyard roused to the fact that he was approaching familiar ground from a new angle: the next stop would be Combe-Redonde.

The day was still in its infancy when that halt was made. Aside from the station agent, not a soul waited upon the platform. But one or two passengers were set down and, as the engine began to snort anew, a man darted from behind the tiny structure that housed ticket-office and waiting-room, galloped heavily across the platform, and with nothing to spare threw himself into the compartment immediately behind that wherein Lanyard sat alone.

This manoeuvre was performed so briskly and unexpectedly that Lanyard caught barely a glimpse of the fellow; but one glimpse was enough to convince him he had been wrong in assuming that Monsieur Albert Dupont had sneaked back to Paris to hide from the authorities after failing to assassinate Andre Duchemin more than three weeks ago.

But why—assuming one were not misled by a chance likeness to that heavy but athletic figure so well-remembered—why had Dupont lingered so long in the neighbourhood, in hourly peril of arrest? And why this sudden departure in the chill break of dawn, a move so timed and executed that it wore every sign of haste and fear?

No reasonable explanation offered in solution of either of these riddles; unless, indeed, it were reasonable to believe that lust for vengeance was the ruling passion in the Dupont nature, that the creature had hung about the chateau in hope of getting another chance at Duchemin, and had decided to give it up only on discovering —inexplicably, at this hour—that the latter had stolen away under cover of night. But Lanyard didn't believe that. Neither did he believe that Dupont had had any hand in the robbery of night before last, and was now in tardy flight. In truth, he didn't know what to think, and the wildest flights of an imagination provoked by this mystery were tame and timid in contrast with the truth as he was later to learn it.

To an amateur in sensations there was true piquancy in the thought that one was travelling in company with a thug who had already had two tries for one's life and would not hesitate to essay a third; in the same coach, separated only by the thin partition between the compartments, safe only in the thug's unconsciousness of one's proximity! And this without the privilege of denouncing the man to the police; for to do so now would be to enmesh in the toils of the law not only Albert Dupont, would-be assassin, but Andre Duchemin, charged with stealing the Montalais jewels.

Lanyard would have given something for a peep-hole in the partition, to be able to study the countenance of Dupont unaware that he was under scrutiny. But he had to content himself with keeping vigil at the windows, making sure that Dupont did not drop off at some one of those many way-stations which the train was so scrupulous never to slight.

Monsieur Dupont, however, did not budge a foot out of his compartment before the end of the run; and then Lanyard, purposely delaying, saw Dupont get down from the compartment astern and make for the booking-office at Le Vigan without a glance to right or left—evidencing not the remotest interest in his late company on the train, but rather a complete indifference, an absolute assurance that he had nothing now to fear, and with this a preoccupation of mind so thoroughgoing that Lanyard was able to edge up behind him, when he paused at the guichet, and eavesdrop on his consultation with the clerk of the ticket bureau.

Dupont desired ardently to proceed to Lyons with the least avoidable delay. Under such conditions, according to the Indicateur des Chemins de Fer, his best available route was via Nimes, where the next express from Le Vigan made close connection with a northbound train rapide, due to arrive in Lyons late in the afternoon.

There was, however, this drawback; or so the clerk declared after a dubious summing up of the disreputable Dupont ensemble: whereas one might travel any class as far as Nimes, the rapide for Lyons carried only passengers of the first class.

But, said Dupont, with other blasphemy, all the world knew that the sacred rapides had no sacred accommodations for sacred passengers of the second and third class. Was he not the peer of any sacred first-class pig that ever travelled by train in France? If not, he proved the contrary to his own satisfaction by paying for his ticket from an imposing accumulation of French bank-notes.

Then, with half an hour to wait, he lumbered into the buvette and gorged, while Lanyard—having secured his own transportation for Lyons by the some route—skulked in the offing and kept a close eye on the gourmand.

Having eaten ferociously, Dupont came out, slouched into a seat on a bench and, his thick limbs a-sprawl, consumed cigarette after cigarette in most absolute abstraction of mind.

Observed thus, off his guard and at tolerably close range, with his face clean of soot, he projected a personality so forbidding that Lanyard marvelled at the guilelessness which must have influenced the ladies of Chateau de Montalais to accept the man at his own valuation and give him a place in their household.

The face of fat features was of porcine cast; the forehead low and slanted sharply back into bristles of black hair, the snout long and blunt, the lips flabby, the chin retreating, the jowls pendulous; the eyes a pig's, little, cunning, and predaceous; the complexion sallow and pimply from unholy living, with an incongruous over-layer of sunburn. A type to inspire distrust, one would think, at sight; a nature as repellant as a snake's, and ten times as deadly; in every line and lineament, in every move and gesture, an Apache of the Apaches...

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