As for the baleful reflections with which Dupont was patently concerned to the exclusion of all considerations of either surveillance or environment, Lanyard found himself so inquisitive that he had never a thought but to follow and study the fellow till he surprised his secret, if possible—at least so long as it might seem safe to do so.
Moreover, nothing could have suited his own purpose better than to proceed to Paris by way of Lyons.
Nothing hindered the carrying out of his design. Still lost in thought and inattentive, Dupont entrained for Nimes and at that station changed to the rapide for Lyons, where duly at four o'clock—with Lanyard still a discreet shadow—he alighted in the Gare de Perrache.
Here again fortune favoured the voluntary sleuth. The station was well thronged, a circumstance which enabled him to keep inconspicuously close to his victim. Furthermore, Dupont was obviously looking for somebody, and so distracted. Presently a shabby, furtive little rat of a man nudged his elbow, and Dupont followed him to a corner, where they confabulated in undertones for many minutes; while Lanyard loitered just outside their normal range of vision. An unnecessary precaution: they were unafraid of observation, interested only in their private concerns. The little man did most of the talking; Dupont seeming content with a listening role, and gratified by what he heard. He nodded frequently, and once or twice a grim smile enhanced the ugliness of his mouth, a smile terrible in its contained savagery, fit to make one's blood run cold, that cruelly relished in anticipation the success of some evil scheme.
Not to be able to hear a word was exasperating to a degree....
The smaller villain produced something—a slip of paper—from a waistcoat pocket, and handed it to Dupont, who examined it with disfavour, shaking his head repeatedly to the other's recommendations. Of a sudden he ended the argument by thrusting the slip back into the hands of the jackal, growled a few words of imperative instruction, jerked his thumb toward the ticket bureau, and without more ado turned and strode from the terminus.
Alone, the little man rolled appealing eyes heavenward. Then he shrugged in resignation, and trotted over to the guichet. Lanyard, now with no fear of being recognised, ranged alongside and listened openly.
It seemed that, booked for Paris on the rapide to leave at one-twelve in the morning, this lesser rascal had been assigned a certain sleeping-car berth. Business of displaying the ticket: identified by Lanyard as the object over which the conference had split. Now, however, it appeared that a friend was to journey to Paris by the same train, but in another sleeping-car. It was greatly desired by both that they be separated no farther than necessity might dictate, that this reservation might be exchanged for another in the same carriage with the friend.
Thus far without interruption from the clerk of the ticket bureau. But here ensued inevitably the violent French altercation between the two human beings on either side of the guichet. Then, as suddenly as it had arisen, the squall blew over, an amicable settlement was arrived at, the exchange of reservation was effected, the small scoundrel, with ten thousand thanks and profuse assurances of deathless esteem, departed grinning.
Lanyard secured the rejected berth and went about his business profoundly mystified, but not downhearted. Beyond shadow of fair doubt Dupont was up to some new devilment, but Lanyard would be surprised if its nature failed to develop on the train or at latest upon its arrival in Paris the next morning. For the present he was weary of the sight of the fat Apache, glad to believe he had seen the last of him for some hours; he had much to do on his own part, nothing less in fact than utterly to obliterate from human ken the personality of Andre Duchemin.
This affair involved several purchases; for he was travelling light indeed, having left even his rucksack at the Chateau de Montalais. Nevertheless it was no later than seven in the evening when he left a room which he had engaged in a hotel so pretentious and heavily patronised that he was lost in its ebb and flow of life, an inconsiderable and unconsidered bit of flotsam—and left it a changed man.
The pointed beard of Monsieur Duchemin was no more; and a little stain, artfully applied, had toned the newly exposed flesh to match the tan of the rest. The rough tweed walking-suit had been replaced by a modest and commonplace blue serge, the cap and heavy brown boots by a straw boater and plain black shoes, the loose-throated flannel shirt by one of plain linen with stiff cuffs and a fold collar and neat foulard tie. So easily was Madame de Sevenie's buccaneer metamorphosed into the semblance of a Government clerk!
But this was by no means all. The papers of Andre Duchemin were crisp black ashes in the fireplace of the room which Lanyard had just quitted, all but the letter of credit; and this last was enclosed in an envelope, to be sent to London by registered post with a covering note to request that the unpaid balance be forwarded in French bank-notes to Monsieur Paul Martin, poste restante, Paris; Paul Martin being the name which appeared on an entirely new set of papers of identification which Lanyard had thoughtfully secreted in the lining of the tweed coat before leaving London.
If Lanyard wanted better testimony than that supplied by his bedroom mirror to the thoroughness of the transformation in his looks, he had it unsought, and that twice within an hour.
The first time was when, leaving the hotel to seek the post office and despatch his letter to London, he found himself suddenly face to face with Dupont, who was seated at a cafe table near the hotel entrance and narrowly scrutinising all who passed in and out; covering this occupation with affected interest in the gossip of his companion, the little rat man of the Gare de Perrache.
At this rencontre Lanyard knew a momentary shock of doubt; perhaps he hadn't been so clever as he had thought himself in trailing Dupont all the way from Combe-Re-donde to Lyons. But the beady little eyes of a pig comprehended him in a glance, and rejected him as of positively no interest to Albert Dupont, a complete stranger and a cheap one at that. So he fared serenely on his way, and Dupont gave him never another thought.
Returning, Lanyard was favoured with even less attention; an error in judgment which enabled him to remark that Dupont was in an ugly temper, sullen and snappy, it might be because of a disappointment of some sort, possibly in consequence of the liberal potations indicated by the tall stack of little saucers at his elbow. As for the lesser villain, he was already silly with drink.
One would have been glad of a chance to eavesdrop again upon those two; but there was no vacant place within earshot of their table. Besides Lanyard wanted his dinner. So he re-entered the hotel and sought its restaurant, where the untiring Long Arm of Coincidence took him by the hand and led him to a table immediately adjoining one occupied exclusively by Monsieur le Comte de Lorgnes.
And this one in turn looked Lanyard up and down but, detecting in him not the remotest flavour of reminiscence, returned divided attention to a soup and the door of the restaurant, which he was watching just as closely and impatiently as Dupont, outside, was watching the main entrance, and apparently with as little reward for his pains.
But now, Lanyard told himself, one knew what had dragged Dupont in such hot haste to Lyons. Somehow word had reached him, probably by telegraph, that monsieur le comte was waiting there to keep a rendezvous. And if you asked him, Lanyard would confess his firm conviction that the other party to the rendezvous would prove to be the person (or persons) who had effected the burglary at Chateau de Montalais.
So he settled to keep an eye on monsieur le comte, and promised himself an interesting evening.
But as time passed it became evident that there had been a hitch somewhere; de Lorgnes was only human, he couldn't rendezvous all by himself alone, and nobody turned up to help him out. He was fretting when Lanyard first saw him; before his dinner was half served his nerve was giving way. Continually his distracted gaze sought the door only to turn back in disappointment to his plate. Everlastingly he consulted his watch. His appetite failed, the hand that too often carried a glass to his lips shook so that drops of wine spattered the cloth like blood; he could not even keep a cigarette alive, but burned more matches than tobacco. A heavy sweat bedewed his forehead; the ruddy colour of that plump countenance grew sadly faded, the good-natured features drawn and pinched with worry. By nine o'clock the man was hag-ridden by fear of the unknown, by terror of learning what fault had developed in the calculations of his confreres.
Efforts to fix his mind on an evening newspaper failed miserably. And this was not for lack of interest in the news it published to the citizens of Lyons. For Lanyard had a copy of the same sheet, and knew that Eve had loyally kept her promise; a brief despatch from Millau told of the simultaneous disappearance of one Andre Duchemin and the jewels of Madame de Montalais, and added that the police were already active in the case.
At length, unable longer to endure the growing tension of anxiety and keep up a pretence of eating, de Lorgnes called for his addition and fled the restaurant. Lanyard finished his own meal in haste, and arrived in the foyer of the hotel in time to see de Lorgnes settle his account at the bureau and hear him instruct a porter to have his luggage ready for the one-twelve rapide for Paris. In the meantime, anybody who might enquire for Monsieur le Comte de Lorgnes should be directed to seek him in the cafe.
Thither Lanyard dutifully repaired; and wasted the rest of that evening, which he had thought would prove so amusing, watching Dupont and company watch de Lorgnes, to whom Dupont's barely dissembled interest plainly meant nothing at all, but whose mental anguish grew to be all but unbearable. Nor did the quantities of veeskysoda consumed by the unhappy nobleman help him bear it, though undoubtedly he assured himself it did. By midnight he was more than half-fuddled and wholly in despair. Half an hour later he finished his eighth veeskysoda and wove an unsteady but most dignified way back to the foyer of the hotel.
Immediately Dupont and his fellow, both markedly the worse for wear, paid and left the cafe.
Lanyard returned to his room to get a new-bought travelling bag, and started for the train afoot, a neat brown paper parcel under one arm. On the way he made occasion to cross the Saone by one of its dozen bridges, and paused in the middle of the span to meditate upon the witchery of the night. When he moved on the brown paper parcel was bearing merrily downstream the mortal remains of Andre Duchemin, that is to say his discarded clothing.
In the Gare de Perrache Lanyard witnessed an affecting farewell scene between the little man and Dupont. Not much to his surprise he discovered that the former was not travelling to Paris that night, after all; it was on Dupont's account alone that he had taken so much trouble to secure the change of reservation.
And when Monsieur le Comte de Lorgnes had wavered through the gateway in tow of a luggage-laden porter; and Dupont had torn himself away from his fond familiar and lurched after the count; and Lanyard, after a little wait, had followed in turn: he was able to see for himself that Dupont had contrived to be berthed in the same carriage with de Lorgnes; proving that he did not mean to let the count out of sight, day or night.
Well weary, Lanyard proceeded to his own compartment, in the car ahead, and turned in. A busy day, and not altogether unprofitable; whatever expectations had been thwarted in this mild outcome, one had learned much; and to-morrow one would resume the chase anew and, one rather fancied, learn a deal more.
But he was not of those who sleep well on trains. In spite of his extreme fatigue he woke up every time the rapide stopped. He was awake at Dijon, at four in the morning, and again at Laroche, about a quarter after six. There, peering out of the window to identify the station, he was startled to see the broad, round-shouldered back of Albert Dupont making away across the rails—leaving the train!
It was not feasible to dress and pursue, even had it been wise. And Lanyard was vexed. Dupont, he felt, was hardly playing fair, after giving one every reason to believe he meant to go through to Paris. And what under heaven did the brute think to accomplish in Laroche? Was he still after the Comte de Lorgnes? Then the latter must likewise have fled the train! Or else ...
Something sinister in the slant of the Dupont shoulders, as he vanished, something indescribably evil in his furtive yet heavy tread of a beast of prey, struck a thrill of horror into the mind of Lanyard. He shuddered, and warned himself he must learn to hold his imagination in better check.
The newspapers of Paris, that day, had a sensation that crushed into insignificance the news from Chateau de Montalais: in a compartment which he had occupied alone on the night rapide from Lyons, a man had been found with his throat cut, his clothing ripped to rags, even his luggage slashed to ribbons.
Whether through chance or intention, every possible clue to the victim's identity was missing.
In London, about noon of that day, a gentleman whom Lanyard most often thought of by the name of Wertheimer deciphered a code message whose contempt for customary telegraphic brevity was quite characteristic of the sender, indeed a better voucher for his bona fides than the initials appended in place of a signature. With some editing in the way of punctuation, it follows:
"Dear old bean:—Please advise Prefecture de Police without revealing your source of information, unidentified man found murdered on rapide arriving Gare de Lyon eight-thirty this morning stopped yesterday Hotel Terminus, Lyons, under name of Comte de Lorgnes. During entire evening before entraining he was shadowed by two Apaches, one of whom, passing as Albert Dupont—probably recent and temporary alias—booked through to Paris occupying berth in same carriage with Lorgnes, but detrained Laroche six-fifteen, murder remaining undiscovered till arrival in Paris. [An admirably succinct sketch of the physical Dupont is here deleted.] 'In return for gift of this opportunity to place Prefecture under obligations, please do me a service. As stranger in Paris I crave passionately to review Night Life of Great City but am naturally timid about going about alone after dark. Only society of beautiful, accomplished, well-informed and agreeable lady of proved discretion can put me thoroughly at ease. If you can recommend one such to me by telegraph, stipulating her amiability must begin to function this evening, you may depend on my not hesitating to ask further favours as occasion may arise. Presume you have heard your old friend Duchemin, now missing, is suspected of looting jewels of Madame de Montalais, Chateau de Montalais, near Millau. He counts on your discretion to preserve secret of his innocence pending further advices. Paul Martin here stopping Hotel Chatham. Toodle-oo.
A telegram from London addressed to M. Paul Martin, Hotel Chatham, Paris, was delivered late in the afternoon:
"Prefecture tipped off. Many thanks. Heartfelt regrets poor Duchemin's success keeping out of gaol. Uneasy about him as long as he remains at large. Fully appreciate you cannot trust yourself alone in the dark. Therefore cheerfully delegating preservation your virtue while in Paris to Mlle. Athenais Reneaux, maiden lady mature charms whom I beg you will respect as you would my sister. Wishing you enjoyable intellectual evening—
It needed receipt of a petit-bleu, while he was dressing for dinner, to cure Lanyard of an attack of premonitory shivers brought on by recollection of the awful truth that one is never really safe in trifling with an Englishman's sense of humour. "Dear monsieur Martin:—It is too sweet of you to remember your promise to ask me to dine the first time you came to Paris. Since you leave it to me, shall we say the Ritz, at half past seven? In case your memory for faces is poor—it has been a long time since we met, hasn't it?—I shall be wearing the conventional fast black with my very best ingenue expression; and my feather fan will be flame-coloured.
"Always to you—
Now that sounded more like ...
Only it was a bit debilitating to contemplate, as the mirror insisted one must, the shortcomings of machine-made evening clothes, whose obviously exorbitant cost as a post-War luxury did nothing to make amends for their utter want of personal feeling. For one needs sympathy in a dress-coat quite as much as cloth.
Still, it was a tolerably personable figure that suffered Lanyard's critical inspection. And an emergency is an emergency. Those readily serviceable clothes were of more value than the most superbly tailored garments that could possibly have been made up for him in any reasonable length of time. For to-morrow night it might, and as Lanyard held surely would, be too late to accomplish what he hoped to accomplish to-night, and for whose accomplishment evening dress was indispensable. Since Wertheimer had passed the word on, the name of the Comte de Lorgnes would be published to the world in the morning papers, and by evening the birds, if they were wise, would be in full flight. Whereas to-night, while still that poor mutilated body lay nameless in the Morgue...
Mademoiselle Athenais Reneaux lived up in most gratifying fashion to the tone of her note. In the very beginning she demonstrated excellent discretion by failing to be on hand and eager when Lanyard strolled into the Ritz on the minute of their appointment. To the contrary she was all of twenty-five minutes late; a circumstance so consistently feminine as to rob their meeting of any taint of the extraordinary; they might have been simple sweethearts meeting to dine remote from jealous or censorious eyes, rather than one of the most useful Parisian agents of the British Secret Service under orders to put her talents at the disposition of a man who was to her nothing more than an everyday name.
She swept spiritedly into the lounge of the Ritz, a tall, fair girl, very good-looking indeed and brilliantly costumed, and placed Monsieur Paul Martin in one glance, on the instant of his calculated start of recognition. At once her face lighted up with a charming smile—few women could boast teeth as white and fine—and almost before Lanyard could extricate himself from his chair she was at pause before him, holding his hand.
"Paul!" she cried in lilting accents. "I'm so glad! It's been simply ages.... And looking so well! I don't believe you've changed a bit."
The nicely judged pitch of her voice, neither so high nor so low as to attract more than passing attention, won approval which Lanyard put into the pressure of his lips upon her hand and the bow, at once punctilious and intimate, that accompanied it.
"And you, Athenais, always exquisite, but to-day...Truly one has never seen you looking better."
"Flattery," she commented. "But I love it!"
Meanwhile her gaze, that seemed so constant to his eyes, reviewed other people in the lounge in one swift, searching glance, and returned to Lanyard with a droop of the lashes, imperceptible to all but him, that signified there was no one present likely in her esteem to prove dangerous to their peace of mind.
"Flattery? To you? But impossible!"
He delighted her, and she showed it openly. But her lips said only: "Have I kept you waiting a frightfully long time, poor boy?"
"Let your appetite accuse you, Athenais."
"But I am starving!"
"Then, as I take it, nothing on earth can prevent our going in to dinner."
Lanyard had already consulted with the maitre d'hotel over the menu and the reservation. As the two settled down at a table on the side of the room, not conspicuously far from any other in use, and at the same time comfortably detached, their iced melon was waiting to be served.
"Always the most thoughtful of men," Mademoiselle Reneaux declared. "No fussing with the carte, no thrusting it into one's hand and saying: 'See anything you'd like, my dear? I rather fancy the boeuf-a-la-mode for myself!' That's why I'd adore dining with you, Paul, even if I didn't adore you for yourself."
"One is well repaid when one's modest efforts are so well appreciated."
"Blague, my friend, sheer blague. You know you relish a good dinner of your own ordering far more than anybody's appreciation, even mine."
The waiters had retired, leaving them alone in a momentary oasis of public isolation.
"Mademoiselle," said Lanyard in more formal vein, "I am sure, underestimates my capacity for appreciation. May one venture to compliment mademoiselle, who is marvellous in so many bewitching ways?"
"Why not, monsieur? Was ever music sweeter?" The girl laughed; then her eyes sobered while her features retained their appearance of complete amusement. "Monsieur received a telegram this afternoon?"
"Yes, mademoiselle. And you?"
"It is here—since I am. May I see yours?"
With a gay gesture she handed over her telegram from London and took his in exchange.
The ordinary cipher of the B. S. S. was as readily intelligible to both as if the messages had been couched in open French or English.
"Kindly place yourself beginning with dinner to-night and for duration his stay in Paris at the commands of Paul Martin, Hotel Chatham, lunatic but harmless and of great value to us. He seems to be at present concerned with some affair outside our knowledge, but presumably desperate, else he would not be interested. Please exert best endeavours to get him out of France alive as soon as possible."
The girl was laughing as she returned Lanyard's telegram and received her own.
"'Mature charms'!" she pouted. "'Enjoyable intellectual evening'! Oh, how depressing! Poor Paul! but you must have felt discouraged."
"I did—at first."
"And are you going to obey that injunction to treat me as somebody's sister?"
"Never in my life!"
"As anybody's wife." Perplexity knitted a little pucker in her delicately lined brows.
"Paul! you couldn't speak French so well and be an Englishman!"
"I assure you, Athenais, I am—mentally—a native of France."
She sighed luxuriously. "What an amusing prospect! And this is the sort of man at whose commands I am required to place myself."
"Not required, Athenais, requested—begged, besought!"
"I like that better. And," she enquired demurely, "may one ask what are monsieur's commands?"
"First: you will continue to flirt with me as at present—outrageously."
"Even when you make it so difficult?"
"And then, to waste an evening in my society."
"Must it be wasted?"
"That will be as it falls out."
"And what do we do with this evening of such questionable value?"
"We finish dinner here at our leisure; we smoke and chat a while in the lounge, if you like, or if nothing better offers we go to a play; and then you will take me by the hand, if you please, mademoiselle..."
"In the maternal manner appropriate to mature charms, I presume?"
"You will—always remembering that my interest in such things is merely academic—you will then lead me hither and yon, as your whim lists, and show me how Paris amuses itself in these days of its nocturnal decadence. You will dutifully pretend to drink much more champagne than is good for you and to be enjoying yourself as you seldom have before. If I discover an interest in people I may chance to see, you will be good enough to tell me who they are and—other details concerning their ways of life."
"If I know."
"But I am sure you know everyone worth knowing in Paris, Athenais."
"Then—if I am right in assuming you are looking for some person in particular—"
"You have reason, mademoiselle."
"I run the risk of losing an entertaining evening."
"Not necessarily. Besides, there are many evenings. Are you not at my commands for the duration of my stay in Paris?"
"True. So I will have to chance my perilous question.... I presume one can't help being true to the traditions of one's sex."
"Inquisitive, you mean? But what else is every thinking creature, male or female? What are men of science? What—?"
"But it was Eve who first—"
"Ah! raking up old scandal, eh? But I'll wager something it was really Adam who—taking a purely scientific interest in the business—egged Eve on to try a bite of apple, asserting that the domestic menu lacked variety, telling himself if she died of it, it would only cost him another rib to replace her, and cheap at the price."
"Paul: you are too gallant. Wait till I try to find out something about you, directly or indirectly, and see what you will then have to say about the curiosity of women."
"But I shouldn't mind, it would be too flattering. So dig away."
"I will. Who is it you're looking for in Paris after midnight?"
"Anyone of several people." "Perhaps I know them. It might save time if you would give me their names."
"Now it is you who ask me to risk losing an enjoyable evening. But so be it. Le Comte de Lorgnes?"
Mademoiselle Reneaux looked blank.
"Madame la Comtesse de Lorgnes?"
The young woman shook her head.
"Both of a class sure to be conspicuous in such places as Maxim's," Lanyard explained. "The names, then, are probably fictitious."
"If you could describe them, perhaps—?"
"Useless, I am afraid; neither is an uncommon type. Any word picture of either would probably fit anyone of a score of people of the same life. Are you then acquainted with a man named Phinuit—given name unknown—an American?"
"Mr. Whitaker Monk, of New York?"
"That is quite possible."
"He made his money in munitions, I believe," the girl reflected—"or perhaps it was oil."
"Then you do know him?"
"I met him one night, or rather one morning several weeks ago, with a gay party that joined ours at breakfast at Pre-Catelan."
"And do we still drive out to Pre-Catelan to milk the cows after an adventurous night, mademoiselle?" She nodded; and Lanyard sighed: "It is true, then: man ages, his follies never."
"A quaint little stupid," the girl mused.
"I was thinking of Whitaker Monk."
"Quaint, I grant you. But hardly little, or stupid. A tall man, as thin as a diet, with a face like a comic mask of tragedy..."
"Paul dear," said Athenais Reneaux more in sorrow than in anger: "somebody has been taking advantage of your trusting nature. Whitaker Monk is short, hopelessly stout, and the most commonplace person imaginable."
"Then it would appear," Lanyard commented ruefully, "one did wisely to telegraph London for a keeper. Let us get hence, if you don't mind, and endeavour to forget my shame in strong drink and the indecorous dances of an unregenerate generation."
DIAMOND CUT DIAMOND
Lanyard and Athenais Reneaux had dawdled over dinner and coffee and cigarettes with so much tacit deliberation that, by the time Lanyard suggested they might move on, it was too late for a play and still a bit too early to begin the contemplated round of all-night restaurants. Also, it was too warm for a music-hall.
So they killed another hour at the Ambassadeurs, where they were fortunate in getting good places and the entertainment imposed no strain upon the attention; where, too, the audience, though heterogeneous, was sufficiently well-dressed and well-mannered to impart to a beautiful lady and her squire a pleasant consciousness of being left very much to themselves in an amusing expression of a civilisation cynical and self-sufficient.
But that was so wherever they went that night; and, in a sense, they went everywhere. In no city in the world is the doctrine of go-as-you-please-but-mind-your-own-business more studiously inculcated by example than in Paris, especially in its hours of relaxation. Lanyard had not been so long an exile as to have forgotten his way about entirely, and with what was new since his time Mademoiselle Reneaux was thoroughly acquainted. And if he felt himself rather a ghost revisiting glimpses of a forgotten moon, if all the odalisques were new to his vision and all the sultans strange, if never an eye that scanned his face turned back for a second look in uncertain reminiscence, he had to console him the company of a young woman whom everybody seemed to know and admire and like. In none of the resorts they visited did she fail to greet or be hailed by a handful of acquaintances. Yet they were generously let alone.
As to that, Lanyard could not complain. The truth was that, despite the dark thread of sober purpose which ran through those tolerably purple hours, he was being excellently entertained. Not by this sad business of scampering from one place of dubious fame to another; not by any reckless sense of rejuvenation to be distilled from the practice of buying champagne at each stop—and leaving every bottle barely tasted; not by those colourful, dissolving tableaux, always much the same in composition if set against various backgrounds, of under-dressed women sitting with concupiscent men and swallowing cold poisons in quantities calculated to spur them into the frenzy of semi-orgiastic dances: by none of these, but simply by the society of a woman of a type perhaps not unique but novel in his experience and intriguing to his understanding.
If there were anybody or thing a girl of her age—Athenais was about twenty-five—shouldn't know, she knew him, her or it; if there were any place she shouldn't go, she either went or had been there; if there were anything she shouldn't do or say or think or countenance, those things she—within limitations—did and said and thought and accepted or passed over as matters of fact and no consequence. And though she observed scrupulously certain self-imposed limitations she never made this obvious, she simply avoided what she chose to consider bad taste with a deftness and tact that would have seemed admirable in a woman of the great world twice her age. And with it all she preserved a sort of champagne effervescence of youthful spirits and an easy-going cameraderie incomprehensible when one took into consideration the disillusioning circumstances of her life, her vocation as a paid government spy, trusted with secrets and worthy of her trust, dedicated to days of adventure always dangerous, generally sordid, and like at any time to prove deadly.
Young, beautiful, admirably poised, accomplished and intelligent, she should by rights have been wrapped up in love of some man her peer in all these attributes. But she wasn't; or she said she wasn't in one of those moments of gravity which served to throw into higher relief the light-heartedness of her badinage with Lanyard; asserting an entirely willing disposition to stand aside and play the pensive, amused, indulgent spectator in the masque of love danced by a world mad for it, grasping for love greedily even in its cheapest shapes and guises.
"If it comes," she sighed, "it will find me waiting, and not unwilling. But it will have to come in another form than those I know about."
"My dear," said Lanyard, "be unafraid: it always does."
She called herself Athenais Reneaux, but she didn't pretend to Lanyard that she had no better title to another name. Her French was of the purest, a delight to listen to, yet she was in fact less French than English. Her paternal forebears to the third generation had lived in England and married Englishwomen, she said; and more than this much about herself, nothing; perhaps deriving some gratification from leaving such broad fields of conjecture open to the interest which an enigmatic personality never failed to excite.
"But I think you're quite as much of a mystery as you pretend to see in me. It's rather nice, don't you think? At least, it gives us an interest in each other aside from sentiment. Some day, perhaps, we'll each know All."
"Now God forbid!"
"Are you so afraid of learning my girlish secrets then? I don't believe you. I don't believe you'd even care to hear—"
"Athenais!" Lanyard protested in a hollow voice.
"Non, mon ami." She judged him shrewdly with narrowed, smiling eyes. "You flirt with far too much finish, you know. It can't be done to such perfection when the heart's truly involved. But for one thing—and if only you'd be a little more tragic about your disappointments to-night; for you haven't yet asked me a single question about anybody we've met—"
"No: thus far we've drawn every cover blank," he groaned; for it was after three in the morning.
"Very well. But for this and that, I'd be tempted to think you were sleuthing on the trail of some female fair but faithless. But you're taking all with entirely too much resignation; there's a contented glow in the back of your eyes—"
"I'm having a good time."
"It's pretty of you to tell me so. But that's not the reason for your self-complacence."
"See here," Lanyard interrupted, sitting up and signalling to the waiter for his bill: "if I let you run on the way you're heading, you'll presently be telling me something you've found out about me and I don't want to hear."
"Oh, very well," she sighed. "I'm sure I don't wish to embarrass you. But I will say this: Men of your uncertain age don't go round with such contented eyes unless they're prosperously in love."
"Oh, come along!" Lanyard growled, offering to rise. "You know too confounded much." He waited a moment, and then as she did nothing but sit and glimmer at him mischievously, he added: "Shall we go?"
"Where now?" she enquired without stirring.
He had a shrug of distaste. "Maxim's, I presume. Unless you can suggest some other place, more likely and less tedious."
"No," she replied after taking thought; "I can't. We've covered Paris pretty thoroughly to-night; all except the tourist places."
"No good wasting time on them."
"Then let's stop on here till it's time to milk the cows."
"Pre-Catelan? But there's Maxim's left—"
"Only another tourist show nowadays. And frightfully rowdy."
"Sounds like the lot I'm after. Come along."
She shook her head vigorously. "Shan't!" His eyebrows rose in mute enquiry. "Because I don't want to," she explained with childlike candour. "I'm tired of being dragged around and plied with drink. Do you realise I've had as much as two and a half glasses of champagne to-night, out of the countless bottles you've ordered? Well, I have, and they're doing their work: I feel the spirit of independence surging in my midst. I mutiny and defy you!" A peal of laughter rewarded the instinctive glance with which he sought to judge how far he was justified in taking her seriously. "Not only that, but you're neglecting me. I want to dance, and you haven't asked me in fully half an hour; and you're a heavenly dancer—and so am I!" She thrust back her end of their wall table and rose. "If you please, monsieur."
One could hardly resent such charming impertinence. Lanyard drew a long face of mock patience, sighed an heroic sigh, and followed her through the huddled tables to the dancing floor. A bewildering look rewarded him as they swung into the first movement of a tango.
"Do you know you are a dangerous man, Monsieur Paul Martin?"
"Such fortitude, such forbearance—when I ought to be slapped—enchants, disarms, makes me remember I am a woman, foredoomed always to yield. I abjure my boasted independence, monsieur, I submit. It shall be as you wish: on to Maxim's—after this one dance. You know, it's the last really good music we'll have to dance to—our last dance together, perhaps—who knows?—forever!"
She pretended to be overcome; the lithe body in his embrace sketched a fugitive seizure of sadness, drooping with a wistful languour well suited to the swooning measures to which they swayed and postured.
His hand was pressed convulsively. She seemed momentarily about to become a burden in his grasp, yet ever to recover just on the instant of failing, buoyed up by the steely resilience of her lithe and slender body. Impossible to say how much was pretence, how much impulsive confession of true feeling! Perplexed, perturbed, Lanyard gazed down into that richly tinted face which, with eyes half-curtained and lips half-parted, seemed to betray so much, yet to his next glance was wholly illegible and provoking. Aware that with such women man's vanity misleads him woefully, and aware that she was equally awake to this masculine weakness, he wondered, afraid even to guess, telling himself he were an ass to believe, a fool to deny....
Then suddenly he saw her lashes sweep up to unveil eyes at once mirthful and admonitory; her hungry mouth murmured incongruously an edged warning. "Play up, Paul—play up to me! We dance too well together not to be watched; and if I'm not mistaken, someone you're interested in has just come in. No: don't look yet, just remember we're madly enamoured, you and I—and don't care a rap who sees it."
Strung by her words into a spirit of emulation, Lanyard achieved an adequate seeming of response to the passion, feigned or real, with which the woman infused the patterned coquetry of their steps.
Between lips that stirred so little their movement must have been indiscernible, he asked: "Who?"
In the same manner, but in accents fraught with an emotion indecipherable but intense the reply came: "Don't talk! This is too divine ... Just dance!"
He obeyed, deliberately shut out of his thoughts the warning she had given him, and let himself go, body and mind, so that, a sway to the sensuous strains of that most sensuous of dances, the girl and the man for a space seemed one with music that throbbed of love and longing, desire and denial, pursuit and retreat, surrender and conquest....
On a sonorous phrase it ceased. A flutter of applause ran round the tables. Lanyard mastered a sense of daze that he saw reflected in the opening eyes of the woman as she slipped from his arms. In an instant they were themselves once more, two completely self-contained children of sophistication, with superb insouciance making nothing of their public triumph in a rare and difficult performance.
On the way to their table they were intercepted by a woman who, with two cavaliers, had since the moment of her entrance been standing near the door of the restaurant, apparently spellbound with admiration. Through a rising clatter of tongues her voice cut clearly but not at all unpleasantly.
"Athenais! It is I—Liane."
Inured as he was to the manners of an age which counts its women not dressed if they are not half undressed, and with his sensibilities further calloused by a night devoted to restaurants the entree to which, for women, seemed to be conditioned on at least semi-nudity, Lanyard was none the less inclined to think he had never seen, this side of footlights, a gown quite so daring as that which revealed the admirably turned person of the lady who named herself Liane. There was so little of it that, he reflected, its cost must have been something enormous. But in vain that scantiness of drapery: the white body rose splendidly out of its ineffective wrappings only to be overwhelmed by an incredible incrustation of jewellery: only here and there did bare hand's-breadths of flesh unadorned succeed in making themselves visible.
At the sound of her name Athenais turned with a perfectly indicated start of surprise which she promptly translated into a little, joyful cry. The living pillar of ivory, satin and precious stones ran into her arms, embraced her ardently, and kissed both her cheeks, then releasing her half-turned to Lanyard.
Glints of trifling malice winked behind the open interest of troubling, rounded eyes of violet. Lanyard knew himself known.
So he had sacrificed for nothing his beautiful beard!
He uttered a private but heartfelt "Damn!" and bowed profoundly as the woman, tapping Athenais on the arm with a fan crusted with diamonds, demanded:
"Present instantly, my dear, this gentleman who tangoes as I have never seen the tango danced before!"
Forestalling Athenais, Lanyard replied with a whimsical grimace: "Is one, then, so unfortunate as to have been forgotten by Madame la Comtesse de Lorgnes?"
With any other woman than Athenais Reneaux he would have hesitated to deal so bold an offensive stroke; but his confidence in her quickness of apprehension and her unshakable self-possession was both implicit and well-placed. For she received this overt notification of the success of his quest without one sign other than a look of dawning puzzlement.
"Madame la comtesse...?" she murmured with a rising inflection.
"But monsieur is mistaken," the other stammered, biting her lip.
"Surely one cannot have been so stupid!" Lanyard apologised.
"But this is Mademoiselle Delorme," Athenais said ... "Monsieur Paul Martin."
Liane Delorme! Those syllables were like a spoken spell to break the power of dark enchantment which had hampered Lanyard's memory ever since first sight of this woman in the Cafe de l'Univers at Nant. A great light began to flood his understanding, but he was denied time to advantage himself immediately of its illumination: Liane Delorme was quick to parry and riposte.
"How strange monsieur should think he had ever known me by a name ... What was it? But no matter! For now I look more closely, I myself cannot get over the impression that I have known Monsieur—Martin, did you say?—somewhere, sometime ... But Paul Martin? Not unless monsieur has more than one name."
"Then it would seem that mademoiselle and I are both in error. The loss is mine."
That gun spiked, Lanyard began to breathe more freely. "It is not too late to make up that loss, monsieur." Liane Delorme was actually chuckling in appreciation of his readiness, pleased with him even in the moment of her own discomfiture; her eyes twinkling merrily at him above the fan with which she hid a convulsed countenance. "Surely two people so possessed with regret at never having known each other should lose no time improving their acquaintance! Dear Athenais: do ask us to sit at your table."
While the waiter fetched additional chairs, the woman made her escorts known: Messieurs Benouville et Le Brun, two extravagantly insignificant young men, exquisitely groomed and presumably wealthy, who were making the bravest efforts to seem unaware that to be seen with Liane Delorme conferred an unimpeachable cachet. Lanyard remarked, however, that neither ventured to assume proprietorial airs; while Liane's attitude toward them was generally indulgent, if occasionally patronising and sometimes impatient.
Champagne frothed into fresh glasses. As soon as the band struck up another dance, Athenais drifted away in the arms of Monsieur Le Brun. Liane gazed round the room, acknowledged the salutations of several friends, signalled gaily to a pair of mercenaries on the far side of the dancing floor, and issued peremptory orders to Benouville.
"Go, Chu-chu, and ask Angele to dance with you. She is being left to bore herself while Victor dances with Constance. Moreover, I desire to afflict Monsieur Martin with my confidences."
With the utmost docility Benouville effaced himself.
"Eh, bien, Monsieur Duchemin!"
"Eh, bien, madame la comtesse?" Liane sipped at her champagne, making impudent eyes at Lanyard over the brim of her glass.
"By what appears, you have at last torn yourself away from the charming society of the Chateau de Montalais."
"As you see."
"That was a long visit you made at the chateau, my old one?"
"Madame la comtesse is well informed," Lanyard returned, phlegmatic.
"One hears what one hears."
"One had the misfortune to fall foul of an assassin," Lanyard took the trouble to explain.
"The same Apache who attacked—with others—the party from Montalais at Montpellier-le-Vieux."
"And you were wounded?"
Lanyard assented. The lady made a shocked face and uttered appropriate noises. "As you know," Lanyard added.
Liane Delorme pretended not to hear that last. "And the ladies of the chateau," she enquired—"they were sympathetic, one feels sure?"
"They were most kind."
"It was not serious, this wound—no?"
"Mademoiselle may judge when she knows I was unable to leave my bed for nearly three weeks."
"But what atrocity! And this Apache—?"
"Remains at large."
"Ah, these police!" And the lady described a sign of contempt that was wholly unladylike. "Still, you are well recovered, by the way you dance."
"One cannot complain."
"What an experience! Still—" Liane again buried her nose in her glass and regarded Lanyard with a look of mysterious understanding. Re-emerging, she resumed: "Still, not without its compensations, eh, mon ami?"
"That is as one regards it, mademoiselle."
"Oh! oh!" There was any amount of deep significance in these exclamations. "One may regard that in more ways than one."
"Indeed," Lanyard agreed with his most winning manner: "One may for instance remember that I recovered speedily enough to be in Paris to-night and meet mademoiselle without losing time."
"Monsieur wishes me to flatter myself into thinking he did me the honour of desiring to find me to-night?"
"Or any other. Do not depreciate the potency of your charms, mademoiselle. Who, having seen you once, could help hoping to see you again?"
"My friend," said Liane, with a pursed, judgmatical mouth, "I think you are much too amiable."
"But I assure you, never a day has passed, no, nor yet a night, that I have not dwelt upon the thought of you, since you made so effective an entrance to the chateau, a vision of radiant beauty, out of that night of tempest and fury."
Liane drooped a coy head. "Monsieur compliments me too much."
"Is one, then, to understand that monsieur is making love to me?"
Lanyard pronounced coolly: "No."
That won another laugh of personal appreciation. "What then, mon ami?"
"Figure to yourself that one may often dream of the unattainable without aspiring to possess it."
"Unattainable?" Liane repeated in a liquid voice: "What a dismal word, monsieur!" "It means what it means, mademoiselle."
"To the contrary, monsieur, it means what you wish it to mean. You should revise your lexicon."
"Now it is mademoiselle who is too flattering. And where is that good Monsieur Monk to-night?"
The woman overlooked the innuendo; or, rather, buried it under a landslide of emotional acting.
"Ah, monsieur! but I am desolated, inconsolable. He has gone away!"
"Monsieur Monk?" Lanyard opened his eyes wide.
"Who else? He has left France, he has returned to his barbarous America, with his beautiful motor car, his kind heart, and all his millions!"
"And the excellent Phinuit?"
"That one as well."
"How long ago?"
"A week to-morrow they did sail from Cherbourg. It is a week since anyone has heard me laugh."
Lanyard compassionately fished a bottle out of the cooler and refilled her glass.
"Accept, mademoiselle, every assurance of my profound sympathy."
"You have a heart, my friend," she said, and drank with the feverish passion of the disconsolate.
"And one very truly at mademoiselle's service."
Liane sniffed mournfully and dabbed at her nose with a ridiculous travesty of a handkerchief. "Be so kind," she said in a tearful voice, though her eyes were quite dry and, if one looked closely, calculating—"a cigarette."
One inferred that the storm was over. Lanyard tendered his cigarette case, and then a match, wondering what next. What he had reason to anticipate was sure to come, the only question was when. Not that it mattered when; he was ready for it at any time. And there was no hurry: Athenais, finding herself paired with an un-commonly good dancer in Le Brun, was considerately making good use of this pretext for remaining on the floor—there were two bands to furnish practically continuous music—and leave Lanyard to finish uninterrupted what she perfectly understood to be a conversation of considerable moment.
As for Benouville, he was much too well trained to dream of returning without being bidden by Liane Delorme.
"But it is wonderful," murmured that one, pensive.
And there was that in her tone to make Lanyard mentally prick forward his ears. He sketched a point of interrogation.
"To encounter so much understanding in one who is a complete stranger."
("'Complete'?" Lanyard considered. "I think it's coming...")
"Monsieur must not think me unappreciative."
"Ah, mademoiselle!" he protested sadly—"but you forget so easily."
"That we have met before, when I term you a complete stranger?"
"It is because I would not be in monsieur's debt!"
"I will repay sympathy with sympathy. I have already forgotten that I ever visited the Chateau de Montalais. So how should I remember I met monsieur there under the name of... but I forget."
"The name of Duchemin?"
"I never knew there was such a name—I swear!—before I saw it in type to-day."
"Monsieur does not read the papers?"
"Not all of them, mademoiselle."
"It appeared in Le Matin to-day, this quaint name Duchemin, in a despatch from Millau stating that a person of that name, a guest of the Chateau de Montalais, had disappeared without taking formal leave of his hosts."
"One gathers that he took something else?"
"Nothing less than the world-known Anstruther collection of jewels, the property of Madame de Montalais nee Anstruther."
"But I am recently from the Chateau de Montalais, and in a position to assure mademoiselle that this poor fellow, Duchemin, is unjustly accused."
"Oh, ho, ho!"
He heard again that laugh of broad derision which had seemed so out of character with a great lady when he had heard it first, that night now nearly a month old.
"Mademoiselle does not believe?"
"I think monsieur must be a good friend to this Monsieur Duchemin."
"I confess I entertain a sneaking fondness for his memory."
"You can hardly call yourself an impartial judge—"
"It is nevertheless true he did not steal the jewels."
"Then tell me who did take them."
"Unfortunately for Duchemin, that remains a mystery."
"Rather, I should say, fortunately for him."
"You would wrong him, then."
"But why, if innocent, did he run away?"
"I imagine, because he knew he would surely be accused, in which case ancient history would be revived to prove him guilty beyond a question in the mind of any sane court."
"Does one understand he had a history?"
"I have heard it intimated such was the case."
"But I remain in the dark. The theft presumably was not discovered till after his disappearance. Yet, according to your contention, he must have known of it in advance. How do you account for that?"
"Mademoiselle would make a famous juge d'instruction."
"That does not answer my argument."
"How is one to answer it? Who knows how Duchemin discovered the theft before the ladies of the chateau did?"
"Do you know what you make me think? That he was not as innocent as you assert."
"Mademoiselle will explain?"
"I have a suspicion that this Monsieur Duchemin was guilty in intention; but when it came to put his intention into execution, he found he had been anticipated."
"Mademoiselle is too clever for me. Now I should never have thought of that."
"He would have been wiser to stay and fight it out. The very fact of his flight confesses his guilt."
"Perhaps he did not remember that until too late."
"And now nothing can clear him. How sad for him! A chance meeting with one who is not his friend, a whispered word to the Prefecture, or the nearest agent de police, and within an hour he finds himself in the Sante."
"Poor chap!" said Lanyard with a doleful shake of the head.
"I, too, pity him," the woman declared. "Monsieur: against my prejudice, your faith in Duchemin has persuaded me. I am convinced that he is innocent."
"How good you are!" "It makes me glad I have so well forgotten ever meeting him. I do not believe I should know him if I found him here, in this very restaurant, even seated by my side."
"It is mademoiselle now whose heart is great and kind."
"You may believe it well."
"And does mademoiselle's forgetfulness, perhaps, extend even farther into the so dead past?"
"But, monsieur, I was a mere child when I first came to Paris, before the War. How could anyone reasonably expect my memory of those innocent girlish days to be exact? Regard that, even then, I met people by hundreds, as a young girl studying for the stage must. Is it likely one face would stand out in my memory more than another?"
"Quite, if you ask me," said Lanyard dryly—"quite likely, if any circumstance connected with that face were at all memorable."
"But I assure you I was in those days much too self-absorbed to pay much attention to others. It is that way, you know, in maiden days."
"Mademoiselle does injustice to her memory," Lanyard insisted in polite astonishment. "In some ways it is wonderful."
The woman looked suddenly aside, so that he could not see her face; but he perceived, with an astonishment which he made no attempt to hide, that she was quaking bodily with some unconfessed emotion. And when she faced again his unbroken look of grave bewilderment, he discovered that she was really capable of tears.
"Monsieur," she gasped, "believe it or not, never before have I met one with whom I was so completely en rapport. And instantaneously! It is priceless, this! We must see more of one another."
"Much more," Lanyard assented gravely. "A great deal more," she supplemented with significance. "I am sure we shall get along together famously."
"Mademoiselle offers me great honour—"
"Nothing less than my friendship."
"I would be indeed an ingrate to refuse it. But a question: Will not people talk?"
"What!" Amusement shook her again. "How talk? What more can they say about Liane Delorme?"
"Ah!" said Lanyard—"but about Madame la Comtesse de Lorgnes..."
"My friend: that was a good joke once; but now you must forget that name as utterly as I have forgotten another."
"What do you say?" She frowned a little. "Is it possible you misunderstood? De Lorgnes was nothing to me."
"I never thought he was."
"You had reason. Because we were thrown together, and our names were something alike in sound, it amused us—not the two of us alone, but all our party—to pretend I was madame la comtesse."
"He was really a count?"
"Who knows? It was the style by which he had always passed with us."
"Alas!" sighed Lanyard, and bent a sombre gaze upon his glass.
Without looking he was aware of a questioning gesture of the woman's head. He said no more, but shook his own.
"What is this?" she asked sharply. "You know something about de Lorgnes?"
"Had you not heard?" he countered, looking up in surprise.
"Heard—?" He saw her eyes stabbed by fear, and knew himself justified of his surmises. All day she had been expecting de Lorgnes, or word from him, all day and all this night. One could imagine the hourly augmented strain of care and foreboding; indeed its evidence were only too clearly betrayed in her face and manner of that moment: she was on the rack.
But there was no pity in Lanyard's heart. He knew her of old, what she was, what evil she had done; and in his hearing still sounded the echoes of those words with which, obliquely enough but without misunderstanding on the part of either, she had threatened to expose him to the police unless he consented to some sort of an alliance with her, a collaboration whose nature could not but be dishonourable if it were nothing more than a simple conspiracy of mutual silence.
And purposely he delayed his answer till her patience gave way and she was clutching his arm with frantic hands.
"What is the matter? Why do you look at me like that? Why don't you tell me—if there is anything to tell—?"
"I was hesitating to shock you, Liane."
"Never mind me. What has happened to de Lorgnes?"
"It is in all the evening newspapers—the murder mystery of the Lyons rapide."
Lanyard inclined his head. The woman breathed an invocation to the Deity and sank back against the wall, her face ghastly beneath its paint.
"You know this?"
"I was a passenger aboard the rapide, and saw the body before it was removed."
Liane Delorme made an effort to speak, but only her breath rustled harshly on her dry lips. She swallowed convulsively, turned to her glass, and found it empty. Lanyard hastened to refill it. She took the wine at a gulp, muttered a word of thanks, and offered the glass to be filled anew; but when this had been done sat unconscious of it, staring witlessly at nothing, so lost to her surroundings that all the muscles of her face relaxed and her years peered out through that mask of artifice which alone preserved for her the illusion and repute of beauty.
Thus the face of an evil woman of middle-age, debauched beyond hope of redemption, was hideously revealed. Lanyard knew a qualm at seeing it, and looked hastily away.
Beyond the rank of tables which stood between him and the dancing floor he saw Athenais Reneaux with Le Brun sweeping past in the suave movement of a waltz. The girl's face wore a startled expression, her gaze was direct to the woman at Lanyard's side; then it shifted enquiringly to him. With a look Lanyard warned her to compose herself, then lifted an eyebrow and glanced meaningly toward the doors. The least of nods answered him before Le Brun swung Athenais toward the middle of the floor and other couples intervened.
Liane Delorme stirred abruptly.
"The assassin?" she demanded—"is there any clue?"
"I believe he is known by description, but missing."
"But you, my friend—what do you know?"
"As much as anybody, I fancy—except the author of the murder."
Quietly, briefly, Lanyard told her of seeing the Comte de Lorgnes at dinner in Lyons; of the uneasiness he manifested, and the cumulative feeling of frustration and failure he so plainly betrayed as the last hours of his life wore on; of the Apaches who watched de Lorgnes in the cafe and the fact that one of them had contrived to secure a berth in the same carriage with his victim; of seeing the presumptive murderer slinking away from the train at Laroche; and of the discovery of the body, on the arrival of the rapide at the Gare de Lyon.
Absorbed, with eyes abstracted and intent, and a mouth whose essential selfishness and cruelty was unconsciously stressed by the compression of her lips: the woman heard him as he might have been a disembodied voice. Now and again, however, she nodded intently and, when he finished, had a pertinent question ready.
"You say a description of this assassin exists?"
"Have I not communicated it to you?"
"But to the police—?"
"Is it likely?" The woman gave him a blank stare.
"Pardon, mademoiselle: but is it likely that the late Andre Duchemin would have more to do with the police than he could avoid?"
"You would see a cold-blooded crime go unavenged—?"
"Rather than dedicate the remainder of my days to seeing the world through prison bars? I should say yes!—seeing that this assassination does not concern me, and I am guiltless of the crime with which I myself am charged. But you who were a friend to de Lorgnes know the facts, and nothing hinders your communicating them to the Prefecture.... Though I will confess it would be gracious of you to keep my name out of the affair."
But Lanyard was not dicing with Chance when he made this suggestion: he knew very well Liane Delorme would not go to the police.
"That for the Prefecture!" She clicked a finger-nail against her teeth. "What does it know? What does it do when it knows anything?"
"I agree with mademoiselle entirely."
"Ah!" she mused bitterly—"if only we knew the name of that sale cochon!"
"I, at least, know one of the many names doubtless employed by the assassin."
"And you hesitate to tell me!"
"Why should I? No, but an effort of memory..." Lanyard measured a silence, seeming lost in thought, in reality timing the blow and preparing to note its effect. Then, snapping his fingers as one who says: I have it!—"Albert Dupont," he announced abruptly.
Unquestionably the name meant nothing to the woman. She curled a lip: "But that is any name!" Then thoughtfully: "You heard his companion of the cafe call him that?"
"No, mademoiselle. But I recognised the animal as Albert Dupont when he boarded the train at Combe-Rendonde that morning and, unnoticed by him, travelled with him all the way to Lyons."
"You recognised him?"
"I believe it well."
"When had you known him?"
"First when I fought with him at Montpellier-le-Vieux, later when he sought to do me in on the outskirts of Nant. He was the fugitive chauffeur of the Chateau de Montalais."
"But—name of a sacred name!—what had that one to do with de Lorgnes?"
"If you will tell me that, there will be no more mystery in this sad affair."
The woman brooded heavily for a moment. "But if it had been you he was after, I might understand..." He caught the sidelong glimmer of her eye upon him, dark with an unuttered question.
But the waltz was at an end, Athenais and Le Brun were threading their way through the intervening tables.
The interruption could not have been better timed; Lanyard was keen to get away. He had learned all that he could reasonably have hoped to learn from Liane Delorme in one night. He knew that she and de Lorgnes had been mutually interested in the business that took the latter to Lyons. He had the testimony of his own perceptions to prove that news of the murder had come as a great shock to her. On that same testimony he was prepared to swear that, whatever the part, if any, she had played in the robbery, she knew nothing of "Albert Dupont," at least by that name, and nothing of his activities as chauffeur at the Chateau de Montalais.
Yet one thing more Lanyard knew: that Liane suspected him of knowing more than he had told her. But he wasn't sorry she should think that; it gave him a continuing claim upon her interest. Henceforth she might be wary of him, but she would never lose touch with him if she could help it.
Now Athenais was pausing beside the table, and saying with a smile as weary as it was charming:
"Come, Monsieur Paul, if you please, and take me home! I've danced till I'm ready to drop."
Annoyed by the prospect of being obliged to let Lanyard out of her sight so soon, before she had time to mature her plans with respect to him, Liane Delorme pulled herself together.
"Go home?" she protested with a vivacity so forced it drew a curious stare even from the empty Le Brun. "So early! My dear! what are you thinking of?" "I've been on the go all day long," Athenais explained sweetly; "and now I've got nothing left to keep up on."
"Zut!" the Delorme insisted. "Have more champagne and—"
"Thank you, no, dearest. My head is swimming with it already. I really must go. Surely you don't mind?"
But Liane did mind, and the wine she had drunk had left her only a remnant of sobriety, not enough for good control of her temper.
"Mind?" she echoed rudely. "Why should I mind whether you stay or go? It's your affair, not mine." She made a scornful mouth; and the look with which she coupled Lanyard and Athenais in innuendo was in itself almost actionable. "But me," she pursued with shrill vivacity—"I shan't go yet, I'm not drunk enough by half. Get more champagne, Fred"—this to Le Brun as she turned a gleaming shoulder to the others—"quantities of it—and tell Chu-chu to bring Angele over, and Constance and Victor, too. Thanks to the good God, they at least know they are still alive!"
Ever since the fall of evening, whose clear gloaming had seemed to promise a fair night of moonlight, the skies had been thickening slowly over Paris. While still at the Ambassadeurs Lanyard had noticed that the moon was being blotted out. By midnight its paling disk had become totally eclipsed, the clouds hung low over the city, a dense blanket imprisoning heat which was oppressive even in the open and stifling in the ill-ventilated restaurants.
Now from the shelter of the cafe canopy Lanyard and Athenais Reneaux looked out upon a pave like a river of jet ribboned with gently glowing lights and running between the low banks of sidewalks no less black: both deserted but for a few belated prowlers lurching homeward through the drizzle, and a rank of private cars waiting near the entrance.
The bedizened porter whistled fatuously at a passing taxicab, which though fareless held steadfast to its way, while the driver acknowledged the signal only with jeers and disgraceful gestures, after the manner of his kind. So that Lanyard, remembering how frequently similar experiences had befallen him in pre-War Paris, reflected sadly that the great conflict had, after all, worked little change in human hearts—charitably assuming the bosoms of French taxi-bandits to be so furnished.
Presently, however, the persistent whistle conjured from round a corner a rakish hansom that—like the creature between its shafts and the driver on its lofty box, with his face in full bloom and his bleary eyes, his double-breasted box-coat and high hat of oilcloth—had doubtless been brisk with young ambition in the golden time of the Nineteen-Naughties.
But unmistakably of the vintage of the Nineteen-Twenties was the avarice of the driver. For when he had been given the address of the Athenais' apartment, he announced with vinous truculence that his whim inclined to precisely the opposite direction, gathered up the reins, clucked in peremptory fashion to the nag (which sagely paid no attention to him whatsoever) and consented only to change his mind when promised a fabulous fare.
Even then he grumbled profanely while Lanyard helped Athenais to climb in and took the place by her side.
The rue Pigalle was as dark and still as any street in a deserted village. From its gloomy walls the halting clatter of hoofs struck empty echoes that rang in Lanyard's heart like a refrain from some old song. To that very tune had the gay world gone about its affaires in younger years, when the Lone Wolf was a living fact and not a fading memory in the minds of men...
He sighed heavily.
"Monsieur is sentimental," commented Athenais Reneaux lightly. "Beware! Sentimentalists come always to some sad end."
"One has found that true ... But you are young to know it, Athenais."
"A woman is never young—after a certain age—save when she loves, my friend."
"That, too, is true. But still you are overyoung to have learned it."
"One learns life's lessons not in any fixed and predetermined order, Paul, with no sort of sequence whatever, but as and when Life chooses to teach them."
"Quel dommage!" Lanyard murmured, and subsided into another silence.
The girl grew restive. "But tell me, my dear Don Juan," she protested: "Do all your conquests affect you in this morbid fashion?"
"You seemed to get on very well with Liane Delorme."
"Pardon. If I am sentimental, it is because old memories have been awakened to-night, memories of forfeit days when one thought well of oneself, here in Paris."
"Days in which, no doubt, Liane played a part?"
"A very minor role, Athenais ... But are you doing me the honour to be jealous?"
"Perhaps, petit Monsieur Paul..."
In the broken light of passing lamps her quiet smile was as illegible as her shadowed eyes.
After a moment Lanyard laughed a little, caught up her hand, patted it indulgently, and with gentle decision replaced it in her lap.
"It isn't fair, my dear, to be putting foolish notions into elderly heads merely because you know you can do it. Show a little respect for my grey hairs, of which there are far too many."
"They're most becoming," said Athenais Reneaux demurely. "But tell me about Liane, if it isn't a secret."
"Oh! that was so long ago and such a trifling thing, one wonders at remembering it at all.... I happened, one night, to be where I had no right to be. That was rather a habit of mine, I'm afraid. And so I discovered, in another man's apartment, a young woman, hardly more than a child, trying to commit suicide. You may believe I put a stop to that.... Later, for in those days I had some little influence in certain quarters, I got her place in the chorus at the Varietes. She made up a name for the stage: Liane Delorme. And that is all. You see, it was very simple."
"And she was grateful?"
"Not oppressively. She was quite normal about it all."
"Still, she has not forgotten."
"But remind yourself that the chemistry of years is such that inevitably a sense of obligation in due course turns into a grudge. It is true, Liane has not forgotten, but I am by no means sure she has forgiven me for saving her to life."
"There may be something in that, seeing what she has made of her life."
"Now there is where you can instruct me. I have been long in exile."
"But you know how Liane graduated from the chorus of the Varietes, became first a principal there, then the rage of all the music halls with her way of singing rhymed indecencies."
"One has heard something of that."
"On the peak of her success she retired, saying she had worked long enough, made enough money. That, too, knows itself. But Liane retired only from the stage... You understand?"
"She continued to make many dear friends, some of them among the greatest personages of Europe. So that gradually she became what she is to-day," Athenais Reneaux pronounced soberly: "as I think, the most dangerous woman on the Continent."
"Covetous, grasping, utterly unscrupulous and corrupt, and weirdly powerful. She has a strange influence in the highest places."
"God knows! It was, at all events, strong enough to save her from being shot during the war. I was assigned to watch her then. There was a suspicion in England that she was in communication with the enemy. I found it to be quite true. She knew Bolo Pasha intimately, Caillaux, too. Other women, many of them, fled the country, or went to St. Lazare for the duration of the war, or faced firing squads at dawn for doing infinitely less than she did to betray France and her Allies; but Liane Delorme got off scot-free. I happen to know that England made the strongest representations to the French government about her. I know personally of two young French officers who had been on friendly terms with Liane, and who shot themselves, one dramatically on her very doorstep. And why did they do that, if not in remorse for betraying to her secrets which afterwards somehow found their way to the enemy?... But nothing was ever done about it, she was never in the least molested, and nightly you might see her at Maxim's or L'Abbaye, making love to officers, while at the Front men were being slaughtered by the hundreds, thanks to her treachery.... Ah, monsieur, I tell you I know that woman too well!"
The girl's voice quavered with indignation.
"So that was how you came to know her," Lanyard commented as if he had found nothing else of interest. "I wondered..."
"Yes: we were bosom friends—almost—for a time. It wasn't nice, but the job had to be done. Then Liane grew suspicious, and our friendship cooled. One night I had a narrow escape from some Apaches. I recognised Liane's hand in that. She was afraid I knew something. So I did. But she didn't dream how much I knew. If she had there would have been a second attempt of that sort minus the escape. Then the armistice came to cool our passions, and Liane found other things to think about ... God knows what other mischief to do in time of peace!"
"I think," Lanyard suggested, recalling that conversation in the grand salon of the Chateau de Montalais, "you had better look to yourself, Athenais, as far as Liane is concerned, after to-night. She only needed to see you with me to have confirmed any suspicions she may previously have had concerning your relations with the B. S. S."
"I will remember that," the girl said calmly. "Many thanks, dear friend.... But what is it you are doing all the time? What is it you see?"
As the hansom swung round the dark pile of the Trinite, Lanyard had for the third time twisted round in his seat, to peep back up the rue Pigalle through the little window in the rear.
"As I thought!" He let the leather flap fall over the peep-hole and sat back. "Liane doesn't trust me," he sighed, disconsolate.
"We are followed?"
"By a motor-car of some sort, creeping along without lights, probably one of the private cars that were waiting when we came out."
"I have a pistol, if you need one," Athenais offered, matter-of-fact.
"Then you were more sensible than I."
Lanyard held a thoughtful silence for some minutes, while the cab jogged sedately down the rue St. Lazare, then had another look back through the little window.
"No mistake about that," he reported; and bending forward began to peer intently right and left into the dark throats of several minor streets they passed after leaving the Hotel Terminus behind and heading down the rue de la Pepiniere. "The deuce of it is," he complained, "this inhuman loneliness! If there were only something like a crowd in the streets as there must have been earlier in the evening..."
"What are you thinking of, monsieur?"
"But naturally of ridding you of an embarrassing and perhaps dangerous companion."
"If you mean you're planning to jump down and run for it," Athenais replied, "you're a fool. You'll not get far with a motor car pursuing you and sergents de ville abnormally on the qui vive because the crime wave that followed demobilisation as yet shows no signs of subsiding."
"But, mademoiselle, it makes me so unhappy to have any shadow but my own."
"Then rest tranquil here with me. It isn't much farther to my apartment."
"Possibly it would be better to drop you there first—"
"Nothing of the sort; but positively the contrary."
"My dear child! if I were to do as you wish they would think—"
"My dear Paul, I don't give a damn what they think. Remember I am specially charged with the preservation of your life while in Paris. Besides, my apartment is the most discreet little rez-de-chaussee one could wish. There is more than one way in and out. And once they think you are placed for the night, it's more than likely they won't even set a watch, but will trot off to report. Then you can slip away when you will...." He stared, knowing a moment of doubt to which a hard little laugh put a period.
"Oh, you needn't be so thoughtful of my reputation! If this were the worst that could be said of me—"
Lanyard laughed in turn, quietly tolerant, and squeezed her hand again.
"You are a dear," he said, "but you need to be a far better actress to deceive me about such matters."
"Don't be stupid!" her sulky voice retorted.
He bent forward again, folding his arms on the ledge of the apron, studying the streets and consulting an astonishingly accurate mental map of Paris which more than once had stood him in good stead in other times.
After a little the girl's hand crept along his arm, took possession of his hand and used it as a lever to swing him back to face her.
In the stronger lighting of the Boulevard Haussmann her face seemed oddly childlike, oddly luminous with appeal.
"Please, petit Monsieur Paul! I ask it of you, I wish it.... To please me?"
"O Lord!" Lanyard sighed—"how is one to resist when you plead so prettily to be compromised?"
"Since that's settled"—of a sudden the imploring child was replaced by self-possessed Mademoiselle Athenais Reneaux—"you may have your hand back again. I assure you I have no more use for it."
The hansom turned off the boulevard, affording Lanyard an opportunity to look back through the side window.
"Still on the trail," he announced. "But they've got the lights on now."
With a profound sigh from the heart the horse stopped in front of a corner apartment building and later, with a groan almost human, responded to the whip and jingled the hansom away, leaving Lanyard the poorer by the exorbitant fare he had promised and something more.
Athenais was already at the main entrance, ringing for the concierge. Lanyard hastened to join her, but before he could cross the sidewalk a motor-car poked its nose round the corner of the Boulevard Haussmann, a short block away, and bore swiftly their way, seeming to search the street suspiciously with its blank, lidless eyes of glare.
"Peste!" breathed the girl. "I have a private entrance and my own key. We could have used that had I imagined this sacred pig of a concierge—!"
The latch clicked. She thrust the door open and slipped into dense darkness. Lanyard lingered another instant. The car was slowing down, and the street lamp on the corner revealed plainly a masculine arm resting on its window-sill; but the spying face above the arm was only a blur.
Lanyard stepped in and shut the door. A hand with which he was beginning to feel fairly well acquainted found his and led him through the dead obscurity to another pause. A key grated in a lock, the hand drew him on again, a second door closed behind him.
"We are chez moi," said a voice in the dark.
"One could do with a light."
"Wait. This way."
The hand guided him across a room of moderate size, avoiding its furniture with almost uncanny ease, then again brought him to a halt. Brass rings clashed softly on a pole, a gap opened in heavy draperies curtaining a window, a shaft of street light threw the girl's profile into soft relief. She drew him to her till their shoulders touched.
He bent his head close to hers, conscious of a caressing tendril of hair that touched his cheek, and the sweet warmth and fragrance of her; and peering through the draperies saw their pursuing motor car at pause, not at the curb, but in the middle of the street before the house. The man's arm still rested on the sill of the window; the pale oval of the face above it was still vague. Abruptly both disappeared, a door slammed on the far side of the car, and the car itself, after a moment's wait, gathered way with whining gears and vanished, leaving nothing human visible in the quiet street.
"What did that mean? Did they pick somebody up?"
"But quite otherwise, mademoiselle."
"Then what has become of him?"
"In the shadow of the door across the way: don't you see the deeper shadow of his figure in the corner, to this side. And there ... Ah, dolt!"
The man in the doorway had moved, cautiously thrusting one hand out of the shadow far enough for the street lights to shine upon the dial of his wrist-watch. Instantly it was withdrawn; but his betrayal was accomplished.
"That's enough," said Lanyard, drawing the draperies close again. "No trouble to make a fool of that one, God has so nobly prepared the soil." The girl said nothing. They no longer touched, and she was for the time so still that he might almost have fancied himself alone. But in that quiet room he could hear her breathing close beside him, not heavily but with a rapid accent hinting at an agitation which her voice bore out when she answered his wondering: "Mademoiselle?" "J'y suis, petit Monsieur Paul."
"Is anything the matter?"
"No ... no: there is nothing the matter."
"I'm afraid I have tired you out to-night."
"I do not deny I am a little weary."
"There is nothing to forgive, not yet, petit Monsieur Paul." A trace of hard humour crept into her tone: "It is all in the night's work, as the saying should be in Paris."
"Three favours more; then I will do you one in return."
"Be so kind as to make a light and find me a pocket flash-lamp if you have one."
"I can do the latter without the former. It is better that we show no light; one stray gleam through the curtains would tell too much. Wait."
A noise of light footsteps muffled by a rug, high heels tapping on uncovered floor, the scrape of a drawer pulled out: and she returned to give him a little nickelled electric torch.
"Liane's address, if you know it."
The girl named a number on an avenue not far distant. Lanyard remarked this.
"Yes; you can walk there in less than five minutes. And finally?"
"Show me the way out." Again she made no response. He pursued in some constraint: "Thus you will enable me to make you my only inadequate return—leave you to your rest."
Yet another space of silence; then a gusty little laugh. "That is a great favour, truly, petit Monsieur Paul! So give me your hand once more." But she no longer clung to it as before; the clasp of her fingers was light, cool, impersonal to the point of indifference. Vexed, resentful of her resentment, Lanyard suffered her guidance through the darkness of another room, a short corridor, and then a third room, where she left him for a moment.
He heard again the clash of curtain rings. The dim violet rectangle of a window appeared in the darkness, the figure of the woman in vague silhouette against it. A sash was lifted noiselessly, rain-sweet air breathed into the apartment. Athenais returned to his side, pressed into his palm a key.
"That window opens on a court. The drop from the sill is no more than four feet. In the wall immediately opposite you will find a door. This key opens it. Lock the door behind you, and at your first opportunity throw away the key: I have several copies. You will find yourself in a corridor leading to the entrance of the apartment house in the rear of this, facing on the next street. Demand the cordon of the concierge as if you were a late guest leaving one of the apartments. He will make no difficulty about opening.... I think that is all."
"Not quite. There remains for me to attempt the impossible, to prove my gratitude, Athenais, in mere, unmeaning words."
"Don't try, Paul." The voice was softened once more, its accents broken. "Words cannot serve us, you and me! There is one way only, and that, I know, is ... rue Barre!" Her sad laugh fluttered, she crept into his arms. "But still, petit Monsieur Paul, she will not care if ... only once!"
She clung to him for a long, long moment, then released his lips.
"Men have kissed me, yes, not a few," she whispered, resting her face on his bosom, "but you alone have known my kiss. Go now, my dear, while I have strength to let you go, and ... make me one little promise..."
"Whatever you ask, Athenais...."
"Never come back, unless you need me; for I shall not have so much strength another time."
Alone, she rested a burning forehead against the lifted window-sash, straining her vision to follow his shadow as it moved through the murk of the court below and lost itself in the deeper gloom of the opposing wall.
THE HOUSE OF LILITH
It stood four-square and massive on a corner between the avenues de Friedland et des Champs-Elysees, near their junction at the Place de l'Etoile: a solid stone pile of a town-house in the most modern mode, without architectural beauty, boasting little attempt at exterior embellishment, but smelling aloud of Money; just such a maison de ville as a decent bourgeois banker might be expected to build him when he contemplates retiring after doing the Rothschilds a wicked one in the eye.